Scenes of Disturbances and Chaos——On Huang Zhiyang's Art and Its Development
◎ Chia Chi Jason Wang
Born in 1965, Huang Zhiyang studied at Chinese Culture University. During that time, he rented a shabby house in Yangmingshan in the suburbs of Taipei, and continued to live there during the 1990s. Even though the place he lived was shabby, its surroundings were wild and natural, and he took to growing melons and vegetables. Huang was trained in ink painting, but he moved away from traditional subjects such as landscape, trees, rocks and pastoral idyll. Instead, he studied the method of depicting the shades and texture of rocks and mountains (cun) in traditional Chinese Painting. Returning to the essence of this method, he adapted it and created his own form and technique by integrating it with his observation of the natural environment around him.
Huang's most celebrated works in the contemporary Chinese Taiwan art circle are probably the two huge series Maternity Room and Zoon. Maternity Room was first shown in 1991. A formally similar work evolved into the Phallicism series, while the works from the Zoon series were exhibited from 1996 onwards, up to around 1998. Huang has shown his series in different dimensions and with a varying number of works in Taiwan as well as art spaces in Europe and the US. Basically, the Zoon series is a further extension of Maternity Room and Phallicism. Whether in terms of formal expression, the exhibition format or the content of the works, one can see the continuity and further development from one series to the other.
During the 1990s, when "installation art" became a trend in Chinese Taiwan contemporary art, Huang also worked on the possibility of developing his painting into installation art, striving to use different modes of expression and media. Since his exhibitions now took the form of installation, people almost temporarily forgot the direct connection between Huang's painting and traditional ink works. Over the course of a few years, Huang actively developed other kinds of media. Ceramics, cable lines, chemical fiber, as well as natural found objects such as oysters are materials he has attempted to use in developing his diverse work. One of his most memorable projects is his solo exhibition "Melancholy Forest" at the Taipei Cultural Center in 1995. The anthropomorphic forest images he created using discarded telephone cables can be seen as a three-dimensional version of Maternity Room. It also anticipated the subsequent Zoon series. This period, in which Huang experimented with media, falls between Maternity Room in 1992 and the Zoon series of 1996.
From 1996, with the unveiling of the Zoon installations with paintings, Huang returned to painting as his main medium. Apart from commissions for large-scale public installation art projects where funds are more ample, his output in 3-D installations using other kinds of media has continuously decreased. Large outdoor exhibitions, in which he was invited, took part include "Taiwan Installation Art" held in Chiayi in late 1997, as well as "Land Ethics" organized by the Fubon Art Foundation in Taipei in late 1998. Huang's diminishing use of 3-D found objects can be understood from different angles: first, installation art became less popular towards the end of the 1990s in Taiwan; second, installation art works employ many found objects or 3-D objects. These works not only fail to find buyers in the art market, but also pose the problem of storage after the exhibitions close. Thus, artists are faced with the problem of high production cost and the lack of storage space. In addition, Taiwan's art market became stagnant in the late 1990s with the economic downturn. Since the form of installation art could not enter the commercial art galleries and it was hard to convince the generally more conservative collectors to collect them, installation art was unable to expand further. With the exception of cases where there were sufficient sponsorships, especially official funds, Chinese Taiwan installation art already lost steam by the end of the 1990s.
After 1996, Huang seemed to be more conscious of the expressive quality of ink in his painting. With the creation of the Zoon series, the expressionistic tendencies of ink and wash or ink and colour became even more pronounced. Sometimes, the artist would consciously or unconsciously emphasize the trace and movement of the brush on paper. In the second half of 1995, Huang was invited to participate in the first exhibition of the Taiwan Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale by the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. This opened up further opportunities to exhibit internationally, most notably in Germany in 1997. The Zoon series was first shown in Ludwig Museum in Aachen in 1996. This kind of overseas experience as well as cultural exchange or even cultural shock undoubtedly made Huang even more aware of the roots and tradition of his art. A stronger ink and wash quality and a freer brushwork became necessary for Huang to foreground his cultural sources and heritage.
