65 East 80th Street, Ground Floor, New York, NY 10075
September 13 – November 9, 2019
Fu Qiumeng Fine Art is privileged to announce All’s well, ends well, an exhibition of works by Chinese artist Yau Wing Fung (b. 1990). Yau works across a range of genres and mediums, including traditional and contemporary ink painting, calligraphy, and installation. Yau’s recent paintings combine traditional aesthetics and a contemporary sensibility by mobilizing the vocabulary of classical landscape painting as well as the aerial view of satellite image. In Yau’s installations, he explored the spatial relationship between viewer and representation of landscape by reconstructing painting frames. This offers a new interpretation of “sceneries shift with the movement of every step”(移步换景), a saying that addresses the viewing experience of traditional landscape painting. All`s well, ends well will be on view at 65 East 80th Street from September 13th to November 9th, with an opening reception on September 13th, from 6 to 8 PM.Afull-color brochure will accompany the exhibition.
Yau is especially interested in new aesthetic possibilities brought about by technology. A direct reference for Yau is satellite image, especially those used for recording weather changes and geographic information. A satellite often produces a sequence of images when photographing a large area or recording changes over a period of time. The interpretation of this congregate of information involves the reading of the general layout, as well as analysis of the convergences and variations between different images. By appropriating the format of satellite images, Yau gestured towards a similar viewership. Viewers are likely to constantly shift their attention between individual parts and the whole composition, between the reading of consecutive grids and the sight of a landscape.
Yau’s works reframe the idea of guan and yuan through a contemporary lens. Guan refers to a contemplative way of looking that involves viewers’ imagination of a space that expands outside the picture frame. Yuan inspires people to look beyond the visible and finite towards the boundless and infinite. “Guan represents my inner sensibility and feeling when I encounter an object; yuan encapsulates my spiritual pursuit when I paint,” Yau wrote. His works offer new expressions of guan and yuan by reconfiguring perspective, pictorial depth, the balance between emptiness and solidness, and surface texture.
Unlike the appreciation of traditional paintings, time does not flow linearly in the viewing of Yau’s works. The grids set up a rhythm similar to the automatic movement of a machine. They reconfigure the picture plane into uniform and countable segments, around which people structure their viewing experience. This aspect of Yau’s paintings responds to the contemporary visuality deeply entrenched by technological developments. It poses the thorny problem of how human beings approach nature in an era when the intermediation of man-made devices has become unavoidable.
Yau Wing Fung (b. 1990, Hong Kong) received his master’s degree in Fine Arts and bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts (First Class Honours) from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He now lives and works in Hong Kong. Whilehismostly portrayed rocks and landscapes from a horizontal perspective in his previous works, in his latest series Looming Sceneries, he adopted an aerial view, indicated by cloud painted with a diaphanous quality. Yau often painted cloud on both the front and back of the thin cicada paper (蝉衣纸). The half-transparent paper allows the paint at the back to be discerned from the front. In this way, the back color that shows through, the materiality of the paper, and the front of the painting conjure a translucent yet densely textured surface. It weaves various compositional elements into a continuum, guiding viewers’ eyes to move smoothly from one part of the painting to another.
Yau has held six solo shows in Hong Kong and Macau. His artworks have appeared at various international venues, such as “Art Basel” (Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre), “Wu Bin: Ten Views of a Lingbi Stone” (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), “Chinese Contemporary Ink” (Christie’s Auction), “Ink Asia” (Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre), “Art Taipei” (Taipei World Trade Center), among others. His paintings have entered public and private collections, including the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The Reconstruction of an Aerial View
Works of Yau Wing Fung’s (b. 1990, Hong Kong) series Looming Sceneries constitute a major part of the exhibition All’s Well, Ends Well. They depict cloud and rock fragments that stretch over the whole composition. In some paintings, the picture plane is dissected evenly into rectangular shapes, creating discontinuities in the flow of cloud and the relief-like rock fragments. Grids, a common trope of modern and contemporary art, appear both obvious and subtle in Looming Sceneries. It is obvious, as grid lines alter the flowing direction of vapor, the density of cloud, and the arrangement of rock formations; it is also subtle, as they rarely create jarring contrasts between adjacent spatial units. This article focuses on the spatial configuration of the works of Looming Sceneries. By studying Yau’s appropriation of technological imagery, I examine how the artist reframed pictorial elements such as time, perspective, and pictorial depth in a way that reconfigures the relationship between traditional aesthetics and contemporary visuality.
