Yang Yongliang’s layering of digital photography with traditional painting techniques shines a light on rampant development.
Images captured from Asia’s densely populated environs subtly tease out the reality of environmental destruction for the sake of urbanisation at the Chinese artist’s latest solo exhibition in the United States.
“salt 14: Yang Yongliang” is a solo exhibition of Chinese artist Yang Yongliang’s work at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City. Part of the salt series is initiated by the museum and supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. This show is also made possible with support from the University of Utah Confucius Institute and the Rosaline Pao Chinese Forum. Yang Yongliang joins a select group of emerging and mid-career artists for the museum’s programme demonstrating that powerful work can be shown in a demure space. As relayed by the museum’s Senior Curator Whitney Tassie:
The salt program began in 2010 and has featured 14 artists so far, including Katie Paterson, Brian Bress, Duane Linklater, Conrad Bakker, Jillian Mayer, Yuki Kihara, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Emre Huner, Daniel Everett, Xaviera Simmons, Cyprien Gaillard, Sophie Whettnall, and Adriana Lara. As you can see, this ongoing program of exhibitions showcases work by emerging and mid-career artists from around the world. It aims to reflect the impact of contemporary art, forging connections to the global and bringing new and diverse artwork to the city that shares the program’s name.
The term “salt” was selected to represent our city and also because salt is something that adds flavor or bite, but the exhibitions don’t typically have to do with actual salt. The salt shows are small shows that take place in an approximately 500 square foot gallery and sometimes in other museum spaces too. The UMFA provides each salt artist an unrestricted $5000 Creative Grant to support the creation of work. While it’s not a requirement of the series, I find that I’m continually drawn to artists whose practices are informed by disciplines beyond art and art history. Working on a university campus, it’s fun to engage a range of departments and to tap into various research happening here.
Yang Yongliang was born in Shanghai in 1980, a city that has seen massive growth during his lifetime. Yang graduated from the China Academy of Art with a degree in Visual Communication in 2003, after studying traditional Chinese painting under calligraphy master Yang Yang for ten years. His work has been shown throughout the world and is held in notable museum collections, including London’s British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.
The intimate association that Yang has as someone who grew up in Shanghai is palpable in his monochromatic pastoral images, which harken back to classical Chinese landscape paintings but with a stark difference. Here, dense blocks of skyscrapers populate the towering hills, along with electric power poles and the emblematic harbinger of development – the ubiquitous tower crane. His work masterfully ties together digital photography with one of China’s most iconic landscape painting traditions known as shan shui.
This mastery of bringing together disparate techniques is what makes his work unique and especially exciting, according to University of Utah’s Associate Professor in the Department of Art and Art History, Edward Bateman:
At a time when most photographers seemingly avoid an overt digital presence in favor of a guise of straight photography, Yang Yongliang’s work is a tour de force of digitally constructed images. They are technically immaculate, but more interesting are the many dualities in his works. From a distance, they appear to be classical Chinese paintings in the poetic Shan Shui style. But as you move closer, you are also seemingly moving through time into a present that also hints at a future. What was once nature becomes a megalopolis in the process of emerging. The skyscrapers and cranes constructing the city materialize from the natural landscape creating endlessly explorable vistas.
The endlessly malleable possibilities of digital photography are revealed in Yang’s images. The merging of cameras and computers allows us to go beyond simple depictions of what is, to explore that which cannot be readily seen. Like a Shan Shui landscape, Yang’s work is not a physical mirroring of a tangible place but a construction of the mind informed by centuries of cultural understanding of our world.
The ties between past and present are explored in the artist’s creations, where dragons and damsels exist alongside contemporary cityscapes. In an interview with Art Radar, Yang described his inspiration as the “masters of the Song and Yuan dynasties” and as noted above, reworking the centuries-old style known as shan shui.
Coming to prominence in the fifth century, shan shui, which literally translates as “mountain and water”, traditionally used ink and brush. As an early form of landscape painting, one typically sees water features such as waterfalls and rivers, along with the ever present mountain – considered as the home of the immortals and held as a sacred space.
Shan shui embodies three compositional structures providing a series of rich layers: Paths, Threshold and the Heart, while embracing the Chinese Wu Xing (Elemental Theory), centred around the five elements – wood, fire, earth, metal and water – and their various correspondences in the physical and phenomenological world. Interestingly, it is thought by some that Daoist and Neo-Confucian philosophies had a hand in the interest between man and his link to the cosmos, which ultimately lead to an interest in depicting what is “thought” and not merely what is “seen” by an artist.
It is this layering of traditional themes and imagery, along with Yang’s thousands of digital photos harvested while visiting Asia’s megacities and pristine environs in Iceland and Norway, that bring into full view the collision between the China of the past and her no-holds-barred contemporary cities, where globalisation and environmental degradation have sadly come into focus. In addition to images, Yang told Art Radar that the aspect of sound is critical to his compositions:
I use sound in my video works and they’re as crucial as the images. For me personally, I am very sound-sensitive and the sounds often get into me before the images.
It is this mash-up of images that provides a crucial relevancy not just for those in China, but other burgeoning economies as well. As Luke Kelly, Associate Curator of Collections and Antiquities at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts told Art Radar, Yang’s offerings present a very significant look at what is happening not only in China but throughout the globe, perhaps providing a cautionary tale for those who follow in the future:
His work has relevancy on several levels. As a Chinese artist, his work represents the tension and push/pull of traditional forms of art and contemporary forms. He shows in his work the middle path where he is utilizing the latest technology. But Yang blends it seamlessly with the theory and aesthetics of traditional landscape painting. As a person who had lived in and around Shanghai most of his life, Yang was witness to the rapid urbanization Shanghai and China has experienced in the past 40 years. When he was born, Shanghai had a population of 5 million people. In 2018, the city now has 26 million. Other cities like Shenzhen went from 40,000 in 1980 to 13 million today. These cities are key to the economic productivity of China but the loss of nature is the cost of this rapid growth. One can see that issue in any growing area around the world.
“salt 14: Yang Yongliang” is on view from 26 October 2018 to 2 June 2019, with an artist talk slated for 3 April 2019, at Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Marcia and John Price Museum Building, 410 Campus Center Drive, Salt Lake City, UT 84112-0350.