Yan Wang Preston: Three Easier Pieces Explained

2021-2024

A series of interconnected pieces exploring issues around cultural migration, landscape politics, race and gender.  All of them employ methods such as re-staging, re-performing and re-interpreting. Finished works will include prints, screens, sound and other media. Six pieces are expected to be made until 2026, three pieces will be made by the end of 2024.

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.

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.

 

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

 

‘To add a Metre to an Anonymous Mountain’ by Zhang Huan is one of the most iconic contemporary Chinese artworks, created in 1995 in the suburb of Beijing by 12 young Chinese artists. For the work, 10 artists piled their bodies on top of each other until the pile reached the height of one metre. The 11th artist co-ordinated the actions while the 12th artist made the photograph.

MAKING INTRODUCTIONS: Yan explains her creative process and the making of After ‘To Add a Metre to an Anonymous Mountain 1995’.

Yan Wang Preston re-created this image in the post-industrial landscape of the South Pennines in Britain in August 2021.

“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 a invitation to challenge stereotypes and flatten racial hierarchies.”

Yan explores what happens when such an art piece is re-created in a completely different context? This question is intertwined with Yan’s exploration towards an intercultural identity, as a British-Chinese citizen.

“It is because it is rooted in a deeply personal experience that her body becomes a key compositional element of her work.”

 

In Yan’s words

I left China for England in 2005. During the recent pandemic while facing the real possibility of permanent exile from my motherland, I began to ask how cultural migration may look like. To answer this, I decided to start a set of artistic experiments—to literally ‘transplant’ one artwork from one place to another, just like the colonial botanists did with plants back in the day. After ‘To Add a Metre to an Anonymous Mountain,1995’ was the pilot in this series. It would be my first ‘naked’ piece with the extra challenge, but also the thrill of, being a participatory piece in the open landscape.
Preparation, a myriad of it, was the key. The first step was to gain permission for the re-staging from the original Chinese artists. This was done through various personal connections back in China. Then I needed to find participants. To do this I wrote a letter explaining the intention of the project with all its awkwardness and risks. 9 people were found without too many difficulties. To build trust, I made sure to get to know them ‘properly’ beforehand— naked wild swimming was proven to be an effective method. Meanwhile a suitable site was needed to build a fitting view/context, and enough soft foreground for the actions. I chose Shedden Clough, a post-industrial land on the watershed of the South Pennines, for its un-pristine and un-pastoral quality. A team was assembled: a filmmaker, a documentary photographer, a large-format camera operator (since I’d be in the body pile too), a sound recorder, and a field assistant. Several rounds of test shooting and filming were done.
Finally, the day came. The 18th of August 2021, the wettest and most miserable of that summer. All 15 people turned up on that desolate car park high on time. The shoot went like a dream. And I made new discoveries. Before the action, I only had a vague idea to challenge and to explore. Yet such idea became a total celebration. The vulnerability that we all felt, being naked in the testing natural elements and in front of strangers, brought powerful senses of trust and solidarity. It was so warm, safe, and eternal in that pile. Like ten hearts beating together, and ten living bodies becoming a conglomerate. Spontaneously, we had naked hugs afterwards—when would you ever do that, to hug a stranger nakedly, with an open heart in an open land?
We all became good friends after the shoot, the only person who wasn’t living in the area soon moved over. As for myself, I found my place in the British society, just like the foreign rhododendrons. I already have roots and a sense of communal belonging here; I just didn’t realise it before. Meanwhile there is an answer to my original question. Migration enriches culture. And the value of hybridity weights more than nativity. That is my discovery from adding a metre to a Lancashire hill.

 

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

 

After ‘Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, c. 1817′ is a re-staging of the painting by Caspar David Friedrich.

In this piece, Yan 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.

