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Topography in Translation: Navigating Modern Chinese Landscapes

This exhibition considers topography as explored by Chinese artists working in different contexts and locations, from the late nineteenth century to the present. It illustrates the various respects in which the representation of space shapes a range of differing sensibilities related to topography or landscape: travel and exploration, the natural world, calligraphy, narrative, “tradition,” and the sustained scrutiny of specific events. 

Often positioned as a phenomenon in a state of perpetual flux or turmoil, Chinese modernity is seen as continually negotiating between tradition and innovation, the private and public or political spheres, the West and the East. While Chinese modernity is not necessarily unique in this position, modern Chinese visual arts do overtly engage in the rhetoric of this idea of a carefully calculated, nuanced, and ongoing evolution. Throughout the twentieth century, Chinese artists executed works that responded in varying ways, both subtle and overt, to the many, often turbulent political and social changes China has experienced in the modern period. Modernity, for example, in the People’s Republic of China was based on socialism and revolution while the nation remained a closed and restricted society, but beginning in the 1980s increased exposure to the outside world led to an ideological infiltration of China’s “modern” status and a subsequent cultural opening. For many modern and contemporary artists, Chinese identity is thus framed by a juxtaposition of national sentimentality and displacement in addition to a newfound self-consciousness and expression. Topography in Translation examines particular topographical anecdotes and artifacts, revealing a range of anxieties pertaining to the shape of knowledge, experience, national character, tradition, and representation. 

Topography itself implies an inherent quality of evolution or an act of translation; it is something that is cultivated, manipulated, or transformed by description, essentially written over and over again in a perpetual act of relocation. In “writing place,” the act of translation, or “changing location,” occurs by means of an act of graphic re-presentation. In travelling across space it is written anew, extending ideas about one particular location to another, and in the process it transforms itself and its destination.

Katherine Finerty
Grace-Yvette Gemmell
Rebecca Hazell
Maureen Kelly
Claudia Mattos
Meris Sanzotta

This exhibition was curated by the Cornell students named above, who were enrolled in Professor An-yi Pan’s Fall 2009 History of Art 4818 seminar. They were supervised by Professor Pan and Ellen Avril, Chief Curator and Curator of Asian Art at the Johnson Museum.