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.