Art and Cosmotechnics | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Art and Cosmotechnics

Art and Cosmotechnics
by Yuk Hui

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2021
318 pp., illus. 15 b/w. Trade, $112; paper, $28
ISBN: 978-1-5179-0953-6; ISBN: 978-1-5179-0954-3.

Reviewed by: 
Glenn Smith
September 2023

[A note from the editors: this review is a condensation of an as yet unpublished article ( ) written in collaboration with the eminent Chinese art historian and curator Gao Minglu.]

"I am neither an art historian nor art critic, and this work doesn't pretend to belong to those fields." This statement appears in Yuk Hui's preface to his landmark 2021 Art and Cosmotechnics; and – true to his word – Hui has written a book about art which, paradoxically, contains only 15 black-and-white reproductions of well-known paintings, and none of which are directly commented upon.

The author of this review has therefore felt justified in fleshing it out with a link to a full-color reproduction of one of those paintings; adding a second not referenced by Hui; and commenting upon both works in some detail, and in accordance with his revolutionary and most welcome thesis: a) we must, at this mature stage in our evolution, "articulate the role of the human in the cosmos", and with particular attention to the ever-increasing technological aspects of our existence; b) art has a critical role to play in this process as manifesting the imagination of an entire society; c) Chinese art, in particular, has been able to present a vision of an harmonious "heaven and earth" – a cosmos – which has historically included, as is the case today, the presence of an advanced technological civilization; and d) this art therefore creates the possibility of viewing our present circumstances from a far larger perspective – and one in which the future remains open.

As noted early on in Gao Minglu's Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde in Twentieth-Century Chinese Art ( ) – and which volume must be regarded as something of a companion to Hui's work – the migration of an Irish citizenry to the United States between 1820 and 1930 involved some 4.5 million souls; the migration of Chinese citizens to its rapidly-modernizing cities, in contrast, will ultimately see the arrival of some 300 to 500 million equally creative and fun-loving individuals. The Chinese artist, therefore, even more than his Western counterpart, has always tended to think and work communally; but let us immediately distinguish this from the "collectivism" of legitimate concern. Given our planet's steadily increasing human population – and an exponentially increasing population of machines – it is a certainty that the Chinese experience as an early technological society, and the art which has grown out of it, has something quite important to say to today's global community.

With his thesis statement that "we must articulate the role of the human in the cosmos" (p. 205), and his parallel re-introduction of classic Chinese shanshui (mountain and water) painting, Yuk Hui has played a key role in creating a framework within which current art-historical discourse regarding this vital subject can thrive, and with the ultimate focus being the current and remarkable rapprochement between art and science. More specifically, Hui has highlighted the cosmic perspective of the shansui landscapes, and in which there is already present an advanced technological society; that society, moreover, is in possession of an ultra-sophisticated and complementary artistic tradition, and which has the potential of providing us with an expanded view of our situation – hence his quite fertile term "art and cosmotechnics"; or in short, Hui has established classic Chinese art as quite relevant to that rapprochement.

“I have avoided the path of art historians who ask how technology determines the form and content of art; instead, I rather pose the question of how the perspective of art can allow us to rethink technology.” (p. 209)

In other words, the future is not yet written – and we have every reason to believe that those already multitudinous examples of a beneficent human/machine partnership can continue to be expanded without limit as we engage with the larger cosmos. We must hasten to recognize, moreover, that this cosmos contains things "both great and small", and hence the critical importance of an all-encompassing artistic perspective, and, in particular, that of Chinese art.

It may therefore be of some interest to the readers of this review to learn that two early examples of classic Chinese art already alluded to – the 1072 Early Spring by famed Song dynasty artist Guo Xi, and the circa 1120 Two Finches on Twigs of Bamboo attributed to Song Emperor Huizong – will permit us to both establish the historic origins of Hui's thesis, and as well imaginatively project it into our highly computerized 21st-century present.

The former ( ) is a quintessential example of shanshui painting, and one which well illustrates Hui's central theme: there is the clear presence of a sophisticated technological society as indicated by the elegant and masterfully-poised structures; that society inhabits a benevolent cosmos, as indicated by the fisherman below; but as also indicated by the cataracts and mist-shrouded mountains, that cosmos is vast and ineffable, and not to be taken for granted:

“[W]e will attempt to explore the logic of shashui painting, a Daoist logic . . . I would like to suggest that shanshui be understood as a cosmotechnics resituating humans and their technological world within a broader cosmic reality, where the cosmic and moral orders are united via a technical activity – in this case, painting.” (p. 141)

Indeed, Professor Hui suggests throughout Art and Cosmotechnics that this cosmic sensibility is exactly what techno-art must incorporate in its own practices and algorithms if it is to become truly relevant; and there is also present in his thinking a challenge to a limiting technological determinism

“which goes by names like Anthropocene, geoengineering, genetic engineering, technological singularity, superintelligence, and other self-explanatory buzzwords that no longer afford any profound questioning. Technological determinism means first of all surrendering thinking to a narrow technocracy, limiting the way the world is understood and operated to a particular understanding of technology and its nature . . . .” (p. 76)

In brief – given that humankind and its technologies inhabit a vastly larger cosmos – Hui's message is once again that the future remains open !!!

One might wonder, on the other hand, as to the current techno-relevance of Two Finches on Twigs of Bamboo ( ). To be sure, it represents an exact and scientific mindset – the work of a painter who is an observational biologist of the first order, and 700 years before the West's own French/American Audubon – and so we can perhaps begin to appreciate a quite forward-looking sensibility at work:

So yes, a modern outlook, but combined with a timeless artistry. And whether or not Emperor Huizong himself was the artist, are we not metaphorically justified in interpreting this painting as a quite early and profound ecological statement, and that on behalf of an entire civilization: a desire to reach out and place protective hands around these beautiful and delicate living things?

And here is how our own technological present comes into the picture: it is only now that the digital computer has actually given humankind the capability of tracking and monitoring the health of the "ten thousand things" – and which technology is in fact being currently deployed in this manner in countless ways, from ocean-monitoring satellites to surveys of the asteroid belt. The machine does not have to be a despoiler; and so, in response to Hui's dictum that "art can allow us to rethink technology", let us continue to construct for ourselves an increasingly positive vision of a future cooperation between humanity and its technologies-- and one which the painter of Two Finches on Twigs of Bamboo can be said to have somehow anticipated.