Tearing down the past to build the future: Yang Yongliang, Chinese artist interview

In Yang Yongliang’s digital art works, we see an ancient past in the process of being erased by the machinery of urbanisation.    

Viewed from up close, Yang’s apparently idyllic scenery reveals that mountains, forests and lakes are covered with sprawling cranes and skyscrapers, a comment on the uncontrolled urbanisation in China. Art Radar interviews the artist to find out more about two new series on show in a recent solo exhibition in Milan, Italy.

Art Radar contributor Alessandra Alliata Nobili in conversation with, from left to right, Julia Liu (Yang Yongliang's wife), Chinese artist Yang Yongliang and Michelle Ni (Yang Yongliang's Shanghai gallerist). Image courtesy mc2gallery.

Art Radar contributor Alessandra Alliata Nobili in conversation with, from left to right, Julia Liu (Yang Yongliang’s wife), Chinese artist Yang Yongliang and Michelle Ni (Yang Yongliang’s Shanghai gallerist). Image courtesy mc2gallery.

In a solo show exhibition held at mc2gallery in Milan, Italy between 7 and 27 March 2013, 33-year-old, Jiading-born artist Yang Yongliang presented two new series of digital prints. “Silent Valley” features a figure dressed in white who is wandering around a desolate valley scattered with symbols of destruction, such as machine guns and hand grenades. In the series “Moonlight”, Yongliang’s characteristic mountainous landscapes rework traditional ink and brush landscape painting into eerie visions of a grey, boundless megalopolis.

Yang has exhibited in group and solo shows around the world. In 2012, his work was included in “The Printed Image in China, 8th–21st Century” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Yang Yongliang, 'A crocodile and shotgun', 2012, "Silent Valley", digital print, 66 x 119 cm. Image courtesy mc2gallery.

Yang Yongliang, ‘A crocodile and shotgun’, 2012, “Silent Valley”, digital print, 66 x 119cm. Image courtesy mc2gallery.

Art Radar attended the exhibition and sat down with Chinese artist Yang Yongliang, his wife, Julia Liu, and translator and Yang’s Shanghai gallerist Michelle Ni to find out more about the artist’s attachment to tradition, his criticism of hyper-urbanisation in China and future projects.

Can you tell me something about the series “Silent Valley” in this exhibition? There seems to be a narrative thread, and the use of a human figure, which was absent in your previous work. What was the inspiration behind this new development?

Last year I made a trip to Sichuan province; most of the landscape material is taken from there. Characters that appear in traditional Chinese landscape paintings inspire the figures in some of the pictures. They don’t represent a specific character or story, rather they are a metaphor of humanity, of the contemporary human being set in a historical setting.

We read in an interview with firmwide Head of Intern Development and Academic Outreach for Gensler Andrew Caruso that you would like to make a film in the future. Is your work moving in this direction, and what kind of film would you like to make? 

I would put a narrative into it, but like my works, it would be something between reality and fantasy. I really like the work of Italian director Federico Fellini, and I felt touched watching his films, so I think this will affect my work.

Yang Yongliang, 'A wolf and landmines', 2012, "Silent Valley", digital print, 66x132 cm. Image courtesy mc2gallery.

Yang Yongliang, ‘A wolf and landmines’, 2012, “Silent Valley”, digital print, 66 x 132cm. Image courtesy mc2gallery.

Is this film coming any time soon, or is it just a project for the future?

I’m very interested and determined to go into this area, but I’m just starting. It will take time and a lot of preparation, I will take it step by step.

Are you going to write the screenplay for this film?

Yes.

Are you planning to work more with video before venturing into film?

I’ll do both at the same time.

From an early age you were tutored in traditional ink painting and calligraphy by professor Yang Yang of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Can you tell us something about your relationship with him and how he influenced your view of art?

Yang Yang taught me for about ten years. He is a big Chinese antiques collector as well as a professor. He taught me not only about Chinese antiques and the technique of painting, but most importantly, a whole philosophical framework and a way of thinking. It was a one-to-one teaching, in the traditional way. For instance, when he taught me calligraphy, he would make me write a character again and again, and finally encircle the one that was good. This is very different from the western way of teaching, which is a logical process where there are precise standards for judgement. The Chinese way is to keep practicing and eventually you’ll get there. So unlike in the west, in eastern culture, learning is a process that comes from within.

