If You Dare Look Closely – Yang Yongliang’s Experiment of Shangshui Photo Images
by Gu Zheng
Beside the concept of painting, especially landscape (Shanshui) painting, composition, ink and brush (Bimo) as well as color are most important expressional elements in Chinese traditional painting. In the scope of Bimo, overlapping of brush strokes (Cun) is an essencial element. It is not only a technique but also an expression. Painters use Cun to form the montains and deliniate its textures. Furhter more, Cun itself has become an independent expressing system. From Cun painters have developed thousands of brush effects of analysing the nature. Invented in Wudai, landscape painting ( about 1000 AC ), Cun, through generations of painters, has developed into as many as 18 techniques. In the hands of Chinese painters, Cun has become a formulated technique for Shanshui and later has become a sort of abstract expression.

If one of the main techniques in traditional Shanshui is to use different Cun, with different texture effects to express different characters of montains and characters of artists, Yang Yongliang, an artist from Shanghai, in his photographic Shanshui, creatively fragments the modern city scape which contradicts the traditional Shanshui, into visual elements which is similar to Cun, and through rational arraingement and careful digitel monipulation, puts these elements into his Shanshui, creating a brank new visual effect and thus proceeding to a pounder of urbanization and modernization. With the traditional long scroll, Yang Yongliang so hole heartedly and skillfully pounders over the modernization that he finally achieves what he wants. He makes us realize that the landscape we see is not real. But with the human invation and distruction of the nature and the distruction and the indiscreminate consuming of our environment and natual resources, the time when his "city montain" comes true is actually not far. If the traditional Shanshui is based on the reality and sur-passes the reality, his digital Shanshui is based on the reality and trys to be similar to the reality. In his works there are, at the same time, bueatiful and ugly, lively on the surface and dangerous under neath and bright on the surface and dark underneath. That is a warning or threat instead of an imagination. Between the change of microspace and macrospace, the complexity of the reality is obvious.

Yang Yongliang uses his photographic materials as Cun and content of the composition. It is a subversion of traditional Shanshui and at the same time an extention of Cun. Cun is constructed by series of brush strokes. But in his works Cun has nothing to do with brush or ink. It is yet constructed by images from his camera.

If you dare look closely.

Looking closely at his works, we are astonished by the details of the city hiden in the landscape. We never expect so many details of the modern life and modern city amidst the charming montains and clouds looking from afar. In these works, the caotic electric poles replace the green trees, the skyscrapers replace the Chinese buildings, the shiny cars replace the horses and donkies on the montain trials, the dazzeling light boxes replace the sign banners of restaurants by the roads and lights whch convert the day and night replace the dim candles in the huts. After his meticulous arraingement and repeated overlapping, a modern city scene becomes the most important factor in a classic form of landscape, the main part of Shanshui and in the meen time, it implies the posibility of the subversion of Shanshui, the phantomic beauty. But these things, seemingly contradictory to Shanshyi, has a kind of special charm which attracts our curiocity. When we walk close to these images, all the details burst out, as if waking up from sleep, confessing themselves. When our eye sight travels along the slowly unveiling scroll, every detail of the picture fights to show off itself, an ugly charm. All the details are ignorant, arrogant and numerous, reducing the good mode from looking at the work from afar. The seemingly ideal landscape when seen from afar is virtually supported by modern production of steel and cement. Once we move ( or escape ) away from the details, we can discover that the montains and clouds constructed by these details suddenly become poetic, bueatiful and harmless, thus gredually comfort our hurted eyes and hearts by those rough details. The picture itself also carms down from the noice and livelyness. For the distanse, it shows very different conditions, vivid, quiet, calm or harmful. In fact, the picture itself and the composition itself have never changed at all. Yang Yongliang"s photographic Shanshui provides for us the posibility of controling the zoom in and zoom out of our eyes. At the same time, this zoom also includes the movement of body away and towards the picture. It is a body action. Thus it provides for us another expearance of looking at art works.

Yang Yongliang"s photographic Shanshui has a traditional appearance. The content which constructs the landscape is hiden in the composition. He is able to acquire the visual unity and harmony in the appearance. He is so patient and skillful in the meticulous arraingement and control of the overall effect, that he conquers all the disorderly pictorial elements and assembles them into traditional Shanshui which is poetic from afar and stuffed with cement forest from a close look. All the visual elements in the works, the high rises, light boxes, cars and roads, are photographed by himself in the city. He manages to transfer all these most realistic objects into a unity of traditional form which looks very much like Shanshui by ink and brush. The objects are waiting to be looked at and discovered. They appear hideous and disgusting when discovered. He unifys the contradiction, tension and confrontation of tradition and reality into a perfect form. He appears to be seaking for an overall poetic quality, but the hedious details betrayed him. Maybe it is this self contradiction that makes Yang Yongliang"s work so charming. Morever, the destination of his work lies in this contradiction and conflict. This might be a fragile and dangerous balance, but he unbelieveably achieved it.

To obtain a good work, Yang must deal with numbers of relations, such as the relations between the details and the phantom landscape, the relations between the texture of solid city scene and soft landscape effect, the relations between the dense overlapping of the details and the spacious scroll, and the relations between the overall expresive effect and the realistic details. Further more, in traditional aesthetics, the man made city is ugly and the natural landscape is beautiful. But he manages to unify the two together, thus provide an interesting excemple of how to deal with the relations between beautiful and ugly.

I believe, Yang"s success lies in a creation based on the master of tradition, especially traditional Shuimo ( ink and brush ) painting. He can not achieve such rational contral of the overall effect without a thurol understanding of Shuimo rules, like composition, ink, wash and color. His experement on images inside a image is not only a dialogue with the tradition but also puts some new liveliness into traditional Shanshui.

Of cause, this experement also brings about many new ways of thinking to contemporary photography. For instance, how does photography, as a visual expression rellying much on the live scenes, aquire more freedom and inspirations from the dialogue with the tradition? How to avoid the tendency of mere play with images under the name of experement ?

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