SALT LAKE CITY — Art is a lie used to tell a truth, as the saying goes. In the case of Yang Yongliang, the inverse might be true.
The Chinese artist, currently featured in the Utah Museum of Fine Arts’ "salt 14" series, has been crafting a new medium by himself. Using 4K-resolution photos he’s taken of Chinese cityscapes, Yongliang cuts, splices and layers thousands of them to make haunting new landscapes. From a distance, these landscapes look organic. Look closer, though, and the hills, mountains and cliffs are actually densely stacked skyscrapers and other man-made structures.
“In a sense, there’s a documentary aspect to this work, but then he’s using that to create this totally fictional world,” said Whitney Tassie, the museum’s senior curator. “I think it’s still a relatively new medium, digital photography, and this is the most intense representation of the Photoshop cut-and-paste phenomenon — which has been challenged in artistic circles.”
These UMFA pieces are displayed in a small, dark room, with each piece backlit. Encased in thick wooden frames that jut out from the wall, the pieces have a way of sucking the viewer in.
Yongliang’s artistic career began as a child, when he studied calligraphy for a decade. As an adult, he studied Visual Communication at the China Academy of Art in Shanghai. Since then, his work has been featured throughout China, Europe, Australia, the U.K. and America. The UMFA discovered his work in New York City two years ago, at a weekend dedicated to Asian art. The museum has lots of Chinese art, as well as street photography, in its archives. Bringing in Yongliang’s work was an ideal fit.
“You can see in his work the connection to the past, and the questioning that I think all artists must be dealing with, with the weight of their cultural tradition,” Tassie said.
In Yongliang’s case, that cultural tradition is landscape painting. Just as traditional Chinese landscape painters build layers with strokes of watercolor ink, Yongliang does the same, but with digital photographs instead of watercolor ink.
“He takes this great middle path and uses the traditional techniques,” said Luke Kelly, the museum’s associate curator of collections and antiquities. “I think he found a way to continue them, that the ideas, the theories behind them, still hold true to this day.”
Yongliang’s work is more than just visual trickery, though. It re-contextualizes the rapid urbanization that cities like Shanghai have experienced in Yongliang’s lifetime.
“When he was born in 1980, a city like Shanghai was 5 million (people),” Kelly said. “Today, in 2018, it’s 24 million. Some years in Shanghai, it was 1 million (new) people a year. He’s on the ground, and he sees that to get to that transformation, you have to go through a lot of erosion, a lot of destruction.”
It’s hard to say whether these UMFA pieces bemoan the changes that urbanization has brought a country like China. Yongliang’s work feels somewhat reverent, somber and inquisitive — like an explorer who’s happened upon undiscovered territory.
One of the exhibit walls is dedicated to “Prevailing Winds,” a large video installation that takes Yongliang’s approach even deeper. In “Prevailing Winds,” these industrial elements — cranes, roads, cars — actually move and shift. They’re still evolving.
“Evolving into what? We don’t know,” Kelly said. “And I don’t think even he knows.”
If you go …
What: "salt 14: Yang Yongliang"
When: Through June 2, 2019
Where: Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Campus Center Drive
How much: $12.95 for adults, $9.95 for seniors and youths (6-18), free for children, active military, students and UMFA members