Li Hongtao 李洪涛

Hong_Tao_Li_Untitled_2008_30x25 htli_76248_1



below is a short essay written as part of my work on abstraction in Chinese art and poetry

also in Chinese:

Abstract Healing of Li Hongtao

Li Hongtao was born in Dalian, China in 1947. He was not trained as an artist, having instead studied engineering, a career interrupted by personal tragedy–the loss of his father at a young age–and the collective catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution. After a brief engagement with culinary studies, Li took up visual art, a realm in which he is entirely self-taught. Nonetheless, in recent years he has established himself in major art networks, with solo exhibitions in Carlos Hall at the Louvre and the United Nations both in 2013, and numerous galleries and art institutions around the world.

Li’s paintings occasionally depict landscapes and other figures of usually natural rather than man-made origin, but by and large his work is done in a non-representational or abstract style. Though China certainly has a robust painting tradition stretching back centuries, and even a modern painting tradition based upon exogenous European examples from the 19th through 20th-centuries, the origins for abstract painting such as that produced by Li Hongtao are not in painting at all but in writing. This is because on a basic level the foundations of the Chinese writing system were at heart abstract, or better put, manifestations of “that which is of itself thus,” a paraphrase of the Chinese word “ziran” 自然 meaning nature. Chinese abstract art is by its very nature in line influential art critic Clement Greenberg’s view:

The avant-garde poet or artist tries in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms, in the way nature itself is valid, in the way a landscape–not its picture–is aesthetically valid; something given, increate, independent of meanings, similars or originals. Content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself. (Art and Culture, Boston: Beacon, 1961: 6).

The Chinese writing system is derived, near as one can determine, from natural forms (li 理, or wenli 文理), patterns in bamboo leaves, landscapes, bird tracks or any other naturally occurring phenomena — all that is “aesthetically valid,” in Greenberg’s words, in and of itself. The hieroglyphic or pictographic stage followed from there, and the full Chinese character-based writing system soon after. Nonetheless, the abstract origin of all Chinese writing is ever-present for the calligrapher or artist to exploit, returning the word to the mere image, an object of contemplation in and of itself. Such was the case, for instance, in the work of Zhang Xu 张旭, Tang dynasty calligrapher who famously drank himself to a state of total inebriation and then produced wild, illegible but unanimously celebrated calligraphy. As a backdrop to abstract expression in China, there exists a rich array of examples from literature and art, a tradition which is, ironically, no less modern than anything produced in the West in the past two or three centuries.

Beyond mere mentions of style, Li’s work is connected with traditional Chinese painting in uncommonly substantive ways. To begin with, he draws clearly from Chinese landscape traditions. Namely, his visual forms can be appreciated not simply for the two dimensional attributes of lines upon on the canvas, but instead for their three-dimensional penetration of the space through shading and intensity of color, again much the way calligraphy is at least as much about depth or degree of saturation of black and white as any given stroke or line. We don’t look at Li’s painting, we look into it. In so doing, though, we are engaged with the work in a fashion that is unlike regular artistic observation or appreciation. Li’s painting is a demonstration in traditional Chinese aesthetic terms not of a given “expression” of an artist, but indeed, of the artist himself, his person, even his moral or spiritual being, a form of the ancient Chinese adage that “writing is the delineation of the mind” 书心画也 (attributed to Yang Xiong 杨雄–53–18ce).

But Li’s work is alternatively known as “energy painting,” something which takes us deeper in to his work still, and where he transcends the East-West and perhaps even figurative-abstract divides altogether. With his particular ability to draw from the power of color, Li himself sees his work not only as something which pleases, or even challenges his viewers. His goals as an artist are even more ambitious that then. He takes the interaction with his paintings as a form of reclaiming essential balance, a kind of cosmic order which, rather than remote and spiritual, from the Chinese view of health and wellness is simply a function of the flow of energy through the universe. This flow pervades the five elements of the natural world just as it does the vital organs of the human body, a material realm enlivened by qi 气, a primordial power or energy which travels the meridians in the human body (along with all other living beings), flowing either freely or with obstruction depending on the degree of health in a given organism. The viewer’s interaction with Li’s painting activates and stimulates this flow, images that can be not only seen but actually felt in the viewer’s body.

