Yang Yongliang

Stage 6 Visual Arts Case Study

Yang Yongliang       楊泳梁      High Mountains and Flowing Water

‘I’m beginning to realise I can use the newest techniques to work with one of the oldest artforms.’ (Yang Yongliang

 Yang Yongliang, Infinite Landscape (still) 2011 Blue-ray HD video, 07:23 min, courtesy White Rabbit Collection
A work that at first appears to be a traditional Chinese painting of misty mountain peaks – until you look more closely and realise that this landscape is moving, filled with machinery…

For PRELIMINARY, HSC and IB students, this Case Study is focused on:
o   Reading and analysing extracts of art critical writing to model descriptive writing and critical analysis and interpretation
o   Understanding ‘visual codes’ and iconography – applying the structural frame to understand how artists create meanings in their works through their choices of materials and their visual language
o   Understanding how contemporary artists work in ways informed by history as well as the present-day issues in society, and how art historians explain works in their context
o   Examining how contemporary artists use new technologies
o   Comparative writing – learning how to compare works (by the same or different artists) to make well-supported inferences and deductions

For Teachers – Some Information About Teaching / Learning:
This Case Study focuses on the practices of the artist and the critic. In the first instance, students encounter the artworks themselves, in the gallery and/or in reproduction and/or online. A sequence of learning activities begins with a discussion of selected works, followed by reading the examples of art writing provided (models of critical practice), and responding to focus questions. Whole class and small group tasks are suggested, with links to other artists, and to other useful resources. An extended response question, with marking guidelines, requires students to develop an argument that demonstrates their understanding of the artist’s practice in his social and historical context.

The Case Study may be approached in a range of different ways, depending on the particular interests of teachers and students. Strategies may include:

o   Independent research or collaborative investigations
o   ‘Socratic Dialogues’ that unpack a range of meanings in specific works
o   Debates or dialogues exploring how Yang Yongliang uses new media and ancient Chinese references to explore the contemporary world
o    The creation of student blogs or websites for the publication of critical art writing

A: Individually, students read each of the three texts and answer the focus questions before attempting the extended response.
B: To extend this case study, working independently or in small groups, students may choose to investigate:

o   The relationships between works by Yang Yongliang and traditions of landscape painting in China – always political and always containing hidden meanings.
o   Historical precedents for Yang Yongliang’s works, from Song Dynasty landscape painting to the work of contemporary artists such as Bingyi’s monumental ink installations, Lam Tung-pang’s representations of Hong Kong, Qiu Anxiong’s ink animation New Book of Mountains and Seas Part 2, Shi Zhiying’s Sea Sutra series or Xu Bing’s Background Story series.
o   How does Yang Yongliang’s practice (sometimes defined as ‘Contemporary Ink’) connect with other art practitioners and their works such as Huang Yan’s Chinese Tattoo series, Chen Shaoxiong’s videos such as Ink History or Ink City, Gu Wenda’s United Nations series, Song Dong’s Writing Diary with Water or Zheng Guogu and the Yangjiang Group’s After Dinner Calligraphy performances?

Yang Yongliang, Cigarette Ash Landscape (detail), 2013, inkjet prints, cardboard, paper, wire, foam, dimensions variable, image courtesy White Rabbit Collection

Students – Start Here!

·       First watch the preview of ‘Infinite Landscape’ here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6tpiyRxb7w
·       Then watch this video from ‘The Creators Project’ where you will see Yang Yongliang at work:
‘All of the video footage is taken with bird’s-eye view of the various places I’ve been to. During the filming process, I discovered this point of view produces an unusual experience. The viewer can step back and look at the familiar places with a completely objective view. Seeing many small people, cars, and buildings moving around at the same time can be surreal.’ (Yang Yongliang)
Next, check out Yang Yongliang’s work on ‘This is Colossal’ here: http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2014/05/from-the-new-world-yang-yongliang/

Yang Yongliang, ‘From the New World’– image courtesy the artist  www.yangyongliang.com

Next read the information found in this link to the Teaching Chinese Art website for background to understand more about the connection between traditional Chinese painting and Yang Yongliang’s appropriations: http://teachingchineseart.blogspot.com.au/p/an-art-of-revolution-little-background.html

You will be applying different ‘lenses’ of interpretation as you continue to explore Yang Yongliang’s practice, as well as placing the artist in the context of his world (modern China) and the contemporary artworld. 

