BY Brian Curtin in Reviews | 02 SEP 06
Featured in
Issue 101

Yang Yong

BY Brian Curtin in Reviews | 02 SEP 06

The initial impression Yang Yong’s photographs make is one of self-consciousness. All the photographs are of women ostensibly posing in a variety of urban settings, and the images generically reflect different types of representation: snapshots, fashion photographs and stills from over-styled art films. Most were taken in artificial light, both exterior and interior, and some are nearly monochrome, glowing with a vivid orange or green light. For the installation at Tang Gallery light-boxes stood or hung alongside conventional wall displays. With the gallery’s black floor, grey walls and dimmed lighting Yong’s photographs were luminescent glimpses of a mediated but essentially indistinct urban environment. Temporary and fleeting, it seemed as though the scenes could disappear at any moment.

Of course, they don’t disappear, and on examination Yong’s self-consciousness does not appear to be the appropriation of certain rhetorical devices but a negotiation of them. In other words, the photographs do not precisely reproduce the appearance of, for example, film stills but borrow and play with associated poses and gestures. In this respect we can believe that the women were not directed but were given licence to perform. Their performances demonstrate a range of expressions: reflective, coy, absorbed, natural, indifferent and happily conscious of the photographer’s interest. We see women sitting and smoking on the edge of a crumpled bed in some tiny anonymous room, glaring at their reflection in a bathroom mirror, posing like models on some underground steps, pointing a gun in various directions from a balcony and so on. Curiously, none of the photographs suggests a narrative – they are not out-takes from a bigger story. Rather, they are concerned with the relationship between the photographer and the model in terms of the capacity of the women to signify a series of states of mind.

The photographs were taken in the city of Shenzhen, where Yong also lives. One of China’s Special Economic Zones, the town has developed rapidly from having an agriculturally based economy to being a centre for commercial investment. The artificiality of this development (an imported population, the inorganic growth of an urban infrastructure) has produced the sense of simulacra that underlines Yong’s photographs. Here is where the artist’s work can be situated in regard to certain photographic practices, albeit ‘Western’ ones: Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Mark Morrisroe, Jack Pierson, Collier Schorr and, to a far lesser but nevertheless significant extent, Nan Goldin and Cindy Sherman – or some form of cross-over between the latter two insofar as Goldin’s mawkish ‘honesty’ and Sherman’s total artifice are simultaneously evident. Catalogue notes claim that Yong’s models are his friends and also Shenzhen denizens who have drifted into prostitution. The paradigms created by diCorcia et al., to do with the psychology of the individual in relation to notions of ‘truth’, ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’, are tested by Yong. There isn’t really any distinction between these terms; expression is already understood as formed in and through received ideas.

Yong, it is regularly noted, is of a generation with no memory of either Imperial China or the Cultural Revolution, and the mostly 20-something women depicted are part of his generation. ‘Identity’ in the context of a contemporary Chinese city such as Shenzhen can only be understood in terms of an accelerated modernity and the impact of global and globalizing media. The women appear adrift from history; there are no tell-tale signs of place, time or culture. The poses they strike eventually give way to a sense of disenfranchisement, soullessness and alienation. In the series ‘Fancy in Tunnel’ (2001–3) the less than perfect composition of the photographs and the woman’s demeanour upset the reference to iconic fashion images. In ‘The Cruel Daily of Youth – Am I Myself’ (1999–2002) there is no dramatic tension between the woman and the gun. A sense of conventionality smothers any possibility of recognizing the character in Can’t Find Way Home (1999), seemingly a sex worker lighting a cigarette, as an individual. There are, however, lighter moments, such as City Light (1999), which shows a child greeting the unseen photographer, and an incongruous black and white triptych that appears as an academic study in light and form.

In the final analysis Yong’s work is a welcome contribution to the types of photography practice mentioned above, being comparable to but essentially different from them. Moreover, the images may say much about China, but they defy categorization in terms of ‘Chinese-ness’.

Brian Curtin is an art critic based in Bangkok, Thailand. His book Essential Desires: Contemporary Art in Thailand is due to be published by Reaktion Books in 2021.