Even though I have not heard from Sun-chang since his publication of Hong Kong: A Macro Vision two years ago, I was certain that Sun-chang must have been busy with yet another project. It was inconceivable that a person of such vitality should have produced nothing of quality in the interim. We had simply lost contact.
Last year marked Hong Kong’s historic turning point. I have been wondering what significant impact such a transition would have on intellectuals. Would any change be brought to Sun-chang’s work as a result? All the recent news has not been positive, Hong Kong is experiencing the hardships of an economic downturn or even a recession. Drastic change is indeed painful. My curiosity keeps recurring: how receptive are my Hong Kong friends to this transformation?
I also tried to imagine how I would react. Frankly speaking, I might just carry on as usual, as if nothing dramatic had happened, accepting the temporary reality of ‘one country, two systems’. To the trendy young people who happily dance to the new tune, such behavior might seem paralytic. However, I believe this is the age-old habit of the Chinese scholars – live a spiritual life and let that be the guide to life’s directions.
Therefore it did not surprise me when Sun-chang showed me his latest photography works that they hardly reflected any change. This being Sun-chang’s second volume on photography in three years, a reader might naturally raise a point: what differs this from his last book? Indeed, what fresh viewpoints is he offering us?
Compassion and Contemplation
When addressing social compassion, fundamental differences lie between Chinese artists and their western counterparts. It is quite common for the western artist to reveal social compassion through criticisms that are factually based. The most straightforward way would be realistic portrayals used as point blank protests. Alternatively, metaphors are used. Installation arts use non-descriptive means to express views on every conceivable phenomena of the contemporary society. To Chinese artists, all these are beyond comprehension.
Chinese has long held that art exists for the sake of ‘pleasing one’s soul and inspire one’s spirit’. On the surface, artists do not partake in society’s ups and downs. It follows that Chinese artists show lack of concern or even display aloofness toward social ills. But this is far from being fair. Take literature as an example: for three thousand years, from the Book of Poetry downward, Chinese poets have left voluminous works much of which embrace intense social compassion. Chinese literati and artists are the cream of society rather than professionals in the usual sense. It is, therefore, understandable that besides pleasing one’s soul and inspiring one’s spirit, artistic creations has always meant venting feelings and thoughts. Looking back into history, Chinese artists can be said to harbor the most acute sense of social compassion. It is a fact equally inconceivable to the professional artists of the West.
Chinese artists’ intense social compassion originates not from reactions to realities but rather, reactions to inner feelings. Aspiring to challenges of self-appointed missions, literati artists burden themselves with compassion derived from pent-up dissatisfactions toward the society. Since the arts are expressions of personalities, they embody the artists’ dispositions and social compassion; in the process of resolving as well as communicating such compassion, the Chinese artists turn it into art form.
A superficial view has that Chinese artists enjoy nothing better than sightseeing amid mountains and waters. In fact, they embrace the landscape and nature with a mixed sense of sorrow and indignation. Being intellectual elite, artists would most unlikely to idly paint a rock or a pine tree merely for the fun of it; it is up to the wise to interpret the underlying meanings. Nature is a summation of innocence. The artists select fragments out of this immensity and reveal their dispositions.
In my opinion, Sun-chang’s photography is akin to the works of ancient Chinese painters. The only difference being: instead of nature’s landscape, he focuses on minute details of the urban jungle.
In Sun-chang’s work, I sensed his poignant compassion. You might say that his art form bears western influence, and that his works even constitute part of a modern art of the West. Nevertheless, his search entails a vision of social morals, well beyond the formal language of art.
I don’t believe Sun-chang realizes as such. In his own preface, Sun-chang says that his photography aims to ‘rekindle the withering soul and fading aspirations’. What soul and aspirations is he referring to? Furthermore, Sun-chang says that he aims to ‘reassert humanity and materiality while dealing hypocrisy and absurdity a crippling blow’. If these are the only goals, why does his camera always focus on the decayed and neglected corners of the metropolis? Without a doubt, there exists an enormous reserve of compassion within Sun-chang’s inner depth. It is this force which guides Sun-chang to those depressed environments to witness people’s plights.
The means by which he ‘deals hypocrisy and absurdity a crippling blow’ is to gather evidence in urban slums. Sun-chang is an architect. Should he be looking for urban compositions of points, lines and planes, he needs to go no farther than luxury condominiums and office towers. To him, these are but artificially arranged aesthetics, pretentious and absurd. He would rather venture into places generally considered unsightly in order to seek out reality and rationality. At such places, he came to understand ‘the implication of equality and universality’.
