Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

Mediated Worlds - Aestheticizing Smoke and Motion

One technique that artists like Wu Youru employed to make modern technology visually salient was the inclusion of smoke emerging from their smokestacks. Notice how in every image of a train appearing in this module, billowing clouds of smoke trailing behind the locomotives produce a sense of motion through space. In “Visualizing the Anthropocene,” (2014) Nicholas Mirzoeff argues that “the aesthetics of the Anthropocene emerged as an unintended supplement to imperial aesthetics – it comes to seem natural, right, then beautiful – and thereby anaesthetized the perception of modern industrial pollution.” While late 19th century China was almost certainly not so polluted as to alter the quality of light in major cities, I would argue that Mirzoeff’s first two conditions apply – almost every image of a technological marvel appearing in the pictorial features plumes of coal smoke, and these technologies dominate the visual frame.

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