The Velaslavasay "Shengjing Panorama"

The Velaslavasay "Shengjing Panorama"

Original interview: Charles W. Gravelle (BWAXN) 2019

In May of 2017, Shenyang was visited by Sara Velas, owner and operator of the fantastic Velaslavasay Panorama in Los Angeles.

She had come to work on a project that was immediately dear to me: a painted panorama of Shenyang as it was in 1910-1930.

To learn more about the Velaslavasay Panorama , and the upcoming Shengjing Panorama, I spoke with Sara Velas about her experiences and inspirations.

Clearly you have an interest in both history and art, but what made panoramic images your passion over other mediums?

When I first became aware of the panoramic tradition, I had been making very elongated paintings with a lot of cinematic, landscape and theatrical references. I would set up and photograph miniture stage sets and use postcard scenery to create idealized landscapes. I also had a series of linear paintings on boards that had a continuous horizon line. My discovery of the panoramic art form was fortuitous as it united several interests of mine: architecture, travel, landscape and a reframing or reexamination about how the public experiences art.


A classical immersive panorama is a complete experience, where the visitor’s view is fully considered and addressed in a full-body way. This is an important point that often gets overlooked - the art is experienced in the body as much as in the eye. Not only does the painting fully surround the spectator, but the process by which they enter the painting is scripted and rather performative. An individual enters the lobby, purchases a ticket and walks down a dark hallway. This brief period of sensory deprivation prepares them for the fully surrounding view they discover once they have ascended the circular staircase.


A huge part of this art form underlines the importance of framing devices and building expectations. As an example, take the process of seeing an epic film like “Lawrence of Arabia” at a movie theater and compare it to the experience of watching the same film on your phone while you sit through the morning commute on the subway. When you take the time to go to a dedicated movie hall - wait in line for a ticket, enter into a large room where the lights dim slowly and a curtain is drawn before the film begins, a feeling of anticipation and drama is added to the experience.  This “framing device” is missing from the process of streaming the film on a small screen in the middle of a crowded subway and inherently changes the way one experiences the work of art.

Façade of the Velaslavasay Panorama at the Union Theatre,2016
photo credit: Forest Casey

Before Velaslavasay, had you helped to operate, or personally operate, any similar museums or exhibition centers?

Throughout the years I have worked and volunteered at a range of places and projects, including museums and other art institutions. In high school I did a lot of graphics work for the school newspaper, and this experience had a lasting influence on my approach to making art. Sometimes I think the Velaslavasay Panorama project is at its essence one of the art of graphic design. Ultimately it explores how framing experiences, displaying artworks, introducing presentations and talking about things impacts the way people approach or absorb them. This often happens on a subtle level that doesn’t always draw attention to itself.


For 10 weeks in the summer of 1998, I worked at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, a specialized museum in Culver City that includes displays about the Soviet Space Dog program, the history of trailer parks and microminiature artwork made from butterfly wings. Participating in this project was extremely valuable, and the external – and internal – methodologies of how this place existed and functioned offered great resonance and inspiration. Here was a place that operated by different rules and motivations from most traditional art spaces. Projects were internally driven and focused through the creative motivations and interests of the people involved behind the scenes in a curious collaborative fashion.


In the year 2000 when I moved back to Los Angeles, I worked briefly at the front desk of another nonprofit exhibition space, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, while I was concurrently doing construction work with my uncle. It was at this time that I started to feel that I wanted to stay in Los Angeles. Of great importance in this era was time spent with a few good friends from college who were living in the downtown area. Together, we would explore the diverse cuisines of Los Angeles - sampling the many varieties of Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley, frequenting taco stands which set up nightly outside used car lots, trying Soon Tofu throughout Koreatown and eating at historic ramshackle burger joints, all the while discussing the diverse ways that contemporary art and culture manifested throughout Los Angeles. The art projects which held the most resonance for us were often those in which the initiator is an involved collaborator with no hardline separating the role of artist and curator. This approach often yields enterprises and venues which are difficult to categorize, such as the Center for Land Use Interpretation, but which hold a sense of ambiguity that offers great opportunity for new styles of cultural production. This spirit would birth and continue to guide the methodology of the Velaslavasay Panorama.


As time goes by, I feel increasingly more kinship with self-taught artists who (impulsively but diligently) create sculptures and environments which exist almost out of desperation or high inspiration rather than through a more calculated or measured approach to making artwork.

What inspired you to open Velaslavasay?

I have enjoyed drawing and image making since I was a young child. My parents tell me that I was arranging colored blocks in a very particular way at 18 months old. This led me to study art formally in college, and from 1995-1999 I attended Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri where I received my Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Art as a painting major. 


While in school, I realized that the “standard” way one might exist as an artist meant having things you make hang in a white box. In an effort to sell or promote your work you would go to art openings where people stood awkwardly holding plastic cups of wine in bright light, often trying to impress each other with the hopes that someone “important” may recognize them or lead them to a future art sale. It felt a bit elitist not to mention not very fun! I wanted something more theatrical, something with an ambiance different than a clinical white space.  I wanted to create things that had high artistic value with intellectual or philosophical underpinnings yet which could be exciting and approachable for a wide variety of people.


