Recently I was asked to curate an exhibition of Ink Wash Paintings at the Chinese Culture Centre. The work was launched in August 2016.
As the curator, I also wrote the essay titled Mutualism: a connection across worlds which I have reproduced below.
The exhibition, focussing on ink, reminded me how artists are connected across time and space by their method, tools and style.
I hope you enjoy the essay:
Mutualism: a connection across worlds
Mutualism is the way two organisms from different species come to exist in a relationship. In this relationship, there is a type of balance as each separate organism benefits in the actions, activities and engagement of the other. It is not just cooperation but moves beyond this – it is a symbiotic relationship in which these organisms thrive from the others actions.
We can contrast this with a competitive environment where the actions of one group of organisms undermines, diminishes, weakens or even kills off another species.
In our world, we are accustomed to competition. On a local and global level, we often instinctively compete for limited resources. In fact, one of the first lessons taught to students when they begin their studies of economics is that the world faces unlimited wants with very limited resources.
This is a bleak world, a world that sees the actions of one person limits the potential of another.
This is a reality that we often live in. Though it may be a fact to say that there are limited resources, are there always unlimited wants? Must we always compete for these limited resources or are there times when cooperation provides the best possible result?
In our contemporary world, competition is seen to most frequently trump cooperation – but this does not always need to be the case.
Mutualism exists and thrives – and it can offer us an alternative to competition.
The Ancient Romans recognised this even with the most competitive of spheres – the resource of land. In Ancient Rome there was three types of ownership: private, public and ‘the commons’. The commons referred to community owned lands and assets. These assets would thrive when approached with a mutualism: when they were shared, mutually enjoyed, mutually protected. But this was not just between people, but seen to be important to achieve across generations. In this way, the commons were held in trust and protected by the current population for future generations – and this made sense as they had been inherited from previous generations
Though today we are mostly exposed to the concept of private ownership, the commons are everywhere around us. Think of the atmosphere that gives life to us or the world’s oceans that provide food, enjoyment and help balance the atmosphere. These thrive when we see them as part of a mutual humanity – a mutualism – and conversely suffer when part of competition.
Mutualism is also at the core of artistic practice.
Artists do not create works in isolation but are part of a broader ecosystem of creativity, innovation, observation, interaction, analyse, cooperation and yes, mutualism.
There is a symbiotic relationship between artists across cultures: they thrive when they cooperate. But more than that, we as a society thrive when we draw on the power of the artist to observe, record, commentate and even critique our society. This mutualism does not exist just across society, but like the commons, across generations.
The contemporary generations living on our planet enjoy the cultural icons of previous generations: from the Ancient Greeks, to the European masters, Chinese water colours of Qi Baishi, to modern and contemporary works that will one day be described as ‘classics’.
The works in this collection live up to this history of mutualism. They present us a series of artists working symbiotically in their practice – sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly.
But not just with each other as artists, but across the communities in which they work, as well as across the cultures in which they live. The works capture and reflect a mutuality that engages us, inspires us, reflects our hopes and wishes, and also remind us of the best of our worlds.
The works are brave and do not shy away from the challenges we face – for this is the role that art takes when it is at its best: it demands that we face the challenges around us. But they also remind us of what we can achieve when we come together and benefit from each other’s actions.
This is mutuality… and it is what is required if we are to survive the challenges our world is currently confronting.