What are Hu Wugong¡¯s Dragons in the Fields?

In the 40-year span of his photographic career, Hu Wugong, the veteran documentary master of the Shaanxi school of photography, has focused mainly on four major themes: the wheat hands, the farmers of the Guanzhong plain, the rural Christians, and his home town, the ancient city of Xi¡¯an. A son of the yellow earth that is considered as the cradle of the Chinese civilization, Hu Wugong took his first photograph in 1967 and has since never left down his camera, actively leading the Shaanxi photographers association, curating many exhibitions and publishing dozens of books, being the key architect of the first large scale Chinese documentary photo exhibition HUMANISM IN CHINA, now a world touring exhibition.
In his own words: ¡°I try to interpret, under a simple angle, the mentality of the ordinary folks, and to portray life in the countryside without flourish.
This is the task to which I have been devoted body and soul for forty years. I went in the field as a farmer, during the spring planting and the harvest in the fall.
I was fully immersed in the life of the peasants, with whom I would spend the New Year, I went to the temple fair and I slept on the kang bed.
On the train, I mingled with the wheat hands whom I then followed in the fields. With other migrant workers, I went on site, in the mines and slept in their cabins. I observed farmers feeding the pigs outside a church, forging iron under the cross, saying farewell prayer to the deceased whose remains were placed in a coffin painted with religious motives. I could measure the harshness of the existence of the workers and their struggle to earn their bread. ?I saw them drink the bitter water, drawn from wells dug dozens of meters underground. I also enjoyed quiet scenes of country life, such as kids playing in the swing in the off season, and witnessed a young couple¡¯s wedding, a blanket on their back, praying heaven and earth. I would say to sum up, that I admire the Chinese folks of the yellow earth, for their self-sacrifice and perseverance, under any circumstances whatsoever.
Humble and proud, fearful and philosophical, such are the adjectives that best describe their attitude in life.¡±

This exhibition is a selection of Hu Wugong¡¯s best documentary photographs in black & white that characterize him as a humanist, and of his lesser known landscapes, some unpublished, that he photographed using color slides.

This is no ordinary landscape photography. Perhaps compared to the American New Topographics (*1) where ¡°photographs find beauty in the banal¡±; Hu Wugong¡¯s landscape is marked by the un-banal presence of stone statutes. So in a way it moves closer to ¡°photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape¡±, the subtitle of the 1979 exhibition involving the likes of Robert Adams and Stephen Shore, Lewis baltz and Nicolas Nixon. In Hu Wugong¡¯s man-altered landscape, an austere beauty and autumn-light sadness seep through the ruins of these imperial tombs of Tang Dynasty. Unlike the Easter Island or the Greek or Roman ruins, the Shaanxi Guanzhong memorial tombs and mausoleums are part of the daily life of the farmers and their children. Hu Wugong¡¯s collection of these quasi two thousand years old stone guardians, horses and lions, is different from the systematic accumulation of the German school represented by Berndt and Hilla Becher, but contains the same forceful authenticity. For these stones though mute, tell us a meaningful story: to use again a remark of Christian Caujolle (*2), ¡°good photography always has a relationship with death¡±. These burial grounds of so many kings and princes through the ages have become through Hu Wugong¡¯s camera a sort of Feng-Shui landscapes. They represent the spirit of what Hu Wugong has been searching for in these ¡°Chinese folks of the yellow earth¡±, the imprints of the old civilization and ancient history that are left among us today (*3).

These silent tomb keepers, guardians of the long gone emperors and kings, are ¡°the original expression of China in its solid and voluminous sense¡±, so described by archeologist and poet Victor Segalen (*4) who discovered these stones statues in ¡°the two fundamental provinces of Ancient China¡± (Shaanxi and Shanxi). Unfortunately this ¡°solid¡± heritage is now under increasing threat of pillage and plunder, and hopelessly endangered by intensified industrial farming and land reclaim for real estate development in today¡¯s fast modernizing China.

We understand the urge of Hu Wugong to photograph them, but at the same time we can feel that he is contemplating them with equanimity, even with certain tenderness, with the same eye he uses when he pursues these children while they learn, rest and play, under their father or mother¡¯s care. As if he were telling them: if you remember who your ancestors are, where they came from, this long lineage of mixed blood in your veins, of both royal and peasant stock; this is what makes you what you are, the next generation in charge of this vast and complex land, you who will be among the world citizens on a planet going into an ever dizzying speed of changes.

Hence quoting I-Ching, the Oracle of Changes, from the first Hexagram, the line nine in the second place reads:? DRAGON APPEARING IN THE FIELDS, OPPORTUNITY TO SEE THE GREAT MAN, which in Hu Wugong¡¯s photography can be interpreted as: if you are capable of seeing the beauty and the spiritual in the ordinary and the banal around you, you will have the potential to do the right thing and to realize great achievement.

What a better lesson to start the New Year?



>Jean Loh
January 2011

Hu Wugong - Dragon in the Fields
4 color printing
128 pages