¡°A good photograph entertains a relationship with death¡±

Yan Changjiang, a natural born writer, had published two books before his name was even noticed in photography circles. While on a journalistic assignment in 1997, his encounter in a temple with the paper dolls destined for a memorial ceremony changed his life forever. The ensuing haunting obsession that stemmed from his fascination with the beauty of these paper crafts was the crucial motivator for Yan Changjiang to become a photographer. The encounter had tormented his fertile and creative mind for months, to such a degree that he started having visions of a tragic love story between humans and nonhumans, which urged him to return to the ¡°crime scene¡± with a borrowed camera, trying to relive the aesthetic emotion he felt the first time he came face to face with a nearly two-meter-tall paper horse. Setting the stage for this love story and photographing the paper creatures then became an open door for him to reach out to the ¡°other world,¡± and the woods where he directed his paper actors became the portal of communication between the living and the dead. Unbeknownst to him in the course of a decade he has produced a work with deep and wide-reaching spiritual resonance.

Not only has he intuitively created the most original conceptual photography in China¡¯s contemporary art scene, he has also written a fifty-thousand-word fiction that combines romance and murder mystery, with between the lines a metaphysical interrogation about our ephemeral existence. When he initially showed his pictures to Wang Ningde, another successful conceptual artist, the latter uttered the name ¡°Bernard Faucon,¡± which Yan Changjiang heard then for the first time.

So from 1997 to 2007 Yan would commute between Guangzhou his workplace and the Gaozhou village where he had discovered these paper men, a secret garden where he could indulge in his favorite childhood play of hide and seek, cowboys and Indians, and the like, which he transposed into the scenario of the Paper Men. One cannot help but compare Yan to the Japanese master Shoji Ueda, famous for his stage-setting series in the sand dunes whose quote applied so appropriately here: ¡°I like to introduce in natural landscapes some artificial elements. I like that one feels a slight intervention of the photographer.¡± Indeed in some of Yan¡¯s pictures the presence of these stage hands can even be seen. Each trip to Gaozhou was like a pilgrimage but also a new occasion to experiment with the art of stage-setting, with the photographic art of light, angles and composition, and at the same time to nourish his metaphysical quest he started a long interior monologue that finally had all the features of a literary achievement. It answers the fundamental question for a writer: how does one write about a past that one has not known? And what do we know of the destinies of these men and women who have vanished long ago? Yan¡¯s writing is both a narrative in the style of a road epic and a ¡°nouveau roman¡± rich in metaphors, with constant crossover from classic to modern genre. The narrator is at times the author (you? he? I?); at other times the fisherman, the psychopathic murderer or the investigative reporter, and the heroin is at times a narcissistic paper beauty, at times a sensual Madonna, or all the projections of the ideal woman in Yan¡¯s world of fantasy.

The combination of pictures and words reminds one of the Brazilian or Mexican fotonovelas, or even the French roman-photo, and some parallels can be established in the work of the inimitable Sophie Calle. The difference is that separately Yan¡¯s photography per se is one single body of stunning work at the borderline of classic black-and-white photography and original contemporary conceptual art. The short novel per se, though it becomes an indispensable companion to the photographic essay, corresponds to Christian Caujolle¡¯s quote (founder and consultant of VU¡¯ agency): ¡°a good photograph entertains a relationship with death¡±.

As the photographic support remains paper, be it gelatin silver print or digital print unless we look at the images in the virtual world of video and computer, watching the two paper lovers consumed by fire brings to mind the chilling memory of all the pictures burned by former lovers, or worse, all the autodaf¨¦s (destruction by fire) committed by emperors and dictators and revolutions in humankind¡¯s history, of books and pictures deemed intolerable to reigning regimes or to tornapart lovers. Through Yan¡¯s apparently innocent gesture of paper burning, it is not just an act of the Chinese traditional practice of communicating with the Other World, it is indeed a transcending act relative to the whole process of photography from the snapshot that is burning the image onto the negative film (capturing light or fire), to the alchemy of darkroom printing on photographic paper (manipulation with chemical solutions and water, revelation and fixing), to giving life to the printed picture (showing around, display in an album or in a frame on a wall) and finally to the death of the creative work when the photograph is discarded, torn and destroyed by fire. In a way this is the parallel story of the Paper Men. The frailty of our human existence, the vanishing paper culture under the threat of the digital conquest, the intolerance and mistrust among religious or ethnic groups leading to pogrom and genocide, the tribute to a dying art, all these themes and more can be found in the Paper Men if we care to read at a deeper level.

Over the years, each photographic sojourn for Yan to the Gaozhou country would serve as a catharsis, an occasion to reinvigorate himself; leaving behind the frantic ¡°gold rush¡± city life for the inspiring and still ecofriendly land of the Paper Men has been more rewarding than taking a sabbatical. From the Gaozhou woods Yan would come out a better person, a freer mind. and a more accomplished photographer. Nevertheless over a decade, which is pretty long in modern China¡¯s standards, he could see that the art is dying little by little. The old craftsmen have retired and the younger generation has fewer patience to build a two-meter-tall paper horse. None would have the art of Qi Baishi (cf. Yan¡¯s short story) to ¡°paint the eyebrows¡± on the face of the Paper Men which makes the whole series all the more valuable if we look at it as a testament to or a documentary about a craft and a tradition of Southern China.

Blurring the lines between reality and illusion, present and past, Yan Changjiang invites us to zigzag along an ill-defined boundary that hardly separates childhood imagination and adult fantasy, life and death, Eros and Thanatos, using fiction and creativity to explore the infinite possibilities of photography and literature, to achieve an unprecedented, dramatic, playful, and at the same time grave and serious visual experimentation that forms a fundamental and enduring work of photography.

Let¡¯s meditate on this quote from Albert Camus: ¡°A novel is never anything but a philosophy put into images.¡±

Jean Loh

Yan Changjiang - Paper Men
122 pages