Documenting Landscape in Contemporary Chinese Photography: A New Perspective

Essay by Yining He

I. Introduction
In the last ten years, fuelled by international dealers and collectors, the market for contemporary Chinese photography has grown rapidly with a booming economy. Chinese new landscape photographers smartly recreated traditional Chinese landscape paintings by employing a variety of digital photography techniques and aesthetic strategies to acquire the attention of art curators, critics and photography dealers. However, only until relatively recently, a group of young practitioners have taken a different approach to landscape photography, which has set them apart from the majority of their counterparts. For example, we can look at two key figures of this movement, Zhang Jin and Taca Sui, whose work adapted the form of photography in accordance with Chinese philosophical and aesthetic concepts. Despite their contribution to contemporary Chinese photography, little has been written about their issues. Based on the social, historical and contemporary experience, this essay identifies and illustrates the main features of their approach in creating a new vision of Chinese contemporary landscape photography.

The first part of essay offers a brief overview of this new movement by introducing Zhang Jin and Taca Sui’s work. The second part of the essay places an emphasis on their landscape photography practices, basing my research on the differences between Chinese and Western philosophy and culture – although the aim of the essay is not only primarily to show the differences between Chinese and Western landscape art. Finally, this essay examines how Zhang Jin and Taca Sui’s practice suit the niche market of the contemporary photography industry.

II. New Movement of Chinese Landscape Photography

Of all the different practices of Chinese contemporary photography —— fashion, documentary, portraiture and so on —— none is richer and more famous than landscape. Entering the new millennium, as the world’s second largest economy, China has been undergoing the most rapid urbanization. As a result of these emerging challenges and creative energies, contemporary Chinese landscape photography has flourished into one of the most vibrant art forms of our time. Many photographers focus on the urban landscape to express their feelings towards related issues such as construction and deconstruction in the cities, environmental challenges as well as many others.

An inaugural photography exhibition titled Open Frame: New Landscape Photography from China was held in Yavuz Fine Art Gallery in Singapore, 2010. This large-scale landscape photography exhibition featured 43 works that reflected the life and social changes of contemporary China:

… The artists included in Open Frame, though at varying stages of their respective careers, all use facets of the landscape – real, imagined, urban, industrial, pastoral, heavenly or watery – to reveal China today.
(Lenzi, 2010)

In spite of the fact that western curators, critics and photography dealers are seemly obsessed with manipulated or sharply contrasted landscape photographs, frequently coined as “Chinese Aesthetics”, Zhang Jin and Taca Sui are using different approaches to their photography practice. Instead of creating sharply contrasted urban landscapes. They had both trekked to distant landscapes in China and created a series of photographs of landscape using the pleasure of the imagination.

Zhang Jin (b.1978) is a freelance photographer based in Chengdu. In 2012, he was awarded the most prestigious photography award in China initiated by Three Shadows Photography Center, which attracted approximately 358 candidates last year. Zhang Jin traveled through the eastern section of the ancient Silk Road from Xi’an to Yangguan during 2010 to 2013. Whilst he was there, he positioned himself inside the landscapes of his imagination and shot a photo series entitled Another Season during the year. As he mentioned at the beginning of his work statement: ‘it’s the road of Buddhism coming to China, where I find my enthusiasm for the grand desert. Moreover, it has my encounter with the unknown landscape’(Zhang, 2012).

Photography by Zhang Jin, Entrance, from The Other Season series, 2010
Photography by Zhang Jin, Entrance, from The Other Season series, 2010

Taca Sui, another key figure of this movement, currently has a solo exhibition at Chambers New York from 7th March to 19th April 2013. His latest photo series titled Odes is the culmination of seven small projects that were inspired by the Book of Odes (Shi Jing) – the oldest Chinese book of songs, poems and hymns. Taca spent almost three years following an itinerary based on places named in the text and visited them one after another to take thousands of photographs. As the artist said: ‘during the shoot, it was almost as if my emotions and artistic direction were under the influence of some unknown force’ (Sui, 2012).

