The cover images of Kirk Pedersen's new, handsomely-boxed two-volume photographic publication, Urban Asia and Tradeoffs, from his Urban Asian Series, offer a striking study in contrasts. It's a contrast that suggests the dominant theme of the entire collection: urban Asia as the meeting ground between our global past and future, a visually compelling metaphor for the frenzied activity, uncertainty and angst that grip the world at the start of the twenty-first century.
The cover image of Urban Asia...
... is the detail of what appears to be a decaying wooden fence, its white paint peeling, its sparse fragments of old notices stripped, frayed and tearing away from their background. The texture is painterly, the mood lyrical, elegiac. It is all upfront, open, exposed. As a "remembrance of things past," it asks for our quiet contemplation. The cover of Tradeoffs, by contrast...
"The Urban Asian Series" results from a sequence of visits by the artist to Far Eastern countries, starting in the mid-2000s: China, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Korea, Vietnam... It's a part of the globe so removed from his American experience, perhaps, that it could be seen afresh through this Westerner's eye. He brought with him a painter's sensibility and zest for the formal organization of visual information, along with a profound experiential and intellectual immersion in the history of painting: we find echoes of the great, late 20th century mainstream of art in these pictures, from Abstract Expressionism to Pop, Minimalism and Photorealism. Indeed, Pedersen's finely and thoughtfully realized images may seem as much a meditation on the recent history of art as on the cultural realities they set out to investigate -- with the kind of all-consuming curiosity that wants to miss not a single detail of the world out-there. The camera, in this circumstance, provides Pedersen, the painter, with a portable and exacting medium to make an instantaneous record his observations.
Missing nothing means photographing everything: street scenes, skyscrapers, hotels and hovels; ancient alleyways and modern thoroughfares, pedestrian crossings and the crowds of people striding past each other on their busy routes, cell phones glued to their ears; men and women at work, window displays; the machinery and technology required to keep civilization ticking; walls, doorways, fences; vehicles of all kinds... To "read" through these pictures, page to page, is to accompany the artist on a stop-action tour, to almost physically feel the constant turn of the head, the click-click-click of the camera. It's a restless journey for the eye, a feast of information from the imposing to the trivial, from the elegant to the trashy and undignified.
The lens might seem on first glance to provide an equivalence, a dispassion that accords equal rights to people of all kinds as well as to all kinds of things. It is up to those of us who read the images to make judgments, draw conclusions... And yet, not entirely. Because Pedersen also brings an unobtrusive passion of his own, a subtly critical discrimination that suggests not only that we look at what his pictures show, but how to look at them. The better word, perhaps, would be com-passion. We feel for the alienation of the people he allows us to glimpse, so absorbed their busy-ness that they have no time to stop and see, as he asks us to do. We are not merely awed by the sheer, soaring, steel and glass facade of a skyscraper and its architectural formality, we experience the smallness and vulnerability of our own human scale beside it. Watching its simultaneous proliferation and entropy, we question the ineluctable progress of the civilization we humans have created, and its effects on the quality of our experience of the world we live in.
These images that Pedersen has created insist on revealing beauty where it is least expected. They remind us of the value in each passing moment which, too often, we allow to pass with pausing to take notice. Their attention to detail reminds us of everything we fail to see in our rush to get things done, or in our desire to interpret and make sense of what we see. They remind us to pay attention to what is there, in front of us. Watching things ineluctably decay, or sensing the imminence of their decay, is finally also a reminder of our own mortality. The peeling paint and paper fragments on the cover of Urban Asia speak to us of the fragility and transience that characterize everything we can imagine, everything we create, and everything we think ourselves to be.