Abstract art/poetry in contemporary China

The question of abstraction hinges on the question legibility or intelligibility, with communication of visual idea divided semiotically between the semic and asemic forms of expression. Works can be plotted along a spectrum, and I am particularly interested in relationship between word art and visual art in this context. But before this, perhaps a reference to the very eloquent defense of the illegible or ‘asemic’ side of the spectrum, provided in this case by T.J. Clark who was writing in this case with regard to the innovation of Jackson Pollock:

What Pollok invented from 1947 to 1950 was a repertoire of forms in which previously marginalized aspects of self-representation –the wordless, the somatic, the wild, the self-risking, the spontaneous, the uncontrolled, the “existential” the beyond or before our conscious activities of mind—could achieve a bit of clarity, and get themselves a relatively stable set of signifiers

(T.J. Clark, Farwell to an Idea, 308)

Such a stable set of signifiers the like of which Clark describes has long been in existence in ink painting and calligraphy in China. I am reminded of  Zhang Xu 張旭 and Huai Su 懷素, two great Tang calligraphers whose works exhibit asemic qualities (in Zhang’s case often because he was just drunk enough to “stop making sense”).

Huai Su

Zhang Xu

In the contemporary era, the tradition continues, reinvigorated by by a century or so of modernist practice in the West, but fundamentally no departure from the eigth century. This brings me back to my (ever!) ongoing (contemporary) visible (Chinese) poetry project.  I am trying to work out a nexus of visuality, Chinese poetry, modernism, and contemporary Chinese aesthetics. A thorny mix, perhaps, but conveniently summed up in the following image by Li Zhan’gang 李占剛 .  Here Li is echoing the Chinese literary tradition in calligraphically performing a well-known poetic text in this case namely, “A Generation” 一代人 by Gu Cheng 顧城

First, the poem,


The dark night has given me darkened eyes And I use

   them to look for light

Next, the calligraphic execution of the poem by Li Zhan’gang:


the tradition of re-inscribing a well-known poem can now be introduced into the realm of contemporary poetry. It is now possible to “return” to that work, to borrow from yet another medium, and “harmonize” 2009 sentiment (when Li inscribed it) with the 1979 “original.”  This in effect gives legs to a now considerably more mobile visual-verbal tradition, one which evolves anew into the future precisely for its solid anchor in the past.

UPDATE–Ai Weiwei, Pornography, and the Words of HU

The authorities have moved on from Ai’s photographer Zhao Zhao, and moved to charge him with circulating pornographic pictures online.  I’d be delighted if any readers of this blog could speculate on the implications for him.

Meantime, I just note that, as reported by XINHUA, on the same day Hu Jintao was making a speech to roughly 3000 members of the Literary/Art world (unrelated observation that the Chinese 文艺界 is such a beautifully convenient word that in three characters does so much).  This was in conjunction with the 9th Congress, and his appearances will include other speeches on other topics.  Still, his comments on the cultural world strike a rather bizarre note given the current predicament of China’s most famous artist (outside of China, anyway), and one of its leading figures in other respects domestically.  Here a bit of the flavor of Hu’s speech (with an aside or two by yours truly–just couldn’t resist):


 In the [seemingly eternal!!!] process of reform and opening up and socialist modernization, the variety and vibrancy of our literature and art continues to blossom. The greatest of our artists and writers insist on progressing with the times, and in common destiny with the people. Their effort is focused on serving the people with rich content and artistic quality, providing ample food for thought in order to further consolidate [he could have said “harmonize”] the great unity, great prosperity, and great advancement in this most exciting moment in our country’s historical development.

The vibrancy and food for thought are all Ai’s, but the “common destiny” is the challenge.  If nothing else, we might observe a poignant and important contrast: the official view of art (if we take Hu at his word) is that art is constructive, even highly powerful.  What artist wouldn’t want to fulfill the call to this mission?


Our country’s socialist literature and art, by lofty spirit and unrestrained passion, plays in irreplacable role in inspiring hundreds of millions of people, satisfying their spiritual needs, enriching their spiritual world, enhancing their spiritual strength, and promoting their overall progress.

Of course, such work is easier said than done, as Ai and countless others are constantly discovering.

