Invited to take part in a modern day adventure I visited Impressions Gallery, Bradford, to take in Mother River, an exhibition of photographs by artist Yan Wang Preston. Labelled as an ‘epic journey’ the photographic project details the 6,211km route of the Yangtze River in China, from its remote birth at the source near Tibet to its joining with the sea at Shanghai.
Perhaps more of a pilgrimage than an adventure the works are made up of sixty-three images, each one taken 100km from the last, beginning to end, source to sea. We begin the journey in a stark, obliterated terrain of a Tibetan plateau, cold radiating from the image with pure clear air and icy ground. The first few images of the sixty-three are uninhabited and unadulterated, with just a depth to the landscape allowing you to focus on small details of texture and the subtle cool shades of the surroundings. The river itself is not always visible in the photographs, following the flow but not always capturing it instead the photographs choose to focus on signs of life during the journey, through portraits, social documentary and interiors. Though similar in set up each image creates a strategic lead in to the inner most reaches, a river bend curving gently away from the viewer, a road jutting at an angle across the flat plain of the picture, a central portrait with enquiring eyes asking why we are navigating their space.
Mounted within simple whitewash wooden frames the sixty-three points create a clear path from one to another while also differing sizes and groupings adding an element of narrative to a simple wall-hung show. The inclusion of four frames where an error has occurred highlight the nature of the artistic journey and adventure being fraught with real world problems – two blank squares detail that the locations on the map were unachievable even after two days of searching! Moreover, two brooding dark red images, in bold contrast to the empty white mounts, show where the large format film, each loaded in to the camera individually, were accidently loaded back to front. This honest account allows a more personal encounter. Mistakes are made which is something (I assume) we can all relate to.
These small windows on to China are something new. They are not the usual and ubiquitous snapshots of imposing tower blocks, or crumbling old world, these images allow us to nosey in to another country through something everyone can understand: a river winding its way to the ocean. British towns and cities all have their own river or canal winding alongside; boating, fishing and paddling are almost universal past times it seems. Near the end of the series two images placed side by side show a crane at a new site of construction, next to a large upstanding statue of a fish reaching up to the sky. Both construction crane and historic statue are reaching, elevating, straining for meaning and relevance in this new world. The new next to the old, or perhaps it is the new versus the old, are the real vantage points throughout the journey; the iconic river dripping with folklore has modern day piercings along its route, hydroelectric dams, factory and construction sites litter its banks and remnants of old housing lay in rubble waiting for urbanisation to reach them.
Mother River highlights the changing landscape not just in China but every urbanised country, from a single community’s effect on the river to the encasement of a large hydroelectric dam, this old world exploration provides an insight in to some complex modern day issues.
Mother River, Impressions Gallery, Bradford, 31 March – 24 June 2017.
Abi Mitchell is a writer and programme based in the North of England, co-founder and member of SPUR, an arts commissioning collective, and Programme Coordinator at Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester.