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  • The Lives of Form:From Zhang Jin to Aaron Siskind
  • William Schaefer (bio)

Consider pictures by three contemporary Chinese photographers: Zhang Jin, Yu Huaqiang, and Xing Danwen. Each of them, I propose, engages with ecological relationships of organic and inorganic forms by drawing upon a modernist aesthetic of flatness and surface.

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Figure 1.

Zhang Jin, Epitaph (Wordless Stele; Wu Zi Bei), from Another Season (You Yi Ji), gelatin silver print, 2011.

Courtesy of the artist.

In Another Season (You Yi Ji) (2010–13), Zhang Jin focuses on present-day landscapes of China’s far northwest to show the entanglements there of human artifacts and natural forms, nomadism and ecology, the remote past and contemporary life. Zhang connects the aesthetic of his black-and-white photographs—which, he says in an interview in the Chinese [End Page 461] edition of Artforum, negotiates “between abstraction and figuration”1—to their depictions of objects and patterns in the landscapes of the Silk Road, the global trade route of the past that had connected China to India, Central Asia, and Europe. These objects, such as the “Epitaph” or, literally, “Wordless Stele” (Wuzi Bei) depicted in Zhang’s eponymous photograph of 2011 (fig. 1), “are no longer in the geographical positions they were in during the Han and Tang dynasties; they had been moved all over the place in later generations. With this migration of position and loss of their own functionality, static objects have become homeless pastoral nomads.”2

Crucially, Zhang Jin’s description of his work draws together the nomad and the migrant, as well as object and landscape, through an interplay of abstraction and figuration. The implicit commentary made by his images on the historicity of nature—as well as his depiction of nature as both process and form—becomes clear when placed in the context of China’s economic development.3

Zhang Jin is one of a number of photographers currently at work in China who, despite their distinct differences, have in common a conception of the emergent forms of surface as constituting ecologies: interactions of animate and inanimate matter, objects, spaces, and markings critical to rethinking relations among human, non-human, and environment. Whether such surfaces are depicted in a photograph, comprise the surface of a photograph itself, or designate the interplay of both, the stakes of the work of all of these photographers lie in picturing ecologies by means of a formalist aesthetics of abstraction. Such work raises questions of how and why such an aesthetic urges a re-evaluation of ecology as constituted by relationships of form and surface.

Yu Huaqiang’s explicit aim in his series Water, Injury (Shui, Shang) (2004) is to depict the pollution of an ecosystem. Each photograph in the series follows the same compositional scheme, the center of each square image depicting decaying animal corpses (fig. 2), human-made trash sprouting with life (fig. 3), and other detritus floating at the surface of a dying body of water in the Jiangnan region of southeast China.

Yu’s use of black and white film and a flat composition at first seems simply to collapse the monochrome of his photographs’ surfaces with the grey surface of the body of water they frame. But what actually makes the water’s surface [End Page 462] appear opaque are its murky, polluted depths: Yu composes his photographs so that depth is surface—or rather, the water as it appears in his photographs is at once all depth and yet depthless. Given how the figures of a corpse and trash here, as in Yu’s other photographs, appear both to float and to submerge into the watery pictorial ground, “surface” becomes a verb: it denotes a process of emerging and dissolving figures and grounds that picture the process of polluting itself.

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Figure 2.

Yu Huaqiang, Water, Injury (Shui, Shang) 2, gelatin silver print, 2014..

Courtesy of the artist

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Figure 3.

Yu Huaqiang, Water, Injury (Shui, Shang) 3, gelatin silver print, 2014..

Courtesy of the artist

Likewise, in disCONNEXION (2002–3), Xing Danwen photographs e-trash: discarded electronics, computer...


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pp. 461-486
Launched on MUSE
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