How does art make the world? ecoArt China poses this question of arts that depict the landscape of twenty-first-century China. Artworks by a brush-and-ink painter, a cut paper artist, photographers, and a video artist capture and convey struggles with the capitalist-scientific rationalities that have prefigured the end of the world. They also embody the emotions and imagination lodged in and about the natural environment that generate a hopeful sense of possibility for renewal.
Our curatorial project probes the ways in which art elicits perceptual reverie over fire, water, metal, earth, wood. Those same “five elements” (wuxing 五行) of the landscape in imperial-era correlative thinking would have been better understood as the “five phases” because of the ways that they transfigure and meld into each other. One elemental phase shapes and gives rise to the next. A strange equilibrium is achieved because the opposite is true as well: one phase shapes and damages the next. The five phases are the fluid lines upon which this exhibition is curated.
Each elemental phase is associated with a specific ecological crisis: air pollution and the burning of fossil fuels (fire); river pollution (water); deforestation (wood); garbage mountains (earth); mining (metal). Grasping the historical and ecological complexity of these crises in China is critical. But equally importantly, our curatorial strategy seeks to awake sensitivity towards constant environmental change across the globe––to return to a sense of the undifferentiated in today’s highly differentiated world, a world partitioned by boundaries, categories, classifications. It further maintains an openness to how the ongoing transfiguration of the five phases moves us emotionally, thoughtfully, imaginatively, and, in doing so, encourages us to gain new perspectives and to commit to seeing the planet and possibilities for environmental justice in a new light. In both senses of movement and change, art is part of a global ecology itself.
But if art is embedded in the ecological system yet at the same time allows us to see it in a fresh new way—if it is of the system and also about it—how might that work, exactly? For instance, can it allow us to messily grasp the hyperobject described by Timothy Morton as something so huge and toxically sublime that it is at the edges of human apprehension? A hyperobject would be a continent of plastic floating in the ocean, radioactive waste, an oil spill (Morton 2007). Or does it more effectively give us nuanced perspectives on the beauty of the local—the scales on a butterfly’s wings, the smooth rocks at the bottom of a clear stream, cherry trees blossoming a few short days in spring —on which other ecocritics such as Wendell Berry like to dwell (Bilbro 2015)? Another way to put the question, then, might be, how does art locate us in the world?
Still, the two questions about art making the world and art locating us in the world are not entirely congruent. There is a precision to “location,” an anchoring in space and time, that constrains the fluidity and freedom to ways of seeing and engaging with art that are more diffuse and intangible, more like the rhythm of the five phases themselves. To think about art making the world is to muse on a kind of experience of it that can immediately call up feelings, but also can be like a daydream, a mode of living in the head that nonetheless has deep connections to real things in the world.
That experience of being moved by an artwork and of entering into a state of reverie inspired by an artwork is deeply intimate. Though here again things get sticky, because one person’s experience of art might not be everyone’s, and typically is not, and a sense of an expanded community where people share a visual experience too would seem to be important to the notion of art making the world. For instance, if we can’t agree on what it is we are looking at, how can there be environmental justice?
So how does art make the world?
The question becomes more complex the longer one thinks on it. It perhaps comes as no surprise, then, that when this question was put to each of the six artists whose work is featured in ecoArt China, they responded with sometimes widely differing answers. We take up their reflections by cycling through the exhibition structure of the five phases, following the generative rather than the destructive path. We begin with water.
Water is supported by metal.
Michael Cherney is a Beijing-based photographer who prints his film images as if he were painting ink on handscrolls. In 2012 he travelled the Yangtze River along the pathway of an anonymous artist of the thirteenth century, moving across time and space and into the river itself. “It’s nice that you used the term ‘make the world,’” he responded, “because it is a phrase that appears in a quote by Rebecca Solnit that was very influential to my personal artistic direction:
In some way, making was intended to override the givens of nature, to create a world; that world has itself become a given whose terms are more limited in their scope for imagination and act. The world is so thoroughly made it calls for no more making, but for breaching its walls and tracing its processes to their origins. “Taking apart” has become the primary metaphor and “backward” the most significant direction: the creative act becomes an unraveling, recouping the old rather than augmenting the new.(2003, 164)
“When the early, great Chinese painting masterpieces were created,” he continued, “it feels as if Nature and ‘the wild’ were still dominant forces surrounding pockets of ‘civilization,’ whereas reality now is the opposite of that, and one must struggle to find any place on the planet that has not been influenced/altered by mankind. I feel this to be why cropping, detail, and grain have become the defining characteristics of my art.
The recent flourishing of scholarship on environmental history seems to have converged with my own journey of understanding how ‘environment’ and ‘landscape’ are intertwined. Professor Zhang Ling at Boston College has written that
The world is neither a world of humans, nor a world centering on and serving humans; history is not about or for humans alone; hence, studying history with a sole concern for human affairs is not only limited and partial, but it is also theoretically and empirically subject to deconstruction and re-evaluation once it is placed back into the flattened and broadened human‐non‐human world.(2018, 40)
A succinct way of expressing this idea in the visual terms of classical landscape painting could be “山水画 … 没人” [in paintings of mountains and waters…there are no human figures]: humanity’s miniscule role in relation to the grand landscape in which it dwells.”
