Yan Wang Preston has not been shy to take on large landscape projects working in and across China, in a way not dissimilar to the photographers who formed part of the new topographic movement working across the United States in the 1970s. The seminal 1975 show of this American generation of photographers was famously titled New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape. This resonates with themes and the subject of Preston’s work which looks at the relationship between man and nature. Preston is concerned, as were the Americans, by the global environmental impact of urban development. The new frontier is no longer the retail sprawl of the United States – today it is the economic explosion in China.

In her previous work Mother River, Preston used a study of a river as a thread; this new series Forest looks at trees. Made between 2010 and 2017 the work considers a range of places and perspectives working across the Yunnan Province and Chongqing, China’s largest municipality with 30 million inhabitants. The project began with an observation of the transportation of ancient trees from rural villages to new five-star hotel grounds in cities. Suddenly these trees’ value lay not in their raw materials but in their age and posterity. The oldest tree whose journey we see in this project was Frank – a 300-year old tree bought and moved from its village. It was not to survive its upheaval, and in the last image, we note it has disappeared from its new context – leaving a void, no doubt soon to be filled. Elsewhere we see younger and cheaper trees made to look artificially older as their trunks are thickened by being wrapped in plastic and fabrics. Ginkgo trees are decorated in winter with plastic gold leaves added to make them look more appealing whilst their trunks are wrapped in shiny gold material. This is a new way to dress up a tree, inserting it into a new commercial context. It also conflates and blurs boundaries between the real and authentic and the fabricated and man-made.

In several images the trees are imbued with an almost corporeal nature. Chopped and cut boughs and branches are painted a deep rustic red colour which connect them to amputated limbs and mutilated bodies. We see rows of trees like this which Zelda Cheatle compares in her illuminating essay to the paintings made by Paul Nash on the battlefields of Europe. There are echoes of an impersonal desolation and a sense of nihilistic barbarism in these images. As Cheatle states:

“It was these trees’ bandaged limbs with blood-like paint that prompted her to take out her large-format camera.”

Yet through working on the project, Preston started to note other aspects to this treatment and view of nature. Large sections of the book look at the process of ecological recovery where blood red earth is transplanted and sprayed onto newly contoured ground. Fluorescent, yet biodegradable, man-made netting is placed over the earth to protect it. This combination of green and red echoes with traditional Taoist colours referring to the yin and yang energies. At first sight, it is artificial, man-made and almost alien landscape and seems hard to recognise as a form of ecology. But it is also a mass-scale attempt to alter and change the landscape. In twenty years’ time, we might return and see green and pleasant land here over spaces and places that were once quarries.

Over time Preston felt an empathy and realised she was mapping two different stories. The story of the upheaval and uprooting of the trees from their rural setting has parallels to that of the economic migration of people moving in huge numbers from rural to urban contexts. China’s cities are, as we know, developing at an unfathomable pace. A large part of Preston’s work looks at how very small and delineated green areas are being brought into the sprawling concrete jungles with green, lush foliage placed under motorways and flyovers. We start to note the synergy and comparisons of interdependence between man and the landscape, with both appearing as pawns in this wider economic story.

The trees throughout Preston’s Forest remain the visual stars of this work with their man-made absurdist interventions – they become fascinating sculptures each with their own story to tell. In one image from Wushan New Town in 2014 we see a tree taken out of context. It has a strange shape which must have been around a rock or hard object in its original setting. Now removed from its original home and placed in isolation, the tree becomes a sculpture shaped by an unseen force, contorted and twisted into shape.

 – reviewed for Photomonitor by Camilla Brown


Yan Wang Preston’s Forest was published by Hatje Cantz in 2018, with texts by Zelda Cheatle and Nadine Barth. Signed copies can be purchased from  

Images below © Yan Wang Preston