Look Closely At These Chinese Landscapes, Which Are Really Photos Of Landfills

The artist Yao Lu disguises pictures of China’s environmental problems in the tropes of traditional Chinese art.

Landscape paintings have a rich history in China, but for many westerners who aren’t fluent in the tradition (read: many of us), there may be a tendency to look them with a certain myopia–to see them as tropes or emblems of exotica, or simply to fail to give them the attention they deserve. But the work of contemporary Chinese artist Yao Lu demands that we look closely, lest we miss what’s actually there.


From the right vantage point, the images in Yao’s New Landscapes series bear a striking similarity to classic Chinese landscapes, from their wispy clouds floating between mountain peaks, right down to the presence of traditional red “appreciation seals,” small stamps that historically functioned as signatures for artists and studios. But those bucolic settings are in fact digitally altered composite photographs of mounds of garbage that the artist has covered with green mesh. That pastoral hillside? It’s more like a landfill. That babbling brook? A littered roadside.

As Stephanie Cash writes for Art in America, “[Yao’s] transformation of environmental depredation into nostalgic renderings of natural beauty raises the question of whether the new China, like Yao’s fabricated scenes, is built on falsehood.”

David Carrier of ArtUS has written that Yao quite literally “superimposes the elegant past upon the troubled present,” which is maybe a little romantic–the past had its share of troubles, too–but nonetheless poignant, especially considering that present-day pollution will also be future pollution. The image, therefore, is an urgent plea to preserve our remaining real-world landscapes.

Like a classic Chinese garden, which takes the idea of something awe-inspiring–say, a massive mountainous setting–and renders it in an human scale, Yao’s Landscapes take enormous issues–the waste we create, our connection to history–and contain them within the borders of delicately arranged images. Maybe that implies that this is a problem we can handle. Or maybe it means we’re trying to sweep something mammoth under the rug.