Publication: The Times
Since 2010, artist Kate Downie has made a number of working trips to China. In 2011, a visit to study the landscape and calligraphic traditions of the country resulted in The Concrete Hour, shown at the Where Where Artspace in Beijing. The current show builds on these visits and offers the fruits of another intensive period of study and research.
This time Downie has focused her attention on the area around Nanjing on the Yangtze river and the collision between the traditional fishing and agricultural practices of the region, and the intensive, seemingly unstoppable tide of industrialisation.
Rather than offering a moral or environmental commentary, Downie’s work suggests something altogether more subtle, challenging and visually astute. Her work forces the viewer to see all of the cluttered landscape ¾electricity pylons, roads, bridges, shacks and tower blocks ¾not in terms of the traditional narrative of nature’s destruction but rather as an exciting visual and graphical opportunity.
In this sense, Downie espouses what she terms her ‘democratic’ vision, which includes rather than excludes many elements in the visual landscape.
The title of the show comes from a sound installation by the US electro-acoustic composer, Frances White, who combines natural and man-made sound to create a deeper sense of listening. In some ways, Downie’s work is a visual equivalent of White’s music. Instead of commentary, Downie’s work creates a habit of observation and strives towards a greater pictorial truth.
In ‘Nanjing Yangtze study’ Downie has used a traditional concertina-style Chinese notebook to create a work almost two metres long. After climbing over fences and through back-yards, she was able to observe life on the river-banks much as it had continued through millennia. Downie worked from left to right, unfolding the notebook as she progressed, so that the drawing developed into a sweeping panorama.
The study shows fishermen’s nets hung to dry on bamboo scaffolding, which slowly merge into the vast riveted arcs of the iron bridge. The work could be viewed partly as a tribute to the eleven-metre long Ten Thousand Miles of the Yangtze River, completed during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).
Downie has created a number of works on vertical scrolls and horizontal banners. Although such works may seem to be working within the Chinese tradition, they actually traverse and extend it. Flowers of the Forest, Metal Fatigue, Light Fatigue and Mountains, Close and Far Away is a series of large scrolls, made with ink on silk. The scrolls are bespoke, indicating the difficulty in procuring unusually-sized material.
Elsewhere, Downie has added to a series of post-card reproductions of the work of Xu Wei ( 1521-1595 ), to create a fusion of pictorial histories and blended narratives.
Although such innovations may be anathema to the officially approved artists and their supporters in China, they must surely find great support among those keen to embrace Downie’s invigorating artistic challenge.