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DAY 2 - Flaming Mountains, Oil on Linen, 68x48 inches

In 2010 I travelled alone across China, west to east. In the West I particularly wanted to go and make some work in the Flaming Mountains in Xinjiang. I stayed in Turpan on the edge of the Taklamakan desert and from there, in very poor Chinese, negotiated a driver to take me up into the mountains. The driver arrived in the darkness very early the next morning. He was dressed entirely in black, with slick hair and dark shades. When he silently gestured me into the back of his old blacked-out car I began to wonder if it was such a good idea. Anyway, after we had been driving for several hours I saw some steps leading up the entire flank of one of the mountains. I have never seen anything like it. I asked the driver to stop and explained that I would very much like to go up these steps. He looked at me in his rear view mirror and laughed wildly. However, after much persuasion he agreed to come and, despite his terribly slippery shoes, we made it to the top and were rewarded with staggering views. I never ascertained what the steps were for - the photo below shows some local people who were seemingly working on them - utterly alone and with no other sign of life. This mystery, combined with the barren, almost alien landscape, felt very powerful and when I made the painting it was important to me that there was something symbolic of the humans I had encountered. I spent some time sketching and taking photos but this painting was worked up back in my studio. Many of my large scale paintings completely fill the picture space - to give the impression the landscape is limitless and reflect the claustrophobic uniformity of these places. Unlike a traditional landscape painting, where the eye is often led or directed through the picture I prefer to give the viewer little or no opportunity to move through it. It feels closer to the reality of complete immersion that I often experience in the mountains.


Quick sketch done at the top:



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Polly Townsend

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