Engaging with Tradition: A Conversation with Michael Cherney
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Michael Cherney (b. 1969) is also known as Qiu Mai, or “Autumn Wheat.” Born in New York, he fell in love with the Chinese language and moved to Beijing in 1991. Cherney has been creating photographic works inspired by Chinese art history since the early ’90s. You can find his exquisitely crafted scrolls, books, and albums in the permanent collections of such institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty Research Institute, the Princeton University Art Museum, and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard University. He was interviewed by Stephanie Tung.
I read that your love of the Chinese language brought you to China. What drew you to the language and culture? Can you tell us a little about your first years living in China?
During my childhood, we regularly had visitors from throughout Asia to our home. My father’s small trading company followed the evolution of the various economies during that time, conducting business in Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. This familiarity was the initial spark for my studying Chinese and East Asian history; the more I learned, the more my fascination increased. I first arrived to study in Taiwan in ’89 and in Beijing in ’91. June of ’89 led to a significant drop-off in the number of students coming to the mainland; also, business was not yet a big draw. Therefore, most of the students at that time had come to prepare for embassy work, to study Chinese medicine, or to satisfy a genuine interest in Chinese culture. Those first few years were spent just striving to absorb the vastness of the culture. I did not yet have a coherent goal about how to direct or utilize my studies, which was a good thing; it meant being open to a variety of influences.
How did you start taking photographs? Do you consider art photography a kind of language as well?
In 1993 I overcame a very severe illness, which led to a desire to be more appreciative of life as well as more observant of my surroundings. I had discarded most material possessions and did not even own a camera. But around that time, the New York Daily News came out with a book about the photography of my grandfather Charles Hoff, who photographed for the paper from the 1930s through the ’60s (including the iconic image of the Hindenburg zeppelin explosion in 1937). Though he died when I was very young, the legacy he left inspired me to begin to utilize the camera as a tool for proving to myself that I was thoroughly understanding what I was seeing in the world around me.
I imagine art photography as a language in the same manner that painting or music can be considered a language. Over the course of a long and storied history, Chinese painters have found a vocabulary for capturing nature’s methods for creating art. The thirteenth-century Zen Buddhist teacher Dōgen said: “The entire phenomenal universe and the empty sky are nothing but a painting.” The present is a painting. History is a painting. Photographs can be a part of this particular language as well. Though the feel of my work leads to associations with the vocabulary of classical Chinese painting, there is still an important distinction: What is being seen in a photograph is indeed light as it existed for a moment in the physical world. This allows for a feeling of connectedness between the viewer and the essence of the physical world.
The series Ten Thousand Li of the Yangtze River (2010–13) is inspired by a Song or Yuan dynasty handscroll that depicts the length of the Yangtze River, whereas the series Map and Mountains and Seas (2012–13; ongoing) reflects a Han dynasty mythological geography. How did you learn about these classic texts and paintings? Can you speak more about your process for selecting them as source material?
Almost all of my work utilizes the theme of Chinese art history in some form or another. Sometimes the theme is very straightforward, such as photography of Buddhist grottoes or stone steles. Other works deal with themes that were influential in painting and poetry. Now, having had some years of experience with this, I felt confident enough to tackle two very iconic (yet very different) subjects: the Yangtze River and the Shan Hai Jing (Guideways through Mountains and Seas). I felt that these two subjects complemented each other very well, as one covers a very specific geographic region and the other deals with more general concepts of nature and mapping.
The Shan Hai Jing is a mythological geography that provides fanciful descriptions of imagined places in each of the cardinal directions. Why do you provide precise coordinates for each piece in the series? What is the relationship between place and imagined place? Does photography alter that relationship?
The artist and my friend Zhang Hongtu made an intriguing comment about an American who wrote a book in the 1950s claiming the geography described in the Shan Hai Jing to actually be that of North America. This comment was the spark that eventually led to my Map of Mountains and Seas series. For me, the inspiration to be found is not in the accuracy of the claims of the author. Rather, it is a matter of identity, for scholars, artists, and all others who consider themselves not to be easily defined by specific borders. Where on the map is home?
