Yang Yong : Photographs
Essay by Enoia Ballade All images selected from Yang Yongâ€™s works
The Red Thread Enoia Ballade
Beginning Monday, January 10th 2011. 9:12 pm. The street’s neon billboard lights are reflected in the taxi’s windows. It’s minus eighteen degrees outside, a hard and dry cold that hits your body, slaps your soul. It’s the evening of a Beijing winter day. I go home and mindlessly play with my iPhone. I absentmindedly look at the last posts on my Weibo, the very popular Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Yang Yong has been at home for one hour and twenty-two minutes. This evening he has been out shopping to the supermarket. He writes: “today I went out to buy some food, in the supermarket I walked past the seafood stand. There I saw something amusing: a crab was maliciously trying to escape from the 11 Kuai basket into the 25 Kuai basket. Curious?” I smile to myself as I recognize my friend’s sharp and acerbic mind. This little story, which seems so banal, is also an accurate reflection of Yang Yong’s spirit and an illustration of the most important obsessions that have been driving this artist’s work for over a decade already. The heady rhythm of Au Revoir Simone echoes from my headphones, the city is far away. Bundled-up passersby jump into cars, run into bars or restaurants to escape the biting acidity of the icy air. Their arms are full of packages and bags covered with the logos of famous brands. Modern China, bustling, rich and frenetic, displays its permanent spectacle on the spectacular stage of its immense sidewalks and endless avenues, on the facades of its shopping malls, glittering with electric lights. It is this China, the China of urgency; building, fertile and prosperous China, that Yang Yong is trying to capture again and again. 5
Back to Beginning Friday, November 12th 2010. 9:32pm. That evening I was just finishing a dinner with a glass of Laphroaig in the company of a friend. In the midst of the conversation, and while we were happily debating he came to mention the name of Yang Yong. I still remember my mixed feeling of curiosity and embarrassment when I admited to not knowing about this artist. Never one to run out of examples, he swiftly showed me two very large catalogs which I hastened to look through. I must confess that my first impression of Yang Yong’s photographs was not a positive one. I didn’t like them. Instead of true photography, the images I saw on page after page reminded me of the countless photos generated en masse by mobile phones and posted on Facebook profiles, blogs, Twitter, and such. And the contrast seemed even more striking in view of the nature of contemporary Chinese photography, which is defined by a great expertise in staging, by reinventing the image, far removed from documentary photography. Here, images with little artistic interest of a narcissistic society permanently connected to social networks, followed each other. The only thing they seemed to portray was an obvious void. Yet I was dealing with an artist who has become renowned since he took part in the Venice Biennale and in some of the most important exhibitions of Chinese contemporary art, such as ‘Fuck Off ’. Once back home, I returned to the photographs. First obvious finding: Large photographs of young women lost in the streets of Shenzhen. Shenzhen which is an immaterial city, created out of nothing by Deng Xiaoping to trade with the West, city of artifice, a symbol of China’s rebirth. Yang Yong is of course presented as the photographer-witness to this new Chinese generation, stunned by the speed and changes in the world around them. Halfway between Nan Goldin and Wong Kar Wai, Yang Yong’s work embodies Chinese modernity, a documentary work tinged with a somewhat mannerist romanticism, which has proved enough to earn him worldwide success... Better, I thought, but still quite banal. Every era has its Yang Yong and so his success would seem more linked to the world’s fascination for China’s explosive boom than to any true artistic expression. But I kept looking. 6