What's more, the Zoon series first presented in 1996 shows a dynamic quality of the brush following the artist's will. More specifically, since the format of this series was larger than ever, the artist habitually placed the work on the floor and moved his body back and forth to leave traces of the brush and ink on the paper, in a manner similar or close to Jackson Pollock. This expressionistic creative method combines the spirit of traditional Chinese ink painting and the action painting manner of western Abstract Expressionism, lending great immediacy and contemporariness to Huang's ink and wash works. This was the specific response of the artist to his exposure to and exchange with western culture.
If we trace Huang's artistic style, there is a series of works that look like formal exercises or formal explorations he created as early as in 1988. This series was later named Morphological Ecology. The forms are mostly derived from natural objects, especially plant shapes. Through exaggeration, magnification or stylized distortion, Huang transformed the lines and texture of these forms from plants into semi-abstract brushwork and shapes. This method of turning natural forms into artistic ones has since become a basic working method of the artist. In recent years, Huang has used a high-powered microscope to observe plant cells, as well as plankton living in symbiosis with plants, in the hope of obtaining new inspiration for making art.
In contrast to Morphological Ecology based on the texture and forms of plants, the Preaching series that Huang started in 1989 derived its inspiration from the Buddhist statue tradition in ancient Chinese art history. Actually, the basic motifs of the paintings in the Preaching series still come from Morphological Ecology, but the contours of Buddhas preaching are incorporated.
The Morphological Ecology series mostly features the creation and expression of a single figure, with one motif on each painting. Starting with the Preaching series, Huang gradually developed the method of "multiplication" which would later become a norm. Shapes suggesting Buddhas preaching, which might look similar but are actually quite different, are endlessly repeated to form a large suite or a series composed of several or dozens of paintings, occupying a great deal of wall space. This method of multiplication is not done by the endless reproduction of the same composition. Thus, it has nothing to do with the mass reproduction or painting or consumer goods. Instead, Huang's act resembles the ritual of repeated copying of scriptures by ancient devotees. Even though the paintings may look similar, each is individual and original. As such, each work is unique and irreplaceable.
Since Huang's serial paintings are executed in ink and wash, the movement and trace of the brush on the paper constitute an important aesthetic and source of beauty of his work. Ink painting lies at the heart of the Chinese artistic tradition. Its fundamental aesthetic rests on temporality and the fine traces left by the brush on the scroll. Through the dots, washes and shades of ink and traces of the slow or rapid movement of the brush, the viewer can directly sense the work and its energy. This kind of reception has to do with psychological and emotional awareness, utterly different from conceptual art that appeals to reason, the intellect and logic.
In discussing the representational tradition of western painting, renowned American art historian Norman Bryson has compared it with Chinese painting, pointing out the great differences between the two traditions in terms of technique, form, expression and aesthetics. He referred to the preference for brush and ink in Chinese painting and quoted "deft brushwork", one of the Six Principles of Painting established by HSIEH He (active around mid-six century) in his famous painting treatise, as an example to illustrate the basic aesthetic tendencies of Chinese painting. According to Bryson, the preference for the expression of brush and ink in Chinese painting gives it a unique "performing quality", which makes the "temporality" visible and allows spectators to see the "deictic time of the painting as proce"①.
Apparently, Huang makes skillful use of the "performing quality", "temporality" and "immediacy" in Chinese ink painting observed by Bryson to transform brush and ink into a medium that can reflect and comment on society, rather than one that merely expresses the spirit and the artistic conception. Huang has successfully broken with the artistic canons of traditional ink painting and developed it into an artistic form that can actively respond to and address contemporary social issues.
