Ryan Richard Overbey
Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Assistant Professor in Buddhist Studies
At first glance and from a distance, Yun-Fei Ji’s Bon Voyage (2002) looks like a traditional Song dynasty landscape painting. The canvas writhes with organic patterns: gray mists and clouds, rocks and meandering water, gnarled trees and lush vegetation, people and animals. But it doesn’t take long—two or three seconds by my count—before I begin to notice some unexpected surprises.
My eyes moved from the top down. The landscape is clearly the world of the Yangtze River, a favorite subject for so many Chinese painters. I saw a familiar scene and familiar brushstrokes, the intricate interplay between geology and biology, between the angular rockiness of the mountain and the spidery chaos of the trees and bushes. But immediately my eye was drawn to the gnarled shape of a crashed helicopter—painted shockingly, vibrantly blue—at the top of the mountain. Cars, seemingly abandoned, and painted with similarly offensive saturation, pile up on the mountainside.
Nearby are migrant villagers, carrying their possessions on their backs, bearing their burdens with quiet dignity as they walk up the mountainside and toward the ineffable gray mists in the horizon. In the center of the painting a massive water creature consumes a human being. Legs dangle out comically from its gaping mouth. A massive insect, larger than the helicopter, watches the migrant villagers with interest.