Letting Go of Nature
Tomoko Kanamitsu

In Common Love: Aesthetics of Becoming in Contemporary Art. Kaira Cabañas (ed). Exhibition catalogue. New York: Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, 2011, 28-49.

[Excerpt] Two artists in Common Love, Will Kwan and Marc Handelman, utilize the visual vocabulary of nature to address the impact of colonialism and capitalist-militaristic expansion. Will Kwan’s Shanghai Concession Camo (la longue durée) (2007) is a video animation of photographs of tree bark that slowly morphs across four vertically mounted HD television monitors. The photographs are of London planes, trees that were introduced by the French to the Concession area of Shanghai in 1902. According to Kwan, this neighborhood has largely escaped the city’s rapid urbanization, and the European-style architecture is preserved among the streets’ London planes. In Shanghai Concession Camo, Kwan tightly crops the tree trunks, which have a scaly, mottled surface. The resulting images suggest the allover composition of an abstract painting, while the animation produces patterns reminiscent of camouflage and geospatial satellite imagery.21  The monitors, which are sited on a military-green wall, become technologically mediated trees that symbolize Shanghai’s colonial past.22  Kwan’s self-professed interest in the “universal iconography of globalism” is further revealed through his recourse to the visual language of art history (allover composition) and the military (camouflage).23

21 Kwan’s reference to Abstract Expressionist painting recalls the CIA’s role in using the movement as a propaganda tool during World War II to promote the image of the United States as “free” and “individual.” See Eva Cockcroft, “Abstract Expressionism: Weapon of the Cold War,” Artforum 22, no. 10 (June 1974), 39-41. For a comprehensive study of the American political and cultural reaction to Abstract Expressionism during the Cold War years, see Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983); written in French, first published in English.
22 In including la longue durée in his parenthetical title, Kwan references a French school of history that gives priority to long-term historical structures over events. In this way, Kwan could be pointing to the continued colonialism of China by the West, whether historically through land (the Opium wars in the late nineteenth century) or recently through capital (the 1979 Open Door Policy), thus posing colonialism itself as a long-term structure. The concept of longue durée was first introduced by Fernand Braudel of the Annales School in 1958. See Fernand Braudel “History and the Social Sciences: The Longue Durée ,” On History, trans. Sarah Matthews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 32; originally published as Ecrits sur l’histoire, 1969.
23 Will Kwan, as cited in Alissa Firth-Eagland and Johan Lundh, “Research in Motion: An Interview with Will Kwan,” Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art 9, no. 2 (2010), 33.

Publication available at the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, New York.