Re-reading the introductory texts I discovered that Yang Yong had trained as a painter, a first interesting clue that opens many doors. From that moment on, my view of his work began to change. Later, I met the artist. A link was forged between us. My intuitions were confirmed. One day, as we were talking, Yang Yong told me that he considered himself more as a conceptual artist than a photographer. I observed how his work was the result of a long process of reflection. Half way between the painter and the filmmaker, Yang Yong’s works are in fact actual stagings of banality. He replays a scene we know, a piece of life, an image we’ve already seen, which he diverts with infinite minute details. He reuses the aesthetics of the common digital image, recreating it artificially. In fact, the artist only uses an old Hasselblad camera and shoots exclusively on film. Rather than being faced with a camera’s random snapshot of life, as one might have previously thought, we are really faced with a thinking image that is the result of a set of carefully pondered choices. We are ultimately not looking at a photograph but at a true artistic object that is closer to painting. Like an archaeology of the present, his large images saturated with colour, are no longer just a testimony but an actual interpretation of the era we live in. There is no question here of embodying a generation but to think it beyond its own time. In its obsessive selection of the symbolic elements of modernity, Yang Yong’s work reminds one of Zola, who busy as he was describing his own time, was able nonetheless to extract its substance. Likewise Yang Yong states that he wants to create non-Chinese art, art that connects, that speaks beyond cultures and time. The poses of his characters, the absence of elaborate decor and the meticulous use of a range of iridescent color, electric and saturated, construct a documentary minimalism that takes us to a new form of abstraction. Yang Yong’s work then seems to resonate with the paintings of Edouard Manet. Here a young woman languishes on a sofa. There she is lying, as if abandoned on a big white bed. Another is putting on her coat to protect herself against the wind. Like the French painter, the Chinese photographer appears first to build his work on an observation of the commonplace and then elevates it with his mastery of composition and color. The old musician, the reader or the fife player are strangely echoed by these disenchanted young women. Yang Yong 7
compiles and reveals the signs, the attitudes, the daily habits of a gilded, spoiled and sated youth, and in so doing he polishes the great mirror of our consumer society, letting appear out of banality, the hopes, dreams, frustrations and wanderings of a man who, although caught in the web of modern consumerism, is searching for truth behind the illusion of instant gratification. By hijacking his medium – photography – and producing a profound and consistent work, Yang Yong, in an extremely personal way, finally becomes part of this contemporary Chinese school of photography whose art is closer to a kind of painting freed of itself, a kind of photography that is freed of its subject. The gaze of the artist constantly seems to be inviting us to play a game of ‘find the difference’. It is like an invitation to look at this world that we know and to find in it the asperities that will reveal its true nature. In the end, I realized I had gotten it all wrong.
Time Space Thirsday, February 3rd 2011, 12:43 pm. The intercom starts ringing. An irruption of the outside world in a moment of solitude. A delivery man in uniform tells me screaming that he is bringing me the books I ordered over the Internet. I find the paradox of the situation amusing: a part of me is burning with excitement to receive the books I have feverishly selected, while another is disturbed by the triviality of everyday life; how something that so enchants me can take such a trivial form. The delivery man is in a rush and visibly annoyed, he throws the package into my hands, and grunts a few incomprehensible words before disappearing as quickly as he came. With difficulty I tear off the many layers of adhesive tape covering the cardboard box. Finally I extract its contents: Giotto, Raphael, Michelangelo. My excitement grows as the covers appear before me. In the organized chaos of the desk in the middle of which I put these books, one of Yang Yong’s catalogs lays arrogantly. It seems to look at me proudly with an air of defiance. Giotto, Yang Yong, why this strange resonance? 8