Between Discontinuities and Continuities
Yau is especially interested in new aesthetic possibilities brought about by technology. A direct reference for Yau is satellite image, especially those used for recording weather changes and geographic information. A satellite often produces a sequence of images when photographing a large area or recording changes over a period of time. Among these images, the overall layout and compositional elements are often more or less the same, while details differ. The interpretation of this congregate of information involves the reading of the general layout, as well as analysis of the convergences and variations between different images. Weather satellite images, for example, are usually taken at fixed time intervals and focused on the same area. The overall layout usually indicates the subject matter, basic parameters, and key indexes. Differences between images provide information about changes in humidity, temperature, wind, and so on.
By appropriating the format of satellite images, Yau gestured towards a similar viewership. Despite the square-angled division of the picture plane, his paintings retain their overall compositional coherency. For instance, in Riding Mist VI (2019), the straight vertical lines create obvious rifts in some parts of the composition; in some other parts, the haze and rocks traverse the boundaries, joining the grids together (fig. 1). The space unfolds as discontinuous parts of a landscape as well as a sequence of interrelated images. Viewers are thus likely to constantly shift their attention between individual parts and the whole composition, between the reading of consecutive grids and the sight of a landscape.
One of Yau’s earliest works Platform Travelling (2014) exemplifies his exploration of visuality shaped by modern technology, which paves the way for his mobilization of satellite imagery in Looming Sceneries (fig. 2). In this set of ten paintings, the artist portrayed the scenes he saw at ten train stations along the way from Kwoloon Tong to Lok Ma Chau in Hong Kong. At each station, Yau recorded the platform views by sketching on-site and photographing relevant details, based on which he painted the series in the studio. The depictions of skyscrapers, soundproofing panels, railings, while uncommon in Chinese landscape painting, are typical of what urban dwellers see at train platforms (fig. 3). The picture frames cut off tips of branches, lower halves of tree trunks, and parts of mountaintops, making the compositions resemble train passengers’ limited range of view at platforms. When exhibiting the series, Yau hung the ten scrolls in a line, all mounted with black-and-yellow striped brocades that look like Hong Kong MTR train signs. Despite the disconnected views, the tens paintings point to the continuous route of the train that transported the artist to stations across the city.
The spatial configuration of Looming Sceneries strikes a chord with the multiple perspective system of traditional Chinese painting, which entails viewers moving their eyes across different compositional parts and adopt various viewpoints. Similarly, viewing works of Looming Sceneries requires viewers to switch their attention between the overall layout and individual spatial units. Yet unlike the appreciation of traditional paintings, time does not flow linearly in Looming Sceneries. The grids set up a rhythm similar to the automatic movement of a machine. They reconfigure the picture plane into uniform and countable segments, around which people structure their viewing experience. This aspect of Yau’s paintings responds to the contemporary visuality deeply entrenched by technological developments. It poses the thorny problem of how human beings approach nature in an era when the intermediation of man-made devices has become unavoidable.
Yuan and Aerial View
Yau’s appropriation of satellite image involves his reconsideration of the visual expression of yuan (远) in Chinese painting. Yuan, literally translated to distance or distant, is critical to the visual and conceptual aspects of Chinese landscape painting. It entails depicting an expanse of space at a distance from the viewer, which connotes philosophical concepts such as Tao and infinity. Yuaninspires people to look beyond the visible and finite towards the boundless and infinite, which points to the fundamental pursuit of landscape painters. Guo Xi, in his renowned treatise on Chinese painting Lofty Passages of Forests and Streams, differentiated between three ways of expressing yuan, including high distance (高远), deep distance (深远) and level distance (平远), each corresponding to a type of perspective. High distance refers to looking at the mountaintop from the foot of the mountain; deep distance means viewing one side of a mountain from the other side, and level distance concerns looking at a mountain from the position of another mountain of a similar height.
