Photographer Yan Wang Preston’s lens is invariably turned towards nature. But not, perhaps, how you might expect. Compelled to document the tension between urbanity and nature in her home country of China, the Britain-based artist has established a cool, methodical aesthetic with which to do so. Following her first major series Mother River – an epic, though vernacular, document of the mythologised Yangtze river, her first tome Forest presents a comparable photographic paradox. This series boasts more than 60 depictions of uprooted trees, transplanted into new, often dystopic-seeming habitats; the works are equal parts emotive and raw, sterile and cold. As the Hatje Cantz-published book launches at The Photographer’s Gallery this week, we caught up with Preston to discuss her process.
It was during the four years Preston spent methodically photographing the Yangtze river that she discovered a disconcerting trend. “While I was there I had time to get into the depths of the cities and I started noticing these strange looking trees,” Preston explained of the bagged-up branches of transplanted trees she saw scattered through new developments and bulldozed landscapes. “I started to wonder what happened to them – with their branches chopped and covered in red paint, they looked very sad.” What became apparent was a government policy, which aimed to construct urban spaces anew, adhering to certain ideals prioritising forests, health, safety and efficient transport.
“As well as growing young trees – there were a lot of young trees being planted – [the government had] transplanted thousands and thousands of mature trees to make ready-made forests because they couldn’t be bothered to wait.” Returning again and again to the same sites, Preston recorded the growth and ambition of each plantation with her characteristic antiseptic approach.
As with Mother River, her unexpectedly balanced and non-hierarchical depiction of China’s most fabled and controversially represented source, Forest presents a compelling document of China’s changing landscape. The images are at once both methodical mappings and laden with emotion – each tree, a noble sculpture, wrenched from its home. A perverse play between their time-worn trunks and their plastic wrappings and urbane environments makes for tension, complexity and intrigue.
“I think in a way it’s very difficult to say it’s bad or it’s good,” Preston explains of her subjects and the subsequent images’ inherent duality. “It’s certainly quite complicated. The thing is, when you construct you also destruct, it’s always a double-edged sword. You build something but at the same time there’s no doubt you destroy something.” For Preston, the trees speak for themselves – seeing the trees in their new context is alarming enough and leaves no need for strange angles or a purposefully dark approach. It’s through these heavy contrasts in which the photographs’ strange and emotive qualities emerge: that between the newness of the landscape and the trees’ integral histories. Each tree is laden with memories, its past life emitting an aura that reverberates through the concrete-clad underpasses and peopled piazzas.