Photography While the eyes of the world are on Brazil, as the few of you who bothered to read my weekly film review posts will know my interest has been with China and this week I’ve had the pleasure of investigating two massive artistic projects which have happened in the country and which have involved a lot of walking. On Monday, at Southport’s The Atkinson gallery’s group show about walking, I enjoyed the six images that are almost, bar some film, the only record of Marina Abramović’s The Great Wall Walk in which she and her partner set off at either end of The Great Wall of China with the plan that they’d meet in the middle and marry. They met in the middle and decided to do nothing of the sort, presumably having had a chance to think, not that it didn’t stop a repeat performance twenty years later.
Then last night, at the Open Eye Gallery I attended a slide presentation by photographer Yan Preston whose Mother River project involves visiting the Yangtze River and taking pictures every hundred and fifty kilometres in an attempt to understand and to an extent discover the extent to which this waterway which stretches across and unifies much of China lives up to its mythic reputation. After coming to terms with the initial shock of just how immense an undertaking this really would be and attempting some other performance projects involving stones and swimming, Preston returned to her original idea, dug in, and set to work. Over the following months she collected the photographs and the results are as stunning as you might expect, even more so because having decided to work on film, not everything went to plan. See below.
I loved everything about this. I have a real affinity for these kinds of, as I tend to describe my own, mad fool missions, viewing projects, wanting to photograph genetically surreal objects and visiting all of those fine art collections. Throughout I noticed how Preston had experienced many of the familiar frustrations, of spending half the time dealing with logistics and geology and technological failures, which in her case manifested itself in films being ruined and having to return to landscapes in order to replicate photographs again. Her set-backs were rather more epic than mine though. Where I’d turn up at Carr Lane to find a superlambanana missing, she was bitten by wild dogs or arrested by authorities who simply couldn’t understand why someone would be searching for a spot on a map so they could photograph it.
One of the tensions Preston’s had to deal with is between artistry and reportage. Initially it seemed as though the artist was about to abandon the fixed point part of the project because the resulting photographs wouldn’t reflect the romantic vision of the river. But thankfully she realised that she was capable of finding beauty or at the very least human interest at each of the points and that there is real value in recording the status of the river at this moment in China’s history when, as she also described, it's in a state of industrialisation. Amongst the photographs and video record, we saw landscapes in which nature had given way to concrete, areas in which Le Corbusier’s uniform urban ideas were flourishing, but soullessly, Leonardo Di Caprio’s character’s limbo from the film Inception made real.
The final result is a book, a specimen of which was available for viewing tonight. I decided not to look yet. Partly because we’d already seen a version briefly as a pdf but mostly because the project continues, as these things often do, due to setbacks related to health and budgets, and I want to see the whole thing together. The ideal approach would have been to begin at one end of the river and continue through to the other side, but no one has an infinite budget or the time to complete that immense undertaking in one go. Even Michael Palin, once he’d been round the world in eighty(ish) days, broke up subsequent televisual challenges into recording blocks. Preston clearly has the tenacity to see this through to the end and it seems only fair to wait until that end before enjoying the results. I hope she us visits again to report back.