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Hong Kong is one of the densest urban areas on the planet: in some of its most populated neighbourhoods, more than 400,000 inhabitants share a single square kilometre. When we think of public space in an urban context we tend to think of its grander manifestations — a city square, an esplanade, a park. However, in Hong Kong these openings are few and far between. Instead, one of the main forms of public space is a vast network of narrow back alleys running between the city’s buildings. Often no more than a few feet wide, they act as channels of circulation — short-cuts through the congested urban fabric — while also offering locals the opportunity to claim a few extra square metres as their own.
Since his arrival there in 1994, Hong Kong has become Michael Wolf’s preferred photographic subject. The images he has made over the course of two decades focus both on the surface of the city — as with his celebrated series “Architecture of Density”, a study of the façades of Hong Kong’s residential tower blocks — and on its inner workings. Over time, the city’s back alleys have become Wolf’s most regular hunting ground. While he approaches them much like a traditional street photographer, prowling the pavement day in, day out, camera in hand, there are remarkably few people present in his images of these spaces. Instead, he focuses on the traces that they leave behind.
Hong Kong’s locals have developed tactics for utilising the city’s network of back alleys in a variety of ways. Workers glued to their mobile phones use the alleys to snatch a cigarette break between shifts, while residents create outdoor extensions to their cramped homes, drying laundry or fabricating a makeshift patio with nothing more than a broken-down plastic stool. The crowded conditions of these narrow passages mean that every inch must be exploited to fulfil some function, whether that be storage, seating, green space or a place to rest.
Not an ounce of functionality is wasted and these alleys have become full of repurposed, repaired objects that would have been discarded long before in most other cities. From drying gloves and mops to “informal seating arrangements”, from lost items of laundry to coat hangers or plastic bags, Wolf has documented the full range of informal solutions residents have developed to cope with the density of Hong Kong life. These images are now compiled in a single volume for the first time — a visual encyclopedia of this extraordinarily rich, diverse and ever-changing urban ecosystem.
Michael Wolf’s ‘Informal Arrangements’ is at Flowers Gallery, 82 Kingsland Road, London E2 8DP, November 27- January 2 2016; flowersgallery.com. ‘Informal Solutions — Observations in Hong Kong Back Alleys’ by Michael Wolf, with a text by Marc Feustel, will be published by WE, Hong Kong, in January 2016
Slideshow photographs: Michael Wolf/Courtesy of Flowers Gallery; All pictures are from the series ‘My Favourite Thing’