A Revival of Landscape Art
The Swedish artist Oscar Furbacken has worked intensively for six weeks (1/6-8/7 2013) as a summer artist-in-residence at TCG Nordica here in Kunming, China. In year 2000 he participated in a short artist’s exchange with the Yunnan Arts Institute in Kunming. He obtained his Master’s from the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm 2011, after many years of contemporary art studies and with a practice much related to nature and landscape.
From early on, Oscar has been deeply influenced by Naturalism and Romanticism in Western landscape painting and captivated by the grandiose beauty of the natural world. As a contemporary artist though, he has purposefully moved beyond pure Romanticism, using macro lenses to photograph moss, fungi and other botanical elements in ways that make them appear to take on the characteristics of landscape paintings. Since then, he has developed clever works in a variety of media (such as drawings, sculptures, photographs and video recordings) embedding them in different types of public spaces.
Oscar consciously acquires the ingredients of the Romantic Western landscape, emphasizing the expressiveness of sunlight, the dynamism of his subjects, and the dream-like atmospheres. But it is within microcosms and miniatures that he embeds all this. Take the piece “RISING” from the 2010 solo exhibition that marked his graduation from the Royal Institute of Art. This 13-meter wide and 2-meter high acrylic painting installation depicting some scaled up moss and lichens found on the forest ground, is built to create a “space within the space.” Accompanied by lighting effects that changed every ten seconds, the piece was swathed in mysterious shocks of color that fully immersed the viewer in its spectacle. Before this vast, fairytale-like magnified world, reality became extraordinary, and spectators became no more than insects. The same work was later shown in the Katarina Church of Stockholm, juxtaposed to a darker painting depicting fungi on rotten wood. Enhanced by a performance of unveiling organized during Easter Mass the work commented and re-interpreted the Resurrection. In this specific context “RISING” became a spiritual event, an altarpiece on the possibility of a new life after death. Here, the landscape transcends a merely decorative function entering the realm of symbolic meaning.
Oscar seems particularly attentive to the way in which the subject of his work is influenced by the shifting of context, a sensitivity that was probably awaken by his childhood experience of cultures when immigrating to France with his parents. Here in Kunming, he has composed three groups of bronze sculptures entitled “Life Spills.” In these works, leftover bronze scraps from a nearby sculpture factory were given a proper polishing and presented on smooth, dark-colored glass. Through a meticulously chosen lighting, the pile of mottled scrap metal is endowed with the Zen-like appearance of Taihu stone, a type of garden stone frequently used in classical Chinese gardens. It also goes by the name of “porous stone.” Commonly used in rockeries, it is a type of karst limestone that, due to years of weathering, is extremely varied in form and possesses exquisite carbonates. Often quite large in size, this type of rock was typically arranged in the parks, gardens and other outdoor areas of the imperial family for people to admire. In a similar way the metal spills that were originally discarded by their workmen have now, under the attention of the artist, come alive into miniature landscapes. In contemporary China, this sort of landscape full of Zen and classical influences has all but ceased to exist as the country hurtles down the road of industrialization. Oscar’s work thereby invites the viewer to recall an older forms of landscape known in China as “shanshui (mountain and river)” paintings.
In ancient China, there was no such thing as landscape painting as we know it today – but the shanshui ink-paintings were common, a technique developed in the Sui Dynasty (AD 581-618). The biggest difference between the two art forms is the manner in which they are meant to be viewed. Shanshui paintings invite the eye to wander freely across their expanse. Using a form of cavalier perspective, in which diverse aspects of time and physical places may freely coexist within the same image, including different seasons. It’s a rather sophisticated approach to perspective, in which the focal point shifts as if slowly lowered from a mountain peak by parachute. So when Western painting centers on the reproduction of reality, Chinese shanshui paintings are mostly concerned with the abstract ideals of human experience. Western landscape traces out a history of art, whereas traditional Chinese landscape painting contains a history of ideas. The logic of this wandering mode of observation from the shanshui tradition, is evoked again as we watch Oscar’s video series entitled “Close Studies”. In this intriguing project he seamlessly fuses the magnified world of low-lying ground plants with everyday Stockholm life. These two parallel worlds are both full of poetic enchanting scenes, but to see them exist side by side without disrupting one another is a surprising discovery as we follow the smooth meandering path of the camera lens.
Another piece, called “Mountain City”, is an installation created from local materials: an oval meeting table with stools found in the gallery, a ”lazy Suzan” (rotating large glass plate seen everywhere on Chinese dining tables) and red bricks of the discarded sort that are found all over this city as they keep demolishing old houses. The pieces of bricks are fixed upon the round lazy Suzan in undulating ups and downs forming a landscape of picturesque disorder. Viewers can rotate the lazy Suzan, and place their gaze at a particular height to perceive what appears to be mountains in a reflecting ocean. Oscar ceaselessly encourages his audience to shift their viewing position either high or low, near or far in order to discover curious landscapes in the midst of everyday objects.
While focusing on the smallest of plants, Oscar’s work activates the viewers’ imagination and perception to recognize the greatness of nature. Paying careful attention to the viewing conditions of his exhibited pieces, Oscar also restores the Romantic from having been reduced to mere melodrama at the hands of the commercialism. The “rising” of this new approach on landscape in contemporary art is a pleasant surprise.
Written by Luo Fei (TCG Nordica Culture Center Curator)
Translated by Becky Davis, revised by the artist
Kunming, July 1, 2013