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Feng Yan’s Strain of the Ordinary

by Michael J. Hatch

In a contemporary Chinese art scene where ‘Chinese’ is often the selling adjective, Feng Yan’s photographs are a refreshingly subtle change of pace. Rather than pitch his work with the tired symbols of red China, Feng Yan embraces a more intimate and ultimately more effective set of Chinese images, making the quotidian monumental, favoring faded details and slipshod architecture, preferring personal and public spaces pregnant with implied meanings.

With his large-scale ‘Rockery’ series, Feng Yan forces classical allusion and living reality to share an uncomfortable silence. As in ‘Pine Car,’ where an evergreen is pressed 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. In traditional painting and porcelain imagery the pine is a symbol of scholarly virtue and perseverance, and 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 new, awkward contexts and photographed in the low light of overcast skies, or a moody interior, they allude to a conflict of modern times with older values.

In ‘VIP Room’ the tension is less about modern and classical values than it is about contemporary notions of class entitlement. A room of sofas shrouded in dust covers is cast in a palette of muddy oranges and browns. A bare few slivers of blue sky are allowed in through drawn curtains. The viewer is further hemmed in by heavy rosettes of drapes at the top of the frame, the out-of-focus couch arm pushing from the left corner, and a fade to dark over the carpet of the lower right corner. As if the scene were not suffocating enough, Feng skews the plane of equilibrium, setting the whole room on a precarious lilt. The room’s disuse, its waste of space, and its plush luxury upholstering of unsettling colors, call its intentions, clientele, and taste into question.

With ‘Inside Drawer’ the viewer is 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.

Though they often seem uncomfortable at first, with dimensions that call attention to spaces too ordinary to warrant notice, Feng Yan’s 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.

Auguest, 2006