The population shift of Asians toward large cities has captured the imagination of Kirk Pedersen, and he in turn has captured its complexity in a series of photographs and photographic montages on display at the Asia Society.
Rudyard Kipling's dictum "Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet" has consistently been eroded since Commodore Matthew C. Perry in 1853 opened up trade with Japan through "gunboat diplomacy", according to U. S. Naval records. But, while there are tacit references to East and West, Pedersen has really centered on Urban Asia today vs. Urban Asia of yesteryear.
They photographs indicate both urban decay and the construction of residential units in buildings so high they would have seemed impossible a few years ago. There is an impersonal element to many of the photographs, as we see architecture, but no humanity.
There are a few photographs, however, that do show the impact on humans, and these are powerful indeed. In Thought, Beijing shows a solitary man seated on steps, the man dressed in black against a gray background; it is a masterful composition. MX, Hong Kong shows a businessman passing a restaurant, but with a vibrant red background, suggesting the brisk vitality of commerce.
Perhaps most striking is Apartments, North Point, Hong Kong, which gives the phrase "towering edifices" a whole new meaning. You might be afraid to live so high. And a montage featuring a huge advertisement with an attractive female model, Nissan Central District, Hong Kong, illustrates the merchandizing at the heart of all this growth. There are parallels here to Times Square.
My favorite is Night Rain, Dalian, a cityscape with huge detail, a wisp of smoke to add mystery, the excitement of rain against the pavement, and a black-garbed figure with a vivid blue umbrella. The umbrella is the focal point, and the effect is magical.
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Cooking Oil Cans, Singapore is realistic but creates an abstract sense, with 32 depictions of oil cans, eight across and four down. A few appear five or more times. The effect is to document the importance of cooking oil while rendering an interesting arrangement of an ordinary household staple.
Shanghai Series No. 1 uses muted brown tones, and shows a black door next to a brown window. It could be an experiment by Braque, arranging forms to create symmetry. Tokyo Neon uses vivid colors against a black background to suggest the vitality of Tokyo's nightlife.
These works of Pedersen are varied in their scope, but all capture a sense of surging energy. Pedersen creates these without judging, but viewers are entitled to form their own opinion. This is a distinguished exhibition, housed in a building distinctive for its beauty.
Urban Asia: Kirk Pedersen continues through January 4, at Asia Society Texas Center, 1370 Southmore, open Tuesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., 713-496-9901, asiasociety.org.