Fishing Boats Berthed by the Mount Yu (detail) 2008 Digital C-print Dimensions variable

There is no denying the distinctiveness of Yao Lu’s photomontages. Looking at the 31 works grouped together in the artist’s solo exhibition at the Istanbul Modern, uniformity amongst the various scenes evokes a contradictory sense of security and insecurity that persists long after the images have been digested. The sharply rendered photomontages express the continuous transformation of rural landscapes not as natural evolution, but as an unstoppable, manmade force, in the cold language of realism.

From a distance, the landscapes directly reference Song Dynasty painting, where man existed amongst towering mountains and serene bodies of water. But step closer and each image reveals heaving mounds of construction rubble and garbage covered in green or black dust-proof netting, of the sort commonly used on construction sites. It is from this moment that the true materiality of Yao Lu’s imagery emerges. Through an amalgamation of buildings, signs and figures that represent modernization and development in contemporary China, the viewer is invited to contemplate the contemporary landscape just as Song Dynasty emperors and academics contemplated the realist depictions of nature created during the Song period.

In Mountain Trek (2008), characteristic Song Dynasty mists surround mountain peaks comprised of waste. The mist immediately starts to resemble more the noxious vapors emitted from a landfill site rather than the haze of humid air. The Great Wall of China snakes its way around the unholy scene as a steam train spits out a thick, black, smoky trail and a commercial jetliner flies overhead, referencing industrialization, manufacture, and commerce in a world defined by globalized trade networks and energy consumption that feeds off natural resources. Unused blocks make up large swathes of the landscape, suspended between a state of construction and deconstruction, birth and decay, beginning and end, turning the image into a post-apocalyptic scene of the future, also eloquently expressed in The Beauty of Kunming (2010) in which a traditional pagoda appears to collapse as a factory complex churns out smoke in the background.

Like in many of Yao Lu’s landscapes, the pagoda, as seen in Passing Spring at the Ancient Dock (2006), underscores the analytical tradition of Song Dynasty landscape painting and the position of the viewer. At once a link to the past, the pagodas fail to offer any sense of comfort, especially when they stand empty. Yet even when the pagoda hosts a photographer, as in View of Autumn Mountains in the Distance (2008), there is a sense that the human presence has little or no impact— it is simply there to witness that which Yao Lu suggests cannot be stopped.

Of course, when looking at such landscapes in the safe arms of a contemporary art museum, far from the realities of environmental degradation, it is easy to take a distance. That is until one comes across the eleven new works created especially for the exhibition, mostly featuring animals in their habitats. In contrast to the minute human figures, the animals become the main subject of each composition, from swans swimming in a cesspool, to mountain goats feeding off urban waste. In fact, throughout the exhibition, it is the animals that become the true witnesses of the environmental decline caused by man’s encroachment on natural environments. Looking at a monkey assessing the waste that surrounds it in The Calm Spectator of the Sea (2010), it becomes clear that while man can distance himself from the environmental crisis, animals cannot. This is when the reality begins to feel real.

In the end, a sense of helplessness persists over “New Landscapes”, heightened by the realization that nature has become a commodity. Indeed, where Northern Song Dynasty painter Guo Xi longed for the sprit of the mountains as an escape from the dusty city, which he claimed all men naturally abhor, Yao Lu acknowledges the fact that not even art or the mountains can provide reprieve from society and its structures anymore. Stephanie Bailey