If you’ve ever had to travel on public transport through Central London at rush hour, it is no great secret that the city is overcrowded. After seeing three overstuffed trains go without you, shoving your way in and wedging yourself between a stranger’s armpit and grimy door looks like the only option. Next time this happens, remind yourself that there are cities where the scarcity of personal space is much more critical.
Michael Wolf’s series of photographs of Tokyo and Hong Kong are a potent demonstration of how little space people can live in and how we create immense residential structures to house as many people as possible in as little space as possible. The large scale, extremely sharp images of the series Architecture of density represent such buildings.
The grids of the countless little units fill the frame with their regularity and appear to be abstractions at first sight, yet what captures the viewers’ attention are the little details that hint at the daily life unfolding within the units: lights on when all the other windows are dark hint at the narrative of a sleepless night, a bird cage on one balcony serve as an incidental metaphor for the high rise itself. For good measure, the centre of the ground floor gallery boasts a little built space meant to be the average size of such a dwelling in Hong Kong. See how much time you can spend in it before you start hyperventilating because of claustrophobia.
With Transparent City, a similar exercise conducted in Chicago, Wolf’s camera peers further into the domestic and office spaces. With this series, he developed his interest in architecture further by photographing large scale buildings and not shying away from the human factor that is an integral part of the built environment. Yet, the focus remains on the architecture rather than on the people: a few elements of domestic life appear: a tv, some light, a person’s leg, but there is nothing that could be identified clearly. This is the nature of the architecture that levels everything to units and square feet.
More personal – and also more confrontational – is Tokyo Compression, a series of unlikely portraits of passengers of Tokyo’s subway. Most often seen through the fog of their own breath on the carriage’s doors, the pained faces express the unease created by such unnatural situations. Yet the photographs are stunningly beautiful with their soft focus and their muted colours. The faces look almost ethereal and the most potent image is probably that of a crooked hand pressed against the glass, all individuality is removed, there is only discomfort. This will leave you with something to think about next time you find yourself sandwiched between two unfriendly strangers in the tube.
You might also want to climb the stairs to look at the series of diptychs of people posing proudly with forgeries next to a photograph of the original work. That’s it for me this year. I wish you a merry Christmas and Happy New Year!