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Feng Yan’s Reticent Images: Photography as Process of Abstraction

by Paola Iovene
The University of Chicago
Associate Professor
in Chinese Literature Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations

Feng Yan’s photographs may appear cold, detached. I would call them “reticent” (hanxu 含蓄), because their meaning does not easily spill out. These images do not shout at us. At most, they whisper. They can be apprehended intuitively, but rarely serve as symbols. At times, they portray fragments that don’t evoke the whole to which they once belonged. Yet, the viewer can always recreate meanings and reimagine contexts. The viewer’s role, therefore, is key. Feng Yan’s images offer a space where the viewer can find time—the time to recreate meaning out of apparent insignificance and reimagine an image’s context out of dislocation.

Feng Yan’s images are the result of slow, methodical processes involving various steps: walking, searching, turning away, selecting. Disassembling, reassembling. They reveal sideways views and forlorn corners, retraining us to look for the mysterious in the ordinary. The final result of these processes is often a form of abstraction: found objects drawn away from their environment and from conventional associations, reduced to lines, geometries, bare form. With its unusual perspectives, Feng’s rich photographic oeuvre asks us to reassess our own position: Where are we? From where are we looking, from where should we look? Frontally or aslant, from nearby or from a distance? What is the right perspective from which we might discern something? His images also ask us to reconsider the position of photography amidst other arts, and in the world.

Feng Yan’s work resembles that of an archeologist who interrogates the fragments of a civilization long gone. The fragments portrayed by his photographs are contemporary, not ancient, and sometimes might even be read as synecdoche of political power, such as the majestic, brightly lit red-carpeted staircase in “the People’s Conference Hall” (2006), but they are decontextualized to the point that they appear as enigmatic as some ancient relic. Even the most familiar object, if portrayed out of context, can seem mysterious and remote.

Feng’s works are arranged in series: Order (2005); Power (2006-07); Rockery (2006-14); Psychedelic Bamboo (2009-11); Monuments (2010); Sides of Paintings (2014); Tang Mausoleum Long Grass (2015). I propose three categories through which we might think about them: Archives, Sideways Glances, and Slow Photography. Each of these terms can refer to images scattered across the different series, and might help us see what it is that sets Feng Yan’s works apart, while pointing at something in common to all of them.

Archives of Everyday Life

Feng’s photographs are devoid of human figures, though not of human presence. They seem to capture, in fact, residual human traces, for several of them portray things that were once used, or might still be in use: an armchair, a file cabinet, a chest of drawers, a table in an empty refectory hall. Somebody must have sat on those armchairs, opened that file cabinet, closed that drawer, eaten at that table, walked around in that hall. Images offer a tactile archive of everyday life: objects and walls retaining a wisp of human breath, fingerprints, lingering smoke, stains of humidity and mold.

By portraying human absence, Feng’s images of found objects evoke two kinds of presence: the first is that of the human subjects who must have at some point made or used the things represented in the photograph, the second is that of the viewer who is asked to decipher what offers itself to her gaze. The image is a threshold between the subject who has left and the one who scrutinizes its lingering residue. It serves as a channel, until it fades.

We tend to associate the everyday with the private sphere. Feng’s photographed objects, however, especially those in the series “Monuments,” mostly belong to the hybrid space of the office. The four pictures in the “File Cabinet” subseries are perhaps the most symbolically charged: the cabinet might have contained personal files recording Chinese individuals’ life stories, including school grades, profession, and political affiliations. Every Chinese citizen with a junior middle school degree has such a file, but has no access to it. The locked file cabinet portrayed frontally, from the side, and from the back conveys inaccessibility. Other photographs, however, portray fragments of private domesticity and exude other forms of secrecy, mostly capturing our attention through their pastel color scheme: a yellow bag hanging behind a green door, a yellow towel reflected in a salmon-pink mirror, pink latex gloves.

Sideways Glances

The most obvious instances of “sideways glances” are the four photographs titled “Paintings” in the series “Sides of Paintings” (2014). The photograph shows a rectangular surface composed by wooden stripes, some irregularly smeared with lines or patches of color. In the absence of any other object serving as a reference point, it is impossible to assess its size. Two parallel bars on the floor suggest depth, but the rectangular object seems flat, perhaps slanted against the background wall.

The title “Paintings 01” does not offer much of a clue in assessing what this is. I needed the photographer’s explanation to find it out. Feng Yan enjoys painting. Painting, he told me during a conversation in his Beijing studio, entails for him a slow meditative process. Compared to photography, it is more subjective and intimate. As he applies layer after layer of different colors on the canvas, the mind is free to roam about. The painting process for the “Sides of Paintings” series took several months. Several rectangular canvases, once completed, were stacked behind one another and arranged on their shorter side on a pallet laid on the floor. They were then photographed sideways. Painting is transformed into sculpture, but then photography flattens it again, displaying what generally remains unseen: the side of canvases where paint has overflown and dripping color has formed irregular patterns. The frontal surface of the canvases, by contrast, is hidden. Sideways, painting becomes unrecognizable as painting, generating a different abstraction.

