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Yang Yongliang's New Ancient Chinese Art

Traditional landscape paintings meets digitization and industrialization in the Shanghai artists’ new Paris show “Silent Valley.”

William Blake may have seen a world in a grain of sand, but Chinese artist Yang Yongliang shows us a city in a noodle bowl. Mountains jut out from the dinnerware, their majesty dwarfed by their situation, in the cityscapes of Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, which Yongliang serves us in silvery hues through his photographic manipulations. A Bowl of Taipei is one of three collections featured in “Silent Valley,” Yongliang’s solo show that opens Thursday, March 14th in Paris at the Galerie Paris-Beijing.


A Bowl of Taipei, 2012

Yongliang has pioneered a method of adapting traditional Chinese art forms to new media techniques. From a young age, the Shanghai-based artist was classically trained in painting and calligraphy, studying under a great master. Worried that these ancient forms will become lost in China’s modernization, Yongliang set out to find a way to use new media to translate traditional landscape painting to the digital age. His mixture of photography, video, and animation highlights the collision of old and new both in his techniques and in his subject matter: China’s rapidly developing cities.

Silent Valley, the collection of black-and-white photos after which Yongliang’s Paris show is named, juxtapose a figure of ancient Chinese wisdom against scenes of destructive industrialization. A woman in white wanders through misty landscapes reminiscent of painters from the Song Dynasty‘s depictions of ancient China. But as you look closer you see evidence of China’s urbanization, a crane in the distance, a sign for a minefield. Because the landscapes are classically presented, these traces of industrialization are jarring and evocative.

From the Silent Valley series, 2012.

Although his subject matter is the same Yongliang’s approach is the polar opposite to another artist depicting China’s industrial growth: Edward Burtynsky, known for his manufactured landscapes of China where natural sights very rarely make their way into the frame. But while Burtynsky’s work is that of an outsider approaching China with a Western gaze, Yongliang represents the contemporary country and it’s the artist’s intimacy with the subject matter that makes the images so striking.


The third collection of photos that will featured in the Yongliang’s exhibition is titled Moonlight, and documents a cityscape through the phases of the moon’s waxing and waning. Although again the landscape is classically framed, the city’s lights remind us that this is current day China. Even during the full moon, the city’s lights are brighter than the moonlight.

From the Moonlight series, 2012.

Yongliang’s black-and-white photos are beautiful in the traditional sense of the word. It’s this beauty that becomes tragic when the subject matter is ugly, the destruction and devastation of the landscape. But although the show will undoubtedly make viewers think about the effects of uncontrolled expansion and industrialization on the environment, there is more love than judgement in Yongliang’s gaze. And it’s that love for China past and present that makes his photos hard to forget.

Find out more about Yang Yongliang’s work in our documentary below

Yang Yongliang’s Silent Valley will run from March 14-April 27 at Galerie Paris-Beijing, 54 Rue du Vertbois-75003 Paris, France.

All images courtesy of Galerie Paris-Beijing.