Journey to the West and Edward Hopper - A take

This article was originally supposed to be written for Heliographe, but it turns out the Capture Photo Festival does not only deal with Canadian Artists. Hence I decided to put it up on my blog, as well as in a couple of artistic review magazines (hunt for it in the coming months!). While it may differ a little bit from my usual content, I hope you enjoy it and that it inspires you to head out and soak in the culture of your own city! If the art is on paper, don;t literally soak it in. That would be rude. 


Journey to the West and Edward Hopper

at the R-Space, Vancouver

The pitch of the Maershan Project is simple: 100 artists, 100 pieces, all of it centered around the Maershan Development. Located thirty kilometres from Shenyang (China), Maershan was to be a western-styled, modern, thriving community.  Instead, it’s a gathering of empty houses, never finished, abandoned and lonely. “Journey to the West and Edward Hopper” brings Chinese classical literature, photography and oil painting to the abandoned houses. And it works.

The characters of Journey to the West

In Journey to the West, a classic 16th century tale from China, the Monk Xuanzang and his three companions undertake a fantastical and dangerous journey to the west (!) to recover sacred Buddhist texts. Xuefeng Li takes the protagonists of the story and asks the classic post-modern question: “What now?”

Drawing a parallel between Xuanzang’s quest for sacred texts and the ambition behind Maershan, Xuefeng Li questions the concept of bringing western values to China. Combining the failure and abandonment of the ghost town and his own melancholic photography, he illustrates the dull and boring life Xuanxang and his friends now live.

Set up in the airy and bright R Space, in the heart of Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant, the collection is displayed as a series of vignettes. All of Li’s photos are accompanied with a Hopper painting, from which he draws heavy inspiration.

Mr. Li felt that Edward’s Hopper’s work embodied the feeling of boredom and melancholy he was looking for in his photos. While he takes a few liberties with the content, he draws from the oil paintings while composing his shots, and editorialises the contents of Hopper’s work to adapt them to the Journey to the West setting he chose.
— Mr. Liu Yi, translated by Sen Wong

The result is a strong impression of loss, and a compliance to classical painting codes that grounds the photographs in the realism movement, despite their fantastical themes. The parallels are reinforced by the presence of a Hopper print beside every photograph, allowing visitors not familiar with Hopper’s work to enjoy the contrast.


“Discussing where to hang the lantern”. While the artist goes to great length to reproduce the feel and mood of Hopper’s painting, he instills his own character in the pieces and takes liberties with the rigid compositions of the paintings. The result is a clear correspondence between both pieces, with each being a statement of its own.  The masks, minimalistic approach to evoking fantastical protagonists, keep the photographs from straying too far on the surreal side.


I was taken through the show by Sen Wong, Curator and Media Relations for R Space, and Liu Yi, curator for the exhibit, to which I extend my thanks; this article wouldn’t be possible without their time. They welcomed me outside of their business hours, and answered all my questions. The best gallery experience I’ve had so far!


“Boring fireworks”. Li Uses a variety of ephemeral elements in his shots, drawing parallels between the brevity of the Journey to the West and the still, boring life that came after. Fireworks, balloons and fires come and go, while Xuanzang and his companions stay.


“New moon is my weapon, but not for fighting”. Sha Wujing, Xuanzang’s third disciple, is only ever evoked in Li’s photographs through is iconic carrying stick and his pearl necklace. A suitcase modernizes his apparel, replacing the bags usually carried on his stick.


“Journey to the West and Edward Hopper” is a smart, deliberate take on Maershan as a symbol of a deep cultural impasse. Western values were brought east, and used to build this modern town. Yet it now sits unused, withering. Were the values it was built on that useful? Do they only seem nice from a distance, but have no real relevance once taken out of context? If Xuanzang and his friends spend their days sitting and waiting, was their Journey worth it in the end? The blend of modern realism and fantastic characters make the piece accessible to all audiences, and Li’s direction carries his message effortlessly. You can be sure I’ll be following his work closely from now on.


Journey to the West and Edward Hopper was presented during the Capture Photography Festival, in Vancouver, BC. The Capture Festival “is devoted to exhibiting challenging and thought-provoking photography from local and international artists”. I would like to thank Liu Yi, Curator and Executive Director, Sen Wong, Curator and Media Relations, and Steven Dragonne, Art Director, for all their help with this article. The exhibit was located at the R Space, Vancouver.