Pastoral at best, nostalgic at worst: That’s how I would describe Yao Lu’s photographs if I walked by them in a gallery without stopping to investigate. Lu’s images are easily mistaken for the 10th-century Chinese landscape paintings they imitate: Foggy hill tops are framed in traditional shapes and marked with the distinctive “chop marks” that note the subject and artist.
A closer look, though, reveals that the landscapes Lu photographs are actually trash heaps, covered with a fine green netting required by the Chinese government. An artful boulder is revealed to be a chunk of rebar and concrete and, upon closer inspection, a quaint valley scene has orange-shirted workers digging through its green pastures. It’s a startling effect, and it drives home a compelling (if a bit over-earnest) point about pollution in the country where he was born in 1967, at the cusp of its industrial revolution. “My works use the form of traditional Chinese painting to express the face of China,” Lu writes in his artist’s statement. “Today, China is developing dramatically and many things are under constant construction. Many things have disappeared and continue to disappear.”
Interestingly, Yu is unironic about his use of the shan shui (literally, mountain river) style, saying, “I believe in maintaining a beautiful feeling in the framing of the image, including composition, line, density, and framing, all the elements regularly contained in painting.” At the same time, shan shui painters were interested in showing how tiny details like flowers and birds related to the overall scene–a visual trope meant to evoke the Taoist notion of all things being connected. Yu’s loyalty to the long perspective drives home a painful truth: that all of us–no matter how well-meaning–are complicit in these very real landscapes.