Li Hongtao’s painting is the kind of aesthetic accord which demonstrates that fully individual, even iconic work can flow seemingly effortlessly from two sources at once– a rich and ancient aesthetic tradition in China, a more recent, assertive avant-garde practice in the West. However, while looking at Li’s work none of these origin stories really matter much. The painting speaks for itself, louder than words could ever manage.




798 Alive and Well


Can’t say how many times over the years I have encountered the idea, while traveling in China and more particularly Beijing and more particularly still the Northeast district (Chaoyang), that the 798 arts zone is “dead.” Its been dead since shortly after its birth in 2001, a pronouncement made famously by one of its progenitors (I’ll resist the word “father”), Huang Rui. Huang was early on disgusted with the commercial/propaganda vehicle that the area quickly became once the Chinese government changed its original plan-to demolish the entire factory (built, for those unaware, in the 1950s by Chinese -East-German joint venture). Whatever Beijing authorities had planned at the time, no doubt it was not what turned out to be the most lucrative thing imaginable– a free, independent, international/global center for the production, exhibition and appreciation of contemporary art, both Chinese and non-Chinese.

The word “independent” here, though, is what caused problems in the views of Huang and others. Once the Chinese government got involved, there was immediately a chilling effect on the scope and of course content of the art created and exhibited. Meantime, and in curious lock-step with the increased surveillance and hence control of the artistic “message,” the commercial value of space in the entire 798 area rose so rapidly that most artists were priced out. Thus, it mattered little whether 798 was doomed for economic or political reasons, it was still doomed.

Or at least, such is the narrative. I’m certainly not going to propose that either one of those interferences with the development of an arts district is not in effect in the case of 798, but I still find, year after year, that visiting the zone remains a rewarding even impressive experience, where art of significant quality is on display in a density and variety that few places in the world (I know that’s a big claim–would love to be challenged on this point) can rival.

Here, then, a few rather pathetic shots from my own  camera with a bit of commentary.


the first thing I like to observe at 798 is its edge. I love the ay the art and building come to an abrupt halt, here on the northwest corner. The installation of traffic mirrors to aid in safety a good example of something you won’t find often in Beijing, despite the fact that quote a few places could use them. The fringe of the above ground heating system, still wrapped in insulation, and the remains of whatever structural gate previously bordered the space when it was a factory district in the 1950s.






Here the makings of a typically elaborate exhibition, this one in the courtyard beside PACE Gallery, Beijing. Not a great deal to be discerned at this stage of installation, but typically arresting image of an airplane wing jetting up from underground.




798 Poeisis

This is one of the most interesting elements of 798 to me– the people who are constantly engaged in the incessant building, demolition and rebuilding that an arts district of this scale requires. I’ve often thought that if anyone really needed to obtain a thorough picture of what this place is they should contact whatever outfit sends workers in to actually make what we see visible. And then have a few sit-downs with the workers. One of these days I’ll find a way to do this.


798Workers1 798Workers2


the Inside:

Too much to report on this at once. Here just a few shots from a Fang Lijun exhibition, which included both oil paintings and woodblock prints, demonstrating that his work is still current and suggestive. going on while I was there. More impressive still was the Ai Weiwei installation I saw, but I’ll write about that separately.



Zhong Biao at the Margins of the Avant-garde


Last month at the American Comparative Literature Conference in Seattle, on a panel co-organized by Barrett Watten, Jonathan Stalling and Jacob Edmond, I was presenting on Zhong Biao. Here a brief digest of my remarks.


Title: Zhong Biao at the Margins of the Avant-garde


Broader context:

I am trying to situate Zhong Biao with regard to the contemporary Chinese avant-garde. In the process, I am posing the following question: if we begin with the assumption that essentially (and among other things) the avant-garde is a challenge to status quo, a compulsion to dissolve codifications wherever they occur (and particularly as they relate to or bolster ideological structures with mass influence, be they market appeal or state apparatus based on coercion), then what of a situation where so few codifications are in fact in effect? –that is contemporary China, a tear-it-up-and-rebuild-it ethos, be it in the array of material work of the built environment or in the circular waves of political campaign didactially deployed to lead the nation “forward” but, I suspect, more often than not not fooling anyone.

