Guido Guidi 

Oliver Eglin examines the Italian photographer’s quietly compelling new book with MACK

Over the course of nearly a decade, Guido Guidi visited Milan to photograph quiet and unadorned street scenes on the city’s outskirts. Encompassing five excursions to different areas ‘Cinque Viaggi 1990-98’ is a new publication from MACK looking at the city around the time where it emerged as the nation’s economic and industrial hub. Shot through the hazy smog-filtered Milanese light this collection of photographs offers a more muted side to that period and creates a sense of place which is both distinct and compelling.

If we think of photography as a selective act, the work of Guido Guidi can often appear as a drifting, almost indiscriminate gaze. This however, is a real accomplishment of his photographs, as they draw our attention to details that might otherwise be overlooked. One device which Guidi skillfully deploys is to show the same scene side by side, changing ever so slightly with a short passage in time, or even a shift from colour to black and white. This disrupts our sense of the photographic moment, instead the images appear somehow indecisive and offhand. In one scene the camera pans a few feet to the right, revealing an inquisitive dog peering over a ledge; in another an empty backstreet is lit up by the pastel hues of a nineties shell suit, worn by a fairly unathletic looking teen. This creates a sense of time passing and delicately traverses the line somewhere between a depiction of reality versus that of representation. There is a sense of showing these places for what they are and Guidi takes pleasure in finding beauty in something mundane.

Carrying on this theme, the book contains sporadic scenes of recreation: boys on their bikes, a group of mothers chatting on a bench as their children play around them and a solitary cigarette break. All fairly ordinary, yet nevertheless life affirming moments which briefly take us from the humdrum of everyday existence. Gathered on a bridge, a group of mostly shirtless young men look on as someone speeds out of frame on a vespa. It is fair to assume that they have recently been jumping from the bridge into the canal below, but this new spectacle of the motorbike has momentarily consumed their attention. A cloud of dust and spinning tyres draws our gaze to the edge of the frame, but this contrasts with the static figures on the bridge, who look on, perhaps only half-interested in what takes place in front of them. Guidi’s preoccupation seems to be in how the featureless architecture of the suburbs develops a life outside of its design. Here a fairly utilitarian concrete bridge takes on a new function as a diving platform.

Ambling around the city, photographs are constructed to reveal the layering of history through an accumulation of competing architectural styles. Guidi is fascinated by crumbling walls and rusting iron fences and the book becomes increasingly focused on descriptions of these surfaces. At its fringes the city appears a bulging mass of concrete, creeping steadily towards enveloping its natural surroundings. Guidi’s breathless enthusiasm for fallen stone and brick feels genuine though; the photographs form an ode to imperfection and the accidental beauty of decay. Unspectacular, yet quietly compelling, this body of work is an exquisite insight not just into suburban Milan, but ordinary life and its entwinement with architectural legacies. 

Cinque Viaggi 1990-98 is published by MACK

Issei Suda

Oliver Eglin examines the latest from Chose Commune, vintage prints from one of Japans finest

Asakusa, Tokyo, 1974 © SUDA ISSEI

78, a new title from Marseille-based publisher Chose Commune, compiles a selection of images from the archive of Japanese photographer Issei Suda. Meandering through the streets of 1970s Tokyo and its surrounding prefectures, the book comprises of seventy-eight vintage prints. Released posthumously this eclectic compendium includes works that were mostly unpublished in his lifetime. Hard to pin down to any particular theme, Suda’s photographs are unified by a sense of innate curiosity and wit. The book flows elegantly from fleeting scenes of the street to quieter and more intimate moments and gives an insight into the unique vision of one of Japan’s lesser-known photographers.

Takasaki, Gunma, 1978 © SUDA ISSEI

There is a touch of surrealism to Suda’s best work. Flicking through the book I often lingered in puzzlement trying to unravel an image. A photograph of what seems to be a business lunch of some sort appears as a tangle of Escher-like hands. With their faces obscured, the men’s dislocated limbs swirl together in mystifying geometry, each one grasping at a cup, glass or teapot. Suda revels in such abstraction and his works are both beguiling and beautiful.

Kanuma, Tochigi, 1973 © SUDA ISSEI

The tonality of Suda’s monochrome prints has a delicate touch, diverging from the more contrasty aesthetic favoured by contemporaries such as Daidō Moriyama and Shōmei Tōmatsu. His distribution of light and dark is wonderfully employed to elevate otherwise unremarkable works to scenes of great refinement. A favourite is a photograph of segments of squid hung out to dry on a rack. Looking more like the parts of a dissected alien, luminous tentacles and mantles droop with murderous portent from their wire skewers. What Walker Evans described as “the seriousness in certain small things,” in Suda’s work his eye seeks to cast extraordinary light upon scenes of the everyday. A cellophane wrap or a distressed poster are given equal prominence amongst more traditional subject matter.

