A Revival of Landscape Art

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.

RISING_in-church-performance03Oscar 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.

LandscapeReflected_03wIn 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.

LandscapeReflected_01Another 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



瑞典艺术家乔纳斯•波顿(Jonas Böttern)与艾米莉•孟娜达(Emily Mennerdahl)的“山坡艺术项目”


山景•各从其类 – 艺术家自述











1, Robert Macfarlane, ”Mountains of the Mind”, page 18, Granta Books, 2008
2, Zhang, P. G. Shao, D. C. Le Master, G. R. Parker, J. B. Dunning Jr. and Q. Li, “China’s Forest Policy for the 21st Century”. Science 288.5474 (June 23, 2000): p2135.

A Categorisation of a Mountain Landscape

Exhibition Opening: 8pm, April 6th, 2012
Exhibition Duration: April 6th – May 1st , 2012
Add: TCG Nordica-UP Gallery, Xi ba lu 101, Kunming


A Categorisation of a Mountain Landscape is a detailed study of a mountainous region in South-western China. The study involves three parts that examine flora, fauna and geology. Using artificial environments to depict elements from the natural landscape the project concentrates on the correlation between man and nature. It questions and challenges ideas surrounding the artificial and “the natural”.

Focusing on an arboretum, a zoo and found postcards of mountains we are working with subjects that are either native to the region or play a significance politically or culturally.
Removed from their natural habitat, the subjects now dwell in man-made environments. These sculpted and architected new “homes” articulate how humans look upon and relate to nature. The boundaries between the natural and the artificial become blurred. Although continuing to be a source of wonder and meaning the subjects are reduced to exist in places isolated in time and space.

The Arboretum

The “natural landscape” of the arboretum is an organisation and systemisation of nature.
It consists of a living collection of trees grown for scientific observation, for pleasure, or both. It is a conception of a landscape where nature can become both accessible and compliant.
In A Categorisation of a Mountain Landscape five trees from an arboretum are studied and documented. Eucalyptus Globulus is a large tree with fine silver green crowns. Fully leafed, the trees shade is characteristically patchy. Towering and majestic it was introduced to China in 1896. At the foundation of the People’s Republic of China the tree was applied for use in large-scale plantations. Today it plays a major part in China’s export industry. Another tree in the series, Trigonobalanus Doichangensis, appears delicate yet its alternate leaves remain despite winter. An evergreen, it is threatened by habitat loss. It is native to a climate tempered strongly by low latitude and high elevation. Now contained within the walls of the arboretum, the tree is part of a historical record in an archive of nature.

“Landscape is the historically constructed “mirror” of social, economical and cultural conditions in each area.”1

The Zoo

In a place seemingly remarkable and impressive, a wolf is collected and contained within walls of glass. Against invisible partitions lean brittle trees, rocks are spread out on a cement floor. The wolf, a symbol of the wild, subsists in an institution in which wild animals are kept and exhibited to the public. It is suggested that this institution, a zoo, is a place in which humans can come to understand their relationship to animals. With only a fence, a shallow moat or a wall of glass that separates, the viewer can stand in peace as he looks into the “wild”. As part of the study of fauna we photographed the wolf in three different positions. Captured in its den the animal becomes frozen in time. By then physically removing the original image’s background using oil paint, the wolf is isolated and taken out of its context. The wolf lingers in an empty space destitute of earlier conditions and signifiers. The application of paint as an act to erase is not a renunciation of space but rather an encouragement of space. The void comes to symbolize the ambiguity of the real.

The Mountains

In South-western China the mountain range spreads over massive areas. Having travelled from a far, it dramatically changes direction as it stretches south. In the East, mountains have always been seen upon as sacred. In the West, up until the 18th century, mountains were considered as something ugly and dangerous. In the era of industrialism and romanticism people’s views began to change. Suddenly there was an obsession with experiencing the sublime. To be immersed in blinding whiteness whilst accompanied by daunting peaks. Encountering vast landscapes in a continuous strive for a summit. In this pursuit, mountains become objectified; they become entities to be conquered. Surroundings and culture are disregarded in an attempt to reach the top.

Displayed on a table ten postcards describe mountains as objects. Conducted in a similar manner to that of the studies of flora and fauna, white paint erases whatever information is left of the surroundings in which the mountains rest. What remains is a strangely shaped object; almost abstract it is devoid of any meaning other than its form. In the process of categorising a landscape we objectify and take apart. We no longer know how or where things exist. The subjects come to remain in an indeterminate state, somewhere between the real and the imaginary.