One day in college I was exploring the Arts & Architecture Library and came upon Stephan Oettermann’s book The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium which had recently been translated into English. This artform, with its scripted architecture and lighting, made the experience of going to see a painting more like going to a play or cinema and united my desire to paint with my love of historic buildings and theatricality. This concept held great promise and I created my first panoramic painting as my final BFA project - Nocturnal Panorama of a Desert Landscape.

Sara Velas with Nocturnal Panorama of a Desert Landscape, 1999
Washington University Steinberg Gallery, St. Louis, Missouri
photo credit: Joe Velas

How did Velaslavasay go from a dream to a reality?

In the year 2000 I was driving down Hollywood Boulevard and noticed a curious round building with a blue pointed roof, topped by an orange ball and surrounded by massive palm trees. A bit disheveled looking, it appeared to be vacant and I pulled the car over immediately to investigate. This was the “Tswuun-Tswuun Rotunda” - built in 1968 as a Chinese takeout restaurant and strategically placed by the Hollywood Boulevard entrance of the 101 freeway.  The whimsical and “exotic” nature of the structure would catch the eyes of people waiting in traffic, enticing them to pull into the driveway of the restaurant to bring chow mein and orange chicken back to their families in the San Fernando Valley.


I knew I had to make a panorama in this round building! It was so fitting that the structure existed on Hollywood Boulevard, albeit a bit further east than the walk of fame and the glamorous Egyptian and Grauman’s Chinese theaters. If Hollywood Boulevard had existed in the 19th century as a “pleasure zone” it absolutely would have showcased a 360-degree panorama.


I signed a short-term lease and began my own panoramic experiment. It took me nine months to adapt the space inside and create the inaugural 60-foot-circumference painting for the Velaslavasay Panorama. I had some help with a few aspects of the project at this stage, but I was largely on my own in making the painting installation and refreshing the existing gardens.

In the beginning, I invited old friends, classmates, museum colleagues and fellow architectural preservationists to come to the Velaslavasay Panorama in Hollywood. I also got to know people in the immediate neighborhood who frequented the exhibit and garden. An elderly volunteer named Faye Weschler would help give tours and solicit visitors to come inside. She lived down the street and had a fabulous sense of style, wearing flamboyant hats which coordinated with her smart outfits. Neighborhood children would run around the dark exhibit inventing stories about ghosts in the panorama.


This initial experiment was intended to last only a year. However, by the time the exhibit was complete, I loved the place and context so much that I started thinking of ways to keep the project going. I gained nonprofit status for the Velaslavasay Panorama in 2001 as a way to become eligible for grants and cultural funding.


The Velaslavasay Panorama kept its home on Hollywood Boulevard from 2000-2004. Sale of the property forced the project to relocate and through assistance from Julie Silliman, the Cultural Arts Planner for the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles, we moved to the Union Theater - one of Los Angeles’ earliest purpose-built cinema halls, which was built in 1910 and served as a neighborhood movie theater for half a century.

Tswuun-Tswuun Rotunda at 5553 Hollywood Boulevard
Original home of the Velaslavasay Panorama 2000-2004
photo credit: Larry Underhill

What are some of the prior exhibits you have done before? Are they similar to the Shenjing Panorama project in feeling and theme?

When the Velaslavasay Panorama was in Hollywood, The Panorama of the Valley of the Smokes was on display – an impression of what the Los Angeles basin might have looked like 200 years ago. When the Velaslavasay Panorama relocated to the Union Theatre in the West Adams district of Los Angeles in 2004, I created and painted Effulgence of the North – an arctic panorama replete with a three-dimensional terrain accompanied by a sound and light cycle. For this project I collaborated with a few other sculptors and artists, including Asami Morita and Paula Peng, to create the terrain elements and light cycle, and I enlisted the participation of a sound artist, Moritz Fehr, who created a 35-minute audio program. (Moritz will also be a collaborator for the sound element of Shengjing Panorama.)


Both Effulgence of the North and Panorama of the Valley of the Smokes present researched views of landscapes which once existed in time and space while also serving as imagined re-creations. Shengjing Panorama takes a similar approach. My collaborator Ruby Carlson located a quote which excellently summarizes the approach we take at the Velaslavasay Panorama:


“I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness―in a landscape selected at random―is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants.” - Vladimir Nabokov


In contrast to the previous two panoramas, Shengjing Panorama puts an emphasis on city life and also depicts a large number of people.

Effulgence of the North - panorama on view at the Velaslavasay Panorama 2007-2017
photo credit: Velaslavasay Panorama

Effulgence of the North - panorama on view at the Velaslavasay Panorama 2007-2017
photo credit: Velaslavasay Panorama

How did you first hear about Shenyang? Did you know much about the city beforehand?

I had not heard about the city of Shenyang until I was invited there by the Luxun Academy of Fine Arts to attend the International Panorama Council conference in 2005. Getting that letter of invitation was an incredibly memorable day. It was sent by registered postal mail, requiring that I physically go to the post office to receive it. This is one of the most important pieces of mail I’ve ever gotten in my life! 

I had glimpsed some of the panoramic activity in China in 2004 at the New York conference. Yet, it still felt unbelievable that contemporary artists were creating very large-scale traditional panorama paintings now. I was so curious to learn more about why and how this was happening in present-day China and eagerly planned to attend the conference in Shenyang.

