Landscape painting has traditionally occupied the top of the hierarchy of Chinese painting styles for millennia. In Imperial China, painters, poets, and scholars believed that the mountains were the realm of the gods with the Chinese term for ‘landscape’, shan shui, referring quite literally to the mountains and water. Curated around the idea of the ‘landscape’, Supernatural brings together almost twenty artists who look to tradition, but also to the dystopic future to reconfigure landscapes both past, present, and speculative. Reforming traditional and conventional ideas of the ‘landscape’, the dynamic tone for the entire exhibition is set by Li Shan's Deviation (2014), the first work that greets visitors by the entrance of the ground floor. Deviation (2014) consists of ten hanging hybridised insect-winged men, complete with four wings and bug eyes. Part dragonfly, part human, the lower part has in fact been modelled after the artists own body. Li Shan observes that “I hope my artworks can eliminate the human superiority complex,” noting that dragonflies can fly, fly backwards and have 360-degree vision, proving that they are in fact the superior species. The work provokes a number of insightful questions: How will humans evolve over time? What modifications will we continue to make on our bodies in the search for progress and perfection? What new forms do the physical and the corporeal embody in the age of the post-human?
"Deviation" (2014) by Li Shan. Image Courtesy of White Rabbit Gallery
Walking up to the first floor, it is pointed out by a gallery host that the show itself has been curated around the structure of a mountain. Ascending the stairs, it is as if a visitor embarks on a pilgrimage within the landscape of the gallery itself. The four video works on the first floor have been embedded in ‘cave-like’ structures and the grey wall colour selected for the exhibition is, in fact, reminiscent of rocks. The first work that the visitor encounters in this space is Chen Wei’s photograph Lightbox (2013) which is part of his series on urban landscapes that continues with two more photographs around the corner. Whilst the eerie neon lights in urban streetscapes seem like ostensibly real places, they are in fact constructed sets from the artists own studio, provoking questions around the imaginary.
"Lightbox" (2013) by Chen Wei. Image Courtesy of White Rabbit Gallery.
These photographs are counter-balanced by Wang Jiuliang’s photographic series Beijing Besieged by Waste (2008-2010) hung on the opposite wall. Between 2008-2010, Wang Jiuliang rode 9300 kilometres on his motorbike, visiting 450 garbage dump sites to take over 10,000 photographs. The 4 photographs displayed at White Rabbit Gallery reveal mountains of garbage, rivers of pollution and desolation where livestock graze on rubbish. These sober and confronting documentary images are an interesting counterpoint to Chen Wei’s aesthetic, sleek, chic, imagined photographs.
"Beijing Besieged by Waste: West Bank of Shahe Reservoir in Shahe Township, Changping District, Beijing 40°07°46°N 116°17°45°E" (2010) by Wang Jiuliang. Image Courtesy of White Rabbit Gallery
Wang Jiuliang’s commentary on the Anthropocene is further encapsulated in Qiu Anxiong’s bizarre and original animation New Classic of Mountains and Seas Part 3 (2013-2017). Wang’s 3D animation depicts a dystopian mega-city in which traditional literati ink paintings have been brought to life by 3D animation. Inspired the Shan Hai Jing, a 2000 year old text that is part-geography and part-creation story, this work is an extraordinary example of the act of referencing the past to comment on the future, which Wang envisions as occupied by the “monsters made by humankind.” Wang’s apocalyptic vision is corroborated by Song Ling’s Wildlife 2 (2017), an ink painting which depicts the avarice of the human race and our fixation on material wealth and success, and Ai Weiwei’s Oil Spill 2006 in which pieces of glazed porcelain take on the liquid properties of oil as a commentary on the oil industry in China’s modernisation. The bleak sentiments of these artists are further reflected in Zhou Xiaohu’s video Garden of Earthly Delights (2016). Zhou worked with the Zheijiang Taishun Puppet Troupe to create 8 marionettes representing characters from Hieronymous Bosch’s painting of the same name from c.1490-1505, which is famous for its vision of hell. Wang’s cinematic and jarring animation and Zhou’s absurdist and colourful video seem to be the antithesis of the quiet, more poetic video work by Liu Yujia, Wave (2017), that is displayed around the corner. Depicting videos of rolling, breaking waves, Wave investigates the liminal zone between water and land, boundaries and frontiers.
