Yan Wang Preston (Chinese name: 王岩）Title of Artwork: Puhejing Quarry Ecology Recovery Project, Dali, China, 2017. From ‘Forest’ series (2010-2017).
Messums Wiltshire celebrates nature in summer group show, on view until Sept 5
Landscapes have always been ubiquitous in the field of photography; throughout the centuries, women in photography have explored the relationship between humans and nature with expert aesthetic and conceptual vision.
While perfectly composed scenery is a staple of visual art, as early as the 19th century, women photographers such as Anne Brigman were creating groundbreaking compositions which defied the conventions of the picturesque landscape.
Now, from the Long Gallery at Messums, Wiltshire, comes an exhibition which celebrates the ‘messy’ quality of landscapes in all their mercurial vitality.
an Wang Preston (Chinese name: 王岩）Title of Artwork: Allotments under Caiyuanba Bridge, Chongqing, China, 2017. From ‘Forest’ series (2010-2017).
Anne’s striking juxtapositions highlighted kinship between women and wilderness. In Unkempt: Shifting Aesthetics in Representations of Landscape, Messums intend, equally, to elevate appreciation of uncultivated spaces. While acknowledging the foundational work of artists who depicted the English countryside as a pastoral idyll, the exhibition seeks to look beyond this agrarian characterisation.
Resisting the ‘enclosure’ of land for productivity, the selected artworks – produced by a range of artists including Tyga Helme, Daphne Todd, Antony Williams and Tuesday Riddell – embrace a ‘wilder vision’ of the landscape.
Among the line-up is the work of Contemporary Heroine Yan Wang Preston, a photographer whose practice is transfixed by interrelation between humanity and the natural world. Her pioneering journey along the Yangtze River, captured in detail in her Mother River monograph and PhD thesis, indicates the centrality of the Yangtze to Chinese nationhood and unpacks its ‘mythical’ status. The photographs consider the ways in which landscape is both transformed and transformative, indelibly altering – and being altered by – human activity.
Maintaining Yan’s focus on the environment, Unkempt features work from her Forest series, an eight-year (2010 – 2017) investigation into the politics of embedding ‘natural’ forests within new Chinese cities.
Alongside charting the transplantation of trees in the Chongqing district, Forest considers the ‘ecology-recovery’ landscapes in Haidong Development Zone, strange vistas blanketed by the green hue of biodegradable netting and chipped paint.
While the sweep of netting in ‘D12- Puhejing Quarry Ecology Recovery Project’ dramatically accentuates the quarry wall, the swathe of colour seems to emphasise the sense of absence. Haidong Development Zone, part of a project to urbanise small rural areas, remains in a liminal state; the green netting, semi-artificial red soil, and non-indigenous plants – all chosen for their cosmetic appeal – represent incomplete attempts to create a ‘natural’ space via ‘unnatural’ means.
According to Yan, the images are designed to ‘open up dialogue about conservation’, rather than enforce a singular perspective. While the quarries may appear, to some, neglected sites or ‘ghost towns’, Unkempt presents Yan’s work as an example of ‘arcadia in unexpected places’ – suggesting the poignant, contemplative atmosphere of these unfinished intentions.
Situated within the heart of the English countryside, Unkempt provides an opportunity to engage with the ways women photographers such as Yan have – through capturing a momentary glimpse of these landscapes – exemplified their chameleonic appeal.
For those wishing to experience the work first-hand, Unkempt is available for public view from 16th July – 5th September 2021.
By Katherine Riley