Yang Xiaobin, another poet’s photography


Poet, critic, scholar Yang Xiaobin, now on the faculty at Academia Sinica in Taiwan, has in recent years joined the group of contemporary Chinese poets working in photography (Bei Dao, Mo Mo, Li Li among others). Yang is certainly the one whose engagement is most fully explicated in his own theoretical manner on his website. The textual companion



is constructed in the manner of “keywords”, including “quotidian,” “badness,” “ready-made,” “subjectivity,” “other,” “garbage,” “trace [Derrida],” “automatism,” “abstract/figural,” and so forth. His photographic images, meanwhile, were originally material objects (flat surfaces such as walls, doorways, pavement) at such acutely close-up range as to render them visually unintelligible. Since then he has moved on to something different, more tactile, and readable. Long explication of his “post-photography-ism” is Palimpsest and Trace: Post-Photographism. Sample images from the exhibition site:




More, and I think better, works available on his blog:

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As for Yang’s poetry, it is often described as being difficult, or at least challenging. Here, for instance, in a translation produced by Karla Kelsey, John Gery and the poet himself, is the second of three short poems, this entitled “Bread”



You sliced the loaf of bread with a comb,

finding inside it hairs of the dead, a squamish voice,

and dry, warmed-over love.

the bread darkened and darkened, its crumbs

more and more seared and shriveled:

Before you could wash and dress, you face, too, was burnt:

its features, not easy to swallow,

burgeon with a hunger for beauty.










*translation appears in Another Kind of Nation: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Poetry edited by Zhang Er and Chen Dongdong (Talisman House, 2007), 290.


Mo Mo 默默 on Yan Li 严力 article from Coquette 撒娇

Below is my translation of an article, from the year 2000, written by Shanghai poet, abstract photographer (about whom I’ve written on this blog), and arts organizer Mo Mo. It is Mo’s take on fellow poet-artist Yan Li’s return to China after years in the US, among other locales. The original is a fine piece of prose in Chinese, and regrettably somewhat less than that in English. Nonetheless, it perhaps deserves the light of day. I’ve added a collection of Yan Li paintings, both from the series to which Mo refers, and from more recent work, to fill out the picture.


One day in the middle of the nineteenth century, a new machine came shrieking through, tearing open the once complete world of da Vinci, Michelangelo, Goya, Delacroix, and Rubens; the once complete world of agriculture. The steam engine came ripping through, leaving in its wake: A new black hole.


The light emanating through this hole then illuminated the canvases of Monet, Cezanne, Degas, Miro, Renoir, and Seurat, painters using vibrant colors to deftly depict the new world of the hole with peaceful dawns, quiet vases on table tops, beautiful women amidst afternoon bouquets, and the beach of La Grand Jatte. Before their very eyes a new capitalist world is drawn in by the steam engine, and the miracles of material objects are spawned by capitalism. The Impressionists are like children frolicking in the sun, a light in which even the occasional twinge of despair is spectacular: sunflowers of van Gough. Only one painter among them is truly aware: Paul Gauguin.  Gauguin feels the irresistible pull of the steam engine. Instead of giving in, however, he opts to escape — in 1865 the painter flees to the emerald blue waters of the island of Tahiti.


Without a station or a terminal point, the flight of the steam engine is much like human desire itself. In a mere one hundred years this black hole swallows up two thousand years of material culture, and in its rampage Kandinsky, Munch, Magritte, and Duchamps gradually begin to open bewildered and consternated eyes. The Kandinskian lines and patterns form a kind of restrictive force endeavoring to obstruct the unbridled drive of the steam engine; Duchamps creates installation art in an effort to toss tangible objects across the path of this unstoppable progress; and the lonely Munch stands all alone beside the tracks hopelessly calling out: “Stop! insatiable inhumanity!”

A black hole.

World War I ….

World War II ….

A mushroom cloud in the sky above Guam ….

The pain of the wound in 1949 finally overflows the heart of Picasso, so that even he can no longer twist out his enraged forms. The crushed people of “Guernica” are the people smashed in the path of the steam engine, the very bodies rent asunder by the dog eat dog desires of humanity.


Spilling into this space is no longer oil, but now heroin, as the slowing steam engine celebrates its wild ride like the coming of the end of the world. The pain of the wound finally numbs Dali, whose hallucinatory canvases more than any other manifest the fragments of a world torn to bits under the wheels of the steam engine.

Goodness is in pain.

Truth is in pain.

Beauty extends pain.

And now, all around we see a wounded world. In the year 2000, after having been baptized in the experience of cruel American capitalism, Yan Li is one truly aware. He moves, however, in a direction opposite of Paul Gauguin; Yan Li returns to his country of origin, a place in which the steam engine’s destruction has only just begun. On an afternoon of a thousand sighs, a determined Yan Li raises his brush, and starts patching our world full of scars, healing our wounds one by one.

And you, do you still feel the pain?


originally published Coquette

June 1, 2004

text by Mo Mo

translation by Paul Manfredi

Mo Mo the Abstract Photographer

Mo Mo 默默, Shanghai poet, arts organizer and editor of the highly influential journal Coquette 撒娇 has, like many other poets in recent years, taken to visual art. Mo’s chosen medium is photography, or “Abstract Photography,” one example of which:

The abstract can broadly be drawn into two (at least) categories, fundamentally distinguished by the absence or presence of a title. The title, it seems to me, brings the abstract work one or more steps closer to the figurative, to the articulable.

In Mo Mo’s case there are titles to his images, the above, for instance  有时候感觉自己有很多自己 (“sometimes I feel there are many selves of the self”). The question I wish to pose is: in the domain of visual-verbal intersection, does the poet have a kind of edge, a special knack or gift for negotiating the territorial overlap between the language, such as it is, of the mind’s eye and eye itself?  In that case, perhaps, we speak (?) more of synesthesiac harmonizing and less of communication, bridges, or other ferrying of some “thing.”  So what do the “many selves of the self” say visually? Truth is, not much to me at least.

But there is a visceral quality image itself, something almost delicious, or even luscious about this imagery. The harmony, in other words, is less with the words, than with an eye for elemental and material experience.

what we miss every day

In this instance we have  “每天,你错过了什么”  (What do we miss, day after day?). Here, by contrast to the image above, the hints of an urban scene, akin to Mo Mo’s Shanghai, enveloping built environment, figures subjected to warmth and light. What they “miss”? Again, unclear, though in this case apparitions amidst urban scape certainly not unfamiliar theme.


In the above image (世界大同后的第一个早晨), though, I find a more compelling vision. The “first morning after great harmony” is both soothing and unsettling, dynamic in idea and image. Technology is convened to a purpose here, a fact of production and a thematic element, the thing that “brings us all together,” for better or worse.