The Ghost of Urbanity: Christopher Button captures the metropolitan spirit
Sep 27, 2021
If highways are the backbones of a city, the underground is the blood vessels - it keeps the city running day and night by transporting people around, but it is never their destination. The metro stations are the most familiar urbanscape that nobody bothers to look at. The photographer, Christopher Button, thinks otherwise. He focused the camera on the emptied passageway at metro stations in Hong Kong and captured the metropolitan spirit.
In a high-speed city like Hong Kong, the underground is always filled with people - from the early birds who start their day from 6 am, to the night owls who linger until midnight. A metro station without a trace of human activity is rarely seen. So, it feels enigmatic, even uncanny, to see Button’s solo exhibition titled The Labyrinth at Blue Lotus Gallery, Hong Kong, showing empty passageways in metro stations.
Running escalators, endless walkways, stairs leading to the basement… These are part of the everyday life of Hong Kong people. There is nothing uncommon about them, isn’t it? Yet, when Button deliberately excluded people from the images, these banal places have created a mystic atmosphere, as if it was haunted by the city’s relentlessness.
When you look at the photographs, you can immediately recall the moments where strangers silently rush next to you. The absence of people somehow emphasises their presence in another time and space. Browsing the photographs from one to another, I imagine I was a ghost wandering at the timeless labyrinth of underground, hoping to trace back the faint memories of my previous life.
Or I can imagine myself in a futuristic universe. The Hong Kong MTR (Mass Transit Railway) deliberately used thematic colours to facilitate passengers to differentiate each station: 'Central' is red; ‘Admiralty’ is blue; and ‘Kwun Tong’ is white. Through Button’s lens, the functional colour scheme has become the perfect background of a cyberpunk film: walking through vivid monotone tunnels under fluorescent lighting, could it be the world of 'Blade Runner' (1982) waiting for you at the other end?
Indeed, Hong Kong has been an inspiration for cyberpunk for writers and filmmakers. Highly effective and functional, this tiny urban space with over 700 million population perhaps has crystallised our imagination for what the future could look like as its cliché nickname - “a city that never sleeps”. In Button’s The Labyrith series, the artist materialised the neatness and coldness of urbanity and captured its unique beauty.
We always believe that the essence of urbanity is speed: vehicles that take us from one place to another, machines that finish our repetitive work, and the internet that brings the world to us with a snap of fingers. But urbanity is also about sturdiness: buildings that accommodate the high population and infrastructure, including the often-overlooked underground, that maintains the city’s high efficiency. This facet of Hong Kong is what the artist presents in this photography series.