Yang Yongliang, 'The landscape without night', 2012, "Silent Valley", digital print, 105 x 210 cm. Image courtesy mc2gallery.

Yang Yongliang, ‘The landscape without night’, 2012, “Silent Valley”, digital print, 105 x 210cm. Image courtesy mc2gallery.

Was there a particular moment you recall when you decided you wanted to “paint” with technology?

I don’t think this type of work can be defined as using technology to paint because for me, painting is touching the media, using my hands. I do paint as well, but in this instance I used just the computer. With this type of work, I don’t consider myself a painter or a photographer, I just use photography to make an artwork and I’m not interested in fitting it into a category. The key difference between these works and painting is that painting is personal. Painting, it’s about sensation and impression, whereas this type of work is much more rational, the process is very detailed and you know from the start what it will look like in the end.

Is drawing still part of your creative process? Do you start a new work with hand drawing or do you work directly on the computer?

For some works I make a draft, for others I start directly on the computer.

How many photographs do you take on average for each work?

It depends… I never really count because each work is different.

Yang Yongliang, 'A snake and grenade', 2012, "Silent Valley", digital print, 66 x 118 cm. Image courtesy mc2gallery.

Yang Yongliang, ‘A snake and grenade’, 2012, “Silent Valley”, digital print, 66 x 118cm. Image courtesy mc2gallery.

When working on the composition of one of your landscapes, do you draw inspiration from particular artists or art works from the past?

[I draw inspiration from the] masters of the Song and Yuan dynasties.

How long does it normally take you to complete a piece?

Because each piece has a long process of collecting the material, sketching and the actual making, it is hard to say how long it takes from the beginning to the end. I usually make series of works that vary from six to ten pieces, but on average I make ten or twelve works each year. I take [photographic] material everyday, whenever I have a chance, and put it in a database, so that whenever I get an idea I look into it.

Are you going to collect photographic material while in Milan? There is a lot of construction going on.

I haven’t yet, but I will. I have been to Rome and Siena and other parts of Italy and I have taken pictures there that I may use.

You grew up in Shanghai, one of the cities in China that in the last twenty years has most radically changed its urban landscape. How did this affect you personally, and do you feel that the architectural past in China is being demolished too quickly?

It affected me a lot, otherwise none of my works would exist. I was born in Jiading, a suburb of Shanghai. I moved to Shanghai in my twenties to go to university. In that period, Shanghai’s urban development was peaking, and for me, the contrast between Jiading and downtown was huge, and I think this contrast is reflected in my work. Where I grew up is now forty minutes drive on the highway from the centre, but it was a near two hour drive when I was growing up, so it felt like I was watching Shanghai’s development from the outside.

Yang Yongliang, 'Full Moon', 2012, "The Moonlight", digital print, 90 x 90 cm. Image courtesy mc2gallery.

Yang Yongliang, ‘Full Moon’, 2012, “The Moonlight”, digital print, 90 x 90cm. Image courtesy mc2gallery.

Do you think that this is reflected in your work? Your pieces seem to imply a viewer that watches from a distance.

Yes, this could be an aspect of my work. Actually, where I grew up has changed a lot, too, and this is bad because the place had an older and richer history, dating from the Song dynasty, than [that of] Shanghai, which is a young city compared to others in China.

When you go around cities taking pictures in preparation for your pieces, how do you choose a particular place? For instance, do you concentrate on demolition sites or existing buildings?

I usually go to all construction sites, whenever people tell me there is one, and this happens very often, there have been so many changes [in China] in the last few years.

What about the character that appears in Silent Valley? Did you use models or ordinary people?

The characters I put into my pictures are studio shots of models, and the poses are inspired by those of the characters in Chinese folk tales. I choose models that are not well known. I tried with professional models, actors and actresses but the pictures came up too sweet and I decided to discard them.

Yang Yongliang, 'New Moon', 2012, "The Moonlight", digital print, 90 x 90 cm. Image courtesy mc2gallery.

Yang Yongliang, ‘New Moon’, 2012, “The Moonlight”, digital print, 90 x 90cm. Image courtesy mc2gallery.

