An Artist’s Ode to Ancient China
The “Book of Odes” — an over 2,500-year-old collection of Chinese poetry — begins with a waterside scene: Guan-guan go the ospreys, / On the islet in the river. Generations of Chinese schoolchildren have grown up reciting these lines, and few ever give much thought to what the island might look like today.
For Sui Taca, however, tracking down the islet became an obsession.
The artist spent hours researching scholarly theories on what part of China the ancient poem was describing, before eventually concluding the most likely location was in Hechuan, a town in the northwestern Shaanxi province. Then, he packed his bags and flew out to search for it.
Standing on the bank of the Yellow River, gazing at a sandbar rising above its waters, Sui says he knew he’d finally found what he was searching for.
“When I stood there, I could feel the purity of spring. There was a beautiful girl gathering aquatic plants,” he tells Sixth Tone. “It was a sense of passing through history.”
The trip was just one of many similar quests the artist undertook while creating “Odes” — an epic photography project reproducing scenes from the ancient book of poems on film.
Sui spent years flying between his adopted home in the United States and his native China, where he traversed the country searching for mountains and rivers mentioned in the “Book of Odes.”
He used up 850 rolls of black-and-white film during these expeditions, which took him across northern China — from Gansu province in the west to Shandong on the eastern coast. He eventually selected 108 shots from more than 10,000 photos for the final project.
Sui was first drawn to the “Book of Odes” after emigrating to the United States in 2004. As an art student fresh to New York, he was initially excited to see the world-famous works of Western art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yet over time, he often found himself lingering longest in the Chinese section.
“When I was in China, I liked to read Western (cultural) theory,” he says. “By contrast, when I visited American art museums, I liked the Chinese exhibition rooms the most, because I could understand them.”
Before moving abroad, Sui had been enrolled at one of China’s most prestigious art schools, Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts. The experience of living in the U.S. made him reassess his cultural identity and the artistic traditions he’d been immersed in as a child.
“Suddenly, 90% of the people you meet on the street are people of different nationalities from your own,” says Sui. “There will be some changes in your heart.”
He began studying China’s classic texts in his spare time. The one that captivated him the most was the “Book of Odes” — the oldest surviving collection of Chinese poetry, said to have been compiled by the philosopher Confucius, containing 305 works dating from the 11th to 7th centuries B.C.
“If you compare a country or a civilization to a person, the China in the ‘Book of Odes’ is probably a teenager — lively and full of vitality,” says Sui.
He was searching for glimpses of this version of China as he began work on his “Odes” project.
At the time, China was undergoing a period of frenzied development as the government launched a gigantic infrastructure-building spree to pull the economy out of the depths of the Great Recession. Yet none of this is visible in the images that make up Sui’s collection.
The photos rarely show any trace of modernity, or even human habitation. Shot in black-and-white with soft, subtle tones, it’s often difficult for the viewer to tell where or when the picture was captured.
Given how long he spent diligently identifying the locations referred to in the ancient poems, the style might seem surprising. But the artist was more focused on evoking the spirit of the poetry rather than documenting the landscape in his work.
This approach is clear in Sui’s photo recreating a poem set in Hanzhong, Shaanxi province. The original lines describe a powerful river dividing the region.
In the south rise the trees without branches,
Affording no shelter.
By the Han are girls rambling about,
But it is vain to solicit them.
The breadth of the Han
Cannot be dived across;
The length of the Jiang
Cannot be navigated with a raft.
Instead of photographing the entire river valley, Sui trained his lens on the long light trails lanterns made in the water, which reminded him of the girls who couldn’t cross the river.
“When I visited there, people were putting lanterns in the river to commemorate Niulang and Zhinü,” says Sui, referring to characters from the Chinese folk tale “The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl.” “I used the camera’s long exposure to photograph the light tracks on the Hanshui River made by the lanterns.”
Though he has devoted years to a project inspired by China’s ancient past, Sui says he considers himself “completely Westernized” as an individual and as an artist. Despite the recent geopolitical turbulence, the world is still moving toward greater cultural integration, he insists.
The success “Odes” has enjoyed in the U.S. since its release is a testament to this. After the project’s release, several of the photos were acquired by the Met in New York — the museum Sui frequented as a student. His life had come full circle.
“Today, it’s hard for people to tell whether they’re from the East or West,” he says. “Cultures are influencing each other, so let’s be citizens of the world.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: From the project “Odes,” 2009-2013. Courtesy of Taca Sui)