What the photograph shows is the random byproduct of the painting process. But however random the drippings might be, what the viewer sees is the result of careful planning. Photography is often associated with the ability to capture instantaneous, accidental events, to freeze movement, arrest speed. What this series portrays, by contrast, is the random result of a planned process: paint that overflowed the borders that were meant to contain it, color that solidified during its escape.

Other works in the same series magnify the texture of painting, reminding us of tactile qualities that may be not visible to the naked eye. “Sides of Painting 10,” for instance, portrays an enlarged fragment of canvas, zooming in on its weaving and showing how diverse hues alter the pattern formed by the tightly interwoven warp and weft yarns: the white seems to flatten it, the red and the blues make it appear bolder, and different shades of yellow have contrasting effects. In “Underlay Woodblock for Painting 02” it is the wood’s materiality that comes to the fore. Concentric growth rings remind us of its previous existence as tree, confounding the artistic and the organic. Irregular ray-like cracks attest to its fragility and decay, even as the sprinkles of colors brighten it up.

Slow Photography

Feng Yan’s works can be seen as instances of “slow photography,” a term introduced by Norwegian photographer Johanne Seines Svendsen, who in response to the diffusion of digital photography has embraced earlier, more laborious techniques such as wet plate collodion. In Feng’s case, however, slowness is not necessarily linked to a specific material or technique. Even if he does occasionally employ film instead of digital photography, the choice of a specific photographic medium is less important than framing and mise-en-scène. His works obtain slowness in at least three respects: first, they evoke the time it takes to produce them by featuring staged scenes and geometric compositions, often illuminated by artificial light; second, they are an invitation to slow down—for one often needs time to discern what is in them; and third, they portray objects or places visibly affected by the passing of time.

Feng’s work thus gives a different nuance to André Bazin’s notion that the power of photography is that it “embalms time.” Photography does not subtract objects from the flux of time: after all, objects will continue to rot out there in the world, even if they are photographed. Rather, photography registers the effects that time has already had on them. Photography is, in this respect, the culmination of a dialectic process: it records both the consumption inflicted by time and the salvaging attempted by the photographer.

Two examples might illustrate Feng’s experiments with slow photography. One is the “Tang Mausoleum Long Grass” series. There is nothing but lush grass in these large photographs over two meters tall, in which the film image is blown up into a granular surface similar to that of 35mm film. The four photographs were probably taken in different seasons, but in all of them the image texture adds thickness to the plants, emphasizing their unruly meshes, the different densities of foliage, and shades of color that range from the reddish to the whitish. How to make sense of this messy patch of overgrown land?

From the title “Tang Mausoleum Long Grass,” the viewer can infer that the pictures were taken somewhere near the tombs of the Tang Emperors in Shaanxi Province. Feng Yan was inspired to travel there after seeing the work of the Japanese scholar Adachi Kiroku 足立喜六, who surveyed the region around 1910 and published the results of his findings in Chang’an Historical Relics in 1933. Adachi’s book includes photographs of ancient steles, temples, walls, and burial mounds either from close up or against the backdrop of broad vistas and wide-open skies. Majestic stone sculptures are occasionally portrayed with a person nearby, so as to highlight their enormous size. Published at a time when China was struggling to respond to the onslaught of foreign powers, including Japan, those images might still provoke nostalgia for lost splendor and power. The sumptuous vestiges of the Imperial past convey a story of decline, providing the spur to rise again.

By deliberately avoiding the monumentality of ruins, Feng Yan shuns old and new dreams of supremacy and power. The photographer follows into the footsteps of archeologists and historians only to turn his gaze away from their findings and focus on what from time immemorial prospers unnoticed. Grass takes the place of monuments, leaving out achievements, destruction, and ruptures, and calling attention to a temporal scale that is greater than that of the history of Imperial China. Perhaps, one day botanists will assess that this kind of plant only grows in this area, giving a different spin to the notion of cradle of civilization. And perhaps impending climatic cataclysms will soon threaten what so far endured through such a long duration of time.

Another photograph that might be read as an instance of slow photography is “Corner plants.” Whereas in the case of “Tang Mausoleum Long Grass” framing is key to convey slowness, here the central strategy is mise-en-scène. The photograph features elements that recur in other images included in the series “Power:” a red carpet (or red flags, or a red panel) and potted plants lined up or arranged in trapezoidal compositions.

The image unfolds on a horizontal plane and features a certain amount of depth, but a wall or screen in the background makes it difficult to detect a single vanishing point. The background resists further inspection, confining the viewer’s gaze to the front stage. Any attempt at looking beyond would literally hit a wall.

In China, red is of course the color of power and ceremony. Red carpets, flags, and potted plants decorate official and semi-official spaces. While these four images share similar chromatic and formal arrangements, “Corner Plants” displays a decay that is absent from the other three. It is also more enigmatic, for it is unclear whether it is taken indoors or outdoors. The concave angle suggests an interior space, yet a tire track is visible on the red ground, near the lower right corner, suggesting that it might be outside. The walls are cracked and moldy, and the thin layer of white paint barely masks the dirt. The bonsai plants on a patch of red carpet laid on the dusty red pavement might be the forgotten remnants of a celebration, forever confined to their stilted growth. As the title of the series intimates, these four photographs could be read as attempts to portray the reticence of power itself.