The only way I can imagine discussing my time in China is from a few small side glances. The incomprehensible immensity of the country, the complexity of its 6,000 year history, the speed with which everything that cannot adapt to China’s streamlined, extraordinary collective vision of the future is being torn down, discarded and abandoned—I am not equipped to put all those vectors into a narrative that could make sense in a few paragraphs. For those who want something more substantial, a slew of well informed books are out there about the emergence of the new China. In many ways it is one of the most significant story lines unfolding on the planet right now. I think I kind of knew that before I went. But I now have a much better understanding of just how immense it actually is. I am still a bit speechless about what I saw and learned during those two and a half weeks.
Meanwhile China does not allow access to Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or email if you are a gmail user. “We have our own version of those platforms,” was the cheerful response we heard when we asked people about being shut out. “For us, things are so much better than they used to be!” Normal is a temperature setting, not an absolute.
In writing about Dante, Robert Pogue Harrison captured some of the conflicting complexity I experienced while in China:
For those of us who belong to a modern age where all is relative, where one hand always comes with the other, and where uncertainty is our only certainty, there is something captivating and liberating about the unconditional moral clarity of Dante’s vision.
So no, I cannot offer an unconditional moral clarity about anything I experienced. What I can share is my personal journey into particular aspects of the visual culture of China.
I was keenly aware of how my eye was shifting with repeated exposure to a new set of cultural idioms. After years of looking at Chinese painting with the uninformed curiosity of someone who never having studied Asian art with the same intensity with which Western art was plumbed, I began falling under the spell of Ming and Qing Dynasty ink landscapes on paper and silk. The aura of solitude, the monochromaticism, the quality of the mark making and brushstrokes, the way scale is achieved in these panoramic landscapes—it became increasingly familiar and exquisite. Much of the contemporary art in Shanghai and Beijing has its roots in that Chinese heritage, wonderfully so. It was those works that embodied aspects of that Asian tradition that spoke most forcefully to me rather than that ubiquitous, Western-influenced, International popular culture iconography that shows up everywhere these days.
Below are a few images that stood out for me. The first set is of contemporary art. Very few of these are identifiable since I don’t know Chinese. If there is something that catches your interest, please feel free to contact me. I can at least tell you where I saw it.
The images after those are more generic views. A new landscape feeds the artist’s eye in its own particular way, and sharing these feels imporant too.
Contemporary art in China:
The Commune at the Great Wall, a collection of structures designed by contemporary Asian architects:
The Commune has its own private segment of the Great Wall:
From the Museums:
Street and monument views:
Last but not least, the beloved pandas in Chengdu: