Oh, I see! moments
Travel Cultures Language

Crossing Cultures with an Urban Eye

by Meredith Mullins on July 31, 2017

View of Hong Kong apartment building by Michael Wolf from his series Life in Cities, images that show the megacity crossing cultures. (Image © Michael Wolf.)

Michael Wolf’s images are a metaphor for megacities.
© Michael Wolf

Michael Wolf’s View of Life in Cities

Human herds. The crush of crowds. Anonymity. Frenetic rhythms. Unrelenting surround-sound. Noise. Congestion. Forced verticality. Pollution.

Density in all its forms.

Much has been written to advocate for, rail against, and, ultimately, to understand life in cities. Images abound. Urban life is not a mystery.

Michael Wolf talks at the Rencontres d'Arles, crossing cultures to show life in cities. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

Michael Wolf explains his attraction to megacities at the Rencontres d’Arles.
© Meredith Mullins

Visual stimuli are everywhere in city living. Stories unfold moment by moment but are often missed because of the sheer pace of life or the necessity to narrow one’s view with city blinders to shield against the constant barrage to the senses.

German/American artist Michael Wolf slows us down and expands our field of vision with his city images. The “Oh, I see” moments become clear. In his work, we really see . . . and feel . . . city life.

Paris rooftops, part of Michael Wolf's exhibit at the Rencontres d'Arles, crossing cultures to show life in cities. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

Paris rooftops: a different view of city life
© Michael Wolf

Michael Wolf: “Life in Cities” Exhibit

One of the most powerful exhibits at this year’s Rencontres d’Arles Photography Festival in southern France is Wolf’s “Life in Cities,” artfully installed in the gothic 15th century Frères Prêcheurs church.

Life in Cities exhibit at Freres Preachers in Arles, France at the Rencontres d'Arles, an exhibit by Michael Wolf, crossing cultures to show life in cities. (Image © Meredith Mullins/Images © Michael Wolf.)

“Life in Cities” exhibit at the Rencontres d’Arles
© Meredith Mullins/Images © Michael Wolf

With this exhibit, Wolf offers visual messages of urban life in a way that inspires a closer look and encourages discussion of what is beautiful as well as what is tragic about life in cities.

He uses both telescope and microscope to look at urban life. Macro and micro. We are drawn in and pushed back visually and viscerally.

Life in Cities installation by Michael Wolf at the Rencontres d'Arles, crossing cultures to show life in cities. (Image © Meredith Mullins/Images © Michael Wolf.)

Macro and micro views
© Meredith Mullins/Images © Michael Wolf

Crossing Cultures: Megacity Style

Although Wolf has lived and worked in cities in the U.S. and Europe, he prefers the ultimate in density, the limitless visual opportunity, and the unpredictability and constant change that the megacities such as Tokyo and Hong Kong provide.

Pink toned high rise apartment building, part of Michael Wolf's series Life in Cities, images that are crossing cultures to show urban life. (Image © Michael Wolf.)

Architecture of Density
© Michael Wolf

“City life for me means an incredible diversity of visual impulses, 24/7,” Michael explains. “There is not a day when I am in Hong Kong where I don’t go out and walk the streets, even if it’s only for a few hours, and I still discover new aspects.” Hong Kong has been his home since 1994.

As we look at his work, we travel from street to street and from city to city (Tokyo, Hong Kong, Chicago, Paris), but, as Wolf has said, the exact location of the city is irrelevant. He wants his work—and his message—to be a metaphor for all megacities.

Four faces in the Tokyo subway, from Michael Wolf's series Tokyo Compression, images crossing cultures to show life in cities. (Images © Michael Wolf.)

Tokyo Compression
© Michael Wolf

Tokyo Compression

Wolf’s series of Tokyo subway riders pulls us in to the world of their inhuman crushing commute.

The tightly cropped images give the viewer (and the subject) no way to escape. We feel compassion for these city dwellers and their daily conditions of transport—robbed of their personal space . . . and robbed of their privacy as the camera outside the subway captures their plight.

Man with mask on Tokyo subway, part of Michael Wolf's Tokyo Compression series, crossing cultures to show life in cities. (Image © Michael Wolf.)

The anguish of the Tokyo commute
© Michael Wolf

Working on this series had significant impact on Wolf. The images stay with him.

“The anguished, haunted faces are a constant reminder of the price people have to pay to live in a megacity,” he says.

The Real Toy Story installation at the Rencontres s'Arles by Michael Wolf, crossing cultures to show life in cities. (Image © Meredith Mullins/Installation © Michael Wolf.)

Michael Wolf discusses “The Real Toy Story” installation.
© Meredith Mullins/Installation © Michael Wolf

The Real Toy Story

Part of urban life are the working conditions that exist in a city. For a view of Chinese mass production, Wolf chose the theme of plastic toys (since he had been forbidden from playing with such mass-produced toys as a child).

He collected more than 20,000 toys from garage sales, flea markets, and second-hand stores in the United States. The massive installation is overwhelming in its message of consumerism.

Female Chinese worker as part of Michael Wolf's The Real Toy Story installation at the Rencontres d'Arles, crossing cultures to show life in cities. (Image © Meredith Mullins/Installation © Michael Wolf.)