In Richard Strassberg’s comprehensive translation and commentary on the Shan Hai Jing, he writes of the long history of Chinese philosophical schools and thinkers who stressed the need to classify things in order to create a sense of order: “This understanding was prerequisite to maintaining the proper interaction among things and to the exercising of effective human control over the cosmos.” Hybridity, on the other hand, meant chaos (the lack of common qualities for making comparisons).
Every photograph is a map, no matter how abstract or minute an excerpt it is from the greater context of the world that surrounds it. After the photographs in the Map of Mountains and Seas series are mounted, I write the GPS coordinates and azimuth (degrees from north) along the edge of each work. Were you to stand in this location on the globe and look in this direction, you would see this place. Beyond that, however, there is no further categorization.
The photographs from the Map of Mountains and Seas series bear little resemblance to the modern world, with only a few electric lines crossing great expanses of open space. In your earlier Mt. Hua album, you employed a technique that involved cropping slivers out of 35 mm film shots, then enlarging the images to the point where boundaries and lines begin to dissolve. Are you using the same technique here? What is going on in image 14 and image 15? It seems as if image 15 repeats certain mountains and crags like a test strip for developing prints.
I am interpreting your words “the modern world” to mean man-made artifacts. My images tend to fall into two categories, depending on the series of works. For a series such as Map of Mountains and Seas, most of the more obvious man-made artifacts are cropped out to give a more primal feel to the images; identifying a location is less important than the aesthetics of the geography. Conversely there are series/images that will purposefully portray specific regions and themes by incorporating identifiable landmarks. It is important to note, though, that “modern world” and “primal” are problematic terms, as many landscapes themselves are impacted over the course of human history; man-made artifacts can often be subtle.
I am glad that you picked up on image numbers 14 and 15, as they are a bit of an experimental departure from my other images. The appeal of traditional Chinese landscape painting is that works are intended only as hints at the potential the real world has to offer: where the image lingers in a state between the manifest and the void. My hope is to imbue photography with this sense of “the rise and fall of the ten thousand things.” Because a photo is indeed captured in the real world, a certain sense of obscurity is usually required to establish the aesthetic of the painted world. Because of this, I rarely include images as “concrete” as image 14; this image can be considered the extreme end of a spectrum with an image such as number 11 at the other (more “painterly”) end. Image number 15 strives to carry image 14 into the perspective-less (painted) world. Soon after image 14 was shot, a roll of film got stuck in the camera. I continued to shoot despite the fact that the film was not winding forward in full frames, so we are looking at six overlapping frames of the same location. The result is something spontaneous, in a way similar to that which can happen with ink painting (which, incidentally, is impossible to achieve with a digital camera).
Do you have the scene you are looking for in mind when you take the picture? How do you determine what to crop out? I am left wondering how much I cannot see as much as what I can see in photographs like image 10, which, for me, immediately evokes Yu Jian’s thirteenth-century Mountain Market in Clearing Mist. Yet not everyone will have that connection. How do you negotiate the boundaries of the image?
As much as I would love to find the real-world location of certain beloved Chinese ink paintings, this is quite impossible! So I just look at works for enjoyment and then when photographing try to (often subconsciously) be open to what nature has to offer. It is often more realistic to look for certain landscape elements and then hope for some luck. Often a photo trip does not result in a fine art piece, but every once in a while something emerges, usually as small excerpts found in unexpected film frames. When looking at slides through the loupe, determining the cropped excerpt is the most natural and obvious part of the process for me, yet it is also the most difficult to quantify in words; the focal point of any subjectivity in the artistic process can be found in that moment. And if you are imagining what lies beyond the film frame, then I have achieved an important goal! By the way, image 10 was one of the few that implied both mountain and sea in the same frame, though what is actually being seen in the lower left is snow on rocks.
Your photographs are often printed on xuan paper and presented as scrolls in beautiful wooden boxes. Can you describe the printing and mounting process? How do they contribute to the finished work?
