Princeton University Art Museum Presents When Men and Mountains Meet China as Land and People

Princeton University Art Museum presents When Men and Mountains Meet: China as Land and People, open October 16, 2011.

What is the relationship between land and people in China, and how has it changed throughout the ages? Mountains as towering peaks bringing man close to the heavens, or as earthen ranges marking “dragon veins,” serve as the geography in which human beings live and roam. Some mountains are sacred sites; others are barriers that constrain human movement and communication. Some are locations for meditation and solitude or fearsome wilderness fi lled with demons and monsters.

The exhibition explores this relationship and how Chinese experiences and notions of mountains accord with artistic representations and aesthetic perceptions of actual or idealized landscapes. In traditional China, it is said that people lived in balance with the unpredictable forces of nature and the manufactured order of civilization. In this sense, cultural development can be viewed as a struggle to impose order on the world of mountains and streams. The early twentieth century in China was an era of cultural, social, and political turmoil during which the characterization of man’s past balance between land and culture was likened to a verse by the English poet and artist William Blake (1757–1827): “Great things are done when Men and Mountains meet / This is not done by Jostling in the Street.”

Champions of modernization, progress, and reform in China, by contrast, called for a new approach to the land and to the world. They reversed Blake’s line to read: “Great things are done by Jostling in the Street / This is not done when Men and Mountains meet”—expressing that mankind can dominate nature and control its own destiny through science, reason, hard work, and perseverance. The traditional values of a balanced landscape became a casualty of this revolution in culture.

The exhibition will be shown in two areas of the Asian galleries. One area will display traditional paintings of a past where “Men and Mountains Meet.” The expressive brevity of Shitao’s (1642–1707) Echo, for example, engages the viewer in an intimate dialogue with lonely mountains. The artist’s calligraphy quotes a couplet by the noted Song dynasty poet and calligrapher Su Shi (1036–1101): “An echo rebounds with every whisper / Startling, on the empty mountain, the white cloud.” The images in the second area will illustrate the relationship between land and people, where progress is characterized by “Jostling in the Street.” In the photograph of the performance piece To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain (1995), the era of cultural revolution and progress through the conquest of nature is satirically called into question with an image of piled human bodies bonding with a mountaintop. The image recalls the ancient tale “Foolish Old Man Moving Mountains,” which was a model of the triumph of human perseverance over nature for many of China’s twentieth-century leaders, including Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong.

Princeton University Art Museum Princeton, NJ 08544 609-258-3788

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