The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Friday, June 25, 2021

Mountains and Seas: Yang Yongliang's Digital Dystopia

Yang Yongliang, Doe, 2021, giclee print, image courtesy the artist and Sullivan & Strumpf

When Sullivan & Strumpf asked me to write an essay for his solo exhibition in Sydney this month, I was delighted to be back in contact with Yang Yongliang. I had first met the artist, who now lives and works between Shanghai and New York, in 2015 when I was in China researching the first group of artists for the White Rabbit Collection Book '99 Chinese Artists', eventually published in 2019. Like other artists whose work alludes to past traditions in China, Yang struck me as an inheritor of the scholarly tradition of the literati - the highly educated elite who had passed the gruelling Imperial Examinations and worked as advisors to the court. Their beautiful calligraphy and ink wash paintings of mountain landscapes represented a Daoist metaphysics of universal harmony - and a solace and respite from the realpolitik of the imperial court. Yang, in his studio in an Art Deco building near Shanghai's Bund, was gentle, softly spoken and very serious about how his work both looks back to the past and also critiques the present day. Discovering the incredibly laborious and meticulous process in which he creates his digital still and moving works was intriguing.

 So here is the essay: 

Travelling Among Mountains and Streams: Yang Yongliang’s Imagined Landscapes

“...Clouds darken with darkness of rain, 
Streams pale with pallor of mist. 
The Gods of Thunder and Lightning 
Shatter the whole range. 
The stone gate breaks asunder 
Venting in the pit of heaven, 
An impenetrable shadow.”

Li Bai (71-762 CE), ‘Tianmu Mountain Ascended in a Dream’ 

Yang Yongliang, Goose, giclee print, image courtesy the artist and Sullivan & Strumpf

Each time I have visited Shanghai, speeding in a taxi along elevated freeways from the airport or the high-speed train station, I am reminded of the ‘Jetsons’ cartoons of my mid-twentieth-century childhood. Gleaming towers with strangely Gothic spires stuck on top, neon flashing through smog, terrifying spaghetti junctions and abrupt dives onto off-ramps into congested streets of half-demolished houses – the city seems to represent a modernity in the process of becoming, an unrealised, shining, technicoloured future that never quite arrived, a promised future of robots, airborne cars and monorails.

This urban spectacle is the source of multidisciplinary artist Yang Yongliang’s paradoxical homage to the past thousands of years of China’s cultural history, and simultaneously an expression of deep foreboding about what the future holds – not just for China, but for the planet. Home to more than twenty million people, Shanghai is a modernist dream of unceasing transformation – and also a nightmare. Its skyline is ever more dramatically vertical, and its streetscape undergoes constant demolition and reconstruction. The past is erased anew every day. Hints of a different history remain; a wall surrounds a demolition site with one ‘nail house’ still standing, a few neighbourhoods of ungentrified traditional lilong lane houses are filled with hanging washing, leaning bicycles, and gossiping neighbours. But the tower blocks and new roads are always visible. 

Yang Yongliang’s melancholy digital works are his response to life in this urban palimpsest: he applies new media in an adaptation of Chinese traditions of landscape painting, appropriating the shan shui (literally mountain, water) idiom to represent the contemporary world. Now, living and working between Shanghai and New York, he looks back to China’s artistic heritage – to Song Dynasty landscape scrolls in particular – for inspiration, adapting ink painting techniques to digital platforms. In Yang’s work the past, transformed, informs the present and issues a warning about the future. Yang Yongliang was born in 1980, at the dawn of China’s period of seismic change under the ‘open door’ economic policies of Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping. Over the next thirty years China was transformed, becoming an urban nation of mega-cities. Yang’s birthplace, an ancient water town, was a place of traditional southern white houses with upturned eaves, a famous pagoda, and old humpbacked stone bridges over quiet canals. Gradually, though, Jiading Old Town was subsumed by the ever-expanding Shanghai suburbs. So much so that when Yang returned to his hometown from university, everything he remembered had vanished. This sudden change, experienced as a traumatic erasure of personal history, lies at the heart of his work. 

Yang Yongliang, Tiger, 2021, giclee print, image courtesy the artist and Sullivan & Strumpf

China’s headlong rush towards modernisation brought many benefits, and much wealth to some, but along with it came a deep uncertainty and anxiety. The unceasing expansion of metastasising cities – bulldozers tearing up ancient villages like ravaging beasts leaving behind towering piles of rubble – erased the landscapes of the past, replacing them with endless rows of high-rise apartment blocks beside eight lane highways. Imagery of this perpetual cycle of demolition and construction is buried within Yang Yongliang’s landscapes. At first sight they appear like backlit, digital versions of sublime literati paintings. But look a little closer and you discover they are made up of thousands of photographs, seamlessly layered to reveal a very different world. Giant cranes loom through the clouds and mist, electricity pylons march across the countryside, and tumbledown houses are replaced by steel and glass towers. It is as if Yang is constantly revisiting his moment of shock, returning home to find the familiar become utterly strange. 

