Nadav Kander: Notes from the Discussion

I attended the presentation and discussion of Nadav Kander‘s “China” work at the Royal College of Art in London last week. With students, alumni, professors, and fans in the small theatre, it began with a short introduction from Paul Thompson, the director of the RCA who introduced the video we would soon be watching. This video was an original commission by Dr. Yanki Lee, research fellow at the Royal College of Art Helen Hamlyn Centre, in participation with the exhibition “Constant Stream: China 09” currently on tour internationally. The exhibition uses artists and designers to create alternative narratives about specific social issues in China as well as provoke critical viewpoints in our mind.

The video comprised of several of Kander‘s photographs from the China work in a slideshow fashion using smooth fading transitions, intermixed with periods of total blackness on the screen where we hear Kander‘s voiceover discussing the work, subject matter, location, process, etc. It was the first slideshow of this kind I had seen, where the commentary was intentionally not put over the photographs. I have to admit, at first the pattern of quiet photos followed by audible blackness struck me as an odd choice. But as the images progressed I relished in both the silence– literally and figuratively in the photographs, as well as the calm voice speaking to me in the darkness. I find it invaluable to be able to hear this type of commentary first hand from a photographer on both his thought and image-making processes.

As in the stills I had previously seen, the people in the photographs appear quite small against the immensity of the idea of China. This is similar to the scale and dynamic seen in paintings by Constable and Turner, or in photographs by Richard Misrach, all of whom have influenced Kander‘s work over the years. To quote Kander, “We are so small next to the meagerness of our ideas.” This is none clearer than in China, where the rate of growth of both industry and population is exceeding all possible expectations globally, as well as by the people of China themselves. In this work, as is consistent with Kander‘s vision and style, he seeks out landscapes that show the footprint of man. Not directly in your face in the middle of a busy city, but instead on the outskirts, where the marks left by man are more subtle and nuanced.

Kander does not call himself a conceptual photographer, first and foremost coming up with a concept and then going out deliberately to capture just that. Instead, he responds to what he sees in an organic way. He approached China with an empty head, with no preconceived notions of what it would be like, so that he could respond to his feelings without any predetermined opinions getting in the way. And while he is more than pleased that his work in China, as well as being awarded the Prix Pictet this year,  has increased awareness of the environmental situation there, it was never his intention to be either an environmental or documentary photographer.


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