The “Shan-Shui 山水” (mountain and water) spirit mirrors the ultimate harmony between man and nature that Chinese people have been after for thousands of years. Symbolizing the spiritual dwelling that is brimming with poetic vision and ideal, it could be traced back to the utopian land that was depicted as Peach Blossom Spring; has always been rooted in the traditional and modern delineation of landscape; and can be perceived in the attempts to reflect on and probe into the society in the contemporary context.

When the past, the present and the future meet, our perception, experience and imagination inevitably and intricately intertwine. In the context of contemporary China, the nation’s dramatic development has led to not only material prosperity but also drastically growing desires. Under such a backdrop, what kind of Shan-Shui society would artists envision as a model for the future?

In Peach Blossom Spring – The Imagery of the Past, landscape paintings (high-resolution reproductions) by Xie Shichen (1487- 1567) and He Haixia (1908 -1998), two renowned Chinese landscape painters during the Ming Dynasty and modern times respectively, are put on display, forming a prelude to the poetically intriguing Shan-Shui context that would elegantly remind people of the long-lasting pursuit for the harmonious state among man, nature and the society.

As time goes by, unprecedentedly drastic changes have been witnessed in the present day. As a result, the cultural root for traditional Shan-Shui spirit seems to have been on the verge of disappearance. Under such a circumstance, how to revive and reconstruct the social value and significance of it? Resorting to their personal experience and insight, the artists manage to give their response in a visual way, inspiring more people to pay attention to issues highly pertinent to the sustainability of human society.

In the second section of the exhibition, Metamorphosis – The Imagery of the Reality, a contemporary and somehow conceptual picture of modern “landscape” is presented. In Rubbing Drought, the seemingly abstract brushwork stands for the arid riverbed of the Yellow River, the “mother river” of China. The familiar and yet strange images remind people of the increasing deterioration of the environment. Likewise, Wang Jiuliang presents a different landscape of the cities and nature, a landscape of garbage. It takes viewers a closer look to realize that what constitutes the beautiful “landscape” is actually all garbage. Environmental problems are often closely related with the obvious fact seen in China urbanization. Ni Weihua’s photography and video installation show the skylines of China’s megacities, luxury buildings and lavish gardens, in front of which are those migrants who have flocked into the cities during the dramatic process of urbanization. Surrounded by the glory of cities, but at the same time, they are actually very far from urban life. The constant deconstruction and reconstruction have become a source of inspiration for Yang Yongliang. Under the surface of the seemingly natural landscape, it is the hustle and bustle of urban “cityscape” that dominates his work. Yangjiang Group (led by Zheng Guogu, Chen Zaiyan and Sun Qinglin) manages to bring a fragment of artificial nature into the exhibition hall through their visually stunning installation. Yuan Shun’s installation and photography show a fantasy land featuring an abstract imagery of traditional Chinese landscape. It’s hard to tell whether these sci-fi-like pictures illustrate the ruin of the past or a vision of the future.

With the increasing overlapping of the virtual world and the real one, a more diverse and illusory multi-layered depiction of the globalized world emerges, unleashing a torrent of freedom and potential that have never been imagined before. In Shan-Shui Society – The Imagery of the Future, the third section of the exhibition, artists/architects including Dai Zhikang, Chen Bochong and Ma Yansong share their vision of a future Shan-Shuisociety in a variety of forms including sketches, architectural model and dialogues, creating an inviting environment to engage people in the exploration of an unknown and yet charismatic future model of the society.

From the delineation of the natural landscape, to the probe into problems that are commonly faced by contemporary people, and then to the presentation of a humanistic approach with a somewhat futuristic touch, the exhibition intends to depict a constantly evolving imagery to inspire more reflection and cast light on an insight to the future in the language of visual art.