Looming Sceneries indicates yuan, first and foremost, through masses of cloud painted with a diaphanous quality and a multi-layered texture. Cloud indicates the height of viewers’ standpoint, creating the effect of high distance. For the creation of a number of the works of Looming Sceneries, Yau first crumpled the paper and then rinsed it with water. This washed away the alum powder and broke up the embedded fiber, making it possible for ink splashes and brushstrokes to generate an intricate network of lines (fig. 4). In addition, Yau painted cloud on both the front and back of the thin cicada paper (蝉衣纸). The half-transparent paper allows the paint at the back to be discerned from the front. In this way, the back color that shows through, the materiality of the paper, and the front of the painting conjure a translucent yet densely textured surface. The different shades of white correspond to the way that cloud appears on satellite images. More importantly, this textured surface weaves the cloud, rocks, and grids into a continuum, guiding viewers’ eyes to move smoothly from one spatial unit to another. In the artist’s own words, cloud functions as “the main structural element of his paintings.” It defines shi (势), namely, the direction, the rhythm, and the relationship between compositional elements. As such, Looming Sceneriesreiterates the intricate relationship between discontinuity and continuity exemplified in Platform Travelling.
Some of Yau’s earlier paintings anticipate Looming Sceneries in their strategic use of cloud. In Hazy Cliff (2016), for example, Yau depicted a gnarled pine tree amid cloud and surrounded by mountains (fig. 5). According to the artist’s statement of the piece in his master’s thesis, the work evinces deep distance and high distance. On the one hand, the cloud leads viewers’ eyes from the foreground to the background, indicating spatial recession and pointing to deep distance. On the other hand, cloud implies the height of the pine tree and the monumentality of the landscape, creating the effect of high distance. Viewers are supposedly standing on top of a mountain, looking beyond the pine tree into the distance. “It [the cloud] conjures the effect of ‘up in the air’.” the artist wrote in his analysis of the piece. In Looming Sceneries, cloud conjures high distance in a similar manner.
Unlike Hazy Cliff, viewers are presented with an aerial view. They are either looking straight down at the earth or positioned in front of an imaginary relief-like structure in mid-air. Aerial views make it possible for the artist to work without the constraints of an implicit horizon line. In an earlier piece Lonesome Rock (2015), for example, Yau adopted a horizontal perspective (fig. 6). The work shows pine trees on a mountaintop against a dark expanse of cloud. Stretching across the whole canvas, the accumulation of brushstrokes creates a rhythmic interplay of lightness and darkness on the painting surface, making the cloud appear immense and omnipotent. Yau’s positioning of the mountaintop accentuates the overall atmospheric effect, for it highlights how the cloud is enveloping the rocks and trees from all sides. This layout also conforms to the reading habit of handscroll viewers. As they unfold the scroll from right to left, most expect shifts in thematic or spatial arrangement in the middle section, rather than at the beginning or the end. Unlike the horizontal view, the aerial view of Looming Sceneriesgrants Yau more freedom to interweave various elements into a composition that does not necessarily predetermine the position of details.
Yau’s appropriation of aerial views is interrelated with his reconsideration of the notion of guan (观). Guan refers to an erudite and contemplative way of viewing traditional Chinese painting. The abovementioned yuan is closely associated with guan, as guan entails seeing a landscape painting as an index of a much more expanded space, of which viewers are a part. In Yau’s master’s thesis on the history of spatial conception in Chinese landscape painting, he paid particular attention to guan and yuan. Apart from delineating their conceptual aspects, Yau examined the visual expression of these notions. In a section titled “Flattened presentations of space”, he pointed out that guan tends to reduce pictorial depth, as viewing an object at a distance often makes it seem closer to other compositional elements. The same can be said about aerial views, which often involve remote distance between viewer and object. Through aerial views, Yau found an alternative lens to interpret the notion of yuan and guan.
