by Anmol AhujaNov 17, 2021
An unearthly monument with concrete wings and an all-seeing alien eye stares piercingly at a solitary, silhouetted figure standing some metres away, engulfed and terrified in its ominous shadows. A turbulent sky tinged in sunset pink and wild orange paints the scene, with the light of the sun filtering through with force from the base of the sculptural, looming, and modern megalith. No, this isn’t a CGI still from a dystopian film like Dune or The Maze Runner— it is the real deal— the Monument to the Revolution of the People of Moslavina in Croatia that very much exists, captured by Yang Xiao for her dramatic photography series, Eternal Monuments in the Dark.
Cue in Goodbye from Apparat as the series' background score (as chosen by the 38-year-old Chinese photographer herself, channelling the intense, almost unsettling demeanour of the opening credits from the German mystery series, Dark), and these actual ruins and real-life, remote locations are depicted in surreal, otherworldly light. Shot at night in a process Yang describes as 'light painting' via long exposures and light manipulation, Eternal Monuments in the Dark reveals futuristic visions of stately yet abandoned memorials and monuments of the world.
Realised over the past decade, Yang's ongoing series has often put her at risk, combating treacherous locations and dangerous weather conditions, augmenting the challenges that accompany shooting at night. Perhaps this process adds to the overall result, of transporting viewers to places they will most likely never visit, of showing sites and buildings that are decaying, almost uncomfortable to look at, in their dwindling beauty. Through Eternal Monuments in the Dark, Yang highlights the stories and concealed glory that these structures once possessed, or still do, but are losing to time.
In this interview with STIR, and the subsequent photo essay, Yang elucidates on light painting, in a conversation that brings to light her creative process and journey in architectural photography, and the intent of Eternal Monuments in the Dark.
Jincy Iype: How did your relationship with architectural photography begin?
Xiao Yang: Originally from Beijing, China and now based in Barcelona in Spain, I studied and now work as a user experience and product designer - photography may not be my full-time job, but it is definitely my full-time obsession.
My journey in photography, in particular, architectural photography, commenced in 2012 when I visited the Monument House of the Bulgarian Communist Party, also known as the Buzludzha Monument in Bulgaria. To this day, it remains one of the most beautifully haunting experiences, it is incomparable.
Since then, I have explored over 40 countries, focusing on photographing abandoned places, brutalist as well as Soviet modernist architecture. Many of them I shoot at night, by means of light painting photography, in an attempt to add a futuristic touch to these constructs of the past.
Jincy: Tell us about your photography series, the Eternal Monuments in the Dark.
Xiao: In the last decade, since 2012, I have been travelling around Europe, photographing monuments at night.
Monuments bear people's memories of the local environment, they are the 'record' of changes in history and culture and have become symbolic of cultural remnants, in beauty and in ruin. They express remembrance towards the deceased in the past, the cruciality of yesterday's wars, the adoration of religions and beliefs, the evolution of the local landscape, the might and prowess of architecture… In people’s minds today, these have managed to carve a small space for themselves, fighting against the mortality of life.
However, some monuments inevitably fade as time goes by, neglected or even destroyed. As such glorious and solitary beings, their beauty of paradox is fascinating, let alone their aesthetic and heritage value. Their daring and avant-garde appearance was imagined to be powerful, with dreams of being utopian and futuristic. Finding and exploring this dazzling beauty in ruins, in monumental buildings of yore that remain in collective memories for generations, makes them everlasting, and that is what draws me in.
Jincy: Something you said - "I visit them in the dark and paint them with light." What is light painting photography?
Xiao: Light painting is the art of creating photos by setting long exposure times on a camera and using a moving light source to "paint" them into tangible photographs. A light painting photographer opens a camera's shutter and keeps it open as they draw in the air with a light source.
I visit them in the dark and paint them with light. I want to present their beauty with a new approach. By using light painting photography, I am trying to create a door: a door that connects the past and future, prosperity and decay, glory and pain, the monuments in front of my eyes and myself. Creating surrealism, in reality, is a fascinating process. While being convicted of insignificance in front of eternity, this is the evidence of our short-lived existence that I could provide.
Jincy: What is your intent of eternalising these buildings? How do these photographs become evidence of our existence?
