This project was born on a street corner in Shanghai. Above my head, propaganda in the medium of a digital signboard transformed the somatic city—its walls of cacophonous sound, the surging press of bodies moving along the sidewalks, the taste of car exhaust in the air, the stink of garbage piled at street curbs—into abstract brush-and-ink images. Like encroaching clouds of air pollution, electronically generated waves of ink gradually darkened the painted image. Their message: protect the state, advance science, and (perhaps unexpectedly, through the five-year plan of the mid-2010s) “co-build harmonious tax collection.” Not only the landscape and cityscape but the environmental crisis itself—rendered as a “national painting” (guohua 国画)—thus was transformed into a celebrated cultural heritage to insiders, and as perpetually exotic to outsiders.
This gave me pause. As someone as concerned with environmental crises in China as I am with those of my home country of Canada and elsewhere around the planet, how to respond? It seemed to me that if the visual holds any power within the current propaganda campaign to shape—and possibly limit—action for environmental justice, and to make clear the stakes of doing so, situating it within the contemporary art scene would be a good strategy to raise questions about the nature of that power.
Finding the artists to participate proved easy. Some were friends whose work I have been thinking about for years; others I had not yet met, but knew their work from teaching it or seeing it in exhibitions. What marks them as a group is that they engage in practices of seeing that are connective, ductile, and boundary-crossing, moving across and dwelling within diverse ecologies of material knowledge, whether Song-dynasty paintings, textbook representations of the biophysical world, scientific digital imaging, or documentary film. They also are open to improvisation and alive to the work of pictures as imaginative mediators between language and living form. Like the artists themselves, the artworks in the exhibition—the photographs, paintings, video installation, Maskbook—travel inside China and out.
As is the case with the five elemental phases, they offer us one simple object lesson: through movement, connect. In an anthropological vein, echoing Tim Ingold, I propose that it is the artists’ self-conscious movement into the natural environment that creates knowledge of a certain type: theirs is a knowledge in movement. Their styles of vision and thinking echo the moving real environment around them.
And through their artworks they challenge us—all of us—to join in that rhythm.
I would like to thank my students and co-curators for working on this project with such focus and enthusiasm. Special thanks to Han Li for her excellent work as a research assistant.
My colleagues Gillian Harvey, Lianne McTavish, Mariléne Oliver, Aidan Rowe, and Caitlin Wells helped me to think through the curatorial process, and I am grateful for our conversations and for their warm and unfaltering support.
I would like to thank Yiwen Joyce Zhou for her dynamic book design.
ecoArt China draws on research that has been generously supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the University of Alberta Support for the Advancement of Scholarship grant, a President’s Grant for the Performing Arts, and by the China Institute at the University of Alberta.