Chinese art and design challenges viewers to see ecological crises with fresh eyes

Lisa Claypool discusses China’s ecological crises and how art can make a difference

Chinese art and design historian and researcher Lisa Claypool opens a catalogue containing the works of artists on display in ecoART China, a new online exhibit she is curating. Two pieces, laid out beside each other on opposite pages, seem like they belong to the same family of historical Chinese landscape paintings— think undulating green hills, cypress trees, mist, pagodas, and boats drifting along rivers set into cracked parchment. But look closer and the image on the left isn’t a painting, but a photograph. The mountains in the photograph are actually heaps of garbage; the green isn’t grass and leaves, but nylon netting that conceals urban construction waste, and the mist is stained yellow.

The photograph, by Chinese artist Yao Lu 姚璐, challenges viewers to change their perspective, according to Claypool. “It creates a moment of discovery, of realization, that you’re actually looking at a devastated landscape, not a perfected, idyllic one,” she says.

Claypool hopes viewers leave the exhibit with many of these “moments of realization,” which she believes help “create an ethical shift in viewers by demanding we see our world in a different way.” It’s the same kind of experience she brings to the classroom, where she teaches history of Chinese visual art, design and visual culture, along with a course in sustainable design in China, HADVC 216: China’s Design Revolution.

I asked Claypool about the new exhibit, her sustainable design course and the environmental crisis in China.

Both your sustainability-focused course and the ecoART exhibit are structured in a very unique way. Can you tell us about that structure?

Both the exhibit and the course are curated along the lines of an ancient Chinese philosophy that’s based in something called the five elemental phases: fire, earth, metal, water, and wood. The elements support each other; they generate each other; they are part of a process of becoming, but they also damage each other. I wanted to use this correlative thinking to underscore the connectivity of the different ecological crises and also the connectivity between some of the problems we find in our local environment here in Edmonton and also in Beijing.

Each one of the participating artists in the exhibit is representing one of the elemental phases, or speaking to one of the ecological crises associated with each phase. In the course we’re looking at designers’ responses to crises having to do with each one of these phases, but I’m also introducing new phases like “plastic” and “human beings.”

What can students expect to learn in your sustainable design class?

China has the reputation of being the factory of the world, and the question this course asks is: when will China stop being that factory and when will it start designing? The truth is, that has happened already; it happened quite a while ago. We look at how environmentally- concerned designers of all types in China are approaching environmental problems in creative ways. For example, design projects like transforming quarried land into botanical gardens. 

There is a willingness to radically experiment with sustainable design in China. In the city of Xi’an the state has erected a 61-meter tall air filter. It’s insane! It’s absolutely lunatic, but apparently it’s working. The problem of environmental degradation is so enormous there, and so visible. As a result, there are large-scale efforts to fix some of these problems — and it’s inspiring.


How do Chinese attitudes and perceptions of the environmental crisis differ from those in North America?

In North America, as consumers, we don’t think about what happens to our stuff. But until recently that stuff was ending up in China. There is a totally different perception about waste. For example, they have to think about how to turn waste into something else, turn it into a commodity, or maybe it already is a commodity and they're going to turn it into something that can be sold. 

One reason I wanted the ecoART exhibit to be focused around correlative thinking, is that I didn’t want to end up pointing fingers. Yeah, there’s a disaster in China. A lot of the problems all of us are dealing with are because of these crises in China. But we’re implicated in that, in every way. If we buy an Apple computer, all of those toxins that are flowing into the environment through the production process to make an Apple computer, they’re flowing into the environment in China. That’s on us. Thinking about that interconnectivity is important. 

What role do you think visual art and design play in addressing the environmental crisis?

What is so powerful about art is that it has an ability to change the way that we perceive the world. And that is ethical; any time we see something differently, there’s an ethical shift that takes place. Artworks can encourage us to encounter our own spaces and our own worlds in a different way and to see them in a different way just by the kinds of demands that they make on the eye. It’s about ways of seeing. 


Lisa Claypool teaches the history of Chinese art and design at the University of Alberta. She publishes regularly on Staring At The Ceiling, curates ecoArt China, and is an affiliate of University of Alberta’s the Sustainability Council