Representing a third-dimensional object, as seen by human eyes, on a two-dimensional space has been one of the greatest concerns and tasks undertaken by visual artists. The desire of humans to “completely represent their perception of the spatial closeness, distance, depth, volume, and/or size of a space/object” has evolved in different ways in the East and West, and has had a profound effect on human civilization in various areas. For example, perspective, which was first used to reflect distance between an object and a viewer, is now used to make everything around a viewer, even abstract beings, into objects of observation. The conventional idea of perspective has also gradually been combined with information and communication technologies and computers and is now incorporated into extensive surveillance media, such as panopticon and CCTV. To the French philosopher Michel Foucault, the panopticon visual system was a new core tool used to exercise power. He expounded upon this idea in his book, Discipline and Punish. According to Foucault, simple objectivism—in which the observer is perceived as being separate from the object—gradually developed into a basic frame from which to perceive/control the entire world—consisting of man, nature, and God—and eventually became a core component of the power and capital dominating big data and information technology.
Perspective, as developed by Italian artists in the 15th century, was based on the assumption of a single fixed point of view and objects that do not move. However, in reality, it is impossible for a person’s eyes and the objects that he/she is viewing to all remain still at the same time. Given this, it’s no surprise that the meaning of the word perspective has changed slightly over time. Nowadays, the word “perspective” refers to “an attitude of looking at the world from the outside by singling out the point of view of an organic life form” or “an optical space where time has stopped,” as when, in the art of photography, the world is viewed through a tiny hole.
In the West, the idea of perspective, which had been revered by artists for over 500 years since the Renaissance, began to change only in the 20th century. During this time, the traditional idea of perspective evolved into “real-time perspective,” in which traditional perspective is combined with three-dimensional depiction techniques. This change in the concept of “perception” was caused by the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the steam engine. The landscape seen from a train as it ran along the track is always sequential, mobile, and fragmentary, and this type of landscape could not be represented by classical perspective alone. Later, Cubist artists, such as Pablo Picasso, were able to analyze, deconstruct, and reorganize objects using constantly shifting “real-time” perspectives. It can even be said that these Cubist works were the first examples in the West of the scientific impact of “railroad perspective” (or “real-time perspective”) and of three dimensionality bringing changes to the visual systems of humans. Even after the invention of the railroad, art in the West continued to evolve in response to technical developments. Shocked by the development of aeronautics by the Wright Brothers and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Jackson Pollock “dripped” paint on his canvasses, much like a bomber dropping bombs to the ground from up in the air. The “railroad perspective,” based on a horizontal viewpoint, developed into an “aerial perspective,” where objects on the ground are seen from above.
Unlike perspective in the West—which gradually developed over a period of about five hundred years, from the Renaissance to the modern era—artists in East Asia developed and combined all three types of perspectives 400 years earlier. In his book, The Lofty Message of Forest and Streams (Linquan Gaozhi), Guo Xi, a Northern Song artist from the 11th century, introduced and comprehensively explained the law of the “three distances” (perspectives) used in Chinese landscape painting. He largely based his explanation on his own work, Early Spring (Zaochuntu), which he believed was the first painting created using all of the three distance techniques. The “three distances” he introduced in his book refer to the views seen from three different points of view: the “high distance” (i.e. the view seen from below); “deep distance” (i.e. the view seen from above); and “level distance” (i.e. the view seen when the viewer and the object are on the same level). According to Guo Xi, a landscape painter should be able to represent all these “three distances” in the same space of a single painting. The landscape depicted in his work, Early Spring, shows some similarities to the Cubist paintings in the West. However, to some people, Guo Xi’s work seems more three-dimensional because he used the three distances—comparable to the general, railroad, and aerial perspectives seen in Western painting—all in the same space. This is why it can be argued that the three distances techniques in Shan Shui East Asian landscape painting are more effective than the Western perspective techniques in completely deconstructing and reassembling an object, and completely capturing its form and spirit. Landscapes created using these perspective techniques should be able to fulfill the aesthetic greed of the viewer, bringing to mind the image of a Confucian scholar leaning back in his library chair to sadistically relish the joy given to him by the painting he is viewing. This Confucian scholar might even have a fine bunjae (or bonsai) in the corner of his study that he has plucked from nature and artificially dwarfed by pruning and pinching it to meet his own aesthetic demands. He might even have just come into his study from the garden, where he took his hoe and slashed into the sandy ground. By doing these things, he is able to create his own universe with his own hands and then destroy it. He therefore, acts as the Creator, creating and destroying his own works every morning.
How could anyone be so self-centered? How could anyone oppress an object more than this? A viewer’s eyes, looking at an object through the law of the three distances, are the eyes of an omnipotent ruler, creating a bunjae work or a Japanese garden in a three-dimensional space. These all-encompassing views are reflected in panopticon and CCTV, which not only monitor every corner of nature and all the steps of mankind, but are also used for punishment. If anyone argues that these things are “nature-friendly,” they may only be so if the viewer/creator is hypocritical or complacent.
The purpose of this exhibition is to show how views of nature, as developed in East Asia, are based on the tradition of editing and oppressing nature in a multi-faceted way, even though they have long been considered nature-friendly. This exhibition also aims to destroy age-long dualistic prejudices and blind faith—as seen in the ideas of East vs. West, and naturalism vs. humanism. Furthermore, it suggests that the traditional East Asian view of nature has been more active than Western views in developing methods to monitor and punish nature and mankind in a more serious manner for a longer period of time. The exhibition is also designed to help viewers reinterpret, repudiate, or even overturn, existing art theories or East Asian aestheticism as a whole.
