I met Wen at The Photographer’s Gallery in early 2020. Talking over coffee, we shared book dummies with one other. We discussed concerns in making and showing work: one in how viewers engage with work based on one’s personal history and context, and the other the challenge of translating ideas and standards between cultures. I am aware of her intentions more than this book could otherwise tell me, and by virtue of my prior interest in East Asia’s art history, I am more able to meet those intentions halfway. As a dummy, it remains unpublished; nonetheless, I believe that it deserves attention.
A core concept in the recent history of East Asian aesthetics is the Japanese mono no aware (物 の 哀れ), which features heavily in Wen’s work. Frequently associated with the work of literary scholar Motoori Norinaga (1730 – 1801), aware is often translated into “the pathos of things” due to the presence of the Japanese possessive particle の. This translation may not give a clear idea of the concept, however: aware indicates less that things themselves are wretched and doomed to crumble into nothingness, but rather describes an attention towards things that reinforces a cognizance of their impermanence in the viewing subject’s mind. Aware then works with an understanding that one’s fleeting existence is intertwined with all things; an awareness of the outside with reference to oneself.
Wen’s Wood, Water, Rock seems to be concerned with the landscape as an idea that is seen through and impressed upon spaces — as a lens through which representation can be “done”. That is, not how the land itself looks, but how the concept of “the landscape” forms a foundation for different ways of showing that land. Wen approaches this with reference to East-Asian art history, centred on her Chinese heritage and Japanese developments on it: one can find analogues to aware in the principles of historical Chinese poetry. The term Qing Jing Jiao Rong (情景交融) describes when an artist conveys a perfect fusion of the scene one sees, and one’s emotional response to it — an entwining of perception and matter.
Working with both modern image technology 一the camera一 and with image-based logic rather than relying on words, Wen’s work is especially well-suited to explore these philosophy-rooted aesthetics. Indeed, when writing about teaching a related aspect of Chinese traditional artistic expression called Yi Jing (意境) to American students, Yanfang Tang argues that images are essential, concluding that “the significant position that Yi Jing occupies in Chinese literary criticism also reflects the classic Chinese attitudes towards language, that words are essentially limited, incapable of fully communicating ideas and feelings.”
On the right page of one spread sits a single boulder balancing upon a plateau within the landscape. On its left is a Gongshi (供石), a naturally-occurring rock that are typically displayed in China’s temple gardens. Such rocks are appreciated for their asymmetric geological characteristics, but also for how they resemble a kind of micro-landscape — to be the landscape and simultaneously represent it. The asymmetrical natural formation and the conscious framing of those formations are intuitively contrasted and synthesised; gongshi can also be found in the home, mounted upon wooden pedestals so as to elevate them beyond being mere rock-things, and framed as something to be appreciated aesthetically. In this, the work is able to allow a viewer to consider how the landscape is not only represented, but seen as something to represent in the first place.
With a boulder in the centre of the right-hand image and a hole in the gongshi, a viewer unaware of this context can still intuitively draw threads between subject matter and understand some of these relationships between them. In the absence of knowing other cultures’ aesthetic traditions, Wen manages to communicate facets of concepts such as aware to such a viewer by demonstrating them: not only is the visual logic of the potentially unknown cultural tradition accessible, so too is the logic behind the representation of the landscape itself.
Elsewhere in the book, a cliffside tree silhouetted against a glowing sky precedes a bright image of the cliffs from above, appearing as though it had been taken using Ansel Adams’ Zone System in order to get the greatest tonal range from such a high-contrast scene. Here, attention is not only on light itself, but on how things themselves can be depicted; of whether it is placed in emptiness and reduced to outlines, or conversely reproduced with the most information possible. This itself can harken to traditional painting, whose representation of nature could be ultra-detailed, or as simple as Maruyama Okyo’s Cracked Ice – a late Edo Period (1603-1868) Japanese piece that uses thinning lines of ink to create linear perspective.
This linear perspective is highly likely to have been borrowed from the influence Dutch realist painting had on late-Edo Japan, the use of which was standardised by state officials for the purposes of land surveying, and to use representation for political purposes. The traditions on which his school of painting were built additionally derive heavily from historical Chinese practices once aspired to by historical Japan. Though this book doesn’t directly address these ideas, Wen has purposefully explored these histories and ways of thinking in order to create her work. If one places this book into these art traditions, then Maruyama’s work is interesting when put next to Wen’s not only for its historical connection with the Western linear perspective, but also because the white of the paper itself is the snow. In that, is a kind of meta-commentary, where the production and “behind the scenes” of such art traditions are given attention, focusing on photography.
