Guangzhou boasts an ancient saying: “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away.” Robert Lloyd’s photography exposes the diurnal and dingy streets of Guangzhou juxtaposed against the opulence of the city’s economic elite. Lloyd’s lens views (and so do we) the economic disparities in China’s teeming south, where the people of the rising dragon redefine themselves as a people of contradiction. To exclaim, “I am not a Communist” in an ostensibly Communist country, oddly makes sense in Guangzhou. China’s 1.3 billion people are represented here as individuals enmeshed within a state-defined homogeny: a man carries an enormous bundle precariously above his head; another sits alone reading a newspaper. While old men gather to play old games, a young man drapes himself intimately over a modern plastic statue of Ronald Macdonald, holding his modern cell phone habitually against his ear. Old China murmurs its hopscotch dialogue of the collective; new China shouts its materialistic hope for the individual. Robert Lloyd captures both Chinas, and if you look closely at his images you discern a faint resonance between the contradictions of China and those of his own context.
America has heralded equality through a long historical struggle against inherent inequality. China now proclaims modernity despite its predominantly peasant population. Lloyd positions his subjects – herb sellers, street-side venders, Pizza Hut delivery motorcycles – within dialectical opposition. His vision of contemporary China appears colored by American polarities. America’s cultural, gender, and racial divisions are mirrored by China’s generational, regional, and economic separations. The listless expressions in some of his photographs suggests the depth of Lloyd’s own camera; still faces are framed within cluttered and active scenes. Window shoppers who have no doubt forgotten the day they were photographed are “remembered” in the photograph. Lloyd’s artistic work underpins the dichotomies that pervade the present world; his images function to remind the viewer of how nuanced and multivalent a seemingly “regular” day in a “regular” neighborhood can be. His work constantly conjures the question, “really?” Has China really emerged from its turbulent and underprivileged past? Has America really outgrown racism and economic exploitation?
Lloyd’s photographic essay on Guangzhou’s urban scene underscores China’s modern enthusiasm. His images reveal the innate contradictions of cultural and economic transition. But one wonders if Beijing’s Capitalistic Communism is really safely at bay from Guangzhou’s materialistic fever. Is it really true that “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away”? Are China’s contradictions really that different from our own? After Chairman Mao’s death in 1977, Deng Xiaoping exclaimed, “Poverty is not Socialism; to get rich is glorious.” To be Chinese and say, “I am not a Communist” is not to be a Chinese Communist. Robert Lloyd has captured a rare and poignant picture of China in contradiction, rushing deftly into its feudal future. (Images)
Anthony E. Clark
Assistant Professor of Chinese History
Anthony E. Clark is an author of several academic and popular works, including books and articles on Chinese historiography, cultural interaction between China and the West, and his primary interest, which is the history of Sino-Western religious and cultural re-presentation during China’s late imperial to early modern era.