Art Versus Science: The Failings of Gu Wenda’s Utopia

 

The concept of land art in modern art dates back to the 1960s when works like the Spiral Jetty exemplified how we can mold nature into making art.  Even before that, Eastern cultures, especially Japan and China, focused on landscape as a medium of art while the Greeks were more focus as depicting humans as a form of art.[1]  In Gu Wenda’s exhibit Central Park, he tries to break out from just using land as a medium to make art, but using land art to benefit the environment and the global community.  The Central Park exhibit falls under the category of sustainable art, which is a genre of art that takes on the somewhat difficult job of combining two completely different fields: science and art. Gu Wenda’s Central Park exhibit in Chambers Fine Art is definitely making an attempt at fusing sustainable, urban planning and land art, but the attempt falls short mainly due to technical shortcoming.  His project underestimates the expertise and efforts that community planners already currently take when it comes to doing domestic projects like planning parks.  Instead of viewing Wenda’s exhibit as a plan to how a future city could literally be planned out, it should be viewed more as a project that promotes the idea of sustainability.   The vision presented in Wenda’s project is more of an observation how nature and man then a realistic plan on how to implement such a plan.

Despite Wenda’s denial of rejecting items that only serve decorative purposes for this exhibit, there is no doubt that his plan wishes to mold nature solely for decorative purposes. Those who plan parks put thought into the positioning of where the trees, streams and walkways go, because things like run-off and erosion can make parks highly unsustainable.  Wenda’s plan for the park does not show the same level of technical expertise.  For example, one of his ideas that calligraphy gardens should be placed next to streams, but not right next to the water.  There are obvious ecological issues with making such a set-up since healthy waterways need plant-life located next to them.  Beyond the inaccurate science behind his plan, it seems that Wu forces our cultural meanings on nature.  In Concept #1: Spring Wind (Illustration 2), Wu is showing how he envisions the placement of the calligraphy garden next to streams.  The calligraphy character was created by Wu, it is a innovative combination of the Chinese character “” and “”. The calligraphy is obviously the subject of the painting with large black print large enough to draw one’s eye away from the more delicate natural details of the stream towards the bottom of the painting.  If we are to reject all decorative details, what purpose do gardens shaped into calligraphy have?  The calligraphy is hollow of meaning if it does not contribute decoratively or environmentally. Coincidentally the calligraphy just happens to be made up completely by Wenda, so even if you did know how to read calligraphy it wouldn’t mean anything.  Yet by creating the pseudo-calligraphy he does, at least to viewers who can’t read Chinese calligraphy, make an accurate observation that in the absence of meaning we create our own, because even though this calligraphy means nothing linguistically speaking most would define it as Chinese calligraphy.  By forcing human nature on the scenery in his park, he is perfectly demonstrating how man creates park to have a slice of nature, but we control the ultimate “meaning” of nature by taming it to our own liking.

Only when you look closer at the pictures like Concept #1 (Illustration 3), nature is uninhibited by the restraints of landscapers.  Each picture shows the delicate textures he uses to represent nature, but there is definitely no sign that his complete composition is making efforts to tame nature sustainably.  The artist used various techniques to create the background. He combines traditional Chinese painting with modern technique, he applied a layer of ink on the rice paper and then sprinkle some alums on the ink gradually and leave the alums to dissolve in the ink wash, the dissolved alums creates a beautiful effect randomly, in the detail of Concept #1 (Illustration 4), the artist brought out an fascinating illusion of flowing water, rock textures or any other natural elements on the painting, by combining the Chinese landscape ink wash with dissolved alums.

Some of the other pieces it is apparent that the molding of nature has become a more significant theme than nature itself. In one of the planning sketch (illustration 5), the calligraphy completely dominates the picture. There is nothing nature-like even in the background of this picture.  All we see are the black, gray and white ink washes in the background that signifies nothing.  The human message at this point has completely dominated any natural one, because the maintenance of the shaping of the plant is not a sustainable method.   It costs manpower to constantly shape the bushes, and it also isn’t the best way for most plants to grow.  Cutting hedges is certainly not an innovative idea, but it also doesn’t focus on a very important tenet of sustainability: appreciating nature for how it naturally works.  Again, Wenda has more shows us how we want to force our own meaning into nature rather than just appreciating nature’s true form.  

Even the name of exhibit exemplifies Wenda’s apparent lack of knowledge about sustainable planning.  When he showed the project in China, he called the exhibit China Park then shifted the name to Central Park when he exhibited it in New York. Now obviously New York and China have extremely different flora and fauna, but Wenda does nothing to account for this change in hemispheres.  Not to mentions the demands of the Chinese urban centers do differ from those of New York City.  For example, water for aesthetic displays in New York City, an island surrounded by water, is a lot more practical than water in a place like Shangai that is in the desert. Mankind rarely does pay attention to the limitation of their surrounding unless they are absolutely forced to, so by changing the name Wenda is unwittingly highlighting that man will often ignore the limitation of his resources when it comes to nature.

