Young southeastern photographers, and one time studio-mates, Huang Xiaoliang and Lu Yanpeng use photography almost as illustration. Huang’s images combine ink and projections to create scenes that could have been inspired by the Brothers Grimm while Lu attacks the authority of the camera and, by implication, of memory through his uneven exposures.
In our interview with the pair Sam Gaskin finds that while Lu Yanpeng takes chemical baths, it’s Huang Xiaoliang who gets silhouette.Portrait: Yang Xiaozhe
Lu Yanpeng and Huang Xiaoliang hold concurrent solo shows at m97 Gallery
this month. Both artists are young photographers from China’s southeast – Lu, 28, was born in Fujian, and Huang, 27, is from Hunan – who now spend much of their time, like so many up and coming artists, in Beijing. Like their careers, Lu and Huang’s photos have much in common. Both create richly atmospheric grayscale images, but the differences between their motivations and methodologies are as clear as black and white.
Commuting between reality and animation, Huang Xiaoliang’s Jungle Diary
series inhabits the same ontological space as the music video for ‘Take On Me’ by ’80s Oslo pop trio A-ha. A ghostly train, an escaped medical patient and gondolas (the aerial kind) traverse forests and skies that look like composites of several photos layered and printed on textured paper, blotched and spilt with ink.
‘I’ve used a lot of ink and traditional Chinese handmade paper as the base pattern for my images before piling shadows on them,’ Huang says. ‘Although it might look like it, the final works you see aren’t compositions of several photos. The images are composed and created in pre-production, not post-production,and the final works are all formed at the click of the shutter.’
The idea of building photographs from shadows started, Huang says, with a realisation that there have been no real breakthroughs in photographic representation. ‘Since then, I have been studying photography’s most fundamental elements: light and shadow. I played shadow games in the park during my university days, which gave me some ideas, but the real root of the idea comes from an attempt to display the most basic elements of photography in the simplest way.’'Listen to the Wind' by Huang Xiaoliang
Creating images largely from shadows, it was natural for Huang to shoot the final photographs in black and white – limiting the light spectrum allows him to more easily weave the constituent elements together. But he says there are other benefits to restricting yourself to a single chromatic channel.
‘Simple things also offer greater room for imagination, and memories are part of our imagination.’ It’s partly what isn’t represented in the images that Huang wants us to see, prompting us to seek it out somewhere within ourselves.
Interviewed separately, Lu Yanpeng, the other artist showing at m97 this month, also sees this interpretive spaciousness in Huang’s work: ‘He deals with childhood and memory in ways that leave room for imagination. They’re fresh, inquisitive, interesting and poetic pictures.’
In turn, Huang says Lu’s works – sepia-toned shots of old Beijing roofs, trees, goats and birds, all of which look like they’re made not of shadows but solidified smoke – are ‘grander, evoking memory and emotion with greater aura.’
Lu, who started out as a painter, began his photography career with Memory Lost
, a series of long exposures shot after dark that amplifies the detail and texture of night scenery and captures movement in smooth blurs. In his current series, Open Air
, which won him the award for Best Photographer at last year’s Pingyao International Photography Festival, the smoky insubstantiality of the works come from Lu’s self-described ‘strange’ dark room developing process.
‘To a certain extent, it’s like painting in the dark room. I use my hands to feel the image as I develop it. Taking 5-30 minutes, or even longer, allows me more time to connect to the work, and for chemical solutions – self-blended, uneven, diluted, unstable – to affect the image.’
As with Huang, Lu chooses to shoot in black and white for reasons motivated by process as well as product. ‘I can develop black and white photos under weak red lights, while coloured photos can’t be exposed to any light. As much as I like darkness, I prefer to have a little light.’
Hoping to shed a little light ourselves, we asked Huang and Lu to pose a question to each other for this article, expecting them to hone in on interesting differences in their approaches. Instead, Huang asked Lu, ‘Would you eat hairy crab with me? In Shanghai or Xiamen?’ In reply, Lu told us , ‘I would like to ask him, Xiaoliang, why do you yearn to eat crab so much? Why?’ Huang tells us it’s because, ‘I rarely eat crab in Hunan, but I heard it’s an elegant thing to do. I would like to be elegant for once, ha!’
This reply , however facetious, helps to illuminate a difference in their work. There’s an A-ha immediacy to Huang’s photos, a horror movie mix of fun and fear, whereas Lu’s photos are more subdued and refined.
The two artists are different dishes – if Lu is crab then Huang is more like hongshao rou
– but at m97 you can try both courses.Jungle Diary and Open Air are at m97 all month. See our event details.