Michael Wolf

Flowers Kingsland Road


25 November – 7 January

Flowers presented the first UK show of the Hong-Kong based German born photographer Michael Wolf. Wolf stands out in Flower’s dynamic programming of photographers (Nadav Kander, Edward Burtynsky, Robert Polidori) who work with large-format, often in Asian locales. Wolf is excited by massive spatials, urban landscapes photographed in such a way as to compress and extend the built environment so that it takes on an aspect that is totally otherworldly: huge planes of glass and steel excluding sky and ground. His series Transparent City, shown here, presents blocks of urban buildings – the kind that used to be called skyscrapers – as structured layers of gleaming façades. His technique makes them seem as thin and brittle as mica, scintillating and reflecting the unseen light. Barely discernable among the mass of windows, we can catch a fleeting glimpse of a human figure, or peek into a room and see the traces of its inhabitants’ lives. The city he presents in Transparent City is Chicago, birthplace of modern American architecture, still one of the architectural wonders of the world.

For Architecture of Density, Wolf moves on to Hong Kong, where he is partially based and has worked for many years. Here the perspective is not façades and veneers, barely hinting at the commerce and life within, but the sheer weight of density, of the buildings themselves. The city as a pressure-cooker, massing humanity into tiny boxes. Again the sky and ground are excluded, but here the lens creates a total compression of structure, squeezing and compacting the planes so that they appear limitless, strange constructions of verticals with no beginning and no end. The images are at once unsettling compositions of abstraction and minimalism, while at the same time offering an equally disturbing, yet oblique, sociological observation.

The themes of density and compression are articulated more overtly in the series Tokyo Compression. Here Wolf has photographed the infamously crowded Tokyo subway system from outside the train carriages, capturing the images of people pressed up to the fogged glass, squashed, packaged even. Like all of Wolf’s photos on displays here, they have a strange ethereal beauty; but these are more so because of the sense of human flesh and blood in these portraits, printed life size and seen literally face to face.

Lastly, Wolf takes us into an even more remarkable series of images. 100 x 100 is totally different to the other series on show, yet fits in perfectly with them and with Wolf’s overall photographic vision: which is one of humanity and human perspective on the alien, urban landscape. In a number of other projects, Wolf has haunted Google Street View, extracting and reclaiming the images of human beings captured, quite accidentally, by Street View, (and normally ignored when viewers consult Street View). One of my favourites (seen on Wolf’s website) is “F*** You Google Street View,” which captures people making that unmistakeable gesture of offence (resistance?).

100 x 100 (2006) is different. Like Tokyo Compression, it offers us human beings but this is a quieter and more contemplative series. Wolf has photographed residents in their flats in Hong Kong’s oldest public housing estate (now demolished). Each of the 100 single-room flats is 100 square feet in size. The people within live with their sum total of possessions around them; each room is different – no matter how small and restricted life is, people manage to remain individual personalities. The series is exhibited in a space created specifically for the exhibition, a room 100 x 100 so that the visitor can feel what it is like to exist – even for a few moments – within this amount of space.

The world is becoming more urbanised; we know this. Property and land is more expensive than ever. Access to space is ever more difficult. As our global cities grow and land becomes more and more premium, our available living space to live, dream and breathe becomes more and more contentious. Wolf’s work makes us think about that, question how can we organise life to keep it humane, to see each other as persons not as masses. And yet, there is an uncanny beauty in the great mass and swell of humanity: in us and in the things that we have made.