Now that you are familiar with what Yang Yongliang does, the next step is to work through the questions that follow each reading, before attempting the extended response question that concludes this case study.  Use the terminology from the list below as you describe and interpret Yang Yongliang’s work and analyse his practice.

Essential Terminology for this Case Study

New Media
Digital Animation
Postmodernism / Postmodernity
‘Shan Shui’ (mountain/water) painting
‘Shui Mo’ (ink wash) painting
Song Dynasty
Cultural Resistance

“What I am really interested in, and the real focus of all my work, is globalization – of the whole world. It’s especially very poignant here in China, but other countries, both western and developing countries, are experiencing the same things.” [Yang Yongliang]

Yang Yongliang, Artificial Wonderland II – Travelers Among Mountains and Streams, 2014, detail.
Courtesy of the artist. www.yangyongliang.com
Text Box: Yang Yongliang
Infinite Landscape (stills)
2011, digital Blu-Ray video, 7 min 30 sec
Courtesy White Rabbit Collection

Yang Yongliang combines traditional Chinese shan shui (literally, mountain water) art with digital techniques to create “ghost landscapes,” which offer a dreamy techno vision of man and his environment. While the videos and pictures have a striking sense of harmony, they are also somehow unsettling. Industrial images, pollution, and waste have replaced the traditional country idyll. (Jared Green)


   Background Information

Yang Yongliang was born in 1980 in Shanghai. As a young student, he studied traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy before attending the Shanghai Art & Design Academy, where he specialized in decoration and design beginning in 1996. In 1999 he attended the China Academy of Art, Visual Communication Department, Shanghai branch. In 2005 he started his career as an artist with the stated goal of “creating new forms of contemporary art.”
The artist uses digital tools to capture that time-tested aesthetic of his traditional training. Traditional Chinese culture permeates his cutting-edge creative process, using new techniques and software to interpret older forms, like Chinese landscape paintings.
A longtime student and devotee of ‘shanshui’, or landscape painting, Yang Yongliang has watched in dismay as a China hell-bent on modernisation tosses its traditions on the scrap heap. Yang Yongliang’s approach to saving shanshui is based on retaining its inner essence while updating its subjects and media. His multilayered photo-video “paintings” of boomtown Shanghai replace mountains with clusters of high-rise buildings, and streams with busy highways. Unlike the tranquil landscapes of old China, these urban scenes are in constant motion, crisscrossed by cars, aircraft, and the arms of giant construction cranes. Their monochrome shades simultaneously evoke the diluted black ink of traditional painters and the grey clouds of smog that blanket the city. They also parallel the “despair and sadness” Yang Yongliang feels when he contemplates what is being lost as Shanghai erupts into the 21st century.
(Text adapted from Dominik Mersch Gallery 

Yang Yongliang, Cigarette Ash Landscape, 2013, pigmented inkjet prints, paper, cardboard, wire, foam, dimensions variable, image courtesy White Rabbit CollectionYang Yongliang, Cigarette Ash Landscape, 2013, pigmented inkjet prints, cardboard, paper, wire, polyurethane foam, dimensions variableYang Yongliang, Cigarette Ash Landscape, 2013, pigmented inkjet prints, cardboard, paper, wire, polyurethane foam, dimensions variable

Useful References and Resources

http://chinaphotoeducation.com/Carol_China/Yang_Yongliang.html - a web site focused on Chinese photography by Australian art teacher Carol Carter

http://www.designboom.com/art/yang-yongliang-cigarette-ash-landscape/ - about the installation ‘Cigarette Ash Landscape’

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/booksandarts/masterpiece3a-mikala-tai/6898388 - download the audio of Mikala Tai discussing Yang Yongliang’s ‘Phantom Landscape’

https://explore.dangrove.org/persons/499 Yang Yongliang in the White Rabbit Collection

‘The tightly overlapped skyscrapers appear threatening and fundamentally unsuitable for organic life, while the collapsing structures and rubble-covered ground look like a scene after an epic disaster.’ (Meiqin Wang)

Useful Quotes

“Just as a musical remix could include sampling of tracks by multiple artists, many of the artists in ‘Ink Remix’ appropriate the tropes of traditional ink works. Misty mountains do appear, albeit in a much-altered form. In Yang Yongliang’sBowl of Taipei’ series (2012) they are crammed into noodle bowls, suggesting the ‘bonsai-ing’ of nature, squeezed into a new urban world of consumerism and mass production. Yang’s clever animations respond to China’s environmental crisis and the pace of urbanisation. ‘Rising Mist’ (2014) at first appears to emulate a traditional scholar painting of mountains and water. On closer inspection, you realise that the mountains are formed by the towering steel and concrete high-rises of an enormous city; construction cranes and electric stanchions rather than pine trees punctuate the horizon line. The entire urban landscape is adrift in a miasma of pollution.”
(A review of ‘Ink Remix’ http://theartlife.com.au/2016/ink-remix/)

