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Exhibition of Landscapes in Chinese Contemporary Art Opens at Kunstmuseum Lucerne
A man walks past an illustration at the Culture and Congress Centre in Lucerne (KKL), Switzerland, 19 May 2011. The artwork is presented in an exhibition, entittled Shanshui - Poesie ohne Worte (Shanshui - Poetry without Words) that features contemporary Chinese Art and opens to the public on 21 May. EPA/URS FLUEELER.

LUCERNE.- Kunstmuseum Lucerne presents Shanshui - Poetry without Sound? Landscape in Chinese Contemporary Art - Works from Sigg Collection, on view from May 21st through October 2, 2011. The exhibition is curated by Ai Weiwei, Peter Fischer and Uli Sigg. The Museum of Art Lucerne is the ideal place for this exhibition. Over the years, and as the "home museum" of Canton Lucerne based collectors Uli and Rita Sigg, it has regularly included individual Chinese artists in its exhibitions.

"Shanshui painting is not a window for the viewer's eye, but an object for his mind." (Han Cho, Chinese Painter, Early 12th Century)

"Every landscape is a state of mind." (Henri Frédéric Amiel, Swiss Philosopher, 1821–1881)

Shanshui - A Cultural Heritage of Humanity
Anyone unable to speak Chinese and unfamiliar with Chinese culture will testify to the melodious sound of the term "shanshui" and will not be surprised to learn of its numerous layers of meaning. To anyone with a Chinese background, "shan shui" immediately evokes numerous connotations and associations, beginning with the literal meaning of the symbols. These stand for the characteristic features of the natural material world: 'mountain' (shan) and 'water' (shui). To premodern "shanshui" painting, water and mountains were essential and indispensable components. Generally, these were shrouded in traces of mist to convey that the material world is a living structure with a circulating life-force. So "shanshui" references not only landscape painting but also a mentality and an attitude to life cultivated by the Chinese scholars, the so-called 'literati.'

In China, "shanshui" painting, the "mountain-water-painting," has been developing as a form of artistic expression for more than 1'500 years and has become part of humanity's cultural heritage. As this joint Swiss-Chinese project immersed itself in this topic, paying particular attention to the question of its continued relevance within the contemporary context, a highly complex field of research emerged that called for a number of different goals to be the formulated.

Bridging the Divide Between East and West
The exhibition "Shanshui", along with its accompanying publication, primarily aims at bridging the divide between world cultures. Both the meaning of "shanshui" and its practice - by artists and viewers of the paintings alike - has roots that run deep in a Chinese way of thinking and relating to their environment. This form of landscape painting differs fundamentally from its Western counterpart, as do the specific concepts central to Chinese art history. This distinction from Western art history is especially apparent as concerns questions of individuality and development. The project aims to draw attention to these differences. Over the course of the 20th C. there has been continuous, if varied, reception of Western art in China. By contrast, and due partly to a lack of basic knowledge, Western viewers cannot, for the most part, appreciate the richness and the wealth of experience the works of Chinese art history convey. One fact that benefits an understanding of "shanshui" painting is that it has been passed down to the present day in the manner in which it has been reworked or 'productively adapted' by the contemporary Chinese artists. This allows "shanshui" painting to be considered in a contemporary (and frequently critically distanced) perspective.

The Relationship to Its Own Tradition
Within this contemporary perspective other boundaries become evident. Over the past one hundred years, the history of China's relationship to its own tradition has been turbulent, even painful. While landscape painting was the preeminent motif of Chinese art for more than a thousand years, it was only in the 20th century that this preeminence gave way to the propagandist requirements that called for the human figure to be the central focus. The latest chapter in China's relationship to its own history began as the post-Maoist Chinese artists embraced the Western avant-garde.

This chapter finds its continued unfolding in the inquisitive and apparently carefree gaze the younger artist generation turns on its own artistic heritage. Landscape painting in particular has been subject to a strong revival. Artists have recognized that it is a motif open to infinite forms and which addresses a wide range of concepts. Furthermore, this century long tradition of landscape painting contains a wealth of visual and technical inspiration and provides a philosophical base on which to fall back.

Advancing the International Reception of Chinese Contemporary Art
A further purpose of the exhibition "Shanshui" is to advance the international reception of Chinese contemporary art. Significantly, this project was developed in close connection with Uli Sigg, the Swiss expert on China. Sigg was instrumental in bringing Harald Szeemann to China, thereby inducing him to launch the Chinese avant-garde at the Venice Biennale in 1999 and surprising everybody. And it was Sigg who persuaded the international art world of the potential and wealth of the current Chinese art scene when he presented selected works from his collection in the exhibition "Mahjong" in 2005 at the Kunstmuseum Berne. Now the time is right to weight Chinese contemporary art in light of more scholarly pertinent questions. Reflecting on the relationship Chinese contemporary art maintains to its tradition is not only of genuine art historical interest. In the case of China, reflection on this relationship has eminently political and social relevance. Hence, the seeming idyll of the landscape motif bears considerable volatility.

