On Yang Wenbin's Work
In Society of University, Yang Wenbin exposes the clubs created by students who are finally freed from the pressure and conformity of the Chinese secondary educational system. Unsurprisingly, the groups they create are microcosms of China’s political and consumerist society. Rather than aestheticizing these groups, Yang takes a more clinical and critical approach. In fact, he reproduces WeChat conversations that deny him permission to photograph a plenary session as well as group chats about the student union’s upcoming events as part of the work itself, thereby expanding the boundaries of documentary photography and exposing the logistics and inner workings of the group he’s documenting.
The university’s shell looks dazzling, but what about its inside? What is it that’s been manipulating these young lives? A university is essentially a factory, and the students are products. People should not forget that the quality of products depends on the factories where they are made.
Others around Yang Wenbin might be randomly taking similar-style images. The difference is that Yang Wenbin had an idea that he turned into a concept, then a narrative. He is developing his project with a vision and determination. He shares the story of those of his very own generation who form the Society of University: they are born from the one-child policy and actively participate in shaping the country’s new social landscape. It is something we know little about, that we are discovering through Yang’s unusual documentary undertaking.
Because of their standardised clothing, hairstyle and and body build, these young men from the student union hardly leave special impressions on people. After going through these photos, I don’t even remember a single face. In a sense, these photographs and photography have failed, because photography is all about creating impressive “punctum”. But in this project, it is precisely how photography has succeeded—photography has reached the students’ true faces by eliminating their countenances. There are so many young men who haven’t got their own “faces”! Having no faces is actually what the student union really looks like, its unique “face”.
To be frank, I see these students’ relaxation, but not their ebriety; I see their smile, but not their ecstasy; I see their dancing, but not unbridled moves; I see their longing for beauty, but not their perception of it; I see on their faces enterprising spirits, while also adaptation and docility. These faces are glowing with desire, but not with radiance.
Through Yang Wenbin’s observation and image manifestation, we are allowed to realise that behind these seemingly mundane life scenes in university, there is a set of logistics that are so unsettling that we even feel being placed in some sort of danger. What’s most significant about Yang Wenbin’s Society of University is that we are warned to stay vigilant against the ordinary and be doubtful about normality.
Pitching from the space of a university to the whole Chinese society, Yang’s project reveals the real condition and course of our society. Photography is a tool and also a language, and what matters is if we can be brave and capable enough to see clearly what’s real through photography. In Yang Wenbin’s Society of University I do see his sharp gaze into the reality and his courage to break through vulgar values.