Photography by Taca Sui, untitled from Odes of Wei series,2012
Photography by Taca Sui, untitled from Odes of Wei series,2012

Although they both came from an American education background, Zhang Jin and Taca Sui’s work is the adaptation of photography to Chinese philosophical and aesthetic concepts – especially through a dialogue with different kinds of representation found in various Chinese poetry and painting. In an artist statement published in Zhang Jin’s personal website:

There are traces from the ancient civilization and the most important is an exploration for a seer. There are also natural creatures, which persistently and simply exist everywhere regardless of the dynasty or nation changes over time, with the primitive strength born from basic instinct (Zhang, 2012).

Yizhong Ruan, was one of the main judges of Three Shadow Photography Award 2012, which included Hilla Becher and Christopher Phillip. Yizhong Ruan commented on Zhang Jin’s photo series Another Season: ‘his pictures of emptiness traces the life of ancient Chinese and involve viewers to make a dialogue with history’ (Ruan, 2012). Meanwhile, in explaining Odes, Taca Sui also emphasized the relation between Chinese philosophy and his project. ‘After several months of textual and geographical research, I was alarmed to find myself falling into the vast artificial construct of annotations and commentaries built by generations of Confucian scholars’ (Sui, 2012).

Both Zhang Jin and Taca’s photographs indicate a trend to resist the manipulation of digital technology. With a soft contrast between landscapes and the pale ground, they evoke the aesthetic of Chinese traditional brush-and-ink painting by using traditional blank and white photography.

The formal austerity and timeless subject matter of Taca Sui’s work sets him apart from the great majority of his contemporaries, relating him to the earlier masters of the medium rather than to current practitioners of manipulated photography (Chamber Fine Art, 2013).

III. From Chinese Cultural Roots
Landmark: A Stroll Through the Fields of Photography takes place at the Somerset House in London. Curated by William A. Ewing, the exhibition featured images by 81 international photographers with a multitude of interests in this field. This included photographers such as Edward Burynsky, Robert Adams, Simon Norfolk, Thomas Struth and Hiroshi Sugimoto, among the many masters featured in the show. Meanwhile, the exhibition showcased a few iconic photographs created by Yao Lu, Yang Yongliang and Liu Xiaofang;three leading contemporary Chinese photographers in the field. Not surprisingly, viewers can see the differences between Chinese and Western landscape photography reflected in the subjects, creative ideas, artistic expressions and so forth. Obviously, cultural differences between Chinese and Western landscape art have manifested in their own form of expression and aesthetic characteristics. Zhang Jin and Taca Sui both carry the practice of ‘Literati-Graphics’ into their photo series and it becomes a defining characteristic of this new moment. Thus, based on research into the differences between Chinese and Western philosophy and culture, the following paragraphs illustrate that Zhang Jin and Taca Sui’s landscape practices find their roots in traditional Chinese culture.

Photography by Yao Lu, Mount Zhong in the Mist, 2006
Photography by Yao Lu, Mount Zhong in the Mist, 2006

First of all, there are differences in subject matter in Western and Chinese landscape art. Western landscape as a genre in art began to emerge at the end of the fifteenth century, covering a variety of subjects. Looking at Sense of Place, one of the most influential contemporary landscape photography exhibitions held in Brussels in 2012, it shows a vast and wide range of subjects that range from abandoned railways to dams; water resorts to amusements parks; forests to cliffs; and costal areas to industrial sites. While in China, according to Dr. Eleanor Consten: ‘The Chinese landscape is a representation of the universe and the spirit that creates and preserves it; both are timeless and boundless ’(Consten). Thus, Shan Shui (mountain and water), symbols of timelessness and the intangible in Chinese culture, have become the perennial theme of Chinese landscape art since the ninth century. There is no wonder why many Chinese contemporary photographers choose Shan Shui as one of the most important themes. The mountains and rivers that appeared in old Chinese poems became Taca Sui’s obsession during his stay in US. Later, he marked all the names of each and planned his first journey in 2010. Thus, broad mountains and rivers, trees and stones became the main subject of his photo series. Meanwhile, Zhang Jin went to the most remote area along the Silk Road, trying to remove traces of time and history by taking photographs of the mountains.

