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Great Dam of China opens the floodgates for artist Donald Wyland
Donald Wyland, Sunset Past, oil on canvas, 16 x 16 inches. Meller Merceux Gallery, Oxford.

By: Dr. Thomas Slingsby

OXFORD.- Meller Merceux is presenting the art of Donald Wyland, the nom de pinceau chosen by two Oxfordshire artists to encompass an area of their collaborative work which draws inspiration from Chinese culture and society. Uniting that interest with the traditions of British landscape painting, Wyland presents a body of images which interweave the personal and the political to speak to the core of human existence.

The specific prompt for Enveloping Sky was Wyland’s travels in China, where he saw the Three Gorges Dam, and its impact on the lives of working families in the surrounding area. With its brute elemental power, the Dam provides a route into both painterly abstraction, and the hot social and environmental topics which fascinate observers of the Asian superpower.

Enveloping Sky presents a challenging exploration of paint: its boundaries and limitations. A series of abstract canvasses reflects Wyland’s love of the British Romantic tradition, and yet takes that genre into uncertain territories. The viewer is submerged in a swirling, rootless space suggestive of clouds, water, and eerily refracting light. But whereas, even in his loosest watercolour seascapes painted on board boats, a painter such as J.M.W. Turner offers the viewer a hint of the horizon or the sight of another rocking vessel, Donald Wyland provides us with no focal point around which to orientate our reading of the image, no feeling of scale or proportion. We are forced to adapt our gaze to an image of the untameable elements, to the constancy and universality of change. It is an experience with personal and social significance, of which, as we shall see, the artists are well aware.

The evolution of Wyland’s practice has given rise to a signature textured use of paint. Exploiting the density of the oil medium, Wyland lays down an initial layer which is manipulated into a fractured impasto surface. Often forming abstract patterns, this rough base shows through the swirling ambiance later painted on top. In an exciting new undertaking, Wyland is now applying this method to a variety of different surfaces of personal and social interest. These include the bottoms of boats sailed on the Yangtze river and intimate family photos which have been painted over – works which remind one of Gerhard Richter’s controversial treatments of photographs of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist organisation. The exhibition’s centrepiece is an extraordinary sculpture of a cormorant, an ambiguous image both of freedom and displacement which figures strongly in Wyland’s imagination.

China is very much a hot topic, from the increasing sophistication of its art world, to the rapid changes it is undergoing as it looks to cement its place as a global superpower. A brief look at these topics shows that the visual arts are more than ever, an urgently needed outlet in a country which barely has time to reflect on its own dazzling ascent. Having been closed off from foreign investment during the Mao era, economic reforms in the late 1970s and early 1980s introduced capitalist market principles into China, conditions under which the nation’s productivity and wealth have boomed, creating vast new centres of economic production, rapid urbanisation and unprecedented levels of internal migration. Economic liberalism filtered into China’s art world too, with auctions being legalised in 1986 and becoming truly established in the 1990s, such that there are now around ten national auction houses in the country. Chinese buyers are a constant, if ethereal, presence at art sales in the west, with auctioneers repeatedly naming them as the mysterious billionaire telephone bidders who blow Western competition out of the water with their financial might. Yet despite growing personal wealth in the country, there is considered to be a lack of indigenous collectors of Chinese contemporary art, with foreigners like Charles Saatchi and Baron Guy Ullens often leading the way. If the market is not yet as mature as those for European and American contemporary art, such collector interest is nevertheless giving Chinese art increased legitimacy and relevance abroad, as shown by the Hayward Gallery’s thrilling, ongoing exhibition Art of Change: New Directions from China.

Now working in an idiom which is recognised as both truly contemporary, and authentically Chinese, leading figures such as Zhang Huan, Zhang Xiaogang and Yue Minjun are moving to the fore of the global art world. Much of the value of their work derives from their capacity to act as a simulacrum of China’s present dynamism, whilst simultaneously critiquing the means and methods which sustain this position. It’s a position that has been christened “Cynical Realism,” but to many, the work of figures such as Yue Minjun and Liu Wei simply acknowledges the complexity of China’s place in the world. The work of Minjun for example features the signature use of inanely smiling faces, a parody of the vacuity of the hospitable image China presents to the world, and is certainly finding appreciation from collectors. This was demonstrated in 2007, when Execution, a painting inspired by the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, was sold at Sotheby’s in London for £2.9 million, representing a massive price rise compared with the original sale by the artist himself over ten years earlier.

