'Forest' is a new collection of photographs by Yan Wang Preston that transcends the ordinary. They surprise and quite likely confound our understanding. Its quite likely that you wont know what you are looking at when you first see some of these images. We can't quite understand the context, or the scale, or wether these are 'real' environments. What are these three full size trees shrouded in transparent bags? Why are these ancient deformed trees rising up out of muddy building sites? Why do these trees have plastic gold leaves? But this is not a fantasy or make believe world. Its not a film set, or something created in a virtual reality video game. These are real things in a real place. There is a story being told here. The story is of something that has perhaps never happened on this planet before? Yan is showing us a facet of modern China that we could never have imagined for ourselves. The story is of massive urban expansion. But here we are witnessing not just the construction of buildings, but the construction of urban forests and woodlands that would normally take centuries to become established.
The concept is difficult for us [in the west] to grasp. Our minds have to ask why? And how? Over and over. How can we adjust our minds to such massive manipulations of nature? How can we not question the project of digging up trees that are 100's of years old, to be replanted in front of a university, or a hotel or a shopping centre? Perhaps a common response for us [nature lovers] will be disgust? But if this is our initial response, there's still room for a bigger conversation to be had, that will go beyond the personal, and entertain shifting ideas about politics, society and culture. This is a public project aiming to benefit millions of people for centuries to come. It is a project establishing new values and new ideas, that at once seems to be destroying something we revere, and establishing new thinking about what an urban environment can be.
So if that its an outline of the project, how do these photographs stand up if we examine them independently of the story they depict? They tell the story, but do they do anymore? Will they still have any value when the story is forgotten? Despite the drama of the documentation, these photographs are dignified and beautiful. We aren't just being shown information. There is an artists eye and mind at work here....these photographs are not just about the drama of the here and now, but are equally bound up with an understanding of the colour, the light, the space, the texture, the forms... As I experience these photographs I find myself applying words like 'sublime' and 'abstract' and 'colour field' and 'minimalism', and 'apocalyptic'.
I'll say a little more about this in relation to a small selection of photographs that I see as the most outstanding in the collection.
The Quarry Ecology Recovery Project 2017 photos are a powerful opening. Raw and harsh to a shocking degree. Its a wounded landscape, roughly bandaged. It reminds me of the description of battlefields in Greek myths. Carnage. Rocks, storms, warriors, gods all create the violence. In Greek myth there's no distinction between what we call today, 'inanimate' and 'animate' forces. In those stories everything has a power. Its like that here. Some of these images take us into the 'sublime'. Nature doesn't exist as we expect it. A mountain side is draped in green cloth like some colossal Greek theatre. People are out of place here. How would we fit in? Its not natural. Is it a world of Gods rather than humans? What on earth could happen on such a stage as this? But look closely and theres some redemption: life appears in the form of delicate flowers that survive in the foreground, in poignant contrast to the dreadful, damaged, raw surfaces. Nature wont go away whatever we do to it. This is one of the most cohesive groups of photographs, unified by a distinctive palette dominated by lurid green and earthy browns. Theres an echo of abstraction of abstract expressionism [they are two different things]. Huge course gestures dominate, but there are delicate whispers if we listen carefully.
Central Park, University City 2011 is a more uneven set of photographs, but contains three of the best images in the book. Three trees veiled in transparent shrouds. I hardly know what Im feeling when I look at them. Its as if I have to reach inside myself to search for new emotions. The following image is equally simple and equally mesmerising. Five trees rising up behind a grey wall. Very static, unnaturally flat. The wall actually looks more alive than the trees. The wall could be a beautiful painting: Brice Marden, Agnes Martin, Morris Louis come to mind. These are images that stretch your imagination. While they are delicate, Longan Woodland [the cover photograph] is brutal. If there's a tree hell, this is it. Its quite a trick to create such a shocking image that we feel compelled to keep coming back to. You wont find any redemption here. Dante might have made this image.
In these photographs, the geometry of architecture can be as affecting as the beauty of nature. A bare concrete basement becomes human because of its silent spareness. This is how minimalism works. Take away everything extraneous and you are left with a heart-aching glimpse of absence. Its pure and quiet, in a world that is often chaotic and overwhelming. Three lights hang from the ceiling as if symbolically. A child's pink scooter sits tiny against the wall, affecting the scale and bringing us into the present.. The grey concrete wall fills the composition. The deadest of building materials? Yet this surface is soft and gentle. It reads like a palimpsest of a Chinese landscape painting and brings us into the past. Its remarkably easy to see ink washes of woodlands, a tea house, clouds and vapour. While the wall is matt, the floor is reflective, like the sea. There are new worlds to be found, even in the basement.
If this small sample shows one thing, its that you are looking at the work of a photographer who goes out into the world with her camera prepared for an adventure! This is work produced over a 7 year period and it represents a huge amount of determination and dedication. But an epic journey doesn't automatically produce great art. There is undoubtedly an impressive tale being told here, but in the end, its the way it is told that matters.
Steve Thorpe. June 2018