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by Blake Stone-Banks
"Digital Generation," Feb. 7-Apr. 1, 2010, at Galerie Paris-Beijing, 798 Art District, Dashanzi, 4 Jiuxianqiao Road, Chaoyang District 100015 Beijing, China

The construction crane is an iconic fixture on Beijing’s skyline, and China’s artists have drawn inspiration from the chaos of breakneck urban transformation at least since Ai Weiwei shattered his first Han Dynasty vase in the early 1990s. The surprise of "Digital Generation," an exhibition of six Chinese artists who work with digital photography, is how analogous this new type of image-making is to China’s shifting cityscapes. The reality of China’s new order, and its culture, can easily seem as malleable as any virtual world.

The Sichuanese artist Yang Yi’s "Uprooted" series is a striking case in point. In 2005, Yang began documenting his hometown of Kaixian in advance of its planned flooding by the Three Gorges Dam in 2009. The resulting vision of his now-submerged hometown features its citizens going about their daily lives in a wrecked underwater cityscape, but with the aid of goggles and snorkels. Miniscule air bubbles drift up towards the distant surface, while the sun barely shines through the murky water’s surface overhead.

Yang Yi deftly manages the emotional impact of his fantastical world, which is both humorous and deeply unsettling. Individual works like Xinsheng Street and County Government Hostel document specific locations that have been lost to the dam, while each image also includes at least one of the more than 1,000,000 people that the ambitious construction project has displaced.

In County Government Hostel, an old man in a grey cardigan clenches a cane as he navigates a small park filled with the rubble from toppled buildings. In another image, a worker stares at Yang Yi’s lens as though posing for a portrait. It is at these moments when documentary and fantasy blur that "Uprooted" is most successful, picturing a seamless netherworld haunted by his memories of home.

China’s changing cityscapes have been Jiang Pengyi’s subject for half a decade. In his "Luminant" series (2006-2008), skyscrapers have taken on godlike status as they glow in an otherworldly light, while in the "All Back to Dust" series (2006-08), Beijing’s architectural wonders are literally consigned to the trash heap. Central Business District office towers, Beijing’s landmark CCTV Tower, the National Center for Performing Arts and other icons of the new order are displayed as if they’ve been dumped somewhere at the side of the road (in a transitional site that curiously resembles the New Jersey meadowlands).

In Jiang’s most recent series, titled "Unregistered City," he further explores the present monuments to Chinese modernity -- skyscrapers, contemporary high-rise apartments and the curves of Beijing’s expressways -- but all done in miniature. Jiang sets his "model cities" in derelict buildings and vacant rooms that belong to the old world and that have been forgotten by the present.

"Unregistered City" emphasizes the cookie-cutter apartment blocks and long stretches of highway that characterize China’s anonymous architectural landscape. Jiang revels in their insect-like nature, where an entire building may be indistinguishable from a clod of dirt or piece of broken brick. Jiang’s lens looks down on all this from high above, a perspective so elevated that no living beings can be seen below.

The phrase "Unregistered City" adds additional meaning, bringing to mind slums or, at least for native viewers, the difficult system of registration for peasants who wish to migrate to China’s cities. Is China’s new world illegitimate in the eyes of the past? Or is China’s future leaving behind the orderliness of both tradition and more recent bureaucratic state control?

The tensions between past and present are also felt in the works of the Shanghai-based photographer and video artist Yang Yongliang. His Phantom Landscape III triptych resembles at first glance a lush shanshui ("water and mountain") scroll painting, though in fact the romantic composition of misty grays and white is constructed from photos of contemporary Shanghai architecture. Only upon close inspection does the viewer realize that he or she is looking at the smoggy apartment blocks of suburban Shanghai rather than the misty slopes of Mount Taishan.

Of all the work in "Digital Generation," Yang’s is the most fun. In one layer of Yang’s hazy skyline, the army of construction cranes and skeletal buildings gives way to the roller coasters of Shanghai’s Happy Valley Amusement Park.

The show’s only direct nod to China’s political landscape is Liu Ren’s two images, which show the Great Hall of the People and the Forbidden City. The first, titled Sleepwalker, is a digital picture of a ghostly herd of sheep filling Tian’anmen Square. The second envisions the courtyard north of Tian’anmen Gate as a vast pond of blossoming lotus flowers. A rainbow arches into the blue sky from the right side of the frame, but an ominous mushroom cloud rises on the horizon as two aircraft fly off to the left. As in a dream, the vision -- both utopian and apocalyptic -- is only provisionally anchored to the real.

The remaining two artists in the exhibition, Maleonn and Chen Nong, also craft fantastical images in a painterly, almost Photo Realist style. With near vacant landscapes, perfect blue skies and repeating architectural forms, Maleonn’s digital images evoke Rene Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico, though transposed to a Chinese landscape. In Maleonn’s "Postman" series, a yellow-coated postman on a bicycle passes through an abandoned city, as if attempting to bring mail to absent residents.

In Chen Nong’s similarly surrealist scene, set in the rubble of the Old Summer Palace, a modern-day nurse poses under a stone arch, surrounded by the fallen bodies of men wearing animal masks. In what may be a whimsical reading, the nurse seems to stand in for the artist, attending to creatures from China’s ancient folkways, or perhaps only surveying their unfortunate passing.

BLAKE STONE-BANKS is a writer living in Beijing.