Feiyi Wen, Wood, Water, Rock, 2019

FEIYI WEN

A book containing two projects called Under The Yuzu Tree and Wood, Water, Rock

I met Wen in London in early 2020, having previously spoken with her on Instagram. Talking over coffee, we found we shared concerns about making and showing work; one in how viewers can interpret those things about your work which are so based on your own history and circumstances that it is almost impossible to visually communicate, and the other the challenge of translating ideas between different languages and cultures. Wen has helped me with my own work by translating some text for a project, which similarly dealt with these ideas.

I have relatively exclusive knowledge of Wen’s intentions and interests, and a degree of conflict of interest. I am not well able to ignore context I am liable to unconsciously impress upon her images; the photographic industry is small, and it necessary to be transparent about this while qualifying that I write the following out of an appreciation of the book I have in front of me.



A core concept in the recent history of East Asian aesthetics is the Japanese mono no aware, which features heavily in Wen’s work. Frequently associated with the work of literary scholar Motoori Norinaga, 物の哀れ is often translated into “the pathos of things” due to the conventional attributive structure used by the Japanese possessive particle . This translation lacks accuracy: aware indicates less that things themselves are wretched and doomed to crumble into nothingness, but rather describes an attention towards things which reinforces an awareness of their impermanence in the human 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 ※ . 

Apropos to such self-reflexivity, Wen’s Wood, Water, Rock is 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. Qing Jing Jiao Rong (情景交融) describes the fusion of the scene one sees, and one’s emotional response to it -- an entwining of perception and matter. 

※Michael F. Marra.The Poetics of Motoori Norinaga, University of Hawaii Press, 2007

Feiyi Wen, Wood, Water, Rock, 2019

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.


Maruyama Okyo, Cracked Ice, circa 1780
円山応挙の「氷図屏風」、1780年頃
©Trustees of the British Museum.

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 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; such influences are seldom recognised in the West. Wen has purposefully explored these histories in order to create her work; in context of this book, a painting like Cracked Ice is interesting not only for its historical connection with the Western linear perspective, but also because the white of the paper itself is the snow. 


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 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, wabi sabi (侘寂), haiku and ma (間) in their authorship. 

※ Timon Screech.The Shogun’s Painted Culture, Fear and Creativity in the Japanese States 1760–1829, Reaktion Books, 2000

Yamamoto Masao, Tori, 
Radius Books, 2017

Guo Peng, Untitled, 2011, FOAM Talent 2015

Such comparisons are apt, but a little superficial: in the context of the photographic art market, potential expectations of an obviously Chinese photographer whose work looks a certain way bears discussion. 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 about the fact 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 develop 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 very different.

Arguably, the lesser-known Guo Peng’s use of perspective shifts would appear 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. In contrast, it is difficult to visit Kajioka’s recent show tanzaku at the TPG Print Sales Gallery and form a strong conceptual bond between it and the long, vertical poem-cards that are hung up each summer in Japan with poems and wishes for the future written on them. After all, when one’s old images are cropped into the same shapes as those poem-cards - which are explicitly authored in relation to poetry - any image can be poetic providing the composition is not ugly, and the images have an aesthetic that is appropriate to stereotypical “Japaneseness”. The cropping-system “informs” the images such that the conclusion is made before the work even starts. 

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. It is more difficult to sell this to the Western market, and does not conform to the expectations of those in the industry who perpetuate these superficial comparisons for profit; the extent to which photographers from Japan have been pigeonholed, mythologised, and retroactively canonised as a result of Japan's complex history with America and Europe is arguably unparalleled ※ ※ ※ .

※ Karen M. Fraser's Photography and Japan (Reaktion Books, 2011) offers a cursory history that is more conscious of the tendency to essentialise or mythologise than other studies.

※ Philip Charrier's ‘Becoming a Raven’: Self-Representation, Narration, and Metaphor in Fukase Masahisa's ‘Karasu’ Photographs (Japanese Studies Vol. 29, 2009) provides a specific example of a photographer whose history has been near-systematically obscured by the art market in spite of its potential relevance to his work. 

※ Hagiwara Hiroko's Representation, Distribution, and Formation of Sexuality in the Photography of Araki Nobuyoshi (positions: east asia culture critique, 2010) observes double-standards and orientalist tendencies in the ways Araki's work has been curated and reviewed domestically and overseas, as well as a feminist critique of his practice.


Feiyi Wen, Wood, Water, Rock, 2019

Feiyi Wen, Wood, Water, Rock, 2019

Feiyi Wen, From Under The Yuzu Tree, 2019

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”.


Eva Louisa Jonas, That Thing Over There (that surrounds and sustains us), self-published, 2019

Raymond Meeks, Where Objects Fall Away, Dumbsaint Editions, 2010

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. 


Feiyi Wen, From Under The Yuzu Tree, 2019

I can interpret in the photograph of a glimmering river a feeling of a visual memory (this kind of imagery allows the mind to wander: an elderly woman quietly speaks with her granddaughter, recounting memories tinged with longing: “the river, it was as bright as the sun! I can remember it as though yesterday”), 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 came 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.


Feiyi Wen, From Under The Yuzu Tree, 2019

N.B. the change in tonality is present in the book and not a reproduction error.

I make these qualifications and allusions to my experiences 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. What is interesting about her work outweighs frustrations typical to family archive projects in general, however. 

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 work discussed here. While I have read plenty on Japan, I was unable to research anything about 情景交融 or any of the other Chinese aesthetic principles Wen has described to me at all. In the wake of the the Cultural Revolution's destruction of much of China's historical cultural artefacts and practices, and the intensely political background to Japan's cultural successes in the West, the only option is to consult those in the know.

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.


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Feiyi Wen, From Under The Yuzu Tree, 2019

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