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Dis-stilled Life---
Photography by Feng Yan

by Michael J. Hatch

Common wisdom holds that 99% of what we do each day is an automatic response. That is to say, we go through each day conveniently simplifying the world around us. We simplify to generic shapes, images and phenomena- red, shiny, flickering, flag. We don't stop to consider why the flag, why red, what makes them suitable for one another, or even why they exist where they do; We don't have the time. What is uncommon about the common after all?

In that other 1% of the time we say or notice things specific, unique, worth small moments of wonder or even sustained meditation. Feng Yan's photographs compel us increase that 1%, to consider what surrounds us and why the details are significant. Through careful minimalist cropping and choice of tone, form and subject he is capable of then expanding those moments to spheres of personal significance, historical allusion, and political weight. He mixes the aesthetic joy of strong composition and moody tones with suggestions towards the deeper layers of subliminally manipulated symbols that surround us daily.

In his 'Power Series' Feng Yan's eye carves into the forms of PRC symbolism with a sensitive curiosity. People's Conference Hall places the viewer at the base of an intimidating red staircase. From our lowly perspective the crimson terraces stack and recess up to the slim golden horizon at the top of the image, and from our vantage we know beyond doubt that to surmount these Olympian levels would require the ability of a god among mortals. With a similar pureness of form, Car Door presses our vantage to the side of Chairman Mao's limousine. Whether we know this is the Chairman's vehicle or not is unimportant. Our relationship to the door is established; it is firmly shut against us, the common viewer is barred from entry. By splitting the image equally along the horizontal axis of silver trim, Feng Yan brings our attention to both the handle and the muted reflections on deeply tinted windows. The bottom half offers potential entry while the upper half has voyeuristic potential but only reflects our view in the slick black surface. Though these photographs titillate through strong color, light and form, they do so in order to call our attention to the established hierarchies that surround us.

Security Check is an even purer manifestation of this play of simplified from and complicated meaning- a single ribbon set against a bloody velveteen carpet torques horizontally towards the right, condensing the English words 'security check' printed on the reverse. The barrier here seems negotiable, able to bend, warp, and be manipulated. It is after all only a thin, light phrase against a sea of red. As the banner is both reversed and twisted, we become unsure which side of this security check we are on. 'Security check' is a simple two word phrase, printed with heavy intention and twisted to wring out any number of meanings. But the minimalism of Feng Yan's Power Series reaches its apex with Four Flags, a centered red grid of four blocks, perhaps the side of a billboard or sign. Four red rectangles, free from decoration, called flags, could stand for any number of countries or posses equally as many meanings. As we marvel at the simple shift in tones across the four segments our curiosity helps to brew insecurity; eventually we become intent on knowing just what this red intersection is, a red cross, a seam in a banner, or? It is through such seemingly simple choices of minimized content that Feng Yan pulls our imaginations into the moody shifting tones of his work and then reflects them back out again to consider the greater dimensions present in the details of our daily lives.

Shifting beyond the political, Feng Yan's 'Rockery' series forces classical allusion and living reality to share an uncomfortable silence. In Pine Car, an evergreen is pushed to the front of the image in muted tones of gray-green-blue. Wrapped in snaking holiday lights the tree serves as little more than a bumper-stop to the off-white automobile filling the background. This evergreen is particularly at odds with the pine's traditional symbolism of scholarly virtue and perseverance in painting and porcelain imagery. Zoo Pond reveals this same uncomfortable grating between past and present. The central form is a limp cement approximation of a scholar's rock, ringed in a polished bench, creating an empty grey pool in an empty grey room. Generic animal pens line the side walls, and the stain of charcoal smoke defines the path of old heat up the back wall. It is with relief that our eye finds escape in the sunlit doorway of the upper right corner, like the ever-present doorway in classical Dutch interior painting. When Pine Car is placed alongside Zoo Pond and Bamboo Car, Feng completes the Chinese scholarly allusion triumvirate of stone, pine, and bamboo. But set in the new, awkward contexts of contemporary life, and photographed in the low light of overcast skies, or a moody interior, these symbols instead allude to the conflict of modern times with older values.

Feng Yan's inquisitions also bend towards private spaces with an equally deep consideration. With Inside Drawer we are invited into a more personal space. A pile of pink gloves, rags and capped tea mugs show a tender daily vignette, possibly a pause in chores, or the search for that certain elusive necessity that always hides at the bottom of such drawers. The colors and textures of the objects show a space that is instantly and inexplicably recognizable as from a Chinese house. Yet there is nothing that screams 'I represent contemporary China.' As a foreigner it makes me imagine what the quite space between events in a Chinese home is like.

Through strong minimalist compositions and subtle choice of form and light, Feng Yan's photographs remind us to examine the details in the world around us with greater care. Through his purified form we notice that in our daily public and private lives exists a range of political to historical meanings that we rarely deliberately see.

By making the quotidian monumental, and favoring overlooked details with minimalized form, Feng Yan impregnates both personal and public spaces with implied meanings. His photographs offer a much subtler vision of what it means to be a modern Chinese person on a daily basis, with the particular set of historical and contemporary tensions that apply to the most common moments in China.

December, 2006