An Austrian-born multimedia artist, explorer, and organizer, Luks Birk spent his late teens and early twenties as a journalist for Austrian and German media. Plagued by a sense of stagnation in his central European home, Birk relocated to Beijing, where he encountered a group of like-minded young creatives also aiming to craft their better selves through development of their own artistic work. Inspired by his new surroundings and friends, Birk endeavored to communicate his feeling of nostalgia teetering on the edge of melancholy.
It was then that he discovered his father’s collection of expired Polaroid cassettes. Salvaging the film cassettes from their would-be dumpster grave, Birk artfully breathed new life not only into the film, but into his creative process. As he traveled through Xian, Shanghai, Pingyao, Lijiang, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou, Birk focused not on the documentation of fact, but of feeling.
The result is Polaroids from the Middle Kingdom: Old and New World Visions of China (Glitterati Incorporated), a beautifully produced monograph that is 15 x 12 inches in size. As sweeping as the landscape itself, Birk’s monograph is a stunning collection of inventive imagery that captures the vibrancy of contemporary life in China today.
Birk speaks with The Click about his travels along the path to a life in photography. He recalls, “My father was a very avid photographer and when my siblings and I grew up we were always photographed and had to be somewhere at a specific time for the light or return to the same place at another time of day so that he could rephotograph whatever it was that captured his interest. Especially as we travelled a lot.
“Later when I was about 16 years old, I bought my first camera and my father taught me how to develop film and make black-and-white prints. In the beginning, I spent a lot of time in our makeshift darkroom that occupied the whole bathroom and made it hard to shower. It was very exciting to feel the material and understand the chemicals. It’s a material fetish I developed that I still have for papers, coatings and tonality.
“It was through photography that I had my first access to creating projects and more coherent pieces of work. It allowed me to create narratives—tell stories, mix reality with fictional elements. Photography as an art form has changed radically in the last twenty years or so and needs a very different definition now of course. It has something immediate in our response. Though of course this depends on the subject matter but it takes out elements of fictional creation at least in comparison to painting by the viewer.
“Instant photography has its charm by being really a momentary form of creation. Any other photography acts the same way but with Polaroids we have an immediate result that is unique. If we would just throw the images away, the action of capturing this moment would be undone. Somehow this makes it a very light medium in feeling, very soft and airy, almost fragile.
“The late revival and interest in Polaroid photography that had been done in the last forty years or reinvention of other instant formats now is nostalgia for that lightness which we are losing completely in our highly techno-controlled world. It seems to be the only type of photography able to hold a sense of secret as well. It’s always just between the photographer and the one or however many that have been photographed because there is only one unique image.
“Luckily the medium of the Polaroid came to me rather than me having to look for it. I was musing for a year around the idea of creating a piece of work a story around my emotional connections to moments and people I encountered in my everyday life in China, of fleeting moments bearing witness to a very special time in China’s history. But I was not interested in documentation anything. I wanted to create an emotional record.
“During a visit home to Austria, I remembered a big stack of Polaroid film cassettes that I had seen in my stepfather’s basement a few years ago. Actually, I remembered it because my mother told me the basement was about to be renovated and all unneeded things would be carted off to the dumpster. While searching the cellar, I found about forty Polaroid 699 cassettes. The expiration date read 1991.
“I still had an old Land Camera at my father’s house, and I took all the film there and inserted one into the rather rusty camera. My first photo was of the exterior of my father’s house. Sixty seconds it developed, and then I separated the photo paper from the negative paper with the chemical residue. And what I saw was a picture from the 1960s or maybe the 1970s, but certainly not from today. The partly vaporized or inactive chemicals developed an image that appeared through the yellowing effect as if from another time.
“I knew immediately that I could express by using this film what I felt in Beijing and other Chinese places. The picture corresponded exactly to my pre-nostalgia; as if I had looked upon a house from the past that might not even exist anymore, and yet there it stood right in front of me.
“In retrospect, I’m not quite sure what exactly motivated my move to Beijing. I had lived in London prior to my China years. I was never interested in visiting China before but I followed a friend’s invitation and loved it the first minute I saw Beijing’s charming roughness. It truly was love at first sight and I knew that I had to leave my old world where I felt a little caught up in anyway and move to the East.
“I felt stagnation in Europe and, after my first six months in China, I knew it was the right decision. I was developing much faster as a free, working artist there. The tempo and fast upswing attracted me, as it did many. Yet I think I chose this place because it managed somehow, with all its positive and negative effects, to break with its past—to just fall completely into the new. It was also fascinating to experience a country that was growing so rapidly in all forms as well realizing the misconceptions of China in the West. The little we know about its sociopolitical structure, its people and geography. It was a revelation. I am still digesting.
“After the project had naturally come to an end as I had used all the film I found in that basement I started to select my favorites and exhibited at festivals and galleries throughout China. The perception was quite different to that of a Western audience as the nostalgia we imply to these fade images was lacking. To the younger audience, it looked like a Photoshop filter and to the older audience, it was just not very appealing to see these faded images of all the things they now anyway.
“On the contrary showing these images to fellow expats in China was like looking at them myself. They clearly understood the feelings behind the image as we shared a common experience there. We pursued freedom of spirit—with the intent to just do, rather than look back over our shoulder for guidance. We sought development within our own work, rather than the shaped structures around us. This brought us together and formed an easy exchange and communication. Forward with full force. This almost Chinese political slogan was an energy felt within the community surrounding me.”