YAMDROK LAKE, literally the ‘Green Jade Lake on the Pasture’, lies just over 100 km southwest of Lhasa on the southern Tibetan Plateau. At 70 km long it is the country’s fourth largest and even today its depths are unknown, fed each spring and summer by melt waters from the mountain ranges that surround it on three sides. On such mornings its surface has the appearance of blue-green glass – an almost miraculous mirror of mountains and sky. Yet by late afternoon it can be transformed into a frenzy of crashing white horses, whipped up by one of the many storms that appear without warning across the mountaintops. It is for this treacherous beauty that it is known not only as one of Tibet’s most holy lakes but also as one of its most wrathful, and since at least the eighth century it has drawn footsore pilgrims over the high passes from all over Tibet, as well as Nepal, India and Central Asia, seeking blessing and enlightenment.
“I learned from a friend that Tibet was a sacred place,” says the photographer Han Chao, who travelled to Yamdrok Lake in 2011. “I was in a bad way then, so I decided to drop everything and go. On the way I met many people – people who’d lost their jobs, or who’d had their hearts broken, or who just felt lost. I was a synthesis of all these kinds of people, so how could I not go?”
Han originally planned to spend two years living in Tibet but cut short his trip after only five months when he was invited to take part in an exhibition in Italy. Nevertheless, the works he made during this time mark a dramatic transformation in his creative output. Images such as Miracle #14 (2013), which is based on a photograph taken at Yamdrok Lake, is emblematic of this change and takes the form of a wide panorama in which a crenellated line of distant mountains divides stormy skies from low scrubby hills and the turquoise waters of Yamdrok below. The image, however, is partly an illusion, and a closer look reveals it is in fact composed of right-and-left mirror images of the same shot. The viewer is therefore presented with an invented scene suggestive of dramatic wildness yet composed in perfect symmetry.
Further works such as Miracle #16 (2013) make this technique more apparent where the natural fall of the landscape highlights the artist’s manipulation of the original photograph. Here, mirror images of low hills create a shallow valley along which the viewer’s eye is led to the deep green triangle of the lake at the centre of the picture. Above this boil black apocalyptic storm clouds. The artist’s configuration of identical images amplifies the natural drama of the scene. In so doing the tension between light and dark, colours and textures, and the formal arrangement of vertical and horizontal space can be read not only as a metaphor for the opposing forces of harmony and chaos, but also for the artist’s struggle with his own sense of identity.
HAN CHAO 韩超 was born in 1982 in Liaoning province in northeast China and studied Photography at Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts in Shenyang (2005-2009). As a student he had begun to build his profile with a collection of autobiographical images which describe his experiences on the local gay scene. But it was his move to Beijing in 2009 that reinforced his conviction to pursue art seriously.
His photography of this period reflects the exuberance of his new life in the capital. In its guerilla style and candid tone it has much in common with that of other gay artists in China such as 223 and Ren Hang and those focused on the city’s indie and underground club scene. The figure that often emerges from media articles and interviews of the time is of a thrill-seeking provocateur. At their best, however, his pictures achieve a far more complex psychological depth that reflects a persistent questioning of his experience of difference and “otherness”. “Being gay [in China] enabled me to better explore the conflict between the individual and society and the complexity of fate,” he says.
This conflict is further suggested by Han’s growing interest in Buddhist and Christian teaching and suggests a young man searching for answers. It is a struggle repeatedly played out in his photography and is nowhere better seen than in the portrait Xiaoji’s face that afternoon (2009), an image brittle with spiritual ambivalence. The work was included in his first series of photography entitled Rhapsody for my wretched universe (2010), which was widely exhibited at photo festivals in China.
For Han this ongoing process reached a climax in 2012 with the breakdown of a long-term relationship. It is a period that marks the closest convergence between Han’s life and art. In the series’ God gave the first revelation (2011), shown in 2012 at the East Asia Museum in Stockholm, and Eight and Half (2012), later published in the book Dorian’s Album (88Books, Canada), can be seen a gradual narrowing of Han’s focus as his work converges in ever tighter orbits on the two individuals at the centre of the relationship. “I met Dorian and stayed two and a half years with him and experienced the change from strangeness to intimacy, and from shyness to violence,” says Han. “People change. Life is changeable.”
The end of the affair marked a decisive shift in the direction of Han’s art. Within this turmoil lay the genesis of his Tibet works and in them can be felt something like a giant exhalation as the emotional claustrophobia of Beijing gives way to a dramatic celebration of light and space.
This series, entitled Nomad Soul (2013), is Han’s first use of abstraction and in it can once again be felt the thrill of experimentation and of new possibilities. The presence of brooding storm clouds in many images suggests an ongoing struggle but the overall tone is revelatory. In pictures such as 1+(-1) Miracle #11 (2013) the mirror image of land and water is shifted through 90 degrees and takes the form of a radiant golden column bordered with emerald. In another of his vertical works, entitled 1+(-1) Miracle #13 (2013), the mirror image of stony scrub land completely fills the picture plane. Tiny details of rocks and blades of grass radiate out from the central axis of the piece to create a dense abstract pattern and give the impression of a fabulously jeweled and intricate religious icon – a symbol, perhaps, of redemption and renewal.
Han Chao’s photography has been widely shown in China and Europe including at the exhibitions God gave the first revelation (2013) at the Museum of World Cultures in Gothenburg, Sweden, Eight and half — Exhibition of 10 Contemporary Photographers (2012) in Prato, Italy, and Boys’ World (2011) at Zen Photo Gallery in Beijing and Tokyo. His work has been presented at photo festivals including the 7th Lianzhou International Photography Festival (2011), the Hong Kong International Photography Festival (2010) and the Pingyao International Photography Festival (2009). In 2011 his series Take care of yourself tonight (2011), was nominated for the Third Hou Dengke Documentary Photography Award, a non-government award set up to highlight contemporary society in China. In 2009 he was named Young Photographer of the Year by Xitek online photography magazine in China. He now lives in Shanghai.
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