The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

山水 Shan Shui - musings on mountains, water and all things Chinese

Hua Tunan. Fluorescent Impression Shanshui, 2013; spray paint; 300 x 500 cm. Image courtesy of the Artist.
There is a small mountain of stacked books beside my bed and another on my desk. Unsurprisingly, almost all of them have some relationship to China or to Chinese art. As is my usual habit I have been immersing myself in all things Chinese, from books to art to political news  - in fact pretty much everything except doing my Chinese language homework. I have managed to avoid this every night this week. It consists of re-writing, in characters I barely understand and won't remember by tomorrow night's class, a riveting text about the history of the bicycle in China, and the construction of sentences using words such as 'bicycle lane', 'air pollution' and 'health and fitness'. Currently I just cannot force myself to do this. Maybe after some junk TV, and a stern talking to - of myself, by myself....Add to this the fact that my new teacher has (to my ear) a somewhat impenetrable Shanghai accent and continually corrects my Beijing pronunciation, and it's all a recipe for a demoralising Wednesday evening. Eating bitterness, one might say. However he does like to interrupt the lesson to provide us with new "4 character idioms" and Chinese stories, including one about the Emperor being astride sky, mountain and river at the one time - and some very bad Chinese jokes about how much women like to shop. "Tongyi bu tongyi?" (Agree or disagree?) he says. I didn't endear myself by saying loudly "Bu tongyi!" (A lie, really, as I am quite partial to a bit of retail therapy - especially in China!)

I have been reading two books written by travellers to China in the late1980s, and marvelling over the dramatic changes in the last thirty five years. Paul Theroux (grumpy old thing) riding the Iron Rooster is invariably cynically disappointed in pretty much everything, and the British writer Colin Thubron is even more disapproving. And I frankly don't believe that all the detailed conversations that both writers report were carried out in fluent Mandarin without any minders or interpreters, especially as Thubron says in Chapter 1 that he spent the year (ONE year!!! Ha ha!) learning Chinese before his journey. That puts me in my place - three years on and my spoken Mandarin is still essentially "taxi Chinese." I have decided that they are clearly both fantasists of the first order. However, both books are fascinating in their own way as the writers observe at  first-hand the impact of Deng's "reform and opening" and the flourishing of markets and small businesses, as well as the human cost of the ending of the "iron rice bowl" and its cradle to grave guarantee of income (albeit small) and health care.

I have also re-read John Garnaut's account of the machinations of Bo Xilai in Chongqing, "The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo." It was rushed hastily into print before what were essentially two show trials - of Bo himself and of his wife Gu Kailai (or, was she? So many conspiracty theories about the identity of the woman who actually faced the court.) However, his obvious knowledge of the way that the system of reciprocal obligation and corruption has played out in recent years in a way surely little different to imperial times makes for a riveting read. And essentially it is a dynastic story - his account of the Cultural Revolution tribulations of Bo Xilai's father, Bo Yibo, who, with Xi Jinping's father, was one of the "eight immortals" of the Communist Revolution, is especially fascinating.

Meanwhile, I have been writing about the revival and reinvention of ink painting, and seeing it in various guises and places including, perhaps surprisingly, the Penrith Regional Gallery and Lewers Bequest, in an exhibition of Chinese and Australian artists entitled 'Wondermountain.' The exhibition was curated by Joanna Bayndrian, who is also responsible for an interesting new website (for which, in the interests of full disclosure, I should say I am a contributor of articles about Chinese contemporary art) Creative Asia. Apart from new work by Shoufay Derz, my favourite works in Wondermountain were by Yang Yongliang, Wang Zhibo and the surreal fog-filled landscapes of Svetlana Bailey. My review of the show (for Daily Serving) was published today. Here is the start of the article.

Subverting the Sublime: 'Wondermountain at the Penrith Regional Gallery'

Liu Yuan, In the Likeness of a Mountain, Digital Print, image courtesy the artist
It seemed entirely appropriate that my journey to see Wondermountain at the Penrith Regional Gallery and Lewers Bequest was through rain, a concrete landscape of freeways and overpasses obscured by my windscreen wipers. I arrived beside the swollen Nepean River, the Blue Mountains shrouded in mist, reflecting on the continuing importance of shanshui (mountain/water) painting. A poetic approach to representing landscape evolving from the Tang Dynasty, the genre has continuing currency in the work of contemporary artists responding to dramatic changes in the natural environment, in China and elsewhere. Subtitled Landscapes of Artifice and the Imagination, the exhibition brings together works by thirteen Chinese and Australian artists, exploring curator Joanna Bayndrian’s interest in the endurance of some of shanshui’s core principles and  “the transient spaces of supermodernity.” Bayndrian wanted to explore the relationship between humans and the natural environment, the artistic appropriation of signs and symbols that have come before, and the visualization of imagined landscapes. These things, so central to traditions of Chinese art, are all relevant to young artists working today.

A number of works depict dystopian landscapes, rather than the sublime vistas imagined by the literati painters in their gardens, or wandering scholars traveling in misty mountains. Yang Yongliang’s animated Phantom Landscape, at first sight a Song Dynasty scroll painting, is a melancholy vision of the fate of Chinese mega-cities. The mountains are actually stacked skyscrapers surmounted by cranes and pylons, while a torrential waterfall becomes a river of cars. Philjames appropriates a picturesque landscape into an image of the Three Gorges Dam in a comment on development and “progress.” Hua Tunan uses the language of street art and spray-can graffiti to reimagine shanshui in vivid fluorescent color far from the restraint and serenity associated with the conventions.
Cindy Yuen Zhe Chen, 'Soundscape Karaniya Metta Sutta (detail) 2012 ink on wen zhou paper 72x230.5cm
Cindy Yuen Zhe Chen. Soundscape Karaniya Metta Sutta (detail), 2012; ink on wen zhou paper; 72 x 230.5 cm.
Shoufay Derz explores the sublime and ephemeral in works that focus on liminal states. Ash Upon the Moon documents the act of throwing ash into the mountainscape of Taiwan’s Caoshan. The artist describes her process as akin to traditional Chinese stories of the wandering scholar “looking, but not finding.” Her photographs record a kind of drawing in which she references the calligraphic mark of the ink painter. She says, “The ash is to the landscape what ink is to paper.” Jason Wing’s Xucun Village, an installation of recycled bricks with gold leaf, leads us to contemplate the continuing cycle of destruction in China. Not new, of course—each successive dynasty destroyed the temples, tombs, and palaces of the previous rulers—but unparalleled in its scope and impact. To read on, click HERE
Shoufay Derz, Ash Upon the Moon, 2014, Pigment Print on Cotton Rag Paper, 67 x 82cm Image courtesy the artist and Penrith Regional Gallery
Shoufay Derz. Ash Upon the Moon, 2014; pigment print on cotton rag paper; 67 x 82 cm. Image courtesy of the Artist and Penrith Regional Gallery.