Dark Clouds

Ian Teh's photographs at Kiang Gallery

Every four years, the Olympics force a major world city to transform into a massive, sanitized diorama of itself. As Beijing cranks up its international PR machines, Ian Teh's bleak, murky photographs at Kiang Gallery will no doubt inoculate some against the steady stream of shimmering corporate gloss served up from the rising giant in the East.

The 19 color photos in Teh's Dark Clouds collection peel back the glittery surface of China's economic renaissance and reveal the coal-encrusted gears that power it. "Steel Plant, Tonghua, China" depicts a lonely platform engulfed in miasmas of toxic-colored steam that seem barely to hold off an impenetrable darkness at the photograph's edges.

The plant and its enormous machinery, which is as much master as it is servant, dwarf two tiny workers. A few photos are portraits of workmen (all men) caught in the undertow of China's ravenous appetite for energy, their faces and clothing caked with ash and soot.

Teh – a London-based, Malaysian-born, Chinese artist – paints an unrelentingly grim portrait of the back end of China's boom. The work is timely and important: Almost 4,000 deaths were blamed on mining accidents in China last year; accidents you'll hardly hear about and rarely see.

But as relevant as the photographs are, they're also underwhelming, and fall just short of their intended epic quality. Teh's a news magazine photographer by trade. While the show's 20-inch-by-30-inch prints are weightier than a magazine spread, they can't muster the grandeur and ambition of pieces by Sze Tsung Leong (also in the Kiang stable) or Edward Burtynsky, who also work in the genre of stressed industrial landscapes.

The medium's physical limitations surely play a role here. Most of Teh's photos bear the telltale grainy texture of having been shot on so-called "fast" 35-mm film, the stalwart film stock of many old-school photojournalists who often had to shoot quickly and in the dark. Enlarged much beyond their present size, the images might have disintegrated entirely. If this is the case, I can imagine that a medium- or large-format camera would go far to bring the latent power of Teh's striking images to the fore.

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