Yang Yongliang was born in Jiading, Shanghai, in 1980. From a young age Yang studied traditional Chinese ink painting (shuimo hua). He studied visual communication at the Shanghai Arts and Crafts Vocational College in 1995 and then at the Shanghai Institute of Design, China Academy of Fine Arts in 1999. In 2004 he set up his own studio and in 2005 started experimenting with ink painting, photography, short films and videos. In 2006 he started his series of Phantom landscapes.
Like a Chinese handscroll read from right to left, the video Phantom landscape moves from right to left. It begins with a piece of Chinese classical music, Liushui (flowing water or mountain streams), played on the scholar’s instrument, the qin (lute). The music sounds heavy and foreboding, suggesting impending catastrophe.
The artist has superimposed scenes of modern city life over images of mountain peaks and waterfalls in a traditional Chinese landscape (shanshui, mountains and water) painting of the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127). Trees, pavilions and a fishing village with fishing boats and nets, fishermen and travellers crossing bridges in a tranquil traditional landscape are displaced by symbols of modern progress such as streets with noisy traffic, skyscrapers and powerlines. A juxtaposition of time and culture is created.
On a busy street corner we find flashing video billboards advertising Sharp, the Japanese electronic company, and part of Samsung, the Korean electronic company. In the faint distance at the right, for a split second, a very tiny fishing boat is moving from right to left behind a mountain, followed by a small aeroplane emerging from behind the same mountain and then moving in the opposite direction and out of the screen.
A powerful waterfall is rushing down to a busy street, but like an illusion or phantom, the water does not flood the street and has no impact. In the middle distance waterfalls cascade like Niagara Falls. Could this allude to the recent hydro-electric project of the Three Gorges of the Yangtze River in China?
As if answering or echoing the foreboding music at the beginning of the film, suddenly we seem to be under a gigantic aeroplane, charging at and crashing into the landscape, reminiscent of a shark.
By using the images of a traditional Chinese landscape painting rather than the photograph of actual mountain scenery, the artist has given deeper meaning to the film. There is an inherent feeling of nostalgia for the old culture and way of life, with the implication that the intrusion and great speed of modern progress and foreign influence is inevitable and relentless. Ironically, at the same time, there seems to be an acceptance and even a celebration of modern city life which appears so vibrant and lively with video screens and streams of cars and buses, until horror strikes when the gigantic plane crashes into the landscape at the conclusion. Is this the artist’s final statement on modern progress?
The film is dark and yet lighthearted. It creates suspense and at the same time there is humour in the toy-like cars; it is also very serious and thought–provoking, and imbued with deep meaning.
Mae Anna Pang, Senior Curator, Asian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2012).