Zhang Xiao’s “Coastline”
By Kathy Zhang
Coastal cities have usually been the first to experience the negative effects of industrialization: overcrowding, pollution, resource degradation, environmental despoliation. In China, such trends are exacerbated by the designation of 14 “economic free zones” and five “special economic zones” in its coastal provinces. Aptly calling it “the frontier of China’s reform,” freelance photographer Zhang Xiao captures seaside scenes from Liaoning Province in the northeast to Guangxi in the south, to bear witness to the impact of China’s rapid economic development on its landscape and people.
Blindspot Gallery, in Hong Kong’s Soho area, recently held an exhibition showcasing 16 from a total of 108 prints from Zhang's series “Coastline” (2009–2011). The majority of the photographs—all of which were taken during summertime—show people at leisure by the coast. Beneath clouded, smog-colored skies, lean holiday beach-goers happily wade out into the sea, bob along in brightly colored tubes or sit contentedly staring across the ocean. Casual swimmers sporting floral bathing suits or the appearance of a lone, transplanted palm tree—as in Coastline No.45 (2009)—seem oddly out of place, in the otherwise temperate atmosphere of these images.
In other photos, intimate, quiet moments are juxtaposed with the imaginably noisy construction of seaside factories, high-rise buildings and expressways that inch ever closer to the ocean. A recently built overpass on what looks to be a shallow delta dwarfs a disused wharf in Coastline No.246 (2011); a solitary man sits there, oblivious to the speeding vehicles above him. In Coastline No.19 (2010), a bride in her pristine white dress walks pensively down a lonely, rubbish-strewn beach, away from a docked freight ship in the background.
Like many photographers, both in China and elsewhere, who focus their work on the human cost of rampant industrialization, Zhang documents the sometimes inhuman nature of progress. At the same time, there is nothing jarring or frightful or offensive in his work, no explicit message that refutes China’s urbanization efforts. “Coastline” still captures the beauty of the sea that intrigued Zhang growing up in the coastal city of Yantai. Serenely accepting the bizarre marriage of steel, cement and soot with vulnerable, carefree bodies, these photographs seem to record not only the peculiarities of industrial development, but also the persistence of something much more ancient—the ocean and its association with human solitude.