Cherney then pivots from the agency of the land to the human presence in the world––to questions of location. “The connection to an evolving, grander landscape, the connection to evolving historical maps, and the connection to a long evolving art tradition have all combined to give me (as an artist) a sense of location in time and space. There is awe when confronting such history. Great joy and gratitude can be found in those moments of connection when clicking the shutter out in the field. Looking beyond the scale of a single artist or lifetime, the grander landscape helps in, as Peter Sturman writes, ‘replacing subjectivity away from selfhood to accord with the demands of kinship and community…individual voices speak collectively, and with a sense of mission’” (2014, 118) (interview, October 17, 2020).
Water supports wood.
The ink painter and light artist Zheng Chongbin dwells on mosses, tree bark, and roots in his paintings. Though to call them paintings does not recognize the way they close the distance between light art and the materiality of paper, ink, acrylic. He works in and between both mediums. Philosopher François Jullien could have been writing about Zheng’s work when he observes that historically, ink painters in China “do not paint things to show them better, and, by displaying them before our eyes, to bring forth their presence. Rather, they paint them between ‘there is’ and ‘there is not,’ present-absent, half-light, half-dark, at once light-at once dark” (2009, 4). Zheng pushes at the agency of the ink in his work. He tests its darkness and light. He plays with it.
“At the level of the individual, art gives a sense of purpose,” Zheng observed. “It is a remedy for a volatile time like this, a time of frustration and violence. It is essential to nurturing a sense of community, and to engaging with the mind, and influencing it, changing it, though maybe not directly. It’s not an immediate cause-and-effect change. Art works slower. It influences the mind at a deeper level, spiritually.” For Zheng, art quietly shifts perception of the world by healing rifts and closing gaps. Part of that healing is reconnecting the individual to the community, though it’s not a simple, fast, or easy process. Those two things—seeing the world and a sense of a greater self—cannot be prised apart. He adds, “Perception of the world (shijie guan 世界观) has dimensional layers to it. It’s about what people take in, how they’re connecting” (interview, November 11, 2020).
Wood supports fire.
Maskbook is an online international art-action project conceived by the photographer and intermedia artist Wen Fang and realized with the support of the non-profit Art of Change 21. As the name of the non-profit indicates, ground zero for Wen Fang is change. For her, making art is activism. Maskbook captures that. Participants from around the world post photos of themselves wearing their own handmade masks-turned-art to a site dedicated to raising awareness of “the link between health, air pollution, and climate change” (Maskbook 2015). How so? Masks crafted from organic materials like kale, sea stones, and daisies, as well as synthetics like plastic water bottles, Big Pharma vials, and lightbulbs, work in two ways—first, to summon responses to the gritty pollutants released into the air through the burning of fossil fuels, and second, by way of designs referencing uneven distribution of wealth, gender inequalities, colonialism, racism, and other social, economic, and political crises, to bring attention to the connections between social and environmental justice.
There is a vibrancy and positive force about Wen Fang as a person that is fully embodied in her art projects, which almost always are collaborative and in diverse mediums (photographs, land art, bronze and sound). Recently, for example, an art-action project “To paint a family” (Hua yige jia 画一个家, 2020) brought Wen and a group of professional artist-friends to the small village of Cuiyang, Tianshui, Gansu Province, where they lived and worked and performed side-by-side with the villagers. Mural paintings of a pink elephant curving over a doorway and a sleek donkey on the side of a village wall convey joy.
Faith in our ability to act for each other and the planet is deeply linked to Wen Fang’s sense of the power of art to make the world. “Yes, I believe that art does have the ability to transform the world,” she responded, “but before it attempts to transform the world and other people, art first ought to be a tool to transform the self. What’s more, I believe not only that art can make the world, but that every single ordinary person’s every single way of thinking, every single word, and every single action—all of it can make the world” (interview, October 18, 2020).1
Fire supports earth.
Yao Lu’s photomontages reveal garbage as the new natural landscape. Minerally green hills beyond rivers turn out to be mountains of trash covered by green plastic nets. About his own work, he says,
My artworks employ the forms of traditional Chinese painting to express the face of contemporary China. China is a state of unceasing development, and in the process of unceasing construction many things are being produced and, at the same time, many things are vanishing. Those [plastic net] “dust cloths” that cover piles of earth and garbage [created by construction projects] are an ordinary materialization [of this dynamic].(Qu, 2020, 19)
How do Yao Lu’s images support his commitment, in his own words, that “we must protect the environment”? His reflections on photography as a medium are revealing on this count:
Photography can be understood in an extremely traditional way as recording many histories; it lets people return to earlier times. Photography also is very much of the contemporary moment; it can radically re-assemble the things that we actually see into new compositions and forms, and through editing and sorting, it lets people before the artworks enter into illusions of time and space. They can see shadow-images of things that are truly real and things that are not.(Qu, 2020, 19)2
It is that in-between space––a space where history meets illusion, where facts become halfway fugitive––that encourages contemplation. When entering into that shadowy space, a more thoughtful way of seeing the earth beneath our feet is possible. Yao writes,
I feel that art’s influence today is increasing. What it directly influences is our inner worlds—and since the materialism of the world right now is hugely expanding, within those inner worlds there has been an enormous loss. This is a common enough phenomenon. In an earlier generation there were people who promoted the slogan “art saves the nation” and although that’s not particularly realistic, it still speaks to the point: art in the realm of every single person’s mind ought to be most important.