 

In Yan’s words

The newly found sense of rootedness from my piece After ‘To Add a Metre to an Anonymous Mountain, 1995’ gave me confidence to explore other interesting issues from the stance of a female and non-white resident in the UK. Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, painted in 1817, became the next piece for its problematic iconisation of (western) man in the natural landscape. Given its position within western Romanticism, the landscape can be understood as nature, knowledge and perhaps the non-western world too.
But it’s not easy to unpack an artwork with such a long and impactful history. Meanwhile, a painting, as a constructed view, is challenging for photography, which often stands in for a real occurrence in front of the camera. Re-interpretation is a much better word than re-staging here. To figure out exactly what the piece stands for us, my friends and I have done six progressive tests in all sorts of ways and weathers. At first, we stood on a rock with a comparable view, with a set of rented clothing like what the painted figure wore. It felt completely wrong—a forced identity. What about taking the clothes off? The process felt too erotic. However, standing nude felt……surprisingly interesting. The skin brought rich sensations, scary yet powerfully liberating. It also brought new insight towards the painting. While the man looks very much at ease in it, here the seemingly easy action of standing on a rock naked, becomes much more complicated and a lot less comfortable. It’s always so cold, especially with any wind stronger than 6 miles per hour while the temperature is lower than 15 degrees centigrade—which is pretty much all the time on the moors. The body is always at work trying to keep warm and keep balance. Such an immersive embodiment becomes disjointed from the experience of viewing the painting. It brings the body so much closer and humbler to the land that it literally decentralises it.
This new stance gradually became our plan for action. The piece is to be a series of durational but solo performances. The performers strip off before going to stand on that rock for as long as she or he can endure. Meanwhile we film the bodies hair by hair, goosebumps by goosebumps, twitch by twitch in an attempt to communicate the struggle and joy of standing there.
Reviewing the video footage brought disturbance—our prejudice towards the body is revealed by our satisfaction and dissatisfaction towards our own skins and curves. The idea of sharing the work with the public again brings twitches in the stomach. It’s going to be a piece of discomfort, in its doing, making and viewing. The work is still in progress, hopefully finishing by the end of 2024.

After ‘Olympia 1863’

 

With ‘Olympia’, made in 1863 by Manet, Wang Preston created three readings of the work, but the last one (pictured above), 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.

 

In Yan’s words

As a woman I always feel uncertain when facing a reclining female nude. Which actual woman would do that? In that rigid position with a smile, permanently covering their pubic hair? As a non-white woman, I wonder which character in Manet’s Olympia I can be associated closer with, the white prostitute, or the black servant? Or both? However, as a photographer, I can relate to Manet’s position better—the person with the authority to narrate. It was with all these questions, doubts, and uncertainties that I decided to re-stage Olympia, as a way to clarify and calibrate.
The restaging turned out to be first and foremost a material study of the painting. To do it I worked with a team of people: a professional theatre designer, a textile artist, a florist, a botanist, a makeup artist, a large-format camera operator, two photography technicians and a commercial photographer expert in lighting. Together we unpacked every detail of the painting, from the shininess of the curtains to the colour and length of the fringe on the shawl, to the edges of the pillows, and to the brutal directness of the lighting. It is surprising to see just how much of the story is already told in its setting and embedded in its beddings.
After the setting it was the sitting. My models and I practiced and practiced the utterly forced and uncomfortable reclining position — we had to put a door under the bed sheet so that the bottom didn’t sink. It pains to see how much the body needed to sacrifice for aesthetic enjoyments. Of course it was the look that made the painting. I felt that I was almost inhabiting her body, and her look. Sitting there gazing at my own camera, I learned to look at the world while being looked at with all that frankness. I have never accepted myself so plainly before.
Yet that was not all. In order to match the species of the bouquet, my ‘floral team’ discovered that the central flower was certainly a peony, the blue flowers next to it could be hydrangeas while the flower in her hair was no doubt a hibiscus. All were from China. Now I can read Olympia as a Chinese person. Peonies are the oldest cultivated flowers in China, adoring our gardens for two thousand years while also used as medicine. In 1787, the first tree peony was shipped from Canton to London under the instruction of Sir Josephs Banks. In the same year, the doomed ship Bounty set sail to Tahiti with the mission to collect breadfruit seeds and seedlings before transplanting them to Jamacia to feed the slaves on British sugar plantations, also under the instruction of Sir Banks.
Now there is a lot of certainty when looking at the modernity painted in Olympia by Manet. A modernity that places women, prostitutes, flowers, and slaves on the same level in the same picture. Yet the gaze endures, just like the stubborn hibiscus that refused to open on my shoot day. For that I had to use a lily, probably also from China. 

 

Extracts from Echo & Revision: Yan Wang Preston’s ‘Three Easier Pieces’ by Taous Dahmani  READ IN FULL

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