Xiao: As a traveller existing at this present time, I will never be witnessing these marvellous structures in their prime when they were built in the past, or in the future when I am long gone. I will have no control over perceiving or knowing what they will eventually become if they are abandoned, renovated or completely erased from existence. The only power I have is that of the present, of appreciating the very moment I get to visit and witness them as they are currently in their life cycle, and these photographs help translate that transient moment into something that only belongs to us, and a visual record for the future.
Eternity is something that the human race has always been maniacally obsessed about. We have all grown up with countless tales of humans in pursuit of riches and youth, of eternal life. But it’s the law of nature to be born and to perish. Many times when I am at those places shooting at night, I believe I am able to build an unspoken connection with these monuments and the place they take residence in.
These dreamy, abandoned places of glory and ruins relay a message of our insignificance, our loneliness and our helplessness in facing finite life. By witnessing, comprehending and recording these places, we have proof of our existence, what we are capable of, our intelligence, insecurities, and histories, and how, in the end, we are reminded that all we have is each other. – Xiao Yang
If I had to put into words what I wanted to convey through my photos, especially in the purview of this series, it would be this— “The Romance of Eternity.”
Jincy: What draws you to these ruins, in particular, Brutalist and modernist, and Soviet architecture? What about these places of dereliction imprint as your core focus for this series?
Xiao: To these, I would also add mass concrete monuments, urban public spaces, towers, bunkers, effigies, and underground tunnels. I think I owe it to my memory of experiencing Buzludzha for the first time. It truly helped cement my taste and idea of what area of photography I wanted to pursue. These places of dereliction and power are hidden wonders of the world. I truly enjoy researching and collecting these treasures of urban exploration, delving into my recording process, and most of all, getting to experience their thrumming energy. You know how certain people would describe their overwhelming experiences of visiting the prehistoric cave painting sites of Pech Merle in France, where our ancestors left their hand prints or the baffling construction methods that led to the creation of the Stonehenge—these sites and structures hold so much of us in them.
Many are interested in exploring and knowing more about these symbolic, historical, political, religious, engineering, or artistic marvels, and the stories behind them. For me, it is much more simple—these structures draw me in at first sight, in their heartbroken but romantic forms. Humans, like you and I, made these buildings in the past, but sadly, are abandoned by the same people. I view architecture this way: once they have been built, they outgrow and cease to belong wholly to humans. They have their own lives. Maybe that is also something I wish to depict through these photographs. How they exist without us.
Jincy: Please take us through your creative process.
Xiao: I enjoy scouting these abandoned monuments and sites, visiting them and exploring them at length. Different from the typical urbex shot, I prefer light painting, as it gives me a chance to create unique, almost unnatural and otherworldly perspectives. I always shoot multiple exposures, for different light angles and colours. Then I stack those exposures in my camera (there is a function in some cameras called 'overlay') to preview the stacking effect, to make sure I got all the pieces I want, to make sure I got all the possibilities. While post-processing, I select the exposures that I need to stack.
For instance, I may shoot around 20-30 different exposure pieces, but in the end, I may only choose three to five to stack together in Photoshop. I enjoy this part (but not more than shooting!) when I am in a comfortable environment and headspace.
Jincy: How much of these photographs is real, and how much is created in post-production?
Xiao: All the lighting effects you see in the photographs are real, held by hand, while I am shooting it. During post-production, what I do is choose different exposures to stack together, which might make them come across as digital photography.
Jincy: What are some technicalities of shooting at night? Would you say it is more challenging than photographing during the day?
Xiao: It is definitely more challenging than shooting during the day, with natural light. Night photography is a genre of its own. It requires you to walk around the space in the dark, and it gets difficult, sometimes even dangerous, to navigate. Also, due to long exposure, you have to wait a long time during cold nights when the temperature is too low, making it a not-so-enjoyable experience.
Jincy: What is your favourite photograph from this series, and why?
Xiao: The Tjentiste War Memorial, in Bosnia & Herzegovina. The monument's spectacular, mighty design, the breathtaking sea of clouds behind it, and the huge fireball of a bright bolide across the night sky, all coalesced simultaneously to create this beautiful, surreal, and amorous photograph, coming closest to my idea of this series, 'the romance of eternity'.
Jincy: What is NEXT for you?
Xiao: I have several other series that are running parallel to this one, such as Nocturnal Adventure, Embrace of Nature and Love Letter. The journey never ends.
(Some images credited to Mark O'Neill, Li Yanan, Dee Zhou, Darmon Richter, Marc Fernández).