FOR the past 15 years, Deke Erh has been on the road, or to be exact, on the Silk Road. It’s a one-man show, an odyssey that has taken in history, culture, relics and people.
Now the Shanghai-based photographer’s “One Man’s Silk Road — Deke Erh’s Visual Documenta” unveils the massive project that includes the photos that he captured, the objects he collected and the film he shot during his journey.
Nearly 10,000 objects are now showcased in four exhibition halls at the China Art Museum, covering an area of 6,000 square meters.
“In the eyes of some, this is almost a mission impossible,” says Erh. “But I have been so fascinated by the subject and I am glad that finally I made it. This is the Silk Road where I have been, and this is the Silk Road in my eyes.”
Before the Silk Road project, Erh was already well-known for documenting Shanghai’s history and tumultuous changes. His name is associated with old Shanghai, old villas and lanes, Art Deco buildings and vanishing structures and artifacts.
Erh published a series of photo books such as “A Last Look — Western Architecture in Old Shanghai (1990)” and “Old Villas in Shanghai.”
“Today when people are looking ahead, I turn away and look back and dive into history,” he says.
As many people were enthusiastically throwing away old things and embracing new concepts in the 1980s when China’s reform and opening up began, Erh was sensitive to the value of history and artifacts, whether an old house facing demolition or a mundane item such as a mug.
But recording the vicissitudes of the city was not enough to quench a curiosity that went beyond Shanghai. When the subject of the Silk Road first flashed on Erh’s mind, his first response was to “find” a famed archeologist who had been there long before and capture some landscapes on the road.
The Silk Road, extending 4,000 miles (6,437 kilometers), was a series of paths used for trade and cultural interchange that was central to development of much of Asia. It connected West and East by linking traders, merchants, pilgrims, monks soldiers, nomads and city dwellers from China to the Mediterranean Sea. Its development began during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220).
“Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943) was a Hungarian-British archeologist, and I was quite curious about him, so I followed the footsteps of this explorer,” Erh says. “When I visited the National Szechenyi Library in Hungary to research Stein, the director told me I was the only Chinese to come on such a mission for many years.”
During his journey, Erh visited some of the same spots Stein photographed.
“This was quite an amazing experience, as if I communicated with Stein a century later,” he says.
Erh can’t remember how many pictures he has taken through his long set of journeys on the Silk Road.
“When I was invited to give a solo exhibition about the Silk Road, I was a bit puzzled at the beginning, because I have too many materials,” he says.
But he managed to figure out a way to clearly present his trove, via four parts — An Aural Journey, Testimony, Rediscovering China and Erh’s Archive.
Visitors will first be impressed when entering “An Aural Journey,” because “music was one of the first media to overcome the cultural divide and allow a meeting of the minds between people of different backgrounds,” Ehr says.
Pingtan (musical storytelling of Suzhou), qinqiang opera from the northwest, ha’er folk singing from Qinghai, Central Asian music, Iranian radif, Turkish fasil and Italian arias are among the styles visitors can hear, played under small roofs typical of the architectural style of each country, transforming those roofs into huge sound installations.
There is a long table in the same area that displays various foods from different areas along the Silk Road.
“I hope this exhibition can arouse the interest of children to give them a concrete idea of what Silk Road is,” Erh says. “Today many children are forced to bury into the books and homework. I hope this exhibition will inspire their curiosity towards an outside, unfamiliar world. This really broadens their vision to see the world, and perhaps some of them will continue to focus on this subject when they grow up.”
Erh still has many objects the has collected on the Silk Road that remain outside the exhibition.
“Perhaps I need more space to house them into an exhibition,” he says with a smile. “I’m happy that some of my friends no longer call me a photographer, but a visual historian. I like this title.”