Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818, oil on canvas, 94.8 x 74.8 cm, Kunsthalle Hamburg. Source
The painting that defines the art of the German Romanticists, Friedrich's Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog is a depiction of the artist surveying a mountainous landscape bathed in fog from a rocky vantage point. The viewer is encouraged to immerse themselves in the sublime beauty of nature, just as Friedrich is doing, and to take a step back from the corruption and hollowness of modern society.
These two paintings have been plaguing my mind recently. I’ve known the above paining, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog for a while now. It’s hanging in my room. I saw Young Man at His Window this week in my architecture class and I immediately connected the two. They bear so many similarities, both dealing with isolation and the individual. Yet they contrast so obviously. Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog is all about the Romantic individual and his place in nature. Young Man at His Window depicts the modern man in the urban surrounding. Both are isolated, but for vastly different reasons. So much changed in such a short period of time and I’m not sure it was all for the best.
Tech-loving romantics aren’t operating in the same environment as Goethe or Delacroix, though, arguably because virtual reality has created a new layer of separation between the tech user’s everyday world and the untamed wilderness Romantics so admired. As our sensory environments get flooded with more and more digital information, does that mean the world around us is less “real”? Yao thinks so. She explained that her work is “really an effort of trying to go closer to the spirit of nature, which is simplicity. If you look at all the projects, what we do is really try to create this visual perception for people to see the real world. On the other hand, [digital] perception is fake. But if you look at nature, nature never cheats. When I was a kid I used to run into the forest every time after rain because the air is fresher, I can smell the sun, I can touch the leaves and even feel the soil under my feet. It’s a multi-sensory experience which exists in the real environment.”
This brand of tech-driven neo-romanticism, then, exists in subtle contradiction: Even as Yao and her colleagues at MIT, along with inventors at Google, GE, and others, dream of a completely digital world, this kind of world seems less “real.” According to tech romanticism, the more pervasive technology becomes, the more it needs to look like it’s not technology at all.