The two major series Morphological Ecology and Preaching established Huang's basic artistic style at the beginning of the 1990s. In 1992, he presented works featuring flowers and distorted human figures. He called the series based on flowers When Flowers Are Not Flowers and the works with human-like figures Maternity Room or Phallicism. I should point out that the character pronounced as "" from the Chinese title of Maternity Room was made up by the artist, who derived it partly from the term for "crazy" in the Taiwan dialect. This character and naming are a satiric comment on the chaotic politics and the madness of society during the 1990s. The title Phallicism can also be interpreted as the artist's criticism of the egocentrism and materialism of local society. The first "" also suggests that the figures in the paintings are human-like in form but are in fact "non-human". They are just mutant forms of half-man and half-worm, with no humanity or spirituality. Huang reproduces these half-human figures as some kind of natural organism. In fact, as long as there is space, he could even reproduce them endlessly. After 1996, Huang referred to this kind of creature as "Zoon", as if they formed their own kind and followed their own rules. By that time, the beautiful plant textures and shapes and the motif of preaching Buddhas had been completely subverted and overturned. Ink painting was liberated from the ideals of beauty and harmony of man with nature, which had been the ultimate aesthetic goals since ancient times.
The series When Flowers Are Not Flowers, Phallicism, Maternity Room and Zoon can be seen as Huang's responses and criticisms after witnessing the turbulences and transformations in society in the 1990s. Formally, these works manifest the tremendous freedom of brush and ink on paper. In them, Huang created giant images of mutant creatures by integrating the images of man and worm. In terms of content, these metamorphosed creatures symbolize Huang's questioning of human morality and values during this period. Apart from criticizing the materialism in Chinese Taiwan society, the half-human figures in his works are also a collective social portrait of the madness of mankind.
In 1998, following the Zoon series, Huang started to develop the Lover's Library series. Its Chinese title was changed to "恋人絮语", inspired by the title of the Chinese translation of Roland Barthes' A Lover's Discourse, when the works were shown at the Hanart Gallery in Taipei in April 2001. In the catalogue, Huang included quotes from the book to match the couples in his paintings.
The mode of expression and aesthetics of Lover's Library contrast sharply with the paintings of his earlier series. In the past painting series, emphasis was placed on the concept and subject matter of the figures, and no individualization was made. In other words, the half-human figures mainly came from subjective imagination and distortion, and were meant to portray the human condition in contemporary Chinese Taiwan society. In Lover's Library, Huang abandoned the more fantastic images in favour of the realistic representation of individuals from a nearer distance. His brushwork also became much more restrained. From using bold and free brushwork to create distorted figures for the sake of powerful social commentary, he turned to a more meticulous and careful style and used couples as models for his depiction. These works are also more introspective, concentrating on the individual psychology and subtle emotional dialogues expressing love and tenderness between people. With the emotional quality of Lover's Library, Huang apparently changed his artistic direction and concern from the social and political to the spiritual.
Huang's aesthetic shift undoubtedly reveals the change in his personal concerns. His large, monumental and masculine images in the 1990s were highly topical, social and political, and even carried strong suggestions of subversion and confrontation or anti-aesthetic ideas. By the end of 1990s or at the beginning of the new century, he turned to a more subtle, soft, warm, sentimental and suggestive figurative style. This aesthetic readjustment from the external to the internal, from confrontation to introspection, from boldness to subtly and delicacy, from movement to stillness, from turbulence to lyricism reflects the change of the artist's state of mind, and sets the tone for his new work.
Lover's Library returns to fundamental humanistic concerns. Through the paintings of different couples, Huang seems to be exploring issues like the loss of identity and human values in contemporary society. By depicting the couples who volunteered as models, he endowed man's existence and the human spirit with ritualized dignity.
In April 2004, Huang presented a new series Three Marks. Continuing with hisbasic formal vocabulary since the 1990s, this series employs a minimalist motif endlessly repeated and accumulated to form the overall composition. The rituality in Lover's Library is further deepened in Three Marks. But the human shapes have been dissolved, and the dark and chilling mood of his former work is gone. Instead, one seems to see a "spirit" that transcends the body, like some kind of vision and is reminiscent of the Preaching series completed in 1989. The Buddhist references or associations in this work are equally clear in Three Marks. "Spirit" implies an imagination that transcends the physical boundaries. This kind of transition from form to formless also suggests the dialectic of being / nothing and solid / void.
