I really do not know very much about the Beijing-based artist and photographer Ma Te: the website details, a birthdate and a rather beautiful and poetic artist statement, but that’s about it.
And you know what? I kind of like it that way. There is a shadowy almost Banksy-like mystique growing up around this talented newcomer, and who doesn’t love a mystery?
I have been aware of Ma Te for several years. The artist produces uncompromisingly personal work presented as both art objects and, of course, handmade limited edition books. Whilst undoubtedly raw, there is also an attention to detail that makes these some of the finest artist books that I have yet to encounter.
In 2016 I purchased City of Dust, Ma Te’s first release which was produced in an edition of 88 copies. Taken around the city of Beijing, it was a combination of nudes and cityscapes, all captured in a monochromatic style reminiscent of the Japanese Provoke era. The hardest of blacks against the starkest of whites, grainy in texture, and with the merest hint of a shadow. No doubt the nature of some of the images would have made it very difficult for MaTe to promote the work at home, under the strict censorship of China. However, through various aspects of social media, news of the book slowly started to find its way to a broader audience, and now the name of Ma Te is on the way to becoming a more recognisable and familiar one.
However, the more recent second title, which was released in 2018, is the one under closer scrutiny here. The Concrete Dream, quite simply put, is astonishing. As an object it is imposing and memorable; the photography is both assured and mature.
The Provoke styling is still to the fore. It is certainly one that suits the political edge and message that Ma Te clearly wishes to communicate. The models are also still very evident, as is the city, although in this collection Beijing itself is most definitely the star. Monumental “cathedrals” of concrete loom large and dominant in this stark comment on Ma Te’s China. Derelict or half-finished buildings form stages in which the organic presence of a human figure is positioned (for the most part solitary and alien) yet also so entwined with the landscape that there appears to be a fusing of bone to aggregate.
The figures are for the most part set back, dwarfed by the monoliths around them. The whiteness of their skin drawing the viewer like a beacon. No matter how imposing and huge the enveloping structures, the luminescence of the body manages to dominate. In one image three girls are seen in long shot atop a huge mountain of earth and rubble. One running, whilst the other two crouch, intently looking at the ground, all the while the towers of the city still visible along the horizon behind them. Another features what appears to be a cluster of metal reinforcing rods as photographed in silhouette from below, rising, driving, punching at the sky. Then, almost as a punctuation mark amongst the metal, two arms joining the fray, hands outstretched and open. A physical embodiment of the abandoned structure.
One last example, a girl naked to her knees in a rice paddy, her eyes averted, looking down, an air of resignation emanating. In the mist of the background more buildings just visible, whilst pylons and cables run down the edge of the field, rushing, eager to greet. Always, the organic and the industrial.
In the pictures where the figures are to the fore, their faces are for the most part obscured, either cropped out, turned away or masked in some way. A stark contrast to the portraits in City of Dust, where the faces in many of the photographs dominate the entire frame. Two diametrically opposed portfolios. One the ultimate in anonymity versus the other, the ultimate in intimacy.
From the notes and poetry to be found on Ma Te’s website, referencing The Concrete Dream, the interplay between the landscape, the buildings, even the destruction and dereliction, is a personal comment on the pressure of conformity. The perceived cultural benchmarks required to signal a successful life behind the red curtain.
Marry well, get a house, then a bigger house, make money, make more money, then MORE, always more.
It’s funny how this really doesn’t sound so alien, like most capitalist societies. Even as a communist country, China has become one of the most capitalistic on the face of the planet; it would seem that happiness and a love for life are luxuries that tend to reside on everyone’s list. However, for a country which for so long denied its population the freedom of any aspirations, can we really blame them?
Then to the book itself. It is a truly awesome thing: imposing in size (30 cm x 42 cm), and once again a handmade edition, signed and numbered to 88 copies. It is printed in a leporello, or concertina, format (in Japanese the term is Orihon), which when fully opened extends to a massive twelve meters.
Whilst Ma Te’s pictorial essay runs on one face of the paper, the reverse side is predominantly blank, save for a poem in Chinese calligraphy, handwritten in India ink across two of the pages.
With regard to the printing, the paper is thick and heavy and the inks rich and dark. However, even though this appears a very substantial publication, there is also a delicacy and fragility, which means that the book demands handling with a great degree of care and respect with every viewing.
The Concrete Dream has one final flourish with which it astounds. Traditionally the Orihon style of book features board covers with stab binding, but this book’s boards have been individually cast from concrete itself. In many hands this could have been one step too far, a gimmick even, but there is an authenticity that runs through this book which makes the industrial and rough-hewn finishing touch seem completely right. The book is even supplied with a pair of individually stamped gloves for use when handling it.
So then: a confident, controversial, stimulating and socially-aware artist . . . whoever this person is.