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.
Viewing the painting from a distance, this appears to be a beautiful, dreamlike, and traditional Shan Shui painting. Upon closer examination, the markers of urbanization suddenly reveal themselves. Man-made objects have supplanted the natural world. Skyscrapers take the place of mountains. Construction cranes, a common sight in modern Chinese cities like Shanghai, populate the landscape in excess. The ethereal and purifying mists, a common element of Shan Shui paintings, is in reality a miasma of suffocating smog.
In this and the paintings to follow, I see the two sides of modern Chinese life juxtaposed against each other; the deep roots that gave birth to Shan Shui philosophy, thought, and aesthetics are used to portray the modern reality of the megacity that has come to utterly dominate the landscape. For me, the transformation from scenic nature to a thoroughly artificial landscape conveys senses of shock and unease. The piece takes on a type of horrifying beauty.
In the piece titled “Automotive Pollution”, the spectre of congestion slowly creeps into the painting. As with the previous piece, the tranquility of the landscape from a distance is gradually replaced with chaos of urban life as one begins to notice the details of the painting.
“Leaving Nature Alone” is an interesting headline for the piece. It contains an idea rooted in notions of non-interference and preservation, and is intended to question the mantra of explosive expansion and development of modern-day China. I believe it to be a noble attempt to get people to think about protecting the pristine natural world, but I can’t help but wonder if this approach serves to further isolate people from nature. It reminds me of a quote from a previous entry:
“We must leave nature alone, only to worship and respect it from afar. We begin to relegate nature as something out there, something that is foreign and not part of our lives. As nature becomes more and more removed from our daily lives, we quickly lose the ability to relate to it. We see this in real life. While we preserve stretches of lands in the form of parks and preserves, we are doing a very bad job with the rest of the world.”
– Michael Pollan, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education
The message of leaving nature alone says nothing about what people should do with the places that are no longer pristine. It says nothing about how we must interact with the world in a more sustainable way. It teaches us nothing about the importance of reconnecting with nature for our own health, or how we can live more harmoniously with the other lifeforms on this planet. After all, why should people “leave nature alone” when utilizing the resources of the earth has helped them escape poverty and provided them with everyday comforts and conveniences? How will we learn to care for things that we dismiss from our daily lives?
In this piece, Yong Liang Yang transforms rugged mountainous landscapes into the geometric creations of human beings. A forest of transmission towers powers the skyscrapers and megacities. Like the other illustrations, the piece possesses a terrible beauty to it.
For me, this piece highlights the difficulty of climate change communication. It is easy to depict tangible environmental issues – poisons that leak into rivers, smog that blanket cities, foods that sicken the populace – but the ramifications of climate change are multi-faceted and pervasive. The artist attempts to bring in the ominous threat of coastal flooding on the left-hand portion of the painting, but other ramifications such as desertification, shifts in precipitation patterns, increased temperatures, invasive species (all major concerns to China) are much more difficult to convey.
Let Nature Be
Like the paintings, the video brings a unique and striking visual style that captivates the viewer; the transmission towers in particular remind me a similar series of scenes in Flower, a videogame by thatgamecompany, and the evocative power of visual imagery. But as provocative as the video and the paintings are, I wonder if the campaign had any lasting impact on the general populace. China’s burgeoning middle class live within a society where the norm is to consume in order to gain status and prestige in the eyes of others. How does “letting nature be” fit into this lifestyle and mindset?
There is tremendous potential in harnessing the rich heritage of Chinese culture in order to educate and communicate environmental literacy to the general populace. But for the ordinary Chinese citizen, environmental discussions are still mainly revolve around immediate, tangible and local concerns such as clean air and safe food. The deeper explorations of the connections humanity has with nature or even global systemic issues like climate change have not percolated into the mainstream consciousness.
I believe that this is an example where the medium of delivery is good but the message is lacking. The focus needs to be on promoting integration and not alienation with nature, and demonstrating the pragmatic benefits of establishing a relationship with the natural environment in a way that achieves highly praised values of harmony and balance. Perhaps more of these kinds of messages, delivered through mediums that resonate deep within the Chinese psyche like Shan Shui paintings, can help broaden the debate, spark lasting awareness, and affect change on the complex issues behind most environmental problems.
These are, of course, only my impressions. Art is always subjective, and the stories and ideas these visuals convey are dependent on the worldview and life experiences of the viewer. I would love to hear your opinions on the paintings, their potential effectiveness, perspectives on Chinese culture and environmentalism, along with other possible ways to convey sustainability in deep, powerful, and lasting ways.
I’ll leave off this week with a few questions to ponder:
- What kind of story do these pictures tell you?
- What is the progression of emotions evoked within you with each painting?
- What environmental ideas, themes and connections are portrayed by this series of pictures?
- What element(s) throughout each of the pictures do you feel most attached to?
Next Up: Action. Awareness. Food.
- Pollan’s Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Part 2
- Interactive Storytelling: Thatgamecompany’s Flower
Pollan, Michael. Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. Kindle e-book edition. New York: Grove Press, 1991.
Shan Shui Environmental Art from China (2009). China Environmental Protection Foundation. Retrieved from http://theinspirationroom.com/daily/2009/shan-shui-environmental-art-from-china/.
The Shan Shui campaign was developed at JWT, Shanghai, by creative director Yang Yeo, art director Lillie Zhong, copywriters Jacqueline Ye and Rachael Freire, designer Sean Tang, print producers Hester Lim, Liza Law, Joseph Yu, Tao Shen, with illustrator, photographer and art director Yong Liang Yang.