Ueno, Tokyo, 1975 © SUDA ISSEI

Cécile Poimboeuf-Koizumi, the book’s editor, has carefully arranged her edit with the same playful energy as is found within the images themselves. One photograph depicting the crooked frame of an old woman, is placed opposite that of a dozing sea lion. The seal’s placid expression squints back across the page to the stooped figure of the woman, their silhouettes mirroring one another, as though she too were resting her chin on an imaginary rock. These witty contrasts underscore the book’s charm, as Suda’s images resist linear progression and forge instead more poetic visual associations.

Suda’s playful use of timing is another successful trope of the work. A fedora-hatted man clutches two wine bottles stuffed with large flowers which look, at first glance, convincingly like exploding fireworks. As he struts into Suda’s frame a knowing eye winks at the photographer. A visual gag about the inertia of a photography perhaps. “Time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels” wrote William Faulkner (The Sound And The Fury), although referring to a clock, he could equally have been talking about the enduring magic of an Issei Suda’s photograph.

RongRong’s Diary

Oliver Eglin examines a new book on the subversive Chinese photographer RongRong, a frequent collaborator in the radical artistic community Beijing East Village

Life in ‘The East Village’. Patches of snow brighten what is otherwise an unassuming dirt track. Littered with fragments of broken brick at its edges, a grey-fringed cloud of smog envelops the scene from above. In the foreground the limbless bust of a shop mannequin rests against a battered wall, her peaceful expression at odds with the ruinous surroundings.

1993 No. 7, 1993

When in the early 90s a group of experimental performance artists began to form in an area of Beijing known locally as ‘The East Village’ they joined an existing population of binmen, construction workers and the unemployed. Set against a bombed-out landscape of unending rubble this atmosphere of abandonment seems to have galvanised the group. Works emerged organically, with their spontaneous and impulsive actions coming about through a cocktail of isolation, boredom and a burning desire for experimentation.

1993 No. 17 (Zhang Huan), 1993

As the photographer RongRong engaged himself within the scene, his inquisitive eye for the surreal helped to create performances that were more consciously focused on spectacle. The line between intention, chance or even accident is often blurred. One particular anecdote recounts the tale of RongRong’s friend and collaborator Curse, who returns from a night of drinking with what looks like an intricate tribal tattoo across his face. It is in fact a burn that has occurred after an attempt to heat rice wine over a stove went horribly wrong and exploded in his face. Fortunately the scarring eases after a few days, but the inclusion of this image amongst the more deliberate acts of experiments on the body is telling.

1994 No. 83 (Zhu Ming), 1994

As the book advances the group appear to take the work in a progressively more daring and at times shocking trajectory. When government officials and police start showing up to evict or incarcerate anyone found liaising with the group, RongRong and his friends go into hiding. The artist Zhang Huan is assaulted in a bar by strangers and RongRong rushes to visit him at his hospital bed. The impulse to record this episode is however unwavering, “silently I took out my camera, which felt as heavy as a stone.” These sombre portraits of his friend are a poignant intersection to the book. The artists’ work and life have become interchangeable and yet, in spite of the resistance they face, there is an underlying sense of optimism to the work.

“Later, we left the hospital together. Zhang Huan put a hat on his head when we walked to the street. It is summer now and very hot in Beijing. With a bright white bandage under the hat he reminded me of Vincent Van Gogh.”

Zhang Huan No. 2, 1994

After a period of short exile, the artists tentatively return to make new works. Ai Weiwei is an ever-present feature of the book, but it isn’t until this later period where his presence is really felt. At one stage Weiwei summons RongRong to his apartment in order to propose the photographic documentation of a dynasty plate being smashed to pieces with a hammer. This violent act of iconoclasm is a confronting spectacle and goes to the heart of WeiWei’s infamy as an artist. RongRong’s involvement is critical, as it is his lens that acts as the catalyst for such an overtly provocative statement.

Ai Weiwei, 1995

The photographs RongRong produced are often playful and bizarre, however their charged content also functions as an essential visual record of a short-lived but incredibly influential period in contemporary Chinese Art. The images are testament to the indomitable spirit of artistic self-expression and in these intimate photographs of his friends, RongRong has created unique and mystifying works of abstract beauty.

1994 No. 2.1 (Zhang Huan, “12 Square Meters”), 1994

‘RongRong’s Diary – Beijing East-Village’ is published by Steidl with an exhibition of the work ‘Day After Day – RongRong and the Beijing East Village’ on show at The Walther Collection Project Space, New York now through to 10th December 2019