Shu Yang: Manufacturing 18% Gray
Source:Artintern.net Date: 2010-09-14 Size:
There are few photographers like Xu Yong who, as an active practitioner of contemporary photography in China, pours so much energy into constant questioning and innovation of the method of photography. From and that bear the memory of the epoch to and that depict real people, Xu Yong's works have, in addition to presenting Chinese social reality with high sensitivity, kept expanding creative means to renew his art.

There are few photographers like Xu Yong who, as an active practitioner of contemporary photography in China, pours so much energy into constant questioning and innovation of the method of photography. From and that bear the memory of the epoch to and that depict real people, Xu Yong’s works have, in addition to presenting Chinese social reality with high sensitivity, kept expanding creative means to renew his art. His persistent passion on exploring photographic methodology has been pushed to the limit in his latest works <18% Gray>.

<18% Gray> is totally different from his works in the past. This time Xu Yong shot the objects out of focus to acquire blurry images that are approaching blank, some of them even dissolve and disappear entirely in the “18% gray” which is a standard prescribed according to the characteristic of photographic sensitization technique. These seemingly non-existing images, shot at the scene and through accurate exposure, turn photography from “capturing pictures of the world” into “capturing images made possible by photography”, i.e., turn photography from the function of recording into reflection on recording. These perfectly blurry images are deliberately made to obstruct our observation on the objects in reality, the lenses of camera thus become, through the visual anxiety imposed on us, the eyes to scrutinize photography itself. The neutrality of photographic sensitization technique seem to provide us, through these images, a certain artistic means that is universal reaching beyond cultural and personal significances. However, when this universal artistic means starts to be easily accessible to everyone, it also becomes suspicious: is it the ideal universal artistic means? What is the significance of this means? Can Xu Yong, even, continuously support his artistic innovation through this means?

The way Xu Yong uses for his new photography is to give up the tradition of photography, which could also be understood as giving up or overthrowing the standard of traditional photography. Today in China, shall we give up or overthrow the tradition of photography which has just been established? This is not a question of artistic statement, but a question of reality that photographic creation is facing, a question of photographic practice which we cannot but confront and reflect upon. Digital technology today has made representative photography unprecedentedly prevalent. Anyone can acquire countless images in any scenery easily, and spread them rapidly through internet. The development of digital technology has usurped the authority of traditional photography over “images representing the world”. Digital technology has caused post-production of traditional film photography become insignificant and graphic processing software has made some darkroom techniques of traditional images look unwieldy and expensive. When expensive, not yet established film photography industry disappears without even having the chance to become a sunset industry, and when film photography is being abandoned by most professionals in the field, the existence of traditional technique of photography is in fact in peril.

Today, it is easy to let traditional technique of photography die, but such a one-way progression might not be the final solution or necessary path for the development of the art of photography. A part of art history might be able to provide some insight on how to develop the art of photography in the future - in the 19th century the impact of the rise of photography on traditional western paintings. At the time when the public was astonished by the miracles created by photography, paintings was once pronounced dead. A part of paintings did come to an end, especially those commemorative portraits consumed by the general public. Revolution of paintings was consequently brought about, paintings has since moved to a new, non-representative territory, and allowed us to witness the splendor of modern history of paintings lasted for over 100 years. The rise of digital technology today has led to the extinction of some important traditional technique of photography, this is not a logical inference from the history of paintings though, and we certainly shall not simply conclude that the evolution model of paintings more than a hundred years ago would apply to traditional photography. However, we can at least regard the traditional technique of photography as a benchmark for the new development of photography, and discover the resource within even. Can the tradition of photography bring us inspiration for new creation? Can we find out the essence of traditional photography which is irreplaceable and let it become the path to the new creation of photography?

When digital technology started to emerge in the 90’s in China, revolution of Chinese photography has already erupted, it started outside of traditional photography, such as “conceptual photography” and “new Chinese photography” proposed by contemporary artists early on, which carried out transformation of photography by means of the tradition and method of pictorial history. Pictorial works of photography de-familiarize photography so as to inspire the innovation of photography. Xu Yong’s new works in <18% Gray> are shot by traditional technique of photography, only the value judgment standard of traditional photographic images is abandoned. Xu Yong brings photography from “manufacturing pictures” back to “manufacturing photography”, that is artistic creation based on technique of photographic tradition. Looking from the angle of pictures, Xu Yong’s new images can only be ascribed to “minimalism”, but such won’t help us to see through the mist shrouding <18% Gray>, only by scrutinizing the nature of photography can we see the path of new photography opened up by Xu Yong. <18% Gray> has provided a brand new demonstration for the search for de-familiarization inside the tradition of photography lately.

Although Xu Yong throws himself passionately into artistic creation of the art of photography itself, however, these seemingly blank images created by him are not for innovation of forms only. They are a roughly arranged sequence, and the principle of the arrangement comes from his linear personal history. As an artist coming from the background of traditional photography, Xu Yong has practiced photographic art for over three decades, and has experienced a time relating to both national history and personal history which is not repeatable. Those images themselves are a statement of life experience. This once old or young country is no longer the same country; and the person used to be could no longer relive traces of live through images. These empty images themselves are doubt and judgment on the time we live, not to be limited in scrutiny of the history and tradition of photography. Xu Yong’s personal memory and experiences also correspond to the memories and experiences of all Chinese people of his generation.

We won’t be able to differentiate further between photography and pictorial images, since those two are either inseparable or relying on each other in <18% Gray>. If Xu Yong, in his previous work , tried to solve social problems through personal participation, then in <18% Gray> he has pushed active personal participation further into the history of photography. It is not the point whether he has solved the questions we posed in these works, in fact whether our questions are justified are yet to be decided. What really matters is that Xu Yong has already immersed himself in the action of working for the future of photography.

June 19, 2010 En route to London from Beijing

Translation Fang Liu

June 28, 2010

[Editor] Elemy Liu

    Artintern