Comparison of a 19th-century European panorama diagram with a 21st-century Chinese panorama diagram

When and why did you first visit Shenyang and what was your initial impression?

At the time I received the IPC Conference invitation, we were preparing the Union Theatre space for our forthcoming arctic panoramic installation. I love traveling anywhere and anytime I get the chance. In Asia, I had visited good friends in Japan several times over the years and once spent three days in Bangkok, Thailand with my father. However, I had never been to China. I spent weeks researching the trip. I thought I would explore a few other places in the country while I was out there for the conference. I used MapQuest to get a sense of China’s internal geography and through online research and by looking at guidebooks, selected a few other places to include on the trip. On September 17, 2005 I arrived in Beijing and spent a few days there before heading to Shenyang.


In Beijing, I walked around so much that I got intense blisters on my feet, visiting sites such as the ancient observatory, Wangfujing Shopping Street, the Summer Palace and a wax museum just off Tiananmen Square where the sole Caucasian person included was Bill Gates, which I thought was a funny choice.

I was alone on this trip yet was impressed with the level of safety I felt and the ease with which I could navigate the city streets and subway. I do not speak any Chinese. To go to selected places which required a taxi, I would look them up in the guidebook and attempt to copy the characters down and present them to the driver. This system actually worked quite well.


Though this week in Beijing on my own was fantastic, nothing could prepare me for my first encounter with true Chinese hospitality. The group at the Luxun Academy were extremely welcoming to our International Panorama Council group.  The conference offered a wonderful opportunity to begin to learn more about how exactly the panoramic installations in China were happening. It was thrilling to discover that not only was this art form not “dead,” it was thriving and expanding in an interesting way and on a very large scale.


The 13th Annual IPC Conference was an extremely professional affair with 50 participants representing panorama experts from over a dozen countries, including China, Australia, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and the United States.  Presentations on the topic of “Panorama Conservation & Restoration Technology” were given in English with Mandarin translation. I gave an introduction to the panorama that we were working on and felt proud to have my work presented bilingually. It was impressive to be on the campus of the Luxun Academy for the conference. This was a place where one could conduct graduate studies in large-format panoramic painting - not an option at my university!

IPC conference ribbon cutting at Luxun Academy of Fine Art, September 2005
photo credit: Sara Velas

Participants of the 13th Annual IPC Conference
photo credit: Luxun Academy of Fine Art

My first experience visiting a Chinese panorama was extraordinary.  Our conference hosts took us by tour bus to Jinzhou - a three-hour drive from Shenyang.  As we approached the outer city limits, several cars with blinking lights joined our bus to lead us to the site of the first 360-degree painting created in China - Storming Jinzhou  - a battle scene from the Chinese Civil War completed in 1989. As it turned out, the mayor had sent a police motorcade to escort our group with a lot of fanfare. 


I could not believe how much importance was given to this art form - something that I thought was forgotten and left behind. When we entered onto the panorama’s platform the level of detail and realism in the painting truly impressed me. Seeing what I had initially perceived as a purely 19th-century art form showcasing a battle scene from the 20th century - replete with airplanes, tanks and other artillery felt very strange. The sky was beautifully painted and very dramatic.


I was overwhelmed by the generous attention given to our small group of quirky specialists. After the mayor’s introduction and a speech by renowned panorama painter Li Fu Lai, I had the completely surreal feeling of being ambushed by reporters and photographers in the terrain of the panorama!

Storming Jinzhou panorama painting

Another surreal moment came in the basement of the Kempinski Hotel where we were staying for the duration of the conference. I was with a group of my German, Austrian and Belgian colleagues, and we were looking for somewhere to have a nightcap. In the distance of the lobby, I could hear polka music and chanting in German which led us to a Paulaner Brewery, almost the same as what you would find in Munich. Yet, the staff and performers were all Chinese. What, exactly, was this very traditional Bavarian beer hall doing in the center of Shenyang?!? It was a fun, strange evening that I will never forget. I later learned that there was a fairly large German expat community in Shenyang, due to the industrial factories in the region and connection to the German automotive industry.


Our conference tour included a trip to Jinan to visit what was, at the time, the most recently completed 360-degree panorama in China - Defense of Jinan City - which was part of a memorial site for a civil war era battle from 1948. Created in part from archival documentation and veterans’ testimony, this massive work (126 meters in circumference) was painted by a team of over a dozen artists, including the three painters who would later paint Shengjing Panorama. The whole conference and panorama visits were incredibly meaningful and showed that the panoramic art form was thriving and expanding in China.

After my time in Shenyang and Jinan, I spent a few days in Suzhou visiting traditional gardens. This too was incredibly impactful as the experience later heavily influenced some of the garden design at the Velaslavasay Panorama.

Pavilion of the Verdant Dream in the gardens of the Velaslavasay Panorama
photo credit: Velaslavasay Panorama

You have made subsequent trips back to Shenyang since your first visit: what are some of the changes you have noticed and how do you feel these changes have affected Shenyang since your first visit? 

Over the past 15 years, I have visited Shenyang five times. During my first visit for the IPC conference in 2005, we stayed at the Kempinski Hotel, close to the TV tower which stood tall among concrete homes, storefronts and the lake of the Youth Park. The day before the conference began, I remember walking through an area immediately next to the hotel full of “local vendors”-  people selling things directly off the sidewalk like a makeshift flea market. The immediate area where the hotel was felt a bit like it had been plunked down out of context - the fancy atmosphere of the Kempinski was a jarring contrast to the things immediately on the street next to it.


