Jiang Wanlin: The Mountain and Water of Denim

A few moments into nature, and its vastness overwhelms one. Chinese art, since the onset, has presented macrocosmic aspects in a landscape painting style called shanshui. The word shanshui literally means mountain water, thereby depicting the same in hazy and neutral-colour character. Although the tenets continued to rule this form of landscape, the representation and medium have varied over the timeline, from traditional to contemporary. Imprinting the natural world in Chinese landscapes has never been literal; rather its treads beyond the seen. It fathoms the deep trenches of the mind, soul and existence, overwhelming our senses.

Gao Kedong
Gao Kegong (1248-1310), 13-14th century

These metaphysical values seep into contemporary artist Jiang Wanlin's artworks through a distinct stream of opinions. Are these thoughts forming a thread between traditional transience with contemporary turbulence? And what is the nature of factors that stimulate Jiang to pursue a merger of past and present? Remarkably, one observes a renewed realisation of Daoist philosophy in Jiang’s practice what began with the problem of material reinfuses in itself to come back to nothing but the original essence and its precise nature.

Mirrored Landscape IIII by Jiang Wanlin
Jiang Wanlin, Mirrored Landscape III, 2022, 120 cm d, Mixed Media, Courtesy Asian Art Platform

Memories and Association: Jiang Wanlin’s Narrative

Jiang Wanlin’s expressions behold an enigmatic play of denim-blue and the traditional representation. What evolves from the marriage of the past and the present is the acute sense of awareness towards the perpetuating and impending cause. While Jiang weaves her memories of denim into the frame, the outcome is no more personal; rather it develops a fabric of social concern entwined with the political nitty-gritty. Do you really think Denim is the coolest thing to fit into?

Jiang Wanlin was raised by her grandparents while her mother worked in a denim factory. Occasional meeting her mother during holidays, the denim clothes that she received as gifts eventually became an etched impression associated with motherly affection. Subsequently, denim paved its way, subtending as the main material of her expressions. Then, Janglin would not have known that those childhood memories would realise a greater social concern. The thread between personal and political became clearer and poignant.

Jiang Wanlin in Studio
Jiang Wanlin at her studio

After her preparatory sketches are ready, Jiang would cut the old jeans, used-denim fabric, and paste them on the surface. Following the norms of shanshui, her landscapes although appear similar to the traditional format, they move beyond the contextual realms. Janglin has worked with several renowned Denim Jeans brands like Levi’s, New Balance, etc.

Problems in Denim Manufacture and Sustainability

Denim Jeans is a universal garment. Catering to all age groups, denim has epitomised innovation, rebellion, and unity over the years of the global timeline. Although erstwhile production resourced wool, cotton became the fundamental material of the manufacturer. Denim has ruled since 20the century! But, how does denim production impact the environment? Why Denim is it not an eco-friendly fabric? And by reusing the denim in her artworks, how is Jiang contributing to the cause?  Jiang believes in the reconciliation of art with life and vice versa, which has been hitherto endangered by excessive consumption and extreme measures that affect the biodiverse life. Most importantly, the impositional acceptance of west over east has triggered the deterioration.

Not only the production of cotton requires a large amount of water but also the manufacture of denim leads to intense wastage as well as pollution. The dying process utilises harmful and toxic chemicals, while the later rinsing uses excessive water, again. In the same, the released chemical, on the free ground, causes soil pollution. Overviewing the consumption of natural resources in producing denim jeans, on average one pair of jeans utilises approximately 10,000 litres of water! However, with an objective to flip this negative identity, denim makers have resorted to amending these issues by opting for eco-friendly methods.

Jiang Wanlin’s Activist Shanshui

Resembling the sanshui landscapes, a closer look at the artworks reveals as well as revels in layers and layers of diverse shades of jeans, beaming a monochromatic palette. The repetitive encounters with jeans consolidate a collective outcry of and against capitalistic production. The same production thereby screeches the tragedic future of our environment and society. Are we really brinking on the psychological doom? Or are we brimming with the desire for constant gratification that the oblivious state loses our capacity to see and think?

Landscape Green Mountain II by Jiang Wanlin
Jiang Wanlin, Landscape Green Mountain II, 2022, 60 x 60 cm, Mixed media, Courtesy Asian Art Platform

The disguise of philosophical beauty, in the form of shanshui, remarks on the age of sophistication while the material of denim initiates the activist agenda of the artist. The tacit activism by Jiang has made her collaborate with several international brands in order to create awareness concerning the sustainable option of the product. Although several brands have resorted to the righteous method of production, the usability of the jeans lies in the hands of the individual consumer. The semiological aspect of repetitive shades of denim fabric do not denote a single concern but a pervasive drama that engulfs the world under globalisation. And the effects of a political diad of east and west, where denim, instead of settling with one, becomes a rebellious tool for the activists. It is one of the global materials that has witnessed the usher and un-accounted harm of technological progress.

The material is like a junction in an artwork that provides a substantial context. Denim as a material is a subtle act against subversive forces of the consumptive power, the context that Michel Foucalt describes, that diseases the human mind and leaders. Foucault writes, “To sum up all these steps, each of which is very lengthy and complex, we will have put the game of truth back in the network of constraints and domination.”

From a road of memory to the junction of sustainability, Jiang indirect underpinning of Daoist principles alarms the audience about the possibility of denim’s longevity. One good denim pair could run for decades. And still, it could be reused for several social roles. In Jiang’s case, it is artistic!