Crisis Awareness and Vigilance——On Huang Zhiyang's Experiment in Ink-wash Painting and Installation
◎ Feng Boyi
The concept of "experimental ink-wash painting" has caused quite a few controversies as well as ambiguities within Mainland China art circles. What comes into mind with the word "experimental" is a quality of neutrality, a thing unrelated to politics or ideology. Moreover, the word "experimental" is also all-encompassing, covering not only the artist's personal viewpoint and approach towards art-making, but also his/her attempts at reconciling differing approaches: covering all, from content to form; visual language to choice of medium; selection of exhibition space to choice of artwork display. Of course, one could also argue that any art creation can be considered as a form of experimentation.
Despite these myriad of choices, we inevitably boil things down to two basic forms of artistic experimentation: those within the confines of art history and tradition and those that go beyond those confines. Experimentation within a tradition can mean consistently improving upon and enriching the language and style of the tradition itself. Most often this has occurred within existing painting categories such as traditional Chinese painting and oil painting. Experimentation that goes beyond tradition, however, focuses on something entirely different. And typically strives to redefine existing art systems; to achieve a breakthrough in aesthetic concepts and tastes; and to establish new categories of artistic tradition and styles of expression, including the redefining of so-called artistic visual language. This second category of experimentation is not simply aimed at the perfection of aesthetic and artistic expressions already existing within a specific framework of painting. Rather, it strives for a kind of revolutionary breakthrough. This spirit of "breaking through" existing categories is one of my criteria in judging "experimental ink-wash painting".
Another criterion I rely on can be found in the relationship between the artist's output and the times, in which he works and exists. This approach is typically referred to alongside the adage that "brush and ink should keep pace with the times". Here, the success of experimentation can be judged on whether or not the artist is able to discover and to build on new possibilities of judging contemporary societal values, culture or individuals, through his/her ink-wash painting as it is rendered within the context of a particular moment and place. Using this premise, one can often analyse how and to what extent an artist is able to fulfill his desire for innovation in ink-wash painting over a lifetime that inevitably includes societal and personal transformation.
These are all critical factors an artist must resolve within the process of experimental ink-wash creation. To me, each culture and each individual artist within his/her own culture expresses itself and him/herself artistically within the context of a particular historical period inevitably giving birth to concepts and expressions different from those of previous years. As time moves on, a series of changes take place in concepts, styles, and languages along with greater understanding of one's own cultural context. To assess the significance and value of the works of an artist means to judge if his/her works have direct connections to his personal experience, living environment and his individual or collective memories. And, if such connections share a corresponding point of transformation within his/her immediate cultural context and environment, by which the artist's reality undergoes a transformation that can be reviewed and measured then the artist's approach or standpoint to that reality can be reflected upon and studied by others. As the analysis goes on, details will be involved, such as choices of subject matter in artistic creation, the utilization of cultural resources, the artist's control of his/her medium, and his/her ability to express his/her particular context. Of course, these details are all based on the artist's creative perceptions, i.e. the relevance of the realities of his/her culture in the artist's consciousness. All of these factors will inevitably reveal a better understanding of the identity of the contemporary artist.
An artist in a real sense should, through contemplation and introspection, express his ultimate appeals to his/her social environment, inner experiences and human concerns as his final objective, by utilizing visual language both from an attitude of exploration and criticism. He should also emphasize an estranged position apart from the social order and utter a voice contrary to the existing social system and established trends.
Relying on this criterion for the moment, the inclusion of a few elements of personal and aesthetic expression will inevitably be rendered in a similar fashion by the majority of artists. These common threads are not the focus of this discussion. In other words, those ink-wash painters who fixate on traditional brush-and-ink techniques and become over-concerned with so-called artistic modes of expression can only render works that seek to escape momentarily from contemporary cultural reality, like cleansers that temporarily wash away dirty traces of reality. "Escape" seems to be their only means of artistic expression when confronted with reality, resulting in a cheap and often superficial connection to the contemporary world. Their artistic explorations only linger within the limited confines of their "experiments" in using new painting materials, subjects or artistic expression, continuing but never overstepping the traditional aesthetic consciousness of art history.
Despite all of the opinions I've stated above, I did not set out to define Mr. Huang Zhiyang's ink-wash paintings and installations within a category of "experimental ink-wash painting". What I am trying to explain is that our contemporary artists are all confronting such very real cultural challenges. As to Huang Zhiyang's works, two points are worth discussing as follows.
Firstly, Huang Zhiyang consistently uses Chinese ink, though leaving behind the brushwork norms of traditional painting of scholars and officials. On the surface, his works seem born out of a respect to that particular artistic tradition. In fact, one need not emphasize ink-and-brush work as a premise or as a factor in consideration, if a real connection with the "contemporary era" is the artist's aim.
The tools of traditional Chinese painting are well known and include the brush, ink, Xuan paper and silk, etc. In fact, with the advanced development of image processing technology today, no technical means or materials are beyond the artists' grasp. Further, the system of assessing traditional Chinese ink-wash painting technique is already firmly established and any reform in this system of painting must begin with perception and conception. This is a puzzle for Chinese ink-wash artists, similar to the problems in understanding the reform of the formal structure of traditional Chinese Beijing Opera. The real impetus that can fundamentally change traditional ink-wash painting may only lie in a change of conception and methodology of art creation, which will bring us an essential step forward in contemporary art creation.
From this point of view, I think what Huang Zhiyang has been doing in his artistic output is in fact quite experimental, in which he attempts to overstep traditional norms and conceptual modes, styles and languages. The subjects and concepts of his work are aimed at the inner anxiety and panic of people in the process of modernization, implying the idea of "crisis".
This notion of "modernization" arguably touches upon every aspect of human existence, resulting in charges in language, in people's worship of all that offers a false promise of immortality, and, in economic matters, in all that leads to excessive exploitation of natural resources. When modernization rushes up to embrace us with its many attractions, we momentarily forget that the logo on its banner is simply "science". The proponents of science as cure-all assure us that science can provide universal truth. And that such "truths" are trans-cultural, trans-class, trans-national and even trans-times. This argument has provided a philosophic foundation for cultural globalisation, the crisis behind which is no more than the symptoms of the problems with this phenomenon.
And this conflict between the reality of one's outer existence and one's inner consciousness is what drives artists to creation, which questions an artist's human concerns and value judgements and can develop into spiritual crisis deeply imbedded within an artist's visual imagery. From Huang Zhiyang's ink-wash series Zoon – Beijing-Bio (2006-2007), we can see clearly disturbances to the interior life of human beings resulting from radical changes in natural ecology. A traditional Chinese artist always imbues his work with his personal experience in nature: in mountains, water, flowers and birds, in his paintings. Instead, Huang Zhiyang either paints innumerable dots with his flora-like touches on human figures or extends his brushwork exaggeratedly onto extra-large Xuan paper with twisted branches and leaf-like veins. When I stood before these "unorthodox" plants and flowers in his studio, the spatial effect in the paintings seemed to present a kind of marvelous plant life within real space, implying an embarrassing situation where we or others were entangling or entangled in, trying in vain to break through from, the materiality of reality. The lifelikeness of the twisted and amplified plants is simply true portrayal of the artist's inner concerns and anxieties in the face of reality, and also a direct symbol of sordid reality and unrestrained human desire. These works stand as a proof that the artist has gone through careful pondering, criticism and moments of personal transformation in regard to the heritage of Chinese artistic tradition.
As a result, Huang never considers rendering a simple or direct depiction of a single-layered snapshot of reality. This contrariness actually helps him to realize a "transcendent abstract depiction" in his works. It is this very detachment and distance from reality that allows his works to retain a certain mystique and abstraction of detail. We only occasionally encounter actual details from reality in work such as When Flowers are not Flowers series, Planet of the Apes, and Three Marks. His sense of crisis, like fragmented memories of nightmares, is depicted in bits and pieces of branches and leaves selected from his personal experience, which are often painted with a feeling of desolation and depression. In this regard, he is quite sincere. He is sincere in depicting an inner world via nightmares – as abstract reality reflected in one's inner world. He not only presents the details of pattern from nature, but, more importantly, reproduces the vicissitudes of the relationship between man and nature and society, by which attention is drawn to our personal fate in this very real crisis, and a mood of melancholy is conveyed to viewers who are aware of this crisis.
Secondly, Huang Zhiyang continues his experiment in installation creation in terms of conception, medium, and form whenever he is engaged in his ink-wash painting. He has long since cast away the tools of traditional ink-wash in his large-scale installations in early days such as: Plant (1994), Melancholy Forest (1995), Feather· Bullet (1995), Tides Sky (1997), Moos (2001), and I Am a Cute Germs (2001).
Today, he experiments instead with "second-hand materials" of industrial productions, e.g. artificial wool, telephone wire, and other synthetic materials, to explore the conflicts in modern civilization in the relations between man and history, man and nature, man and contemporary cultural ecology, to come up with his own position and approach to that relationship. Alternatively, adapting industrial by-products as natural fungus and vegetation, he presents there in an extremely exaggerated visual style, as if they were horrible monsters in sci-fi thrillers. This visual tension creates initial shock, which allows the viewer to free associate into a new artistic context, and intensifies the endless conflicts and contradictions in reality that we can neither control nor avoid. That is the situation we are entangled in, no beginning no ending, like a rigid fence, whether invisible or visible, virtual or real, all melted into an acute embarrassment toward our daily over-materialized urban reality. A further element in Huang's work shows he not only worries about the decline of ancient culture but also understands the crisis of the so-called "rising" civilization, a problem usually evaded intentionally by many Social Darwinists. Following with keen interest the reality and delusion of modernization rather than identifying the benefits if any to individuals undergoing so-called "modernization", Huang seems to cry out in frustration, as lone artist taking a critical stance. Those shocking effects and bewildering images conveyed in his installations continue to occur in our daily life, like a mutant virus eating up the body of human beings, and "we" can hardly find a place where we can live safely, either physically or spiritually. Because of the acceleration of modernization, traditional ideals and ways of life have been stricken and toppled over, and the ideal of a peaceful life in harmony with an ancient living style is further and further away from our reality. Conflict and stress is readily apparent: on one hand, people long for better quality of life, more convenient urban facilities, and higher modern levels of consumption. On the other hand, the inherent competition in the process of modernization together with all the problems and possibilities created therein, make people from different races easily feel at a loss because of differing phases of development and ways of life, differing relationships with nature and differing values.
Finally, new unexpected problems arise: the loss of pluralism from cultures now facing the danger of extinction, cultural patterns in both cities and countryside undergoing various forms of pressure, the pursuit of a simple life style and its cultural spirit and moral rules suffering from strong attacks. The cruelty of the attacks lies in a silent destruction of spiritual pride in one's own beliefs. From this point of view, we are all, without exception, facing situations that could quickly spin out of control.
For the term "crisis", people may have different understandings and give different explanations and implications. And the implication made by Huang Zhiyang in his art may introduce us to a common awareness of the crisis, simply as a result of his vigilance and the associations we make in seriously viewing his works. Then, is this exploration of his, as an artist of experimental art, made only on the basis of experience and reason, or on a metaphysic vision of experimental ink-wash painting? Obviously, all of those issues are stored in his mind. In his works, viewers can find such "macro narrative elements" as life, universe, wandering souls, and misplaced space and domain, and one can experience clearly the predicament of existence and the eccentricity of human nature, though realized via an abstract language of ink-wash painting and installation. His work is in fact a direct rendering of his personal experience and understanding, and at the same time, his "personal recording" style production is in itself experimental method. Huang Zhiyang's insistent spirit of exploration and painstaking efforts have given significance and value to his artwork within the context of experimental art, and have undoubtedly provided an indispensable study case as well as a valuable example for the transformation of contemporary experimental ink-wash painting.