You might call this an artist’s idiosyncrasy. To a society, this is indifferent concern. What does concern lead to? A revolution? To an individual, this is detached attachment. What does attachment lead to? A suicide? All boils down to utter helplessness. Artists are the most helpless bunch in a society. Ironically, feelings of helplessness and desperation happen to be the source of creativity.
Sun-chang does not record historical events that to him are fictitious. But among his photographs, I saw two banners. One is an eroded and discolored azure-sky-and-white-sun Nationalist’s flag. The other is a graffiti-enhanced star-spangled American flag. Could this be Sun-chang unconsciously declaring historical realities in his utter helplessness?
Between Reality and Creativity
After looking at his work, one can not help but be amazed at the expressive power of simple forms. To me some photographs even surpass the paintings of Abstractionism. Photography’s basic role is to record images of nature, making sure that the images recorded are correct and truthful. Sun-chang’s camera work fails to capitalize on its primary function, but succeeds in rendering photography and painting indistinguishable. What does it signify?
Amazement is the first and foremost affirmation of the value of Sun-chang’s work. Anyone who has laid eyes on his photographs would, as if by a coordinated effort, cry out, “This is really a painting!” Some do not even realize that they were looking at photographs without being reminded. After the initial surprise, viewers can not avoid speculating that Sun-chang is out to create the effect of paintings. It is a truism that there exist value differentials between photographs and paintings. Therefore, when a photograph exerts the expressive power of painting, it amounts to a major artistic achievement. Still, the question remains. If this is the case, why not dump the camera and pick up paint brushes?
The distinction lies between reality and fantasy.
Paintings of Abstraction are pure creations of the mind, in addition to fantasies at work. Mondrian’s geometric paintings, though sometimes captioned, are fruits of abstract thinking processes. On the other hand, Kandinsky’s wildly dynamic painting strokes, like heavenly horses galloping through the sky, express a free reign of points, lines and planes. They gave birth to formless forms. In their quest for truth, they expanded the spiritual frontiers of mankind. They negated the realities of the visual realm, believing them to be illusions, and attempted a firm grip with timeless truth via fantasies of the conceptual world. They taught us to transcend the superficial forms and resonate with inner reverberations. Sun-chang is also searching for such realities, such timelessness and such ‘inevitabilities of life’.
However, he does not rely on splashes and drips of paint brushes. Instead, he scans the humanities through a camera’s lens. He forsakes fantasies and confronts the realities; he explores realities amid realities. All images captured by photographer’s lens can be called realities. But only those endowed with mind’s eye are capable of perceiving the timeless realities.
The power of Sun-chang’s images derives from precise superimposition of realities of the real world with those of the conceptual world. He is not a professional photographer and is unfamiliar with technicalities of either the camera or the darkroom. He neither exploits the equipment nor conjures up special effects. Like you and me, when he picks up a camera and presses a shutter, he aims at obtaining the clearest of images. Then, he sends the exposed films to a professional laboratory for processing, expecting the most faithful rendition of colors. Therefore, it is fair to assume that whatever images he captures, they are the most truthful representation, the world as seen through his inner eye.
In my opinion, the power of such works surpasses pure abstract paintings by a notch, because he simultaneously registers the joys and sorrows of life as well as subtly etches the soul of the people.
The Chinese never pursued abstraction. From time immemorial, Chinese artists did not indulge in abstract concept; they aimed to record. Earlier, the ancients chronicled sages and heroes. Later on they recorded their experiences with landscapes and the aesthetics of natural phenomena. Unwittingly, they created abstraction.
The Chinese race is among the earliest to create abstract art. Abstract sculptures and paintings emerged from Han (206BC-AD220) and T’ang (618-907) dynasties respectively. Later generations Chinese called such art hsieh-i; hsieh, to depict; i, the mind. Artists of Ming and Ch’ing dynasties would only recognize artists who depict the mind and regarded record keepers as mere artisans.
Taking such a tradition into consideration, we might define Sun-chang as a hsieh-i photographer.
There are two stages to appreciating his work. From the angle of pure abstraction, one can enjoy the aesthetics and the spiritual resonance brought by simple compositions of colors and forms. Once the initial visual contact is made, interest of a further pursuit is aroused. What could it be? Since these photographs are ‘realistic’ in nature, one can discern the materials from the textures and differentiate the layering from variations of light and shade. After such an identification process, one is likely to exclaim, “So that’s what it is!” and still be amazed that such ordinary phenomena can yield such extraordinary sense of beauty.
When the amazement subsided, a kind of indescribable sadness emerges. Such is life! Vestiges left by people who lead ordinary lives are paraded right before us. Life is so utterly helpless and so utterly insignificant! However, from a person with inner eye, life’s remnants can be so moving, not just sense of beauty, but also emotional residues and sentimental sediments as well as dreams and prospects. We all have come a long way.
