November 2016. Xinjiang province, China. Landscape near the Lop Nur desert.
Xinjiang is the westernmost province in all China, located at the border of Central Asian countries, Russia and Mongolia. More than twice the size of France, it has only 22 million inhabitants, a majority of which are the indigenous Uighurs, a sunni-muslim Turkic ethnic group which has lived in the region for centuries. Tensions have nonetheless arisen in the last decade as a consequence of the en-masse migration of Han Chinese settlers and confessional persecution by the strongly secular governmental authorities.
Borrowing from romanticized notions of the American frontier, synonymous with ideals of exploration and expansion, photographer Patrick Wack captures a visual narrative of Chinaâs westernmost regionâXinjiang. Whereas the American West conjures images of cowboys and pioneers, of manifest destiny and individualistic freedom, the Chinese West has not yet been so defined. It is a place of pluralitiesâof haunting, expansive landscapes, of rough mountains and vivid lakes, of new construction and oil fields, of abandoned structures in decaying towns, of devout faith and calls to prayer, of silence and maligned minorities, of opportunity and uncertain futures. It is a land of shifting identity. In essence, Xinjiang is the new frontier to be conquered and pondered. Literally translating to ânew frontierâ in Chinese, Xinjiang is a land apart, and has been so for centuries. More than twice the land area of France with a population less than the city of Shanghai, the Chinese province of Xinjiang once connected China to Central Asia and Europe as the first leg of the ancient Silk Road. Yet it remains physically, culturally, and politically distinct, an otherness within modern China. Its infinite sense of space; its flowing Arabic scripts and mosque-filled cityscapes; its designation as an autonomous region; and simmering beneath, its uneasy relationship with the encroaching, imposing, surveilling East. For Chinaâs ethnic Han majority, Xinjiang is once again the new frontier, to be awakened for Beijingâs new Silk RoadâChinaâs own manifest destinyâwith the promise of prosperity in its plentiful oil fields. For Patrick Wack, Out West is as a much a story of the region as it is his own, as much a documentation of a contemporary and historical place as it is an emotional journey of what it means to strive, and for what. There exists an inherent fascination in the regionâas both key and foil to the new Chinaâand a sirenâs call to its vast limitlessness that instinctively incites introspection and desire. Showcasing a romanticism of the frontier, Out West presents Xinjiang via the lens of its present day, in photography that speaks of the surrealistic tranquilityâand disquietâof the unknown. Out West offers an experience of Xinjiang that highlights its estrangement from contemporary perceptions of the new China, accentuating undercurrents of tension and the mystique it has cultivatedâwhether in their minds or ours. At its core, Out West is a question of perspective: What is the West but the East to another?