My next visit to Shenyang was in 2013. Eight years had passed, and I noticed many changes. The airport terminal was completely new. Driving into the city I noticed a lot more development along this route. I learned that the Luxun Academy had expanded and added a campus in Dalian. Throughout the city, were there was a lot of construction, there were more fast-food type restaurants, including many Chinese brands we do not have in the US like “Yong he dou Jiang”(Peace Forever Soymilk) and “Zhen Gongfu” (Real KungFu).


I revisited the area near the Qingnian Park (Youth Park) where the Kempinski Hotel is. This time, the TV Tower was surrounded by high rises and there were several luxury developments near by, including malls with very expensive international brands. Personally, I did not necessarily interpret this type of change as “progress” or “improvement” but definitely noticed the significant construction which had progressed during the time I’d been away from the city.

Comparison of Shenyang TV Tower, September 2005 and May 2017
photo credit: Sara Velas

One major addition and notable change was that there had not been an underground subway system at the time of my 2005 visit, and in 2013 there were now multiple lines of dedicated transit. The speed with which public transport has developed in Shenyang (and China generally) is almost unfathomable to me, but it is clearly happening. If you compare the subway/metro system of Los Angeles in 2005 to that which exists today (2019), you’ll notice that it has expanded as well, though at a much slower rate.


Of course, some of the sites in Shenyang are still very much the same. My first visit to Shenyang in 2005 included a trip to the Imperial Palace and the North Tomb. When I returned eight years later, they were still very much the same. I even took pictures of the same details on separate visits!

The Shengjing Panorama painting was done by artists at Shenyang’s Luxun (LuMei) Art Academy. How did you come to work with them? Had you done any collaborative work with artists from Luxun before? What made this collaboration unique?

 I first met the artists, curators and professors of the Luxun Academy through the conferences I’ve attended as a member of the International Panorama Council. Over the years I developed a colleagueship with Professor Li Wu, and he, along with Professor Yan Yang and Professor Zhou Fuxien, comprise the three-person team that created the painting Shengjing Panorama. This is the first project I have worked on with these artists, and it has been in development for over five years. Shengjing Panorama will be the first 360-degree panorama painting by Chinese artists displayed outside China. Their exquisite work is internationally significant as there are few people as experienced in the creation of major contemporary panoramas.

Li Wu and Guan Rong in May 2017 photo credit: Sara Velas

Li Wu and Guan Rong in May 2017
photo credit: Sara Velas

 The process of being able to visit Shenyang and develop the project involved a fair bit of luck and fortuitous happenstance. My good friend and collaborator Guan Rong moved to Los Angeles in the year 2000, but was born in Tianjin, China so she is fluent in Mandarin. For some of my trips to China, we decided to travel together, spending some time visiting with her family and then taking time to explore Shenyang. Guan is an artist, and we had previously collaborated on several projects for the Velaslavasay Panorama. She has a very holistic understanding of the museum and project, and her participation in the process of forming a collaborative relationship with the painters in Shenyang was instrumental and joyful.

I have fond memories going to locations across Shenyang with Guan Rong and the painters Li Wu and Yan Yang -  tasting the stuffed meat pancakes at “Xun Rou Da Bing” and wandering past the attempts at recreating “historic” architecture around the Imperial Palace (which are not so accurate.) Most of my trips to Shenyang took place in early spring when the weather was still quite cold. One time we took a drive to the countryside and had a home cooked meal in a traditional-style house with a built-in furnace to heat the seating/sleeping area. This was the first time I experienced a kang “bed-stove” - an ingenious system for a very cold region!

 In the evenings we would discuss approaches to panorama paintings and the ways that public art manifest themselves in China vs. the United States while eating Northern-style Chinese food. I was happy to discover this included a lot of noodles and dumplings. I figured out that “Chinese wine” was not wine at all but a very heavy liquor made from sorghum. Along with this, I learned a special phrase for saying cheers while drinking - “Zou yi Ge!” - and practiced the saying many times!

Sara Velas and Moritz Fehr in Shenyang, March 2015

Sara Velas and Moritz Fehr in Shenyang, March 2015

As I recall, you mentioned that the Luxun artists gave you a list of options to choose from. What were some of the alternatives? What was your reason for choosing historical Shenyang as your next display over the other possibilities?

 Li Wu, Yan Yang and Zhou Fuxian are masters in the field and have worked on almost all of the late 20th - & 21st-century 360-degree panoramas in China along with countless dioramas and semi-circular panoramas. However, from my understanding, the projects they work on most often are of subjects which have been predetermined as part of history museums, war memorial sites and other commemorative monuments. In working together with this group of esteemed artists, I wanted us all to participate in the selection of the subject matter. Through discussions we had about the local architecture in Shenyang, the use of the panoramic art form in the past and present, and in considering the context of where the panorama would first be exhibited – in an historic theater in downtown Los Angeles – we made a collaborative decision to depict Shenyang in the years 1910-1930. 