Reexamining Shan-Shui Consciousness

By Yongwoo Lee|Executive Director, Shanghai Himalayas Museum

The“Humanistic Nature and Society – An Insight into the Future” exhibition, a collateral event of the 56th Venice Biennale, can be viewed as a grand forum on the humanities on behalf of a political, social and environmental reevaluation of art and humanism. The poetic sensibilities of Shan-Shui, as staged by the 13 artists, artist collective and commentators, serve as an aesthetical discourse and set of proposals to study the evolution of a humanist view of nature.

Consequently, the chosen site for the exhibition in Venice, a city with historical roots in the tradition of the Renaissance and humanism, and its role as a global stage for biennales, has great geopolitical significance.

The term Shan-Shui, originally used to refer to mountains and water, was later ascribed to paintings that depicted these two essential elements symbolizing nature. As such, in the East, Shan-Shui is not a mere genre or form of landscape painting, but an aspiration for utopian naturalism that is fundamentally based in Taoist thought. The Shan-Shui painter does not paint nature as he observes, but thinks it more vital to portray perspectives on nature, emphasizing a purported idealist tradition. Nevertheless, one can read changes in the era′s political and social order when looking at the minute processes of transition in Shan-Shui; thus Shan-Shui has been recognized as a philosophical tool reflecting shifts in thought, rather than simply a visual medium within Chinese art history.

The topics broached in this exhibition of Shan-Shui artists are naturalist ideals, including 15th-century Shan-Shui painting, and simultaneously feature diverse mediums that take a critical viewpoint of the aggressive state of the rapidly developing modern city against the background of the economic progress following the 30 years since China′s open-door policy; the works become indexes of the quantitative progress of large-scale city development as well as the shadow it has cast. Although these conditions are not unique to China and can be found in all growing hubs of developing countries, the artists take a magnified look at China and propose a discourse to find a solution to the many sufferings of a city expansion that result in the extinction of historical sites and the destruction of nature. In this way, contemporary Shan-Shui is not any single concept, but is giving rise to realist Shan-Shui based on a backdrop of actualities.

The proliferation of a humanist insight and restoration of a city′s function through Shan-Shui ideals is the most urgent task. The new urban studies propose the evolution of the urban environment through the background of environmental elements or the traditional gardens of China. I also propose a new positive function that will serve as antennae for the environment of the future, or the reality of art as enumerated in the assumed assumption of disasters brought by the urbanization of developing centers, as it disputes and accuses the anti-environmental issues raised by national calamities. When considering the fact that Shan-Shui is not merely paintings, but have a literary background that handles painterly narratives, this exhibition assumes the task of recovering the tradition of Shan-Shui long lost within modern society.

I′m grateful to the participating artists who produced new works for the elevation of this exhibition′s discourse. I am also deeply thankful to curator, Mr. Wong Shun-kit, for his insightful research and contributions. A big thank you goes to Ms. Wang Yuan, Director of Xian Museum of Contemporary Art, for his collaboration and support for the tour of Shan-Shui exhibition. This exhibition has been made possible with the support of China National Arts Fund.

About the exhibition

Organized by: Shanghai Himalayas Museum, Xi’an Museum of Contemporary Art

Opening: June 26th, 2016

Duration: June 27th-July 23rd,2016

Venue: Xi’an Museum of Contemporary Art (2nd F, North distict of the Mandi Square, No.9 Yannanyi Road, Datangbuyecheng, Qujiangxin Distict, Xi’an)

Artistic Directors: Yongwoo Lee, Wang Yuan

Curator: Wong Shun-kit

Artists: He Haixia, Xie Shichen, Wang Nanming, Wang Jiuliang, Ni Weihua, Gao Shiqiang, Yuan Shun, Yang Yongliang, Hu Xiangcheng, Yangjiang Group( Zheng Guogu, Chen Zaiyan, Sun Qinglin), Lee Maelee( Korea), Chen Bochong, Ma Yangsong

Courtesy of the artists and Shanghai Himalayas Museum, for further information please visit

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