Ka Yeung’s Photographs Capture Humanity at Home in a Lost Landscape

Ka Yeung’s photographs in the exhibition China: Impermanent Beauty 1996-97, on view at the Crow Collection of Asian Art through May 16, are part of a project the artist undertook in the late 1990s in anticipation of the construction of a dam on the Yangtze River in China. That dam promised to completely alter the natural landscape, and subsequently, the way of life of the people living in that landscape. Although the subjects of the photos vary widely – from towering mountainscapes to men in boats, city skylines to shop keeps staring out at street scenes – the meticulous composition of the photos, their careful balance, point to an underlying sensibility that unites the work thematically. Ka Yeung is playing with ideas of the organic in natural and manmade forms. The wild majesty of a mountain, wrapped in ragged, moss-like vegetation, seems to bear similarities to an apartment block under construction, covered in a chaotic mess of matchstick-like scaffolding. This is not the story of man versus nature but man as an extension of nature, and the photographs are an unsentimental homage to an equilibrium between natural and human forms.

"Day Workers"

What is most immediately striking about the exhibition is the sensual appeal of Ka Yeung’s carbon pigmented prints. Misty images emerging from a mysterious, high contrast light. Shadows stain the canvas ink-black. Bright spots in the sky seem to wash the image down to the photo paper. Some pieces, such are “Hong Kong British Colony,” demonstrate a masterful command of exposure: a building in the foreground catching an even tone of light on its wall, the cityscape in the rear sparkling and flashing. While his subject is the Yangtze River, a body of water that holds mythic and historic meaning to the Chinese (similar to Germany’s Rhine), Ka Yeung is able to vary the specific subjects of his individual images, which adds life and depth to this collection as a whole. People emerge in crowds, in apartment buildings, and framed by shops, as well as close up, as in “Yangtze Boatmen,” dominating the frame. Each image is fascinating, but in the context of Ka Yeung’s Yangtze project they take on an almost mystic quality, resonating with an a Buddhist sensibility – men, mountains, rivers, cities all at play in the same mystery of being.

"Long River"

Most of the photographs in the show are square-shaped, hung in frames, but a few of the images in the show are printed on long paper scrolls, which are rolled out and hung on the walls of this new gallery in the Crow Collection, LinkAsia, which promises to be dedicated to new work from across the continent. Here Ka Yeung’s work takes on a different dimension, calling to mind the art of writing and character making. Ka Yeung’s images assert themselves as historic text, mythic story. It is a self-referential moment, one that puts the photographer in the role of story teller, preserving in his art the ebb and flow of a relationship between the natural and manmade.

Main Photo: “Hong Kong British Colony,” by Ka Yeung (Image courtesy of the Crow Collection of Asian Art)