2005/01/11

About Laodan (2)

While in Belgium I followed the modernist movance and experienced the style of most of its schools, in China I earned an eyesight on the deafening technical skills of Chinese academic painters. I have to recognize that initially I had difficulties with traditional Chinese painting: Gongbi and Xieji. You need indeed first to have been exposed to Chinese traditional philosophy to grasp what is going on in those paintings. Its practitioners are indeed literati artists who execute expressionistic and gestural strokes to render their vision of the essence of their subject.

I was interested in philosophy, I devoured the classics and started to be attracted by Xieji painting. Basically, in this approach the artist is a thinker who is up to date about Chinese philosophy. Understanding that reality is a process of change at work in all our universe, the artist makes the Tao, the way of life or the spirit of all things and living beings his subject of painting. His conscience and acceptance of how the process of change affects all things and beings let's him ultimately discover the Tao of the object of his painting. Xieyi painting aims to capture the Xi or energetic body underlying the Tao of the represented object. Gu Kaizhi an artist of the Jin Dynasty (c. 345-406) wrote that Xieji is "making the form show the spirit". It is often presented as the aphorism "painting in poetry and poetry in painting". Xieji is also often translated as "writing one's soul" but my preferred translation is "writing the meaning down".

"Writing the meaning down" reflects indeed perfectly this idea of capturing the energetic body of the Tao of the represented object. Think about a mountain, the meaning of the mountain is to be found in the energetic body of its own Tao or spirit. What does that mean, well it means that the artist has to discover, in the first degree image of the mountain that appears on his retina, the way the mountain was formed, how the energy of Gaia molded its shape and being and where this movement is ultimately leading the mountain. In other words the painter, observing as a philosopher, tries to capture the past changes that shaped his subject in its present form and the present and future changes that are already affecting the present form of his subject.

A Xieyi painting is finished in one setting capturing the spirit or the essence of the subject with masterful brush strokes and a good sense of balance in the composition. One can thus understand that a Xieji painting does not start with the act of painting, it starts with observation and painting can only start when the artist has interiorized the spirit of his subject. Some painters could observe a mountain for years before starting to paint. Wow so much for merchandization.

In Xieji painting:
- ... The artist first observes his subject until he captures the essence of it's being, its spirit, in other words its Tao.
- ... Then the artist produces trial after trial of representations of the spirit of his subject.
- ... He will finally stop painting at the trial he feels gives the exact representation of how he sees the spirit of his subject. Each trial is made of simple and bold strokes and terminated within a few minutes. Only the last trial is kept, it is the art work, all other trials are destroyed.

My personal approach towards painting and more generally towards visual arts is somehow the result of the many influences that I underwent along my life. But more particularly, it is the result of the gigantic shock between:
- ... my understanding and practice of European modernism.
-... my discovery of Chinese philosophy and of Chinese visual arts.

It took me all the years between 1986 and 2000 to digest that cultural shock. It's difficult to lay out in a few words the impact of such a worldchanging event. I had already experienced 2 earlier cultural shocks through immigration and than through education but nothing compares with the immersion of a young European in the daily Chinese realities for a period of over 15 years.

Along that uneven road, I have experienced the need to go back to my received ideas they were indeed not satisfying me any longer.

Two fields absorbed my interest and all my time:
- ... the formation of capitalism because modernity is ultimately nothing more than one stage of cultural development along the history of capitalism.
- ... the build-up of culture and the formation of civilizations and more particularly the history of the Chinese civilization and the content and formation of its value system.

After fifteen years of extensive reading and daily immersion in Chinese waters, my ideas were starting to come together and, I felt the time had come for me to try my hands at painting again. I terminated some 10 gouaches in 2001 and then worked on 26 tapestry/rug designs.

By that time Xiaohong and I decided to experience life in the US. The chaos wrought on China by industrialization and the opening of the country to greed had exacted a toll on China's social landscape and also on our energy. We were tired and needed a change of air. Having lived some 35 years in Europe then in China the next 15 years the US seemed a natural choice.

The prospect to complete a journey experiencing the life conditions and ways of doing and thinking in the 3 most active areas on earth at the dawn of the 21st century was a very exciting one indeed.

The quietude and vast open spaces in Wisconsin, where we sat foot, were definitely reinvigorating. A broadband connection kept us in touch with what was going on in Europe and China and then... I came in contact with blogging. I started to post in march of 2003 and gradually an idea built in my mind, why not use those posts as material to write a book. A book had started to gestate that now is not far from to be born.

I spent all of 2004 writing and painting. The act of writing brings about much thinking and my painting underwent the influence of that thinking. The solitude that is imposed on you by the act of writing plunges you on the margins of society where the noise coming out of the world disintegrates and so you are left open, if you are free inside yourself, to always dig deeper inside your thoughts. That's a short but good summary, I think, of the dynamic I went through these last 15 months: solitude, quietude, thinking, writing and painting.

At the end of this peregrination my vision about painting and the visual arts has morphed into some kind of a composite (1): nor modern in the sense of whatever Western modern school nor Chinese Xieyi or Gongbi. Somehow I guess that I took something out of all those approaches, the elements that I felt would allow me to express the Tao of our days.
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(1) "Composite materials are combinations of materials from different classes that have properties different from or better than either of their parents", in History of Science and Technology, edited by Bryan Bunch and Alexander Hellemans. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.

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