This is not the first time an artist has fallen short in achieving sustainability in art when they are indeed trying to honor it, because the fact remains most artists just do not have the technical knowledge needed to create sustainable systems.  “New technologies play a part in the discourse of ecological modernisation (sic) through the idea that clean technologies and efficiency savings have the potential to solve environmental problems without the need for radical social change.”[2]  In Wenda’s exhibit he does pay lip service to the fact we do need to get down to technological and social changes through urban planning, but at the same time he doesn’t bother to really create a design that adheres to the basic elements needed for a sustainable design.  A glaring design flaw in his park is the lack of trees around the waterways, but even just building the waterways into the exact shapes he desires would take a considerable amount of irreplaceable resources.  When designing a sustainable park it is important to remember to use the resources available rather than just shove the resources where you want them as has been the historic shortsighted attitude of urban planning.  Yet, the exhibit does acknowledge the importance of setting aside green space for human again showing the yin and yang interaction of humans and nature as being a mandatory part of quality life.

Artists as a whole need to be mindful of sustainability, especially if that is the core theme of their artworks; this requires attention to all technical details, including materials. Wenda fails to see the opportunity to use modern art mediums that are enviro-friendly. While ink and rice paper do serve decorative purposes in Wenda’s Eastern theme, he misses an opportunity to use more enviro-friendly materials.  By skipping over the “green” material, Wenda is ignoring an important part of sustainability by not exercising care as to what environmental impact his art project may have. Wenda could have used the exhibit as an opportunity to promote using sustainable art products to countless viewers[3], but apparently the thought did not occur to him for many parts of the exhibit.  Man, even idealist artists, sometimes forget to consider nature in all decisions, so again the misuse of materials shows yet another facet of the relationship between man and nature. There is no doubt that man does forget to account for nature a good portion of the time.  

Wenda mentions that he wants to represent all elements of yin and yang symbolically in his exhibit, but the message of the balance between forces is more apparent in the exhibit. It is worth noting that man is not an element within the yin and yang philosophy, so how could an urban park really be showing the power of all elements interacting with man standing in the way. Instead Wenda shows a more vague yin and yang principle that all opposite forces are related, because modern man and nature definitely seem to go in opposite directions a lot of the time. An urban park shows elements of the complex relationship of man and nature. Man wants nature, he even needs it in his life, especially in cities where nature has been completely removed, but at the same time he wants to harness of the forces of nature for his own purposes. Wenda does just that in his art exhibit by sending his own artistic message in the exhibit, like, for example, how the delirium in society caused by clashing cultures creates something new and interesting, so even if we don’t know how to read calligraphy, we can still embrace it in our shrubberies.

German art critics, Kurt and Wagner, once noted that sustainable art is more about “making us think more about sustainability”[4] than actually implementing plans. Yet Wenda wants his vision to go beyond just being an exhibit to reality, but one can’t help but wonder if this is a little presumptuous of him since he is just an artist without a background in urban planning or sustainability. The working title of his exhibit, Central Park, is a prime example of society’s capability in creating urban parks without necessarily the need for Wenda’s artistic intervention. There are many professionals in this field that know the complicated dynamics. If Wenda’s exhibit had been about a break down with information like what type of plants, waterways and animals can create a sustainable park, it would be more of a science exhibit than an art exhibit. Wenda would certainly not be the first artist ever to get caught up in the ideals of their work without the exact means to implement their ideas. When Eugene Delacroix painted Liberty Leading the People he was not participating in the French Revolution, but his painting became the poster of the French Revolution. In a way we see Wenda’s work of more of an observation of man and nature interacting in an urban setting, and the sustainable potential it could have if the scientifically correct principles were applied. Wenda exhibit ultimately shows us that in the complicated yin and yang interaction of man and nature, man can fight to protect nature.

 

 

[1] Grande, Introduction. xi.

[2] Fowkes.The Principles of Sustainability in Contemporary Art” http://greenmuseum.org/generic_content.php?ct_id=265.

[3] Fowkes.

[4] Kurt. “Kulture – Kunst- Nachhaltigkeit”.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Eds Hildegard Kurt and Bernd Wagner. "Kultur - Kunst - Nachhaltigkeit". Klartext-Verlag, 2002.

John K. Grande and Edward Lucie-Smith. Introduction to Art Nature Dialogues: Interviews with Environmental Artists. New York: State University of New York, 2004.  

Maja and Reuben Fowkes. “The Principles of Sustainability in Contemporary Art.” 7 Contemporary European Art Reviews (2006).

 

Illustration 1

Exhibition View

Gu Wenda

Central Park – Concept #1: Spring Wind, Summer Light, Autumn Rain, Winter Snow  2008

Chinese ink, rice paper mounted on wooden board

113 7/8 x 70 3/4 x 1 1/2 in

Photographed at the Fine Arts Chambers New York on November 15, 2013.

 

 

Illustration 2

Gu Wenda

Central Park – Concept #1: Spring Wind 2008

Chinese ink, rice paper mounted on wooden board

113 7/8 x 70 3/4 x 1 1/2 in

Photographed at the Fine Arts Chambers New York on November 15, 2013.

 

Illustration 3

Gu Wenda

Detail of Central Park – Concept #1: Autumn Rain 2008

Chinese ink, rice paper mounted on wooden board

113 7/8 x 70 3/4 x 1 1/2 in

Photographed at the Fine Arts Chambers New York on November 15, 2013.

 

Illustration 4

Gu Wenda

Detail of Central Park – Concept #1: Summer Light 2008

Chinese ink, rice paper mounted on wooden board

113 7/8 x 70 3/4 x 1 1/2 in

Photographed at the Fine Arts Chambers New York on November 15, 2013.

 

Illustration 5

Gu Wenda

Central Park. Spring Wind Summer Sun Autumn Rain Winter Snow 2009

Watercolor on paper

22 3/4 × 30 1/4 in

Photographed at the Fine Arts Chambers New York on November 15, 2013.