Art

BRAVE NEW WORLD

An exhibition of Chinese artists shines a light on the effects of the country's rampant development.

As you can see on my Instagram - and my lack of other social media this week - I'm currently in Shanghai, China as a guest of Christian Dior, visiting the city for the brand's spectacular Esprit Dior exhibition at MOCA. More on that to come, but before leaving this afternoon I had the chance to see Critical Landscapes, an exhibition in the gallery space adjoining the retail store of Italian leathergoods brand Bottega Veneta. The fourth in an ongoing series of three-month-long exhibitions curated by Gu Zheng, an associate professor at the Fudan University, the exhibition focuses on the changes to the natural landscapes of China as a result of the rampant urbanisation over the past three decades.

The group exhibition of six artists is comprised solely of photography, with each having captured scenes of an evolving home country outside of the major city hubs, offering a rare, critical view of the drastic effects such developments has had on the natural landscape and traditional Chinese culture. In one large, striking print, a luscious green setting is depicted in vivid colour, with what appears to be bright green grass covering fields between mountain ranges; the colour, however, is actually artificial, the grass instead a rare type of algae that sprouts from extreme pollution, covering a river in its entirety. Another series of black and white prints depict beautiful ancient Chinese architecture sitting in a remote village, the history made unbalanced by the implanting of a McDonalds restaurant and beaming construction tower. The contrast could not be sharper, the implication of negative destruction more damning.

As Zheng explains: "The juxtaposition of natural and artificial scenery in the photographs not only subverts the usual aesthetics of landscape photography, but also provides us with visual cues, form the artists' own perspectives, challenging us to reflect not only on who we are, but also our relationship with nature and the future of the human race." While the rapidly changing Chinese landscape has been a focus for local artists in the past decade, photographic works, particularly curated in group shows focused on the subject, are still quite rare. While the works individually are incredibly strong, the potency of this exhibition lies in its incongruous context. European brands have been using art as a tool to connect with the Chinese consumers in their ever-expanding development in the country - for most of them, their biggest in the world today - but even where other brands have invited local artists to collaborate, such as with Esprit Dior, the overall focus is still on the brand's heritage and culture, an intelligent promotional tool. Bottega Veneta may employ Zheng as a commissioning curator, but there's none of the brand to be seen in these works, except in the reflection of the country that they provide. That is: a country injured by its own growth, and Bottega Veneta for one is complicit in such an evolution.

The brand, like most European luxury houses, has an astounding 36 stores in China, six of them in Shanghai, feeding of the country's burgeoning middle class. For Bottega Veneta then to hold up a mirror to the effects of China's rapid evolution is a brave artistic endeavour; it doesn't admit regret or loathing, but helps to pose the question of our own actions in an excessive material world and offers a platform of support to the emerging artists shining a light on the subject.

Critical Landscapes is on show at Bottega Veneta, Yifeng Galleria, Shanghai, until 31 October 2013.