Here, I feel like I’m going too far, I’m exaggerating. Certainly, one can link the work of Yang Yong to that of Manet, the idea is not so shocking in itself, but finding something in common between contemporary Chinese photography and an Italian painter of the Quattrocento seems preposterous! Still the idea is there and stays with me. Both books lay open side by side. I look at them. It is their use of the space of representation that connects the two artists, the fundamental and narrative relationship between the background – which nevertheless seems abstract, reduced to an idea in both cases – and the characters. Giotto was an early Renaissance painter, that is to say that his relationship to the image is completely different from ours. It functions with what is called mnemonic thinking, a system of thought inherited from antiquity that allowed one to remember long speeches by replacing ideas with images, then arranging them all in an imaginary space. In the Renaissance, its result was an art of painting which built its discourse and its thoughts by collecting and playing with a number of images, codes and symbols. A painting is not only looked at but it is read as a text or poetry. At the time, the art of painting was still struggling to gain its credentials faced with the omnipotence of poetry and the art of the word. The discourse thus appears in our ability to read the various symbolic elements present in the image and to correlate them. It is a thought that is no longer written, but represented. What then do these photographs of young women lost in impersonal spaces of consumption have to do with Western humanist thought? It is probably through his Chineseness that Yang Yong unconsciously finds this mechanism of thought. Chinese writing itself is a system of drawings and symbols, which working together constitute a written language. It is a visual and symbolic writing to start with, where associations of ideas and meaning are apparent even within a single word or character. For example the character chou (愁) which means worry, is built by adding the character qiu (秋) which means autumn and xin (心), heart. In one sense it is autumn in the heart which means anxiety, indicating the moment when the energies that enter us are decreasing. By changing our spectator’s view and observing Yang Yong’s works, one discovers a complex web of elements which, like a Chinese character, 9
build the artist’s grammar. Recurring symbolic elements come back and fit together. The woman and the mirror, the woman and the window, the woman and her phone. Poses resonate like an echo: lying down, curled up, closed in on herself, her body tired, dragging, wandering. So many elements which, like graphic patterns, cross and repeat. Then, as in Giotto, there is the quasi abstract mental space. Where does Yang Yong choose to photograph his subjects? In anonymous, impersonal spaces: streets, shops, cars, hotels. They are all just places of passage, unreal places that are likes flows in which our identity can leave no traces. Using this method, he places his characters in a world that is artificial, in the sense that the peripheral space is without substance. It has been reduced to a minimum of information, to an idea and a color. Green is the subway, blue the corporate offices, red the empty café. Each time, spatial information is limited to a concept and a colour. In Yang Yong’s work, one can say that the space is far away. It really never interacts with his model. In doing so, the body seems to leave the photograph and become little more than a symbol, a repeated image, seemingly glued to the surface of the photograph, that could almost be cut out and placed in any other of his substitutable sets. Just like my delivery man who creates a space within space, Yang Yong creates spaces within space, a new kind of mnemonic thinking. It is the emergence of the moment, of the emotion that was lost in the distant sounds of the city. The subjects of the photographs arise out of space, and all that remains of them is merely the expression of the feelings that exist outside of any space other than that of the body. The city disappears, the places of consumption evaporate, social illusions disintegrate and all that remains is our humanity and our emotions which, beyond cultures, eras and places, define who we are. By telling us this story, the artist reveals this permanent return, this circling of ourselves, and in doing so he pulls these images away from their banality and gives them a universal appeal. Objects, serialized situations, absurd games with scenes of everyday life that seem to be reproduced ad infinitum. This strange poetry of circular time seems to echo Nietzsche when he writes in The Gay Science, that «The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!». 10
Time is distorted, space shrinks and expands in proportion to our emotions. Yang Yong’s work, in its original conception of space and time, becomes a representation of that perpetually moving hourglass, a moment outside of time that always repeats itself and turns the other into my fellow man. Body Friday, June 10th 2011. 2:23 pm. It’s the end of a lively lunch. Our spirits are heated, we are all together around the table and there, just like that, you say: -
Who is Yang Yong? What’s he like?
