I don’t recall where I first came across the work of Edward Burtynsky; it could have been at the library, the bookstore, or one of those coffee shops with actual coffee table books. All I remember was being drawn to the front cover image of his collection of photographs, to the intense fluorescent shock of orange lava snaking through charred lands: A beautiful and awesome volcanic landscape Only when I read the title, half immersed in the river’s glow, did I realize something was amiss.
Manufactured Landscapes. As I flipped through the book, the beauty that I saw and the awe that I held for the landscape fell away, replaced by a swell of alarm and disbelief. The river wasn’t lava, the setting wasn’t volcanic, and nature had nothing to do with the creation of this particular landscape.
One of the most powerful things art can do is challenge us to examine the assumptions we hold about the world. Burtynsky’s photographic forays into industrial shadows pushed me to confront my own notions on beauty and ugliness, the value judgments I held on the natural and the artificial, as well as modern civilization’s role (and by extension, my own) in the construction of these landscapes.
There’s an art to writing for kids. Good children’s books aren’t simply dumbed down stories, written with smaller words and fitted with happy sappy endings. In reality, kids are quite discerning: Their faculties haven’t yet been dulled by the insecurities and neuroses accumulated during the process of growing up. They like what they like and are completely honest about it. It’s true that they happily consume works filled with tired clichés and moralistic messages, but lacking cynicism and regard for convention, they generally emerge none the worse for wear.
The stories that stay with kids are ones that feel authentic and true, even if they can’t articulate why. These are stories that speak through the language of wonder, a native tongue we are all born knowing but can easily be forgotten through neglect and disuse.
I think The Curious Garden by Peter Brown is a great children’s book. Inspired by the revitalization of the Highline railway on the west side of Manhattan, Brown fuses charming visuals with a narrative that is full of discovery and hope. The messages found within its pages are subtle, always secondary to the atmosphere of playfulness and wonder. It is an excellent read for both kids and adults, and makes for an inspiring little Ekostory that speaks of the importance of play in forging a healthy relationship with the living world.
Early Spring (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Literally translated as “mountain water”, Shan Shui is a specific style of Chinese landscape art that rose to prominence in the 5th century during the Liu Song Dynasty (wikipedia). In the depiction of pristine rivers, ethereal mists, and hallowed mountains, the artist’s ultimate goal is to capture the ch’i, or vital breath, of the world around them. This ch’i must be caught even at the expense of realism, for if the artist misses it, they have lost the very essence of the landscape. In this way, Shan Shui paintings are only expressions of art, but also provide insight into how the artist, influenced by culture and society, views the natural world.
I recently came across the work of a modern artist who sought to introduce modern human presence and impact into Shan Shui paintings. Commissioned by the China Environmental Protection Foundation, Yong Liang Yang utilizes the traditional art style in ads to promote awareness of major environmental problems. The paintings and the associated video highlight the effects of rapid industrialization and urbanization within a Chinese context, providing insight into modern cultural perceptions of nature, environmental protection, and sustainability. The following are my musings.
As I noted in The Changing Countryside, art can be a powerful platform for conveying environmental messages and raising ecological literacy. Most of us have been touched by a particularly poignant painting, a soulful song, an intricate sculpture. In instances where the written word seems insufficient to describe the essence of an idea or a concept, art can bypass our rational centers to evoke resonance and convey meaning. Instead of thinking, we first feel it deep in our core, in our soul.
I felt the message when I first flipped through Belonging, a wordless picture book by Jeannie Baker. An artist and an author, Baker specializes in the creation of intricate shallow-relief multimedia collages. Primarily used as illustrations in her books, the collages have also been part of public art collections displayed in London, New York, and Australia. Each wordless double-page spread in Belonging is an astonishing depiction of a setting through time; each panel is packed with details and textures rich and subtle, providing a visual feast for the eyes and an experience for the mind.
In this entry, I’ll be exploring two of her books. Window speaks of urban encroachment into the countryside. Belonging is a story about the revitalization power of nature and the role an individual can play in the community. These two wordless books combine to create a complex and engaging narrative suitable for people of all ages.
Over the years, I’ve come to recognize and appreciate the power of art, especially in its ability to deeply resonate with people. Several years ago, a colleague of mine put together a fascinating presentation about the environmental themes of art commissioned during the Industrial Revolution. During this period of immense change and upheaval, several artists sought to contrast industrialization and urbanization with romantic pastoral images of sky, rural life, and nature. Each of the paintings in her presentation were affective and provocative, each conveying a richly detailed but wordless story.
Recently, I came across a series of pictures that reminded me of that presentation. They originate from a book called The Changing Countryside by Jörg Müller. In it there are seven murals which detail a steady progression of natural and human induced changes of a landscape over time. To me, they worked together to tell a story rich in environmental themes, ideas, and connections. Click on the pictures if you want a more detailed look:
These pictures can all be found on Jörg Müller’s Facebook page.
Instead of writing about what I think, I thought it would be more appropriate to let the art speak for itself. I have come up with a few questions of my own that may prove to be interesting for discussion.
- What kind of story do these pictures tell?
- What environmental ideas, themes and connections do you see?
- What element(s) throughout each of the pictures do you feel most attached to?
- Which frame are you personally MOST comfortable living in or living with?
- What should the next picture in the sequence look like?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. Thanks for reading, and have a happy 42nd Earth Day.
Next up: Finding wisdom in the garden.
Müller, Jörg. The Changing Countryside. Heryin Books Inc, 2006.