Chinese worker at a plastic toy factory, part of “The Real Toy Story” installation
© Meredith Mullins/Installation © Michael Wolf

We stand back and feel the enveloping nature of the mass, but are invited to move closer to examine each individual toy.

Once we have moved in for the closer view, we see the images of the factory workers who make these toys in the often-harsh world of Chinese mass production. There is humanity amidst the mass.

Sleeping Chinese worker at toy factory, part of Michael Wolf's installation The Real Toy Story, crossing cultures to show life in cities. (Image © Meredith Mullins/Installation and Photo © Michael Wolf.)

Detail of “The Real Toy Story” installation
© Meredith Mullins/Installation © Michael Wolf

Architecture of Density

Wolf’s series “Architecture of Density” explores the way people live in one of the most densely populated cities in the world—Hong Kong. Much of the population lives in high-rise towers that place function over form and quantity over quality.

Hong Kong apartment building from the Architecture of Density series by Michael Wolf, crossing cultures to show life in cities. (Image © Michael Wolf.)

From the Architecture of Density series
© Michael Wolf

The thousands of tiny openings in the building are the only link to the private life of the citizens inside. In the macro view, the buildings seem a collection of pixel-like cells or simply patterns or abstractions.

Wolf has further abstracted the architecture by removing earth and sky. There is no exit in these flattened images. This disorienting approach adds to the feeling of density.

People sometimes ask Wolf if people really live there, or, more to the point, how do they live there?

orange and yellow apartment building in Hong Kong from Michael Wolf's Architecture of Density series, crossing cultures to show life in cities. (Image © Michael Wolf.)

Traces of family life
© Michael Wolf

Wolf has several visual answers to this question. If we spend time with the images, we see traces of humanity. A curtain waving, a propped up mop, or laundry hanging from a porch. There are families of human beings living in each tiny block.

Interior of Hong Kong apartment, part of Michael Wolf's 100 x 100 series, crossing cultures to show life in cities. (Image © Michael Wolf.)

From the “100 x 100” series
© Michael Wolf

He also created another series to show the micro version of the cell-like housing.

In the series “100 x 100,” Wolf shows the interior spaces in some of this dense vertical architecture. We move from the telescopic view to the microscopic view—right into people’s lives.

Office building in Chicago, part of Michael Wolf's Transparent City series, crossing cultures to show life in cities. (Image © Michael Wolf.)

From the series Transparent City (Chicago)
© Michael Wolf

Wolf also gives us a view of the human side of life in his series “Transparent City.” These images were made in Chicago, a city where, Wolf says, it is easier to peer into the private lives of people, when they open their curtains or turn on their lights. There is more space between buildings.

We see private moments amidst an expanse of anonymity.

Building with view of two private spaces, part of Michael Wolf's Transparent City series, crossing cultures to show life in cities. (Image © Michael Wolf.)

Peeking into private lives (from the series Transparent City)
© Michael Wolf

The Complexity of Life in Cities

Michael Wolf explores urban life in all its facets, from the density of buildings to glimpses into the private lives of seemingly anonymous people to working conditions to the study of cultural phenomena such as being packed into public transportation.

There are several other series as a part of the “Life in Cities” exhibit in Arles that augment his message. He includes his famous Google Street View series, where he isolated individuals  caught by the Google camera doing very human things.

Motorcyclist flipping the bird in Michael Wolf's Google Street View series, crossing cultures to show life in cities. (Image © Michael Wolf.)

From the Google Street View series
© Michael Wolf

He also features images and installations that show clues to human presence where private space meets public space. Mops, chairs, gloves, hangars, pipes, and other fragments of life spill into alleyways and become public sculpture.

Hangar and gloves, found objects from Hong Kong alleyways, part of Michael Wolf's Informal Solutions series at the Rencontres d'Arles photography festival, crossing cultures to show life in cities. (Image © Meredith Mullins/Installation © Michale Wolf.)

Installation inspired by the “Informal Solutions” series
© Meredith Mullins/Installation © Michael Wolf

Throughout all of his work—crossing cultures with a single theme— his message is clear. People pay a price when living in megacities.

But, for Wolf as an artist, life in cities is a constant source of visual opportunity. The fascination will continue . . . and we are the benefactors.

Michael Wolf’s exhibit at the Rencontres d’Arles, curated by Wim Van Sinderen and co-produced by the Fotomuseum den Haag, continues until August 27.

 For more information about the Rencontres, visit this website. For more information about Michael Wolf’s work, visit this website.

Comment on this post below, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.

 
Comments:

2 thoughts on “Crossing Cultures with an Urban Eye

  1. Hi, Meredith!

    Great insights, as always. A few days as a tourist in Hong Kong was as much stimulation as I could manage! Fascinating, but I think you would have to be raised in that environment to be comfortable in it.

    • Dear Barbara,
      I have not been to Hong Kong, but I, even in absentia, agree with your reaction. The masses and the sensory stimulation must be overwhelming. I’m more of a small town gal.

      That made me appreciate Michael’s work all the more because he really made me feel as if I had traveled there.

      Thanks for writing. I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

      With best wishes,

      Meredith

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