Classification, Definition, Imagination - Luo Yongjin's Photography
by Gu Zheng
In China, Luo Yongjin’s long-standing interest in architectural forms is unrivalled. My earliest impression of Luo Yongjin’s photography originated from his architectural collages. Beginning with a single photograph, he divided the image into sections, duplicated these sections numerous times and combined them to create a fresh yet recognizable image invoking a sense of dissolution. During this process of weaving repeated views of each building into the fabric of a new temporally-fragmented image, the building itself was reconstructed according to a new scale of time and space. 

Through the assemblage of these fragments, Luo Yongjin has constructed an image which transcends reality, a new visual form of architecture. In his eyes, the unceasing potential for development of the image becomes a metaphor for contemporary China. Without the ability to see itself clearly or to control its desires, China becomes a monster that has been kidnapped by its own desire for expansion. Glorifying in self-inflation, self-propagation and self-digestion, this great creature is goaded to embark on the road of blind development. 

Architecture has not only become the landscape of modern urban society, but also the most concrete evidence of society’s productive forces and materials. Furthermore, it formalizes the aesthetic influences of local occupants. Luo Yongjin, has lived in Shanghai since the mid-1990s whilst working on the series New Residence. The series consists of New Residence Luoyang and New Residence Hangzhou. New Residence Luoyang is the earlier work of the two. 

Photographed in Luoyang, the historical capital city of thirteen dynasties which has, in recent years, developed into an economic powerhouse, New Residence Luoyang presents a portrait of pre-modern urban architecture rather than the city’s post-modern structures. These not only reflect the building’s solid, striking visual modelling and rich textures, but also reveal hidden aesthetic tastes, the sense of space, and the present quality of life of the occupants. Through Luo Yongjin’s forceful and candid visual documentation, these residential buildings become reminiscent, inconceivably, of the concentration camp. Simultaneously, these structures may be associated with the simple style in Western modernist architecture. However, despite certain visual similarities with Western modernist styles, this residential architecture appears crude. Laying aside the construction project’s ostensible intentions, these buildings project an unconscious modernist aesthetic. This modernist architectural style is a reflection of adversity. Rather than a healthy functioning residential model, we see a concentration camp. 

When compared with the forest of sky-scrapers in the developed coastal cities, Luo Yongjin’s domineering buildings reveal the huge divide in development levels between China’s inland and coastal cities. These images not only display the material living standards and requirements of the inland residents, but also demonstrate the various regions’ economic and cultural differences. His topographical images thus offer a meaningful visual reference allowing us to understand China’s inland cities. Thus, we can make sense of the relationships between the city and its people, between the people and their buildings and between the inland and coastal cities. 

  Since 2002, Luo Yongjin has turned his attention to the private houses near Hangzhou. These New Residences, built by people from one of China’s richest regions with their own aesthetic taste, form a striking counterpoint to those in Luoyang.  If the residences of Luoyang are involuntarily blind modernist buildings, then those in Hangzhou may be described as involuntarily blind Neo Baroque castles. In contrast with the course nature of the buildings of Luoyang, Zhejiang residences strive towards refinement and delicacy, however an insatiable desire to flaunt wealth permeates the architecture. These buildings appear to be pieced together, betraying a pastiche of influences and the absence of a unified original style.

Applying general aesthetic standards to the houses of Luoyang and Hangzhou is not easy. Luoyang houses place their emphasis on the acquisition and control of space while Hangzhou houses are the product of the desire to incorporate diverse influences. However, these two groups share the same essence and motivation, crudity and incorrigible greed. 

The strength of Luo Yongjin’s images lies in their typographical classification of Luoyang and Hangzhou’s buildings and the application of a compositional style which highlights the hidden similarities between these two distinct architectural forms. These similarities, rooted firmly in contemporary China’s cultural psychology, reveal an insatiable and irrational longing in the national sub-consciousness. Unfortunately, the new residences in Hangzhou are not merely realizations of individuals’ aesthetic tastes. They rather provide evidence of the dominant taste, which guides and perhaps damages the aesthetic sensibilities of China’s private residences. 

Luo Yongjin’s later Government series shows clearly the various levels of local government administrative buildings. Photographing the front-centre of each building squarely, he avoids deformation or exaggeration. By recording these institutional structures with a verity and minimalism, he highlights the innate absurdity of the over-blown forms; symbols of power, pride and arrogance. These grotesque government buildings highlight previous tyranny and corruption, as well as the present dwellers detachment and insolence and the inexplicable, foolish desire to imitate the West. Through these images, we must admit that the buildings’ outside appearances are not merely appearances, but rather, they reflect the users’ and planners’ motivations. Luo Yongjin’s photography uncovers the origin, substance and nature of power permeating these buildings. One may find the knowledge that a Shanghai district court would take, as its archetype, the U.S. Congress, comical. What further associations with the West will be made? Recent reports reveal that the local government of Fuyang, Anhui Province, has developed a parliamentary system following Shanghai’s example. We are grateful to Luo Yongjin’s work, for providing a valuable record of China’s imitations of the Capitol Hill buildings should these meet destruction. 

