Chinese Artists Take on the Environment
Fall in Beijing is called "the golden season," a time when the smog temporarily retreats, making way for clear skies and a reminder of how things were in the city, before industrialization and urbanization. Two photography shows currently on view in Beijing—"The Peach Colony," a solo exhibition of new works by Shanghai-born Yang Yongliang (b. 1980) at Galerie Paris-Beijing [through Nov. 10], and "Coal + Ice" at Three Shadows Photography Art Centre [through Nov. 28]—present issues faced by a growing China, one through allegory and the other documentary images.
The Peach Blossom Colony—07, 2011. Ode to the Goddess of Luo River
"The Peach Colony" comprises a series of 10 large-format prints of somewhat barren Arcadian landscapes reminiscent of Chinese shanshui, a style of landscape brush painting first developed in the 5th century. Yang took as his inspiration the Song Dynasty prose poem for which the series is named, in which a fisherman has lost his way and happens upon an isolated civilization amid a grove of blooming peach trees, its inhabitants having fled the construction of the Great Wall. In this series, each photograph is similarly composed—a landscape interspersed with miniscule skyscrapers and apartment buildings, which, after being manipulated with Photoshop, mimic the curves of mountains, water rushing over cliffs, and weighted weeping willow branches, all peopled with robed figures in various states of contemplative wandering. Yang's addition of urban elements to these otherwise tranquil settings serves as a sort of update to the poem directly illustrating how man's desire to improve civilization by constructing larger cities may be simultaneously destroying it. In some of the images, as with Enjoyment of the Moonlight (2011), where figures stand and gather in repose among rubble and trees seem to sprout from concrete, the message of a destroyed paradise is anything but subtle.
"Coal + Ice" at Three Shadows, housed in an Ai Weiwei-designed facility, combines some 160 images by 30 Eastern and Western photographers, including W. Eugene Smith, Bruce Davidson, Vittorio Sella, Wu Qi, Yang Shaobin and Song Chao. The show aims to increase awareness of how coal usage, globally and in China, is as damaging to miners' health as it is to that of the environment. Organized by the Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations, and co-curated by Magnum documentary photographer Susan Meiselas and independent curator and exhibition designer Jeroen de Vries, who are frequent collaborators, the show strings together a powerful collection of images using unique installation strategies. Some photographs hang by steel cables while others are enlarged and projected, or propped up on the floor. De Vries, who was in charge of the exhibition's design, told A.i.A.: "The motivation of the photographers for making the works may have been very different, but I have tried to make them speak to each other and to draw the visitor into this conversation. In my design, all photographs in the space largely keep their autonomy; they are not presented as illustrations of a story."
At the entrance, portraits of miners by Chao, Smith, Geng Yunsheng, David Seymour and Lewis Hine, dating from as early as 1910 to the present, hang alongside panoramic landscapes of melting glaciers, by David Breashears, creating an initial dialogue between the effects of coal and the environment. However one of the most entrancing elements may be a darkened room in which a semicircular arrangement of six screens projects a 2009 series of black-and-white portraits of Ukrainian miners by Gleb Kosorukov along with detailed shots that make visible every coal-encrusted wrinkle surrounding the miners' fatigued, empty gazes.