Shanghai Hinterland by Peter Dixie

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A photographic exploration of the changing landscape at the outer limits of Shanghai’s Metro network by Peter Dixie.

These photographs show landscapes from the outskirts of Shanghai, the areas beyond the outer terminal metro stations. In each image there is some centrally placed object, a space being constructed around this, and by drawing an ordinary object out of the landscape, and elevating its status compositionally, it is given a significance that in passing perhaps it would not have. As an identified and preserved object, it is enshrined, withdrawn from its mundane original context, and recreated as an object of contemplation.  Hence each image presents a site of contemplation.

Before coming to Shanghai I had heard that at one point 50% of the world’s construction cranes were employed here. This had a certain fascination.

The idea of the City, of large urban areas, interested me, in particular after living in Tokyo. While there I had worked on a series of photographs, more a collection of individual images than a coherent statement, that looked at parts of the city which were physically and historically layered. Often I encountered spaces where pedestrian access,  while possible, was essentially purposeless there being only minimal provision for the traveller on foot. These themes recur in the Hinterland series. Travelling through the city, exploring and investigating gave the sense of the city as an entity on a different scale -it is not merely a collection of buildings, pathways and people. There is the life of the city felt on its own scale.

The image I had of Shanghai prior to my arrival was one of a growing city. However, my previous experience of cities, in Europe, in Japan, did not prepare me for Shanghai. It is divided and distributed according to a different model.

In most areas the city block is a more distinct entity. Each is relatively inaccessible, having only one or two entrances. The road system consists mainly of wide streets which carry traffic along a few limited routes. This is clear once one starts to use the buses which follow a very limited range of routes, and even on foot one is often constrained to these same routes. The city is impermeable to pedestrian traffic.

The metro system, itself in the process of expanding, allows access to outer regions of the city. Its stations bring development to areas that theretofore received little traffic. In some cases, however, it has merely added impetus to the growth of existing satellite towns connecting them more closely with other areas of the city and the country.

The project was always intended to be systematic and the limits of the Metro seemed a logical point from which to explore the edges of the city as well as providing a framework within which to create the images.  It ordered the locations of shoots and allowed me to track in a concrete manner the progress of the project. At any point I knew where to go next. Given this structure, naturally there was considerable freedom in what actually came of the project and upon leaving each station I had no set route in mind, my first intention was to get away from the metro line to more interesting areas.

Starting at the Northernmost limit of Line 3, each station was visited in turn proceeding in a clockwise direction. From each terminal station I proceeded on foot initially trying to move beyond the immediately adjacent, more developed, residential and commercial areas areas. The landscapes sought were those in which a new use had been imposed, where the land was between uses and subject to spontaneous, informal or improvised uses, or where a new order was in the process of replacing an existing order.

The project has been an attempt to understand something more of the city, and by extension the life and growthof cities in general. Perhaps the greatest lesson learnt concerns the scale of the city, secondly the nature of its growth, thirdly, as to some extend Shanghai’s experience may be generalised within China, the direction of the country as a whole.

The city still feels small. The centre, like that of London, is easily crossed on foot in a day and while it is not always convenient or pleasant to walk, it can be done:from the Bund in the East to Zhongshan Park in the West is  less than a two hour walk. The outer parts of the city can all be reached by metro within one and a half hours, and on these journeys the city is zoned and uneven. To reach many of the outer areas one passes over farmland.

In some cases the metro stations are immediately adjacent to small villages and their fields. What do not feel small, however, are the zones of usage that the city is divided into. While all of the areas  visited were accessed by metro, development is clearly based on private car ownership. Outlying housing estates are immense – row after row of near identical housing blocks or villas laid out within their own gated grounds. These areas are almost entirely residential meaning food, entertainment and other supplies must be acquired elsewhere.

The extent to which landuse is zoned is striking. Few newly developed areas are mixed-use: farming areas almost entirely devoted to farming, residential areas nothing but housing, industrial areas entirely devoted to that use. The transitions between areas are dramatic with a complete change of structure and construction. Crossing a road one may move from large blocks separated by wide streets between gated factories, to small fields divided by narrow concrete paths punctuated intermittently by clusters of two-storey brick and concrete housing.

Besides land given over to new uses, or that which is employed with older farming systems, industrial sites or housing, there are those areas in between. This land is largely depopulated: it is in the process of demolition, being cleared, or cleared and awaiting its future purpose. This process creates a spectrum of environments, for both human activity (scavenging, farming, dumping of waste) and as habitats for a variety of plant life, birds and animals.

These sites are subject to several varieties of informal and spontaneous occupation. Where the land has been cleared and left for some time there are often large piles of earth which it is not unusual to see turned over to small scale farming. On sites where rubble remains are scavengers, sifting through the remnants of demolished houses, many of which, it seems, are destroyed complete with contents, and everyday items of occupation are found amongst the remains. Trees and pathways  are cleared along with the houses and other buildings, but in villages in the process of demolition one may occasionally find very old fruit trees left standing.

The series deals with one city, Shanghai, but has relevance to the idea of the city in general, as event, as a complete historical entity with a finite life,  a bounded space. As with any event, its existence is discreet. This does not mean that limits exist in a clear sense. The boundaries of an event shift and break upon examination. This series looks beyond the city at what will be city, the becoming-city, the future-city.

It is a landscape of possibility