Printing and mounting are aspects of my work that are equal in importance to the photographic aspect. Seeing images online or in a publication is good for reference, but these do not compare to the feeling of the physical pieces. Several factors contribute to the feel of the fully mounted image: 1) the lighting and atmosphere when a photo is taken; 2) the graininess of the enlargement; and 3) the qualities of the xuan paper on which the images are printed. The xuan paper I use has not been treated with any chemicals; it is the same paper one would use for ink painting or calligraphy. Because of this, the prints lose some detail and contrast when compared to treated papers. However, this is the effect I am looking for; certain images, when printed this way, feel as if they carry more historical weight.
It is important to me that the finished work feels like a complete object. The materials and mountings complement the work. Handscroll and album formats add a narrative, rhythmic quality to a piece. Traditional mountings add layers of connectedness to history. However, this is a tradition that has survived and been perfected over centuries; therefore, one cannot treat these materials and formats lightly. Upon seeing the works, scholars and connoisseurs will immediately begin making references to the past; my hope is that by creating the works to the best of my ability, these references will at least be considered to be respectful of what has come before. But this also means that my work is produced very slowly, from several months for a simple mounted fan to a year or even more for some handscrolls. I do the printing myself, but because the print is pigment ink on xuan paper, a mounter can handle the work in the same manner as an ink painting. My mounting skills are not professional, but are good enough to know what is possible; I leave the mounting of my works (as well as album covers, boxes, and so on) to a few expert craftspeople.
The work Ten Thousand Li of the Yangtze River features the real-world corollaries of sites depicted in the Song / Yuan dynasty handscroll of the Yangtze River now at the Freer Gallery. What was the process for identifying and locating these sites? Did you select sites that were particularly iconic, or filled with cultural memories?
I tried to include locations that were interesting either historically or currently or both. With historical sites from old paintings, I used ancient place-names as a jumping-off point, and then transitioned to a very contemporary process. Utilizing Google Earth, online mapping, travel photography websites, and so on, I worked from home to determine the GPS coordinates of locations that would enable me to photograph a site from the best angle (rather than from the limited perspective of the river’s surface). I then worked backwards to determine if the location was accessible by road and if not, to find possibilities for getting there on foot. It was necessary to prepare several options for each location, as one cannot know what to expect in the field: a view may be obscured by foliage, or the foliage along the way may be impassable. Even with such preparation, the going can be quite tough, but the result was rewarding travel to quite unexpected locations. Although such pre-travel preparation is laborious, it allows for a geographic understanding of a particular site by anyone, Chinese or Western, that would have been unavailable to all except those living there. At the least, this preparation made it possible to get close enough that I could improvise the rest of the way.
Confronting a subject as vast as the Yangtze River enabled deep exploration of the interplay between gongbi (what the eye sees) and xieyi (what the heart sees), between the tangible and the obscure. But there are ways to connect with tradition beyond the purely visual. In her book Transformative Journeys: Travel and Culture in Song China, Cong Ellen Zhang describes
“extensive trips to different parts of the country as a mode of gaining knowledge . . . a way to concretely connect with the country’s cultural and historical legacies. [By making cultural pilgrimages, one would be] paying homage to famous sites and earlier visitors. . . . The fascination with these places and the [records left behind], as well as . . . the travelers’ own legacy, produced both geographic knowledge and cultural memory for later travelers. [Being] well versed in the lore of the places [allowed one to more greatly enjoy and] participate in their cultural memory.”
There are certain correspondences in the photographs, like the skyscrapers that look like distant peaks in The Great Buddha image and the dredging barges that evoke the fishing boats of the painter Wu Zhen. As a photographer, are you actively looking for such parallels?
There are quite a number of photographs that end up evoking certain classical works or painted elements, but this gets realized only during the editing process at home. It is very rare to chance upon a scene during photography in the field that evokes a historical work. The real world is usually too tangible to emulate the painted world. For me, it is a matter of regular exposure to classical works; then, when in the field, a visual trigger occurs when I am looking at a certain scene and the shutter is pressed. This trigger can often be a subconscious decision.
