"This series is the second in a three-part project of multimedia artworks created following my travels
and work in different cities across the world. As an artist working with photography, this trilogy is the
only time that I have not created my own universe in the studio. Instead, by using locations in cities
that intrigue and challenge me, I am trying to create cinematic associations, fantasies and emotions
that embody these special places, whether in public buildings, private homes or public spaces.
For the first chapter of the trilogy I travelled to Berlin. Since the turn of the century we Europeans
have witnessed, maybe without even having been aware of it, the birth of the first capital of our
continent. The dynamics of this reborn city have always overwhelmed me, and for this first series I
drew from the rich but also dark history of Berlin, staging the work in the inter-war period of the
twentieth century, when post-war hope faded once more, and dark clouds appeared over Germany.
The series also looked at the power shift in the youth of the Western world - how over the course of
one century children had become more dominant not only in the home, but also as consumers of a
growing number of commercial products.
Shanghai reminds me of a young, confident adolescence full of boundless energy, convinced of its
own power, and doing whatever it takes to reach its potential. That power is asserted by the colossal
skyline and the suburbs that sprout, grow and change almost monthly. It can be scary to see how fast
puberty has transformed this city into a morbidly obese young adult, its heart beating faster and
faster in a stifling atmosphere of ruthless redevelopment. For me, Shanghai embodies the explosive
power of expansionism in which the Asian continent has led in recent decades, with 24 million
inhabitants in this Chinese port city alone, working, shopping, and moving continuously, surrounded
by brightly lit advertisements, moving images and electronic sounds.
This mega-city is, on a macro scale, so overwhelmingly restless, yet at the micro level it’s the
opposite - the enormity is lost when one joins the countless microcosms with which Shanghai is so
rich, and I want to unite these seemingly incompatible extremes in my work. There is, for example,
serenity in large parts of the former French concession with its leafy tree-lined avenues, there are
impromptu dance and gymnastic displays on public squares, and a lively bustle in the alleyways (or
‘hutongs’) of the small, decaying and over-populated neighbourhoods, where locals are often
awaiting their forced relocation before the final demolition.
As an international city, Shanghai is also considered by many an oasis of relative freedom and
emancipation in a country with a one-party system. As a result, the position of many young women
here is also exceptional - they are seen as very independent and assertive, with high social positions
unobtainable in the more traditional, conservative areas. I have worked with and learned from some
of them in recent years, and from many conversations it became clear to me that the distance
between them and most men remains large, and its in this chasm that loneliness and alienation
frequently lurk. Distance and silent grief therefore become a theme of the series, expressed
especially in six short video sequences.
Alongside these impressions and many personal encounters on various trips in Shanghai, I came
upon the idea to search for locations with a history and a story. This has not always been easy;
Shanghai is being rebuilt, renewed and refreshed at a rapid pace - I had to get there before the
sledgehammer dropped down or misguided restoration destroyed it all. In many places there was an
unnamed sensitivity that hindered progression, and of course there is the invisible government’s
unquestionable veto. During and after this quest, nurtured by so many interviews and observations, I
came upon the idea that my work should also be about change, departure and farewell. In a society
where the display of too many feelings is considered inappropriate, I wanted to focus on the
emotions that arise through these changes, and the ways in which they are processed.
Despite spending my career as a photographer and filmmaker trying to eschew the tired techniques
of commercial artwork in public spaces, it nevertheless seems logical to exhibit this project in the
style of the metropolis. The presentation of ‘Shanghai 2017’ therefore directly references the vertical
video screens mounted onto bus shelters and the billboards with moving advertisements checkered
along the highways, while also juxtaposing these with older printing traditions.
The work in this project ostensibly provides a perfect world image as known only to the universe of
commerce and advertising, but this belies the protagonists’ very real, albeit internalised, emotions.
This is the beginning, end, or possibly the middle of a story that nobody knows, but can maybe
recognise or relate to, like scenes from non-existent movies. For example, while studying the
traditionally printed photograph of an almost destroyed 'hutong', the gallery visitor’s movements
activate one of the vertical screens. The image begins to move, the subject turning to the viewer and
asking in Mandarin to be heard or seen. Following this is a triptych of a traditional Chinese three-unit
family presented on thin LED light boxes, designed as if to fit into one of Shanghai’s own public
As the series 'Berlin 2012’, focussed on the power of youth, so 'Shanghai 2017' focuses on the young
adult who must survive in a dominating metropolis. The third and final chapter of this project will
explore the weak and elderly, to be produced in 2018, and will be developed on location in a city on the 'rust belt' of the United States."
- Erwin Olaf