Luo Yongjin’s attention has more recently extended to the fort houses in Kaiping, Guangdong. These strange towers, villas built by successful returned overseas Chinese, reflect a mentality privileging ostentation and abundance. They also introduce Western architectural concepts, including modern standards of sanitation. They have undergone a partial cultural conversion. The towers mingle both local and foreign elements, producing complex hybrid forms. In addition, they establish a monument to the struggle for survival of overseas Chinese. The complexity of these buildings provide precious study materials clarifying modern China’s relationship with the world, and an exciting counterpoint to Hangzhou’s “Baroque castles”, established 100 years later.  

Under Luo Yongjin’s lens, these toy-like buildings undergo an odd transformation, becoming exceptional within common surroundings. They look surreal, like stage properties, displaying ugliness, ostentation and strength. Through his thorough thematic exploration and persistent typological classification, Luo Yongjin has established a visual connection between the real and the conceptual. With these contemporary architectures, he has captured the contemporary Chinese urban scene with ease, to reveal the touching reality. Despite the hybrid nature of Kaiping’s fort houses, the shabbiness of Luoyang’s concentration camps, the awkwardness of Hangzhou’s baroque castles and the overbearing nature of modern governmental strongholds, our collective imagination is not satisfied. We must question architects, builders and inhabitants alike: is such ugliness, sentimentalism and arrogance the inevitable price of development? Can we find better ways to develop our architectural practice?  Luo Yongjin does not try to offer a solution, but rather observes with detachment. He encourages us to reflect that these buildings are not hollow shells but rather reflections of the collective unconsciousness. 

Luo Yongjin became a professional photographer whilst assisting Italian art critic, Monica Dematte, on her research tour of Chinese artists. During this period, Luo Yongjin satisfied his desire to photograph the human form, explaining its conspicuous absence from his later works. 

Even in Luo Yongjin’s travel series, Trip, the result of his frequent travels across China, one encounters few human forms or shadows. In Trip, we are offered a deluge of fascinating objects. One may, initially, derive the impression that his travels were solitary. However, each object in his images is suffused with the essence of humanity. Thus, his photographs reflect the joy of human encounters. His modesty and restraint is evident in the concessions made to his subjects. He strives to record, without intervention, the specificity and beauty of the subject thus radiating the fascination of human nature. He is able to detect, through the chaos and confusion of reality, the specificity of the subject which stimulates his eyes.  Moreover, he has developed the ability to highlight visually the ‘otherness’ or outlandish nature of familiar objects. Following his visual modification, each lyric in reality becomes an enduring poetry.

Luo Yongjin’s work is influenced by surrealistic approaches and concepts. The Surrealist Movement views the world as a store room filled with a range of fantastic materials which stimulate the imagination. A true surrealist requires the vision to discover and extricate, from the chaos of reality, the superlative nature of each subject, waiting for the artist’s interpretation. Luo Yongjin not only rescues this ‘otherness’ from the abyss of the everyday, but also, through his careful compositions, offers an unusual interpretation of the world. If his architectural series displays a warmth and passion for the typography of the world, the Otherness series reflects his efforts to re-imagine, re-define and revitalise the world. Chinese contemporary photography has developed a subtle position in the field of contemporary art. Many people can only recognize a contemporary work by its form, rather than by the artist’s vision or standpoint. Luo Yongjin’s works retain a clean straight-forward photographic look allowing viewers to appreciate the charm and character of the medium. Thus, viewers demonstrate difficulties in recognizing his images as ‘contemporary’ art and place them outside the established aesthetic.  Such arbitrary and crude judgements often conceal a commercial motivation. However, Luo Yongjin has never been disturbed by such dismissal. His obsessive pleasure in his work, leaves little time for concern regarding the rigid division between ‘conceptual’ or ‘purist’ approaches or the preconceptions of contemporary viewers and critics. His prolific portfolio and consistent practice have invalidated these distinctions. His art has proved that, only when an artist is not enslaved by the desire to fulfill the requirements of the contemporary fashionable aesthetic, can he work with the passion and talent inspired by his experience. His art works will then be truly contemporary.

Translated by Nicola Kielty

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