The Sigg Collection
The Sigg Collection has systematically been built up and expanded over the past 25 years. Today it is considered the most comprehensive collection of Chinese contemporary art worldwide. It also meets the highest qualitative demands. The 68 exhibits detailing the 36 exemplary artistic position in the "Shanshui" exhibition were effortlessly included from this treasure trove.

The Surprisingly Subtile Remembrance of Shanshui
In addition to international stars such as Ai Weiwei, Huang Yan, Liu Wei, Qiu Shihua or Zhou Tiehai, the younger generation of artists, including for the first time a significant number of female artists, are present with surprisingly innovative concepts: Chen Ke, Hu Liu, Li Xi, or Ni Youyu, to mention just a few, are all around 30 years old and are certainly among the major discoveries of this exhibition.

But given the extensive reproduction of the 'icons' of Chinese contemporary art, anyone expecting the supposedly typical Chinese images, for instance the eye-catching poster paintings or ironic paraphrases of both high and popular art alike, will be surprised by the muted tone and the subtle allusion these contemporary landscape paintings convey. Traditional "shanshui" painting does not aim at reproducing any real landscape. Chinese art theory sees landscape features as developing from an expression of the spirit, initially the spirit of a quintessential space, and later that of the artist. Hence, "shanshui" painting developed as a medium in which to express the state of humanity and to describe society's relationship to its environment. In careful brushstrokes, the artist transfers these sensations onto the paper, which then become available to the contemplative viewer immersed in the painting. This is possible only because the art of "shanshui" is subject to precise codes. Its 1500-year history can not be appreciated by means of Western art history criteria like the requirement of innovation. On the contrary, the governing rules stipulate the ongoing reference to the great para- digmatic paintings. The most revered qualities of this genre include the highly reduced color palate and the "blank spaces," as where the paper surface has been left unpainted. But where development is evident it is in giving expression to the individual. For Chinese art, this is a highly significant and important development.

These details also define the contemporary forms of landscape painting. Artists working today are not only aware of "shanshui's" significance. They are also aware of its problematic standing in relation to the present moment in that, except as a place of retreat, it has lost its relevance. Hence, when "shanshui" is quoted in contemporary works, it frequently only appears as an intact counterworld placed opposite to an alienating reality. Then there are artists who seek to draw the spirit of "shanshui" into the future with the use of the new media. Here, photography is an especially extensive field for experiment. In addition to these attempts at breathing new life into the "shanshui" tradition, there are the sculptural works that use modern materials (Zhang Wang, Zhang Jian-Jun) or works that employ unusual picture surfaces such as human bodies (Huang Yan) or coins (Ni Youyu). In quoting "shanshui" painting, artists demonstrate an awareness for landscape as an infinitely formable motif and an appreciation that "shanshui" - not least due to its rich philosophical underpinnings - can address a broad range of far reaching concepts. At the furthest ends of the spectrum this includes works that deal with humanity's alienation from the environment in the precise negation of all aspects and values held by "shanshui". This is the case where Ai Weiwei elevates that stretch of land found at the transition from the erased past to a still unknown new development to a motif in a photographic series.

Artists in the Exhibition
Ai Weiwei, Chen Guanghui, Chen Huang (17th century), Chen Ke, Dai Guangyu, Dong Qichang (1555–1636), Duan Jianyu, Feng Mengbo, Gu Wenda, Guo Xi (after, 1020-1090), He Xiangyu, Hong Lei, Hu Liu, Huang Shen (1687–1772), Huang Yan, Ji Dachun, Jiang Zhi, Jin Jiangbo, Li Xi, Liu Wei the Older, Liu Wei the Younger, Mi Wanzhong (1570–1628), Ni Youyu, Peng Wei, Qiu Shihua, Qiu Anxiong, Shang Yang, Shao Wenhuan, Shen Zhou (15th century), Shi Guorui, Wang Hui (1632–1717), Wang Yin, Wen Zhengming (1470 – 1559), Wu Gaozhong, Xu Bing, Xu Xiaoguo, Yan Lei, Yang Yongliang, Yao Song (1648–1721), Yuan Xiaofang, Zhang Jianjun, Zhang Wang, Zhang Xiatoao, Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322), Zheng Guogu, Zhou Tiehai.

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May 22, 2011

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