Video still of "New Classic of Mountains and Seas Part 3" (2013-2017) by Qiu Anxiong. Image Courtesy of Art Basel
Meanwhile, Li Ming’s video Zoom (2014) plays with the idea of the traditional wandering scholar as the video depicts Li's mission to travel from Hangzhou to Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl TV Tower. However, he travelled by simply pointing his camera in the direction of Shanghai, selecting the furthest possible landmark that his camera’s optical zoom could find, and then set off to find that destination. Li repeated this exercise, 36 times in total, until he arrived in Shanghai. Zoom is displayed next to Zhao Yao’s Wonder 20150908 (2015), which reproduces aerial views of different Chinese airport onto carpet. Hung onto the wall, with a segment draped onto the ground, Zhao asks us to reconsider the symbolism of the airport site. Here the airport is seen as the collision zone between nature and modernity. Both these works probe our understandings of topography and travel, communication and geography in the 21st century.
"20150908" (2015) by Zhao Yao. Image Courtesy of White Rabbit Gallery.
The first floor concludes with the installation of Chen Wen-Chi’s foundries and vitrines part of his work Authentic Temporal Memory (2015) and Huang Xiaoliang’s two prints from his East Window series from 2016. Dong Chuang Shi Fa is translated to “the affair of the East Window is exposed,” an idiom referring to a secret that has been revealed or brought into the light of day. Huang depicts the streets of his town at dusk, highlighting a localised, personal, introspective perspective on the theme of the ‘landscape’. Huang’s pigmented tones of hazy blue cast a shroud of mystery and intrigue around these scenes, asking us what secrets dwell in the quotidian, what lies exist in the mundane, that have yet to see the light of day. Familiar yet simultaneously strange, real yet fictitious, these images blur the line between observer and participant.
"East Window- Untitled #20151121" (2016) by Huang Xiaoliang. Image Courtesy of M97 Shanghai
On the second floor, the tops of the gallery walls are very subtly slanted, representing peaks of the mountains. The works in this space seemed to take a more focused look on method and materiality and technique. With only one video work in this space, Ju Anqi’s Poet on a Business Trip (2015) is a feature-length video that documents the artist's travels, 4000 miles from his home, from Beijing to Xinjiang. The space below opens with Xiao Yu’s large sculptures, Translocation OC (2018) and Translocation OD (2018) in which bent bamboo forms have been cast into bronze. Xiao cleverly transforms the plant that has so often been the subject of traditional landscapes in East Asian art history. From depictions on paper in brush and ink, Xiao ‘translocates’ the bamboo motif into sculpture and into bronze.
"Translocation OC" (2018) by Xiao Yu. Image Courtesy of White Rabbit Gallery
The other large sculpture in the exhibition, Huang Zhen’s Landscape Series (2010), is also a ‘translocation’ from one specific conventional medium to another. Referencing Song Dynasty painters who created shan shui landscapes of mist-wreathed mountain peaks, Huang brings the two-dimensional into the third by knitting these painted mountains using wire. Recreating the Wuyi Mountains from his home province of Fujian, Huang’s wire sculptures are exceptional in their technical brilliance and execution of the material, transforming the stiff metal into fluid and intricate forms.
The smaller sculptural works included were also astounding in their attention to detail. A delicate porcelain work by Lin Hsiu-Niang, 2013-17 (2013), evokes an underwater landscape, as its undulating waves are reminiscent of coral or seaweed. In fact, Lin references the Taiwanese Indigenous tradition of indigo-dyed textiles. Lin’s work is displayed next to Liang Shaoji’s Cocoon Bottle (2015) and Dagoba (2015), which displays his ingenious use of silkworm thread from silkworms that the artist raises himself. These mysterious wrapped forms are visually intriguing in their texture and novel in their use of material. Displayed next to one another, both artists manipulate the time-honoured Chinese materials of silk and porcelain.
