(Black and White Photographs by Yu Fengge/ 于凤革.)
To what can we attribute the special quality of certain photographs to unnerve us?
Black and white photography admits of a wide range of feeling - more or less conditioned by the content of the photographic image, but also by formal factors (degrees of luminosity and contrast, clarity, grain, depth of field, print type and quality). The experience of looking at black and white photography encompasses a range of moods: from the ‘classic’, with its clean balance of simplicity and beauty, to those photographs with a marked surreal flavour; from landscapes and other visions of the ideal and the sacred, to views which seem to disturb our sense of ordinary time.
The range of moods found in the black and white photography of Yufengge include: mysterious pathways of the ‘stairway to heaven’ type; luminous cloudscapes; the call of white horizons and the omnipresent, ever-waiting, empty space. Too much space –which when combined with a darkness making discernment difficult (denying vision, as if trying to show that which will not permit itself to be shown) suggests something a little outside our everyday zone of comfort. As we look, let us look at the role played by the spaces depicted in the calling up of a certain sense of time, in the creation of mood in these photographs.
The classic effect of black and white photography is that it connotes, even conjures, the old, the aged, the past (and so, in many ways resembles the trope of prosopopoeia, the calling up of the absent and the dead). Moreover not only does such photography conjure up, return to us, or recall the absent past, but it also suggests value – that the objects represented have a special value which renders them worthy of representation in this manner (although, almost regardless of the status of the objects depicted, this sense of value is actually a product of this manner of representation). The ‘when’ and the ‘why’ of the black and white photograph, its temporality and axiology (the study of value), come together to offer us a piece of the past which it declares is worthy of survival – worthy of our special attention.
This aesthetic effect is due in part to a semi- or incomplete presence, a certain lack or denial of immediacy on the part of the black and white photograph, as compared to that of the colour photograph in its claim to represent the present. If the colour photograph offers a sense of the immediate, the un-mediated, the ‘real’ (together with such effects as decentering, the close-up, blurring, etc.), then the black and white photograph appears to be offering something once removed. An effect whose immediate effect is its lack of immediacy. As in the case of reported speech, everything is pushed back a step in time. It is as if we are yet again being offered thr chance to view the past. (See the German historical film sequence ‘Heimat’ for example, where the historical past is viewed as the present – present to us the viewer, in our present - in the colour sections, but viewed as the past – from the perspective of our present, now, in the black and white sections). This effect is also partly due to the historical priority of the black and white photograph; added to the fact that the old (early and earliest) photographs that survive are all black and white (there are no colour photographs from the early period of photography). If these early photographs looked ghostly at the time, there appear doubly so today. Last, there is the image content itself which may reinforce the effect of the past conjured in the present - or may point the viewer in quite another direction (as is the case with obviously modern contents where the effect is one of distancing – if this distancing also includes a ‘classicising’ effect, then we are returned to the effect under discussion).
Yet the semi-presence of a black and white photograph (as compared to a full colour photograph) can also be read so as connoting the future; the lack of presence may equally point forwards in time as well as backwards. This temporal ambiguity is often found in the reading of grounds (front, middle, back), of margin/centre relations, and in the devices of inner reframing in the history of painting. Why then is the future not used as an option in the case of the black and white photograph? Why is it so quickly (even intuitively) refused? Does this choice (or its lack, its foreclosure) reveal something about our temporal situation, about our typical thought operations and the rhetoric that attends them? Whence the apparent arbitrariness of our choice for the past? After all everybody, everyday must in some shape or form repeatedly imagine the future and project assorted alternative, possible and preferable outcomes. (Such as the world of film, which serves up impossible futures for us to consume everyday). Whence this apparent taboo, this restriction of temporal options in the reading of the black and white image image alone? Could it be because the future as such can not be seen, can not be shown, and if shown constitutes a temporal transgression, a breaking of the iconoclasm which ordains that we can not see, can not represent, what has not yet happened. And not only is it a case of its unshowablity… but also that it ought not to be showable. Ought not to be shown. (Yet this effect is only due to our position in time – the future continually arrives and is transformed into the present then rapidly becoming the past). This effect is the first step in the construction of the aesthetic ideology of the black and white photograph (its ritual effect); that fact that the future can not be shown as such becomes a kind of future negative subjunctive, the future should not be shown – or even an imperative, the future must not be shown. Truth (what is) becomes wish (what ought to be) in the time-honoured sleight-of-hand where what we would like to be the case is presented as if it, in fact, were (already) the case. The rhetorical demand of the wish is presented as truth. And truth is the matter of the photograph (its putative claim of verisimilitude as compared to painting).
Yet how can a black and white photograph show truth when the truth is normally perceived in colour? Black and white here performs another kind of non-presence, that of the ideal; such photographs in effect offer us the trace of the ideal. When combined together with the sense of the past, we have the ingredients that constitute the black and white photograph’s classic feel – but this effect requires the foreclosing of the future. A temporal taboo which helps to constitute our (safe and comfortable) classic effect (similar to the effect of the Beautiful in contrast to the Sublime) whilst at the same time protecting us from the threatening lack of control over a future which may be inimical, but certainly is unpredictable and contains one inevitable and unavoidable incident; an incident which no amount of careful planning, or rational utopic reordering can erase, nor ease, nor undo… our own death. This and the entropy that accompanies all ordered matter, all manner of social arraignment in its progress through time. And which ritual is designed to obviate. In this case not only by the intensification of experience attendant on all good art, but also by the act of forgetting.
However there exist other kinds of photography which do not use this family of effects, on the contrary some black and white photographs seem almost to relish conjuring an effect which appears to be almost diametrically opposite to that of the classic black and white photograph (the surreal, the sacramental, the oracular, to name the other three ideal types as defined by their relation to human temporality). In his depiction of space Yufengge’s black and white photographs of landscapes call up a set of emotional responses perhaps not so far from the very effects the classic photograph is trying to foreclose…
In reading the black space of absence, the strange glowing spaces, the waiting emptiness, that fill the black and white photographs of Yufengge, we must first examine how the reading of this kind of space is made possible, how it is that the two traditions that feed our aesthetic responses, those of the ‘East’ and the ’West’, more specifically of Chinese and European art history, how it is that they contribute to our responses and their aesthetic consequences.
First, reading space as pointing to another time, a time outside of time – a place… outside. As read from the point of view in the West, reading ‘empty space’, especially when exceeding ‘realism’, first of all demands that we look towards the ‘Sublime’. This is the realm of the unshowable (shown – or at least pointed at by the symbolic force of absence) the modern mark of religion or the sense of its lack (as attested to by its substitutes, Nature, History, Nation, etc). The Sublime, at its most potent, may envelop the viewer in a sense of terror, of the unknown, the difficult of understanding, sign of a force which may be greater than our own, exceeding our understanding… The second sense of the sublime ‘through Western eyes’ is the sense of abstraction (via grain, colour, wash, or monochrome field) an appeal to the meditative, perhaps suggesting the face of the absent god of negative theology. Finally the intellectual, conscious, thought-equivalent of these emotive states. This is a matter of the thought (provoking), conceptual, the meaning of the space or image as opposed to the feeling it arouses (the sublime); the concern of the religious and intellectual traditions which feed this manner of making art: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Protestant Rationalism and the godless theologies of the 20th century from Existentialism to the politics of secular fundamentalism.
When approaching ‘empty space’, as read from the point of view of the East, the key reference point comes from traditional painting. Space is found demarcating the grounds that make up the traditional landscape (as in other genres, it is the space in-between what is shown that is important, perhaps more important than what is shown…). This space (or spacing) and the gestural black ink wash style of painting is often called the ‘scholar’ style of traditional painting, as it is found in either landscape or calligraphy, or as it survives as a point of reference in modern Chinese art (whether in works labelled, ‘realist’, or ‘abstract’). This tradition first offers us the eastern form of the sublime, as found in the ‘Mountains and Rivers’ painterly tradition (Li Kerang) and is often carried to the verge of abstraction, into the realm of non-representation and so into a sense of terror and the religious use that this sense so often subtends. The second form of the eastern sublime is the meditative function of the absence or spacing found in traditional painting as referring to Buddhism (especially its Zen or Chang form) and Daoism with its barely concealed Nature worship and attendant meditative practices. Finally the conscious response to this kind of representational space (as to actual landscapes) in the ‘reading’ of painting found in Daoism and the ‘Dark Knowledge’ tradition - also found in the ‘godless’, if ritual-obsessed, traditions of Confucianism. Philosophy and religion move into the space left behind by - or as provoked by – the depiction of such absences (it is not only Nature that abhors a vacuum….).
