A Landscape inhabited by Dragons, Horses, Spirits and Gods

While researching Stephen Shore, Jeff Wall and Robert Adams; artists who had tried to challenge the esthetics of their time, and who had played with a new form of amateur-aesthetics or a form of landscape photography that would be far removed from Ansell Adams¡¯, I found out that behind their vision of mostly banal suburbia, and apparently ordinary street scenes where nothing seems to happen but a vision that had revolutionized main stream documentary photography, there was intangible tension and artistic emotion that one would find in reading novels about transformational journeys or watching initiatic ¡°road movies¡±. If we think of Jeff Wall¡¯s conceptual attempt ¡°The Landscape Manual¡± - a criticism of the objectivity of documentary photography, which was written and published in 1969, we realize that most Chinese landscape photography - because of the thousand-year maceration in traditional culture, starting with Lang Jingshan¡¯s earliest works (Chin-San Long 1892-1995), including the so-called contemporary artists today, is viscerally infused with the very Chinese forms of Mountain and Water (Shan Shui : Chinese traditional landscape painting).

Xu Peiwu¡¯s new series of Alpa Diary is inhabited by a different kind of Shan Shui: mainly from his personal training as a watercolor painter and from his own sensitive and susceptible soul. His landscape stands out as both a continuation and an innovation compared to his tension-filled depiction of the Pearl River New Town, his earliest work that read like a war reportage. Peiwu said that between 2007 and 2009 he had gone through a difficult period of personal crisis, with mental anguish and spiritual quest. It was only when, in the fall of 2009, he took up a 2,500km journey, trekking from Guangdong to Guangxi across Yunnan and Guizhou, that he was able to recover some of his peace of mind, thanks to the ¡°grace¡± he found in some of the sad and desolate landscape that became the main medicine of his own therapy.On the surface of Xu Peiwu¡¯s ¡°Alpa Diary¡±, the title being homage to the camera he loves to use, we are once again in the safe and familiar zone of documentary photography, which by definition can only record and describe a reality that is visible and tangible, it is seen as a contrast this essay that we also called ¡°Dragons, Horses, Spirits & Gods¡± which constitutes an exploration of the unexplained meanings of life, of the invisible and the intangible. Amidst the signs that appeared to him such as lilies dying in the drying pond, wild horses whispering in the woods, village people forming a slow-motion dragon dance, demigods revealed on the walls of hundred year-old haunted houses, spirits of carved stones on the beach looking out into the indistinct past¡­ together the whole series brings a new esthetic and a different vision to landscape photography. These visions are held in the new Shan Shui tableaux, which Peiwu has collected in a quest of over five years, they invite us to look deeper, and ¡°to see¡± beyond the figurative and the apparent, from which we only need to follow the guiding lines and structures, and discover the carefully composed directional pathways. One of Peiwu¡¯s earliest snapshots was the iconic image of a woman general in opera costume with her horse against rows of newly built luxury villas in the background. The coexistence of the profane with the sacred can be found everywhere if we know how to look for it.
The assembly of the series was inspired by an idea we first discussed during the 2005 Lianzhou Photo Festival, when we went to photograph the Yao people in the countryside. We stumbled upon a noisy funeral of a King of the Yao¡¯s. Amidst non-stop thundering explosions from several kilometer-long lines of firecrackers in the suffocating smoke and haze, an impressive crowd of Yao mourners dressed in their best costumes formed an eerily silent procession. This funeral parade happened to cross our path barely five minutes after we attended a Yao wedding heavily laced with rice wine in a roadside village. The tragic following the euphoric, Thanatos and Eros, a flip of the coin, we felt however that there was something beyond a simply National Geographic sort of coverage of ethnic tribal events¡­The title ¡°Dragons, Horses, Spirits and Gods¡± comes from a Chinese saying ¡°Long Ma Jing Shen¡± meaning energy, dynamism, and high spirit. By breaking apart the four characters, we obtain the literal ¡°Dragons, Horses, Spirits and Gods¡±; the plural in English allows us to widen the field of potentialities, as there are figurative ¡°horses¡± and the secondary degree of ¡°horses¡±. The concept serves as a pretext to decode a photographic work that would be at the same time a pure essay of landscape photography or an exploration into the power of photography to carry and to reveal the immaterial and the metaphysical, without which life is meaningless. It also serves to solicit, as August Sander would have approved, our capacity to ¡°see¡±, to ¡°observe¡± and to ¡°think¡±. Last but not least, this Alpa diary definitely contributes in its way to the foundation of a Chinese ¡°Landscape Manual¡±.

Jean Loh
May 2010 Shanghai

Xu Peiwu - Dragons Horses Spirits & Gods
4 color printing
90 pages