[Exhibition] Surrogate Nature
East Asian Art, Gallery 2600
Second Floor, Harvard Art Museums
How humans and nonhumans can coexist is a question with a long history. The tenets of Buddhism, for example, reserve special hells for those who abuse animals and plants. Our most recent attempts and failures to respond have brought us face to face with climate change and the devastating results of extractive use of nonhuman beings in a destructive equation that pits humans against “nature.” Can looking for other paradigms help us reconceive our ongoing relationship with the environments that sustain us?
Japanese culture is often characterized as closely affiliated with nature. The pervasive use of seasonal imagery in Japanese literature and painting is built upon centuries of aesthetic tradition that symbolically encodes the emotions and concerns of the human world in emblems such as seasonal flowers and birds. Delicate plum blossoms, the first flowers of the year, for example, are harbingers of hope, while autumnal maple leaves are carriers of the melancholy of autumn.
This kind of re-created or “surrogate” nature evolved and proliferated in urban centers. The results, while beautiful, are not mere decorative representations of flora and fauna. Most of the paintings exhibited here were originally intended to produce an auspicious environment when displayed, others to invoke the moral purity of contemplation of certain symbolically charged plants. However they are read, these works provide an opportunity to reflect on the gap between environment and culture and to ask: What is obscured? What is illuminated? And what new views can we experience in this encounter with paintings from a place and time so different from the here and now?