Aug 15 2016

Embracing the Past: Interview with Hai Bo

by Terri Sit

HAI BO at Pace Hong Kong with his photographic work The Northern No. 28 – End of Story (2004). Courtesy the artist and Pace Hong Kong. 

Chinese photographer Hai Bo is perhaps best known for his “Them” series (1997–2000). Every work comprises two images: one an old photograph and the other a restaged rendition that the artist created decades later with the same people, in the same pose. Most of Hai’s subjects in these images are people close to him, whether they be his family, his childhood friends or acquaintances. Particularly striking and poignant is the visual lapse of time—the before and after—seen in these two photographs when they are displayed together. In the second, more recent image, not only are there visible signs of age and topographical changes, but also reminders of death as the artist leaves an absent space in place of those in the original photograph who are no longer alive.

Capturing everyday moments and seeing beauty in the banal have become characteristics that define Hai’s aesthetic. For his first solo exhibition in Hong Kong, at Pace, his personal attachment to his family and hometown of Changchun, in northeastern China, is seen through seven photographs, six of which are from “The Northern Series” (1984–2011). These images capture vast landscapes and, in particular, his maternal grandfather, who, for Hai, epitomizes a way of life in rural China that has ceased to exist in today’s quickly modernizing era.

ArtAsiaPacific had the opportunity to speak with Hai at Pace Hong Kong about his photographic work. The artist dove deep into his affection for his homeland and also shared his view on the contradiction between modernity and a simpler way of living.

HAI BO, The Northern No. 14 – Dense Fog, 2004, archival pigment print mounted to Dibond, 120 × 160 cm. Courtey Pace Hong Kong. 

Where do you find inspiration for your photographs?

My inspiration is based on what I am most comfortable with. I only have the urge to photograph objects or people that I have known for a period of time. Experiences in life and one’s emotional journey are things that inspire me. I am not quite used to taking photographs of the unfamiliar.

Your uncle is the primary subject of your works at Pace Hong Kong. How does his appearance impact your photographs?

This is a bit complicated, since there is symbolic meaning behind this decision to feature my uncle. Firstly, it implies the end of one’s life. Life cannot last forever. Also, it indicates the end of history, especially when we see the swift changes from agrarian civilization to modern civilization in China. It signifies the end of an era. My uncle was really strong and tough when I was young. He was very strict with me and also with other kids. The reason why I took photos of him is that I believe time can weaken one from being powerful to feeble. Time has the power to change everything.

Your works exude a tremendous feeling of loss, but also hope. Do you have a great sense of nostalgia and sentimentality for the past? What do you wish to say, through your works, about the present and the future? 

It’s true that I express a great deal of nostalgia and sadness in my works. People at our age are familiar with things in the past; we embrace them as if the world would stay that way. However, in reality, as time passes by we leave behind our families, friends and surroundings. We feel sad and lonely. We realize that life is short and finite. Although time washes away everything in the past, our nature replenishes and lasts. It is beautiful and eternal. I would like to express my appreciation toward our nature through my photographs.

The deep feeling of sadness and nostalgia about the past is pretty personal, but I hope that people of the present generation can understand the great contrast between modernity and pastoral life. I hope young people can see my feeling’s  about the good old days when they look at my works.

HAI BO, 2008-1, 2008, archival pigment print mounted on Dibond, two prints: 240 × 120 cm each. Courtesy Pace Hong Kong. 

The serenity and beauty of rural village life figures heavily in your compositions. Are you trying to remind your audience of certain forgotten values or lost histories?

The village way of life is definitely my utopia, but I know that it is gradually fading away. I personally prefer the rustic, simple way of life—that’s where I feel most comfortable and relaxed. Modernization offers us a lot of benefits and conveniences, but it also brings to our lives many shortcomings; for instance, it has created much distance between people both physically and emotionally. I understand that modern changes are unavoidable, but I hope to tell my audience that the natural way of living is the best.

Have you experimented with anything new for this particular exhibition at Pace Hong Kong? And if so, does it presage possible new directions for your future work?

I am quite confident with my style of photography. New, funky modern art does not interest me. I would like to keep my work true to who I am. My creations echo what I desire to express in my heart. I always let nature takes its course and respond to my feelings.

Hai Bo’s solo exhibition at Pace Hong Kong is currently on view until September 14, 2016.