"...Clouds darken with darkness of rain,
Streams pale with pallor of mist.
The Gods of Thunder and Lightning
Shatter the whole range. – The stone gate breaks asunder
Venting in the pit of heaven,
An impenetrable shadow.”
Li Bai (71-762 CE), ‘Tianmu Mountain Ascended in a Dream’
Each time I have visited Shanghai, speeding in a taxi along elevated freeways from the airport or the high-speed train station, I am reminded of the ‘Jetsons’ cartoons of my mid-twentieth-century childhood. Gleaming towers with strangely Gothic spires, neon flashing through smog, terrifying spaghetti junctions and abrupt dives onto off-ramps down into congested streets of half-demolished houses – the city seems to represent a modernity in the process of becoming, an unrealised, shining, technicoloured future that never quite arrived. This urban spectacle is the source of multidisciplinary artist Yang Yongliang’s homage to the past thousands of years of China’s cultural history, and his simultaneous expression of deep foreboding about what the future holds – not just for China, but for the planet. Living and working between Shanghai and New York, he looks back to China’s artistic heritage for inspiration. In Yang’s work the past, transformed, informs the present and issues a warning about the future.
Home to more than twenty million people, Shanghai is a modernist dream of unceasing transformation. Its skyline is ever more dramatically vertical, and its streetscape undergoes constant demolition and reconstruction. The past is erased anew every day. Hints of a different history remain: a wall surrounds a demolition site with one ‘nail house’ still standing, a few ungentrified neighbourhoods of traditional lilong lane houses are filled with hanging washing, leaning bicycles, and gossiping neighbours. But the tower blocks and new roads are always visible. Yang Yongliang’s melancholy digital works are his response to life in this urban palimpsest – he appropriates the shan shui (literally mountain, water) ink painting idiom to represent the contemporary world.
Yang Yongliang was born in 1980, at the dawn of the ‘open door’ economic policies of Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping. Over the next thirty years China was utterly transformed, becoming an urban nation of mega-cities. Yang’s birthplace, an ancient water town, was a place of traditional southern white houses with upturned eaves, a famous pagoda, and old humpbacked stone bridges over quiet canals. Gradually, though, Jiading Old Town was swallowed by the ever-expanding Shanghai suburbs. So much so that when he returned to his hometown from university, almost everything he remembered had vanished.
This traumatic erasure of personal history lies at the heart of his work. China’s headlong rush towards modernisation brought many benefits, and much wealth to some, but along with it came a deep uncertainty and anxiety. The unceasing expansion of metastasising cities – bulldozers tearing up ancient villages like ravaging beasts, leaving behind towering piles of rubble – erased the landscapes of the past, replacing them with endless rows of high-rise apartment blocks beside eight lane highways.
Imagery of this perpetual cycle of demolition and construction is buried within Yang Yongliang’s landscapes. At first, they appear like backlit, digital versions of sublime literati paintings. But look a little closer and you discover they are made up of thousands of photographs, seamlessly layered to reveal a very different world. Giant cranes loom through clouds and mist, electricity pylons march across the countryside, and tumbledown houses are replaced by concrete, steel and glass. It is as if Yang is constantly revisiting his moment of shock, returning home to find the familiar become utterly strange. The years he spent living and working in Shanghai, watching it become a shining, hustling, globally connected city, underpin his laboriously constructed still and moving images. Yang is at once fascinated and appalled by this transformation, and his work is a lament for what has been lost in the process.
Perhaps that is why he turns so often to Song Dynasty master painters like Fan Kuan and Guo Xi for inspiration. In a period following dynastic upheaval and political strife depictions of beautiful landscapes represented solace. The mountains were an escape from the troubles of the world. Song Dynasty shan shui paintings were expressions of Daoist and Buddhist belief in the interconnectedness between humanity and the natural world, and the mutually reciprocal relationship between yin and yang. With deft brushstrokes and subtle tonal gradations of ink on silk, these scrolls created a place, as Guo Xi wrote in ‘Lofty Record of Forests and Streams’, his treatise on painting, in which the viewer could take an imaginary wander along mountain paths beside gushing waterfalls, climbing up into the high mountains, the home of the Immortals.