Yang Yongliang, Boy, 2021, giclee print, image courtesy the artist and Sullivan & Strumpf

The years he spent living and working in Shanghai, watching it become a shining, hustling, globally connected city, underpin his laboriously constructed still and moving images. Yang is at once fascinated and appalled by this transformation, and his work is a paean to what has been lost in the process. Perhaps that is why he turns so often to Song Dynasty master painters like Fan Kuan and Guo Xi for inspiration. In a period following dynastic upheaval, political strife, and conflict depictions of beautiful landscapes represented solace. The mountains were an escape from the troubles of the world. Song Dynasty shan shui paintings were expressions of Daoist and Buddhist belief in the interconnectedness between humanity and the natural world, and the mutually reciprocal relationship between yin and yang. With deft brushstrokes and subtle tonal gradations of ink on silk, these scrolls create a place, as Guo Xi wrote in his treatise on painting, ‘Lofty Record of Forests and Streams’, in which the viewer could immerse themselves, taking an imaginary wander along mountain paths beside gushing waterfalls, climbing up into the high mountains, the home of the Immortals. 

Yang Yongliang’s appropriations of Song Dynasty paintings may appear at first sight to be faithful reinterpretations of the originals. But in Travelers Among Mountains and Streams (2014), for example, the soaring peaks of Fan Kuan’s famous scroll, painted around 1000 C.E, have become mountains of towering apartments stacked one behind the other, the fir trees replaced by electricity pylons, scaffolding and cranes. Yang fills the foreground with derelict white houses like those of his childhood hometown, but they appear to be tumbling into the churning waters of the ravine. Early Spring (2019), Yang’s adaptation of Guo Xi’s 1072 masterpiece, retains the mist-wreathed crags and claw-like trees of the Song Dynasty landscape with its hidden message of neo-Confucian universal harmony, but adds a note of warning. Hints of human rapaciousness alert us to how differently we see the natural world today – as a resource to be exploited. 

His digital landscapes oscillate between sublime beauty and dystopian horror. Intricately layering images of rocks and waterfalls shot in various parts of China – and in other parts of the world – with photographs of mining sites, construction zones and land clearing operations, Yang Yongliang makes us look at Chinese painting traditions and at our fragile planet in a new way. Yang Yongliang is celebrated internationally for his monochrome works that evoke in digital form the nuances of tone achieved by master ink painters. He has now ventured into colour for the first time in a series that recalls the delicate palette found in paintings by Ming Dynasty master Lan Ying that feature pine trees, bamboo, fantastical twisted rock forms, and sometimes a tiny figure seated in a pavilion, observing the mountains. Drawing on these pictorial conventions, Yang’s series depicts similarly vertiginous ‘mountains’ wreathed in mist rising from water, but on a closer examination we see they are not mountains at all, but impossible clusters of high-rise buildings.
Yang Yongliang, Monkey, 2021, giclee print, image courtesy the artist and Sullivan & Strumpf

Each image hints at some impending disaster – ruined buildings have collapsed into rubble, derricks are moored offshore and the earth has been stripped bare by machinery. Unusually for Yang Yongliang, each work in the series contains a solitary human or animal, rendered as a small, insignificant presence in an utterly indifferent world. A lonely dog stares out to sea, a monkey clings despondently to a rock, a white horse stands precariously on a cliff, a flock of geese take flight. A man attempts to fish in a shallow pool, ignoring the misty ocean below him. Tiny human figures such as wandering scholars or hermits were often featured in Chinese paintings, representing the relationship between humanity and nature in Daoist cosmology. Yang’s are weighted with different meanings. They seem like the sole survivors of an environmental catastrophe. The waves crash, and the mountains, denuded of vegetation, seem about to slide into the ocean.

Yang Yongliang, Five Dragons, video, image courtesy artist website

Yang Yongliang’s work asks us to face uncomfortable truths, to view the world that human greed has wrought. Endlessly innovative, in recent years Yang Yongliang has ventured into new technological realms, exploring the creative possibilities of Virtual Reality and 3D video animation, reinventing traditional analogue photography techniques and introducing colour to his immersive video installations and digital images. He continues to riff on Song Dynasty paintings and Chinese mythology, yet his work is also imbued with twenty-first century allusions to video game design, inviting audiences into an enticing imaginary world. Described by the artist as a “multi-point perspective mind journey through the eyes of the dragons”, 4-channel video Five Dragons (2020), for instance, was inspired by a Southern Song Dynasty painting by Chen Rong from 1244 that depicts the symbolic beasts writhing through swirling mists. Yang notes that historically the dragon was a symbol of imperial power and stability, wisdom, benevolence and good fortune. Today, however, it is often associated merely with prosperity, in yet another sign that economic development and material consumption trumps all. 

Yang Yongliang 'Imagined Landscapes' installation view, Sullivan & Strumpf Sydney

In Glows in the Night (2020), a development from Journey to the Dark, a 4-channel video work shown at Sullivan & Strumpf Sydney in 2018, Yang provides audiences with an immersive experience that recalls the (pre-pandemic) experience of flying into a big city at night, looking down at an apparent wonderland of twinkling lights, neon signs, and the golden ribbons of car headlights on highways. We see fairy lights on boats, flashing screens on skyscrapers, mountains in the distance, and in the foreground, glimpses into apartment windows. This sprawl of habitation is like a human anthill, glimpses into the lives of millions of strangers, inhabitants of this megalopolis. It could be anywhere in the contemporary world. Glows in the Night reveals the paradox at the centre of Yang Yongliang’s practice: the seductive allure of urban modernity and the simultaneous knowledge of its fragility.

You can do a wonderful virtual walkthrough of the exhibition HERE
And read the essay in its much more beautiful layout version in the gallery magazine HERE