- … Let’s go back to the beginning. Yang Yong is small, round like a buffalo, as delicate as a young teenage girl. He takes care of his appearance. He was born in Sichuan Province, in central China, and then went to work as a graphic designer for a few thousand yuan in Shenzhen. He is a fragile, hesitant, jovial, generous, approachable character. He defends himself by making a screen between himself and the world. Yang Yong and his BMW, Yang Yong and his cigarette holder, his imported wines, his collection of foreign books. He collects, accumulates. It’s as if he wanted to create a shell for himself. Every time I run into him in Beijing, he seems sad, lost. His profound loneliness peoples his images, his paintings. His gaze eagerly scans the huge world around him in which he appears to be struggling to find a place. That’s Yang Yong for you: fragility, intelligence and a constant feeling of being in-between, as if everything he was looking at were both far and near. It’s no wonder then that the body should be at the heart of his work. This obsession with the body is in fact one of the strongest and most original features of his work. Althought it sounds banal, it is something very powerful. For nowadays where is the female body represented? In contemporary art, it has almost disappeared. Even feminist artists almost always address the issue in a roundabout manner. Stop me if I’m wrong but I think one could even say that the history of modern art can be summarized as a slow disintegration of the body. 11
While it used to be one of the most classic models of art until the early twentieth century, the female body eventually abandoned the space of art! Where did it go, I ask you? It’s like we have forgotten it! You, you answer me in your usual point-blank style: in advertising, in magazines! One can no longer find a product that is sold without recourse to the female body. And as always, you’re right. There was a shift that led to its disappearance from the field of art into that of consumption. Woman, in a tradition that goes back to Eve, has often been associated with the metaphoric representation of desire. And I think this is still going on today. Now, I ask you, what is the first mechanism of consumer society if it is not its ability to stimulate desire in order to bring about the act of purchase? So it is little wonder that all advertising and commercial imagery has reappropriated the classic motif of the female body. It even vampirized it. So much so that artists turned away from it. What I think is interesting, is what it reveals about the evolution of our understanding of desire. The motif remains, but as always, it has been simplified and flattened. It is no longer an ontological question, but only a tool in the functioning of society. As if, by leaving the field of art, desire had also lost all of its existential meaning, and has now been reduced to no more than a stimulation whose only outcome is enjoyment. I think the work of Yang Yong is crossed through and through by this fundamental question. By replacing the body in the center of the image, he is reinterpreting a classic motif, in order to reclaim it. He lets us see a generation in which all desires seem accessible, a generation saturated by its own enjoyment. Yet even when you’d think they should all be fulfilled, these characters all seem lost, confused, why? Because they have nothing to desire, you tell me. Skeptically you go on: It’s a little childish, the disgust of consumer society. And you are right, but the artist does not stop there. By humanizing the woman in her poses, by revealing her fragility, her mistakes, he gives her body back to her. More than that, he makes it the central subject of these images. Each of Yang Yong’s photographs seems designed like a tragedy in which the artificiality of the outside world meets the truth of the flesh. By making the futility of social desires meet the despair of the desire to exist, the artist places us in an awkward position where his images, like an indecent mirror, reflect these secret concerns teeming in us all. So, to answer you, that’s what Yang Yong is: an invitation to regain oneself beyond illusions. 12
Pornography Sunday, June 12th. 1:22 am. I finally return home, exhausted. On the door of my apartment I find an advertisement for girls who can offer all sorts of company. This is a curious Chinese habit: finding these little cards, no larger than a passport photo; on one side there’s a picture of a pretty prude girl, on the other, a phone number surrounded by a list of services, all written out in an evocative language. I mechanically throw the little advertisement card in the waste basket and go straight to the refrigerator to get myself a Diet Coke. There, I casually let myself fall onto my couch. I think back amused to those little pictures selling a coarse service under an innocent guise that contrasts with their true rawness. It is a form of anti-pornography. The reader will excuse me, but I see yet again an obvious link between these sweet little advertisements and Yang Yong’s photographs. Several people in my entourage reacted violently when they first laid eyes on Yang Yong’s works. Some, while recognizing their artistic strength, felt great discomfort nevertheless when looking at them. Men on the other hand, tend to quickly adopt a satisfied, almost lewd look, in front of this catalogue of wayward girls. In several