Taking a prompt from Morton, he explains that art nonetheless “is like running water, like air, lubricating everything in the most minute way, noiselessly and timelessly permeating every aspect of our lives. And because of this, what has to be admitted is that art unceasingly, in all of its forms, is something that people accept and perceive (interview, December 11, 2020).3
Earth supports metal.
The eyes of miners stare out from behind the masks of coal dust and sediment caked onto their faces. Their images slowly shift to mined craters in the earth. Zhao Liang created the Black Face White Face three-channel video installation during the filming of a documentary about mining in Inner Mongolia. When asked about the power of art to act ecocritcially, he responds, “This is a question about why I make work.” He pauses to draw something on a piece of paper, which turns out to be his surname: Zhao 赵. The simplified character has two parts: a radical that means “to walk” (in classical Chinese it often means “to flee”) and an X, like the mark on an exam paper to denote an error. “I’ve taken the wrong direction!” he laughs. “But actually, it’s the world that’s on the wrong road, not me.” Zhao explains,
If we intend to use artworks as a way of creating bridges and reawakening people, this is the most idealistic attitude that we can take about what art is able to do. Art is like a feather that has fallen into the water: inside society it has no function; it doesn’t have any sort of ripple effect in arousing people. And even if it causes a few ripples, it’s no use––because that river is too big. Think of a high-speed train always running in one direction: a few people can’t stop it. For me, the sense of the powerlessness about works of art is the same.
It is hard to question Zhao’s dark pessimism. The costs of society’s reluctance and failures to change itself––to recognize the role that art might possibly play in shifting perspectives if only the ripple effect were allowed to expand, for instance––are terrible, and very much in evidence in the crises across the planet. He adds,
We clearly know that the path before us is a death road, but we have no power to change it. We can only watch it unfold. This is the sorrow and hopelessness of artists engaged with these facts. I feel that, for me, this is a completely hopeless situation. You observe it, but you have no power; this is just the way it is, there’s nothing you can do about it. This is my own attitude, so I think [the question about whether art can impact the human world] is a kind of perverse one. I don’t think art can change the world. To truly change the world, probably only a few particularly powerful people, government officials, only they can transform these things.(interview, October 5, 2020)4
And yet, Zhao continues to make work that asks us to stay with the trouble.
Imagination strains after the dandelion the cut paper artist Bovey Lee has carved from a paper surface. Deep within the tangle of its roots are tiny high-rises and a construction crane lifting a steel beam, the processed products of mining.
“Since the pandemic,” she writes, “I have discovered a newfound interest in political philosophy and taken several online courses. While art is not the focus of these courses, Plato and Aristotle, the two greats, did deliberate on the role of art in society. Their views as we know are wildly opposing. Plato believed immoral art should be banished so as not to corrupt young minds, while Aristotle thought tragedy cathartic, inspiring, and exciting ‘pity and fear.’
Regardless of their opposing views, my takeaway is that they both saw in art an immense power that affects people, society, culture, behaviours, emotions, and the human spirit.”
That immense power is one that, to Lee’s mind, “communicates directly without processing through reason and therefore reaches deep into one’s soul…There is nothing like art that has such immediate impact on the human mind.” To her, an individual’s experience of being open and vulnerable to the power of art is social and cultural. “If we want to understand the world or a culture, look at the art that’s being created. To get us to a better place with more mutual respect and tolerance, I wish to see that we become more interested and curious about each other’s artistic creations” (interview, October 21, 2020).
- Bilbro, Jeffrey. 2015. “Why We’d Better Start Seeing Our World as Beautiful.” South Atlantic Review 80 (no. 1–2): 133–58.
- Jullien, François. 2009. The Great Image Has No Form, or On the Nonobject through Painting. Translated by Jane Marie Todd. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Maskbook. 2015. “About.” Maskbook.org. Accessed December 20, 2020. https://www.maskbook.org/en/about.
- Morton, Timothy. 2007. Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Qu, Qing. 2020. “Reconstructed Perspectives on the Environment––Reality Obstructed: An Interview with CAFA Professor, Master’s and Doctoral Advisor Yao Lu 重构的景观–遮蔽的现实:访中央美术学院教授、硕士生、博士生导师姚璐.” Shuma shijie zazhi [DGBest], August 6, 2020.
- Solnit, Rebecca. 2003. As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
- Sturman, Peter C. 2014. “The Poetic Ideas Scroll Attributed to Mi Youren and Sima Huai.” Zhejiang University Journal of Art and Archaeology no. 1: 84–128.
- Zhang, Ling. 2018. “Response.” H-Environment Rountable Reviews 8 (no. 4): 35–52.