The magazine of the photo-essay
November 2018 back issue
One Sunday in Beijing
photographs by Michael Kenna words by Fabien Ribery
“A free, really high quality photo-essay magazine.  Fabulous!” Stephen Fry. British actor, writer and film maker
Michael Kenna, photography as a hymn For the poet and thinker Schiller, in his letters On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795), far from being a minor personal affair, beauty is first and foremost a sharing, a living force that binds souls, the reassurance of a common world, rendering a noble good. A confirmation and uplifting of reason, beauty brings each and every one of us a feeling of the infinite, but also of the perfection of our limits, it being possible to consider art as the privileged realm of the accomplishment of human liberty. When he photographs Beijing, Briton Michael Kenna is far less interested in the pollution or the ravages of market communism, than in the perfection of the forms he observes at length until they take on a profoundly spiritual dimension.
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Far from seeking to depict the reign of need and the many constraints in the era of market totalitarianism, the artist takes the scenic route of the sublime, to re-establish the lost unity between man and his environment. His sensitivity, at times close to the melancholic eye of an Atget, tends to elicit a brutal, impossible reality, the archetypal lines of a first world where the structuring forces of an impeccable geometry create scenes of utmost tranquillity. The general impression here is one of power emanating from an invisible tension between tranquillity and noise, stasis and speed, nature and politics, piety and paganism, the vernacular and the contemporary, memory and amnesia. The aesthetic project is also political, bound more closely to the powers of harmony and symmetry envisaged as relational energies than to the countless signs of devastation. He may use calculation in his desire to represent the visible while transcending it, but this is not so much a frenzied desire to cast reality into a vortex of murderous figures, as it is to impose the golden ratio, to return the symbolic architectures to their rightful place, among and in which we try to imagine our lives. For Pythagoras as for Michael Kenna, it seems that numbers are everything and that the secret mathematics giving form to the view are the surest way to reveal the mystery of our presence, in the Chinese capital or elsewhere, forever inscribed in an architectonic dimension as comforting and fascinating as it is creative. So his photography can be thought of as a celebration of the human condition made up of a set of sacred forms, whether we recognise and feel it, or not, this is the whole of his artistic ambition. In his Chinese work, bamboo comes together with stone, plant with slate, concrete with water, glass buildings with hazy skies. A tree forms hair in the thick clouds. A wise Buddha sitting on a lotus is levitating. The Great Wall of China is a dinosaur looking mockingly at a portrait of Chairman Mao. Pontoons, bridges, lead to wealthy islands. Ideograms such as birds of stone trace the lines of our destiny. The image plays with full-scale miniature trains. You pray, you build, you move en masse. And expression is all, everything bears the traits of tranquil delight. An angel watches over, unless it is an alabaster carving of a pretty worker with small firm breasts. Michael Kenna does not photograph people, not out of a hunger for cold distance or irony, but because the contemplation of nature involves looking at buildings rather than builders, the stabilised action rather than the contraction of muscles and effort. The temples he approaches are not manifestations of religious fanaticism, but living pillars where refuge can be found from the deafening roar. An inner silence beneficial to damned souls emanates from his images. Rejecting the delights of heartbreak, Michael Kenna builds his work as a space of reconciliation, a land of peace where we can finally drop our emotional armour. The diptychs of One Sunday in Beijing are arches of welcome for the lost.
Autumn Tree Reflection, Yuanmingyuan, Beijing, China. 2016.
Forbidden City from Jingshan Park, Study 1, Beijing, China. 2008.
Forbidden City Tree, Study 2, Beijing, China. 2011.
Golden Buddha, Lama Temple, Beijing, China. 2016.
Jade Belt Bridge, Study 2, Summer Palace, Beijing, China. 2016.
Lake Tree, Beihai Park, Beijing, China. 2008.
Marble Boat, Summer Palace, Beijing, China. 2016.
Moon Rise, Cuandixia, Beijing, China. 2016.
Olympic Stadium, Beijing, China. 2016.
Performing Arts Center, Beijing, China. 2016.
Setting Sun, Beijing, China. 2008.
Seven Birds, Yonghe Temple, Beijing, China. 2016.
Seventeen Arch Bridge, Study 4, Summer Palace, Beijing, China. 2016.
Seventeen Arch Bridge, Study 5, Summer Palace, Beijing, China. 2016.
Si Ma Tai Great Wall, Beijing, China. 2007.
Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China. 2008.
Two Birds, Zhenjue Temple, Beijing, China. 2016.