articles and interviews, one of the recurring themes of reflection on the work of Yang Yong is its pornographic nature. Ever since his debut, his work has been associated with that of Nan Goldin, Larry Clark and Araki. Yet among all his series, only two have made use of nudity. Why this classification then? I think this is another originality of his work. If pornography consists in displaying plainly what should not be displayed, then Yang Yong is in fact a pornographer. But here there are no crude and decontextualized genitals. There are bodies, subjected to their contradictory desires. The women show themselves in their moments of shamelessness: this one is looking in a mirror without knowing she is being watched, that one is thoughtfully contemplating a shop display, another is putting on her coat. They at once abandon and collect themselves for an instant, between anxiety and doubt. In short, these women let us see that which is not usually shown. If Yang Yong’s images are of a pornographic nature, it is because they go against a long tradition of female representation. Idealized and deified since prehistoric times, the female body – as symbol of fertility, life or 13
desire – has always been enclosed in its abstract beauty, but woman is never represented in her humanity. Her fragility is generally only that which underlines the strength of man, and not that of a fallible, selfish, anxious and self-centered human being. In Yang Yong’s work however, there is no idealization, woman is shown as-is, in her strengths and weaknesses, thus bearing the traits of a universal humanity. This is not about women in particular of course, but of human beings in general. Once again the artist is transforming a tradition. Where it is customary to use a male body, he replaces it with the female. It is as if, in contemporary society, it were no longer the man but the woman who embodied our Utopias within her body. After a masculin humanism, would modernity take on a woman’s face? This idea could probably be widely discussed if it were an isolated case, but – and this is what I think makes it particularly interesting – it is found widely throughout Chinese contemporary art and has opened a new field of discussion in the West.
Emptiness Sunday, June 19th 2011. 9:10 am. Sunday brunch. Hot and fragrant coffee accompanies croissants, there is cup of fruit salad, and a Podcast of Michel Onfray’s conferences fills the room. Sweet watermelon in my mouth, I listen to the philosopher talking about the difference between the Chinese and Western conceptions of void. And then, wonder! The intellectual parallel between the thought of emptiness in a work, such as that of Nan Goldin or Yang Yong, works perfectly. When one observes the work of a Chinese artist, it is always exciting to look at what makes it a true work of art, something which affects us beyond time and culture. It is also fascinating and instructive to understand how these artists’ way of thinking has been influenced by their roots, in order to further understand their work. Pursuing the parallel between foreign photographers and Yang Yong, a fundamental cultural difference appears that tells us much about the work of each artist. 14
It is precisely in their conception of emptiness that one finds a major difference. Among Western artists such as Nan Goldin or Larry Clark, emptiness is an abyss, one that absorbs all the forces of life and places the viewer on its edge. It confronts us with nothingness, and reveals our traditional concept of emptiness. Speech, matter, thought are forms of life. In contrast, emptiness is absence and destruction. It represents the fall, that which cannot be controlled. Inversely, Chinese thought is a meeting point of the said and the unsaid, of the full and the empty. Emptiness in Chan or Taoist thought is thus seen as the primary force of the universe. By showing us the void, Yang Yong is inviting us to look beyond vaccuous appearances and is questioning the very nature of our society. What is a human being understood within this universe of thought and matter, of desire and enjoyment, which is the basis for the development of any society. On a beautiful day, Zhuangzi, lying in his garden, slowly falls into a deep sleep. He dreams that he is a butterfly. He flies freely in nature. Then, tired, the butterfly rests on a branch and falls asleep. Here Zhuangzi wakes up and wonders if he is truly himself, or if he is the dream of the butterfly. Thatâ€™s the work of Yang Yong: a critical look through modern banality, which opens a door and urges us to think about what is truly real. Yang Yongâ€™s work invites us to rub out what we know from our eyes and start to wonder where the dream begins and where fiction ends. Like a child who wakes up in the morning after a deep sleep and for a tiny moment asks itself: where am I?
We are greatly thanking the artist for his precious collaboration on this project. The photographs shown in this book are taken from the following series : Nous remercions l’artiste pour sa précieuse collaboration à ce projet. Les photographies montrées dans ce livre sont extraites des séries suivantes :
City Light (1999) Night Walker (2001) Fancy in Tunnel (2003) Orectic Hotel (2003) The Cruel Daily of Youth (2003-2005) Life or Theatre (2004) Tang Tang (2004) Anonymous Still (2005-2009) Dissociated (2009-2010)
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