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still life in a dying world

dan edwards sees the work of na mo in beijing

Beijing-based writer Dan Edwards is Language Consultant for China Today magazine.

 Glance Back, Na Mo Glance Back, Na Mo
THE SCULPTURED INDUSTRIAL LANDSCAPES CREATED BY KOREAN ARTIST NA MO (KIM NAM OH) WOULD RESONATE ANYWHERE IN THE CONTEMPORARY WORLD, BUT SEEM PARTICULARLY POIGNANT WHEN SEEN IN CHINA’S CAPITAL. YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE IN BEIJING LONG TO FEEL ALL THE WONDERFUL SENSORY, CULTURAL AND SOCIAL STIMULI OF THIS 21ST CENTURY MEGA-METROPOLIS, JUST AS SURELY AS THE CITY MAKES PLAIN THE UGLY CONSEQUENCES OF UNFETTERED URBAN EXPANSION. SIMILARLY, NA MO’S WORK CONVEYS THIS SENSE OF HOPE AND IMPENDING ENVIRONMENTAL DISASTER IN EQUAL MEASURE.

Na Mo first came to China in 1993 to study Chinese ink painting, graduating from Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1999. He returned to Korea to teach for five years, but found himself drawn back to the Chinese capital. “I’m interested in Chinese traditional things, especially Chinese antiques. I wanted to do some research on antiques and find a way to combine modern and traditional things in my art.” This aim has borne fruit in his recent work, evidenced by the Glance Back—Environmental Pollution exhibition recently staged at Omin ART, a small gallery in Beijing’s famous 798 arts district.

Entering the converted factory space of Omin ART, visitors are confronted with two large works hung on the wall like paintings. They are anything but conventional canvases however. The black surface of each is peppered with tiny protrusions, laid out in grids dissected by ‘roads.' Upon closer inspection, the tiny ‘buildings’, ‘silos’ and ‘factories’ forming each block turn out to be circuit boards and assorted electrical parts such as transistors, capacitors and wires. One work features a shiny river of resin dissecting the miniature ‘city’, washing around the buildings like a stream of industrial runoff that’s burst its banks. The other work is marked by a red blotch splashed across the darkened surface, like a bloodstain left by some omnipotent being. It takes a few moments to realise the red patch is in the shape of China.

The next room contains a series of cityscapes also constructed from rusted electrical and computer parts, set in sculpted landscapes made from resin and fibreglass. Some are set into tables, while others reside in traditional looking Chinese cabinets, complete with wooden doors. The largest work, Environmental Pollution, is set into a table over two and half metres long and a metre wide, and depicts a darkened industrial cityscape interspersed with large boulders, surrounded by bubbling volcanoes in the hills. The volcanoes look like fetid pools of industrial outflow, or perhaps primordial forces attempting to burst through humankind’s imagined domination of nature.

The cityscapes set in cabinets are collectively entitled Glance Back, and exude a more ambiguous but less menacing air. The ‘buildings’ in these cities are covered by a furry looking substance in dayglo colours growing across the landscape like psychedelic moss. Fluorescent lights enhance the sense of iridescent splendour, simultaneously suggesting some horrific irradiating disaster that’s washed over the landscape, and nature reclaiming the city.

Superficially, the works in this exhibition bear little relation to the classical landscape painting Na Mo studied at art school, but in the exhibition catalogue, Lily Hope Chumley notes a certain continuity in the artist’s concerns: “Landscape painting has always served both to represent real places and to reimagine them, excising or exaggerating their flaws and charms. In these works, Na Mo on the one hand engages with the ugliness of the modern city and, on the other, strives to develop a visual language with which to describe its beauties.”

Na Mo’s cities in miniature, constructed from the technological detritus of the recent past, signify and critique both the material conditions and philosophical questions of the era in which we live. The eerily depopulated cityscapes have a melancholy air, memorials to the end of the industrial era and its dreams of unlimited production. The only signs of life in Environmental Pollution are the bubbling pools of sludge in the hills surrounding the city and the winking pinpricks of light along each street. Have the inhabitants been annihilated by some unspecified disaster, or has the unrestrained pursuit of industrialised production simply rendered this city uninhabitable? Perhaps the population has moved on, leaving the city as a deserted monument to a dream now abandoned or transcended.

The glowing scenes set inside traditional furniture suggest a more hopeful, sustainable future, in which old and new, people and the environment, exist in more harmonious balance. The buildings here are lit from within, suggesting warmth and an ongoing interior life. The walls of the cabinets in which the landscapes are set are mirrored, reflecting the face of the observer looking down on these scenes as if investing him or her with the power to realize the potential of a more balanced mode of urban existence.

Na Mo says that in creating these works he sought to make art that would speak directly to ordinary people about contemporary concerns. Judging by the obvious fascination of many visitors, both Chinese and non-Chinese, these concerns require little translation for an international audience. We are surrounded by irrefutable evidence of the untold damage we have inflicted on the planet, yet we have at our fingertips productive power and collective wealth unimaginable to earlier generations. The course we take at this crucial juncture will determine whether we harness this power to move to a more balanced way of life, or simply exist in an ever more degraded environment of life-destroying pollutants and industrial fallout. Nowhere does this choice seem starker than in the People’s Republic.

At the centre of Na Mo’s exhibition is a final work, quite different from the surrounding landscapes. It depicts a human shape completely encased in circuit boards, covered with tiny lights and lying on a bed of fine black dust. Twentieth century man laid to rest, or 21st century man ready to emerge from the dust of the industrial era? Na Mo’s art embodies some of the fundamental questions of the 21st century, suspended as we are between the death of one era and the boundless potential of another.


Glance Back—Environmental Pollution, artist Na Mo, Omin ART, 798 Art Zone, Beijing, October 1-19

Many thanks to Wang Yi for her assistance in translating the writer’s interview with the artist.

Beijing-based writer Dan Edwards is Language Consultant for China Today magazine.

RealTime issue #82 Dec-Jan 2007 pg. 42

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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