Visions of the Future, Drawn From the Past

An industrial dystopia inspired by ancient Chinese tapestries

One thing sci-fi has shown us is that dystopian visions of the world don’t have to be ugly. We’re easily captivated by the baroque beauty of futurist visions of an overdeveloped world. We can easily relate as our own world exponentially grows.

The massive works of artist Yang Yongliang similarly touch on notions of our present and future, but they do so by drawing directly from the distant past—through the aesthetics of traditional Chinese art.

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“One significant insight I learned from ancient Chinese landscape painting is to create a landscape for oneself. Instead of composing a world to impress others, I try to depict what my inner self had observed so I could live in it while creating the scenery,” says Yongliang.

Yongliang creates massive, mountainous cityscapes composed of hundreds of photo and video segments. He shoots the images of real world places himself, mostly in his hometown of Shanghai and its surrounding areas.

The fore, middle, and backgrounds warp in scale between images of skylines, intersections, building facades and open landscape. Each is stitched together into an animated whole, a meditatively coruscating urban world that any viewer could easily get lost in.

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The density of the works are dazzling—upon closer inspection, even the mountains reveal themselves to be composed of urban elements, a vision of a city in which even the natural elements are man-made. What look like trees are oil dippers and power lines. The rivers and waterfalls are giant release valves for an impossibly huge plumbing system.

Underpinning the whole body of work is the direct influence of traditional Chinese art, like the tiered compositions seen in art from the Song Dynasty of the 12th century. Yongliang has been a student of traditional art and calligraphy since childhood. In fact, his pieces start off as direct references to compositions in these traditional works, which he then elaborates using his modern tools and approaches.

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“I collect traditional paintings as my reference and re-compose based on the original composition,” he says. “I’m so familiar with the techniques now that it feels like a meditation process to me. Though ancient landscapists use water and ink to achieve this, I use my camera and computer techniques.”

He continues to paint and write according to these old traditions, and says their influence is more than just aesthetic inspiration for his work. By maintaining their definitive elements, he’s aiming to give new life to long-standing traditions by changing the form they take.

“I think calligraphy summarises many factors in traditional creative works, therefore I often practice. It also is a way to achieve peace in mind,” he says.

Yongliang has been making these works since 2006, usually at a rate of one to two a year. The photos he shoots out in the field aren’t taken specifically for a given piece, but are added to a database which he then draws from when creating one. The most recent installment, “From the New World,” took a full six months of pure editing.

Using Shanghai as his muse only serves to enhance the tension between tradition and development. The city’s explosive growth continues to wipe away signs of what used to be and stands in subtle contrast to Yongliang’s approach of preserving the old while embracing the new. The landscapes he creates suggest an endgame of this development, and reflect the impression of an artist whose life developed concurrently with his city.

“This city has always been my major inspiration,” he says. “Urbanization and tremendous constructional development came in here in the 80s, I witnessed them and grew with them.”

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