A critique of our times through a fairylike world
19 January 2011 - 22 May 2011
Between January 19 – May 22, 2011 İstanbul Modern Photography Gallery hosts an exhibition by Yao Lu, one of the prominent figures to have introduced contemporary Chinese photography to the world.11 of the 31 works included in the exhibition "Yao Lu’s New Lansdcapes", curated by Engin Özendes, were specially designed for this exhibition.
In his series Yao Lu, winner of the 2008 BMW- Paris Photo Prize for Contemporary Photography, was inspired by the similarity between heaps of garbage and debris covered with protective green cloths in construction sites in China and green mountain and water paintings of the Song Dynasty. By creating compositions and layouts that reflect the forms of traditional Chinese painting, the artist conveys the process of modernization and change that contemporary China is undergoing.
Taking "a longing for the disappearing" as his point of departure, in his landscapes the artist resorts to classical examples of traditional Chinese mountain and water paintings. He photographs mounds of rubble and construction debris covered with green dustproof nets, then, applying digital technology, recreates the aesthetics of traditional Chinese painting. To express his memory of the past he restores their beauty and poetic sense through landscapes reminiscent of fairy tales to which he "injects a new soul." Reviving tradition through a new perspective, Yao Lu reflects the great change currently experienced in China while inviting us to think about the relation between tradition and reality.
A different world with real and virtual images
The exhibition’s curator Engin Özendes states that Yao Lu alludes to classicism through the modern imaging method of photography, and by reiterating the serenity and style of traditional painting, combines social changes with the belief that the world should gradually become more harmonious. Through the forms of traditional Chinese painting his works express China’s image.
Özendes notes that construction sites, which can be seen everywhere as a symbol of a country aiming to develop, have become Lu’s settings as well. Özendes says "These images remind him of the green mountains and waters in paintings exhibiting the style of Song Dynasty’s fine art. By digitally adding pagodas, houses, boats, interesting trees onto the photos he took at these sites, he produces meticulously created landscapes. Bringing together real and virtual images, he creates a different world. China’s ancient painting tradition is peaceful and poetic, just as reflected in Yao Lu’s photographs."
The new symbol of Contemporary China: Dustproof cloths
Gu Zheng, Professor at the School of Journalism at Fudan University and photography critic, indicates that the great changes China is going through today offers Chinese artists new excitements that encourage their artistic sense and furnish them new materials: "Yao Lu has ingeniously found a unique material for his photographs and began to reconstruct the landscape of contemporary China with it. With his superb technique, in his "Chinese Landscapes" series, Yao Lu uses piles of green (and occasionally black) dustproof cloth-covered construction materials (or garbage) that is commonly seen in today’s Beijing, and digitally adding pavilions and towers, creates landscapes that seems carefully worked out. But with careful observation, you will find modern workers with safety helmets walking between the mountains and waters, causing a sudden disruption in time and space. The traditional imagery generally has it that people between the mountains and waters can only be scholar officials, fishermen, and woodcutters; but this time workers wearing safety helmets step into the landscape, breaking the cultural imagery. So these poetic pictures based on modern constructions indicate a reality full of construction."
Gu Zhengh states that the new symbol of Contemporary China is "mounds of green dustproof cloths that cover ugliness while preventing dusting and theft." He goes on to explain: "In this country whose major focus is development, green dustproof clothing is a sign of being "under construction". A city that does not have such green hills and piles covered with dustproof cloth may look unfamiliar, unnatural, unconfident, and unsafe, as this may indicate that the city lacks vigor and therefore not favored by the rulers and power groups. An undeveloped city that has not entered in the modernization process, can not have a future. Safety is also linked with development. Lack of development means being deserted and lagged behind. Therefore, the landscape formed by green dustproof cloths implies a city’s fate, and becomes its symbol. Moreover, this landscape always goes through a dynamic process in which green stacks keep appearing and disappearing, garbage that piles and being carried away, or construction materials that are moved around."
Tradition is the way to reconnect with reality
Indicating that Yao Lu revives tradition, Zheng mentions that more importantly he also sets reality into motion as well as the knowledge and imagination of reality: "His encounters with tradition is not limited to revaluating it with his own practice, but through it, he establishes a new relationship with the current reality. Therefore, he establishes tradition as a way of reconnecting with the reality. Why does contemporary art drawn on other ideas? How can one connect to current reality through tradition? These are the questions that Yao Lu’s practice inspires us to think about. It also shows that imitation is not a photographical game that lingers on the surface; instead, it is a process through which people search for a sharper weapon to dig into reality and reach a wider freedom of self-expression."
"This feeling of loss is quite helpless"
In the interview conducted by curator and critic Feng Boyi, Yao Lu says that anyone who passes by the Academy and sees the big heaps of earth covered with dustproof nets will associate them with ancient Chinese mountain and water paintings. Yao Lu further notes that when creating this series he was affected by "a longing for the disappearing." The artist adds: "At first I just planned to combine the mound that I shot and design pictures in the pattern of classic mountain-and-water paintings. However, as I thought deeper, I came up with some connections of contemporary Beijing where constructions and relocations, construction sites, garbage, and debris are seen everywhere, as these big green mounds of earth are all construction garbage. Nostalgia has always been a characteristic of mine. For example, when I returned to my place of birth and saw all the changes, I felt a sense of loss. But on the other hand, I understand that this situation is a matter of existence and development of the whole nation, so you cannot stop it. This feeling of loss is quite helpless."
Yao Lu chooses traditional Chinese painting because there is "an aesthetic and poetic sense, while garbage is destructive and undesirable. The undesirable comes from what was once good, so I wanted to restore their beauty and poetic sense, to express my memory of the past."
A pioneer of Stratagemical Photography
Mentioning that Chinese officials have only recently started acknowledging the importance of protecting the environment for the establishment of a harmonious society, Harro Von Senger, Professor of Sinology and Law, expresses the view that "Yao Lu’s brilliant photographs reflect the hitherto neglected environmental "material needs" of the Chinese people. His photographs can be interpreted as a constructive critique of the narrow, economy-centered policy of his country."
Remarking that Yao Lu’s style is reminiscent of Stratagem 14, from the 36 Stratagems compiled approximately 500 years ago in the book Sanshiliu Ji Miben Bingfa, and that Yao Lu can be considered a "pioneer of Stratagemical photography," von Senger goes on to note that, using state-of-the-art technological devices in a resourceful way, the artist injects a new soul to garbage, and reanimates it: "The new "soul" is his ideal world where progress does not lead to destruction and ugliness, and a sound environment that existed in olden times characterized by beauty and harmony prevails on the modernized soil of his ancient country."