“We read landscapes, in other words we interpret their forms in the light of our own experience and memory, and that of our shared cultural memory”2

1, Robert Macfarlane, ”Mountains of the Mind”, page 18, Granta Books, 2008
2, Zhang, P. G. Shao, D. C. Le Master, G. R. Parker, J. B. Dunning Jr. and Q. Li, “China’s Forest Policy for the 21st Century”. Science 288.5474 (June 23, 2000): p2135.

Thirty Years of Landscaping

Thirty Years of Landscaping
The roadmap of landscape in contemporary Yunnan art
written by He Libin

The year of 1979, was an important one for many Chinese. With the People’s Republic of China witnessing its first year of opening-up and its 30th anniversary, the government’s cultural and art policies began to loosen up. This year, artists working in Kunming, Yunnan, such as Ding Shaoguang, Jiang Tiefeng, Yao Zhonghua, Wang Jinyuan, Liu Shaohui and Wang Ruizhang formed an artist group named “Shen Society.” They  chose the name “Shen Society” for several reasons: first, 1979 was the Year of Monkey in Chinese Lunar Calendar, and one meaning of “Shen” in Chinese language was “monkey;” second, the Monkey King was a popular figure among Chinese; and third, they wanted to express the desire to pursue freedom and truth and uplift social justice, as “Shen” can also mean “uplift.” This group of artists often got together to discuss art, and chose to learn the idea and style from Cubism and Fauvism in modern Western art and to pursue the language of formal beauty in art. In 1980, Shen Society organized an exhibition of 120 artworks from 23 artists in the Museum of Yunnan Province. In the following two years, they organized some artists to hold exhibitions in Beijing and Hong Kong. Their paintings in the main have a tendency of flat painting and decoration deformation, characterized by gorgeous colors, and, through the portrait of the life of minorities in Yunnan, exhibits an aesthetic style featuring intertwined illusion and emotion, exoticism and imagination. The new style, just like a fresh breeze in China’s painting community, at that time still imbued with the style of revolutionary realism in the Cultural Revolution, together with the contention about the style and subject of the fresco1 in Capital Airport, triggered a massive debate about formal beauty across the country, the first nationwide sensation started by Yunnan art. At that time, some younger Yunnan artists were still in college, such as Mao Xuhui in Yunnan College of Art, Zhang Xiaogang and Ye Yongqing in Sichuan College of Art, and Mao Dehai in Northeast Normal University, who asked his university to assign him to a job in Kunming after graduation. These young people, active in thinking, got together naturally, maintained correspondence with each other at college, and went together in Kunming during vacation to watch exhibition, go out for living sketch or discuss art all day and or night. Similarly, they also drew nutrition from Western modernism. But unlike the artists of Shen Society, they accepted the cultural heritages such as expressionism, surrealism, symbolism and existential philosophy. Undergoing the adolescent frustration and rash, they found the Western modernistic ideas and philosophies, particularly those after the impressionism, somehow consistent with their mentality. At that time, artists such as Zhang Ding, Wu Guanzhong and Yuan Yunsheng frequently went to Yunan to sketch, hold exhibition or give lecture. Young artists like Mao Xuhui were also influenced by the concept of “formal beauty2″ raised by these artists. But when they saw the exhibition of German expressionism in the summer of 1982 in Beijing, they were tremendously excited and shocked, realizing that it was expressionism that was the right approach to express their feeling and mentality. Another trace was their experience of traveling to Guishan Mountain several times for live sketch. In 1979, Mao Xuhui, Zhang Xiaogang, Ye Yongqing and Yang Yijiang, still college students, went to Guishan Mountain to sketch. Guishan, which they long yearned for, was a village of minority Sani people located about 100 kilometers away from Kunming, a pastoral place very much resembling the scene in the paintings of 19th century French Barbizon School artist Jean Francois Millet. Before them, many senior artists also went there and portray Guishan with the Soviet realistic approach and expressionist language of light. Mao Xuhui and his colleagues also used similar language in their expression, but they always had a feeling that those splendid portraits somehow fell short of their feelings. In the following several years, they went to Guishan several times and gradually found the language that suited their feelings. Mao Xuhui’s “Mother of Laterate: Guishan Series” accentuated the tremendous energy concealed in the red soil, and the people, the trees and herds growing from the red soil are gushing, flushing and erupting, with burning primitiveness and lust everywhere. Zhang Xiaogang’s “Behind Mountain” and “Evening Breeze” exhibit the blunt and rough touches like Van Gauge, portraying the primitiveness and hardship of life in a mountainous village. Ye Yongqing drew upon the composition principles of Western classic fresco in his “Sani Sisters in Shepherd Village,” “Sheep Killed by Wolf in Front of Village,” “Blind Girl Going Home” and “Startled Bird” etc, and sketched a series of pastoral lyric pictures by setting some narrative details and scenes. It was the landscape of Guishan that shed some light onto and awakened their mind long sealed in urban life, and presented a stark contrast with their status and mentality in the city. Back in city, Mao Xuhui finished his artworks like “Red Volume” and “Private Space,” depicting a moving volume struggling to shake off the outside shackles and pursuing the true self when running, reflecting the fact that the confrontation against social ideology is evolving to resistance to everything outside self. Life and dream, reality and illusion, intertwined in his chaotic think, are scarcely distinct from each other. In June 1985, Mao Xuhui, Zhang Xiaogang, Pan Dehai and Zhang Long brought their artworks with them and held an exhibition named “Neo-figurative” in the Art Gallery of Jing’an District, Shanghai. What is “neo-figurative”? Mao Xuhui explained in the introduction of the exhibition: “…the concept of ‘neo-figurative’ is devised in an attempt to transfer art away from a vulgar sociological tool and the whole set of false models and social interests that are resulted and to art itself, and to free artists from the position of dependent and slave and restore them to the height of noumenon of man.” Thereafter, the neo-figurative school held several exhibitions in Nanjing, Kunming, Chongqing and the U.S., and later launched activities like “Southwest Art Study Group,” until the full stop when the majority of the members of “neo-figurative” participated in “China Modern Art Exhibition” in 1989.