798, still there, still strong

I find it curious how people take a consistently critical view of this place.  And by “people,” I mean the artists and art-related folks I hang out with when in Beijing.  THe habit, and its just that, habit, is to lament the influx of commercial ventures, from small shops to big, installation like design operations, the economically central but aesthetically marginal operations that, to hear tell, are invading what once was pure “art zone.”  True, of course, that they may know something I don’t.  More likely, they see writing on the wall, writing that still strikes me as artistically relevant graffiti, but to them smacks of advert, plain and simple.  STILL, and at least for the moment, I find that 798 offers a terrific place to go and see, yes, art.  Part of the pleasure is simply logistical.  Once upon a time (5 years ago), when I first started visiting Dashanzi, I worked hard to get Beijing taxis to even go there. This last trip, nary a hesitation when I mentioned it upon getting in the cab.  More important, the invasion of commercial ventures has included, naturally, eateries, and while the preponderance of hamburgers and pizza suggests a (hopefully) misguided assessment of present and future clientele, at least there are numerous options to keep one going the whole day.

But mostly, the 798 Zone is simply a great place to walk around.  The art is inside and out, and incidental populations, great on weekends and more subdued at other times, makes for endless interesting contrast between (aesthetically) built environment and people who use/enjoy it.  As in :


of people and things, no doubt the most photographed (because roughly at the “center” of the Zone itself in part), is this sculpture:

one really is given to wonder how the family feels when that one comes up in the photo album….

“A Beijing Bohemian in the East Village”–Ai Weiwei still in New York, sort of

This week saw the opening of an exhibition of Ai’s photographs. The exhibition is on view at Asia Society called “Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs 1983-1993,” but also through Ai’s Google+ account. The latter would suggest that Ai is not entirely ‘disconnected’ from the world at large.

I happy to find that Holland Cotter’s review in the New York Times is beginning to demonstrate a more subtle understanding of Ai and his work, something I feel has been more or less absent the English-language reporting on him (the same can be said of a great deal of Chinese ‘reporting,’ of course, only subtlety assailed from a completely different direction).  The list of epithets, gadfly, artist-provacteur, adviser, suggests better appreciation of the many roles Ai has played over the years.

What isn’t mentioned is the nude series that I’ve mentioned before on this blog.  This might be because his notable nude photograph emerges later on.  But this work, of Ai and poet artist Yan Li, is from the era covered in the exhibition:

It may well be that that the New York exhibit includes them, but that Cotter does not consider this series of nude photographs worthy of mention. And indeed, they perhaps wouldn’t be were they not the basis for one part of the charge against Ai (pornography) and an ongoing element in his work.

Zhong Biao, photography, reality, and … the rest.

Working as well, of late, on a documentary film concerning Zhong Biao and the soon-to-be-demolished Blackbridge (Heiqiao) art district in Northeast Beijing.  The documentary project, its own configuration of possibilities and pitfalls, at the very least calls to mind the problem of re-presenting “reality” in some sense. And this “reality” leads me back to Zhong Biao’s method of using photographs as the basis for his creations.

The photographs, many of which he has taken himself, are like a database of raw information–elements or building block that form the basis of his. However, unlike bricks of concrete structures, the images are abstractions (excerpts), snapshots from “reality” on the other side of the lens that float freely in time and space. In years past, the photographic snippets appeared mostly in urban settings, often painstakingly reproduced in minute detail. Now, as Zhong Biao has moved to abstract method, the figures of his paintings appear amidst dynamic swathes of color and texture, as in this unfinished work:

Still the question arises: how do particular images rise to the forefront of the artist’s mind? In just a few short days during his visit to the Seattle area in 2006, Zhong Biao took 100s of pictures, a few of which are of my children:


Some of these have ended up in paintings, like “Mirage” 海市蜃楼 from 2009:



while others have not.  The key to his creative process lies in his selection, at any given point in time, of one image over another.


“People don’t want to buy an object, they want to buy a story”

From commentary on Nicholas Chao in ARTINFO:


It’s not just about the object, the vase, or the seal. “Lost Treasures” was a high point for us, the greatest sale we ever put together. Handling a great collection is wonderful, but putting together a sale that tells a story is very exciting. Of all the sales I’ve witnessed I’ve never seen so much electricity in the room. That’s when you can really feel the excitement, when people aren’t just buying commodities.

But what, we may ask, IS the story, particularly for the contemporary Chinese artist? The notion itself is deeply flawed, but is flawed also in a highly poignant fashion.  In the literary world, at least, by and large stories are the province of the authors who create them.  Indeed, the job of the “author” is to invent or re-create, refashion, or at least in some sense “retell” a story.  By contrast, artists must somehow embody this story, one which, regrettably for the artist and so very unlike the writer, ENDS with its telling.  The artists’ story is therefore terminal, disposable, a command performance that no one really wants to read twice.