Despite being accessible on a page-per-page basis, Wen’s successively changing visual logics may make her work difficult to follow on first read. Formally speaking, however, their arrangement and style means that they will be easy to visually digest for those familiar with contemporary Japanese photographers like Yamamoto Masao or Kajioka Miho. These photographers often utilize small, yellowed prints scattered within large areas of negative space, engaging with and often referencing aesthetic and spiritual traditions such as aware in their authorship.
These comparisons are understandable, but there seems to be a difference in how Wen engages with these traditions. Yamamoto and many of his contemporaries like Albarran Cabrera or Paul Cupido have approached traditional Japanese or Chinese-influenced Japanese culture retroactively, or from a distance. Yamamoto even jokes in one public talk that it was only when Western markets gave his work attention as being “haiku-like” that he began to intentionally fuse his authorship with his cultural roots, and take interest in them. Wen has said that while she was initially fascinated by Yamamoto’s work, frequent comparison to his “style” has distanced her from it, likely in a similar manner to how Kajioka is compared with Yamamoto in spite of their conceptual and formal approach to subject matter itself being quite different. Arguably, the lesser-known Guo Peng’s use of perspective shifts is more appropriate a comparison not because he also tea-tones small darkroom prints, but for how – for example – a circular window becomes a framing device that emphasises the position of the camera itself relative to that window. There, as with Wen, is a reflexiveness — a focus on who is seeing, from where, and how.
This is not to say that all of these other photographers are superficially engaged with East Asian aesthetics, but rather that Wen has not just produced work which mimics or is made according to such aesthetic principles, but makes work which explores their inner workings from within. In a sense, Wen is working within this tradition, adding to it like a member of a historical school, but at the same time, is pointing to the unseen principles and behind-the-scenes practices of such traditions.
Under The Yuzu Tree
Under The Yuzu Tree – the other project in this book – is difficult to follow, and is at a glance less conceptually rigorous than its partner work. More like a series of staged vignettes into distant memories being flitted through on tangents by a subject deep in thought, the way a viewer might “click” with this work is, again, dependent on what visual knowledges they can draw on. Before a full spread of an arm and hand reaching through a black curtain is a figure raising their hands to the trees. A picture of a lemon struck by light on a table follows. Much as this may be an “investigation takes place through fuzzy memories of family member oral stories” as Wen puts it, it is also likely to seem obtuse to many who lack foreknowledge not only of East Asian aesthetics, but also Wen’s own family history, which is not elucidated in text or image. The Yuzu fruit has significance to Wen and is shown several times throughout the sequence, but what it does in such a sequence is difficult to interpret. The thematic pathos is torrential throughout, and so too are the more self-reflexive explorations of “the landscape” that blend into Wood, Water, Rock.
Nonetheless, in one spread of Yuzu, a digital crop of a rocky ocean sunset overlaid over by an old, yellowed darkroom print of the cropped-in torsos of a bride and groom with flowers alludes to these familial ties. Though more poetic than concrete, the sparse inclusion of these images throughout Wen’s landscape study allows for an awareness of the passage of time between these vignettes.
This kind of pathos-laden, wistful meditation on life, family and the landscape in parts typical to mono no aware is not essential to Japan or China: just like Wen’s investigation into the landscape, Eva Louisa Jonas writes for her photobook That Thing Over There, which features images of people amongst greenery, that “Nature presented as an exhibit, an exhibition, dictates our experience of it”.
Similarly, Raymond Meeks’ work is riddled with faded, sometimes yellowed prints and reused paper. He changes materials regularly just like Wen does, and similarly photographs in a way that places things and people in relation to their surroundings with an awareness of their fleeting presence in this world. Ephemeral both in moments and material, his attention to family life and growth into adulthood is often hinged upon highly metaphorical allusions to trees, butterflies and other natural matter, yet his work is well-separated from this Japanese group within the artworld. Meeks’ hand-bound books, pictures, and work ethic is arguably better suited when considered in relation to work like Yuzu and these philosophies of impermanence than some of his geographical contemporaries, such as Bryan Schutmaat or Matthew Genitempo. While Meeks’ work can be situated within that American canon consisting of monochrome depictions of rural life where the landscape is shown with a degree of bleak romanticism, Meeks’ attention to life itself carries with it a particularity difficult to identify in his peers.
Wen writes in regard to these characteristics’ aesthetics the following:
“In East Asian literature poetic language is usually utilized as a vehicle for the expression of emotion rather than concrete ideas. The resulting imagery is typically taken from nature and landscape. Its figural meaning invokes terms of human emotion that are not only juxtaposed but are innately fused together. This metaphorical visual language that I’m trying to engage with has led me to think about symbology and the relationship between subjects and their surroundings. Naturally, this synthesis creates a particular kind of narrative sequences I create through images.”
