By KENDRA SITTON | Uptown News
The water is silky, the mountain glacial in Shi Guorui’s photo “The Yangtze River 7-8 May 2013.” Over two days in 2013, he used a camera obscura to shoot the scene which a Western audience might interpret as serene or natural. Shi explained in a phone interview that a Chinese audience would see something much different. He took the photo right after the completion of the Three Gorges Dam, the largest power station in the world, so everything in the photo is man-made, the river unnaturally high.
“In the process of building this dam and blocking the river, in effect, over a million people had to be relocated from their home. More than 3,000 famous villages and locations were flooded. Over 300 cultural sites and relic locations were also completely flooded in the process. It’s making a very subtle gesture,” said the show’s curator Tiffany Wai-Ying Beres, while translating for Shi.
Shi used a pinhole camera to capture the scene which renders the landscape ghostly, with pitch black sky and bright white mountain, since all negative light is translated as positive in the black-and-white photograph. The pinhole camera is an ancient method of photography used by Aristotle to study eclipses and in China in fifth century B.C.
For each photograph Shi takes using the camera obscura, he builds a tent with a tiny hole in the fabric on one end and a giant piece of photographic paper on the other. He stays in the tent for days as the paper is exposed to the light. This method also means any movement is lost and the finished product only contains permanent features of the landscape.
Shi turned to the method because it slows time.
“It’s an experience of capturing time more than anything. It’s also an affirmation of his existence in a certain place at a certain time. So that is very appealing to him,” Beres translated. She felt that quick photos on phones made people spectators to their environment where this method forced him to engage with it. Sitting in the tent waiting for the exposure has become a meditative practice for him.
In the second photo featured in the “Out of the Shadows” exhibit, Shi captured the construction of the CCTV tower in Beijing in the lead up to the 2008 Olympics. The tower was built in record time as China quickly developed ahead of the games. The structure is unique because of the strange skybridge connecting two towers at an acute angle. Shi’s photo shows the tower with crumpled edges while it is still under construction. Freeways are vacant and streets empty of people because of the long exposure time. Cars and buses and people were there at one point but moved too quickly to have an impact. The modern terrain is empty save for the buildings themselves.
Another featured artist, Yang Yongliang, has his own critiques of urbanization and globalization in the show. His virtual reality video “Nine Dragons” puts the viewer in the perspective of a historical dragon traveling through the postmodern world.
While international audiences may just see dragons as a symbol of East Asia and even young Chinese audiences have flattened the meaning of dragons to just be representative of good fortune, Yang explained through a translator that dragons used to be water gods that protected ecology. In the video he created based on a painting from 11th-century artist Chen Rong also titled “Nine Dragons,” the dragons leave the clouds and travel to the ocean where they see the urbanization featured in many of Yang’s works.
“Globalization, urbanization is always a concern that he puts into his work. That’s a global issue that we face as human beings all together. We can provide as Asian artists a perspective from our specific cultural backgrounds. We wanted to introduce that very specific point of view to tell a story that should be interesting to a broader audience and specific to San Diego,” translated Yang’s assistant.
Yang got his start using layers of photographs to create entrancing landscapes of contemporary China. Since he pivoted to video and later VR technology, he has built on the anti-urbanization themes of his earlier work. One of the reasons he switched to VR is because in art school he learned the Chinese philosophy that landscape paintings were meant to be immersive and viewers were supposed to “mind travel” and imagine themselves in them. VR is an immersive space. Yang also hopes the new platform will preserve the best of traditional art and introduce it to younger generations.
The VR video and the photographs will be on display at the Museum of Photographic Arts until September (due to the COVID-19 crisis, the museum is currently closed to the public until the end of March or further notice). While pinhole cameras trace back to ancient China, modern photography was introduced to China from Europe just a century ago. Artists quickly took photography and created an art form unique to the rest of the world that remains different to this day.
“Every artist in the show has, in some way, transformed the art of photography or moving images and they’re applying different kinds of aesthetics, and different kinds of processes than what where we’re used to when we think about traditional photography,” Beres said. “Anyone who goes to see the show will see photography like they’ve never seen it before.”
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.