Photography by Taca Sui, from Odes of Ya • Song series, 2011
Photography by Taca Sui, from Odes of Ya • Song series, 2011
Photography by  Zhang Jin, Freezing Cold from The Other Season series, 2013
Photography by Zhang Jin, Freezing Cold from The Other Season series, 2013

Secondly, one the most prominent features of Zhang Jin and Taca Sui’s practice is their response to the traditional Chinese philosophy and literati spirit, which makes them significantly different to their Western contemporaries. Over the centuries, the tradition principles of Confucianism and Taoism have played a crucial role in the practice of Chinese classic literature and traditional painting. According to James Cahill’s study, he drew attention to a school of Taoist poets and painters, ‘who dwelt upon their emotional responses to the sights and sounds of nature and were inspired by them to the creation of works of art’ (Cahill, 1972 P25). As Michael Sullivan says: ‘Celebrated in ink for millennia, the landscape in Chinese art embodies key philosophical and spiritual ideas unmatched by the Western canon’s descriptive approach to nature’ (Sullivan, 1973 P113). In short, traditional landscape art in China is not devoted to nature, but devoted to artist response to nature. While the representation in Western landscape, offers opportunities for extended contemplation of scenes and scenarios (Wells, 2011).

Photography Taca Sui, untitled from Odes of Qi• Cao series, 2012
Photography by Taca Sui, untitled from Odes of Qi• Cao series, 2012

Zhang Jin was born in a small town of Sichuan province and later graduated from Polytechnic Institute of New York University with a Ph.D in Chemical Engineering. Zhang Jin claimed that his art practice was mainly influenced by the artistic spirit of Chinese Wei-Jin in his exploration of ‘the spirituality of the inner self, to embrace ineffable adventures’ (Zhang, 2012). On the other hand, Taca Sui (b.1984) was born in Tsingtao city of Shandong province, which was the home province of Confucius (551-479 BC). Brought up by a literati family, Taca Sui started to study traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy at a very young age, and he was later trained as a photographer in Rochester Institute of Technology after he quit his studies at CAFA (China Central Academy of Fine Arts). Although the New Topographic movement has heavily influenced his art practice, it is the adaptation of photography to Chinese philosophical and aesthetic concepts.

Photography by Zhang Jin, The Dumb Stone, from The Other Season series, 2012
Photography by Zhang Jin, The Dumb Stone, from The Other Season series, 2012
Photography by Taca Sui, Abandoned Temple, from Odes of Ya • Song series, 2011
Photography by Taca Sui, Abandoned Temple, from Odes of Ya • Song series, 2011