In one of the first spreads, a small image of an insect on someone’s back precedes a full-page of a butterfly blending into leaves and branches. On the following left-page towers a full-bleed view of mountain strata from a low position, and to its right a small waterfall. In one spread is the human and the environment, the miniscule creature in the human world and then within its own habitat; in the other is the product of millions of years of movement, and the next a single waterfall that gradually carves its way through the rock. In view of sequences like this, and in light of occasional inclusions of people within the work, what I see in Under The Yuzu Tree in comparison with Wood, Water, Rock is that where the former focuses on how a person might form connections between themselves and the landscapes in which they find themselves, the latter is more concerned with how those ideas exist as they are.
Certainly, then, the “innate fusing together” of things present in Yuzu is also quite present in exactly the kinds of visual relationships described above in regards to Wood, Water, Rock, only more ambiguously due to the authorial inclusion of family history and pictures from her family archive. Again, there are only titles in the book: no explanatory text, no interviews. Both draw on similar philosophical foundations, but one looks within – the other beyond. This itself functions beautifully in a book that is about the representation of things, in regards to the kinds of worldview-aesthetics that themselves are concerned with how a viewing subject interprets the interconnectedness of things and their changeability.
I can interpret in the photograph of a glimmering river a feeling of a visual memory, using it as a fulcrum for poetry within a sequence of images, but I can more concretely see in it a tempering of the photographic apparatus, the crushing shadows that result from metering one’s exposure for an over-bright subject. I can also see in it the river as a marker within and divider of the landscape, or as a mirror of the sky in its reflectivity; something to tie the land to the human once more, and photography.
In Yuzu – the project which Feiyi made first – I see the seeds of Wood, Water, Rock, and so I can see in a book of two projects the photographer’s creative development progress with each page. Because these family histories are not elaborated on in any way in or particularly outside the book except for the fact that she developed Yuzu from them, Wen’s dominant tendency towards this exploration of landscape and subjectivity has power over the work, and is thematic throughout. I originally believed that the title page for Wood, Water, Rock was a part of Yuzu in the form of a text “piece” the first time I saw them, and it functions well like this. As a result, I interpreted Yuzu almost the same as I did Wood, Water, Rock prior to spending more time with it. While what Wen writes to me personally about her intentions and family background is sincere, interesting and from a certain perspective useful to understanding the work, the way that images are linked to one another in Yuzu is more comprehensible to a viewer in terms of Wood, Water, Rock.
I make these qualifications and allusions to my conversations with Feiyi beyond the book itself not to affect credibility, but because as a photographer what currently excites me about Wen’s work is the ambiguity in communication and intent which she seems to find most troubling when she speaks about her work; an ambiguity she herself acknowledges is built from a group of highly subjective worldviews. It is true that in Yuzu Wen is ambiguous, as is it that in order to appreciate aspects of the book in accordance with her intentions, one must read a bit about East Asia’s art history.
There is a balance here: on one hand, aware is more than just an aesthetic, a world-view. As a world-view, it can be read about and understood abstractly, but feeling it is a matter of experience. It can be arrived at intuitively; many historical Western poets have come across similar views independent of any knowledge of the East, just by observing nature. On the other hand, even a hole in a Gongshi can’t fully provide the clues to an understanding built from not just visual literacy, but also foreknowledge of other cultures’ aesthetic practices.
Wen’s thesis traced the developments of the aesthetic concept of pathos in Greek, Chinese and Japanese histories. This was undertaken in parallel with the book discussed here. For those who have the time and interest to learn about these histories, Wen’s work offers something really substantial. By turning towards these aesthetic standards, and using their logics to rework them within a contemporary context, Wood, Water, Rock can be the start of more critical conversations about those histories without simply reifying them as empty artefacts, or discarding them as archaic. For those who view Wen’s work without these foreknowledges, her work offers a series of subtle but definite clues to a similar – but different – understanding of the landscape, and our relationship with it.
Related reading for those interested:
Michael F. Marra.The Poetics of Motoori Norinaga, University of Hawaii Press, 2007
Yanfang Tang. Translating across Cultures: Yi Jing and Understanding Chinese Poetry, Intercultural Communication Studies XXIII: 1, 2014
Timon Screech. The Shogun’s Painted Culture, Fear and Creativity in the Japanese States 1760–1829, Reaktion Books, 2000
The Center for Creative Photography. Public Lecture with Masao Yamamoto (link)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Chinese Gardens and Collectors’ Rocks.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York, 2004 (link)