Woman photographer Yan Wang Preston Takes Part in Open Air Exhibition in Houston, Texas
This summer, Contemporary Heroine Yan Wang Preston is showing works from an investigation into contemporary Chinese culture as part of an open-air exhibition in Houston, USA. The four participating artists also include Francis Almendárez, Lindokuhle Sobekwa and Kara Springer.
Public Life: Recording the Blur focuses on the strange ‘temporal paradox’ of a personal life stopped in isolation during the pandemic. At the same time, we watched the social, political and cultural worlds explode on our screens. The works presented are not specifically ‘Covid’ works but address some of the issues and shared experiences that have intensified in life under lockdown.
Installation view of Yan Wang Preston in the exhibition Public Life: Recording the Blur, Houston, TX, 2021. Photo: Max Fields. Courtesy of FotoFest.
Identity and Perception
Yan’s work has always centred around the relationship between the land and identity. The work She and He is a merging of two commissions by the Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool. For She Dreams (2018), Yan asked female-presenting Chinese students living away from home, ‘what is your daydream?’. For He (2019), the photographer turned her lens on the male presenting students asking, ‘what makes you a man?’.
The portraits were taken on a stretch of the Merseyside coastline next to Crosby Beach (Liverpool, UK), chosen to give the sitters an inclusive space, somewhere to belong in a foreign land.
The photographic process was collaborative. The students were asked to think about the question posed and then to wear something comfortable that represented their identity. Yan describes the portraits as collaborative and performative; the sitters representing themselves, and the photographer responding to what she saw.
“The process of photographing them became a process of inspecting and overcoming of my own prejudices. As a result, this set of photographs do not portray my sitters. Instead, they are a reflection of my understanding towards them and their fluid masculinity.”
Yan Wang Preston, Open Eye Gallery
Yan Wang Preston, Ziheng, 2019 From the series She and He, 2019 Commissioned by Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool, UK Courtesy of the artist
In the FotoFest app which accompanies the exhibition, we learn that Xingzhu chose only a rainbow flag to represent her bisexuality. Her dream was that she could live more openly and without prejudice. Yan captures the flag pressed against her body moments before the wind dropped and left both women laughing.
During the He project, Yan really became aware of the arbitrary barriers we put up between men and women. She wanted to find out what Chinese men are like nowadays, especially outside of their home culture. She wanted to look at the ‘other side’ before realising that viewing men and women as ‘other’ is a part of the problem and prejudice.
Here the men, on the verge of maturity, understand the traditional notions of masculinity but do not present themselves as such. Their masculinity is much more fluid and not so easily distinguished from femininity. Ziheng (2019) adopts a more traditional female pose, lying on a tilted wooden post, glancing towards the camera. His hair seems to spill down, merging with the flotsam of derelict buildings. In the background, an old brick wall blends into the pebbles of the beach.
“I found fluidity around femininity and masculinity during this photography process. Note that I say ‘around’ instead of ‘between’. That’s because I realized that the assumption that there is a solid answer for masculinity, or the assumption that femininity and masculinity are oppositions, are both wrong.”
Yan Wang Preston, FotoFest mobile app
She and He perhaps departs from Yan’s more well-known work, but there is a real sense of connection between the sitters and the landscape. Each figure is almost like driftwood, at one with the surroundings but also slightly out of place.
You can see Yan’s work until August 29, 2021 as part of FotoFest, Arts District, Houston, USA