A subtle tension, barely perceptible, makes Jiehao Su’s important work seem to vibrate: Borderland is an autobiographical character’s complex narrative in which the method of clearly recording places overlaps with letting memories and feelings freely emerge from the concreteness of the landscape itself, as in a stream of consciousness. The artist does not show us his guiding hand. He does not go in search of particular and special places and he does not resort to montage or manipulation of images. Instead, he “softens” his documentary method with poetry. We could speak, in his case, of “poetic documentarism.”
In less than two centuries, the two great technological arts of photgraphy and cinema have together changed our perception of reality and the way we remember. But in truth, document and poetry have never been separate. In many cases, the aesthetic and the ethical aspects of works of art are actually in harmony and seek to address reality directly, frankly, and rigorously. In My Method: Writings and Interviews (1993), Roberto Rossellini, one of the great protagonists of Italian neorealist cinema, wrote, "Realism, for me, is nothing but the artistic form of truth." And I can't forget that Susan Sontag emphasized, in On Photography (1977), how the great documentary photographers involved in the Farm Security Administration's project sought "that precise visual expression of the subject that confirmed their ideas on poverty, light, dignity, structure, exploitation and geometry.” Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, and Ben Shahn were all using aesthetic and even poetic shadings that belong to the interior mechanisms of vision (and even memory) to heighten aspects of concrete reality.
I would say that the poetic elements that imbue Jieaho Su’s images are the very light fog that envelops everything in the landscape—whether smog or light fog, pollution or sweetness of the atmosphere, we do not know. They are the pastel colors with which his images delicately present the people and the architecture of the city itself and its suburbs, its vegetable and animal nature. They are the continuous references to the Chinese tradition of landscape painting that speak to us about the greatness of the world. At the same time, this young artist seems to practice a Proustian way of recognizing the past in the present, of rediscovering his personal, intimate life, his past experiences, in the forms of the outside world. This world is China, an ancient country engaged in very rapid change that contains contradictions, a process of mutation that certainly includes problems, gaps, squeals, expectations. In the aftermath of losing his mother, Jiehao Su walks through China and finds himself in a particular historical and existential coincidence—looking for her, chasing his own childhood, and reflecting on the many possible identities of a new China that becomes more evident daily yet inevitably remains mysterious.
As we know, the landscape is not just the outside world, not just something outside of us. It is ourselves. It is in the landscape that we understand whether we feel we belong or we feel alone and isolated. In the landscape we find, or we do not find, our history, our roots, sometimes our mistakes and our loneliness. Thus, we might define Borderland as a portrait of China but also a self-portrait of the artist. For this reason, Jiehao Su looks around framing mountains, waterways and waterfalls, trees, sweet and innocent animals (white doves, small parrots, goldfish, cubs, fawns, dogs). For this reason, he portrays girls frontally, boys and men who look into his eyes, big new-born apartment buildings, abandoned corners, a place for recycling waste, the sky, all of nature. He searches himself as he wanders in the greatness of the landscape of a country that, projected toward the future, seems unable to remember its own ancient history any more. Jiehao stitches the images together in a light narrative: here, the human figure and the environment alternate, according to a vision that swings between wide scenarios and small details, representing the wandering of the artist's body, and of his gaze and mind. Disoriented, he walks from place to place, looking for home without the certainty of finding it.
Jiehao Su lives in Providence, RI, and completed his residency at Light Work in March 2019. www.jiehaosu.com
Roberta Valtorta is a critic and photohistorian who lives in Milan, Italy.