Picturesque, sublime, and dangerous: Chinese landscapes are an incredible source of inspiration for photographer Catherine Hyland. She works on a large scale, and it is the immensity of Hyland’s landscapes that first attracts the viewer’s attention. Her expansive images of barren mountainsides illustrate neither life forms nor vegetation. Her scenes are wild and alien, yet tamed in places by the human hand.
Hyland’s photograph Universal Experience illustrates her interest in the captivating and untamed landscape, combined with a hint at human existence through a fence – a viewing platform made for tourists. The image evokes the feeling that the viewer could be on another planet, but it is a planet that the viewer can visit on a day trip and can photograph with their phone. It has a road, and that road leads back to civilisation. It is the picturesque and the sublime wrapped in one: a contemporary Instagram planet, or, in China, a WeChat planet. The fencing represents an enclosure and protection from the danger of the landscape that threatens human life. It is a desertified landscape that encroaches and invades and, through history, has brought death and destruction.
Hyland’s composition also projects her reflection on the psychological control of the land. These images depict the opposing ways in which we psychologically manage a landscape, thus feeling both a connection and a disconnection – a relevant situation in China, where fast-track urbanisation has alienated the population both from the countryside and from their histories. Throughout the country, large-scale constructions have altered the face of China’s cities such that the past has been eradicated, and the humiliations of repeated invasions and occupations buried under a steel-sheathed mass of statement architecture. The attempts to control the landscape help to overcome the past and transform nature into a theme park for contemporary consumption, as well as a nostalgic attraction.