Medium Format: Soil Photography, Ecological Mosaics, Dispossession

Wang Youshen’s installation Mei pingmi (Per square meter) (2014) reconfigures urban ecosystems: Wang juxtaposes drywall fragments from his repeatedly demolished studios into square mosaics; mosaics of square photographs of surrounding landscapes; photographic surfaces marked by Wang’s acts of ‘washing’ prints; and square composites of photographs, water, soil and seeds. The square meter brings the violence of economic abstraction of land into tension with the aleatory transformations of art-making, human behaviour and ecological processes.

Per Square Meter engages with what landscape ecologist Richard Forman calls land mosaics: ecological forms of patches, corridors and matrices created by and determining flows of humans, other organisms, energy and the media of water and land. Forman has conceptualized landscape ecologies in terms of art media, drawing upon concepts of point, line and plane that artist Paul Klee derived through study of natural forms, and likening landscape forms to analogue photography’s framing, grain and resolution.

Both Per Square Meter and the field of landscape ecology begin in brokenness ‒ the fragmentation of land and environment, habitat loss and dislocation ‒ and turn to mosaics to picture forms and processes of disturbance and flow, destruction and composition. Framed by Muge’s photographs of landscapes of dispossession in Hui jia (Going home) (2013), this lecture explores how Wang’s mosaics offer sites for thinking relationships between art-making and ecosystems; how in contemporary photography, the ecological ceaselessly reconstitutes relationships between the figurative and the abstract; and how in our ecological crisis the ground becomes figure even as human figures are left to piece together the grounds they have lost.

Dr William Schaefer is Associate Professor in Chinese Studies and Visual Culture in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, Durham University.