The book, bound in a luxurious blue velvet cover featuring an inlaid full page colour print of a dark blue mud swamp on the front, the title again stamped into the velvet on the back cover is both an inviting and thoughtful design. Not only does the book look good, it comes with a matching pull-out containing a short Kafkaesque story by Mingyu Wu in both the original Portuguese and a translated English version. This is a book for collecting, the author is at pains to point out his intention for the work not to be dismissed as yet another photobook of grainy forgettable photos from a foreign land, but a more considered, poetic meditation on a place that cannot be removed from either nature or design.
Blue Mud Swamp is an eerie tale of the authors discovery of a city called Dalian (originally called Qingniwa which translates as ‘blue mud swamp’) in Northeast China, a metropolis recently classified by the Communist State as “one of the best places to live in China”. Of course, we in the West hold any such notion with skepticism, and the inherent tone visible in Blue Mud Swamp from the title to the high contrast chiaroscuro within the imagery seems to suggest this skepticism.
The 26 full bleed double page spreads, beginning with a girl sitting on Dalian’s pebbly shore, facing the blue sea, present a story about a remote city desperate in its attempt to attract the young, the upwardly mobile new middle-classes of China’s 21st Century. But of course this is the Chinese State using old Soviet ploys in a modern post-Soviet world. The ensuing failure of this mindset to articulate itself in the physical realm is what follows: torn coverings, dilapidated playgrounds, neglected zoo animals look as wild as their urbanised surroundings. One dome shaped alien building stands alone, confusing to judge as to it being an abandoned animal shelter or Communist architectural experiment. This place, drenched in the deathly blue light of day with shadows as deep as the ocean, is at heart a torn utopia. The future it promises is as uncertain and unforgiving as the photographs themselves.
With tigers, horses and turtles, Casaca has used the traditional Chinese animal symbols as metaphors working as interludes between shots of artificially lit corners and streets. The portraits and figures who populate these non-places are melancholic, lost in thought, almost akin to those poor souls awaiting judgment in the Book of Revelation. The ‘pale horse’ here, is not the blue mud swamp or the sea on which it slumps, but the ambition of the Chinese State; Dalian is the pale horse.
A fitting end comes to our short story in the form and flow of the last few photographs. We move from a turtle in a darkened pool, surrounded by shimmering coins and bank notes attached to its shell, followed by a dirty animal pelt which seems to be floating on an asphalt ocean, and finally transformed into a local girl lying on the same beach as the opening shot, now however, she is in full wedding dress with bouquet, a heart drawn in the sand by her side, and she faces us, not the sea.
The ghosts and apparitions within the imagery work quite well with the strong visual style, a clever short but sharp edit is put to good use creating a sense of foreboding. This gothic dystopian vision haunts the reader, and it haunts well.
You can purchase Blue Mud Swamp from a number of locations internationally, or directly from the artist’s website
All images ©Filipe Casaca