Shan Shui in the World · 世间山水

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本文中文版链接 (Chinese version):

Shan Shui in the World presents shanshui (山水, landscape) paintings of selected places in the world generated by a computational process based on geography-related information.

This project revisits the ideas implicit in Chinese literati paintings of shan shui: the relationship between urban life and people’s yearning for the nature, and between social responsibility and spiritual purity. For an audience living in an urban area, a traditional shanshui painting provides them with spiritual support through the depiction of the natural scene of elsewhere. With generative technology, however, Shan Shui in the World has the ability to represent any place in the world—including the city where the audience is—in the form of a shanshui painting based on geography-related information of the place.

The notion that shan shui can exist right here (though in a generative parallel world) not only underscores the contrast between the artificial world and nature, but also reminds the audience of an alternative approach to spiritual strength: instead of resorting to the shan shui of elsewhere, we may be able to obtain inner peace from the “shan shui” of our present location by looking inward.

The Generative Process

In this first production of Shan Shui in the World, the shan shui of Manhattan, New York is generated based on its building information. The generative engine was written in C++ with use of creative coding toolkit openFrameworks. The code that renders the shanshui painting was written in OpenGL Shading Language as fragment shaders.

Height and area of the buildings in Manhattan, New York plotted according to their location.

Adjacent buildings merged into mountains, indicated by colors.

Outline of the mountains generated based on building information.

Mountains rendered in the style of ink-wash painting.

Mountains rendered in the style of blue-green shan shui.


The generative shanshui paintings were printed and framed into traditional Chinese scroll paintings, and inscribed and sealed by hand.

A partially unfurled handscroll, together with a furled one in a samite box.

Details of a scroll painting.

Two seals and their imprints, together with red ink and a carving knife.

Generative Shanshui Paintings

Scroll of Shan Shui in Manhattan, New York. 2016. Handscroll. Ink on paper. (192 × 12 inch) Scroll left to see the whole painting.

Downtown Manhattan, New York, High Distance. 2016. Hanging scroll. Ink on paper. (24 × 55 inch)

Uptown Manhattan, New York, Level Distance. 2016. Hanging scroll. Ink on paper. (24 × 55 inch)

Scroll of Blue-green Shan Shui in Manhattan, New York. 2016. Handscroll. Ink and colors on silk. (178 × 12 inch) Scroll left to see the whole painting.

Blue-green Downtown Manhattan, New York, High Distance. 2016. Hanging scroll. Ink and colors on silk. (24 × 55 inch)

Blue-green Uptown Manhattan, New York, Level Distance. 2016. Hanging scroll. Ink and colors on silk. (24 × 55 inch)

Scroll of Blue-green Shan Shui in Baltimore. 2016. Hanging scroll. Ink and colors on silk. (20 × 55 inch)



(Credits: The geographical data used by Shan Shui in the World is from © OpenStreetMap contributors, Who’s On First, Natural Earth, and through Mapzen.)

Shan Shui on the Empire State Building (Proposal)

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Shan Shui on the Empire State Building is a proposal of presenting Chinese shanshui paintings on the facade of skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building use projection mapping technique. In the demonstrative mockup video above, the projection is on a large print of a photo of the Empire State Building and other buildings in New York. The shanshui painting projected is painted by renowned contemporary painter Li Keran (李可染, 1907–1989).

Shanshui painting depicts natural scenes in a semi-abstracted purified way. Behind this very spiritual art form are the naturalistic ideology of the Chinese and their thinking about the relationship between urban life and people's yearning for nature. Imposing the depictions of the natural scenes directly onto skyscrapers—the symbol of urban life and the artificial world—makes a dramatic contrast between the two. Shan shui on the Empire State Building not only is an spectacle to watch, but also provokes the audience's awareness and consideration about this relationship.

(Shan shui on the Empire State Building is a collaboration between SHI Weili and Lisa MARKS. Shanshui painting credit: LI Keran. Photo credit: Daniel SCHWEN, Empire State Building as seen from Top of the Rock. Music credit: QIAO Shan, Flowing Water.)

New York City Panorama Symphony

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This project enables the audience to listen to New York City's skyline as a piece of polyphonic music. Panning across the panorama, the audience can not only enjoy a spectacular view of the city's skyscrapers, but also feel the rhythm and texture of these buildings by ear—a somehow exotic, but truly panoramic experience.

In preparation for music generation, a panorama photo of New York City was cleaned up and downgraded into 8 levels of grayscale. The processed image was scanned by a Processing sketch. For every vertical line of pixels, the height of the highest non-white pixel defines its base frequency; the overall level of the line's darkness defines the amplitude of the base frequency. To enrich the sound, the 6 lowest overtones of the base frequency have their respective amplitude defined by the amount of each grayscale level in the line, from the darkest to the lightest one—this is how the texture of the buildings is represented in the music. Via Open Sound Control protocol, all these calculated data are sent from the Processing sketch to a Max patch, where the music is generated accordingly.

(Photo credits: photographed by Jnn13, stitched by LiveChocolate)

5 in 5

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In this Major Studio 1 assignment, I was supposed to create five projects consecutively, with each project conceptualized, produced and documented in a single day. There is no restriction on theme or medium, and experimental attempts are highly encouraged.

#1: Meditation for 1H

The first three projects are related to my body. I named this serious Half Familiar, Half New, for that in each project, I started with a topic I'm familiar with, yet ended up with an experience I've never had before.

In this very first project, I used time-lapse video to record myself meditating for one hour. I've been doing Zen meditation in recent years, which helps me to get closer to a mental state of mindfulness. I also treat meditation as a practice of spiritual strength. However, I've never done a meditation as long as one hour.

