Change and its discontents

From time to time, the world trembles. Tectonic plates shift. Age-old poles melt down. Venerated truths crumble. When change is everywhere, fear is never far away.

Today’s association is about depictions of change. And by that we mean change as a threat, as upheaval, not change as redemption. We’re talking about those most tumultuous of times, the longest, and the coldest, hour of pre-dawn still-night that comes before every first, golden, red-hot light of a virgin-new day. We mean that sinking feeling when all the sinews, truths and ties that kept the world of yesteryear together fizzle and break and men are left scanning dark and naked horizons, hoping for first light yet seeing nothing but emptiness. Century-defining, gravity-defying change. Revolution. Collapse. Birth. Death. Rebirth.

Caspar David Friedrich “Moench am Meer”/”Monk by the Sea” (Europe, 1808)
Jia Ai Li “Seeker of Hope/Untitled” (China, 2008)

This post is really two pairs of associations, and an afterthought. The first pair (above) shows what change can mean to the individuals who are left struggling in the midst of it. We see two solitary figures surrounded by emptiness: Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea and Jia Ai Li’s Seeker of Hope.

It’s striking that these two painting were made centuries and continents apart, and yet they basically show the same scene: a clueless man pondering an inhospitable and bleak world that clearly has no need for him. European romanticist painters, unnerved by the havoc wreaked by their continent’s industrial revolution on society, nature and political structures, wondered where we – humans – fit in in this brave new world with its new order. They asked how man could dare to take on nature. It turns out, judging by Jia Ai Li’s paintings, that very much the same thoughts occupy the painters that depict China’s current industrial revolution.

The second pair of paintings shows a bit more context: The gargantuan standard-bearers of the new age – furnaces then and space-travel now – are juxtaposed with the unfortunate people who are being left behind, quite literally in tatters. Have the world has moved on to new shores, and the other half has been left behind.

Phillip de Loutherbourg “Coalbrookdale by Night” (Britain, 1801)
Jia Ai Li “Seeker of Hope/Untitled” (China, 2010)

The new world holds both the promise of paradise – plenty, power, the pursuit of wild dreams – and huge destructive potential – the red heat and black dust and smoke of the furnaces, the exhaust clouds of the rocket that could be carrying hellfire in the form of a nuclear warhead (a recurring theme in Jia Ai Li’s art). The old world, even as it is falling apart, projects an aura of social warmth and humaneness that the new world is utterly lacking. At the same time, everything that is old is undeniably broken or breaking, unfit to see the new day. And above it all lingers the question that must not be said out loud lest is shatters everyone’s confidence: What’s the point?

All the paintings are set at dawn, or at dusk. Because while you live through change, you never know whether it’s change for the better, or for the worse. You don’t know if the sun is coming up, or going down (and staying down).

And here’s a final afterthought: Turner’s Temeraire shows that glorious day when the new light has conquered all that is old. The small, modern steamboat is taking the huge old Temeraire to its eternal resting place. The old world is majestic but it is powerless. It can no longer resist. It no longer holds any promise. The new world is infinitely greater and needs nothing the old world has to offer. Or does it?

JWM Turner “The Fighting Temeraire” (Britain, 1839)
Retrieved from the National Gallery’s website:

Because it turns out, as European and American history shows us, that the darker and colder the pre-dawn hours are, the greater the hubris that follows first light will be. Change is 50% destruction and 50% madness. And that’s what this art association is about.