Three Marks explores a kind of aesthetic of spirituality. In these paintings, Huang not only appropriates the formal vocabulary and associations in the Buddhist art tradition, he also seems to draw from the mystical and even polytheistic character of Taoism. The images of Three Marks symbolize Buddhist enlightenment, but the "spirits" depicted also evoke associations with the image of "Samadhi Fire" in Taoism, which in turn has a certain parallel in the "inner light" of Buddhism.
In Three Marks, Huang seems to emphasize the energy of spirituality. He deliberately creates different kinds of formation as if he was some kind of shaman, priest or spiritual medium. Through the generation, concentration and direction of energy, Huang's Three Marks show a clear tendency towards mysticism.
In 2006, Huang decided to move to Beijing to further pursue his artistic career. Just as he had always lived on the periphery of the city since the late 1980s, he chose to live and work in a kind of border area in Beijing. Whether consciously or unconsciously and whether deliberate or not, Huang's peripheral existence allows him to develop an outsider's perspective in his explorations of the subject of the city.
Born in Taipei, Huang grew up there and witnessed the transformations of Taiwan society before and after the lifting of martial law. Even though he had always lived on the periphery of Taipei city, as an artist who observed the city and human nature, he could not help but create collective portraits of Taiwan society coloured by his subjective feelings, thus producing sharp social criticism. But Huang's situation in Beijing is very different. Now over forty, he is no longer the young and impetuous artiest he once was.
In Beijing, Huang is a complete outsider. Since he lives in the suburbs, the sights and neighbourhoods he sees are bound to be different from the city centre. Due to his identity as an outsider and a suburb resident, his relationship with Beijing is one of "otherness", which is built on the psychological state of strangeness, alienation and non-assimilation. As a newly arrived artist, Huang is able to paint what he sees and feels from the novel and fresh perspective of the other.
With this aesthetic distance, Huang's paintings that depict Beijing city and the sights around his home are no longer direct social criticisms. Rather they are like collecting specimens of social beings. If Huang's works in the 1990s are a commentary on the collective changes of the human character in Taiwan society from the first person's point of view, his work with Beijing as subject would come from the third person's point of view, mixed with some kind of cultural, social and anthropological observation.
Since Huang emerged as an artist at the end of the 1980s, his work has gone through several stages and manifested a rich and varied style. But the essence of his art has remained unchanged. Put simply, this essence is a curiosity about and exploration of primordial force or energy. Expressed in the artistic form, it is the "biological" element ubiquitous in Huang's images.
Retaining the title of Zoon, Huang calls his new work Zoon – Beijing-Bio, an obvious continuation of his concept of "collective social portrait" evolved in the 1990s. In his artist's statement, Huang says that he sees Beijing as "a gigantic field of vital energy". He can smell the "destructiveness" and "disturbance" of man in the city air, and sense a "raging crisis" in the local environment. In his view, Beijing is a mixture of the "foreign" and the "existing" and of the new and old, a "gigantic, constantly changing space" that is continuously "accelerating". Huang also senses a strong "biological" desire there. According to him, it is a city where there is "no differentiation between high and low" and all "exist in a mix in this zone".
Through the style of ink painting, Huang attempts to show his mixed feelings towards Beijing emotionally. Employing formats more than 4 meters high, exceeding a person's height, he paints with sensational brushwork, allowing viewers to sense the speed and strength of brushwork through the lines or drips of ink. Amid this temporality, he creates a kind of distorted space, where human bodies and natural vegetation are intermingled, sometimes becoming a mix of both. Between abstraction and representation, Huang has come up with a new style combining psychological and real space.
