Ten Thousand Li of the Yangtze River: Yuezhou 长江万里图: 岳州

Michael Cherney 秋麦, Yuezhou 岳州. 2012. Ten Thousand Li of the Yangtze River series 长江万里图, 42 scrolls. Handscroll; photographic print on Chinese xuan paper; 27 cm in width.

This panoramic image, mounted as a handscroll, depicts a course of the Yangtze River in which a number of watercraft float. The ships within the river’s waters appear to be travelling from left to right, like the hands on a clock, and against the direction in which the scroll unfurls. This directional path seems to suggest they are going forward in time and heading off into the future, disappearing into the horizon. Behind these ships, crowded in thick fog and smoke, are the ghostly traces of an industrial port.

The lengthy format of the scroll references the length of the river itself—the Yangtze River is so long and large that even the giant containerships travelling within its water are dwarfed by its scale. A small ship carrying and propelled by a dimly visible human figure heightens the monumental size of the river.

Cherney’s use of black and white film creates a dismal, smoggy atmosphere in which the pollution visible in the air becomes even more evident. Cherney created this scroll through a painstaking process, stitching multiple 35 mm analogue photographic prints into a panorama, before scanning and enlarging each frame to ten times its original size. Through enlarging the photo negatives, the film grain of the medium becomes obvious and exaggerated, and the atmosphere of smoggy obscurity is heightened.

The photographic printing process also increases the picture’s mysterious aura. Using a digital printer, Cherney transferred the enlarged images via inkjet onto a traditional ink painting paper scroll. On this paper, the ink is destabilized and further abstracts itself from the original film negative. The process used to create the images, in combination with the content, creates an atmosphere in which time seems to stop.

In this universe of paused time, a melancholic space is created in which the artist gestures to the past, present, and future of China. The past is considered in Cherney’s allusions to the scrolls of late imperial China, which he references in the handscroll format as well as in the Yangtze River as subject, one long favoured by painters. The present is considered in the contemporary subject matter of the container ships and buildings as well as the photographic process through which the work has been created. Finally, the artist points us to the future by creating a composition that seems to historicize the current day and positions us as viewers looking at an artwork as if the present has already become the past.

Thomas Weir

Artist video