Museum  August 27, 2021  Ellen Huang

Curatorial Insight on Clouds in East Asian Art

Installation view of Clouding: Shape and Sign in Asian Art.

The public health events of the past two years have brought into sharp relief the nuanced dynamics between individual and social existences, with remote collaboration and physical distance becoming everyday practice. As a technology, cloud refers to the immediacy of the infinite, connecting individuals across vast spans of time and space to create new forms of togetherness. Traversing boundaries and scalar proportions, the cloud, in today’s digital landscape, both reorients and disorients.

Much like the rhythm of the last year, disruption aptly describes the cloud. Having the potential to loosen entrenched perspectives, clouds are thus both natural phenomena as well as generative entities whose propensity gestures towards realms of the liminal, the great clouds of unknowing.

Whereas the cloud most often invokes contemporary digital worlds, the cloud’s chimeric quality is even more salient in Chinese material and visual arts. It has made a palpable mark on theories of painting and the visual arts of China, and by extension the visual culture of East Asia. Clouding: Shape and Sign in Asian Arts, an exhibit on view at UNC Chapel Hill's Ackland Art Museum until February 2022, explores these themes.

In the early eighteenth century, a woodblock-printed manual about painting techniques—the Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden (Jieziyuan Huapu)—posited that the power of clouds to generate visual experience lies in their invisibility, “for in [the clouds’] emptiness, one catches many glimpses of mountains and watercourses hidden there. That is why one speaks of mountains of cloud, seas of cloud.” The Mustard Seed manual thematizes clouds as the metaphorical condition of mountains and waters, the two basic pictorial elements of monumental landscape paintings.

Installation view of Clouding: Shape and Sign in Asian Art.

Shi Tao (1642–1707), the seventeenth-century individualist monk-painter most known for his ferocious compositions of interiority and soul, went further. Shi equated clouds as pictorial metamorphoses that bound the painting’s composition: “river and clouds, because of the way they gather or disperse, constitute what binds it [the painting] together.”

Calligraphy, painting’s cognate aesthetic form, also relies on the cloud for its dynamism. In the words of theorist and imperial court artist Zhang Yanyuan (c.815-c.875), the most critical of all brushstrokes was “a cloud stretching for a thousand miles.” Official calligraphers since the earliest beginnings of the imperial state (c.221 BCE) were urged to move their wrists with a swing, “as rising clouds over a great mountain.”

Installation view of Clouding: Shape and Sign in Asian Art.

Ceramic and bronzes, too, come to life through the cloud form. Typically relegated by the discipline of art history to the categories of the applied arts or dismissed as superfluously decorative, painted swirls on ceramic vessels and the ash-driven glazed ceramics produced through deft manipulations of kiln “atmospheres” manifest endless iterations of indeterminate colors lying somewhere between green, blue, grey, ivory, or tawny yellow. It is no wonder that a Tang dynasty (618-907) poet of the ninth century likened such shades to something as bewildering as “green clouds.”

Installation view of Clouding: Shape and Sign in Asian Art.

Linking the arts of brush with the object world, the cloud seemingly defies exact definition. Functioning as numerous motifs, framing devices, a conceptual charge for notational and poetic imagery, and a desktop icon of infinite data, the cloud’s ubiquity serves as a reminder that perhaps humanity’s greatest constant, in history and today, is its boundless possibility rather than strict definitions. Rather than the cloud, perhaps we have clouding. 

About the Author

Ellen Huang

Ellen Huang, Ph.D. is an art historian and curator of material culture and design. She is an associate professor at the ArtCenter College of Design and has previously curated Asian Arts at Cantor Arts Center (Stanford) and the Ackland Art Museum (UNC-Chapel Hill).

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