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“Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics”

In the story we often hear about global manufacturing and trade, consumer goods are made in China and exported to Westerners hungry for fast fashion and cheap electronics. Priscilla Briggs‘s new book Impossible Is Nothing: China’s Theater of Consumerism, published this month by Daylight, looks the effects of a culture of consumption on the Chinese themselves, examining the way idealized images influence the growing Chinese middle class. Made on multiple trips over the course of eight years, Briggs investigates the “visual representations of Capitalism in this Communist country that engages in what it calls ‘Capitalism with Chinese characteristics,'” she writes in a statement.

Throughout the book there are images of billboards featuring women in lingerie. They line busy intersections and empty trash-strewn streets, creating a constant low hum of desire. “Wherever they look, Chinese consumers and workers in Briggs’s photos are surrounded by slick romanticized imagery of the West—environments of pure exotic aspiration,” writes Rob Schmitz in the book. We also see the lingerie being produced by women at sewing machines, working through piles of padded cups and pieces of colorful, silky fabric. And we see the end product—women pose for pictures on the beach, wearing trendy dresses (presumably over the underthings they see advertised) and holding handbags, creating a stylish identity that reflects the images that surround them.

Briggs also records the backdrops used to take wedding pictures, which position newlyweds in front of faux motor boats or imaginary snowy lanes. There is a portrait of a man who makes mass-produced paintings, sitting with his reproduction of the Mona Lisa. (Another copy of the painting appears in an ornate frame in a shopping mall, and a third is for sale in a shop, next to a painting of a dog.) And in Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Shenzhen, escalators connect marble-tiled, multi-floor shopping malls, where massive advertisements for the luxury brands that will soon move in cover the walls and dwarf the shoppers. In all of these scenes, photography plays a central role in stoking consumer desire, but Briggs makes sure to point out the artifice of the pictures. Her images “expose the apparatus of the constructed reality,” Susannah Magers writes in the book, and capture “the allure of Western capital to Chinese society…and the promise that owning is achievement.” But despite the pitfalls of capitalism, Briggs sees her work as a guardedly positive record of a society in transition, “a lyrical ode to the optimism and imagination of contemporary China,” she writes.

Related Stories:
Lauren Greenfield’s Materialist World
Stylish Swimmers in Qingdao
Picture Story: The Ruin of a Great Chinese River (for PDN subscribers; login required)

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