In his recent works completed in Beijing, Huang has given brush and ink more subtle and dramatic variations, while the speed has become more visible and precise. In addition, the calligraphic and narrative brushwork has achieved a better balance. Compared with his works in the 1990s with their strong ideological critique but simpler style, Zoon – Beijing-Bio contains much richer imagery. They also manifest the maturity, with which Huang unleashes his energy, so that his work is bold and wild but not lacking in restraint or subtlety.
On the whole, as a trial work after his move to Beijing, Zoon – Beijing-Bio carries on his past reflection on the city and the primitive desires of man. But the scale and energy of the new work are greater than ever, demonstrating the maturity of his personal style.
Zoon – Dreamscape is the latest series unveiled by Huang Zhiyang in 2008. Unlike the Zoon – Beijing-Bio works he completed in Beijing over the past two years using monochrome ink and wash, he applies layers of ink and colour on top of the originally lyrical background of brush and ink in Zoon – Dreamscape. In addition, he uses a large amount of water to create colours of different hues on the painting surface, letting them seep into his ground at different times to create overlapping layers of rich colours in the finished work.
Despite the same expressionist style, the earlier Zoon – Beijing-Bio manifests a primordial and simple character. In terms of visual realization, after endless reproduction, mutation and propagation, the monocell-like motif is transformed into an organic anthropomorphic flowering tree. In Zoon – Dreamscape, these flowering tree shapes created by monochrome brush and ink further become the most basic and essential brushwork, with layers of diluted colour and ink producing an all-over visual impression. As a result, the anthropomorphic flowering tree shapes depicted by deft brushwork are covered up and threaten to disappear or become obliterated. In terms of psychological effect, Huang's new Zoon – Dreamscape series accentuates the sense of oppression and suffocation due to the process of overpainting.
Actually, the use of colour in Huang's work can often be seen in his paintings on transmuted flowers since the late 1980s, such as the Morphological Ecology series (1988) and the series When Flowers Are Not Flowers (1992). This kind of expression was closely related with the fact that he was living in Yangmingshan at the edge of the Taipei Basin. The natural vegetation there gave him a lot of inspiration and stimulation. Interestingly, even though he studies from nature, Huang tends to use artificial bright colours and almost deliberately creates unnatural contrasts between gaudy colours.
In 1998, Huang took part in the exhibition "Taipei's Backyard" held at the Grass Mountain Chateau in Yangmingshan. Using a green carpet to cover up the roof and wall of the historic residence, he named his work Green Light. The carpet is an industrial product. Its industrial and gaudy "green" clashes with the natural "green" colour of Yangmingshan, with the latter suggesting natural and easy breathing, while the former is a mass-produced product. Huang used an artificial and flashy colour to engage in a violent act of covering up, shutting out the possibility of dialogue between man and history and creating something unnatural or even anti-natural in nature. What he did was in fact a concrete reflection on society and human landscape.
After the Green Light installation, Huang kept his great interest in natural ecology alive. From 2000, he attempted to put natural phenomena into the exhibition venue to explore the relations between life and art. The Moss installation in 2001 was one such work. He also used a microscope to record the movements of bacteria in water and developed it into the video installation I am a cute germ. From this, one can see that the growth and shapes of moss and germs have always played a subtle role in Huang's work.
Moss and germs are generally considered to be lower forms of life. Moreover, their growth is facilitated by a damp environment or stagnant water. To most people, moss and germs are living organisms that thrive in a negative and unhealthy environment. They may even portent a certain disease. Stubborn and hard to eliminate, they carry a scent of death to a certain extent.
Huang's current Zoon – Dreamscape series of paintings can be seen as a continuation of his early colour and ink works. In terms of subject matter, they are also closely related to the two installations from 1998 and 2001 discussed above on green and ecological issues. But seen in context of the time and space, Green Light evoked political associations with the history of white terror in Taiwan, while seemingly also containing some veiled criticism of the then DDP government in Taipei. In contrast, Zoon – Dreamscape in 2008 concentrates mainly on exploring and revealing the inner visual and psychological space of painting, rather than referencing or alluding to political, ideological issues.
