I’ve been meaning to blog about British-Malaysian photographer Ian Teh for a while now, specifically about his recent photo book work ‘Confluence’ (2014) published with the Monsoon Artist in Residence. As I was originally trained in text and book arts, artists’ books and bookbinding, I am instantly drawn to distinctly made and designed books, that I can’t wait to hold, feel, sense, read and smell between its pages (everyone loves the smell of fresh print right? I’ve blogged about that before). Hence, why Ian’s book caught my eye…
As a photographer, he is largely known for his series of works on changing China, where as his practice has developed he has focussed less on individuals and more on the changing urban landscape, such as in ‘Traces: From the Frontlines of Climate Change Along China’s Yellow River’, a 2014 Abigail Cohen Fellow in Documentary Photography, a joint initiative of Asia Society’s ChinaFile and Magnum Foundation. He was ‘looking for a way to capture ‘the price we ultimately pay or will eventually pay for our collective ambitions.’ He left the industrialized eastern third of the country and ventured out to the places where people were trying to re-engineer their land in service of a new life: the construction sites and power plants and slag heaps. The color calmed down, the movement slowed. He found a new visual register (a near perfect inverse of the world he had once documented) – a China of subtle greys and pale chemical yellows, and sweeping, battered landscapes.’ (Taken from The New Yorker article – Ian Teh’s changed Chinese landscapes).
As you can see below, Ian sets the unpopulated, ghost city-like, abstract landscapes, against the identity-less portraits of the people living within the panoramic landscapes. Vast and sweeping, they encompass the sheer scale and size of changing China, showing a fear for its future and sustainability. A topic I’ve become very interested in lately.
In the photo book work ‘Confluence’ (2014), the pages document a visual journey, for the most part along the short coastline of Selangor, the richest state in Malaysia. ‘It is a contemporary portrait of a state, and in a sense a metaphor for the rest of the country. On the shore, an hour away from the nation’s glittering capital, are the gritty industrialised shipping terminals of Port Klang and the sleepy, seemingly idyllic rural towns that populate the Selangor waterfront. These images try to offer a nuanced document of what this coastline is today, and perhaps a sense of the significant changes that are ongoing. Here, where land meets sea and cultures collide, entire worlds and realities shift and merge into each other, and questions of race, belonging and identity take on new meanings. Just as prehistoric glaciers leave the mark of their earlier journeys on the land, the outward appearance of these places clearly shows the confluence of past and present.’ In order to sustain its economic growth, Malaysia has become the largest importer of migrant labour in the world making it one of the most multicultural societies on earth, undergoing deep transformations within its physical and cultural landscapes.
“Abstract beauty collides with the gritty reality of contemporary Asia in Ian Teh’s work, producing an effect that is at once mesmerizing and disconcerting. If his subject is the world of the unseen – the people and landscapes that are everywhere, but strikingly unnoticed – then his images, too, draw the viewer into that nebulous space between admiration and revulsion, though there is barely a difference between the two…In ‘Confluence‘, his sweeping yet sometimes chokingly personal portrait of Comel’s Selangor coastline, he allies powerful social commentary with details that can seem, to me, suffused with melancholy…People come and go in these images, flitting in and out of the frame, almost as if they don’t want to be there. Their expressions are distant, distracted: they are elsewhere, their thoughts occupying a different terrain…I am connected to the landscape that Ian Teh portrays in ‘Confluence‘ by delicate threads of memory, but what draws me to it as an adult is a recognition of its foreignness.” – Tash Aw (Read the full essay by one of Ian’s favourite writers here)
The black books are individually numbered, limited standard first edition of 300 books, case bound in black finishing with a de-bossed cover art by renowned artist Raja Azeem Idzham. The white books are signed and individually numbered special limited edition of 100 including a 23 x 15 cm (9” x 6”) pigment print contained within a protective sleeve.
The books remind me of travel guides, travel journals actually…books that you would write in, scribble in with a 2B pencil or black cartridge pen, to annotate photographs and glued-in collected travel ephemera, where their book’s leather cover would eventually become loved and worn, personal to its owner.
“Confluence” as a term means the act of merging or the coming together of two rivers. I see Ian’s ‘Confluence‘ as a merging of landscapes, places, sites of exploration…a site of collaboration…of cultural, societal and economic backgrounds creating foreignness yet homeliness…it is the coming together of new experiences to create his own unique and distinct visual language, a documentary tool for his, and the world’s future reference. How else are we to remember these places of change?