The Contemporary Travels of Marco Polo

Over 750 years after Marco Polo, photographer Davide Monteleone traces stretches of the new Silk Road, a mega-project initiated by China in 2013.

© Davide Monteleone, from the series, A New Silk Road

In 2013, Chinese president Xi Jinping announced that the legendary Silk Road would be reborn as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). “From South-east Asia to Eastern Europe and Africa, the Belt and Road includes 71 countries that account for half the world’s population and a quarter of global GDP”, one can read in The Guardian.

This trillion-dollar project clearly underlines China’s goal to confirm its increasing role over international exchange. In the press, it has alternatively been called a Chinese Marshall Plan, a form of economic imperialism, or a state-backed campaign for global dominance. As a matter of fact, the scale of the BRI is unprecedented. Looking at the map of the many land and maritime routes it implies is dizzying.

© Davide Monteleone, from the series, A New Silk Road

In 2017, photographer Davide Monteleone began travelling on the new Silk Road – “from Yiwu, in the southeastern province of Zhejiang, to Khorgos, home to one of the world’s largest dry ports, and to Aktau, in Kazakhstan, on the Caspian Sea”, The New Yorker’s Jiayang Fan writes in his introductory text to the series. Along the way, Monteleone captured the sceneries and people he encountered – vertiginous landscapes of extreme-modernism.

Just as Marco Polo’s diary, Monteleone’s photographs record a land of fabulous difference, flirting with surrealism. As his ancestor, Monteleone emphasises the contrast between a still-provincial Europe and an empire of brilliant strangeness. But unlike Marco Polo’s, Monteleone’s depictions are uncanny – instead of being charged with a dream-like quality, they don apocalyptic accents. “It’s dazzling, foggy, monstrous, compressed, and expansive,” Monteleone described to Fan the city of Chongqing.

© Davide Monteleone, from the series, A New Silk Road

In his photographs, cities appear saturated with pollution. We can see architectural silhouettes more often than buildings. Vegetation barely appears, and if so, only as an artifact. Roads and railways seem to tire the landscape in two halves, like vivid scars in monochromatic compositions. The accumulation of lines in other photos give an impression of extraordinary speed.

With this documentation, it’s unsettling to draw a parallel between the mythical Silk Road, dating back to the Han Dynasty, and its latest, megalomaniac, version. The historical one enabled the trade of precious stones and metals and other goods but “perhaps more importantly, language, culture, religious beliefs, philosophy and science”, historians argue. Among the most traded items were also paper and gunpowder, that had obvious and lasting impacts on culture and history in the West. In the contemporary context, one can doubt or fear what it is that is to be exchanged that shape the rest of the world, and most importantly how it will affect it. And surely it will not be only about the cotton, whose fields Monteleone depicted as an example.

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Davide Monteleone (b. 1974) works on long-term independent projects using photography, video, and text. He has devoted himself to the study of social issues, exploring the relationship between power and individuals. He is also engaged with educational activities, regularly lecturing at universities and teaching workshops internationally. Follow him on PHmuseum, Twitter, and Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

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This article is part of our feature series, Photo Kernel, which aims to give space to the best contemporary practitioners in our community. The word Kernel means the core, centre, or essence of an object, but it also refers to image processing.

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