You made a series of digital collages called “Greece” that featured images of ancient columns. The capitals appeared to be gnawed in the corners. Looking closely, the gnawed parts were in fact crammed with your miniature cranes and buildings. Can you tell me something about these works? They made me think of the pollution that is eating away the marble of ancient buildings in Athens.

Yes, this is more or less the thought behind these works that were made after a residency programme I was invited to in Thessalonica in 2009. I focused on columns and capitals as the vital elements and symbols of Greek art. I travelled around Greece a lot and I noticed that ancient ruins were very badly looked after there, and I compared this situation to the one in China, where there is a rich cultural past that also is in ruins. [By] pasting my buildings and cranes in the corner of the capitals, I built up a contrast to get people thinking about this.

A mix of past and present is a trademark of your art. Do you feel that preserving the past is particularly important for contemporary Chinese artists in times of globalisation, perhaps because past culture is disappearing very quickly?

Because globalisation is so much a tendency in the world, even with a Chinese face one may not be Chinese. I don’t think that past culture can be cancelled, though; a Chinese is always a Chinese, his way of thinking are completely different from that of a westerner. If a Chinese artist uses a western way of thinking to create art, the result is very superficial, it does not come from his roots, because if you are Chinese you have to know your past, history and culture to produce an artwork. You can use a contemporary art language to express your philosophy, but not copy a western global perspective. I think Chinese people must say things in their own way. With some contemporary Chinese art, you can’t really tell if it is Chinese or western, and this is losing something.

Yang Yongliang, 'Waning Crescent Moon', 2012, "The Moonlight", digital print, 90 x 90 cm. Image courtesy mc2gallery.

Yang Yongliang, ‘Waning Crescent Moon’, 2012, “The Moonlight”, digital print, 90 x 90cm. Image courtesy mc2gallery.

While undertaking research for this interview, we read that the goal of traditional ink and wash painting was to capture the soul of a landscape, not only its appearance. Does this apply to your pictures?

First I would like to make a point about Chinese and western painting. I’ve read about, and seen, much western art, and my perception is that Chinese ancient painting is closer to contemporary western art in the sense that they are both subjective, they express personal feelings. Moreover, in western painting, you always know where light comes from, if it is day or night. My pictures are timeless: there is no light and no shadows, the overall tone is grey and you can’t tell the time of the day. In this sense, my pictures capture a feeling, just like traditional Chinese painting.

How do you view the construction frenzy in China? And do you think younger generations may change things, and gain an awareness of overbuilding in China?

I think construction will continue, maybe not at the same speed, but it will carry on, because the government has not realised that history is being erased. Whether the past is good or bad, you have to preserve it, and the will of younger generations, or even of the generations coming after them, although they are trying to change things, can do very little, because it is the system, the structure of the country, that is wrong.

Yang Yongliang, 'Waxing Crescent Moon', 2012, "The Moonlight", digital print, 90 x 90 cm. Image courtesy mc2gallery.

Yang Yongliang, ‘Waxing Crescent Moon’, 2012, “The Moonlight”, digital print, 90 x 90cm. Image courtesy mc2gallery.

Can you comment on the shift between your past works, such as the series “Heavenly City” or “Cigarette Ash Landscape, that contained strong references to death and a doomed future (a cigarette burning; a nuclear blast turned into a heavenly urban landscape), and your recent work, that seems to be more serene?

There is consistency in my work; the core is always the same. Each piece combines two aspects: positive and negative, beauty and danger. In some works, such as [those in the series] “Heavenly City”, the negative part prevails, but there is still beauty. [The series] “Silent Valley” is seemingly more serene, but if pictures are seen from up close, there are hidden disquieting symbols. Perhaps my work has now become more focused on human nature than it used to be, more introspective.

Are there themes that you have not touched on that you would like to explore in the near future?

I’d like to focus on the inner conflicts of human nature and how I can best represent them in my work.

Can you describe your creative aim in a few words?

When I started off, I thought that art should educate, but now I’ve realised that good art should be able to elicit personal responses from the viewer.

AAN/KN/HH

Related Topics: Chinese artists, new media art, interviews with artists, landscape art

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