IN ISAAC ASIMOV‘s classic short story Nightfall (1941) a distant civilization lives on a world of perpetual daylight, illuminated on all sides by six suns. Its citizens have never known darkness, yet predictions of a rare solar eclipse, and with it a few hours of nighttime, cause panic. The people have never known the stars or the infinite blackness of the universe and are so traumatized that society becomes paralyzed by superstition and weird religions before finally collapsing in anarchy and madness. The story was first published as the Second World War in Europe gathered pace, but for the Shanghai-based photographer Xiong Xiaomo (熊小默), Asimov’s vision of a civilization in crisis today seems more prescient than ever and provides the key inspiration for his series of night-time cityscapes When Fears Were Fictions (2009-2010).
Begun in 2008, the series focuses on Shanghai and Beijing as emblematic of the cycles of destruction and renewal that have transformed the character of urban life in China. His subjects are often down-at-heel housing blocks, decaying docklands and shabby industrial zones, beyond which can be seen the dazzling lights of vast construction sites and ultra-modern tower blocks. The sense of urgent transformation is magnified where long exposure times give dramatic intensity to nocturnal colours and an exaggerated impression of scale. This intensity is heightened by the works’ powerful geometry which in some cases lends the works a kind of abstraction. The result is a series of cityscapes that tremor with relentless energy and moral uncertainty.
Xiong Xiaomo was born in 1982 in Shanghai and attended the Publication College of Shanghai University of Science and Technology. From 2006 to 2010 he was chief editor of youth culture magazine M-Zone and in 2012 he was appointed founding editor-in-chief of iWeekly online magazine, which he conceived and set up for Modern Media, China’s largest privately-owned publishing group.
Xiong’s photography has been profiled in magazines including GQ China, Surface (China edition) and The Outlook magazine and has been presented in exhibitions including 1981 (2007) at ZhengDa Gallery, Shanghai; Campfire – Young Chinese Photography (2009) at No Space Gallery, Ningbo; the Lianzhou International Photography Festival 2010, and Tora, Tora, Tora – Cutting-Edge Chinese Photography, curated by the multimedia artist Zhao Zhao and included at the 2010 Caochangdi PhotoSpring festival in Beijing. In 2010 he received an Honorable Mention at the Epson Color Imaging Competition in Shanghai. His work is featured in the book Here Comes the Night (Thiaps, 2010).
HardPressed: Where does the title, When Fears Were Fictions, come from?
Xiong Xiaomo: I was obsessed with sci-fi writing during my teenage years. I was looking not just for imaginative mirages but also for a sense of the exotic or ‘alien’ in the present world. Asimov’s Nightfall, a novel about how an advanced civilization that has never experienced sunset collapses in one night because of its fear of the unknown darkness, is an important influence, but it’s also a mirror of my own fears. It’s awkward to admit nyctophobia and making this series was a way to confront this. So, the title is about my own fears but it could also be an alternative title for that novel.
HP: What inspired you to start this series?
XXM: My father used to work for a small library and he would bring home ‘retired’ books. We had no TV and I read through most of his collection, including several photo books. I was completely amazed by Brassaï‘s Paris de Nuit and its mystery and beauty inspired me to explore the cityscapes around me in Shanghai, even though I couldn’t then afford a camera. When finally I could, I started to collect different models and to experiment with the different effects they produced. Around 2007 I shifted from black-and-white to colour film, but the city has always been a constant theme.
HP: What were you looking for when you made these pictures?
XXM: I tried to capture Chinese cityscapes in the dead of night with very low light-and-dark contrast. Technically this helps to produce surreal atmospheres. One thing was very important for me; I wanted the scenes to be as anonymous as possible. Documentation was not my purpose. I was looking for contradictions between prosperity and desolation, collectiveness and solitude, the known and unknown. These images could be any city in China. They are familiar but unreal.
HP: Is the city a force for good or bad?
XXM: I was born and raised in one of the world’s biggest cities and have witnessed the greatest process of urbanization in the history of mankind. The cycle of creation and annihilation, as skylines go up and down, is both awe inspiring and horrifying. It’s not about good or bad, but [the city] represents a paradox for our civilization. It is mankind’s greatest creation but also the source of its ultimate destruction. I’m afraid I am not an optimist for humanity, but I feel lucky to have been born in this generation and to be a witness to what is happening now.
HP: Can photography be more than just a mechanical record of time and place?
XXM: Conventional theories encourage photographers to be as objective as possible. This is still a popular theory in China. But subject matter is a choice, framing is a choice and focusing is a choice. The photographer is not a passive observer. I certainly hope my works record something beyond time and space. By using different technologies and different techniques these works show views which do not exist. The colour of the sky and the land, the over-bright nights, the locations wiped of people are fictional. It’s a series of urbanscapes that can never exist in reality.
This article is adapted from the e-catalogue essay Nocturne, published by 3030Press to accompany the collection of works When Fears Were Fictions, available online at 3030Press.com. The e-catalogue can be downloaded here.