The exhibition showing when I arrived at The Three Shadows was “Yellow River” by Zhang Kechun from Chengdu of which there was a paperback catalogue available with good quality reproductions. Although I bought this for future reference, I was able to enjoy the gallery sized prints that were made using a 5 by 4 Linhof camera and colour negative film allowing for excellent detail. The photographer has resricted the range of his colour palette and made images that are light impressions devoid of high contrast. This soft and subtle approach allows one to feel the calmness of the river rather than experience the anguish and tragedy it can bring. One commentator, At Bishan, writes that “His pictures are so calm that there’s no arragoant human or angry river. Everything goes to quietness, which is actually enduring power.”
Humans do feature in these images but at ant-like sizes; they are part of a much greater whole of which the river is a significant part. One image that amuses me (and is also picked out by the catalogue) is of two men on what might be an island in the river yet what is probably just a spit of land. One is at the top of the bank with his camera on a tripod from which protrudes a long lens; the other is down by the waterside holding a white poodle in his arms having his picture taken. It is encouraging to see the lengths to which these man have gone to make a good photograph in an area that is itself barren for the land looks wasted and behind are the huge chimneys of an industrial plant.
Much of Kechun’s work, the images were acquired by walking along the river banks, contains compositions that are often delicately humorous yet also describe the immensity of the river and the obvious power it has over people’s lives. For instance, there is a photograph entitled “A man fishing on the top of a pavilion in the river, Shanxi” which informs one that the river is unpredictable and can devastate areas and yet the inhabitants have learned to live with this and manage to adapt such misfortune to their own ends.
What evidence if any is there of the sublime is here? It is perhaps the immensity not just of the images but the space they contain, their careful compositions and the tiny presence of man beside the vast sliding river that suggest the Sublime.
In his artist’s statement found at the end of the catalogue, Kechun writes that “Carrying out this photograph project is because of the inspiration after reading the novel River of the North by Zhang Chengzhi … I decided to take a walk along the Yellow River to experience and feel the father-like broad and wide brought from this river, so that I could find the root of my soul. While along the way, the river from my mind was inundated by the stream of reality.” He has avoided the cliched view of the river as mother and yet is still sensitive to it’s nature; “There is a descent in the matrix; there is her own nutrition to feed her babies; there is the power of creation to cultivate them strongly.”
The photographer’s view may be optimistic yet it does not compromise the reality posed by the Yellow River which was “once full of legends” says Kechun that have “gone and dissappeared”. Returning to this exhibition after a couple of days, I still find it inspiring; the subtle use of colour, the generous employment of space with attention to detail are qualities that uplift one. Photographers such as Burtynsky are much more hard hitting in terms of their portrayal of environmental degradation yet by doing so present work that is harder to digest. Burtynsky has been accused of beautifying the banal (an accusation that might be leveled at photography as a whole) if not of being nihilistic (another comment that might be applied to not only photography but contemporary Western art); Kechun allows us a window to see not just the turmoil caused by construction but something that transcends the histories he offers us.
Another image from this series that I would also like to consider is that of a large Buddha head apparently stranded in the midst of a building yard; a small figure dressed in white looks up at it from a distance. On closer inspection, one may need the caption to understand this, the dimunitive figure turns out to be a Muslim; another ironic twist to this tale of the river that Kechun presents to us.
Better known is the work of Nadav Kander who photographed a similar project along the Yangtse river.