Pictures not quite liquid, not quite solid
In Diyou Yu’s images, Nature doesn’t seem to express itself, rather than being depicted. Streams flow, leaves drift, clouds do what clouds do. There is no sense of an engineer. With her photographs I am reminded of Fox Talbot ‘Pencil of Nature’: Nature drawing itself through the lens. Interestingly, this directness of expression - the author stepping back to let things express themselves, is achieved with great skill and sophistication. Over the years Diyou, a talented draughtswoman and photographer, has mastered the crafts of hard- and soft-ground etching, aquatint, photoetching and photolithography amongst others. Effortlessness of expression, as any actor or writer probably knows, only comes with a great deal of work.
“Pictures are not quite liquid, not quite solid. They stand between the two” observed Zen master Sokei-An. This seems to be particularly true of Diyou’s work. The transience of her subject matter – fleeting moments in everyday life, drifting leaves, passing clouds – is reflected in the way they are expressed. There is an evanescent, sometimes ghostly quality to her gelatin silver prints. Her photographs rarely frame an ‘edge’, and so spaces and water surfaces seem to expand beyond the picture. Grainy aquatint and spit-bite prints of dust become scale-less, somewhere between microscopic particles and galaxies, floating in darkness. For one installation she projected images of flowing water on veils moving in the breeze.
I remember a discussion with Diyou and another colleague at Camberwell College over a coffee. Diyou mentioned something about wishing for her art to be healing. My other colleague wasn’t convinced. In her view, any purpose made art into ‘design’ – she saw design as seeking to serve and improve the world whereas fine art would only express or reflect upon it, no matter how good or bad. I found the debate very interesting. As always with discussions about art we know that the only accurate answer is that it depends – there are many possible attitudes to art. But I think part of the confusion came from the word ‘healing’. If understood as ‘fixing’, ‘solving’, then I can understand my colleague’s reluctance. And Diyou portraying the ineluctable passing of things won’t fix the fact that all things must die, as Tennyson wrote. But what if ‘healing’ means finding some peace in the midst of it all, some ‘still point of the turning world’ as in T.S. Eliot’s poem? This is not just the precinct of Fine Arts of course, but of spirituality. And even without direct references to Buddhism (‘Dukkha’ is the title of a work for example), there is clearly a spiritual dimension to Diyou’s work and practice. Her images of nature are full of awe and mystery. They seem, to quote Karen Armstrong, “to recover some of our ancestors’ vision of sacred nature…’, to ‘seek a silent receptiveness to the natural world’. Maybe the healing after all is not so much about healing oneself as becoming a bit less oneself, like Emerson looking at the morning sky: “From the Earth, as a shore, I look into that silent sea. I seem to partake its rapid transformations; the active enchantment reaches my dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind.”
Nicolas K Feldmeyer
- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1936), ‘Nature’, in: Emerson and Ziff (2003), ‘Nature and selected Essays’, London: Penguin Books
- Karen Armstrong (2022), Sacred Nature: Restoring Our Ancient Bond with the Natural World, London: Penguin
- T. S. Eliot (1943). ‘Four Quartets’. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.
- Sõkei-an. Edited by. Mary Farkas, with a foreword by Huston Smith (1993), ‘The Zen Eye: A Collection of Zen Talks by Sokei-An’, Tokyo, New York: Weatherhill 1993
- William Henry Fox Talbot (1844-46), ‘The Pencil of Nature’, London: Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans
- Alfred Lord Tennyson (1830), ‘All Things will Die’
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