People Mountain People Sea

A Photographic Installation/Performance

Installation with 400 8″x10″ Archival Inkjet Prints

Jan 26, 2010, McCalla Art Building, Indiana University Bloomington

Exhibition Catelogue (PDF)

Artist Statement

“People Mountain People Sea” is a photographic installation and performance project by Yang Chen, a Chinese-born Photography MFA at Indiana University Bloomington.

The title “People Mountain People Sea” is a jocular word-to-word translation of the Chinese idiom “人山人海”, which means “huge crowds of people”. The project originates from a performance during which the artist explored the boundaries of comfort between strangers in a public space while attempting to get extremely close to them to take their picture.

In the installation the artist creates a huge “people sea” by photos from the performance in order to reproduce the crowded, over-intimate feeling of being involuntarily embraced by a crowd.

During the show, the artist performed “bumping into people” again with the viewers in the paper crowd.

Introduction by Prof. Claude Cookman

What is more fascinating than another human face? Child psychologists tell us the first thing we focus on, as infants, is our mother’s face. From this primal fixation, we branch out to every face, becoming experts in reading the subtle shifts in expression made possible by the complex musculature hidden a few millimeters beneath the epidermis of the face.

In his project, People Mountain, People Sea, Yang Chen offers a universe of faces — men, women, children, infants — each one a small reward for our study. Yang’s work synthesizes two major traditions, street photography and portraiture, but it also alters them. His locus of operation is the street, most often in large cities where for a range of reasons, residents are less likely to challenge his camera. Unlike most street photographers, however, he rarely treats the street as a stage for human drama nor as a design element in the composition. Rather it is relegated to background, typically out of the field of focus and occupying little of the pictorial space. Instead, the human face fills most of his frame. This positions his work as portraiture — not the studio or environmental varieties but the more rarely practiced genre of action portraiture. All his images are candid — faces caught on the fly, rushing to work, to the subway, to a rendezvous. Faces preoccupied. Each with an expression that invites our contemplation.

Yang plunges the viewer into this jumble of faces, at first frustrating our desire for contemplation. His installation transforms a classroom at the old McCalla School near Bloomington’s downtown into a pedestrian rush hour as 400 images hang from the ceiling. Visitors are immersed in Yang’s “People Sea” — forced to brush against the prints, forced to confront them from a few inches instead of the normal gallery distance, forced to engage them several at a time. To have the zone of space in which we westerners insulate ourselves so insistently punctured feels uncomfortable. But it also intensifies the imperative to read the expressions on all those faces. In violating the traditional decorum of a gallery space, Yang engages us in a visceral as well as an aesthetic experience. He has found the perfect form to match his subject.

Professor Claude Cookman
School of Journalism, Indiana University


exposure to risk

Photography captures a moment in time like amber preserves an insect: Looking at a photograph, we see a static glimpse of life’s eternal flux. We notice the intensity and direction of a glance, the depth of a shadow that shades a face, or the forced perspective of a busy city street. Photographs contain clues that allow us to experience what the artist is showing. This presentation is part calculation and part intuition. Good photographs hold layers of information that unfold through studied observation to reveal a truth or universal experience that transcends a single moment in time.

Yang Chen’s People Mountain People Sea, a photography instillation at the Fuller Projects, attempts to reanimate the preserved moments that are his photographs by placing the viewer in a sea of images. Chen’s instillation fills the gallery from wall to wall with hundreds of free-hanging double-sided prints suspended from the ceiling with translucent filament. The viewer has to physically push through the dense collection of images that Chen captured while literally bumping into people as he walked the streets of New York City. As the hanging and slowly spinning images part and yield with forward movement, new faces and expressions continually confront you. One feels a loss of personal space once immersed in his mass of images, as Chen succeeds in recreating the feeling of a densely populated city within a gallery environment.

The Fuller Projects is a laboratory for contemporary artists looking to expand their normal mode of working and experiment with new techniques and practices. Sometimes, a less-than successful result exposes the risk of such endeavors. However, all successful artists recognize that the known and comfortable way is an impasse, and that they must tread the fine line between new ideas and disaster. Yang Chen has walked this line and his instillation stand as testament to the reward of taking risks.

Phil Haralam
Co-Organizer
Fuller Projects

FULLER PROJECTS is a venue with the primary mission of providing emerging contemporary artists with the opportunity to propose, create, and present new work. Established in 2002 by Indiana University School of Fine Arts students and located in the McCalla Building, FULLER PROJECTS encourages dialogue on art within the university, the community of Bloomington, Indiana, and beyond.

People Mountain People Sea | 2010 | Installation, Portfolio | Tags: , , , , ,