Essay on Cascade


This month two exhibitions, China’s Sacred Sites, currently at the University at Buffalo Anderson Gallery and the upcoming The Dawns Here Are Quiet by artist Bingyi, opening April 19 at the Center for the Arts Gallery, explore historical and modern-day issues in China.

The photography exhibition, China’s Sacred Sites, is a collaboration between three individuals: photographer John Valentino, architect Beverly Foit-Albert and Chinese professor Nan Shunxun. In the years 1989 and 1995, they traveled extensively throughout China to both remote and well-visited architectural sites. The photographs document architecture that is intimately woven into the landscape.

Mountains are powerful images and cultural ideas in both Taoism and Buddhism. Taoists believe the mountain to be the intermediate step between the earth and the heavens, and home to immortals. Buddhists construct temples and practice meditation along serene, beautiful mountainsides. The architecture in both traditions reflects a balance of the built form and nature. Interiors take on exterior qualities by recreating rock, water and greenery. The exterior reflect forms in the surrounding landscapes, whether in caves, cliffs or riverside and lake structures.

The exhibition sheds light on the vulnerability of many historical and cultural sites in China. Several photographs depict endangered sites that have either been relocated or will be destroyed by the highly debated development of the Three Gorges Dam along the Yangtze River. Millions of people have also been displaced. China, though industrially vigorous and robust, is also fragile. The country’s future has had devastating effects on its past. The exhibition presents documentation as a means for preservation; the photographs and the research involved are a strong medium to balance China’s tumultuous growth.

The upcoming exhibition, The Dawns Here Are Quiet by artist Bingyi, also engages the relationship between futility and hope. Bingyi’s paintings are serene, yet expressive. The figures of her painting are isolated but not withdrawn, against expansive landscapes reminiscent of Chinese traditional painting. Her paintings are poetic, referencing literature, history and contemporary events in seemingly effortless, light yet powerful and beautiful brushstrokes.

In a pairing of paintings, The Nail House and Long March: Mao and His Awesome Homeland, she parallels a contemporary phenomenon to a historical event. Recently developers and government officials, like the destructive waters from the Three Gorges Dam, have demolished and relocated millions of people to pave roads, which are necessary for industrial growth. Most often, those relocated are poorly compensated. The Nail House refers to a couple, Yang Wu and Wu Ping, and their refusal to allow developers to demolish their house. The result is a small, two-story building on top of a hill that is surrounded by a moat of demolition.

The second painting references a famous poem given by Mao Zedong during the Long March in 1934 and 1935. The Red Army, in retreat from the Guomingdang under Chiang Kai-Shek, journeyed across treacherous terrains, traveling more than 5,000 miles in 368 days. In both paintings, the individuals are cast against expansive landscapes and are depicted in an overwhelming sense of isolation. These paintings, however, also reflect the idea of returning home, and resonate individuality against overwhelming odds. In addition, by pairing the two historical events, Bingyi contextualizes Yang Wu and Wu Ping’s act of defiance with historical precedents. Though isolated, the individuals do not stand alone.

Another pair of paintings, Little White Teeth and Epitaph, track Bingyi’s personal experience as a part of four generations of artists. In Little White Teeth two figures sit sharing a meal together. She depicts a figure with dislocated little white teeth. This figure, an artist and a personal friend, has been diagnosed with cancer. However, even in the face of a bleak future, the artist decides to replace his teeth, evincing a continual sense of hope and being.

The other figure in the painting is another artist and mentor to Bingyi. His son, born in New York City, represents yet another generation of practicing artists who, unable to cope with depression, traveled back to China. As his mental state became worse, he decided to go back to New York City. Shortly after, he committed suicide. His story is depicted in Epitaph. The figure floats peacefully, as if in deep sleep. The silhouette of a white bathtub is outlined faintly and blurs into open, calm and undisturbed green fields. The emotions provoked are not of desolation but of peaceful resolution.

Bingyi’s paintings present a delicate and complex portrayal of the human existential condition. She weaves both history and personal experiences with the contemporary events. In her paintings, absence and isolation become powerfully expressive. Despite the futility of the human condition, her paintings convey an ongoing sense of being and hope.

Bingyi is an assistant professor in the Department of Visual Studies at the University at Buffalo. With a BA from Mount Holyoke College and a MA and Ph.D in art history from Yale University, she has curated various exhibitions and worked in a number of media, including fiction, poetry, fashion and film. She was the cinematic curator for The Wall: Reshaping Contemporary Chinese Art. She recently has returned to painting as her medium of choice.

China’s Sacred Sites runs until Sunday, April 15 at the Anderson Gallery. Bingyi’s The Dawns Here are Quiet will open with a reception on Thursday, April 19 at 5pm and runs until May 19.

Lectures, etc.:
* Tim Beatley will speak on sustainable urban environments, both in reducing ecological footprints and also in creating more livable and equitable spaces. He is currently the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities in the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia. His most recent book is Native to Nowhere, Sustaining Home and Community in a Global Age. Wednesday, April 18, 5:30pm on UB South Campus in Crosby Hall, Room 301.
* Anderson Gallery features an exhibition of work by undergraduate students from UB’s School of Architecture and Planning. Buffalo Scaled explores the Buffalo and Erie County Telephone Book as a site for architectural ideas. Presented in a beautiful extensive grid, the work is a collection of each individuals’ approach to materials and site. Closes April 15.
* Responsive Architecture, currently at the UB Center for the Arts Gallery, explores how technology can impact the individual and space. The work arises from studios led by UB assistant professors Omar Khan and Mark Shepard. Closes April 15.
Design Matters is presented in association with the UB School of Architecture and Planning and supported by a fellowship endowed by Polis Realty.

By Albert Chao