Chinese art, despite its ancient roots, still faces erosion in the face of Western contemporary influence. Shanghai based artist Yang Yong Liang’s work is provocative, but his mission is to preserve, not knock-down, Chinese art’s long history.
by Cecilia Chan (translated from Chinese)
Yang Yongliang is one of those rare people who can brilliantly juxtapose tradition and technology. The 33 year-old Shanghainese artist has a composure and temperament rarely seen in modern day urbanites. He often wears a cricket-cap and a pair of vintage style glasses, looking humble and low-key. His studio in Huangpu district is like a Zen room with all kinds of rustic furnishings and Chinese guqin music that soothingly drowns out the city noise.
Recently, Yang went to New York with the major Chinese contemporary art exhibition ‘Ink Art.’ This was actually his second time hosting an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the last seven years, he has received praise from all over the world while traveling with his exhibitions in the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Korea, Russia, Denmark and Greece. The British Museum even added his work to their collection.
Yang believes contemporary art is a Western concept, and only if Chinese artists create something using their own art language can they have a relatively equal platform with the West.
“I hope all the Chinese can hold onto the roots associated with our own culture. If not, then what makes you Chinese? Just having a Chinese face doesn’t mean anything.”
Many a casual observer have mistaken Yang Yongliang’s work for traditional Chinese landscape painting, but upon closer examination one will realize that his style digitally combines ink landscape scenery and photography to create futuristic miniature cities. “A lot of people ask me why I would combine ancient and modern Chinese art. This is due to my educational background.” Under the tutelage of the Chinese University of Hong Kong professor Yang Yang from an early age, Yang Yongliang trained in classical Chinese painting, calligraphy, seal carving, and other traditional arts for ten years, instilling in him a strongly traditional Chinese temperament. With his admiration for traditional art, Yang does not seek to antagonize or challenge it, but rather to inherit and purify it, to see its evolution so that it may survive in some form for the future: “new media technology is only for representing the spiritual content of my painting. I think it is time for innovation; the handicraft era has gone – art on paper will no longer survive.” Yang uses photographic collage techniques to capture the cityscapes in real life and then uses his own language to rebuild the city on his digital canvas.Although Yang believes that the future is increasingly moving towards digital media, he still occasionally practices calligraphy. In his mind, new media represents the rational, and painting and calligraphy represent the emotional. Photography and video do not involve direct and physical contact with the human body, so it is relatively rational, whereas painting and calligraphy move straight from the body to the canvas: “that is the closest way, direct and sensual,” Yang explains.
For Yang, his works are spiritual connections with the viewer. “I don’t really like so-called conceptual art; they are just playing pretty tricks. Good art should be inclusive, not exclusive, not showing off ‘I’m smarter than you.’” In his opinion, a good art concept should not be imposed upon the viewer, but rather stir up emotions and ideas in the viewer. “Good art,” Yang enthuses, “should resonate with the viewer.” Speaking of the status of Chinese artists, Yang believes that Western art markets and systems tend to be more complete, with grants and art foundations that help artists financially, but Chinese artists can only rely on themselves or galleries to sell works. Therefore many Chinese artists have to ingratiate themselves to buyers for immediate economic benefits. Still, Yang feels optimistic about the future of younger-generation Chinese artists: “The earlier generation’s works were based on ideology, but our generation has a lighter burden than them.” He believes China can create a new generation of artists that will be more inclined to follow their heart and own experiences.
Yang’s works are expansive, both in size and scope. They examine traditional and contemporary issues, discussing the environment and the conflicts and contradictions associated with urbanization and cultural identity. Yang seeks to express some intrinsic values of the Chinese tradition and then hide everything in between the unified and harmonious landscape: “You must look closer if you want to see the conflicts and contradictions… This is the Chinese way: we never criticize someone by pointing at their noses, we circle around the issue and drop hints.”
This year, Yang is planning more overseas exhibitions and preparing to make new works. “I’ve been thinking for a long time, to find a totally different way and say something completely different,” he said. When these works and ideas take form, and whatever form they take, they are sure to move the world.