Three Shadows, Beijing

Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, No. 155A Caochangdi, Beijing, China
September 24 – December 28, 2011

Coal+Ice Installation Tour from Center on US-China Relations on Vimeo.

Design Notes – Jeroen de Vries, Exhibition Designer and Co-Curator

For me curation and design are indivisible parts of a single process. The challenge Susan Meiselas and I faced, was to make a coherent exhibition from photographic material made with different motives and aspirations, and that dealt with different topics. We did not want COAL+ ICE to read like a story: from the mines to the mountains, to the rivers and then the ocean. We were afraid that such a story would reduce the photographic works to mere illustrations. Instead we tried to create a structure that invites the visitor to see the same or similar photographic material several times from radically different perspectives, in different scales and contexts, both in print and projection.

Designing the installation of COAL+ ICE felt like a dialogue with the architecture of the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre. I tried to respond to what Ai Weiwei, the architect of the building, had already created. There are some 160 photos presented in the exhibition, but none of them hang on a wall. They are suspended from the ceilings with thin steel cables, some are hanging so high that the visitor passes under them and has to look up; whereas another series of photographs sit angled off the floor.

A choice of the works of Chinese photographers previously curated by Susan Meiselas forms a major element of the exhibition. These works are part of an international and historical tradition of photographing miners and mining. This is why we started COAL+ ICE with the images of Lewis Hines from the beginning of the twentieth century and proceeded with photographers such as David Seymour, W. Eugene Smith and Bruce Davidson.

The first section of COAL+ ICE forms a riddle, combining the photographs of melting glaciers of the Himalaya by mountaineer and photographer David Breashears, with historical and contemporary portraits of miners. The photos are not juxtaposed, but they are mounted back to back above the heads of the visitors who look up at the mountains and the miners seem to be looking down. The panoramic photos by Breashears run almost the full width of the gallery.

In the second space groups of photos by Chinese and international photographers are alternating. They move through the space as a very long freeze, all printed at the same height and suspended with cables from the ceiling.

In the third space we created an immersive ‘landscape’ of two different projections of photographs and texts. The musical piece, De Tijd, by the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, performed by the Schonberg Ensemble, links the two installations. The first focuses on coal, projecting contemporary and historical images of mining shown on a circle of six backlit screens, simultaneously portraying the full frame and details of each image. A second projection, fourteen meters wide, reveals the melting glaciers of the Himalaya by combining historical photographs made in the first part of the twentieth century with the recent work by David Breashears. His enormously detailed panoramic images are explored in slow scrolls moving up and down, interrupted by wipes comparing the old images with what Breashears produced from the same viewpoints.

The fourth and last space of COAL+ ICE presents two distinct groups of photographs: Clifford Ross’ images of crashing ocean waves which I chose to hang along the walls, overlapping in two different sizes, so that they appear as a single work, and three series of additional photographs which are mounted on cantilevered surfaces sitting off the floor of the gallery meandering through the space.

All together COAL+ ICE presents the work of many photographers, from different parts of the world and from different moments in time. In my design the photographs keep a relative autonomy as objects in the space. The motivation of the photographers for making the works may have been different, but I have tried to make them speak to each other and to draw the visitor into this conversation. It is a very important conversation that in the end will affect us all.

Photographs by Tal Unreich

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