Cheng Xinhao, Time from Different Sources

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by Jiazazhi Press (here). Leatherette 4-ring binder, 174 pages, with color reproductions shown as single images and in foldouts, booklets, and accordion extensions, separated into sections by corrugated black sheets. Includes an introductory essay by the artist and image captions in both English and Chinese. In an edition of 800 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: For a fundamentally instantaneous artistic medium like photography, capturing the passing of time ends up being a surprisingly tricky endeavor. Long exposures extend the notion of a single moment to hours and even days, turning time into a blurred ghost that wanders through the frame. And multi-image projects, timed sequences, and photographic series come at the problem by reducing time to an expression of change, where variations from picture to picture provide elusive in-between clues that we can use to infer what time has introduced. But neither approach is entirely successful at fully documenting the richness of time (and its cousin of the past, history), leaving us continually searching for new ways that photographs can more robustly help us tell our duration-based stories.

As its title implies, Cheng Xinhao’s Time from Different Sources tries to build up a photographic portrait of a place using multiple lines of attack. His central subject is life in the small village of Ciman, a once vibrant community that straddles the Qinglong river, near the larger city of Lijiang in southwestern China (what is now Yunnan province). Given its location, Ciman was once a gateway city for the trading caravans on their way to Tibet, and when new roads changed the dynamics of movement, the village turned to agriculture, letting the seasonal flooding of the river irrigate its fertile lands. But in recent years, Ciman has become more marginalized, the massive connecting overpasses to the newly built Huangshan Great Bridge towering overhead. As the farms have dwindled, the stagnation of the village has driven away its youth, leaving the remnants of the original Naxi settlers to share the space with new arrivals looking for work on the city outskirts. Cheng’s sophisticated photobook is part urbanization study, part social and cultural history, and part contemporary portrait, the layers of ideas all rolled into a deftly integrated time-centric package.

In terms of its construction, Time from Different Sources tests the definitional edges of the “photobook”. Delivered in a binder, its contents are neither a scrapbook grab bag nor a step-by-step additive narrative, and definitely nothing like a typical hardcover book. Loosely divided into four untitled sections by corrugated black paper, each image or set of images is its own piece of photographic evidence, and the foldouts, booklets, panoramas, and extended agglomerations feel like independent thoughts that come together like threads in a swatch of fabric. Cheng has his Ph.D. in chemistry and molecular engineering, and his book bears the hallmarks of rigorous scientific thinking – each mini-project is like a hypothesis that Cheng is testing, its results becoming experimental data supporting (or disproving) the larger proposed argument he is making about the unseen forces and unexplained phenomena that have shaped this humble village. Even before we dive in, the end papers that merge old and new maps of the surrounding region signal that Cheng will be using an unconventional, hybrid method to make his case. The subsequent page turns require an investment of patient attention, and the uneven rhythm of opening and closing encourages a deliberate, weigh-the-accumulation-of-evidence approach on the part of the reader.

The first section of the book grounds us in the ancient geography of the village, from the gnarled tree at the source of the river that flows down through the mountains and ends up in Ciman to the glacial groove of rocky watershed that cuts though the valleys. Cheng follows along as the river ultimately gets channeled into a concrete canal that winds through green areas, houses, and more open country, and then jumps back to set a broader sweep of geological time, watching intently as the shards of rocky debris are slowly turned into smooth round stones and pebbles. Using rocks and trees as his actors, he has made landscapes that provide us with the long-view context of time that surrounds the village.

The second part then jumps to the present, bringing us up to speed on contemporary life in the village. Two composite panoramas tell most of the story, comparing the streets of the old part of the village with those across the river where the new migrants have settled. The old charms of traditional architecture, village elders, and centuries-old hobbies like horsemanship and birdkeeping are contrasted with cheap modern ugliness, in the form of tin-roofed shacks, stray dogs, and heaping piles of plastic and styrofoam debris. This polarity is then supported by studies of changing wall-building materials (from mud brick adobe to newfangled rock composites), a booklet of portraits of villagers posed in front of the concrete overpass (many with animals, the teenagers looking bored), and more ephemeral time-lapse images of rotting pears and pinecones. Cheng brings all of this simmering conflict to a head with the emphatic full-page splat of a bloody dead dog.

With the quiet tenacity and thoroughness of a forensic scientist, Cheng then slowly works his way back from effects to potential causes. He looks more closely at the hulking overpass (and its associated drainage channels, culverts, and thick support pillars), and then connects the dots to the affected roaming grounds of goat herders. He examines the dwindling number of aging pear trees, and ties this demise (and the failure to replant new saplings) to the decline in traditional four-sided courtyard-centric homes which previously used pear as their primary wood. And he explores the banks of the river itself, finding dry expanses where floods once occurred (and teens now hang out), the concrete canals colonized by stubborn trees. His pictures tell the story of changes that aren’t random, but in a sense predictable, given the choices that were made, the traditional instruments and songs indirectly traded for a string of fenced-in artificial turf soccer fields.

In the final section, Cheng brings the multivalent narrative down to its most granular level, following a single hooded jogger as he runs through the village. While the area under the bridge houses old structures and new, the runner sees the overlooked foot-level details, as he jumps over drainage pipes, moves along empty lots and by crumbling walls, strides past overgrown weeds, and scampers over strips of broken road. The book ends with a series of images of sunflowers, the sunny yellow heads held high in the sky and then eventually drooping, the natural cycle of bloom and decay relentlessly in motion.

In a more traditional white-page book design, Cheng’s well made but understated photographs might not have felt particularly memorable, their washed out palette and unassuming nuances becoming too muted. But Time from Different Sources is rich and complicated, the innovative, non-linear approach to the overall project turning the pictures and their story into something more akin to a three-dimensional puzzle. Landscapes, still, lifes, portraits, architectural studies, and even composite panoramas come together with systematic, organized elegance, each visual idea optimized and then woven into the larger brocade. As a result, Cheng’s unexpected photographic compendium is highly intelligent and subtly engrossing, a layered visual history unpacked from multiple angles and full of nested ideas worth revealing.

Collector’s POV: Cheng Xinhao does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Interested collectors should likely follow up with the artist directly via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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