Mårten Lange’s Ghost Witness
The Swedish photographer Mårten Lange continues his investigation of nature, urbanism, and technology, focusing this time on China’s so-called “ghost cities,” the high-tech urban centers built so quickly that they were, at first, sparsely populated.
(Loose Joints Publishing, 2020)
OTA-bound embossed softcover
In his latest photobook, Ghost Witness, the Swedish photographer Mårten Lange continues his investigation of nature, urbanism, and technology, focusing this time on China’s so-called “ghost cities,” the high-tech urban centers built so quickly that they were, at first, sparsely populated. Western media labeled them as abandoned, a symptom of the country’s housing bubble. But this didn’t take into account the fact that these districts and suburbs were never expected to fill up in less than 15 to 20 years. Traveling to six of China’s largest metropolises (Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Chongqing, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen), Lange documented the ghost cities within them—some now inhabited, others less so—creating images largely devoid of people yet full of high-rises and LED-lights.
The photobook is far from lifeless as Lange captures the delicate ways stereotypically sterile skyscrapers interact with their environment. Ghost Witness alternates between photographs of buildings at various stages, from initial construction to inevitable deterioration. We see them when they’re all finished and glittering, and when they’re just scaffolding and blocs of concrete. The book layout itself plays with their geometry and scale, moving from small, intimate, window-like formats to full-page spreads with a high visual impact. Some of the eeriest images in the book present buildings in-between: done, but still empty. These photographs were taken at dusk, showing the high-rises looming darkly. They look haunted, though no one has ever lived in them. Something is missing—or rather, something is there when it shouldn’t be: “ghost cities” are often built on the location of neighborhoods or villages that were razed to the ground.
Lange’s black and white photographs reinforce this haunted feeling as they emphasize disembodied elements, like the gleam of sunlight and the gritty texture of smog. He focuses on the delicate ways steam, clouds, and bodies of water interact with less-than-natural surfaces. How light becomes a wavering pool of light when it hits glass. How the orb of the sun complements a skyscraper’s grid (a wink, perhaps, to temples built to align with the star’s trajectory). By juxtaposing buildings with ephemeral elements, Lange makes high-rises appear as delicate and as changeable as the weather. The overall effect is particularly affecting, as natural and manmade elements, usually considered so at odds with one another, come together to form something not only beautiful, but imbued with meaning. In Lange’s photographs, high-rises and eternally blinking lights appear as signs to decipher, like codes from another world.
In Ghost Witness, even the more biological looking elements of these cities of glass and steel look foreign to humans. Signs of decay appear throughout among the geometric lines of skyscrapers. Graffiti spray drips like sap; paint peels off walls like bark off a tree. Dented metal sheets and glitchy displays evoke the scratches left by animals to stake out territory. Some architectural elements even seem to take on a life of their own, breaking free from the confines of verticals and horizontals, like the bean-shaped glass dome hanging in the air between two buildings. Attached by cables and footbridges, it calls to mind a hive, a heart, and an alien pod, all at once.
The book’s title suggests not fear, but observation: here is a ghost. What ghost this is, though, remains to be determined. Lange’s images are ambiguous, and can therefore accommodate various and even contradictory meanings. You could interpret the spirituality in his photographs of high-tech urban centers as the ghost of China’s past, hanging on while the country soars into the future. Or you could see it as a commentary on the ghost-like presence of disembodied elements making these shining urban centers function, from steam and electricity to surveillance technology. By illuminating how the hyper new can paradoxically feel haunted both by the past and the future, Lange explores the tension of the intersection between China’s history and its rapid urbanization. His images are neither titled nor located, although some of Shanghai’s famous high-rises are recognizable. This omission underlines the similarities between “ghost cities.” But it’s also problematic, as it homogenizes different neighborhoods and districts across the country.
The photographs of Ghost Witness were made in some of the most populated cities on earth, yet Lange’s images are largely devoid of humans. The photobook’s rare images of people mainly show building workers. They hang from cables attached to poles and creep along the outside ledge of windows, their size dwarfed by the slab of concrete, their bodies small and fragile against panes of glass. The book does contain two images of crowds in a square taken from the above-ground viewpoint of a security camera. The people in the crowd look at their phones and wait, although for what, we do not know. There’s only one image of a person within a building, the glass’s reflection rendering the figure a silhouette, scrubbed clean of distinctive features.
The individuals depicted in Ghost Witness seem like they don’t belong there: they look lost amid the splendor of scintillating glass and mysterious puffs of smoke. By making these cities seem empty, Lange questions their larger-than-life scale and inhospitality. The issue is that many “ghost cities” in recent years have become vibrant urban centers, each with its own specific street life and atmosphere. Lange’s delicate, poetic, and cryptic images, which so unusually depict high-rises as mysterious and full of ghosts, fall into the trap of many films and TV series set in Asian cities that emphasize their futurity, forgetting that these cities form the present of millions of people.