CHEUNG CHAU SUNRISES
From his home on the Hong Kong island of Cheung Chau, Michael Wolf photographed sunrises every morning between 5.30 and 7.30 am. Here, on the roof of this three-story house, the
photographer meditates regularly during these early hours.
This series grew into a conceptual work. At first glance, the spectacle of light and colour seems to clash with Wolf’s previous series of images, social critiques reflecting living conditions in overpopulated megacities, and concomitant issues of mass consumption and environmental pollution. And now, sun, clouds, and the vastness of the sky and sea, divided by a horizon. It is the inherent optimism of the dawn of a new day, an image of untouched nature—where before one was shown the narrow, condensed spaces where people live, interact, and work together. It is in the back alleys, transport vehicles, housing units, and toy factories of Hong Kong, and also in the densities of the digital realm, between the pixels and clusters of road maps and satellite images, that Michael Wolf found the themes that have been his focus for thirteen years.
However, the intensity of work and life in these places, without opportunities for retreat, exhaust body and soul. Wolf left the city, finding a new home on Cheung Chau. Here, with views of one of Hong Kong’s many bays, numerous shots of sunrises were created over the last two years.
These photographs appear as a systematic counterpoint, at a place synonymous with a lack of space, smog, and a permanent conformity to economic circumstances.
The rhythm of shift workers and everyday life in this capitalist haven is contrasted by a natural rhythm—every day our position shifts towards the sun, its light making pigments visible and reviving life. And every morning, Wolf climbs, workerlike, onto the roof of his house, capturing this fleeting spectacle of nature. These rhythms remain consistent, because nature remains part of human conditioning, even in the narrow abyss of dehumanising working and living conditions. Perhaps the photographer, as part of a meditative act, gives back something personal and transient in image form—to himself and to us.
For a variety of reasons, with a few exceptions, sunrises are not a popular topic in photography, the vastness and transience of the heavens belonging more to painting. It was like this long before Claude Monet’s study of a Le Havre sunrise gave name to an entire movement in painting.
One would certainly find in Wolf’s images reminders of Turner’s cloud studies, or the exploding sky of Altdorfer’s ‘The Battle of Alexander at Issus,’ not to mention the Expressionists and the modernity of Rothko, Richter, or Pollock.
But it’s not about making recognitions, attributions, or finding parallels in art history here.
The characteristic style of the ‘pencil of nature’, which Wolf presents here, is indeed a spectacle of nature; everything in the sky changes fleetingly, minute by minute. But in the socially critical oeuvre of Michael Wolf, these pictures also serve as a blueprint for freedom. In their unreal and ephemeral beauty, they also raise questions about the originality, aura, and autonomy of photography in times of seemingly digital arbitrariness.