“Yang Yongliang says, “The city is the place where I live, a space that evolves with me and which contains my memories. A mirage or ghost-city is the environment towards which I reach out, but it only exists in my imagination. The water of the mountain (the landscape) suggests the imitation of the traditional art forms of my childhood, which have gradually disappeared as the city and I have evolved. The birth of the Ghost Landscape is not an accident. The city, the landscape – I love them and hate them at the same time. If I love the city for its familiarity, I hate it even more for the staggering speed at which it grows and engulfs the environment. If I like traditional Chinese art for its depth and inclusiveness, I hate its retrogressive attitude. The ancients expressed their sentiments and appreciation of nature through landscape painting. As for me, I use my own landscape to criticize reality as I perceive it.” (source: https://dirt.asla.org/2013/03/28/yang-yongliangs-ghost-landscapes/ )

Readings and Questions

Reading #1 – Adapted from Yang Yongliang in the British Museum Collection Online

Song dynasty (960–1279), Chinese dynasty that ruled the country during one of its most brilliant cultural epochs. It is commonly divided into Bei (Northern) and Nan (Southern) Song periods, as the dynasty ruled only in South China after 1127. Both northern and Southern Song periods were renowned for their artistic achievements.
Yang Yongliang's digital manipulations are clever in their inversion of the imagery of Song dynasty painters and he has created works that are themselves visually attractive. His cold, hard urban images possess a layer of romantic beauty with their mists and towering forms. By making his works "beautiful" he has managed to make them much more than a mockery of modern life. Instead they pose the difficult question of whether urban life can be simultaneously loathsome and possess an intrinsic beauty. Yang carefully made these riffs on Southern Song landscapes because the earlier works have long been regarded in China as a sublime expression of nature's beauty and mystery. Are Yang's images meant to be taken as expressions of a city's beauty or of the terror of urban encroachment?

Every detail of Yang's compositions intentionally recalls Song Dynasty painters who employed brush and ink techniques to create soft washes for mists and distant mountains and called upon a variety of ink brushstrokes to outline craggy trees and texture land surfaces by imbuing them with the feel of rock, soil, and low vegetation. The traditional texture strokes have been recast into a modern idiom in Yang's work. He pioneered a method of using digitally manipulated photographic images of buildings, including skyscrapers, and of telephone poles and pylons for suspending electric wires as if they are brush marks.
He arranges and layers these stark modern images, sometimes veiling them by mist, so that they appear remarkably close to the Southern Song prototypes. Yet, some modern elements read with naked clarity thereby ensuring that the viewer simultaneously sees the modern and the ancient, toggling back and forth between the two readings of the image as "12th century landscape" and modern China. His images seem simultaneously beautiful and repulsive, restful and threatening, timeless and changing. Yang's work forces us to ponder China’s modernization.
Yang invites reflection on whether today's China embodies a smooth continuum (or a rupture) between past and present cultural traditions. It also prompts deliberation on whether it is possible (or impossible) for rural and urban spaces to coexist in a country that is undergoing modernisation at such a breathtaking pace. Yang's artistic style sits within a well-established creative mode known as 're-inventing the past'. As the famous 12th-century calligrapher Huang Tingjian once wrote, 'When we use in our compositions a familiar quotation from the ancient, it becomes an elixir that transforms iron into gold.' Yang accomplishes this transmutation by reworking old painting idioms to dramatic effect, yet allowing the images to remain familiar. He replaces the painter's brush with camera and digital manipulation and subverts the landscape theme of yore by turning it into a world of cement and steel buildings, electric cables and urban debris.

YANG Yongliang, A Bowl of Taipei no. 4, 2012, photographs (Epson Ultragiclee print on Hahnemuhle paper), 100 x 100 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

Focus Questions
1.      How does Yang Yongliang ‘reinvent the past’, according to the writer?
2.      What, specifically, are his historical references?
3.      What digital elements replace the ink brush marks of traditional Chinese painting?
4.      Find a Song Dynasty painting online and compare it with a work by Yang Yongliang – note the similarities that you observe (hint: try searching www.metmuseum.org).
5.      What is Yang Yongliang’s attitude to the modern world of skyscrapers, highways and electricity pylons, do you think? Give reasons for your opinion.

