How does art make the world?

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. 

An ecological crisis associated with each elemental phase is the focus of attention: 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 eco-critics 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. To give a 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?

Six artists reflect on this question in the ecoArt China exhibition this September. Watch this space for more news and subscribe for updates.

Exhibiting artists (top, clockwise): Wen Fang, Zheng Chongbin, Yao Lu, Bovey Lee. Below Zhao Liang (left), Michael Cherney (right)

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