Zhong Biao focus:

Zhong’s work strives, through a combination of abstraction and uncanny juxtaposition of realistically rendered figures from disparate space and time, to uncover latent energies or pneuma of the universe, manifest momentarily. The ephemera of our lives and ourselves emerge in his painting at the point of concretization but also dissolution, and always in some inherent interconnectedness.

This is an ambitious project because Zhong’s work does not fit easily within the avant-garde. Indeed, I suspect many would argue that his work belongs in an opposite category, if such a category exists. Where avant-garde practice is oppositional and in some respects destructive, Zhong’s is affirming, constructive, and mainstream. The reason I believe such a conversation is even warranted is that an attempt to situate ZB in AG context encourages fathoming of the limits of each. While discovering limitations of an artist poised too close to market impulses is unremarkable, observing the edge (blunt rather than cutting?) of the avant-garde as marginal overlap with the market is perhaps news.


Images discussed:

20、An Overall View 87.8x69.6cm Serigraphs 2013

An Overall View 150 x 120 cm 2013

10 Thousand Years

10 Thousand Years 200 x 150 cm 2011


Life 280 x 200 2004


Swinging Landscape 200 x 150 cm 2010



Today 400 x 280 cm 2009


Living Space 130 x 130 cm 1996 (Oil on Canvas)


Cultural un-development in China

Quick quiz:

The following quote from the NBC WorldBlog:

“Whenever I get back to New York, I’m in middle earth, and when I’m in Europe I feel like I’m in a museum. And here it feels like the right pulse of time.”

Question: where’s the “here” here?

对了。Its Beijing. Granted, the year is 2009, when the Beijing Olympics were still bouncing about the echo chambers of very recent memory banks. I’m often given to wondering since about how Beijing/New York (or Paris or…) is doing in that comparison. Recent reports like this one in Chinarealtimereport, suggest that its not going so well, at least if we take Beijing 798 as something of a center of potential for cultural development. That phrase is at least 1/2 in effect, which is to say the Chinese government is about to “develop” another 50 billion yuan into 798, a place not want for capital investment, as far as I can tell. What it has been lacking in many people’s estimate in recent years is something genuine amidst the rapidly spreading shlock of unscrupulous consumerism. Indeed, a development from consumerism with scruples to the worst of the laissez faire (which is to say massively engineered top down extravaganza that this bit of “cultural” investment appears to be) is precisely what will destroy the “cultural” part of the comparison with New York or any other vibrant urban center the world over.

This development (in able hands of Melco International Development Ltd) has generated more controversy than usual, however, partly because consciousness of the use of resources both financial and natural (water) has risen considerably, and China’s burgeoning internet community–which so far China’s government has not figured out how to ‘develop’ –is very apt at expressing that consciousness in microblogs. Not to say that the push-back will necessarily stop to project. Chances are it won’t. But we could be optimistic and believe that developers and officials alike will finds ways to be guided by wisdom found in voluminous weibo postings.

Its also a moment when I for one would like to pause and note the importance of the voice of Ai Weiwei, of whose antics I’m occasionally critical, but whose basic critique of Chinese government policy where culture is concerned is more or less spot-on. We could perhaps take the positive view that Ai and others will become more central to decision making in the cultural sphere going forward. At the moment, I can’t quite be that positive.

What goes up, must come….Market update


Yang Yongliang, ‘A crocodile and shotgun’, 2012, “Silent Valley”, digital print, 66 x 119cm

Inevitably, the time arrives to take notice of the descent of what was for a moment (or perhaps a bit more) seemingly endless upward trend of Chinese art market. Estimates vary (as estimates will), but since a peak in 2011 Chinese art sales on world market have dropped by something like %50. Now comes the interesting game of trying to pinpoint why. While the intelligent, if not just informed, answer is that a number of factors are at work, the tendency to push towards which factor leads the way is strong indeed.  Here are my top three, though I can’t say in which order:

1. The Chinese economy has slowed bringing all activity down a notch or two. Down %50? no, but a downturn in gangbusters economy like China’s would perhaps tend to hit fastest those whose money came the most quickly in recent years, coincidentally the ones (domestically) most inclined to be buying art.