Reading #2

Mae Anna Pang from the National Gallery of Victoria on Yang Yongliang’s ‘Phantom Landscape’:
Like a Chinese handscroll read from right to left, the video Phantom landscape moves from right to left. It begins with a piece of Chinese classical music, Liushui (flowing water or mountain streams), played on the scholar’s instrument, the qin (lute). The music sounds heavy and foreboding, suggesting impending catastrophe.
The artist has superimposed scenes of modern city life over images of mountain peaks and waterfalls in a traditional Chinese landscape (shanshui, mountains and water) painting of the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127). Trees, pavilions and a fishing village with fishing boats and nets, fishermen and travellers crossing bridges in a tranquil traditional landscape are displaced by symbols of modern progress such as streets with noisy traffic, skyscrapers and powerlines. A juxtaposition of time and culture is created.
On a busy street corner we find flashing video billboards advertising Sharp, the Japanese electronic company, and part of Samsung, the Korean electronic company. In the faint distance at the right, for a split second, a very tiny fishing boat is moving from right to left behind a mountain, followed by a small aeroplane emerging from behind the same mountain and then moving in the opposite direction and out of the screen.
A powerful waterfall is rushing down to a busy street, but like an illusion or phantom, the water does not flood the street and has no impact. In the middle distance waterfalls cascade like Niagara Falls. Could this allude to the recent hydro-electric project of the Three Gorges of the Yangtze River in China?
As if answering or echoing the foreboding music at the beginning of the film, suddenly we seem to be under a gigantic aeroplane, charging at and crashing into the landscape, reminiscent of a shark.
By using the images of a traditional Chinese landscape painting rather than the photograph of actual mountain scenery, the artist has given deeper meaning to the film. There is an inherent feeling of nostalgia for the old culture and way of life, with the implication that the intrusion and great speed of modern progress and foreign influence is inevitable and relentless. Ironically, at the same time, there seems to be an acceptance and even a celebration of modern city life which appears so vibrant and lively with video screens and streams of cars and buses, until horror strikes when the gigantic plane crashes into the landscape at the conclusion. Is this the artist’s final statement on modern progress?
Mae Anna Pang, Senior Curator, Asian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2012).

Focus Questions
1.      What language techniques does Pang use in her description of ‘Phantom Landscape’?
2.      Does Pang create a visual image of the work for the reader? Which phrases or sentences do this most effectively?
3.      From describing the work, Pang moves to a consideration of its possible meanings – where in the text does this transition occur?
4.      What possible interpretations does the writer suggest?

Reading #3

An extract from White Rabbit Collection, ‘Yang Yongliang: Beyond Ink and Brush’   

Literati: scholars in China and Japan whose poetry, calligraphy, and paintings were supposed primarily to reveal their cultivation and express their personal feelings rather than demonstrate professional skill. The concept of literati painters was first formulated in China in the Bei (Northern) Song Dynasty but was enduringly codified in the Ming Dynasty.

Daoist: Taoism, also known as Daoism, is a religious, philosophical and ritual tradition of Chinese origin which emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao. The Tao is a fundamental idea in most Chinese philosophical schools; in Taoism, however, it denotes the principle that is both the source, pattern and substance of everything that exists. Taoism differs from Confucianism by not emphasizing rigid rituals and social order. Taoist ethics in general tend to emphasize wu wei, "naturalness", simplicity, spontaneity.

…Each work is composed of many thousands of separate photographs. At first, Yang Yongliang’s still and moving images, and his sculptural installations, appear to echo the Chinese Song Dynasty ‘shan shui’ (mountain and water) painting tradition, typically featuring imagery of bamboo, waterfalls, twisted trees, or lonely scholars wandering through misty mountain landscapes. Indeed, images of landscape dominated the history of ink painting. More complex than a simple binary opposition of nature versus culture, or wilderness versus civilization, Chinese depictions of landscape were highly constructed metaphors of harmony. Literati artists were not interested in accurate representations of the external world; rather, their beautiful brushwork expressed their deep emotional responses to the complex realpolitik of the imperial court, and their desire for solace and respite in the beauties of nature. Their paintings were inflected by Daoist and Buddhist philosophy, reflecting the interconnectedness of humanity and nature, the balance of yin and yang.