Man and Nature
Most modern photographers single out people as their focal interest. The absence of human figure in Sun-chang’s photographs unavoidably raises special interest and may cause his work to be categorized as architectural photography. Indeed the majority of his subject matters seem to be architecturally related.
Sun-chang’s architectural background may have been responsible for his preferential treatment of architectural elements. However, when he completely does away with human figures, he is, in his inner depth, upholding the literati-artistic tradition began with the Yüan (1280-1368) dynasty. To Chinese artists, man is a highly abstract existence. They invariably interpret the concept of man through objects of nature. When an artist paints a rock, human gestures are suggested in the natural form. The same is with painting a pine tree. T’aihu rocks and aged pines have long been the favorite subjects of Chinese scholars, for they contain well-blended images of nature and man. Without painting a human figure, man is already present!
Human presence is most apparent and substantial in Sun-chang’s work. Images without man’s vestiges will simply not enter his lens. He loves nothing more than framing pictures amid dilapidated structures where he hopes to witness the communion of forces between man and nature.
This is a union of another kind between man and nature.
San-ts’ai or the trio, namely heaven, earth and man, constitute the essential elements of the Chinese known world. Man dwells sandwiched between heaven, the temporal element, and earth, the spatial element; all his conducts and thoughts are conditioned accordingly. When man’s creative endeavors are set against the background of time and space, cultural significance is vastly amplified.
All of Sun-chang’s works manifest poignant sorrows for fleeting time. He rarely depicts vivid and flamboyant scenes, preferring to chase after images of decay and neglect – decay and neglect speak more eloquently of the passing and ravages of time. From man’s perspective, the force of nature within the framework of time and space is a form of helplessness that, like the changing of seasons, brings sorrow.
Behind the beautiful compositions and saturated colors, one can make out the wind-blown and rain-drenched plywood, the sun-blistered and weather-beaten peeling paint, the abandoned signage and advertisements, or even doors, panels and pavements in utter disrepair. There is no sadder song in life than the uncontrollable flight of time and the unavoidable march toward decay.
After a few moments with Sun-chang’s work, the curiosity of where a scene takes place is aroused. This is not to devalue his work but is a natural desire to further understand its content and the spatial aspect of the work.
Normally, we would not mind where a photograph is taken, but knowing the location can foster our appreciation. Space and culture are intimately related. The gourd-shaped element atop a pair of doors represents more than an attractive decoration; it also conveys a message from the residents of a Macaunese community about their beliefs and prospects. Even the clamping devise of a floor mop echoes the aesthetics of Chinese traditional structures, inheriting the millennia-long love affair with forms and colors.
The ancients seek humanity amid nature, whereas Sun-chang probes nature amid humanities. He scrutinizes the human landscape in search of natural order. This is a requisite path for modern artists since the real nature has gradually disappeared. After creating his own living environment, man moves about within its own confine all his life, forgetting the real nature. Like it or not, out of the ubiquitous signage, mountainous rubbish and endless streets and alleys, emerges a new nature. To attempt to interpret the meaning of this man-made landscape, Sun-chang uses a camera to record the aesthetics of these ‘natural phenomena’. As such, it is no different from the ancients who gleaned from the raw nature. Sun-chang’s photographs are expressions of naturalism of a new era.
These are my observations of his work after a single viewing. Up to this point, the question raised earlier has not been answered: after Hong Kong: A Micro Vision, what does this book want to convey?
With the exception that subject locales extended beyond Hong Kong, Sun-chang’s basic approach has not changed much. My feeling is that with added insights and experiences, the humanistic content of his work is similarly enriched. Beside the passionate drive to capture beauty, he wants to relate abstract human dramas through his lens.
While this article is being written, Sun-chang is probably roaming around with his camera in the hope of capturing more exciting scenes. It is also my hope that in his future works, he will bring us more human messages, narrate more profound human stories and give us more life’s revelations, all on top of pure aesthetics.
In this Metropolis: A Prime Vision, there is only one photograph with barely a human figure. It is a sculpture of a disc thrower placed on a windowsill of a certain New York location. It is probably a trophy or a souvenir. The athlete, his body contorted and in silhouette, seems to be working toward a breakthrough. The purple-brownish color is a monochromatic melancholy. Outside the window, a gray wire of questionable origin zigzagged and wrapped around two iron bars, prominently set off against a darkish background. It seems to symbolize the hardship of an upward and enterprising struggle.
This, of course, is my personal interpretation of the ‘prime vision’, and bears no special significance. However, the world as seen through Sun-chang’s lens is a visionary terrain of immense proportion. Simple, poignantly moving scenes are but bridges that lead to a spiritual world without boundary.
Tainan National College of the Arts