Li Yang, 404 Not Found

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Jiazazhi Press (here). Hardcover, 208 pages, with 95 color reproductions. Includes an essay by the artist (in Chinese/English). In an edition of 500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The backstory to Li Yang’s photobook of emptiness 404 Not Found is the best entry point to his parade of eerily quiet photographs. Back in the 1950s, an entire city was built from scratch on a stretch of unpopulated land in the middle of the Gobi desert to house China’s new nuclear testing research and bomb projects. It was never actually given a name, just a number, 404, and it still isn’t marked on official maps of the country. In the mid 1960s, it hosted the nation’s first atomic and hydrogen bomb explosions, marking China’s entry into the nuclear race.

In the space of about a square kilometer, some 50000 people once lived in 404, and the outpost had most of the typical infrastructure one might find in any other Chinese city of the time – government offices, bureaus of security, land, and education, courts, and housing for some of the country’s most talented scientists, technicians, doctors, and their families. Some fifty years later, 404 is now largely deserted, the once robust population having slowly died off or moved away.

Li is a third generation native of 404 – he went to kindergarten and primary school in town (at the same school his parents had attended), planted trees in his house’s front yard, and more generally grew up there. His photobook project marks a return to his childhood city, so instead of the aloof and clinical outsider’s perspective we often see in such pictures, the images not only document the city’s obvious landmarks, but also track his own personal memories.

Photographs of ruins, decay, and left behind emptiness aren’t new – we’ve seen pictures from Chernobyl, Detroit, countless bombed out war zones, even dead shopping malls across America, so the aesthetic of absence is already a well trod visual motif. And due to the coronavirus pandemic, this is a mode of observation we’re going to see plenty more of in contemporary photography in the not too distant future.

Li’s version is rigorous and structured, without being cold. His views are consistently squared off and frontal, looking straight at buildings and down receding lines of perspective. His tones are muted and middle range, a sea of beige, grey, and bare tree brown. And when he gets closer in, he continues his formal control, flattening walls and windows (many shuttered, broken, or bricked up) into geometric repetitions.

Starting with endpapers that offer a blocky aerial map of the city, Li wanders through the echoing emptiness of his hometown, revisiting places he has known. Given the angle of his frames, he seems to have been on foot, so we feel like we are walking along with him as he points out various sights. The challenge is, without captions or other texts to give us context or meaning, the buildings, roads, views, and vistas recede into a fog of open-ended possible identification, the resonances known only to the photographer.

Faceless architecture seems to have been the norm for 404. Apartment blocks march in lock step across the dusty flatness, with the small commercial businesses housed along nearby streets now closed or abandoned. Long straight boulevards point down to important buildings, squares, or monuments, the tree-lined streets vacant and silent, especially when covered by a drifted dusting of snow. Li discovers a few buildings with distinctive architectural features (like round windows or pointed arches), those design decisions seeming almost jaunty and modern amid the hard edged functionality of the surrounding structures.

Li’s photographs take on a wistful sense of poignancy at other locations. The zoo gates are closed, the public gardens are overgrown and untended (the grasses grown waist high), the fountains are dry, and the ornate pavilions at vista points stand alone and unvisited. Even more sad are the rusting amusement park with its empty rides, the water garden with its boats frozen under the dock, and the empty tiled public baths – we can palpably feel the communal joy that once flowed through places like these and is now lost.

As Li’s visit continues, the situation in 404 seems to darken further – more broken windows, more bricked up doorways, more trash strewn apartments, and more accumulations of unswept dirt, leaves, and snow in the open plazas. One dramatic image features a cascade of ice frozen on the outside of a building (perhaps from broken plumbing), the once graceful paved entry now a rubble pile of broken stones. Even the connections to the outside world seem to have fractured – the canal is dry, the power lines are sagging, and the pipeline is nearly invisible in the long grass.

Li balances these grim realities with flickers of unexpected life. He shows us a forlorn basketball hoop, some smiley faced graffiti, a strange group of goats, a fuzzy white dog, and a view inside a schoolroom with a mural of cute painted animals and wet boards reminiscent of Caillebotte’s floor scrapers.

The understated design of 404 Not Found is well matched to its content. The photobook takes its title from the clever wordplay of the actual name of the city and its unmapped location and the HTTP error message displayed when a computer file can’t be located. The cover is soft beige, and the small size of the book encourages easy flipping – the images are all horizontal, and move back and forth between the sides of the spreads. These choices make the book feel comfortable, rather than cold and depressing.

This photobook succeeds because it doesn’t fetishize peeling paint, rusty stains, or boarded up windows, glorifying ruin as a kind of romance. It instead documents a personal journey home, where the past is now only a faded glimmer. Li’s look back isn’t easy given the circumstances, but he does it with attentiveness and thoughtfulness, trying to see life in the now lifeless. His rigorous approach to photographing 404 creates structure and order in a place that has fallen apart, and that organizing intention gives the project its life.

Collector’s POV: Li Yang does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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