But here I am perhaps setting the bar too high. Mr. Chao’s opinion that “the story” deepens the experience of those who purchase art work is unassailable to be sure.  I’m just hoping that the openness of the artistic text can be kept in someone’s view, if not necessarily the one who put down the money to buy it. Truth is, of course, there are a multitude of stories at work in/on/around-about virtually every canvas.

My current “story,” Pacific Northwest (Chinese) artist Z. Z. Wei :


The Self Portrait

These days I’m back to work on an article concerning the poetry and visual art of Lo Ching (Luo Qing 羅青) with a special focus on self-portraiture in his verbal and visual work.  This has me considering self-portraits of a number of artists I’m often writing about, and self portraiture in general.

There are of course some notable instances of self portraiture in the Chinese visual art tradition.  Most spectacularly, perhaps, those of Ren Xiong 任熊,

More recently, but still early in the modern period, Li Jinfa 李金发 and Ji Xian 纪弦 both worked in genre.  Here is Li’s “self-sketch on a Rome Night” from 1925:

And one of many self portraits done by Ji Xian (this one 1934), who used the medium as a kind of punctuation for the various pauses and sometimes full-stops of his long career:

More recently, Yan Li 严力 created a few self portraits shortly after taking up painting in the late 1970s. This one is from 1982:


Coming to the contemporary era, the “self” shows itself to be a fully flexible concept, bound and also rent from identity in various ways, as suggested in the series by Cang Xin 苍鑫.

So what of Zhong Biao’s self portrait? He does not, as far as I know, much take himself as central focus of any painting.  His abstract work, though, can be seen as a self-portrait of such, a depiction of the mind’s interior, the “psychological fishbowl,” so to speak.  But even in the partially abstract, as in the image “Climax” from 2009, I think an argument can be made for self-same representation, particularly with Zhong’s deft use of the frame:

What, of course, transparent bowl shows us is an open question.

Meeting Huang Rui

In June also managed to cross paths with Huang Rui, founder of the 798 arts district in Beijing and on-again-off-again agitator for freedom of expression in China. As is no doubt often the case when encountering such luminaries, one is usually impressed by their simplicity, humility, and straightforwardness. Yet, as ArtSpeakChina has it:

Huang Rui (黄锐) is one of China’s most respected and controversial contemporary artists. Since co-founding The Stars Group in 1979, Huang has been involved in numerous debates over the need for free expression. Despite living in self-exile for close to twenty years, Huang Rui is considered one of the founding members of China’s contemporary art movement.

Other issues aside, I still marvel at 798 every time I go there.  Huang’s contribution was early on modest; in effect, he needed a convenient place to work and the district that is now 798 was an empty nest of old factories awaiting demolition.  Of course, in years following (2005-2007) Huang’s organization skills came into full force, with major international arts festivals located at 798, followed by major struggles with authorities unnerved by massive foreign investment into such entrepreneurial activity, arts related or not.  Thus, Huang’s operation was shut down, 798 handed over the Beijing government, and Huang has since moved, for the moment, to a neighboring district named Huangtie (a few miles north).  Meanwhile, 798 continued to boom, if by boom we mean a proliferation of all manner of shop.  On most days, merely walking down the nominally pedestrian streets is a bit of a challenge.  The question of how we read such a success is an open one.  I know Huang Rui for one has rather mixed feelings.

当下 --Dinner at Karin’s

For those who wonder how contemporary art in China “works” (as I have on occasion), the answer is, for those familiar with China, not very surprising–eating.  Elaborate dinners are the tool of choice for artists and their enthusiasts, and by enthusiasts I mean principally those who buy and sell art.  The hosts of such soirees are in other words vital components in the mechanics of contemporary Chinese art world, and an excellent example of such a host is Karin Chenlin, curator, collector and self-professor “Life Artist.”

We visited Karin’s home/studio in the Caochangdi district of Beijing the night prior to our return to Seattle.  The meal went on for hours, as is typical (day break on most occasions), and was as voluminous as it was excellent.  Zhong Biao’s paintings (among other works) hung on the walls, some of which had been brought in for the occasion of the dinner itself, and small birds twittered freely about the small bamboo grove situated in the middle of the living room.

Conversation at such events is wine-fueled, philosophical, and almost studiously un-political.  But above all, and what is perhaps most striking about this group of successful Chinese artists and art lovers, is the absence of a plan.  The “organization of distances,” to quote early twentieth-century poet Bian Zhilin, is an appointment (never early morning), perhaps a plane reservation, typically no more than a day or two away. As I inquire of this group about the more distant future, the like of which one might commit to a calendar, I get blank stares in return.  “We live in the moment” 当下. Apparently, that’s not where my question lies.