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.