Compare with the two installation works Moss from 1998 and I am a cute germ from 2001, Zoon – Dreamscape is no longer about the objective growth and changes of nature, nor does it involve the appropriation of nature to achieve the goal of symbolism in terms of the meaning of the visual language. Like other ink works entitled "Zoon", Zoon – Dreamscape shows a strong expressionist style. However, the treatment of images in the original Zoon series manifests the artist's subjective consciousness and distinctive brushwork. In other words, the ink images in the past Zoon series can be interpreted as the work of "the brush following the will", with the "will" implying a self-conscious "will" with particular social viewpoints or value judgment. But in Zoon – Dreamscape, with the application of colour, the mood of the whole composition also changes radically.
Apparently, as opposed to the clarity of form and brushwork in the past Zoon series, the overall composition in the Zoon – Dreamscape paintings has become blurred, vague and ambiguous due to the splashing and piling up of colours. Moreover, unlike the previous series, the composition in Zoon – Dreamscape is no longer based on an anthropomorphic figure in the centre as the visual focus. In this series, with the flux and spread of dazzling colours, the paintings no longer have a clear or single visual centre. This arrangement is also different from the Three Marks series created in 2003 and 2004. In Three Marks, the compositions are like formations and have a clear spatial order. Even though Zoon – Dreamscape stops short of being chaotic, the overall composition is "decentred", and manifests a certain sense of anxiety and crisis due to the loss of order.
If Zoon – Beijing-Bio serves to provide a collective social portrait, Zoon – Dreamscape seems more like contemplating the overall social environment and milieu with the artist's personal and subject gaze. In terms of their visual language and associations, some works from Zoon – Dreamscape give one the impression of a primitive forest overgrown with vines. These vines cover the whole pictorial surface, blocking the spectator's vision and causing a feeling of suffocation.
The primitive forest that Zoon – Dreamscape seems to conjure up occupies the spectator's whole field of vision and creates a sense of no escape and imminent drowning. As far as technique is concerned, Huang said in an interview that he made extensive use of running water in this series, first allowing water to "flood" the pictorial surface, then applying colour after it gradually dries. He repeats this process many times to create gradation and depth. Huang said he worked spontaneously to "produce a space and then break it up"②. This kind of "spontaneity" seems to suggest an approach between "automatism" and "unconsciousness".
In the Zoon – Dreamscape series, Huang makes spectators feel disoriented visually, with the sense that they can neither see through nor penetrate the paintings. As such, the works seem to become visual barriers. While there appears to be some gaps in the paintings, they only serve to instill one with anxiety and fear of the unknown. This psychological sense of being lost in a forest becomes overwhelming due to the multiple layers of colour. In addition, the use of colour evokes associations with the growth of moss or bacteria, as if the air is filled with the "beautiful and sick violence" described by the artist.
As a result, faced with the paintings of Zoon – Dreamscape, the spectator (including the artist himself) could easily get an indescribable sense of being "marginalized". The forest seems like some kind of border and the territory is overgrown with vines, moss and germs, so that one cannot see into the distance and future. This border-like forest forms a visual wall, blocking the spectator's body and even causing a feeling of suffocation and psychological drowning.
As a reflection of his own psychology, Zoon – Dreamscape may reveal the artist's sense of marginalization, mixed with a certain anxiety and fear. If we interpret Zoon – Beijing-Bio as the result of Huang's conscious social observation of Beijing, then Zoon – Dreamscape projects more of the artist's subconscious uncertainty and unease about living there.
① See Norman Bryson, Vision and Painting: The Logic of Gaze (New Haven: Yale University Press), pp. 89-92.
② Interview with Huang Zhiyang at his Beijing studio on the afternoon of May 13, 2008.