Society of University


Society of University

Yang Wenbin


From elementary school to high school, I followed the path that had been set out for me. After twelve burdensome years of exam-focused education, I was suddenly released into unfettered college life. I was unprepared for the shift between these two extremes.

In university, there is no ultimate goal, like the college entrance exams were for high school; university is like a testing ground, allowing us to complete the transformation from student to citizen. My classmates are suddenly wearing ties, the older guys are mentoring the younger students, and cool, mind-blowing parties that never occurred in high school are happening... All the signs are pointing to the fact that life is changing around me. The social logic of interpersonal relationships and the aesthetics of entertainment within a consumer society are firmly established in a group of students who have just freed themselves from the immense pressures of the exam system. The students have formed various small groups and begun to approach the adult lives that I had imagined in high school. Man is a complex animal, and I still do not understand how this change came about.

Society of University was essentially photographed in my alma mater, Communication University of China, and several of the surrounding universities; some of the subjects are my classmates, and some are complete strangers. What we have in common is that we are all under the age of twenty. In my view, we search for identity and direction during this time. In this search, what leads us to choose an identity or direction, and what kinds of identities make up the overall character of this group? How does the character of this group govern how we speak, act, dress, and live in our daily lives, then become revealed in the spatial-temporal details? These are things that perplex me, and so they are things I tried to explore in my photography.

In addition to its use in sociology, “member of society” is often used in everyday life to mean “people who feel at home in society as a fish in water.” University is a simulation or a practice field before a young person enters society, but it is also the starting point for a person’s status as a citizen. Everything that happens cannot really be spontaneous action in a closed space; there are countless connections between the university and the rest of society. Society of University does not record a student organization, a university, or a city; behind a complex phenomenon, comprised of numerous similar features, lies the logic of social interactions, the aesthetics of entertainment shaped by consumerism, and the values judgments of media in a human society. If we don’t acknowledge its complexity, then we barely scratch the surface. I had no solution for this, and the issue still perplexes me even today.

After this body of work won the Inter Art Center New Documentaries Prize, it seemed to resonate with a lot of people, many of my classmates got in touch... I was very surprised that it had engendered such a response in those around me. The relationship between artist and viewer is heavily dramatized. Artists have an invisible audience when they make work; they do not try to please this audience, but they expectantly await viewers’ reactions to their works. I wanted to see how viewers would respond.

Society of University resonated with a lot of people, but it also had its detractors. From a young age, we are taught the binary opposition of kindness and evil, good and bad, black and white. These concepts have even helped people to survive, so if they see works that don’t sing the praises of their subjects, they assume that the works must be denigrating those subjects. Despite this, I will continue onward, whether viewers like it or not.

Sometimes, at the beginning of an essay, the writer doesn’t know where it will end. When I started shooting Society of University, I could not foresee how it would end up. I think that my life will still change a lot in the future. If a topic perplexes me, it will appear in my work.