It seemed entirely appropriate that my journey to see Wondermountain at the Penrith Regional Gallery and Lewers Bequest was through rain, a concrete landscape of freeways and overpasses obscured by my windscreen wipers. I arrived beside the swollen Nepean River, the Blue Mountains shrouded in mist, reflecting on the continuing importance of shanshui (mountain/water) painting. A poetic approach to representing landscape evolving from the Tang Dynasty, the genre has continuing currency in the work of contemporary artists responding to dramatic changes in the natural environment, in China and elsewhere. Subtitled Landscapes of Artifice and the Imagination, the exhibition brings together works by thirteen Chinese and Australian artists, exploring curator Joanna Bayndrian’s interest in the endurance of some of shanshui’s core principles and “the transient spaces of supermodernity.” Bayndrian wanted to explore the relationship between humans and the natural environment, the artistic appropriation of signs and symbols that have come before, and the visualization of imagined landscapes. These things, so central to traditions of Chinese art, are all relevant to young artists working today.
A number of works depict dystopian landscapes, rather than the sublime vistas imagined by the literati painters in their gardens, or wandering scholars traveling in misty mountains. Yang Yongliang’s animated Phantom Landscape, at first sight a Song Dynasty scroll painting, is a melancholy vision of the fate of Chinese mega-cities. The mountains are actually stacked skyscrapers surmounted by cranes and pylons, while a torrential waterfall becomes a river of cars. Philjames appropriates a picturesque landscape into an image of the Three Gorges Dam in a comment on development and “progress.” Hua Tunan uses the language of street art and spray-can graffiti to reimagine shanshui in vivid fluorescent color far from the restraint and serenity associated with the conventions.
Shoufay Derz explores the sublime and ephemeral in works that focus on liminal states. Ash Upon the Moon documents the act of throwing ash into the mountainscape of Taiwan’s Caoshan. The artist describes her process as akin to traditional Chinese stories of the wandering scholar “looking, but not finding.” Her photographs record a kind of drawing in which she references the calligraphic mark of the ink painter. She says, “The ash is to the landscape what ink is to paper.” Jason Wing’s Xucun Village, an installation of recycled bricks with gold leaf, leads us to contemplate the continuing cycle of destruction in China. Not new, of course—each successive dynasty destroyed the temples, tombs, and palaces of the previous rulers—but unparalleled in its scope and impact.
Hangzhou-based painter Wang Zhibo draws her inspiration from Chinese and Western classical renditions of the sublime, creating a disturbing vision of modern China. With a subtle palette she creates a world of murky skies and light so ambiguous that one cannot tell if it is day or night, interior or exterior. This is a constructed world. An interior world. Perhaps even a world inside one of the domes currently being built in Beijing over playgrounds and schools in response to appalling air pollution. Her unpeopled vistas evoke the grandiose hotel lobbies and shopping-mall interiors of Chinese cities. Constructed with alarming speed by speculative developers, they are often utterly deserted places—ghost cities like de Chirico’s Turin or Jeffrey Smart’s Italian suburbs. Untitled (Festival) is far from festive—a rusted metal arch leads to a view of scholar rocks and broken columns, an ambiguous and abandoned place. Garden is a melancholy view of dying potted plants set on rocks in an artificial pond. Wang’s paintings represent the landscapes within which most of the world’s city dwellers are forced to live—an international language of the built environment that replaces the authentic with the fake. The traditional Chinese garden was designed as a microcosm of the universe, filled with symbolism of earth, sky, water, and foliage, yin and yang. Wang’s tired landscapes of drooping plants, fake rocks, and shallow ponds reveal a sad simulacrum, beautifully painted.
Svetlana Bailey seeks landscapes altered by fog, photographing them with a square-format camera. Her image of a half-demolished fun park presents a place of obscured and uncertain perception—the presence of fog causes us to see the familiar in new ways. In traditional Chinese painting, mist and fog represents boundlessness, the journeying of wanderers ascending mountains in rain-soaked landscapes seeking enlightenment. As I drove back through pouring rain toward Sydney, I experienced the particularly modern sensation that each work in the cleverly curated Wondermountain evokes: journeying in my own bubble through one of the transient non-places of the contemporary world.
Wondermountain is on view at Penrith Regional Gallery through May 25, 2014.