Introduction China Daily Life by Charlie Koolhaas:
Reineke Otten is both an artist and a social scientist. She is an artist, because her photos capture the strange and inarticulable beauty of everyday life. And a scientist, because her goal is not merely to capture beauty, but also to assemble fragments in a way that demonstrates patterns and orders. Taking a highly structural approach, Reineke’s photography is a research method for a visual sociology. She begins her inquiries from the bottom up, observing the smallest of details and social interactions and, in using these, she suggests how larger-scale institutions operate around them. Her method intensifies a multiplicity of social relations and interactions. Reineke calls her approach Streetology:
“I divide the visual make up of the street into hundreds of different categories and divide these images into scales. Using photography I am making a street inventory or break down. I am part of this new digital generation, who are making important documents of this century.”
- Reineke Otten
So what does it mean to be part of the digital generation? In some way it is to share the frantic need to record as a way of absorbing. The digital generation are making massive inventories of ‘everyday life’ around the world; Otten’s work comprises a fragment of this effort. It is frantic and obsessive -a demonstration of the fear that things are changing before we even have time to witness the moment or understand what’s going on. Everything is documented so that It can be digested at a later date. The digital generation are observers rather than participants, they record before they experience, and every exciting moment that isnt recorded is considered a missed opportunity.
“The quickness of the digital photography matches the rapid changes of the city. My book is just as temporary as an Ikea catalogue. It’s about the time now; within a few years it will be outdated. In China in one month there can be 3 new owners in a shop. Complete areas are raised and cut down again."
Over the course of two years, Reineke took 24,000 images of seven different cities in China; Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Shenzen, Hong-kong and Shanghai. Her greatest challenge was to sort through the mass that she had created. Reineke, like all digital photographers or recorders, must constantly find ways to stay organized, must spend time naming folders, searching through clogged up computers, looking for orders, so that when she eventually looks around a real world landscape, she already knows in which folders in the virtual landscape of her computer the images will be placed. When Reineke went back to China after the project was finished she described a drive through Beijing in a taxi ‘like racing through my computer. I just saw keywords and folders and categories’. There is an honesty and immediacy behind Reinekes headings and subheadings that reveal this process of hyper-categorization; it's the same honesty and immediacy that structures the material in this book.
“All titles are the names of the folders in my computer - the work titles. This is how I worked with them, and how they made sense to me. For me they are nicknames to the collection. Just like the images, the titles are also the ‘first impressions.'"
Reineke’s photography is a kind of remote viewing, an almost senseless and relentless recording of fragments in order to create a meaningful narrative at a later date. It is a first impression and also a delayed reaction. Reineke's approach is not an analysis, it is a stream of consciousness. The book China Daily Life is in essence an extremely detailed first impression of China, because, as Reineke says, “ a first impression actually tells us a lot”. Hers is the tourists’ gaze that learns a great deal from the surfaces and the superficial.
China daily life takes China as its subject matter, yet Reineke does not claim to be an expert on China. In fact what Reineke is doing is simply creating a window into this hectic, new and forever changing world. Her portrayal is honest and humble with minimal analysis, so that the readers can draw their own conclusions. Hers is an investigation without a conclusion - interesting because of the questions that it leaves open rather answers. The book is about China yet its also expresses something much more universal.
“By looking at the visual genetic make up of a certain place I am trying to discover a universal language. Every city around the world has many of the same ingredients but how these elements interact tells us about the cities unique character. Using the same method in different cities will eventually show similarities through their differences and differences through their similarities.”
Reineke finds the unique details in the generic that we often ignore. She shows us that individuality is everywhere. As we travel through the city we disregard the mundane. In order to stay focused, we skim over the city's surfaces. Reineke looks deeper and longer for us. These surfaces show us how the city's inhabitants assert their own personality within the dimensions of metropolitan life. As we regard our environment with an ever-increasing distance it becomes the realm of the streetologist to bring it close, helping us to observe and absorb our environments again. Particularly in China where we are forced to operate at maximum speed, our attention and retention of detail is constantly interrupted. Yet every Chinese city is filled to the brim with individuality, fashion and styles. Reineke observes the interaction between these differing styles, illuminating their subtleties.
The book is a collection of series of events, similar but each time different. Showing us that society is nothing but lived experience. Individuals reproduce society every living moment through their actions and creativity. Expressions of creativity are embedded in the smallest actions from the ways people display their food for sale, as in the section, FISH AND FLESH to how they adorn their homes as in HOME DECORATION. These expressions demonstrate how we preserve our autonomy and individuality in the face of the overwhelming forces of external culture.
Reineke uses repetition and regularity to show the tension between the individual and society that in China is so clearly pronounced. Her work captures that fine line between what is static and what is dynamic. The spaces where personal values are expressed at the same time as norms are followed because the two necessarily exist together. A good example of this the section FLUORESCENT LIGHT where people demonstrate their creativity through a necessity, the basic and omni-present flourenscent bulb.
Interestingly Reineke doesn't so much focus on the individuals but rather presents us with their personality and characters through the traces they leave on their environment. These traces are public; they represent our social persona, how we present ourselves and also the things that we cannot hide. Within the framework of her patterned image sequences we have sudden moments of intimacy where something totally spontaneous is exposed. For example in IKEA COZY, a microcosm is created, where couples go into the little fake environments and pretend they are real, for example the girlfriend lies in bed and watches her boyfriend working on the plastic computer.
The funny, accidental occurrences that we see everywhere in the Chinese cities that Reineke has photographed, are where the clash of differing forces have come together in a comical way, creating some sort of ridiculous, absurd composition, for example in the tenuous looking roofs in the photos of TEMPORARY CABINS, which are both life-savers and death traps.
“I am trying to show 'normal life.' But for me the emphasis is not on 'normality'; it’s on 'realness.' 'Real' can still be extreme and absurd.”
Reineke's voice, showcased in her categories and titles, is full of dry humor; her titles indicate both her cynicism and genuine appreciation for the society she is examining. For example the title LIVING BEHIND THE BILLBOARD is both a reference to the pictures and surely a sarcastic comment from her about the larger Chinese urban condition that can seem at the mercy of advertising and consumerism.
The humour that is threaded throughout the entire book is the inevitable bi-product of the meeting of contradictions. The picture that best demonstrates this point is the main photograph in the CHINESE TRADITIONAL section where from behind the curved red roofs of the traditional Chinese low building, a massive blue and yellow termite hill-style modern high rise complex looms threateningly in a totally psychotic and photoshopped-looking collision of times, styles and influences.
Reineke's photographs show the ways in which the Chinese city absorbs and digests a multitude of global influences and spits them out again as something so undeniably and uniquely Chinese. For example the section on EUROSTYLE shows these funny mixed up moments where we come across a skewed Chinese interpretation of what Europe looks like, an architectural version of Chinese whispers.
Reineke's work also shows the incredible ambition of the Chinese government, architect, developer and citizen. The section on PROJECT MAQUETTES is a series of shots of planned housing developments, often complete with oddly shaped gigantic glass riddled towers and gardens that look like they might have been designed by Willy Wonka. These projects are mini-utopias that, as we can see from the section on HIGH RISE RESIDENTIALS and ROOFTOPS, are so often dreams that come true.
Reinekes photographs show the richness, complexity and beauty of China's urban environments. For example the intense earthy, red colors and density in the photos of FAÇADE TERRA or the cool, reflective blues in the mirrored surfaces of FAÇADE OCEAN.
Her inventory is at times romantic, brutal, funny, sad, beautiful, grotesque, mundane and unique. But in China Daily Life Reineke has captured the power of China, and its explosive mix of details, styles and influences. Her attempt to shed light on what is essentially to an outsider a complicated riddle is sincere, serious and also humorous. But it is not just for the foreigner to learn more about China but also for the Chinese reader to provide an insight into how their country is digested by a European. Maybe China Daily Life also says something about what it means to be Dutch, Reineke's own nationality. She has described Holland as ‘ordered and grey’ making the ‘chaos’ of China for her an inspiring alternative. Yet her methodology reveals a Dutch desire for order that the Chinese living in the chaotic cities that Reineke has photographed don't appear to need.