Finally, in order to visualize creative ideas, Chinese and Western artists apply different methods of artistic expression. When tracing the English word “landscape” back to its Chinese source, it combines two Chinese characters “Jin Guan”, which means “scenery and see”. The different way of seeing landscapes leads to different results for an art practice. For example, linear perspective has become the means of constructing representation central to the aesthetics of Western landscape since Mediaeval times, while according to Dr. Eleanor Consten: ‘perspective would only spoil the scope of a Chinese landscape; a centralized composition would stop the spirit in its voyage’ (Consten). Nevertheless, the middle format, together with the loose contrast between the soft focus and pale grounds in Taca’s photograph, evokes the aesthetics of Chinese Shan Shui painting. Also, in terms of narrative, when we look at photographs from Another Season, viewers can enter and travel through each part of the picture in turn, going from one to the other – we shall be as little bothered by the lack of a uniform viewpoint as we would be.
IV. Market success
The history of Chinese landscape photography can be traced back to the late 19th century. Tung Hing, a Hong Kong photographer once went to Wuyi Mountain and took photographs of mountains and rivers, bridges and trees, temples and monasteries. Described by Claire Roberts, ‘while the views were most probably the result of an expatriate commission, the locations and captioning suggest an appreciation of the landscape from a Chinese cultural perspective (Roberts, 2013 p45). Early Chinese photographers used a contemporary medium and an aesthetic informed by Chinese literary to created authentic photographs and reach its scale in the 1920s and 1930s. However, until recently, landscape as a genre re-emerged in Chinese contemporary photography after many years of modern transition. Urbanization has accelerated the growth of cities in China to become the most influential force altering China’s metropolitan culture. As mentioned before, Yao Lu and Yang Yongliang, among other Chinese contemporary photographers, both use digital photographic technologies to recreate Chinese landscape painting. Gu Zhen observed: ‘create an entirely new visual effect and evoking a rethinking of urbanization and modernity’ (Gu, 2011 p210).

Photography by Yang Yongliang, Stock World from Viridescence series, 2009
Photography by Yang Yongliang, Stock World from Viridescence series, 2009

Indeed, the photographic practice of Zhang Jin and Taca Sui is not only a continuation of the traditions of Chinese landscape photography, but it also suits the niche market of the Contemporary Chinese photography industry. To admit that photography is a vital part of Chinese contemporary art practice, which only established its own market in the end of the last century. During the last decade, Chinese conceptual photography has played a vital role in the Chinese contemporary photography market, partly because the demand for international buyers has continued to rise. However, the problem lies with the fact that the highly priced Chinese conceptual photographs have no impact on the market, due to lack of an adequate support system. By the end of 2008, there have been many Chinese conceptual photography artists who have shifted their focus towards painting and installation art.

After 2009, Chinese photography critics, buyers and gallery owners began shifting their focus from conceptual art to authentic photography. In order to promote Chinese photography and improve the domestic market, many photographic galleries in China launched different strategies to encourage new talent with different photographic practice.

Taca Sui, whose stylish black & white photo series first appeared in the 2010 Lianzhou International Photography Festival, soon attracted a lot of attention to photography critics and dealers. As Zhuo Can commented on Odes: ‘the most valuable contribution of Odes in Chinese contemporary photography is——interlingual practices and translation of New Topographic texts into contemporary China’ (Zhai, 2011). Meanwhile, authentic black and white photographic prints are highly appreciated in the Chinese photography market. Instead of making hundreds of digital prints, Taca Sui is a true genius of making platinum and silver gelatin prints. He smartly selected grey in the work Odes to acknowledge Chinese traditions of Shan Shui painting by presenting a timeless image in the fast changing Chinese society. While black & white photography has been the obvious medium for Zhang Jin’s photo series, his photograph of the Silk Road is a fascinating syncretic cultural product, reflecting on the connection between past and present in the remote northwest of China.

Recently, Zhang Jin and Taca Sui’s work can be seen in numerous magazines and book publications as well as individual and group exhibitions in China, Japan and US that give viewers a whole new perspective on contemporary Chinese landscape photography.

V. Conclusion
If this essay has any future use, it will form part of my Chinese landscape photography study. Landscape, as a genre, has generally not yet been discussed in the history of Chinese photography. Yet Chinese young photographers persist in exploring areas in terms of histories and geographies, focusing on the interaction of humans, the environment and on Chinese aesthetics. Meanwhile, as a photographer, landscape is very much related to my own practice. It brings together my ideas and research on this issue. Above all, I hope to show my reader the current trends in Chinese landscape photography. I must stress that this essay is just an overview. There are many photographers whose body of work have influenced my thinking, but whose work is not specifically referenced – the range of examples of practices is simply too expensive to be encompassed in a short essay.

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