One of the highlights of the exhibition Contemporary Landscapes: Li Huayi is Fuchun Mountain. At over twenty feet in length, it is the largest work in the show, and during the many tours I have given, it is one that visitors always ask about. The striking format, three hanging scrolls superimposed on a series of background panels, is one that Li Huayi invented, and it is unique to him.
Li’s process has been described as identifying artistic challenges and then coming up with solutions for them. In this case, the challenge was an especially difficult one. Fuchun Mountain is actually inspired by an earlier painting, Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains, by the Yuan dynasty painter Huang Gongwang (1269–1354). Now in the National Palace Museum in Taiwan, Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains is no ordinary painting; for centuries, it has been recognized as the greatest masterpiece in the entire history of Chinese art. The original is a long handscroll, an intimate format that traditionally was unrolled one section at a time. How could such a format, which even today defies display in the modern context of a public gallery, be adapted to Li’s sense of monumentality, and to the needs of a contemporary exhibition space?
Li first faced this challenge several years earlier, when he was invited by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to create a new work inspired by a historic one in their collection, Chen Rong’s (1235–1266) Nine Dragons, another intimate (and nearly as famous) handscroll. The result, Dragon Hidden in Mountain Range, is also currently on display at HoMA, and makes for an interesting comparison with Fuchun Mountain. Dragon Hidden in Mountain Range consists of a smaller number of larger background panels superimposed by a single hanging scroll, giving the installation more of a vertical orientation, with a single focal point situated in the center. This is the first attempt at a solution to the challenge of contemporizing the handscroll format, and one that will see increasing sophistication over time.
In contrast, in Fuchun Mountain Li has further developed his new format by giving the work a significantly more horizontal orientation, so that there is a greater sense of movement. This is further emphasized by multiple focal points in the three hanging scrolls, which convey a stronger narrative progression, in the same way that viewers would move from section to section of a handscroll as it is unrolled. The three focal points are also more intimately scaled so that while the installation as a whole is larger, the “resting points” along the journey create more feeling of being enveloped in the environment.
Perhaps the greatest innovation presented in Fuchun Mountain, though, is the remarkable change in narrative progression itself. Several times during tours, people have asked me, “Should this be read from right to left, or left to right?” This question makes perfect sense from the standpoint of a traditional handscroll, which would be read from right to left, one scene at a time, as the scroll is unrolled. However, in Li’s innovative format, the entire scene is presented to the viewer at once, so that the answer is: neither. It is not read right to left, or left to right. Rather, it is read from far to near, from outside to inside, as the viewer first approaches the work from a distance, then is drawn into the fine detail of one focal point after another, moving back and forth between them without a fixed order.
In this way, Li has taken something traditional and reinterpreted it in a novel, contemporary way. In doing so, he has introduced a fresh vision into a centuries-old format, affirming his role as an exciting new voice in contemporary aesthetics.
– Shawn Eichman, Curator of Asian Art
The Contemporary Landscapes: Li Huayi exhibition is on view until January 5, 2020.