A Barbieri in China

On 1 January 2017, we published A Monkey King’s Journey to the East. In that inaugural China Heritage essay we contemplated with bemused trepidation the first day of the first year of a newly empowered, and enthroned, American Weltanschauung. The Closing of the American Mind, first decried by Christopher Lacsh in 1987, describes now a global hegemony of ideas. But Lasch was a prescient critic of only part of the American intellectual dilemma, he failed to see that the obverse of the ideas and values that he warned against were equally, if not more, pernicious.

This year we celebrate the new year through a very different ‘barbarian lens’, that of the Italian artist Olivo Barbieri.

As the introduction to an interview with the artist puts it:

Olivo Barbieri creates artifice out of reality. The Italian art photographer and film-maker, who has shown at MOMA New York, the Sundance Festival and Tate Modern in London, specialises in visual studies of spectacular urban landscapes that make cities look like haunting plastic architects’ maquettes. [For the interview, see here.]


China Heritage introduces works of Other Chinas, including those of Hong Kong, that Best of China. In the following, we encounter yet another China, one seen from the transformative perspective of an artist with a unique creative approach.

Olivo Barbieri has kindly written an essay for us about his work in China, now nearing its third decade, which was translated by Andrea Cavazzuti, a Beijing-based film-maker and artist whose work has previously been featured in these virtual pages:

Our thanks to both artists for permission to reproduce this material.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
New Year’s Day 2018

Aci Trezza, Catania, Italy, 1989. From the series ‘Artificial Illuminations’. Copyright Olivo Barbieri

A Barbieri in China

Olivo Barbieri


Olivo Barbieri started travelling around Asia from 1989: India, Tibet, Japan and especially China, the centre of an unprecedented social and urban transformation. Barbieri was one of the first to capture the change — in an almost instinctive way — before it fully revealed itself; he realised that what was happening was a historic phenomenon. He declared:

China has show us that rules do not exist; it made us look at sizes and numbers we had never considered.

Through his work Olivo Barbieri offers a unique perspective on the transformations of the contemporary world: starting with urban portraits in the 1990s — work that featured elements of the vernacular, perspectives on the human scale of architecture and studies of the flow of time through twentieth-century interiors — and more recently in work reflecting the new millennium in which we have witnessed the advent of gargantuan structures, forms entirely alien to European ideas of space. They reflect a kind of supersised and disproportionate ‘progress’.

— Francesca Fabiani, from the catalogue
Immagini 1978-2014, Marsilio: Venice, 2015


Macao, China, 2010. From the series ‘Real Worlds’. Copyright Olivo Barbieri

Andrea Cavazzuti, a student of the Chinese world as well as being a photographer, has for many years lived between China and Hong Kong. Over time, his stories about his travels there and the black-and-white photographs he showed me excited my curiosity. We had frequently gone on photographic trips together in Italy and around Europe so, in 1989, I decided to join him in China. By coincidence, it was shortly before the tumultuous events at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

In the late Eighties, China seemed to me to be as distant and incomprehensible as a some far-flung galaxy. My only points of literary reference were Dear China by Goffredo Parise and Henri Michaux’s A Barbarian in Asia. Upon returning to Italy I produced Notes from a Trip to China (Appunti di viaggio in Cina) with a small publishing house. It consisted of three parts: daytime exteriors, interiors and nocturnal exteriors. The images were paired with aphorisms, words that described the pictures I couldn’t take or impressions and thoughts about what was happening around me. They included such things as:

As I’m trying to write about China, I finally understand why, even when interviewing friends who’d lived there for years, I could only truly understand very little from their accounts.

I keep on breaking in and take photographs, invading with my presence both public and private spaces. In this manner I even embarrassed myself.

It’s almost midnight and I’ve been standing at an intersection for ages taking pictures. For the second time around, some fellows pushing wheeled carts, distracted by my presence, collide with one another. They argue for a while, put their vehicles to right and leave.

On an overcrowded bus a student in a school uniform and carrying books approaches me. We are on the outskirts of Suzhou. He asks me if I’m from the USA. When I say I’m Italian he loses interest.

One night I’d been standing holding an umbrella in the rain for fifteen minutes before I realised I hadn’t open the shutter of my camera. I patiently waited for another fifteen minutes.

Many men wear a metal tip on their shoes and you can hear them from afar, especially at night.

Hangzhou and Suzhou: when motorised vehicles reach the city centre they turn off their lights and keep only their indicator lights on, although not always. They honk frequently to indicate their presence to other vehicles, especially trucks and buses.

Suzhou, 1989. From the series ‘Artificial Illuminations’. Copyright Olivo Barbieri

The China that Parise and Michaux described in their books was starting to fade from my mind. I was coming to understand things on my own.

Travelling around China at that time was quite difficult and exhausting, but it was a feast for the eye and the mind.

At a crossing a street sign, with a Chinese character and ‘Km 12’ written beside it, indicates a direction. I don’t know where it is pointing and I burst out laughing.

On a bike I stop in front of a street sign and I realise there is no way I can relate it to the corresponding name on the city map.

It felt like entering a parallel world, a place where I was confronted by a completely different way of being. A ubiquitous and effective, often brutal pragmatism seemed to dominate. In photographic terms, this new eminently visual environment was not being reflected in what one could call an ‘updated iconography’, although some fine work was being done in black-and-white that recalled Cartier-Bresson more than reflecting the here-and-now.

