Texture of ruins

This post is more directly connected with my PhD research on the artistic representations of demolition, rubble and waste in contemporary China. While there was no tradition of ruins representation in traditional Chinese art (as opposed to its recurrent appearance in European arts since the Renaissance), ruin images have featured prominently in contemporary artworks commenting on phenomena like the urban renovation of Chinese cities, the construction of massive infrastructures like the Three Gorges Dam, or the obsolescence of factories from the Maoist rust-belt.

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Chen Qiulin 陈秋林, Hometown 《故乡》, (performance and photographs) 2004

The emergence of these images has triggered a sub-field within art and visual studies of China. Some scholars have explored Chinese aesthetic tradition to locate equivalents to the European ruin sentiment (see Wu Hung, A Story of Ruins, 2012). For my part, I believe the case of these Chinese ruins can contribute to the burgeoning area of ruin studies and its mapping of a new cultural space for ruins in contemporary societies.

What follows, a very incipient work in progress, is an attempt to connect traditional and contemporary artworks from China in relation to ruin representation, and by doing do, to expand the meaning(s) of these ruins. The focus is on the notion of texture, a prominent aesthetic quality of ruins, and one to which the Chinese aesthethic tradition was sensible centuries before the European modernism and avant-garde moved towards abstraction.

In traditional Chinese ink wash painting, there exist a group of texture strokes called generically cun 皴, which painters use to created volumes and textures in their mountain-and-water (山水) landscapes. Different contemporary artists have reappropiated cun strokes, but this time, instead of composing harmonious sights that mirrored the perpetual changes of the dao, use these strokes to represent the dusty texture of omnipresent destruction and demolition that have become their reality (see Francesca Dal Lago, “Forward to the Past: How Traditional Aesthetics Are Infiltrating Contemporary Art“, for a discussion of appropiation techniques in other contemporary artists, like Zhao Wuji and Zhang Hongtu).

Song Dong 宋冬 (Beijing, 1966) in A blot on the landscape (煞风景, 2010), a four-videos installation of about four minutes in which the artist intervenes on landscapes made of food with two strategies: reinterpreting traditional strokes, and inventing new ones.

For example, Song Dong adapts like the chopor ‘axe-cut’ cun stroke (斧劈皴), so called because the brush creates the effect of wood cut with an axe, and which is a famous characteristic of Southern Song dynasty painters like Li Tang 李唐, Xia Gui 夏珪 o Ma Yuan 马远 (see at the end a video-in Chinese-showing an step-by-step application of axe-cut strokes).

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Detail of Xia Gui’s Pure and Remote View of Streams and Mountains 溪山清遠圖. Diagonal axe-cut strokes form the shape of the mountain

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In Song Dong’s version, this stroke turns into a too-real real chop with which he smashes mountains of roast chicken and fields of brown rice. Song also invents new (to my knowledge) ‘strokes’ to intervene on, or create, landscapes: the knive cun (剪刀皴) turns to be a pain of scissors that cut broccoli floretes and apples; a water-and-wind cun (水 风皴), a bottle of gatorade that pours over hillsides of salmon plus a hair dryer blowing on tinny trees of parsley, and a “rice rain” cun (雨米皴), which rains huge lumps of rice.

Yang Yongliang 杨泳梁 (Shanghai, 1980) has become one of the most successful contemporary photographers from China. His work features in important collections and exhibitions along renewed international photographers like Edward Burtynsky, Hiroshi Sugimoto or Thomas Struth, as in the recent Landmark: the Fields of Photography at London’s Somerset House.

His digital photographs are characterized by a skillful composition of myriads of images into large digital prints, usually of black and white tonalities. From a distance, his images resemble landscapes of traditional Chinese mountains-and-water painting. Upon closer inspection, one is surprised to discover hills and riverbanks made of buildings, towers, and demolished walls, and that what looked like trees and vegetation are actually construction cranes and electric pylons.

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In his series Phantom Landscapes II (蜃市山水) (2007), Yang Yongliang further makes explicit the connections with Song dynasty masters, imitating the composition of well-known scrolls. The first one is composed after Qu Ding’s 屈鼎 Summer Mountains《夏山 圖》, see below.

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To create such effects (see this video to know more of his method), Yang uses multiple photographs in a manner that resembles the way ancient painters used brushes: what in traditional ink painting was accomplished by alternating brush strokes of different width and applying ink at different densities, in Yang’s work is achieved by combining buildings of different heights and hues to create volumes and textures. Yang, firstly trained in traditional painting and calligraphy, brings different techniques of texture strokes up-to-date on a digital medium. Photography historian and critic Gu Zheng, who (I was so proud to discover!) has also detected this connection, has written that Yang both subverts and extends the use of cun strokes (“If you dare look closely-Yang Yongliang’s experiment of shanshui photo images”, see here for an English version). The dusty texture of urban demolition, the ‘creative destruction’ of urban development and real estate speculation, turns in Yang Yongliang’s works into weird, beautiful and even peaceful compositions.

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Detail of one of Yang’s photographs, showing his composition to achieve texture and volume

Are demolition and urban destruction called to occupy the position of rocks and mountains in traditional art? Rocks were a privileged object, both for their microcosmic symbolism (stones and mountains, similarly molded by erosion and change and thus evoking eternal self-renewal and the dao) and their aesthetic qualities (ruggedness, shadows, cracks), with which artists could display their talent. Debris and demolition have become major icons of modern, reform-era China, and serve to express individual stories and feelings of alienation by different artists, while at the same time offering a magnificent subject for visual experimentation.  Different contemporary artists with a sensibility for textures and materiality are attracted to stones, both natural as well as collapsed.

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Part 12 of Sheng Yang’s 尚扬 “Dong Qichao Project” (360x290cm, 2008) (via)

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Sun Yanchu 孙彦初, Obsessed series, 2004-2011. See his website

Perhaps this could serve to frame, from a contemporary perspective, the debate on what art historian and philosopher Li Zehou (see his The Chinese Aesthetic Tradition, 2010) called the daoist-confucian synthesis, a major artistic principle in Chinese art: for Li, while daoism provided a heightened aesthetic approach to nature, even the most isolated artist who renounced worldly matters were aware, as a result of the ‘sedimentation’ of Confucian values, of the moral transcendence of their visions, beyond a purely sensual experience. Some contemporary aesthetic approaches to ruin and demolition seem to be similarly concious of the social environment and implications of their works, while other might be moving towards a great formal experimentation. In any case, the rich Chinese aesthetic tradition is an important element with which artists are in a continous dialogue.

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Wen Fang文芳, Walls 墙, no.1, 2006

Video showing how to apply chop strokes to create rock textures

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