In addition to the extension of meditation time, I've also changed its location to an outdoor environment. People usually meditate in a quiet room. However, since during meditation one's senses tend to be more acute, it might make sense to do so in an open area.

The outcome of my meditation is a mixture of different feelings. First of all, it is indeed physically demanding to meditate on such a time scale. As time passed on, it was gradually harder to concentrate my mind on my breath, and easier to lose my mind into a mental state like dreaming. I could feel the weakness of my body, and I was even unconfident of completing this challenge. Fortunately, I endured this one hour without problem. When I opened my eyes, the world turned blue, because I have been closing my eyes under sunlight for so long time.

The good news is that, in long-time meditation, it is relatively easy to fall into a "deeper" mental state even if you are not of an optimum physical strength. The experience reinforced my thoughts that people's physical and mental states are interrelated with each other. Being still for a long time really helped my mind to quiet down, and this explains the reason to practice mindfulness in this kind of body set.

During my meditation in the community park, I was able to recognize various kinds of surrounding sounds, such as the splash of the fountain, and children playing around me. Making myself quiet helped me to better sense the environment, and even the mental state of my self. However, without the help from a camera, I can never know the way my body looks in the meditation. Although predictable, the time-lapse record still surprised me on how motionless I was during the whole process. What's more, when reviewing the record, I found out that there are many more things that I hadn't notice during the process, such as squirrels playing around me in a very short distance, and the change of lightness of the sunlight. These interesting discoveries showed the limit of human senses, even in a highly mindful state.

#2: Fifth Avenue—From The New School to Central Park

In the second project, I used a mobile app called Hyperlapse to record what I have seen in a jogging along the fifth avenue. I've been a runner for years, so that the distance from The New School to Central Park is not a problem to me. The amazing part of this experience is the video captured during the process.

The team of Instagram have done such a wonderful job in making Hyperlapse that its stabilization algorithm enables people to shoot time-lapse video with a hand-held phone, even when they are walking. Before, shooting time-lapse video requires a tripod in order to make the image stable, which largly limits its usage. Now, even a jogging can be recorded and condensed into a two-minute video with ease.

To me, the outcome is stunning. The buzzy night of midtown Manhattan was captured and highlighted by these video clips. They are rough but vivid, just like what people tend to make with the first grasp of a cutting-edge technology. An interesting thing is that since the recording of video gave me so much fun, I almost lost my mind into it, experimenting ways of camera placement and movement, without remembering that I was there originally for a jogging.

(Music credit: U2, The Miracle)

#3: A Moment of Butoh

My third and last project dealing in the Half Familiar, Half New serious, I tried to recollect my body memories of Butoh movements. As a genre of contemporary dance, Butoh is a mixture of modern dance and Japanese traditional culture. It tends to build a dark and deep atmosphere using restrained body movements.

I had learned some modern dance and Butoh during the spring, but since I began to travel in the summer, I never practiced dance again. This project is an attempt to awaken the dancer in me, and get myself more prepared to continue my learn dancing in New York. I set up the room, and used a fixed camera to record myself doing random movements, in hope of producing a montage of me dancing.

The process was quite disappointing at first. I found out that my body has almost forgotten the way it used to dance, and I cannot achieve a proper tenseness of it, in order to make clean movements. Every piece of footage was ugly when I first looked at it. I didn't know what can be done with them.

Then, after collecting an hour of video clips, I stopped dancing, sat down, and looked at them for a second time. I began to notice interesting movements in the footage. It might be not that bad if I only collect and arrange this moments. This idea resulted in the following piece. I named it A Moment of Butoh, hoping that in all my random search, I've found at least one moment that matches the state of a Butoh dancer.

(Music credit: Nocturnal Emissions, 01 from Music For Butoh)

#4: How to Do Chicken Right, Seriously

When I say "seriously," I really mean it. Eating in America makes me homesick, since cooks here don't give chicken the extent of care it deserves, which results in a bland and coarse taste. The Chinese people treat chicken as precious food; they carefully prepare chicken for their New Year's Eve—that's the way I was going to cook my chicken.

The slideshow above demonstrates the process of cooking a whole chicken. The basic idea is to remove the blood and body fluid from the meat, and bring out the flavor using various cooking methods. The whole process took me three hours, and the outcome definitely cured a nostalgic stomach.

#5: Pushing the Beats

At the beginning of this semester, I bought myself these pieces of MIDI controllers:

I daydreamed with them, but have had no time to play around with them during the first three weeks. When dealing with my very last 5 in 5 project, I decided that I just want to do something with them. Simple things should suffice.

The video below demonstrates me making a sequence of beats, using a MIDI controller named Push, which is a new type of musical instruments which lets the musician to modify the arrangements of a musical piece on the fly. What I have made is not some masterpiece, apparently. Nevertheless, I had fun in making it.

Final Thoughts

Doing 5 in 5 is my first experience of formally documenting the process when doing projects. The video or photo documentary enabled me to reflect on my process, which is full of interesting findings. The documentary also functions as a effective showcase of what has been done. Therefore, it is a good design practice to document.

On the other hand, adding an observer affects the process, even if the observer is a camera. To some extent, keeping the observer in mind makes people act like performing. This shifts their focus from the object to the subject themselves, which is equivalent to the objectification of the subject. Furthermore, the documentary itself becomes another form of outcome, which is sometimes more interesting than the direct product of the project, and will last longer than the latter, especially so if the project is action-taking (e.g., performance art) rather than object-making.

The presentation of 5-in-5 projects in class is eye-opening, since everyone demonstrated his or her unique area of interest and way of doing things. It becomes even more mind-revealing when people are asked to do choose their topic and approach in a serious of projects. This process is also a great opportunity for me to reflect on myself, which hopefully leads to a better understanding of the relationship between me and the world I'm experiencing and affecting.