This exhibition presents works by four Korean artists, including Lee Ungno, as well as four Chinese artists. It is a well-known fact that Lee is one of several Korean artists who suffered brutal suppression by the government when Korea was operating under a military dictatorship. Lee used various materials and art forms to express his resistance and opposition to the atrocities being committed by state powers, paradoxically using the hardships he was experiencing to create new horizons for the development of modern ink wash painting. This exhibition is expected to help viewers rediscover the value and significance of Lee’s artistic achievements.
The works by Jang Jae Rok included in this exhibition illustrate the artist’s belief that the principle of “the three distances” works only in the visible world of classical dynamics and becomes useless in the invisible world of quantum mechanics. Jang explores different forms of art based on the belief that one of the possibilities for digital landscape painting, devoid of the “three-distance principle,” in an invisible world.
Also included in this exhibition are works by artist Zhang Yu. In his art, Zhang Yu shies away from the spiritual elements of East Asian landscape painting, choosing instead to explore the physical properties of basic materials, such as black ink and red seal paste, and the significance of the repetitive, tactile activity of pressing red seal ink with his fingers. Through his work, Zhang seems to destroy, one by one, the supreme values usually emphasized by traditional landscape painting theories.
The works of Oh Younseok, another featured artist, demonstrate his belief that Pungsu (or Feng Shui), which is a key concept related to traditional East Asian views on nature, is only a desire of human beings for eternal youth or wealth and fame. This explains why his landscape paintings are filled with cut marks or scars.
The works of featured artist Lee Lee Nam depict battle scenes with thundering hordes of helicopters and tanks, instead of scenes depicting leisurely sightseeing or quiet meditation. His works are the landscapes of our times, combining the fin-de-siècle phenomena of traditional landscape painting with machine civilization and international politics.
Of all the artworks presented, the bonsai works of Shen Sahomin are the most directly connected with the theme of the exhibition. In his works, Shen denounces East Asian views on nature, saying that many of these views are based on reforming and deforming nature to satisfy the aesthetic desires of humans. To Shen, East Asian aesthetics are based on thoroughly violent and sadistic pleasures.
Featured artist Kim Jipyeong takes a different approach and tries to shed new light on the combination of the “civilizations” of nature, mankind, and religion from a woman’s point of view. Adopting a feminist perspective, Kim explores the alienation and exclusion seen in Buddhism and uses the spirit of ink wash painting to convey the idea that even great beings, such as Buddha and Confucius, suppressed nature and treated human beings unfairly.
The works by Feng Mengbo included in this exhibition use the educational Lianhuanhua style to present the critical view that “red painting” in China is a tool that was used to propagate state ideologies during the Cultural Revolution period. Feng’s belief that the mainstream format of landscape painting was exploited to strengthen the dominant ideology and reorganize humanity is also reflected in his diary.
Featured artist Xu Bing is one of several Chinese artists who have continued to criticize and dismantle Chinese civilization. Through his works, Xu demonstrates his beliefs that the beauty of landscape painting is in fact an illusion created by trashes and that the traditional “three-distance”technique is directly related to CCTV, the latest type of modern equipment used for surveillance and punishment.
The criticism and dismantlement of traditional East Asian landscape painting, as expressed by the artists above, may seem too radical or too narrow of a viewpoint, negating the merits and highlighting the weaknesses of traditional East Asian landscape painting. It is important to remember that presenting these views does not mean that they are the only right ones. In fact, the materials adopted only by East Asian landscape painting, its unique views on nature, aestheticism represented by the idea of “passage”—as reflected in the philosophies of “spirit resonance” and “image instead of shape”—and methodologies of “sudden enlightenment” or “gradual attainment” contribute to the creative process and the intrinsic value of East Asian landscape painting as a whole.
However, the problem some artists have with East Asian landscape painting is that it is like stagnated water in a deep well, unable to free itself for over a thousand years and remaining confined to the antiquated dogmas of Occidentalism and Orientalism. For decades, cries have been raised, calling for a new spirit to be breathed into East Asian landscape painting and ink wash painting. Despite this outcry, there has yet to be any artist or artistic movement that has been able to reach to the heart of this issue; and so, East Asian landscape painting keeps returning to the past, again and again, like a hamster running on its wheel. This suffocating and disappointing propensity to be stuck in the past has not only gripped the Korean art community, but also China, Japan, and the rest of East Asia. This is why contemporary art in East Asia has not been able to reform tradition to move forward and create new art discourses and has largely remained under the aestheticisms and institutions imported from the West.
Artists are needed who have the courage to fight against old masters, even if it means excommunication or standing alone against a millennium of tradition if their criticism fails to affect change. Artists are needed that will not lie down and idly look at landscapes outside, but will rather get up and actively break away from tradition. Only with this kind of courage will we be able to find and enter a new world. Now is the time to act. The title and contents of this exhibition might sound somewhat radical and provocative. This is intentional because this exhibition is designed to help East Asian modern art find a way out of its box.
This exhibition will begin at the Lee Ungno Museum in Korea and, sometime over the next two years, will be held at two or three leading galleries in China. The events held as part of this exhibition are expected to be participated in by many scholars and artists from different counties, helping those involved develop more profound discourses and works. Three years from now, after the exhibition has been completed, the achievements of the exhibition will be published in the form of a book.
As an enthusiastic lover of East Asian painting, it is my hope that this exhibition will lead to productive discussion on the essential value of this genre of painting and fruitful results for the international art community.
Yun Cheagab (Curator)