This combination of buoyant energy and moral urgency in Chinese contemporary art has been a source of inspiration to Wyland and is carried over into his work. Having travelled to China to witness its rapidly changing social realities, the artist has come to see the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in Hubei Province as emblematic of the human cost of the immense infrastructural developments which are ongoing there. The dam was conceived with several goals in mind: to divert water from the nation’s rainy south to its parched north, to prevent flooding downstream, and most importantly, as a hydro-electrical project which would generate power to meet the demands of a booming industrial sector. China is said to be reliant on burning fossil fuels to generate 80% of its electricity, and is now under pressure to meet carbon emissions targets. First conceived in the days of Mao, the dam project was initiated in the days of Premier Li Peng, when it was virtually unheard of to question decisions made by the ruling communist party. Now the dam is in private hands and having an untold social and environmental impact. At least 1.4m people have already been forced to migrate as a result of flooding, and this is only set to increase. Money intended to help these people relocate and find new livelihoods is alleged to have been embezzled, leaving hundred of thousands struggling to support their families. The project is sending toxic pollution downstream, leading to the likely extinction of the iconic Yangtze River dolphin. The dam is to many, a symbol of the excesses of modern day China, with massive-scale innovation being placed above the needs of traditional communities and ways of life.

It is this context of change and degradation which forms such a fertile backdrop in the imagination of Donald Wyland as he navigates his global imaginative landscape. The image of the cormorant has become key to Wyland’s reading of contemporary China, and the emotion it distils makes it an affecting centrepiece for this exhibition. The cormorant is traditionally used for fishing in China. The birds are reared from birth by fisherman, who either bring them on board their boats, or wade into the river with the cormorants sitting on a long perch positioned across their shoulders. The cormorants are tethered by chains which encircle their necks and prevent them from swallowing the fish they catch; these are dropped instead into the fisherman’s net. When the net is full, the fisherman removes the chain and rewards his companions with a meal. This method was once the means of self-sufficiency for millions of people in China. For Wyland, the cormorant is a mythical figure, symbolising the old China which is being lost in the wake of projects such as the Three Gorges Dam. The practice of cormorant fishing is now dying out and exists primarily as a facet of the tourism industry. Donald Wyland’s moving sculpture of the bird is an arresting spectacle, seeming to emerge out of the river of the past to confront us with the human stories which lay behind breathtaking projects such as the dam. We may choose to see the cormorant as an image of the modern-day Chinese worker, enchained by the mechanisms of industry. It could equally be a resurgent symbol continuity with the past, a phoenix rising anew from the ashes of change.

Wyland’s signature use of textured oil paint is a constant in this exhibition, binding a network of subjects and surfaces into a single imaginative journey. The personal, as seen in the family photographs worked into these pieces, is elevated to the universal, and shows off his facility for finding the common human themes in his engagement in contemporary China; topics that resonate in Britain as much as they echo the case of the Three Gorges Dam. Wyland’s engagement with the language of impressionistic Romanticism has drawn an enthusiastic response from collectors and underlines the artist’s ability to find surprising connections between two very different nations. The swelling, wave-like fields of colour which characterise his paintwork recall the more otherworldly delineations of William Blake and Turner.

Why is this updated take on Romanticism relevant to contemporary China? The answer lies in the history of the European Industrial Revolutions. As rural ways of life began to be replaced by the processing of raw materials such as cotton and coal, what one 19th century writer called “grimy diabolical-looking buildings” began to populate the landscape, and aesthetes such as William Wordsworth began to dream of a return to idealised images of the past. Just as the vastness and functionalism of projects like the Yangtze Dam are a threat to traditional livelihoods in present- day China, so the Romantics protested against the utilitarianism of Britain’s industrial revolution, decrying an age of “sophisters, economists, and calculators.” Romantic painting, and its present- day reworking by Donald Wyland, respond to these issues with sublime maelstroms and subtle diffusions of light. It presents a spectacle which is in equal parts an escape from, and a reflection of, the turbulence of social change. It is quite appropriate that Wyland has chosen to update the vocabulary of Romanticism to deliver a message concerning humanity’s inevitable dependency upon, and duty to, the natural elements.

Meller Merceux | Enveloping Sky | Donald Wyland |


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