This decision was such a natural choice that we did not pursue other subjects but discussed options for the composition and considered ways that landmark architecture could be used as a stage to showcase local customs and culture of Shenyang, including religious ceremonial practices, trading methods and diverse ethnic groups in the city. The painters created three different composition views of the city using the following guidelines:  1) A strict rendering of single-point perspective with an emphasis on accurate placement of architectural landmarks such as the Bell Tower, Grand Mansion and Shisheng Temple; 2) a combined single- and multi-point perspective with an emphasis on public life, including the North Market district and East Shenyang, an area with a mix of rural and urban populations; and 3) a multi-point perspective approach which would function more as a genre painting with little geographic accuracy while depicting eight specific scenes of Shenyang, such as “Liu Tang Bi Shu,” which would show the Wan Liu (“Ten Thousand Willow Trees”) pond.

 Ultimately, through our discussions, the best aspects of those three sketches were selected and included in the final composition. Shengjing Panorama includes both single- and multi-point perspective to create a feeling of general geographic accuracy while some artistic license was used to enable the inclusion of specific scenes and activities from the era.

Preliminary sketch for Shengjing Panorama
diagram credit: Li Wu, Yan Yang, Zhou Fuxian & Velaslavasay Panorama

 Selecting Shenyang in the years 1910-1930 also holds an exciting connection to the early days of cinema in Los Angeles, and to the way manifestations of historic architecture are used in present day Shenyang for television programs and movies.  As part of our explorations and discussions, we visited the Guandong Movie Park which has some fairly accurate façades showing buildings which would have been seen in Shenyang in our time period.  Our lighting designer, Chu-Hsuan Chang, an artist from Taiwan who works internationally and is based in Los Angeles, has created a day-to-night cycle which produces a dramatic effect on the sky and buildings of “Shengjing Panorama.” This feature is also a nod to the special effects and extensive lighting used in cinema today.

Li Wu, Guan Rong & Yan Yang at Guandong Movie Park, March 2014
photo credit: Sara Velas

Chu Hsuan Chang, Ruby Carlson and Andy Cao discussing lighting effects for Shengjing Panorama, March 2018
photo credit: Velaslavasay Panorama

As you started the Shengjing Panorama project, did your understanding of Shenyang change in any way? Were there any aspects of the city's history that were different than you had possibly assumed or that you had not expected?

 I started to learn more of Shenyang’s history, especially in the 20th century, as the collaboration developed. My investigations of the other panoramic paintings made by Lumei artists have also contributed to my general understanding of Northeast China as many of the battle scenes in the panoramas are tied to historic moments from the region in the early 20th century.


I had not initially realized how international Shenyang was as a city in the early 1900s. The painters working on the project explained that there were several consulates in the city at that time, including representatives from Britain, the United States and France as well as communities of Russian and Japanese people living in the city. Some of this insight also came from visiting a local history museum that held a lot of artifacts from everyday life in Shenyang. Another thing revealed by my colleagues was the leadership role of General Zhang in the Northeast region during the early 20th century. (His mansion is featured in Shengjing Panorama.) One of my favorite museums in the city is the Shenyang Finance Museum which makes its home in the former bank founded by General Zhang. The lobby entrance is filled with wax figures - a very diverse crowd! - working in the bank, waiting in line and interfacing with the tellers. It is as if time has stopped in 1930, the year the structure was completed. I could imagine some of these characters wandering the streets of our Shengjing Panorama painting.

Visiting the Local History Museum in Shenyang, March 2015

Guan Rong & Sara Velas at General Zhang Mansion, March 2015
photo credit: Moritz Fehr

As the painting came together, did the city you saw on the canvas bear much resemblance to the Shenyang you had experienced?

 Every time I look at the painting, I notice something new. Of course, it feels very different than the Shenyang of 2019, but there are recognizable landmarks such as the two railway stations, the Imperial Palace and several of the buildings along Zhongshan street, including the Bank of New York. In the distance, one can see the the four white Tibetan Buddhist pagodas built in the early Qing dynasty to outline the corners of the city. In Shengjing Panorama there is a lot of open space and nature surrounding the West Pagoda. Nowadays, this region is filled with buildings, restaurants and flashy neon signs - the busy area of Xita and Koreatown! We also visited the South Pagoda which is surrounded by a park.

Comparison of Shenyang North Railway Station in 2017 and in Shengjing Panorama

Ruby Carlson and Guan Rong at Shenyang Station, May 2017
photo credit: Sara Velas

Shenyang Station and surrounding buildings, March 2014
photo credit: Sara Velas

Ruby Carlson documenting the South Pagoda, May 2017
photo credit: Sara Velas

Rastra Contreras, one of the artists working on the three-dimensional terrain for the exhibit, is creating models of old powerline poles using redwood and tiny push pins to mimic those depicted in Shengjing Panorama. You do not see these kinds of powerlines in Shenyang anymore. Although the people and automobiles in the painting look different, there is still a great deal of “civic energy” - the hustle and bustle of everyday life - and this feeling does still exist in some parts of the city today. The immersive soundscape which will accompany the panorama includes field recordings from both Shenyang and Los Angeles in the present day. In that way, there is a connection between both cities and between the past and present manifestation of the city of Shenyang.