After 1990s, the artists returned to the status of everyday life, when Mao Xuhui painted “Everyday Epic” series and “Patriarch Series: Vocabulary about Power,” Zhang Xiaogang began to work on “Big Family” which later attracted wide attention, and Ye Yongqing was drawing “Big Poster.” In addition, a school of even younger artists began their journey with a range of exhibition activities: “1992 Painting Exhibition,” “Present Status,” “Individualism,” “Types of Life,” “Urban Personality,” “First Exhibition of Oil Painting Society” etc. Landscape was presented in their artworks with characteristics different the “neo-figurative” school in two ways: first, the anxious sentiment was manifested, and man appears confrontational with landscape; second, the identity of self was blurred, lost, and drifting in weightlessness. In 1992, Zhu Fadong carried out his action of “Notice Seeking Lost Person” in Kunming by looking himself by posting notices seeking himself all over the city in order to express his generation’s feeling of the loss and seeking of self identity in early 1990s. Zeng Xiaofeng’s “Electric Saw and Landscape” juxtaposes electric saw, a symbol of modern industry, and landscape in the same picture, in which the savage electric saw is ripping and devouring ancient architecture and natural landscape, thereby exhibiting fierce clashes between industrial and natural landscapes. Luan Xiaojie in his “Trunk and Branch Series” treats human and tree as a whole body, producing a Delvaux-style grotesquery and surrealistic scene. The objects in the picture, resembling both amputated limbs and muscles, stack in the ambiguous space, glittering with queer shine, while the shallow trunks and branches appear illusive and fragile. Wu Jun’s “Dusk Shadow in Wind” portrays blurred human figure floating above a dilapidated city, with the picture pervaded by endless anxiety. Duan Yuhai’s “Beauty and Limousine” puts a pretty woman, limousine and cosmetics in the same picture, presenting the new orientations and changes in the Chinese society after the 1990s. Li Ji’s “Fashion Girl” also employs the language of gaudiness and juxtaposition by putting a woman with heavy makeup and her pet in a single picture, erotic yet exotic, just like Yamato-e in modern time. In their artworks, everything from the confrontation between humans and their surroundings to drifting in weightlessness is illustrating a kind of potential anxiety and anguish, collectively reflecting the chaos of value, loss of individual identity and the spiritual journey to regain it, juxtaposed by China’s faster process of market reform and urbanization as well as aggravated destruction of natural environment after the 1990s. Their artworks were a reflection of that generation of artists’ collective experience of urban life, and directly heralded the look of the artworks of artists born in the 1970s and 1980s.

