Michael Cherney 秋麦: What is a river?

What is a river? Michael Cherney gives us a handscroll to consider this question and an opportunity to observe the agency of a river. His representation of the Tiger Leaping Gorge unsettles our notion that rivers are simple passages of water. Our viewing experience is suspended in a pictorial space that shimmers between the lucid and the ambiguous. We have to constantly readjust our balance as the visible—what the river offers to us, how it moves towards us—and the visual—what we are made to see in the scroll and what almost escapes our eye—continuously shift.

Michael Cherney 秋麦, Tiger Leaping Gorge (Hutiaoxia 虎跳峡). 2012. Ten Thousand Li of the Yangtze River series 长江万里图, 42 scrolls. Handscroll; photographic print on xuan paper; 27 cm in width. Image courtesy of artist.

Cherney’s photographic prints let the Yangtze River move and act. The traces of river’s unpredictability and magnificence appear in the shadowy images of the water and the rock face on black-and-white film. The water marks out the river’s curvy, knobby course. The torrents conjure ripples where there is an obstruction and make splashes when they fall. These splashes and ripples form patterns, with their silky traces, and echo shapes on the nearby cliffs. We see an interaction initiated by the water flow—the torrent asserting itself upon the earth as it rushes through the narrow gorge. The images visualize the agency of the water, at times calm, and at other times violent.

Cherney creates in the scroll’s images other kinds of transitions—between high and low, faraway and nearby, the dimly misty and glinted clear. There is no distinctive boundary between these paired modalities. They can be apprehended only when they are considered in relation to each other. Together, they generate a subtle, silent transfiguration from photographic accuracy to impressionistic Chinese ink painting and back, to the photograph again. Photography and ink painting collide and meld together much like the water and rocks bump into and reshape each other. 

Conveying the pictorial nuances of Tiger Leaping Gorge in the long-lived Chinese painting format of the handscroll demonstrates Cherney’s deep understanding of how the object itself works with the evocative images of the river to encourage a journey. Wandering in the pictorial image is an experience merged with wandering back and forth along the scroll and could be further linked to wandering through the gorge in reality. Tiger Leaping Gorge urges us to learn the expression of the river through vertiginous wandering high above it. 

Our gaze towards the river may converge with the artist’s, though it may also float freely in other directions, as Cherney well knows. The artist encourages us to go on our own journey into the scroll, to look for the agency of the river in the brush-and-ink-like photographs, to try to locate the connectivity in what we find, and to think hard on the nature of our relationship with this Yangtze River.

The artist at Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Han Li & Lisa Claypool

Meet Michael in his Beijing studio on October 7 @ 7 pm MST as part of the ecoArt China Speaker Series.

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