Detail from Shengjing Panorama with telephone pole mockup
photo credit: Sara Velas

Street vendors in Shenyang, March 2015
photo credit: Sara Velas

Ruby Carlson recording Shenyang street sounds, May 2017
photo credit: Sara Velas

What were your feelings when you first saw the completed Shengjing Panorama? How did the final product compare to what you had been expecting?

The first time I saw Shengjing Panorama I cried because it was so beautiful and because it was genuinely a dream come true. There were so many details in the painting, beyond what I could imagine from the composition drawing, which was already exquisite. Seeing the entire work stretched out in the gymnasium the artists used as a studio really made Shengjing Panorama seem expansive yet intimate, with a majestic sky and so many buildings to explore.


On May 2, 2017 a handover ceremony was held at the Tiexi School for the Deaf in Shenyang.  I mentioned that Shengjing Panorama was quite possibly the most beautiful painting in the world! Attendees at this ceremony included the Vice President of the Luxun Academy of Fine Arts, Ji Yunhui, the Principal of the Tiexi School, Wang Jing, and my colleague, friend and co-curator Ruby Carlson.

Sara Velas and Li Wu at the Shengjing Panorama Handover Ceremony, May 2017
photo credit: Ruby Carlson

Li Wu, Sara Velas, Hexi, Ruby Carlson, Sun Ling in front of Shengjing Panorama, May 2017
photo credit: Guan Rong

Rolling up Shengjing Panorama in the Tiexi School for the Deaf, May 2017
photo credit: Ruby Carlson

Considering how small BWAXN is, I was very surprised when I received an e-mail from Ruby. How did she come to find my website? Were there many English resources like BWAXN that cover Shenyang history?

 It is interesting to note how basic information on the internet about China in English has vastly expan

ded since I started more heavily researching Shenyang and travelling there. I remember looking up Shenyang sites on Google Maps in 2013 and there were very few things listed. Less than five years later, a wealth of information was listed via Google, which is also interesting because most people in China do not use Google Maps.

Yet, there is still quite a lot of information “missing” in English.  In early 2017, Ruby began to prepare for our trip to receive the completed “Shengjing Panorama.” While researching information on Shenyang in English (this would be her first trip to China) she would obsessively input permutations of search terms like “Shenyang,” “historic building,” “1910 architecture.” Your wonderful website emerged! This was the only place online which discussed contemporary historic preservation in Shenyang in English. We were thrilled to read about the old traditions that you profiled, like the wintertime cabbage truck. We were even more ecstatic when you sent a message back to Ruby and made arrangements to get together on our visit. Meeting you and your historically engaged colleagues was truly a highlight of our time in Shenyang. We greatly appreciate the attention you are bringing to the cultural traditions and endemic architecture of Shenyang.

Hexi, Sara Velas, Ruby Carlson, Charles Gravelle interview, May 2017
photo credit: BWAXN

Sara Velas and Hexi explore the Shengjing Panorama composition, May 2017
photo credit: BWAXN

How much English exposure do you think Shenyang has in the world, or at least in America?

 When I meet people at home who tell me they have spent time in China I excitedly ask them about their travels. When they reciprocally ask me where I’ve been, I tell them I’ve spent most of my time in China in Shenyang! But, most people would either not know about this city (once or twice someone has “corrected” me and said - “oh, you mean you’ve been to Shanghai?”) or if they did, they would feel slightly confused as to why I choose that location. That is unfortunate!


There is very little information about Shenyang and its history available in English.  Ruby and I have found a handful of articles in fairly obscure places online where Shenyang is mentioned in a chapter or two, but not a whole book dedicated to the topic. I have read a few books about aspects of Northeast China which mention Shenyang briefly (Intoxicating Manchuria by Norman Smith and In Manchuria” by Michael Meyer), but I wish there were more resources in English.

What kind of an impression would you say most Americans have of China from the early 1930s? Will anything about the painting be a surprise to the average person?

Thinking about how Americans generally view China in the 1930s is an interesting question. Different people have very different reference points about China and Chinese history. For some folks, the main reference point for China is Chinese food, which is really most often American Chinese food, and beyond that they don’t have a greater sense of Chinese culture, which is unfortunate.


In general, Americans are more focused on Shanghai and Hong Kong in the 1930s-1940s rather than Shenyang, which makes sense due to the Japanese Occupation which likely inhibited information flow and international exchange between Shenyang/Mukden/Fengtian and the United States.


Some people who have previewed Shengjing Panorama have reacted with surprise at seeing the Nanguan Cathedral, which originally was built in the 1870s by French missionaries and in its modified version still stands in Shenyang today. This is an opportunity to point out that Shenyang during the years 1910-1930 was home to a very diverse range of religions. Varieties of Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism, and Shamanism all coexisted in the city.


Some people will be curious about the presence of automobiles and the handful of people wearing western-style clothing in the painting. It is possible some people will mistake the large city wall surrounding the older part of Shenyang for the “Great Wall of China” (a number of people have already asked about this). But those with knowledge of Chinese history are very curious about the decision to show a city in Northeast China in this particular time period as they know it illustrates the time before the start of World War II and the accompanying political and cultural changes.

Sara Velas and Ruby Carlson in front of Nanguan Cathedral, May 2017
photo credit: Guan Rong

What kind of impression do you the Shengjing Panorama will have on visitors?

