by Christopher Taylor
My interest in China began with two images: figures from the Imperial Court depicted on the wallpaper of my bedroom as a child, and crowds of revolutionaries brandishing the Little Red Book, to which a History teacher, an admirer of Mao, introduced us in secondary school. Naturally, on my first journey there in 1988, I found myself in quite a different world. In retrospect, if my photographs of the time seem overly determined by a deliberate search for the exotic, that first visit to China was the prelude to an autobiographical exploration on which I embarked immediately I returned to England. Perhaps it was a profound, and very personal, verification of the truth of a remark by Simon Leys, who said that “China is that fundamental Other in the absence of which the West could never become fully aware of the shape and the boundaries of its own cultural Ego”.

On my return in the winter of 1994/95, to the Yellow River region, I understood that what fascinated me was the idea of a shifting permanence. Dust carried on the desert wind over centuries covers the landscape, which is in turn eroded by water. Heavily silted, the River raises the level of its bed and periodically floods the plain, and the soil is renewed. From 2000 onwards, I travelled mainly over the western plateau through which the Huang He flows. The photographs presented here date from this period. In reflecting on the concept of Zhong, the “middle” which is both noun and verb in Chinese, I was attempting to encapsulate very distinct opposites in the landscape (emptiness/fullness, sky/earth, minuscule/immense) within a third term – an appropriate place, a propitious moment – which would signify action and stasis at one and the same time. “Steles” is however neither a symbolic work nor a spiritual exercise. Rather, it is the outcome of a more wider-ranging exploration that China made possible for me. It is also a tribute paid, as implied by the title, to the work of Victor Segalen.

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