Ancient art techniques used in pursuit of alternate viewpoints of the natural world

Relatum-The Mirror Road, 2021/2024
Monkey, 2003
Region No. 43701-No.43900, 1998
Xie Ju (The Way of the Measured), 2007
By the Mountain, By the Water, 1990
Water Reflection, 2022
Lamp (Oba-Q), 1972
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Inspired by the millennia-old East Asian tradition of shanshui ink paintings, the M+ exhibition, Shanshui: Echoes and Signals, blurs the line between the real and the imagined. A myriad of mediums, from acrylic paintings to technical installations, ask the audience to reconsider how to engage with and explore their landscapes.

The literal translation of shanshui is mountain water, an ideal of universal harmony that the best Chinese landscape painters try to capture. The expression encourages a personal relationship with the land through philosophical thought and poetic imagery. In this exhibition, works from Southeast Asian artists explore the convergence of yin and yang energies and the complicated relationship between people and nature through images, sounds and architecture.

Shanshui paintings include three key elements – mountains, rivers and occasionally waterfalls. Largely influenced by Buddhist murals and woodcuts traded on the Silk Road, shanshui art first rose in prominence in the fifth century (early Tang dynasty) to express how we interact with the natural world.

Lee Ufan

How do we reconcile between the natural and the constructed? Lee Ufan’s 2021/2024 piece, Relatum – The Mirror Road, challenges our senses and encourages us to take part in the balance between divine creation and that man-made. In play with shape and scale, viewers are invited to interact with the installation by walking on the reflective path. Constructed of polished steel, the sleek path is surrounded by pebbles. Halfway down, two natural boulders disrupt the uniformity of the installation, as does the viewer’s reflection in the work. Ufan blurs the lines between natural and man-made creations. The polished steel path reflects the surrounding environment, creating a constantly shifting interplay between the environment and its creatures. As viewers walk on the path, their own reflections disrupt the carefully composed scene, leaving ripples and distortions. This impermanence is the point – Ufan uses it to remind us that we are part of a larger, interconnected whole, and our actions have ripple effects throughout the cosmos.

Yan Lei

Through his work with video, painting and photography, Hebei-born artist Yan Lei uses art to examine Eastern and Western dynamics and consider varying approaches to authority. Viewing painting as a “mindless re-presentation of an image you might see in a photograph”, he takes a new approach. Huang Shan, an acrylic painting of Mount Huang, dissolves reality into abstract forms. The richness of the environment is muted into greyscale, and details are blurred together, making the natural landscape at once familiar and alien. Another piece of his, Monkey, is constructed in the same style. When approached without context, viewers can trust basic visual cues to accurately guess the subject is a monkey traversing the terrain on all fours, but the vagueness of the image provides no clues to the monkey’s mood, the reason for travelling, nor the location, all which need to be filled in by an inquisitive viewer.

Miyajima Tatsuo

The past is a story we tell ourselves; what is to be can only be imagined. Japanese artist Miyajima Tatsuo explores this concept of time’s endless nature and of reincarnation. His installation of two hundred LED counters represents the cycles of life and death. Titled Region No. 43701-No. 43900, the extensive circuitry endlessly flashes the numbers one to ninety-nine in greens and reds, with counters restarting at one after they’ve hit ninety-nine. It is a physical representation of the Buddhist concept of samsara, the ongoing nature of reincarnation. Interestingly, numbers that include a nine are omitted from the sequences for their finality and personal meaning of emptiness to the artist. The eerie glow of the ever-counting counters bathes viewers in a deep red light, giving a physicality to the ethereal passage of time.

Yang Xinguang

Time inevitably passes, but we can change our surroundings. Exchanges between people and nature can be an active dialogue, action and reaction, or dominance and control. Hunan artist Yang Xinguang asks visitors to compare the impact of nature versus human intervention in his 2007 work, Xie Ju (The Way of the Measured). Formed of river rocks, he gives the natural and the constructed equal weight. His examination is led by the Confucious belief that raw materials are representations of human nature. By mastering nature, one takes on the act of character building. Yang uses oddly shaped river rocks to form a circle. In contrast, he polishes and positions the remaining river rocks to create a neat square mosaic of cubes and rectangles. The primary shapes are a clear marker of the natural – the circle – and the constructed – the square – as Yang invites viewers to consider how we interact with the natural world.

Text Victoria Mae Martyn / Photo Cammy Yiu