So far people have been completely impressed with Shengjing Panorama saying that the scene is breathtaking and overwhelming. Some have expressed amazement at how well the painting gives a sense of space with accurate architectural perspective, while others admire the details which showcase the optimistic energy of an historic city. Our project collaborator Andy Cao, a first-generation Chinese-American, has gotten to know Shenyang through the process of creating Shengjing Panorama and has felt great pride knowing such an eclectic city existed in Chinese history – a subject barely breached in the US curriculum.


A scholar of the silent era of Chinese cinema who came for a preview mentioned that she saw a clear relationship between Shengjing Panorama and the very famous scroll painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival. This was not an accident! The painters mentioned using this work as a source of inspiration in that it shows local traditions prevalent in city life and people going about their everyday business. Their use of this reference draws a curious connection between 19th-century European/American 360-degree panoramas and the older Chinese artform of landscape scroll paintings.


One of the most memorable reactions to Shengjing Panorama occurred with you and Hexi, when we got together for a tour of the historic Liaoning Hotel. We showed you the black and white printout of the detailed composition sketch and you mentioned that you felt your city of 100 years ago had been brought back to life! Being historians and Shenyang enthusiasts, you could recognize all the specific references in the composition like the Northern Tomb, the vendors along Middle Street and the Han River.  It was very moving to watch the two of you explore the composition this way. I hope someday you can come visit the full installation in person here in Los Angeles!

Hexi, Charles Gravelle and Sara Velas on the roof of Liaoning Hotel, May 2017
photo credit: Ruby Carlson

That would be wonderful!

Already being familiar with present day Shenyang, how different was your own expectation of the city's former look? What stood out most in the Shengjing Panorama?

 Even though so much from this era of the city has disappeared, I was surprised at how much I could personally recognize from the city in the painting. It’s wonderful to see the areas depicting buildings and areas which are still visible in Shenyang today such as Zhongshan Street, which leads to the Shenyang Railway Station and Zhongshan Square where one can still see historic buildings from the old police headquarters and Medical University Hospital. Of particular note is the detail in the Liaoning Hotel – one of the places I stayed in while visiting Shenyang. This hotel was originally built in the early 20th century through Japanese investment as part of the Yamato Hotel chain, which was connected to the South Manchuria Railway system. You and Hexi gave us some wonderful background information on this hotel and it was great to have a tour with your insightful knowledge! I enjoyed that the management displays a series of historical photographs of the hotel in the lobby.

Liaoning Hotel off Zhongshan Square, May 2017
photo credit: Sara Velas

In the Shengjing Panorama painting, the presence of nature is felt in a stronger way than I experienced in person. The fields and sky are visible in a way that would be impossible to witness all at once in present day Shenyang, as the perspective in the 360-painting has been collapsed and manipulated to give a  picturesque view. However, much of the nature surrounding Shenyang at the turn of the century has been lost due to the expansion of the city.

Due to the political and historical sensitivity of the name "Manchuria", students in China are taught to call the region Shenyang inhabits simply "the Northeast". The name "Mukden" is also very infrequently used. What is your perspective on this name change? Offhand, can you think of any instance in which an American territory changed its name due to a similar aversion to its history or the connotation it brings?

 This happens a lot in the city of Los Angeles. Neighborhoods will develop a name change organically but sometimes people and authorities intervene when they are trying to create a specific atmosphere or to change the reputation of a district. For example, some are familiar with the area in LA known as “South Central.” This region became associated with gang activity, drug dealing, poverty and drive-by shootings. The popularity of rap music which sometimes described these situations further gave this geographical region a bad reputation among people the world over. The area where I live is not far from South Central. During my travels I have had people from as far away as China, Turkey and Canada ask me if I worry about getting shot every day. I do not, and these days the area is generally fairly safe, although as safe as any other urban area.

In an effort to lean away from this stereotypical connotation, the City Council here in LA officially changed the name of “South Central” to “South Los Angeles.” Some people questioned whether this symbolic gesture would really change things that caused the root of the problems.


Sorting through Shenyang’s list of name changes throughout its history has been part of my learning process to familiarize myself with the city. Name changes can be key indicators of political regime change or of a self-imposed cultural change. Think of the difference between Istanbul and Constantinople! This name change occurs for Turkey’s major city when it changes from the seat of Orthodox Christianity to the capital of the Ottoman Empire.  With our collaboration to show Shenyang we decided to play with the name-change concept for our title, selecting something a bit anachronistic.  Though it was not officially known by the name Shengjing during the years depicted in our painting, we use the title Shengjing Panorama because that version of Shenyang’s name translates roughly to “Rising Capital.”  The city in the early 20th century had a great deal of optimism, multicultural exchange and growth and we hope the title reflects this while also suggesting a subtle feeling of nostalgia and reminiscence.

Historically, Shenyang was much like Los Angeles: It had a very "wild west" beginning, benefited and grew thanks to a large influx of international immigrants, and was on the path to become as "world class" a city as perhaps Shanghai or Beijing. Unfortunately, that possibility did not become reality for Shenyang as it did for Los Angeles. I have two questions on this theme:

1) How would you compare Los Angeles and Shenyang? What kind of features do you think the cities have in common, and what does Shenyang lack that inhibits it from reaching the kind of glamour and recognition it longs for?

