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The Truth Rushing Forth

by Zhang Li
Director of Shanghai Gallery of Art

Feng Yan's images frankly and plainly complete the act of “seeing” while giving a sense of “seeing without seeing.” This is because he conveys “seeing” on a grander scale. What Feng Yan conveys is the voice of the world as a whole. He uses photographic means to present information with more universality and completeness than conventional views. In these images, Feng Yan's gaze forms into countless probes that are not just focused on a particular thing, but sweep in parallel, without differentiation, across the entire space in that direction. He does not consciously highlight the few limited probes that correspond to the viewer’s past experience, but instead puts all of the probes into play as a whole. In this way, the world is interpreted in a more sweeping form, rather than a limited appearance defined by human selection. Feng Yan relies not on omniscience and omnipotence, but on rich knowledge and experience, particularly his rethinking of visual meaning, and the insights and understandings of life and the world he has accumulated through a long time of reading and writing. This allows the images in his lens to pull the viewer into once closed off and forgotten truths that make the transitions to themes and settings with great ease and simplicity.

Truth is a product of processing by human awareness, a faith that is constantly strengthened in people's search for meaning in existence. People depend on it as they do bread, and in human perception, the world is perceived as the carrier of meaning. In order to emphasize this understanding, and to convey and communicate it, the object of awareness is held up as the truth, so that it may circulate and have effect, and it is rapidly concealed by self-interested concepts of the time. But human existence is full of difference. Different groups instinctively recognize this world from their own positions and viewpoints, and carry out unconscious selection until different groups of people each come to have their own truths, which are then transformed into biased values and ideologies. Under such circumstances, these varying truths inevitably lead to conflicts between groups. It is only by transcending the boundaries between them, taking a higher vantage point and tracing further back to the source that we can escape from narrow-mindedness and bias, and expand the dimensions of recognition.

It is precisely on this level that Feng Yan's artworks present the viewer with truth in visual art and the experiential world in a broader sense. The settings and things in Feng Yan's works transcend the significance of one time and place, and in this temporal extension, convey human emotion and realization. Feng Yan's perspective is holistic and transcendent. His grasp of the world has depth and breadth, and he has rich experience in the role of vision on psychology. Feng Yan does not entirely refrain from commentary on the scenes and things in his works, but he does not force direct, exclusive views on the viewer. He digs deep into the meaning of things to reveal traces of life that coalesce the progression of time, as if unlocking fossils within rocks. Feng Yan brings the entire world to rush forth, rather than one limited facet.

Feng Yan's photography is a harmonic, independent world that exists in parallel to society and nature as people recognize them. He molds visual elements and images into a series of individuals that he makes to constantly grow and expand. In this parallel world, innumerable connections and interactions take place between emotions, concepts, attitudes and reality as perceived by each viewer. They illuminate and inspire each other, giving the viewer a chance to step away from their fixed reality and look back on themselves. This is not to say that Feng Yan has created an ideal utopia. To the contrary, Feng Yan's photographic world corresponds to a higher truth of this world. It is introspection on and criticism of awareness, and a quest for and touching of the truth.

The details in Feng Yan's images are put in the service of the overall feel and atmosphere of the scene. He starts with the details. All of the information he needs to convey is densely laid out across a precise construct, but his images are not collections of minute details. A sense of time and unified atmosphere is presented in the final, complete result, revealing the powerful voice of the myriad things within sweeping time and space. This magical effect is derived from his grasp and application of light on the scene. Even when using artificial light in his photography, it is in pursuit of natural lighting effects. Natural light is the code for revealing the truth in Feng Yan's works. Whether indoor or outdoor, natural light always links infinitely broad worlds while dividing times and spaces.

At a time when increasing numbers of photographic artists are carrying out all forms of thematic field studies and producing report-like series, Feng Yan is focused on the power of single works. Feng Yan’s works do appear in serial form, but the repeated selection and refinement behind the single artwork produces a sense of timeless classicness, marked by Feng Yan's own individual character shaped by rich visual experience and personal refinement. Every facet of his artworks, from conception and selection to composition, spatial atmosphere, substance and emptiness, color tones, the use of negative space, dimensions, printing and framing, are all carried out with great precision as the artist seeks perfection in the details. Feng Yan's artworks are not complex. To the contrary, he has simplified them to the extreme, achieving the power of linguistic precision at the critical point of subtraction and efficiency.

In 2004, Feng Yan ended many years of writing to engage in photographic creation. The Order was his point of entry into the real world through photography. This series focuses on the ways the everyday deviates and betrays our desires. When the natural order returns to the setting of human activity and produces an effect therein, “chaotic” scenes and remnant objects present a higher level of order. Here, people can reflect on their habits of “seeing without seeing,” and understand the real and desired outcomes of human activity as positioned within a wider world. Setting out from The Order, and following the same logic and perspective, Feng Yan then presented the series The Power, focused on markers of power. Power is an embodiment and execution of desires in which all information and directionality is magnified. Feng Yan examines these focal points of opposition and conflict through a broader, more sweeping perspective, causing them to release the energy of photographic language from the juncture between public and private.

The Rockery spans from 2006 to 2014, and perhaps even continues today. Feng Yan's initial focus on the traces of human production on stones gradually shifted to a focus on textural details. In the beginning, this series continued the logistic logic of The Order, being directed at an intermediary state between artificial and natural. Later, it came to continue the compositional methods of Psychedelic Bamboo, conveying a transcendent connection between the textures of stone and the landscape of the heart. The Psychedelic Bamboo series, begun in 2009, is a refinement of visual language, and research into the psychological effects of randomness and the unconscious. This compositional method also appears in the 2014 series Sides of Paintings. These painted works, which could stand for the refinement of the artificial, come to reveal the will and truth of the things themselves because of the extraction of desire and goals. These three series all traverse the boundaries between object, image, painting, sculpture and the language of photography.

The 2010 series The Monuments again begins with the everyday. Unlike The Order, with its “seeing without seeing,” the functions of the everyday objects in The Monuments, designed to serve the people, have become a thing of the past; the images highlight the material properties of the objects themselves. Furniture and implements have been stripped of their dimensions, and are now viewed like objects of architecture. These are the remains of and monuments to the human will. They stand solemnly as examinations of the past. Likewise, in the 2014 series Tang Mausoleum Long Grass, Feng Yan does not express the historic gaze as a focus on those sculptures, plaques and other manmade monuments. Instead, the lens focuses on the vegetation that spreads among them according to the principles of nature. The location of these plants is special due to history, but when history loses its specificity, these plants and this location will remain special.

The meaning that emerges from the objects and scenes under Feng Yan’s lens do not only exist in his carefully arranged distance and focus. At a time when many conceptual worlds are clashing, rupturing and collapsing, Feng Yan's photographic world and its profound contents penetrate these conceptual boundaries and draw them into a broader world. In this world, different groups can come together, and fissures and faults can be mended. The world for which Feng Yan has long prayed and searched emerges in his various photographic series. Such achievements are the result of a visual artist’s long path of cultivation and inspiration, as well as deep insight and concern for the world.

Through Feng Yan's works, the viewer can examine the properties of photography. In his works, photography can be a choice, a choice of concept and object; it can also be a coalescence and rapid change in awareness, a transcendence and redefinition of boundaries. Photography can preserve and remember the past. This requires the action of time. Feng Yan's works, however, can actively generate this monumentality. Even his newest works have the allure of accumulated time, because Feng Yan has filled them with temporal truth.