Early Spring (2019), Yang’s adaptation of Guo Xi’s masterpiece, for example, retains the mist-wreathed crags of the Song Dynasty landscape with its hidden message of neo-Confucian universal harmony, but adds a note of warning. Hints of human rapaciousness alert us to how differently we see the natural world today – as a resource to be exploited. Intricately layering images of rocks and waterfalls shot in various parts of China – and in other parts of the world – with photographs of mining sites, construction zones and land-clearing operations, Yang Yongliang makes us look at Chinese painting traditions and our fragile planet in a new way. His digital landscapes oscillate between sublime beauty and dystopian horror.
Yang Yongliang is celebrated internationally for monochrome works that evoke the nuances of tone achieved by master ink painters. He has now ventured into colour for the first time in a series that recalls the delicate palette found in paintings by Ming Dynasty master Lan Ying depicting pine trees, bamboo, fantastical twisted rock forms, and sometimes a tiny figure seated in a pavilion. Drawing on these pictorial conventions, Yang’s series depicts similarly vertiginous ‘mountains’ rising from water, but on a closer examination we see they are not mountains at all, but impossible clusters of high-rise buildings.
Each work in the series contains a solitary human or animal, rendered as a small, insignificant presence in an indifferent landscape. A lonely dog stares out to sea, a monkey clings despondently to a rock, a white horse stands precariously on a cliff, a flock of geese take flight. The waves crash, and the mountains, denuded of vegetation, seem about to slide into the ocean. Human figures such as wandering scholars or hermits were often featured in Chinese paintings, representing the harmonious relationship between humanity and nature in Daoist cosmology. Yang’s, in contrast, seem like the sole survivors of an environmental catastrophe. These works ask us to face uncomfortable truths, to view the world that human greed has wrought.
Endlessly innovative, in recent years Yang Yongliang has ventured into new technological realms, exploring the creative possibilities of Virtual Reality and 3D video animation, reinventing traditional analogue photography techniques, and introducing colour to his immersive video installations and digital images. He continues to riff on Song Dynasty paintings and Chinese mythology, yet his work is also imbued with twenty-first century allusions to video game design, inviting audiences into an imaginary world. Described by the artist as a “multi-point perspective mind journey through the eyes of the dragons”, 4-channel video Five Dragons (2020), for instance, was inspired by a Southern Song Dynasty painting by Chen Rong that depicts the symbolic beasts writhing through swirling mists. Yang notes that historically the dragon represented imperial power, stability, wisdom, benevolence and good fortune. Today, however, it is often associated merely with prosperity – yet another sign that economic development and material consumption trumps all.
In Glows in the Night (2020), a development from Journey to the Dark, a 4-channel video work shown at Sullivan & Strumpf Sydney in 2018, Yang provides audiences with an immersive experience that recalls the experience of flying over a big city at night, looking down at an apparent wonderland of twinkling lights, neon signs, and the golden ribbons of car headlights on highways. We see fairy lights on boats, flashing screens on skyscrapers, mountains in the distance, and in the foreground, glimpses into apartment windows. This sprawl of habitation is like a human anthill, glimpses into the lives of the anonymous inhabitants of this megalopolis. It could be anywhere in the contemporary world. Glows in the Night reveals the essential paradox at the centre of Yang Yongliang’s practice: the seductive allure of urban modernity and the simultaneous knowledge of its fragility.
Excerpt from Tianmu Mountain Ascended in a Dream by Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai, from ‘300 Tang Poems’
The Song Dynasty (960-1279) is considered by many to be the period in which Chinese landscape painting reached its pinnacle. Guo Xi (c.1020–c.1090) was a master painter of the Northern Song and wrote a famous treatise on painting techniques, Linquan Gaozhi. Fan Kuan (c.960–c.1030) painted one of the most famous works of the Northern Song, ‘Travellers Among Mountains and Streams’ (now in the National Palace Museum, Taipei) which established the conventions for monumental landscape painting.