It is interesting that you ask about Shenyang yearning for “glamour and recognition” as in some ways, Los Angeles at times has the reverse “problem.” Known the world over as the entertainment capital - home of the Hollywood film industry - LA does not fulfill the expectations of many people who come here, finding that it isn’t always as glamorous as they’d imagined nor are the streets filled with movie stars. I’ve also met people who assume that Los Angeles is filled with only shallow, image-obsessed folks, but even if everyone in the Hollywood film industry fit this description (which they do not) there are still so many other communities of people and cultures thriving here. There is a huge aerospace industry here, and a Japanese noodle factory over 100 years old. Also, the largest Iranian population outside of Iran lives in Los Angeles. LA is an extremely diverse city, but it is also a modern city that is quite spread out. This can be exciting because there is always something new to explore and discover, but it can also be alienating because large groups of people and cultures do not cross paths with each other. It is easy (but misleading) to form a conclusive opinion about a place that you only know certain segments of.


Although Shenyang has a dense historic core, it has grown outward so much that it shares some of the fragmented feeling that Los Angeles is characteristically known for. Both cities are diverse and have neighborhoods populated with immigrants from all over the world. However, Los Angeles is truly international, with the highest number of languages per capita of any city in the United States. And more than half the city’s population speaks a language other than English at home.

This diversity, paired with the fact that one of our main industries is primarily a creative one (the entertainment industry), has made Los Angeles a place for creative, free expression. If the 20th century had played out differently for Shenyang and Northeast China, it is possible our two cities would be even more alike today.


2) What advice would you give, for Shenyang as a city, its people, or the local government, that could help Shenyang break out of its introverted, conservative shell in order to become a more open and attractive city to local and international tourists alike?

 Shenyang has facets of its own endemic hybrid culture – food, architecture and more which exist nowhere else. These are the things we must nurture, support and preserve. Rather than trying to be “somewhere else” more glamorous or “important,”  Shenyang (and most cities) would be well served to embrace that which is uniquely its own. People gravitate towards a sense of regional individuality.

As a parallel example in Los Angeles, in the earlier part of the 20th century, we were “pioneers” of vernacular novelty architecture, designing buildings to catch the eye of people driving throughout the city. You could see vendors selling hot dogs from a stand shaped like a giant hot dog, a dancehall shaped like a giant brown derby and even a gas station with an “Arabian” theme, replete with minarets like those found at a traditional mosque. These buildings occurred organically and independently, and they represented something unique to Los Angeles - a city which “grew up” with the invention of both the automobile and the film industry. Yet, today, only a handful of these types of whimsical, individual structures remain, and due to rising property values and the desire to develop land, the precious few still around (or fragments thereof) are often threatened with destruction. The Tswwun-Tswuun Rotunda, original location of and inspiration for the Velaslavasay Panorama on Hollywood Boulevard, was a part of this tradition. It was torn down in 2005.


Now what replaces these quirky visionary structures are generic, blocky, square-footage-maximizing structures that could exist anywhere across the USA. They elicit a feeling of nowhere and blandness. You can have some structures like this throughout a city; but over time, if everything that had hints of a regional culture is destroyed, you will lose the heart and essence of a city’s character. Retaining aspects of a city’s history through architecture, traditions and festivals, especially those which have a “homegrown” element, is so important to creating a sense of legacy and a feeling of place.


I’d encourage Shenyang to nurture specialized food vendors and local merchandise side by side with international stores and brands. Of course it makes sense that in 2019, Middle Street would host an H&M Store and a Walmart. But how fantastic is it that on this street, one can also dine at Laobian Dumpling – an establishment that was around over 150 years ago! In the Taiyuan Shopping area near Shenyang Station, there are still some wonderful buildings from the early 1900s showcasing the endemic architectural style of Shenyang. It would be wonderful if those structures could incorporate more traditional arts and local merchandise. The street could recreate fragments of the historic atmosphere depicted in our Shengjing Panorama.


Los Angeles participates in the China Onscreen Biennial film festival which showcases Chinese film and media arts for American audiences. What if Shenyang created its own festival specifically for independent Chinese filmmakers and experimental media artists? Or an international festival to highlight the cuisine of Northeast China? This would surely draw visitors from around the world.

Example of endemic Shenyang hybrid architecture, May 2017
photo credit: Sara Velas

Zhongjie Shopping Area in Shenyang, including an historic store, May 2017
photo credit: Sara Velas

Tswuun-Tswuun Rotunda at 5553 Hollywood Boulevard, built 1968, razed 2005

Lastly, if Shenyang were a person, how might you see him or her being?

I see Shenyang as a smart, fun-loving individual – perhaps a bit outspoken but with a sense of openness and humor. Someone who enjoys being out on the street, a happy-go-lucky huckster of sorts with good intentions and a lot of spirit. Shenyang is the type of person I’d like to go explore city streets with, stopping at a local restaurant to share a Snow beer and eat dumplings!

Ruby Carlson, friendly Shenyang citizen, Sara Velas on Zhongshan Square, May 2017
photo credit: another Friendly Shenyang citizen

The Shengjing Panorama will be opening in June of 2019 at the Velaslavasay Panorama, 1122 West 24th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90007

Visit the Velaslavasay website for more details:

Godspeed, Storyteller Guy - An Obituary for Shan Tianfang

Godspeed, Storyteller Guy - An Obituary for Shan Tianfang