Both traditions are found to consist of three broad approaches: first the sublime in general, the sense of awe (more nuanced than in China than the equivalent European art, whose theories often do not seem able to comprehend its own subtle combinations of the Beautiful with the Sublime); second the abstract sublime of meditation; third the intellectual equivalents or appropriations of these aesthetic moments. If all of these readings also evoke the sense of the outside of time in some manner (a view of infinity, eternity, a concern with first and last things), then what follows will suggest an earth-bound temporality and our place within it…
In dealing with what is visible, with what is seen on the backdrop of the eternal, seen against the background of the unseen and the unsayable (in other words with the figure on the ground, the manifest content of the artwork), we must not only contend with the de-presencing of the image that the mode of presence of the black and white image offers, but also with the added erasure of sense due to other techniques. A sense of presence partially withheld offers the viewer ambiguity and a sense of distance, as well as difficulty in discernment. The sense of a trace, a faint line, an identity partially veiled, all may be read as suggesting the past or the future in contrast to the present of the clearly presented. (There is also the option in some cases that it is the ideal form that is imagined, and so not entirely there; however insofar as a desired end, the ideal points towards the future - if not to eternity itself - and so already begins to undermine the present supported by the pastness of the classic black and white photograph).
Such ambiguities have the effect of presence questioned and the provocations this question entails. In fact it is our mode of presence that is questioned; what is ‘present’ to us, how ‘we’ are ‘present’ to ourselves… It is our perception of time that is questioned. Our experience of ourselves in time… all put into question. This ‘shaking’ effect, a shaking of the certainties of the self, is part of the experience that Western aesthetics calls the Sublime (the self perceives before it a greater force and is put into a state of awe). In ritual terms, the sublime experience shakes the self in order to better repair it (behind the terror there lies God); this is in contrast to the classic (or beautiful effect) were the self is confirmed by a stabilising classic beauty and a sense of order.
Which brings us back to the initial argument as to the role of temporality in the classic black and white photograph and the dominant role of a sense of the past as the carrier of the ‘classic’ effect. Classic black and white photography (in the sense of a ‘classic feeling’ and not a canonical photographer), its power to enchant, comes from its ability to marshal the past (based upon the foreclosure of the future) and suggest a retrospective ideal (a secure and undemanding beauty). What is different here, in Yufengge’s photography is a lack of this kind of security. Many of his landscape photographs, with more than a trace of the sublime in their forms, and in their absence of form, offer a disturbing meditation on the nature of the Other, of the Other in Nature. A vision of the metaphysical in the landscape: a landscape replete with terror, with loneliness, and with foreboding. The power of a landscape in all its sublime force, including the threat (or promise) of the unknown, the future… Perhaps what we are called to witness here is the return of the future to black and white photography; the future, with its all attendant insecurities, uncertainties and risks, in a black and white photography that shows what can not be shown, but is felt everywhere (not only what is before us in space, but what is before us in time). The ever-present taste of the unknown which is the insistence of the future-in-the-present.
One particular picture offers a cliff view; not from below, nor high above, but the view from the middle; yet the bleak otherness of the vision could not be bettered. This is an encounter with the frontier of what we can know, the cutting edge of time, the frontier of our temporal being. What lies there before, before us, in front of us, in our future, it is impossible to say. In another photograph (in emulation of traditional Chinese painting) a figure stands on a cliff top. A contemplation of life below the heavens; life in between, life in the middle. The product of a middle path or way, a middle point of view. Neither the illusion of certitude offered by a god’s eye view, nor those perceived from the bottom, eyes up, lost in blind adoration. Neither an imitation of god, nor the deification of the ‘popular’, the point of view of the believer. There is still a sense of an ‘above’, but not quite so far away … (we are conscious that it is in part our own creation). A human point of view, but a raised, slightly elevated one… contemplating our situation, our predicament, our Other, the face of the inhuman. Also the view from the cliff edge of time, looking backwards, looking forwards, looking outwards, looking in - and asking the question, how to tell the difference? Looking at time.
Copyright 2007, Peter Nesteruk