My work has been a response to the urban environment I’ve always lived in, with the natural world featured rarely apart from an occasional tree or tiny figure at the base of a high-rise building. The way I make prints has been adapted from traditional wood engraving, a technique historically used to reproduce illustrations of all types but with a distinct association with natural subjects – botanical, arboreal, ornithological, flora and fauna.
A few years ago, I decided I’d like to tackle some of this subject-matter but struggled to find a meaningful starting point. I noticed one day that the litter blowing about in the local park informed my experience of the natural world as much as the many varieties of horticulture on display, a human component in the ecology of the urban green spaces I regularly encountered. I was interested in the observation that archaeology is “the science of rubbish” as much knowledge has been gained by studying the trash, garbage and junk left behind by our ancestors. Being invited to contribute to this project offered an opportunity to explore these themes again.
My work has always been based on primary observation so to work on a project about a place without visiting it was a challenge. The photographs provided glimpses of the river, of beautiful rippling water or of leaves silhouetted against weak sunlight, but I was drawn to the images showing traces of human interaction: an old tyre in the water, a submerged shopping trolley, shreds of plastic clinging to broken limbs of trees and graffiti glimpsed beneath a bridge.
Ye Bing is a visual artist primarily working with the medium of photography and print making. Raised in a family of traditional artisan in China, Bing’s early training was pervaded by the values and ideals of craftsmanship that have pervaded traditional Chinese culture for centuries. Learning to cast and temper metal, and to carve wood in relief and in the round, were integral parts of this formative process.
As a student at the Chinese Academy of Arts in Hangzhou, Bing specialised in printmaking, not only focusing on the poetry of iconography but also becoming proficient in the ancient techniques of paper- and ink-production, tool-making and the making of movable type – an experience that involved travel to workshops all over China.
Bing’s preoccupation with photography emerged organically from this background. While photography is increasingly becoming a means of digital image production, it is rooted in the tradition of printing and, as a result, has inherited many of its traits. Bing’s work arises where these two thresholds – from the past to the present and from the present to the future – meet.
Besides developing artworks, Bing’s practice also involves the collaborative production of hand-made books and the curating of exhibitions.
This work started as a project about pollution but turned into a project about nature.
The apparent physicality of the world is a trick of time that is played by life as we experience it. Only our short lives give us the impression that anything is real and immutable. Nothing is settled. Mountains collapse and rise from the sea. Rivers cut deep canyons over millennia. We observe these phenomena from a particular temporal perspective which belies the deep geological time it has taken for the world to appear as it does. Photography is the way we preserve the illusion of this perspective – it comforts us in its implicit denial of the eternal state of flux.
My work, whether it is about people or the natural or unnatural world, is a personal attempt to engage with the fluctuating, information filled universe. The flux is in each of us too. Because of this my own instincts are not always clear to me.
The making of still images, photographic or otherwise, is a way of solidifying time so we must be wary of confusing the impression that stillness represents ‘fact’. There is no conclusion. There is no moment (or perspective) of final, settled comprehension. There is just communication and language. How we each find a place in a fluctuating universe of materiality is endlessly compelling.
I have come to a new understanding of my relationship to the natural world. My sense of nature has been governed by an internal narrative that I have received and ingested from the voices that surround me; in books, on television, online etc. However, this narrative – which often speaks baldly of ‘beauty’, the unquestionable value of ‘nature’ and the ‘shame’ we share in its destruction – is just a narrative that serves the purpose of the progenitor.
The physicist Richard Feynman said of a lesson his father taught him about various kinds of knowledge (in this case relating to his son’s interest in birdlife), “…and when you know all the names of that bird in every language, you know nothing, absolutely nothing about the bird.”
An understanding of the separation of language from knowledge allows a new understanding of nature that does not rely on a qualitative, narrative approach and allows for a personal appreciation of the natural world that values what ‘is’ without recourse to what ‘should be.’
Alex Schneideman 9/12/21