In line with Yau’s analysis of guan, his depiction of aerial views often accentuates the two-dimensional picture plane. This trope can be traced back to his early work The Airy Islands (2015), which anticipates Looming Sceneries in composition and surface texture (fig. 7, fig. 8). The painting depicts a vast expanse of water under an overcast sky. Dispersed amid the amorphous elements are small boats painted with fine golden lines. On a handscroll stretching over two and a half meters long, the picture plane is dominated by a multi-layered texture and a bold interplay of light and shadow. Similar to the method of creating Looming Sceneries, Yau crumpled and rinsed the thin cicada paper before painting. He then portrayed the hazy atmospheric effect with broken ink (破墨) and splash ink (泼墨) on the wrinkled and washed paper. The wrinkles and fiber hemps made visible by brushstrokes and ink splashes draw viewers’ attention to the physical surface of the painting. In addition, cloud and water, lacking stable shape and scale, make the pictorial space inherently ambiguous. Viewers can hardly tell the water apart from the sky. While the tiny boats are suggestive of pictorial depth, when viewed at a distance, they appear as reflective dots on gold-flecked paper. All of these details flatten the pictorial space.
In Looming Sceneries, Yau dealt with cloud and surface texture in a similar manner. His depiction of rock fragments is also imbued with spatial ambiguities. In traditional painting, rock fragments, called fantou (矾头), often appear together with foliage on mountaintops. In Looming Sceneries, Yau merely placed the rocks amid cloud, sometimes hinting at leafage by tinges of azurite and cyanine (fig. 9). Lacking other earthly objects as reference points, viewers may find it hard to gauge the distance between the earth and sky. Compared with chunks of rocks, fragments are easier to spread out on a flat surface, while providing limited indications of depth. They underline the flattened pictorial space through their rhythmic linear pattern. The shift from horizontal to vertical perspective also de-familiarizes viewers with the form of rocks. Instead of solid fragments, they look more like an amalgamation of protruding shapes. For some, the rounded outline of the rocks recall shapes of ganoderma, or lingzhi mushroom, a cultural symbol of fortune and health in China. This blurs the line between organic plants and inorganic stones, making it difficult for viewers to pinpoint what the objects are.
Lacking clear indications of spatial structure and depth, the pictorial space of Looming Sceneries often appears flattened. Yet this flatness is a precarious one. It is perceivable yet not substantial. In fact, Yau’s ambiguous pictorial space can be compared to an accordion. Depending on how viewers approach the paintings, it can expand and compress. It can point to the immense distance between satellite and earth; it can also be compared to the flat projection of satellite images on a digital screen. The aerial view Yau constructed foregrounds the contradictions, ambiguities, and complexities of a contemporary visuality shaped by technology.
At the corner of the paintings of Looming Sceneries, viewers may come across a red seal showing parallel lines of varying widths. It represents a barcode that means Yau, the artist’s last name (fig. 10). A barcode is a visualization of data produced by a machine and readable by a machine. It symbolizes a mode of modern visual production that transforms the relationship between creator and reader. This presentation of authorship reiterates the tradition of stamping artists’ names in a stylized script carved in a stone. More importantly, it encapsulates the artist’s effort to reframe traditional aesthetics through a contemporary lens. By mobilizing satellite imagery and aerial views, Yau offered a contemporary interpretation of yuan and called for a new way of perceiving the space of Chinese landscape paintings.
Xinran Guo is the art director of Fu Qiumeng Fine Art. She lives and works in Tianjin and Beijing. Guo holds a doctoral degree in art history from Northwestern University, a master’s degree in East Asian Studies from Stanford University, and a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Peking University. Her writings have appeared on Artforum and artforum.cn.