After only a few days in the Far East I knew that I’d want to come back.

My book Miniature Landscapes: voyages in Chinese architecture (Paesaggi in Miniatura, AR/GE Kunst Galerie Museum, Bolzano) was published in 1990. That project, like the earlier book, also employed a tripartite approach: exteriors in daylight, interiors and exteriors at night. But the publisher only wanted the works made in the daytime.

Following this second experience I realized that, in terms of scope and speed, a historic change was taking place, of which we knew little or nothing. Since then I’ve travelled to China annually, and often more than once a year.

The collection Artificial Illuminations (Milano: Federico Motta Editore, 1995 and Washington DC: The Smithsonian, 1998) featured night shots comparing views of European cities with those in China and Japan. It was a study employing artificial illumination and was about using analogic colour film for long exposures.

Harbin, 2010. From the series ‘Artificial Illuminations’. Copyright Olivo Barbieri


In 2001, Andrea and I drove from Beijing to Shanghai on a highway that was still under construction. I published a selection of the work made on the trip in Notsofareast (Donzelli Editore, Rome, 2002). In that work, I not only portrayed what was happening on the highway, but I also took side-glances at the the cities situated at the various exits of the road, many of which were vast and new. Many of these places shared the same names as and were contiguous with the original old cities, and it was often hard to distinguish the two. Almost all of them featured a large public square with a monument that seemed to be intended for future alien tribes. Nearby there was invariably a large shopping mall.

Often we would find ourselves hurtling towards huge cement boulders seemingly abandoned on the road or heaps of sand that blocked the entire carriageway. There were no warnings posted about such impedimenta. One particularly dark night — lighting on that stretch of road hadn’t been finished — we stopped just short of a massive pile of debris. When I got out to see if we could circumnavigate the careless tumulus I suddenly heard moaning. It turned out that a minibus had hurdled itself into the mound at high speed and had flipped on its side. The driver and passengers were still inside.

Because of the numerous potholes, the cement or metal pieces scattered on the road, our glorious dark gray Fiat Croma would often get punctures or suffer from broken wheels. Although you could always find someone to fix the problem quickly. I do remember one time when we stopped in a remote village, it must have been some time after midnight when two young guys came along on their bikes and took the two wheels on the right-hand side of the car off to be repaired.  Before we had finished our meal at the street-stall the wheels were back in place and we were able to drive away.


Tibet, Gyantzé 2000. From the series ‘Virtual Truths’. Copyright Olivo Barbieri

I often used what I call a selective focus technique, one which I developed from the late Nineties. In an image, only a few spots are clear and focussed; I think of this technique as kind of philosophical device that I use to establish new relations between the subject and its surrounds. While working on Notsofareast, I also accumulated material for Side Effects: vision of the contemporary city (Cinisello Balsamo: Silvana Editoriale, 2002), which resulted in an exhibition at the Milan Triennial as well as a print catalogue. The work was a series of panoramic photographs, polyptychs made of six, eight and eighteen vertical images that were assembled in large suspended circles that could be viewed from inside.


In 2003, I started my site specific_Project, and I used a helicopter to make work over forty cities and places. After Rome, Montreal and places in Jordan (such as Amman, Petra and in the desert), I did ‘site specific_SHANGHAI 04’.

site specific_SHANGHAI 04. From the ‘Site Specific’ series. Copyright Olivo Barbieri

site specific_ provocatively refers to the common meaning of expression in the realm of art practice and in museums exhibitions, that is as an ‘installation’ made ad hoc for a specific place. My project was an attempt to represent the real world as if it were a temporary installation, a scale model, that is, something both unreal and unfinished, one that had to be interpreted and, possibly, transformed. Pursuing the project was like taking a voyage over the shapes of contemporary cities, but it was also one that allowed me to delve into the language of photography, an undertaking that offered up enriched new codes, reaffirming the labile boundaries between real objects, perception and representation. As far as I know, at the time I made ‘site specific_SHANGHAI 04’ it was the only artistic project of its kind, that is the only one to be made from a flying machine over the city. Since then, however, it’s been impossible to hire a helicopter to fly over Shanghai again.

In the lead-up to the 2008 summer Olympics, I was invited to make work in the city by the Beijing authorities but, as in the case of Shanghai after 2004, I wasn’t allowed to use a helicopter. So, instead, I made ‘aerial’ photographs using a to-scale model of the city and I gave the series what was now an ironic title: site specific_BEIJING 08.

site specific_BEIJING 08. From the ‘Site Specific’ series. Copyright Olivo Barbieri


Over the years, my China work has been relatively well received, although not with the same level of enthusiasm as the photographs made in other countries. I have come appreciate people’s limited perception about China. Daresay, this is in most part due to the sporadic coverage the country received in the media. As a result, representations of China remain rather obvious, or superficial. I put it in the following way in the synopsis I wrote for site specific_SHANGHAI 04 where I said it was like

a film about a twofold silence: The absence of an initial clamour about China, a country that has gone through the fastest, most extensive and momentous urban and architectural transformation in human history, and the silence with which it was greeted in the West, in particular in the aftermath of the events in Tiananmen Square (in 1989).

I still make work in China. Next year, 2019, will mark thirty years since my first trip there. I’m working on a book and exhibition aimed at limning the paradigmatic change of the country, while also investigating various ways to represent it. It will mark three decades of my Chinese history.

Beijing, China 1996. From the series ‘Artificial Illuminations’. Copyright Olivo Barbieri