2. Fraud. Chinese cultural scene has been for some time rife with the knock-off. Indeed, so pervasive is this that one might (actually, should) be given to wonder what the “original” really means in this day and age, if in fact it ever meant that much at all. Our fetishistic attention to original object, in my humble view, often if not usually an act of faith. On the other hand (and here’s the one that matters!), “original” does mean a lot monetarily. Everything, in fact, and the ever increasing presence of false merchandise is not helping the Chinese art market much at all.

3. Taxes. The Chinese government is stepping up its game in the tax collection department, with art and real estate taking primary position in the spotlight of national revenue. A new adjustment in luxury goods, which fantastically art belongs, has kicked in, and that is going to send investors in particular, if not the committed collectors, running for some other commodity.

The major caveat in my “report,” here is that this is not the first time pundits have proclaimed the death of the Chinese (art market) miracle, as David Barboza of the the New York Times, wrongly, in 2009 reported.  A bit more judiciously, then, “what comes up, must come down…at least for a while.

Ok, now, for anyone who actually read all the way to the bottom of this post trying to figure out what Yang Yongliang‘s image has to do with current art market I can now tell you: nothing. I just love his work… (sorry?)

Back from China, ON-OFF


Just back from a few weeks in China where I was well protected from the dangerous platforms such as WordPress and the like. Just checking back in now with Facebook and other friends, and taking note of Evan Osnos recent piece in the New Yorker. Osnos, arguably one of the most persuasive talking heads in the Klayman documentary about Ai Weiwei, is also increasingly one of the most credible voices about contemporary China on a wide array of subjects. Particularly pleased, then, that he’s paying attention to contemporary art.

The context for Osnos’ piece is the new opening at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art. The exhibition (curated by Bao Dong 鲍栋 and Song Dong 孙冬冬) is a major event in its own right, with 50 commissioned works by 50 artists or artists groups, members all born after the end of the Cultural Revolution. As to the Apple performance discussed in Osnos’ piece, it seems to me a continuation of pervious work done by contemporary Chinese artists, but a continuation of a subject that needs to be continued. I have in mind a couple of pieces by Ai Weiwei, but principally the Tate  sunflower seeds that follows a similar thread, although it does so much more obliquely.  Ai is commenting on labor in China, with hands so cheap he could commission the creation of virtually countless hand-crafted porcelain seeds. (Tate purchased only 8 million of them–there were more). Of course, Ai’s piece is about much more than mere labor, with a very wide metaphorical scope  encompassing China as symbol, but the implications of  contemporary art object as concrete commodity are there.  In this case, though, Li Liao 李燎 goes for broke, exhibiting the mechanics of contemporary global capitalism in China from source to destination. He does so by actually getting a job at FOXCON and making the iPads, etc. himself, then exhibiting them in a place where most of the consumers of art are carrying such devices in their pockets anyway.  As Osnos describes:

I watched two young men separately linger over it for very different reasons: one was a hip Chinese gallerygoer in chunky glasses and a camel-hair coat, taking it all in; the other was a gallery security guard in a borrowed suit and white gloves. He was studying the details of the contract.

This is performance art at its best, and the type that China will need more of to keep the scene fresh in the years to come. As that develops, I for one hope Evan will keep reporting what transpires. 


Midnight in Paris-Beijing

Just watched Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris again (first time was on an airplane en route Beijing, as it turns out) and thinking of what no doubt would strike many as a radical if not ridiculous idea. Namely, how does the Paris of the 1920s compare with contemporary Beijing. Of course, for those who have seen the film, there’s more than one ‘scene’ at work–I’m talking Hemingway/Picasso, not Lautrec, for what its worth–and the strength of Allen’s script no doubt is its clever take on nostalgia for what may never have existed.  Still, the depiction of a vibrant cultural scene, with artists and writers debating the aesthetic way forward as if to be looking for the one and only point of egress to proper being itself does bear some interesting similarities with what’s happened in China in contemporary period.  To put this mostl bluntly, then, can we view present-day Beijing as THE global cutting edge?

In suggesting this I am also aware that the very notion of a “cutting edge” may well be passe (strikes me suddenly that that sentence required a French word). In fact, it may never have had validity in the first place.  On the other hand, viewing Allen’s film is only one additional reminder that the idea of some geographical CENTER housing the most current form of expression continues to have strong showing in the cultural imaginary, right or wrong.  Moving forward, I suppose, might entail establishing the criteria for arriving at identification of such a center, from which point we would “measure up”  the Chinese scene.