In recent years, the world has been focusing their lenses on China, a country under incredible transformation. Forty years after the Cultural Revolution, Chinese contemporary art thrives under the pretense of political reformation and rapid economic growth. It has no apparent desire for nostalgia. Yao Lu looks back to a distant past and reinvigorates photography, reclaiming art from the craft that has been made vulgar by social media.
In 2006, Yao Lu picked up his camera, went to the landfills surrounding his familiar China Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), and took pictures. It was about three years after the construction for the Beijing National Stadium has broken ground awaiting anxiously for the opening of the 29th Summer Olympics in the city for 2008. Seas of industrial rubble, films upon films of smog, mountain ranges of green dustproof cloth rise and fall. Yao realise that these photographs unapologetically uncover the raw and ugly truth of Chinese modernisation. This developing city has created an absurd amount of waste from its rapid metabolism. “The resemblance is uncanny. I believe anyone who has had any experience looking at a painting would be able to tell that the composition of those piles of rubbish look exactly like a Chinese traditional landscape painting.”
Heaven on Earth, 2014, Epson Ultra Giclee, 150 x 100 cm (Edition A), 120 x 80 cm (Edition B)
So, it began. Yao re-conceptualises the quintessential elements of Chinese landscape painting with a series of digitally manipulated photographs named New Landscape (2006-2013). During the Northern Song dynasty (907-1127), this highly-stylised technique was especially favoured by the royal court. Back then, the nation was civilised, people were seeking an abundance of spirituality and, since mountains and spring gullies were the divine symbols for Chinese literati, we can understand the influence of landscape at the time. The extensive use of digital technological support flaunts Yao’s ability. The oddities blend so seamlessly with the Song style that no one would suspect otherwise, not until one moves closer do they realise the trickery of the jester. Ancient relics crumbling down on mountains of waste, children in protective masks disguised as fishermen in the hazy sea. Formally analysed, the architecture in the photographs is artificially construed. However, the ingredients that compose the images are faithful. This is what modern China looks like. The reality fulfils a romantic yet fictional narrative.
The approach ‘composite photography’ has its fair share of history. It dates back to the 19th century and started in Western civilisation. Yet, it was the master photographer Lang Jingshan, who pioneered this pictorial photography technique in China. After receiving the award from the Royal Photographic Society in 1934, Lang has given composite pictures a permanent status as the Chinese photographic symbol. Similar to Lang, Yao borrows the peaceful scenery as the blueprint for the framework of his photographs; offering a kind of classical, astute aesthetic of the Academy during the Northern Song time. Yao’s excellent manipulation of modern technology allows the artist to break out from the constraints of the dark room.
“Provocation of thoughts and dialogue should be integral to contemporary art, for me, it is a kind of persistence, conscious of society.”
“For me, it is interesting to learn about the different forms and dimensions of hand scrolls that exhibit this artistic tradition. During the process of compiling the images, I was painstakingly studying the various manifestations of Chinese painting.” Yao’s series of photographs epitomises the highly-coloured Gong-bi style and meticulously depicts figural narratives. The subjects that Yao uses in his work vary from animals foraging amongst the toxic dump to construction worker figurines wearing neon yellow vests and bright orange helmets. These modern interjections unmask the cunningly disguised picturesque tranquility. The imbalance between the imitated painting style and the realistic materials used by the photographer exemplifies the truth behind progressive nations whose price to pay is profoundly grotesque.
Autumn Monastery, 2012, Epson Ultra Giclee, 137 x 97 cm (Edition A), 102 x 72 cm (Edition B)
Straight after he graduated from CAFA, specialising in print and engraving, Yao immersed himself fully into society as a journalist for the art and cultural section of a national publication. Seven years of professional experience has given Yao a keen eye for current affairs, a thirst to communicate and he translates his message piercingly through his art. “Contemporary art is, indeed, art that is happening currently.” As a contemporary artist, Yao strongly believes in the power of critique through art. “Provocation of thoughts and dialogue should be integral to contemporary art, for me, it is a kind of persistence, conscious of society.” In the later part of his New Landscape series, Heaven on Earth provokes discussion on the violent demolition problem that is still prominent in China.
Yao realise that these photographs unapologetically uncover the raw and ugly truth of Chinese modernisation.
Yao stays faithful to his Chinese traditional painting language in his new project. Responding to the proliferation of advertisement on the streets of Beijing, the combination of millions of Chinese characters and roman numerals sketches the outline of an ink and wash painting. His new creation is modeled after the Song master, Fan Kuan, in his imitation of Travelers among Mountains and Streams. The topic is a juxtaposition of Chinese imperial tradition and the mutation of globalisation, a sense of timeworn serenity counterbalancing the novel disorganisation.