Echo & Revision: Yan Wang Preston’s ‘Three Easier Pieces’ by Taous Dahmani 

Feeling that uncanny sense of Déjà-Vu? Perfect, it is all part of Yan Preston’s intention!

With this body of work visual artist Wang Preston plays with the viewers’ visual knowledge and alters our understanding of it. In her series titled ‘Three Easier Pieces’ – a work in progress of which three more are yet to be made – Wang Preston engages in a dual dialogue: on the first hand, with artworks traditionally regarded as historical masterpieces, and, on the other hand, with contemporary North American photographic theory from the 70s and 80s which addressed issues of copying and appropriation. In doing so, she inscribes herself in the legacy of an intersectional feminist critique of patriarchy as well as a decolonial and postmodernist critique of representation.

It is this oscillation between reverence and irreverence; between recognition and transformation that makes the wit of the work. Wang Preston’s reinventions grasp our attention due to its acute awareness of historical work and invitation to deco and remake. By quoting the ‘canon’, Wang Preston pays homage to 19th century German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich and French Modernist painter Edouard Manet. Additionally, she highlights non-Western classics of performance art, featuring Zhang Huan and the Beijing East-Village artists. Both celebrating and de-centring the canon, Wang Preston employs what appears to be a strategy of piracy or hijacking, forming a critical re-appropriation from her standpoint. Born in China in 1976, she emigrated to the UK in 2005, where she pursued a career in photography. In a post-Brexit and post-Covid xenophobic context, ‘Three Easier Pieces’ becomes a way for British-Chinese artist Yan Wang Preston to interrogate her sense of belonging and liberate herself from burdensome and oppressive environments. It is because it is rooted in a deeply personal experience that her body becomes a key compositional element of her work. The decision to feature herself was born out of the urgency to create from the perspective of a ‘non-white female migrant from China’. In many ways a departure from previous work, ‘Three Easier Pieces’ proposes a re-reading of art history from an embodied social and political experience. Indeed, Wang Preston’s identity cannot but play a crucial role in shaping her experience of art and interaction with it. In this new work, bodily sensations, movements, and physical engagements with space and objects are integral to how Wang Preston invites us to see and navigate the world of representation.

If ‘Three Easier Pieces’, includes sound and screen, photography here remains the ultimate ‘tool of appropriation’ (Douglas Crimp, 1982) which enables Preston to move through various levels of narrative commentary. Her reenactments raise questions about identity, authorship and authority. Appropriation serves as a critical position towards past iconography and history’s orthodoxies, yet they are her images, her vision, her style. As such, despite being inspired by classical artwork, the visual strategies employed work as ‘comments’ that give a sense of invention: an art of historical fiction. Modelled from a previous reality, the re-imagination of the work proposes a different and certainly preferred narrative. Wang Preston’s reimagined compositions offer insightful signs and clues that guide us through her thought process and creativity.

After ‘To Add a Metre to an Anonymous Mountain’, Beijing, 1995

In 2021, Wang Preston started her dialogue with previously made artworks with After ‘To Add a Metre to an Anonymous Mountain’, Beijing, 1995. Zhang Huan’s seminal work stands as a pivotal moment in the evolution of Chinese performance art during the 1990s, a time ripe with the search for novel forms of expression. Documented meticulously through photography and video, the performance captures every phase of the process – from the initial gathering of materials to the culminating act of collectively increasing the mountain’s height by one metre. Created on the outskirts of Beijing, this human pile not only questioned but also visually represented the profound impact humans can exert on their natural environment. Through this iconic piece, Zhang Huan bridged the gap between collective action, artistic endeavour, and environmental commentary. Today, these themes gain new significance within the context of Wang Preston’s reflections on the migration of people and bodies, and their transplantation from one environment to another. Wang Preston honoured the collaborative spirit of the original project by seeking ‘art volunteers’ who were open to the experience of baring all in the Yorkshire landscape alongside strangers. Beyond the meticulous recreation of a past performance and echoing history, Wang Preston infused the project with values of community-led participatory work. This collaborative venture, involving neighbours and acquaintances, introduces vulnerability and humour into the typically stark realm of conceptual art, debunking the expectations of seriousness and detachment. Made in the aftermath of lockdown, skin-to-skin contact acquired newfound significance: ten individuals – five men and five women of diverse backgrounds, heritages, sexualities and ages – confessed feeling empowered by their interactions with one another and with nature. Preston brings our attention back to the unadorned, everyday nature of bare limbs as an invitation to challenge stereotypes and flatten racial hierarchies.

After ‘Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog’, c. 1817

Preston deepened her exploration of the ideological weight of historical depictions of nature and the elusiveness of landscapes with After ‘Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog’, 1818. In this piece, she offers alternatives to the archetypal image of the solitary male figure dominating and, by implication, ‘owning’ the world. By stepping into the wanderer’s shoes, the once concealed gaze is now openly shared, transforming power into a democratic experience. Once again, Wang Preston subverts the idea of an individual experience for a collective one as the performers take place on the snowy rocks. However, the stance that may have once been comfortable for the man – perhaps due to its familiar nature? – proves to be physically uncomfortable for today’s performers, thereby, once more, injecting a touch of levity into the piece. Looking at the original rigid painting, Wang Preston’s video piece offers, as a counterbalance, a more meditative experience. It eschews the static nature of its origins for a fluid and dynamic form, inviting a deeper, more sensorial engagement with the situation.

With each new historical work addressed, Wang Preston immerses herself in research, thoroughly deciphering and understanding every aspect, decoding them to the last detail, which enables her to understand their origins and (hidden) meanings. This meticulous analysis lays the groundwork for the contemporary re-coding, re-staging and re-interpretation of the work that follows. With Olympia, made in 1863 by Manet, Wang Preston created three readings of the work, but the last one, focusing on the floral elements of the painting, became her greatest interest. The white peonies in the bouquet at the painting’s centre and the pink lily adorning the courtesan’s head sparked an investigation into the connections between Manet’s Paris during colonial times and the importation of non-Western botanicals at that period. The challenge of identifying the flowers and sourcing them in today’s England, became the inspiration for the black and white prints of the botanical studies inspired by traditional Chinese flower and bird paintings – the withering compositions come to symbolise the interweaved roles of both patriarchy and imperialism.

Interpretation is the essence of Wang Preston’s artistic agency; every choice is meticulously considered, with acute attention paid to detail. To bring her work to life, Wang Preston initiates collaborations with a diverse range of individuals, from performers and designers to florists. Together with experts and specialists they are (re)thinking the implications of such imagery and quite literally reframing them. By mastering each compositional element from the historical paintings, Preston does not recreate the problematic power dynamics present in the originals; instead, she performs an act of care, bringing attention to the overlooked, the under-recognised, and the neglected.

Yan Wang Preston’s series ‘Three Easier Pieces’ takes further the concept of the ‘oppositional gaze,’ as introduced by bell hooks in 1992. She not only confronts the prevailing visual norms but also endeavours to transform them, embodying her aspiration to ‘‘look to change reality.’’


by Taous Dahmani
March 2024

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