This essay was originally published in FOAM Magazine’s new Talent Issue.
In his project L’Habit fait Le Moine, or The Clothes Make the Man, the French photographer Charles-Henry Bédué supplies a unique and highly thought-provoking window into aspects of materialism in Chinese culture. Photographed between 2011 and 2013 in Beijing, Bédué’s project ostensibly focuses on objects of consumption such as clothing, shoes, handbags, mobile phones, food and so forth. Perhaps aided by his culturally elevated position as photographer and artist, he is able to enter seemingly exclusive venues for the emerging class of elites where these objects are put on display for others to see.
As the title of the project already suggests, Bédué focuses on the rich textures, the colours and the patterns he finds in people’s clothes. Consequently, in a series of tightly cropped photographs, those that wear the actual clothes became rather secondary in the work. In most cases their identity is hidden or obscured, which in turn further highlights the presence of the fashion. The lack of identity and indeed the lack of a human element in the photographs creates a highly intriguing dichotomy between appearance and reality – a tension photography as a medium has always battled with. The emphasis on superficial appearance signifies photography’s inability to fully capture the real or what is often described as an essence. For Bédué, on the other hand, the essence can be found in how people chose to appear in public and in front of his camera. The reality depicted in his photographs becomes a type of theatre crowded with actors and their props.
Rather than depicting any overt social conditions commonly associated with documentary photography, Bédué seemingly focuses on hidden codes in body language, gestures, positioning of the feet or other small details in human interaction. In this context, Bédué appears to focus on women’s feet and legs as a way to position himself to his subjects. Indeed, the multiple references to feet allude to a fetishism in the Freudian sense, which foregrounds the fact that photography is a highly subjective culturally informed framing device . The feet literally position the subjects in relation to the photographer (one photograph even appears to show the photographer’s feet), yet at the same time, they further highlight the anonymity explored in this body of work.
In addition to the Freudian fetishism explored via repeated emphasis on feet and legs, Bédué also explores fetishism in the Marxian sense of the word through the depiction of consumerism. In that regard, Bédué clearly alludes to the worshipping of consumer products in the booming Chinese economy. One photograph cunningly shows a woman kneeling in a prayer position with a handbag resting next to her. In the absence of any religious iconography, the allusion to the worshipping of consumption is very clearly established in this image. In this context Bédué’s photographs can be seen as a visual analogy of Karl Marx’s prediction that social relations are continually mediated and expressed through commodities. Bédué’s work also references a sense of estrangement that emerges as a result of this commodity fetishism: mobile phones for instance are not presented as a tool for social interaction, but instead as a physical barrier wedged in between people.
The consumption, the luxury and the beauty explored in this series of photographs signifies the growing confidence of the Chinese consumer and the rise of a wealthy upper class. As in the developed economies of the West, the increase in spending power of Chinese consumers is largely facilitated by ultra cheap money, the creation of massive debt as well as inflated asset bubbles. A long-term resident of China, Bédué describes the emergence of this bubble economy as a ‘house of cards, a mirage sometimes poetic in its improbability, a mirror that reflects our own image’. In a sense, just as the photographs appear to represent a carefully constructed façade, the speed with which China is surpassing the US as the world’s biggest economy also appears surreal. Indeed, China’s rise to dominance is so rapid that even those in power do not see it coming.
The rise of China documented in Bédué’s photographs is not merely a question of economic supremacy, it has powerful implications for a geopolitical landscape hitherto shaped by the US Dollar as the world’s reserve currency. While the world traded in US Dollars, the constant demand for the greenback allowed the US government to borrow to the extent it did – most prominently for its military. The status of the Dollar is thus directly related to the global reach of the US military, deployed in over 150 countries. Yet world reserve currencies do not last for forever. The world’s first reserve currency, the Portuguese Real which was introduced in the 15th century, has subsequently been replaced by currencies from a succession of global military empires, namely Spain, the Netherlands, France, Great Britain and lastly the US. The transition from one world reserve currency to another is associated with a crisis or geopolitical tension, but it is also a gradual process that can take years or even decades. At this moment in history, with economic and military power increasingly shifting towards the emerging economies of the East, we are in the middle of precisely this process where one world reserve currency is replaced by another.
In contrast to the developed economies, trapped in an endless cycle of debt, austerity and failed monetary policies, China is in the process of actively preparing for a complete reset of the global financial system. Most dramatically, this can be seen in the amount of gold that is directly or indirectly being transferred to the People’s Bank of China. In addition, China is installing payment systems with other central banks that would allow payment in a currency other than the Dollar. In this new global financial landscape, all of a sudden it is not the financial markets of New York or London that rule the world, but instead countries that are key suppliers to the Chinese economy, such as Russia.
Bédué’s photographs depict a new generation of Chinese physically and psychology experiencing their newfound wealth through material objects. To that extent he is documenting an important shift taking place in China that has major global implications. Bédué’s emphasis on consumer items also raises questions about money: what will the world look like with the Chinese Yuan as reserve currency? How will the geopolitical landscape shift as the global financial reset approaches? Will this reset be accompanied by tension and aggression, or can it be a peaceful process? While it is difficult to tell the future, what is clear is that we are living in a moment of radical economic and social transformation. Historians will look back and study this period as a major turning point in history. They might even study photographs in order to decipher how the change can be observed in the way people dress, consume and interact with each other.