Yajing Liu is a photographer and a PhD candidate at the School of Art, Design and Media, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. She received her MA degree at London College of Communication, UK. Her research interests are in the areas of landscape photography, cultural memory, and alternative photography techniques, in particular, rural landscape and heritage under the urbanization in China. Her photographs have been published in several magazines and have been screened in solo and group exhibitions worldwide. Her selected exhibitions and awards contain: London Brick Lane Gallery; Pingyao International Photography Festival; Dong Gang International Photo Festival; the Finalist in the 25th National Photographic Art Exhibition; Humanity Photo Performance Awards in the UNESCO Humanity Photo Award 2013; Thirst Prize in the Cultural and Natural Heritage Photography Competition, etc.
Speaking the Unspeakable
This body of work is inspired by the unique seaweed houses, located only at the east coastline of the Shan Dong peninsula in China. The houses are named for the characteristics of their roofs – the seaweeds grown on the seabed. Since the 2000s, the seaweed houses have been largely demolished for modern buildings, factories, and new communities. Along with the demolishment of old dwellings, histories, customs, traditions, and fishermen’s spirits have been lost and/or forgotten, which have not been well-recorded in any authoritative archives, have been kept silence by elderly residents, and have been forgotten by young generations.
After ten years of documenting physical changes of the seaweed houses, I worried, when the seaweed houses and their villages are gone, what do we know about the villages and their traditional fishing culture? In this series, one could not see the seaweed houses but to discover the culture and imagine the past. For years I talked to the residents to collect forgotten stories and legends. I re-visited/or found the historical places with residents, which uncovered the mystery of the past. I produced black and white images on traditional Chinese rice paper and painted colors to reflect on the feeling of losing the past.
Below, Yajing answered a few questions about her series and photography practice!
Why did you choose photography over other artistic mediums?
I see photography as a medium for social-cultural research and therapy. This is first reflected in the fact that photographs are carriers of memory, providing glimpses into past, long ago events, and forgotten places. As in the documentary part of my Seaweed House project, I detailed recorded the structure of houses, people’s living condition, activities, and different festivals. My images of seaweed houses will be the only evidences for future generations to understand and study culture, history, and identity of the region. It is also because of this archival value of photography, photographers can work as a sociologist, using photography as a methodological tool to question and criticize our environment and social reality.
Sometimes, it is difficult for audiences to experience the same negative emotions because of the culture differences. Therefore, I am also interested in the new narrative methods formed by the combination of photography and other mediums, such as Chinese rice paper and Chinese pigment I chose in this project. In this case, the materiality of photographs matters and provides a broader creative space for me to prompt my persistence in the observation and protection of Chinese aesthetics and culture.
How did this series start for you creatively?
This series belongs to a larger project called Seaweed Houses started from 2007. The first time I saw these seaweed-roof houses was on my way to photograph swan at the coastal area. After the conversations with residents and some basic investigations, I realized that these hundred-years-old seaweed houses can only to be found in the Rong Cheng area of Shan Dong province and embedded the unique marine culture and fishermen traditions of the Jiao Dong Peninsula in China. For example, during the Grain Rain day, fishermen would sacrifice sea with hearty food to pray for safe and harvest fishing in the following year. Due to the significance of seaweed houses in the architecture and cultural ideology of China, some of the villages have been listed as protected areas and the building technique of seaweed roof has been awarded as the intangible cultural heritage. Nevertheless, a large number of seaweed houses have been demolished due to the rapid urbanization and the pollution of sea. When residents moved into high-rise buildings, they lost their land to hold group activities and would gradually abandon the original patterns of village, traditions, rituals, and so on.
I have been searching all materials and documents related to the history and culture of seaweed houses. However, little has been recorded or studied. Younger generations have moved to the city or town in pursuit of a better living condition and expressed no interest in these shabby houses and their pasts. For them, the traditional culture and spirit that rooted in the rural have been assimilated by high technology and foreign cultures. However, elderly, who stayed in the seaweed houses, stick to the roots of the nation that hold many unrecorded, forgotten, and untold histories, stories, and legends. These rare histories will be gone endlessly with the passes of elderly. Therefore, I began to record oral histories of seaweed houses from the elderly and re-visited sites where the incident occurred. In most cases, the narrators helped me to find the mysterious places.
What reflections have you come to after finishing this series? If you are still working on the series, what revelations have come up while creating the series?
This is an on-going series. Besides these hand-colored images, I will organize the objects and transcribe oral stories that I recorded and collected during the photo shootings. All materials will be presented in the book. In the future, I plan to show a comprehensive study of seaweed houses, including scientific, social, and artistic investigations.
Another phenomenon caught my attention while creating this series, which is the situation of tourism in the region of seaweed houses. People demolish hundreds of years old seaweed houses and rebuild a copy of the house on the same place, which is incomprehensible.
Who is your favorite photographer and why?
Christian Boltanski, Simon Norfolk, Zarina Bhimji, and Ingrid Pollard, just to name a few. Their works call for the care of human condition, landscape, history, and culture of a region, however, their works can evoke the reflection of the dilemmas of ourselves.
Are there any books, movies, magazines or podcasts that you would recommend people to check out?
There are many good journals and websites for photographers and artists, such as the British Journal of Photography, LensCulture, and Asia Art Archive. I would like to highly recommend Simon Schama’s book Landscape and Memory. It’s a beautiful and fruitful book discloses the myths of nature and its relation with human.
Lastly, what artists are currently inspiring you?
Currently, I get inspirations from Chinese photographers and artists and focus on how they apply Chinese culture and features to narrate stories, such as Qu Yan, Yao Lu, Hong Lei, and Shao Wenhuan. Besides, I learnt from Chinese masters’ landscape paintings and appreciate Chinese aesthetics of landscape and art, such as the works of Ma Yuan, Dong Qichang.
You can follow more of Yajing's work on her website!