How does a culture steeped in ancient tradition grapple with the onset of accelerated modernity? Yang Yongliang is a Shanghainese artist who attempts to fuse traditional Chinese culture with contemporary digital techniques. Yongliang’s intricate shan shui-style digital collages of modern cityscapes, rendered in a style meant to evoke ancient Chinese landscape paintings, have turned him into an art world sensation on both sides of the hemisphere.
Having trained in traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy as a child, Yongliang graduated with a design degree from the China Academy of Art and founded a successful advertising and animation studio before quitting commercial work to become a full-time artist in 2005. It was then that Yongliang began to experiment with photography, contemporary Chinese ink wash painting, and video art, gradually forming the unique style his work exhibits today, which blends spectacles of China’s fast-paced urban development with the tranquil scenery of traditional landscape paintings.
Still from Yang Yongliang’s video piece, After the Rain, 2010.
In Yongliang’s video work, Phantom Landscape, the viewer encounters what appears to be a majestic Chinese landscape painting. Looking closer, the observant onlooker will discover that the jagged surface of the rocky mountains is actually composed of densely-stacked concrete buildings. The trees aren’t trees at all but are in fact composed of construction cranes and electric towers, and misty streams flow from contaminated urban waste. The result is an ironic depiction where the nature that once served as a way for ancient poets to find inner peace is supplanted with the realities of city life and its congestion, traffic, flashy billboards, and cargo ships.
Here, Yongliang shows us a few of the original photographs he took as inspiration for his digital collages and explains how he turns photography documenting China’s rapidly-changing landscape into animated takes on classic Chinese painting. Visit his studio and learn more about his process in our behind-the-scenes video above.
The Creators Project: Can you tell us a little about how you create video from photography? What kind of tools and technology do you use?
Yang Yongliang: My videos can be seen as an extension of my photography work. They both stem from a similar concept and creative perspective, but I use slightly different software. I begin by creating a still image with many layers in Photoshop. Then I import this layered image into post-production software and replace the detailed layers with live video footage. In addition, I also used some 3D softwares to make special effects. Both [mediums] are the same to me except for the added dimension of time. This dimension makes the artwork more expansive and interesting.
Do you find some sort of similarity between the contradictory nature of organic masses and man-made environments?
Almost all of my work is trying to seek harmony between two contrary subjects. On one hand, this kind of thinking stems from tranditional Chinese philosophy, but also relates to the fact that we live our lives in a world full of conflict. Rather than being the core content, architecture and shan-shui are just some elemental components in my whole creative concept.
In your video installations, there are so many small people and cars moving within the animated paintings. What kind of stories are happening?
All of the video footage is taken with bird’s-eye view of the various places I’ve been to. During the filming process, I discovered this point of view produces an unusual experience. The viewer can step back and look at the familiar places with a completely objective view. Seeing many small people, cars, and buildings moving around at the same time can be surreal.
As an artist steeped in Chinese tradition, culture, and art, your work provides a new way to represent ancient techniques in the face of these older artforms becoming obsolete. Do you think learning Chinese paining and calligraphy is still relevant and important to people nowadays?
I think anicent Chinese art has always been a form of artistic expression detached from commericalism and functionalism. We call it “literati painting," which includes calligraphy. It resides in a system that is in opposition to the Western art system. The development of Western art focuses more on social and functional meaning. To me, Chinese art is more about having an internal dialogue, which is a side effect of self-cultivation. It’s hard for this kind of process to exist in a highly-developed commerical social structure. From a contemporary Chinese literati point of view, the original intention of self-cultivation still remains. There are still many modern literati that use Chinese painting and calligraphy to search for his or her inner character.
You are a big fan of movies, would you consider making a film?
Yes, that might be my next step. I will definitely expand into movies at some point.
All images courtesy of Yang Yongliang.