Wang Juyan, Uncharted+

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by La Maison de Z (here). Contains 5 multi-layered booklets with black and white photographs, in the form of a folding screen. Includes short sentences from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (in Chinese/English). In an edition of 500 copies. Design by Zhen Shi and Yinhe Cheng. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: A handful of single line quotations are sprinkled in among the photographs in Wang Juyan’s innovative photobook Uncharted+. The sparse sentences are drawn from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s 1921 treatise Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and provide a set of philosophical assertions (or debates) that frame our experience of the contents of Wang’s book:

  • The subject does not belong to the world but it is a limit of the world.
  • This is connected with the fact that no part of our experience is also a priori.
  • Everything we see could also be otherwise.
  • Everything we can describe at all could also be otherwise.
  • There is no order of things a priori.

The words are printed in faint type in Chinese, and then also inside French folds in English, so they appear underneath, like vanishing secrets or elusive thoughts that disappear within the transparency of the paper.

Using photography to illustrate, or perhaps interrogate, such ideas poses a difficult challenge. A photograph, by its very mechanized nature, captures a single distinct moment in time, so how an artist might employ the medium to step into a more fluid and open-ended engagement with time and space isn’t obvious. In Uncharted+, Wang takes a centuries old Asian art tradition as inspiration to help structure the presentation of his photographs in book form. The folded screen (or byōbu) has deep roots in both Chinese and Japanese culture, its multi-panel form allowing wide panoramic landscapes (often with calligraphic additions) to spread across space and be realigned by changes to how the screen was displayed. In the paintings, ink drawings, and other artworks shown in this format, the scenes have both presence and intimate specificity, allowing both a sweeping view and closer-in discoveries, all within one integrated viewing experience. In some of these screens, time seems to shift and waver, reaching beyond what a single static image usually offers.

In Uncharted+, Wang houses his photographs in an elegant hand-held version of a byōbu, where booklets unfold into multiple matched panels, and the black cloth binding itself bends back on itself like a zig zag, creating three separate sections mounted to both front and back. This unorthodox construction entirely changes the flow of the photobook – the sections are opened one at a time or together, the pages unfolding into two, three, and four panel images on both sides, sometimes with the images divided across multiple booklets. The book is then reversed (to the other side), opening up the last section, where images on French folded pages flip in a more conventional mode, with a few of the photographs extending around a page turn.

To devise such a complex construction and then use it to house a series of straightforward photographs would certainly feel precious and overdesigned; but in this case, Wang’s photographs attempt to unpack Wittgenstein’s philosophical assertions about the uncertainty (or ambiguity) of our observations, and the layered and folded underlying structure of the book helps to upend our usual assumptions about how Wang’s images might be understood or read. The paired booklet sections follow the same general sequence, each following an in and out rhythm of changing scale and detail. Wang starts with a wide aerial landscape of misty mountains, split across both booklets. We then telescope into two small porthole images set against a darkly indistinct textural backdrop. The next page turn of each booklet brings us back out to a wide view, but this one is vertically oriented, split between the booklets and bookended by wide black areas, creating a reorientation of perspective. We then move back into a second set of round images set against mottled darkness, and then back out to a four panel wide aerial. Another flip offers two more portholes, and the sections then end with two three-panel landscapes at mid range, where layers of forest greenery and burbling rivers create tactile complexity.

The full bleed photographs in these sequences all have a similar aesthetic, where darkness, fogged surfaces, and natural details come in and out of focus. Wang’s aerials document scenes that mix mountains and valleys, where contours ripple down hillsides and riverbeds finger out into wash areas. They are pictures that deliberately resist easy understanding, the surfaces covered with what looks like scrubbed cloudiness; they feel disassociated from linear time, documenting past, present, and future all at once. When we tunnel into the smaller round images, Wang offers textural snippets of crisp rock formations, water, weeds, and even a few man made structures like apartment blocks or construction sites; set against indistinct blackness, the images seem like binocular views of details seen from far away, but linked by the particular moment. With the panels folding and splitting over and over again, time and place seem to be constantly remixed, until we reach wide scenes that pull us deeper into the lushly indeterminate embrace of the natural world. The abstract idea that everything we see could be “otherwise” seems surprisingly well proven.

When we flip to the section on the other side, the images are displayed on white French folded pages, mostly with plenty of white space around them, like a delicate album. The predominance of whiteness lightens our experience of the photographs (as compared with the darkness of the earlier sections), and the seeming fragility of the paper gives these images a feeling of ephemerality. Wang shows us rocky landscapes, dark dappled leaf forest landscapes, glimpses of hidden temples, water views and thickets with spiky branches, and a series of tumbled rock sculptures like broken pedestals, carved ornaments, and other blocky forms from long fallen ruins. The images are once again atmospheric and moody, with swooping flares and billows of light that wash across the surface – the light in these pictures seems crackled, shimmered, and on the verge of dissolving, softening the edges of everything it touches. In this section, we seem to be on a journey, perhaps on foot, where we move back and forth between the scale of a sweeping vista and the up close inspection of a stone block, discovering temples, magical forest undergrowth, and ultimately a winding dirt path toward the future. But then again, maybe the idea of linear or temporal order isn’t exactly relevant, and we should just as easily turn around and go back in the opposite direction.

Wang takes plenty of risks with this photobook, but where it shines is the manner in which it creates visual ambiguity. Wang doesn’t take the dull approach of trying to recreate ancient Chinese aesthetics with modern tools – he uses photography to reinvent or reimagine those moods without blindly replicating their previous forms. As a result, Uncharted+ doesn’t feel quaint or backward looking; instead, it actually feels brainy, without being overly pretentious (which the Wittgenstein references could easily have been). In this carefully crafted and consistently graceful package, Wang is actively trying to wrestle with the limits of photography, searching for the place where representation starts to unravel and pictures have the potential to become more than single instants. That’s an intriguing quest, as vagueness and ambivalence aren’t photography’s natural companions.

Collector’s POV: Wang Juyan 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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