"2013-17" (2013) by Lin Hsiu-Niang. Image Courtesy of White Rabbit Gallery
There are a number of paintings on this floor, made from ink on paper such as Qiu Zhijie’s The Heritage of the Third World (2013), Wu Chi-Tao’s Reflections of Floating Islands (2015) and Emily Shih-Chih Yang's The Blessed Mountains (2012), reinventing the age-old tradition. These works are a contrasted with works made from oil paint, which occupy the back space of the floor. These works include Zhu Jinshi’s impressive Spring Festival is Coming (2015) in which thick slabs of oil paint have been painted onto the canvas with a shovel, creating mountains on the surface. He Sen’s Lake Rockery (2012) and Lotus Leaf and Flower (2013), Chang Ling’s 2014.9.20 (2014), Yang Shen’s Ducks Mocking Sailor (2016) and Sailor and Monster (2016), and Zhao Xuebing’s Central Park 1 (2010) and Central Park 14 (2016) and Dry Season 2, 3, 4 and 5 (2014) are all oil paintings, applauded for their technical skill. The inclusion of these works are significant as they do not include obvious local signifiers of Chinese context or heritage. Too often, shows curated around the premise of a certain nationality or culture, pigeon-hole or essentialise their artists. In turn, artists are often pressured to paint in a particular style, perhaps to exemplify a sense of 'Chinese-ness'. These paintings show that Chinese artists are able to work outside of these fixed, limited parameters and paradigms.
There are several works that have not been curated in a more cohesive manner. Hidden away and awkwardly wedged behind a wall is Wu Chi-Tsung’s Wire IV (2009). A sphere of light is projected onto the wall from the aperture of a lantern-projector. Using wire mesh and the light that expands, contracts, shifts and changes, the projector itself becomes a shan shui scroll. Lyrical, mesmerising, quiet and hypnotic, the work enraptures the visitor’s imagination as we think we see mountain ranges, rippling water, waning moons and drifting clouds.
Wu's work contrasts with the varying sentiments, tones and themes explored in other works displayed. Guo Jian’s Untitled: Early Spring (2011) sees Guo using 20,000 tiny digital images of discarded paper and plastic packaging that features celebrities. Guo arranges these images into a large image of a classical landscape painting by Northern Song court painter Guo Xi, commenting on the degradation of the Chinese landscape and environment.
"Wire IV" (2009) by Wu Chi-Tsung. Image Courtesy of CBW Collection
Meanwhile, Zhu Changquan’s Head Without Brain 3 (2016-17) and Head Without Brain 5 (2016-17) digitally constructs landscapes and miniature virtual worlds with 3D software. Whilst they seem to be photographs, upon closer inspection, it is apparent that they have been created online, provoking unsettling doubts and questions into our relationship between the physical and the virtual, the tangible and the intangible.
Finally, Yang Maoyuan’s photo installation Sky (2015) is a poignant and emotional work made in response when he lost his friend and former teacher, Liu Zhongfu, who was one of 30 Chinese artists on board the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 that mysteriously disappeared on the 8th March 2014. Yang asked friends from all over the world to take photographs of the sky on their mobile phones at the same time. What remains is a document of 35 skies. These are landscape images not of the earth, but upwards to the heavens; not of physical features but of inner grief, turmoil and loss.
"Sky" (2015) by Yang Maoyuan. Image Courtesy of White Rabbit Gallery
The pinnacle of a visitor’s journey up the ‘mountain landscape’ of Supernatural cumulates on the top floor in the final room, where Yang Wei-Lin’s Ocean of Cloth Wheels and Floating Islands (2016) is installed. Yang Wei-Lin’s installation of thousands of cloth discs dyed in shades of indigo takes over the entire room, hanging from threads to create a landscape that conflates sky and sea. A milieu of the heavenly and the divine is created with these works that seem to float in the space, evoking the exhibition’s title of the ‘supernatural’ and the otherwordly. The wall colour choice of a bright blue is perhaps a bit too garish in that it washes out and detracts from the deep cobalt of Yang’s installation. Nonetheless the work is undoubtedly a highly instagrammable work that will prove to be a crowd-pleaser.
"Ocean of Cloth Wheels and Floating Islands" (2016) by Yang Wei-Lin. Image Courtesy of White Rabbit Gallery
Whilst the idea of the 'landscape', and the notion of the ‘supernatural’ has been taken too liberally and loosely in this exhibition, perhaps only a concept this wide can encapsulate the immense diversity of Chinese Art. After all, White Rabbit Gallery does face the difficult task of curating artworks from one of the world’s largest populations, diasporas and ethnicity groups. Furthermore, the landscape genre in Chinese art history has always produced an eclectic range of works and meanings, from depictions of the visible world to those of the inner landscape of the artists’ minds. Supernatural places these artists as part of a lineage of inventive and brilliant artists that came before them, standing as a testament to the fact that the landscape remains a potent source of inspiration for artists today.
Supernatural is on view until 3rd February 2019.
Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.
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