Yang Yongliang re-examines this artistic heritage, adapting the ‘shan shui’ idiom to represent his contemporary urban world. Having successfully run his own advertising and animation studio for three years, he decided to become a full-time artist in 2005, at first experimenting with ink and brush painting. Over time, he began to produce increasingly complex multi-channel works, made up of multiple layers of still and moving digital imagery…

…Each of Yang Yongliang’s animated works is made up of between ten and twenty thousand high-resolution still images, all shot by the artist himself from elevated vantage points on demolition sites in cities including Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong and Chongqing. Additionally, twenty to thirty moving video images are required to layer into the final work, which can take more than three months of patient, exacting post-production labour. Yang Yongliang believes he is not unlike the ancient scholar painters, working carefully and slowly with their ink stones and brushes. He does not see a significant difference between his continuing practice of calligraphy and his work with animation and photographic software, except for the added dimension of time: the philosophy is constant, only the medium is different.

Luise Guest, for White Rabbit Collection

Focus Questions

1.      What do you learn from this text about the specific techniques used by Yang Yongliang? Summarise them in a sequence. Write one sentence about his material practice and one sentence about his conceptual intentions.
2.      If you were planning a digital animation or a digitally collaged image inspired by the twenty-first century development of the city of Sydney, what images would you collect? What features of your own city would you emphasise? How would your work be different in intent and appearance from Yang Yongliang’s?

The next step is to apply your understanding of Yang Yongliang’s practice to an extended discussion of how artists use technology to communicate meaning.

Comparative Art Criticism – an Essay
Answer the extended response question you will find on the next page, with reference to TWO works by Yang Yongliang compared with a work or works by one or more of the following suggested artists (or another relevant artist you have studied):
·       Xu Bing e.g. ‘Background Story’ or ‘The Book from the Sky’
·       Ai Weiwei e.g. ‘Oil Spill’ or ‘Sunflower Seeds’
·       Qiu Anxiong e.g. ‘New Book of Mountains and Seas Part 2’
·       Shyu Ruey Shiann e.g. ‘Eight Drunken Immortals’
·       Guo Jian e.g. ‘Picturesque Scenery’
·       Chen Chun-Hao e.g. ‘Imitating Travellers Among Mountains and Streams by Fan Kuan of the Song Dynasty’
·       Bingyi e.g. her monumental ink installation ‘Cascade’ in the lobby of Chicago’s Smart Museum, or her 2014 ‘Époche’ performance work dropping ink from a helicopter at Shenzhen Airport
You might also consider making a comparison between Yang Yongliang and a non-Chinese artist who uses historical works as their source material for constructing new meanings and commenting on their world.

Yang Yongliang, Phantom Landscape II (detail) , 2007, giclée print, image courtesy the artistwww.yangyongliang.com

Plan and write an essay in response to this question:

How do contemporary artists combine new technologies with historical techniques, materials or art conventions to convey their conceptual intentions?

Marking Guidelines
Mark Range
o   A comprehensive knowledge and understanding of the practice of the selected artists is evident and sustained throughout
o   A sophisticated analysis and interpretation of the visual codes, materials, techniques and technologies used by the selected artists, demonstrating extensive knowledge and thorough understanding of the works within their contemporary context.
o   Appropriate art terminology is employed fluently and persuasively

9    - 10
o   A sound knowledge and understanding of the practice of the selected artists is evident and well-sustained
o   A good analysis and interpretation of the visual codes, materials, techniques and technologies used by the selected artists, demonstrating sound knowledge and understanding of the works within their contemporary contexts
o   Appropriate art terminology is employed competently

7    - 8
o   Some knowledge and understanding of the practice of the selected artists is evident
o   A satisfactory analysis and interpretation of some visual codes, materials, techniques and technologies used by the selected artists, demonstrating some knowledge and understanding of the works in a more descriptive manner
o   Some appropriate art terminology is employed more naively

5    - 6
o   A limited knowledge and understanding of the practice of the selected artists may be expressed in less coherent ways
o   A simple analysis and interpretation of some visual codes, materials, techniques and technologies used by the selected artists, demonstrating a developing knowledge and understanding of the works, is applied in a descriptive or more limited manner
o   A very simple attempt to apply appropriate art language may be evident

3    - 4
o   A foundational understanding of artmaking practice
o   An elementary understanding of the visual codes, materials, techniques and technologies used the selected artists
o   Little or no understanding of the contemporary artworld
o   Little or no attempt to apply appropriate art language
  1 - 2

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