Nadav Kander on the worst of the west in China
The photographer tells us how a love of Rothko and Constructivism helped inspire his quiet Chinese landscapes
If you’ve already seen the Constructing Worlds show at the Barbican in London or leafed through our new Shooting Space book you will have doubtless come across the work of photographer Nadav Kander.
One of Kander’s many talents lies in ‘slowing down’ the viewer’s eye as it comes upon his work and it’s a skill that works as well on the pages of Shooting Space as it does in the giant prints on the Barbican walls.
It really is no exaggeration to say that the ultimate effect is not unlike stumbling across a Rothko painting – if you’re in the right frame of mind the effect is instantly, emotionally overpowering.
Kander photographed the landscapes of the Yangtze River for a period of three years towards the end of the noughties from the mouth on the East China Sea at Shanghai to the source in the Himalayan Mountains. The photographs, reprinted in Shooting Space, capture the state of a nation in transformation, modernizing itself as it undergoes a period of intense urbanization.
To Kander's mind, “The west, and often the worst of it, is mirrored in China’s development." In it, he saw "a reflection of all mankind. The mistakes we have all made are being repeated. I realized that, for me, this project was about us all, about our interrelatedness, and not just about China.”
We caught up with him at the opening of the Constructing Worlds show at the Barbican, London and asked him a little more about his photographs.
“I wanted to feel what it was like to be in a situation in a country changing at such pace,” Kander told us. “How I felt is how I made those pictures. Had those iconographies been in Paris I’m not sure I would have made the same pictures. It’s very much how you feel and I think that is where art comes from. I don’t think it’s cerebral, it’s very intuitive. In fact, in a way, I think the more one is in one’s head, the less truthful the pictures are.”
Constructivism played a large part in the photographer’s early inspirations and is still a key influence on and structural device he applies to his work. “It really informed me at a young age and had a real effect on me," Kander said. "I think you can probably see in my pictures that composition is incredibly important. Structure gives me the device to make heavy pictures, to make quiet pictures.
“I use composition to navigate my way round a photograph in the simplest way possible. I’m very drawn to simplification in order to lend weight to pictures. But I’ve only realised that aspect of my work, really in the last couple of years.
“It’s not just about information and often it’s the least about information. I’m really tired of wall texts and everybody banging on about reading photographs in the same way that they were reading them in the thirties when photography was a new, informational thing. It’s really not about that - and Gursky would say the same thing. I think Rothko and Bacon are both excellent examples of artists who tell so little informationally but also tell so much.
“It’s not only the information, the document, that is so usually described in photography, but quite often the undercurrent communicated in a visceral, bodily way.”
Shooting Space, authored by curator and writer Elias Redstone, centres on the photographic response to contemporary architecture as seen through the lenses of Iwan Baan, Hélène Binet, Luisa Lambri, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Thomas Struth among others. You can find out more about the photographers in Shooting Space here. And if you're in London anytime soon, you'll find information about Constructing Worlds at the Barbican here.