Text by Anna Taylor.
He-River Together is a series of works in film and photography, produced at the beginning of Yan Preston’s long-term project exploring and documenting China’s Yangtze River. Returning to her homeland, she attempts to become one with the iconic waterway through a series of performative spatial interactions that intersperse many polarities and highlight perspective and proximity.
Taking a remembered traditional song from her childhood as the mythological ideal of the ‘mother river’, Preston journeyed with it from the source at the glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau. She interrogates myth by re-connecting with the location as a physical and theoretical space; the embodiment of China’s cultural and economic development, carrying and bearing witness to it’s burgeoning modernisation.
The exhibition is held together by a reiteration of motifs. Stones taken from the river bed recur in photographic works and in a floor-based piece, echoing Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, and the graphic outline of the Yangtze, which we first encounter as a large-scale mural. Rendered roughly in the red pigment used in Tibetan religious paintings, the emphasis is on its geographical and cultural source. Here, the winding river acquires a humanity, its muted red form and many trickling tributaries alluding to the beating heart; the vitality of China’s central life force. Adjacent, on a contrastingly miniature scale, a row of five Diascope slide viewers to bend and peer into, lucidly document the drawing of a corresponding outline directly onto the ice. Preston kneels, her hands applying the motif pigment circle, leaning in a quiet act of conjoining and surrender.
Elsewhere, at chest height, two alluring photographs, immaculate in their glacial stillness, are seemingly permeable. They show a circle of 127 stones taken from the Yangtze River, each held by the artist and positioned on the ice. Each C-type print is glazed as though a thin slab cut directly from the compacted mass. The same scene is created again at Kulxinglou Square, Congqing, on the neon lit roof of a shopping centre at night, behind which the obscured river flows. Each print is labeled with a multi-layering of cartographical and personal indexes, of what is objectively known and that which is experienced – the convergence of person and place.
‘Yan: The Carving Piece: 127 stones carved by me and touched by the Yangtze River hopefully forever’ (2012) is a film showing Preston seated at the bank of a tributary, meditatively immersed in a ritual of carving stones with the linear vessels of the heart and placing them, like lotus leaves into the river which laps around them, revealing the brightness of applied red pigment, as this washes and flows into the water stream. The absurd illogic of the romantic gesture becomes apparent with the industrial backdrop of excavating machinery, the river rushing by.
Throughout this exhibition, dualities are symbolically maintained, but a shift in perception is found in the final film ‘Yong: A Swimming Piece’ (2012). Fully immersing herself in its cloudy waters, swimming two kilometers along its length with a head mounted camera, Preston flows with the river. Past cruisers that line the banks above which, a jagged grey line of skyscrapers looms, the city is viewed with a new clarity and acquiescence from within the water. From this position, meaning is found in the everyday, in the eternal transience of people living and working alongside the ‘mother river’.
Anna Taylor is a writer based in West Yorkshire and works at Redeye, Manchester