If you happen to be in Chicago these days, you may want to take a look at the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago. It currently has a small but interesting exhibit of four artists that deals with the Four Gorges Dam in Sichuan, and its effect on the surrounding population (which, it must be noted, is just about all Western commentators seem to care about when it comes to that monumental project).
I thought the most interesting artist at the exhibit was someone named Ji Yunfei, a Brooklyn-based artist originally from Beijing. His painting, called “Water Rising,” was a long, thin canvas that crept along the wall, wrapping around the corner of the gallery. It played off one of the most persistent themes in the history of Chinese art: landscapes.
Landscape painting, which became widespread during the Tang dynasty and gained popularity in the Song dynasty, has had different meanings for different painters. It’s sometimes represented a kind of alternative, idealized setting from chaotic dynastic upheavals and other political catastrophes. For Buddhists and Daoists, landscapes have been a place of retreat, an escape from the world. A more modern reading of landscape scenes seeks to tie the essence of being Chinese to China’s geography; in a passage about his painting displayed at the museum, Ji Yunfei invokes this idea.
Detail from "Water Rising"
For Ji, such a drastic man-made alteration in the nation’s geography goes to the heart of what China is. His beautiful landscape, with a quiet lake, a peaceful mountain, and beautiful, jagged trees, is covered with the detriments of a population displaced. Rubble litters the landscape, and the people, whose skin and clothes seem to blend in with the land itself, stand in hesitation, not quite knowing what to do. This village, once a place of peaceful retreat, has been targeted by the outside world.