Because the photo is indeed captured in the real world, though, a certain sense of obscurity is usually required to establish the aesthetic of the painted world. Often the style that a location evokes is not what one might expect, so one must be open to what nature has to offer. Even so, although the photographs may be edited, they are not altered. Only Nature may exaggerate herself. Masking, cropping, and enlarging are helpful tools for evoking the mood of a particular location; a variety of formats and materials can also be utilized, such as albums and handscrolls.
Looking at the work Ten Thousand Li of the Yangtze River, I’m constantly shifting back and forth between what I imagine the river looked like a thousand years ago, when the Freer handscroll was painted, and the reality of the present-day landscape in your photographs. How do you conceive the effects of time in your work, and in particular man and nature’s effect on the environment you aim to record?
This is the primary driving force behind my thematic work: to look upon a place imbued with a vast (sometimes daunting) accumulation of history and cultural memory, and then to capture one instant, fleeting, tangible moment of it with a photograph. I am not on a particular mission to make a subjective statement regarding the environment or man’s alteration of the landscape; rather, I strive to portray an accurate representation of the present day. It is difficult for anyone at present to look upon scenes such as these with objective clarity; that will require some time to pass, allowing for historical perspective.
Most of us are familiar with Plato’s saying about the impossibility of stepping into the same river twice, as the universe is in a state of constant change, like a burning fire. He was actually quoting Heraclitus, whose original text can be more closely translated as: “The river where you set your foot just now is gone—those waters giving way to this, now this.”
In early-1920s Beijing and Shanghai photography circles, there was a great debate about the merits of blurriness (糊) versus clarity (清) in photography. Liu Bannong, one of the first writers to defend photography as a legitimate art form, explained that blurriness was integral to art photography (写意照相) because it mimics the condition of our eyes. Can you speak a little bit about the grainy, almost blurred quality in many of your photographs? Does it relate to early-twentieth-century notions of pictorialism? Why do you think it is appealing to both you and these early art photographers?
A masterful example of what you are describing is the Conté crayon work of Georges Seurat. As described by Jodi Hauptman in the catalogue for the New York Museum of Modern Art’s 2007 show of his drawings, the atmosphere created by Seurat reveals:
“. . . the flux and change that is modernity itself . . . an experience just beyond our visual grasp . . . replac[ing] dazzle with ambiguity, beguilement with blur, definition with indeterminacy . . . the loveliness and mystery of what can only barely be seen . . . everything . . . being gradually obliterated, blurred and lost in a colorless and expiring residue of daylight . . .”
The nineteenth-century photographer P. H. Emerson put it more succinctly: “Do not mistake sharpness for truth.” There is a certain “truth” to landscape elements in traditional Chinese ink painting that goes beyond crisp counter lines and fixed perspective.
Maps are ultimately a way of finding oneself, one’s position. How do you locate yourself with regard to Chinese cultural history? One could say that you’re appropriating the vocabulary of classical Chinese painting, but I like to think of it as a kind of translation in which certain visual motifs acquire new meanings as they move across space, from one culture to another, and across time, from past to present. How do these maps play a part in helping to orient your identity?
Your interpretation is very kind. I must confess that I have avoided trying to think about specific definitions in regard to identity, especially in tangible linguistic terms. Given that I am challenged by this myself, I am sympathetic to complexities that can arise in the minds of others. When it comes to clarifying the work to an audience, the fact that the work defies simple categorization in many ways can be quite frustrating: photography versus the painting aesthetic; history versus the present moment; the question of my own identity. Yet the work itself certainly benefits from this. When creating art, I simply find inspiration in a certain aesthetic, a rich history, and, most important, in nature, which bestows its gifts in equal measure to all.
All photographs courtesy of Michael Cherney.
Michael Cherney’s website: www.qiumai.net
Stephanie H. Tung is a PhD candidate at Princeton University and is working on the history of photography in China.