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Feng Jianguo, ‘Vision of the West’.  (Photographs of Western China)                             





 Photographs by Feng Jianguo/冯建国.




Grounds for concern (the ground of value).


Of grounds. Not least - the furthest. Place of distance... horizons, limit of our vision, gateway to the sky. Background. Touching the sky. Touching upon last things. Background. As when we admire the photographs of Feng Jianguo, admire the technique that produced the clarity of these images and admiring, find ourselves looking up. Looking up… we are caught by a feature. And caught, we realise the special role played by the backgrounds of these photographs. The presence of the background. The presence of the least present. In quiet contrast to the foreground, that which should concern us most, it is this, the background, that takes us and holds us, holds us as we stand here, stand before these images of land and sky. And admiring the technique that rendered them, we find ourselves admiring another kind of work. Work done with the full consciousness of the symbolic force of grounds.


Grounded in … art history. And supporting this background, the ground that waits behind the background: the landscape tradition of Chinese traditional painting (and a similar, parallel symbolism in the history of Western art, now also part of the history of modern Chinese art and more especially recent Chinese photography).


Grounded in… painterly tradition.


Of the light that emanates from this background…of the difference of tone of the background as compared to other parts of the scene. The fall of light, and the place of light; both the place receiving the blessing of light and the place from which this light falls - a place we can not see (for we dare not gaze at the sun, just as we can not imagine the sublime): yet a place we raise our eyes towards. This raising a performance repeated in the presence of every artwork (and every piece of architecture) deserving of our attention.  The light by which non-believers believe without believing (as with listening to the music of Bach).


The techniques of background differentiation, of setting apart, of setting aside (the share of the gods, the sacrificial portion) lead to a symbolic investment and act as an invitation to readings dependant upon this setting apart (as if… we were to be rewarded by the vision of the heavenly, the sacrifice answered, a response from the place of the gods)… all drawing upon this history (the history of backgrounds, the history of horizons in art).


And so the least important place, the space of the backgrounds, what remains after we have filled the space before, becomes the most important, that which supports us, home of ideals, place of  our containment, ground to our figure.


Grounded in … the history of the sacred. Background landscape, the background of landscape; scene of transcendence, scene of bliss. Seen as a traditional other-worldly scene…  Referencing China’s long history of religious experiment, experiments with an unimaginable impact upon the making and reading of art. Buddhism and the Pure Land to the West, a re-vamped Daoism and its natural land, again, a reference to the mountains and rivers genre, back to the land, a vision of pastoral, and also to more recent secular visions of the promised land. Source of inspirational place…  transformation of space into place, of empty co-ordinates into full meaning. Is the god in the landscape or in us? Or in the case of the man behind the camera, is the god in the machine? Like the gods, that we ourselves invented, we give value to the world, worshipping our products in turn… But now no longer alienating ourselves from the world by means of the mediation of phantasms (religion’s role of old, including the new secular religions now worshipping at the altar of history) but consciously apportioning value to space and matter as a matter of deliberation, a matter of policy. The politics of matter. The politics of what matters. Designating matter that matters. Protecting a geography, an environment, and the human cultures that they have given birth to (cultures in turn bestowing the gift of sacrality to the horizons by which they are en-framed…not least in their religion, in the cult of sacred peaks). So consciously apportioning value to preserve the space we render place, we take the photographs that are the final proof of this value. Or rather, it is the photographer who performs this task, our shamen, ghost in the machine, spirit guide to what we know to be of value, but were in danger of forgetting. Now reminded though the en-framing of the image, a further act of value-making. …of choosing, refining… making special. The gift of place. Our gift to the world (our return of gift). Rendering sacred.


Grounds for concern.


Of the light that comes from behind (we see it illuminating the mountains, the singers). A background already removed from the everyday, yet returning to transfigure it. A light relegated to the background, yet transforming the foreground that would mask it. Our investment in this light, our reward of the lands, the people, the visions it returns to us.


Figure/Ground. As a background only means something when juxtaposed to a foreground, so the light of the eternal which finds its place in this corner of our visual field, this corner of our art, our photography is only possible in the light of the present that illuminates the part of the image closest to us. Closest in space as in time, as implied viewer as in our actual viewing position, a light offering, most clearly, the presence of the centre-foreground, most proximate region to our self-presence; and so because of our self-presence in time as if immortal, as mortals dreaming immortality, because of our sense of being in the ‘eternal present’, the light that underwrites this dream.


The capture and communication, the conveyance, or translation of this light: the gift of the photographer.







Copyright 2008, Peter Nesteruk