I arrived in the gallery with the most atrocious case of jetlag in recent memory, nearly hallucinating, my sense of place and time completely shot. I had spent much of the morning in my hotel room waiting for a phone call that never came through, and to fight the urge of sleeping the afternoon away and further disorienting my biorhythm, I wandered out into the heat of the Beijing summer, took a cab to the 798 gallery district, and found myself in Pace, dreaming with my eyes wide open.
It turns out I came to the right place. Hai Bo’s photographs are like dreams or, to be more precise, a dream diary. He works within the seemingly restricted confines of black and white to yank a maximum of ethereality out of every recorded occurrence. Looking at Hai’s photos entails a similar experience to watching one of Aleksandr Sokurov’s documentaries: that place where dreams and memory blur into a hallucinated reality whose authenticity no longer matters. Furthering the cinematic equivalence, most of the photographs are framed in a rectangle of blackness that appears on the actual photo: the frame within the frame containing the image. So while the image appears to be the first and main thing, it is actually the third. It could be that that blackness matters more than the image itself, or that the image wouldn’t be the same were it not for the distancing achieved by the black frame.
As I drifted through Hai’s works, I wanted each one I saw to be the stuff of my own memories, so intense was the sense, not of déjà vu, but of desiring to inhabit those liminal zones in which you feel yourself to be more of a ghost than a live presence. Because while it is possible to “enter into” one of Hai’s images, you never feel like you’d much be noticed by its inhabitants. Maybe that’s what the function of the double framing is: so much preciosity requires extra containment.
What makes the work all the more powerful is that, in terms of content, the images are quite simple, bucolic. In Photographic Diary – Summer Dusk (1996), four young drunkards stand on a riverbank, mocking the descending sun. Two lovers exchange secrets while adrift in Photographic Diary – Love on a Boat (2003). Sometimes you look up and there happens to be a city out there (Photographic Diary - Winter's Garden, 2005.) You don’t know where you are, you are skating through your own private melancholia (Photographic Diary - Two Skaters, 2003); it is a field (Photographic Diary - A Pavilion in the Snow, 1989.) A field of ravaged, dried-out crops – North Series No. 11: Nameless Plain, (2005), stretches out the V of the horizon to a width of 630 centimeters, with a height of less than one-sixth of that. This is one of only two color works in the show; Hai goes into color only when it is absolutely necessary. When he does, the effect is so subtle, it becomes real. That gray sky.
The other color work, The Blind, 2012, is a polyptych portraying seven sightless seated along a brick wall. Massive in scale, the wall overtakes the totality of the image. So crisp is its definition – its crags, the dead moss leaking out of its cracks – you can be deceived into thinking you are looking at an Anselm Kiefer combine. But Hai’s monumentality is distinct from Kiefer’s: he is out to show us the truth in the underseen, reality sensed through the wisdom of reverie.
Travis Jeppesen's novels include The Suiciders, Wolf at the Door, and Victims. He is the recipient of a 2013 Arts Writers grant from Creative Capital/the Warhol Foundation. In 2014, his object-oriented writing was featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and in a solo exhibition at Wilkinson Gallery in London. A collection of novellas, All Fall, is forthcoming from Publication Studio.view all articles from this author