After 2000, consumerism and fashion have become the mainstream value in urban life, and the modern popular culture, involving film, magazine, web, cartoon, pervasive advertisements, has constitutes the daily environment for urban dwellers. Artists grown up in such an environment are clearly split in aesthetic approaches: some inherit the scene of anxiety from the previous generation of artists, reflected in their artworks by the tendencies of self-ostracism and anti-metropolitan; others uphold and practice the aesthetics of transient coolness, clamor and popularity, in order to acquire new inspirations and art resources by plunging themselves into the scene of metropolitan consumerist culture. Whether they are anti-metropolitan or putting themselves in metropolitan, landscape exhibits a tendency of virtualization and patching up. Since 2003, several important art events heralded the début of post-1970s and 1980s artists. Exhibitions such as “Health Checkup,” “Sheep Is Coming,” “Altitude Sickness,” “Ultraviolet Radiation,” “Entertainment Is Paramount” etc. on the one hand highlighted the young artists’ sensitivity to and concern about
the relationship between their growth and changes of their surroundings, and on the other hand reflected the divergence of the above-mentioned aesthetic perspectives. In 2003, He Jia began to draw his “Balloon Man” series, which portrays a range of human-like figures without clear identity or complexion, with shining colors all over, drifting or walking in the city or amidst natural sceneries which are thin and transparent, beautiful but illusive just like these balloon men. Zhang Jinxi’s “Glass Man” series exerts the beauty of transparency to the utmost, whereby the body of the glass man reflects the surrounding landscape, which together with the man presents a sense of illusive yet transient vanity. Guo Peng recorded the landscape in Kunming Park with his camera and endowed strong colors to these traditional garden views with manual rendering. Nevertheless, these pictures look in every way like frames of exotic images imbued with a smell of decadence and mustiness. Yu Hua creates an image of a rabbit mingled with man, placing themselves in a metropolitan like a fairy tale, consciously getting lost in the urban labyrinth. Contrary to these artists, some others followed the tradition of expressionism and deliver a primitive and remote flavor with conflicting and turbulent pictures and heavy yet provocative colors. In Zhao Leiming’s paintings, men are always placed in closed space, where even natural landscape appears suffocating, and distorted human body locked in the space is like imprisoned beast struggling. Lan Qingxing’s “Crazy Talk,” “Wind Talk” and “Wind and Rain” portray weeds, starry sky, red trees and red human body to express the desire of man to leave the clamorous urban and return to simple nature. However, would therefore going back to the past be meaningful? He did not give an answer. Shi Zhimin went further with his “Glacial Epoch,” where there is no civilization, no urban, nor the natural landscape today, but the extinction of everything, cold and silent.

As a cross section, the artworks of the above-mentioned artists represent the true situation of post-1970s and 80s artists. Overall, they are more diversified, and values individual difference and experience more, and their artworks also exhibit diversity and new aesthetic tendencies. But this group of artists also generally manifests a tendency of vanity. Whether they are committed to this country or ostracize themselves to somewhere far away, would such approaches actually solve the conflicts and dilemmas in the real world, and deliver an everlasting value to lend the artists experience and enlightenment? Answers to these questions are expected only after necessary observations.

Time keeps on changing, and each generation has their own dilemmas and problems to face and solve, and to confront with the perpetual beings in nature; what the Yunnan artists in the 1940s saw were beautiful landscape and Eden-like minority culture, in which they were enchanted; what the artists in the 1950s saw were the perching images in their inner feeling, where they found their mother of spirituality; artists of the 1960s held themselves slightly aloof when faced with the nature; the disruptive situation of the artists of the 1970s had them see nothing but a realm of vanity whether they placed themselves in urban or returned to nature, whereas artists in the 1980s were lost and enchanted in the landscape of alienation….Facing the eternal nature, what insight do the artists arrive at? Could they acquire from the nature a fundamental wisdom that cuts across everything in the universe, so as to provide mankind today and tomorrow with an enriching and meaningful way of migration in this world? This should be the shared mission and direction for several generations of Yunnan artists.

March 9, 2009 at Yun Yi Xuan, Kunming


1. Capital Airport fresco: On September 29, 1979, then China’s largest modernized airport – Capital International Airport, was completed, when 7 giant frescoes in its lounge were also unveiled to the public. Among them was a 27 meters long and 3.4 meters long fresco titled “Water-splashing Festival – Paean of Life” drawn by Yuan Yunsheng, portraying the scene of Dai people (a minority ethnic group living in Southwest China, particularly Yunnan) celebrating their Water-splashing Festival. The fresco consists of two parts: on the front side of the wall was scene of Dai people carrying water, splashing water and dancing; on a smaller wall to the east were scenes of bathing and courting. Because of nudity in this bathing part, the fresco was covered with a curtain several months after it was unveiled for show. On the eve of China’s National Day on October 1, a grand ceremony of completion was held for Capital International Airport, one of the key national construction projects shortly after the Cultural Revolution. The frescos in the lounge unveiled at the same time became a sensational event for China’s art community that year. Among all these frescos, “Water-splashing Festival” was the largest one, and the first artwork appearing in public space with nude human body ever since the People’s Republic of China was found in 1949, triggering widespread debate in media at that time.

2. Formal beauty: In 1981, artist Wu Guanzhong published an article titled “Content Determines Form?” in the 3rd issue of the journal Art that year, for the first time raising the question of “formal beauty” in art. Wu argued that in artworks, the form could came to existence before the content, a proposition that retorting the principle of “content determines form” in art in the Cultural Revolution and triggering a nationwide debate about content and form.