'Chance favors the prepared mind': the landscape photographs of Zeng Yicheng

Updated 2018-03-26 12:20:03

[Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn]

Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water. -- Zen proverb

Photography involves a process of interpretation, in which a technological medium grounded in the laws of physics and chemistry serves as translator, interposed between the observer -- the photographer or, as surrogate, the viewer -- and the subject of that observation.

But, its scientific and mechanistic basis notwithstanding, photography can also function as a form of, or a vehicle for, meditation -- as what, in Buddhism, one calls spiritual practice. Buddhist teaching proposes that almost any mundane activity can serve, or be woven into, the daily practice of this philosophy and a way of life based on it. Moreover, photography as both a medium and a process has characteristics that lend themselves to the development of mindfulness and other requisites of enlightenment and wisdom: immersion in the present moment, alertness to the flow of events before one's eyes, awareness of the transience of any given moment, acceptance of the constancy of change.

Those understandings shape the work of Zeng Yicheng, who approaches this medium as the basis for a contemplative relationship between himself and the world, a relationship into which he invites his viewers.

The landscape photographs of Zeng Yicheng.[Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn]

We can see this most clearly in his landscapes, drawing as they do on the centuries-long Chinese tradition of landscape painting, with its deep connection to both the natural world and what Chinese philosophy refers to as xin or "heart-mind." In these bodies of work Zeng discovers and reveals analogues for the depictions of nature in a number of classic works in this genre, to which scenes he attends with the same patience as did those predecessors, and to which he brings the same capacity for detached exaltation.

Typically, in these pictures, Zeng mutes the tonal palette of his film and paper, making his images almost monochromatic, removing the optical excitation and distraction that intense color can generate. Instead of pursuing the illusion of three-dimensionality, as some landscape photographers do, he also deliberately flattens the perspective, subtly but decisively making the space of each vista two-dimensional in his representation of it. This in turn draws attention to those spaces themselves as presences rather than absences, no less noteworthy than the objects that occupy them.

"Chance favors the prepared mind," as the saying goes. Which may explain the appearance of an occasional bird in these pictures, as if to assure us that the hills and mountains in these panoramas, for all their illusionary translucence, have substance. Yet the elimination of all but a few such details in these images emphasizes the outlines of the physical features of these scapes, underscoring their unique individual shapes as time and the elements have sculpted them. Veiled by clouds or seen as silhouetted in subdued light, these dematerialized natural phenomena float weightlessly in their own cosmos, as separate from the surface of the earth as planets in the void. Paradoxically, the results suggest that Zeng has caught and delivered to us fleeting glimpses of the eternal -- and that, despite its apparent tranquility, this timelessness is in a state of flux.

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