Vision of Entanglement: On Yan Wang Preston’s Forest Project

Activity: Talk or presentation typesInvited talk


The word for world is still forest*. In the age of Anthropocene, the violent destruction of forests is one of the defining characteristics of our societies. Interestingly, forests are also deeply desirable for rapidly expanding urban environments around the world.

In the photographic project Forest, the British-Chinese artist Yan Wang Preston spent eight years (2010-2017) investigating the politics of recreating forests and the ‘natural’ environment in new Chinese cities. In Chongqing, a city of 30 million people, she followed the developments of the transplanted old trees, the concrete city and its people for eight years, documenting the changes, dramas and lives in the city. She then extended the project to Haidong, capturing the bizarre and wildly-coloured ecology-recovery landscapes. On the way, a series of stories are collected and narrated, that raise questions about the complexity of urban reforestation and nature re-construction in the contemporary era.

This paper presents Preston’s Forest project while reflecting on its methodology and its social-political context. Through slow-paced walking, observing and questioning, the entanglement within a city jungle – the concrete blocks, people, movements and trees- is gradually dissolved, clarified and re-assembled. The vision of the photographer is fixed by the large-format camera’s ability to examine the forensic details, which are often not entirely aware by the photographer. The most powerful element within the eight-year narrative is repeat photography – chosen trees, woodlands and areas were photographed several times. Such strategy plays trust in the camera’s greatest, yet also greatly contested, ability to document. In this particular context, the process of documenting helped to keep the photographer’s prejudice on check while directing the story to its own open and dialectic ending.

Through an explorative gaze, personal sensitivity and in-depth research, Forest questions the nature of nature in contemporary Chinese cities, where nature is merely part of an ever-changing landscaping project that is created for GDP growth, quick visual pleasure and reaching temporary environmental target. However, the long-term investigation also witnesses signs of integration. After all, trees and people do adept and grow. In the process, the new city shows potential to change, from signs of diaspora and displacement, to a place with new memories and roots. In this way, the paper contextualizes the Forest project in the current discussion around the city, urbanization, urban ecology and the artist’s role in contributing towards debates around such contemporary issues.

Forest won the First Prize, Professional Landscape category of Sony World Photography Awards and the First Prize of Syngenta Photography Award in 2017. It is published as a monograph by Hatje Cantz in 2018.

*This sentence is borrowed from the book title by Anna-Sophie Springer (Berlin: K.Verlag, 2017).
Period7 Mar 2020
Event title57th Society for Photographic Education Annual Conference
Event typeConference
Conference number57
LocationHouston, United States, TexasShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational