The Yunnanese Way

Guan Yuda and He Libin

The Yunnanese Way: The 2nd Dialogue of “Inscape On The Spot” Art Exhibition

Guan Yuda (Curator, Art Critic, Professor of Art and Design College of Yunnan University),
Luo Fei (Gallery Director and Curator of TCG Nordica Gallery)
He Libin (Artist, Curator)
Lei Yan (Artist)
Li Youjie (Artist)

Time: 2009, May 17
Add: Kunming Dandi Coffee

Translated by: Wu Yuerong
Proofreaded by: Anders Gustafsson

Professor Guan Yuda (hereinafter referred to as Guan ):

“…modernity is actually the starting point for an inquiry into the relationship between man and nature, people and life itself. Modernity transformed the Western culture. It also saw the emergence of a civil society, and the transformation of people’s daily lives.

In fact, I see this happening in Yunnan as well, mainly through two important developments. One is the early ‘Shen Community’, and artists such as Mao Xuhui. Their landscape paintings was a way of escaping the mainstream ideology. According to the provisions of revolutionary realism, you could only paint peasants, soldiers and ideological motives. And if at that time you wanted to deviate from the mainstream, painting scenery was the best way. That way, you would not break the ideological taboos, but you could put your own consciousness into the art. This was the beginning of modernism and self-conscious art in Yunnan. Mao Xuhui were to bring in subjectivity; and this is modernity. This point is very important, because it is also the reason that he saw a kind of religious loneliness inside Gui Shan. I think this is the main sense of involvement, of ‘Inscape’. And this subjectivity is the most crucial point.”
But I think we should not exaggurate the fact that the experiments of “Kunming Impressionist School” was earlier than Mao Xuhui. Because almost all artists painted landscape in Yunnan at that time; that was a way of life. And many people still do. Secondly, Yunnan itself is far away from the political and cultural center. That’s why Ding Shaoguang, Jiang Tiefeng, and also Wang Xiaobo went to De Hong (note: a town close to the Burmese border). Through the closeness of nature they could escape the mainstream ideology. It is similar with today’s tourism. They came there either to escape the harm from the ideological and commercial capitalism, or to heal their wounds and seek consolation in the landscape. But I think this is a sociological phenomenon. The discussion of art history in terms of subjective consciousness or awakening, and to truly grasp the origins of the modern landscape, is the main point of interest here.

“Inscape” is not a reflection of reality, camera-style. On the contrary it is subjective. Like Mao Xuhui, their entire approach is quite westernized, influenced by Nietzsche, Bergson and romantic literature. And then these things are mandatory embedded into Yunnan. Reminiscent of Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cezanne, who were also embedded in a kind of force which is very westernized. And this is very different from the Chinese tradition that emphasized harmony. Later, in a new figurative, Gui Shan have been amplified into a schema of personal heroism.
So when I read what He Libin wrote (Note: He Libin wrote an article “Landscape thirty years”), it is still a linear description. If we take a broader view and discuss the transition of Chinese contemporary art in the late 70s and beginning of 80s, there are two important trends: One is the Scar Art Group?. It is actually the subject of the mainstream form of criticism, but the methodology remains the same. It moved a theme to another theme, such as He Duoling’s painting “Spring is awake”, and also the peasants Luo Zhongli painted. Whatever they painted, it was still a kind of intellectual deviation from the mainstream. Another Group is the Life Flow in South-West China. They show more concern about the relationship between life and nature. This is what I think is modernity. So, in my opinion, there are mainly two key points when we discuss Chinese contemporary art: One is the sociological method, the other is based in the ontology of human life. When we emphasise this, the discussion can be particularly interesting.

Luo Fei (hereinafter referred to as Luo):

I have mentioned these issues in my article (Note: Luo wrote the introduction to the exhibition “Inscape on the spot”). The Mao Xuhui-generation of artists in Yunnan had a particularly strong sense of self-consciousness that they revealed thoroughly. Today, artists are still continuing the way of landscape; He Libin is one representative. But there is also something different happening among young artists. They also emphasize a Self which is slowly moving towards a more universal “I”, not only their own “I”. I found this change similar to the works of Lan Qingxing. At first they might appear self-concerning, but actually they reveal general situations for the individual.


In fact, in the period of ’85, the trend of thought in the Chinese art society was that of individualistic heroism. Interestingly enough: Even though it started out as individualistic heroism (note: bringing in subjectivity), the result was actually a collective heroism (note: the celebration of the art groups). Their presentation methods thus became a collective heroism too, which is a very weird structure. Logically, personal heroism should retain an individual criticism and reflection. Why I critisize the thought of the 80s’culture and art, is because I think it leads to a structure of collectivism. You just mentioned the individual; the individual is a solitary individual in the 80s, whether it is in the groups of Yunnan or Hubei. I used to write that the Group of Wang Guangyi was a group of individual heroism, but in the process it formed a kind of collectivist method that was institutionalized. From the philosophical point of view, it is very important to reflect on and straighten out the thoughts of the 80’s. I think that if art still has the possibility of a post-89, it may have to return to some basic points that reflect the enlightenment and return to those values. Well then, from this perspective, Yunnan had two important art projects: One was the “Long March”, the other was “Jiang Hu”.

I think the ”Long March” was a general presentation of contemporary art in Yunnan Province after 85. It was reviewing the relationship between art and life, art and nature. After that, there was another important project: “Jiang Hu”. I think “Jiang Hu” might be the longest and most influential outdoor activity of Chinese contemporary art. “Jiang Hu” was more focused on certain individual artists and on daily lives. The first time I participated in the “Jiang Hu” was for playing, I didn’t feel like this was art. In Yunnan, life is art, art is life; the boundaries are easily erased. It would be very difficult to erase it in another place. For example, in Beijing you would have to make a ceremony if you wanted to erase the boundaries. Everything there is very deliberate. In the “Jiang Hu”, things just mixed and erased unconsciously. This is very much like the climate in Yunnan, where the seasons have no clear character.

I think when we return to a new enlightenment, the pertinence of enlightenment is not the narrative of a magnificent individual heroism. On the contrary, it is back to the daily life of individuals. So it possesses the universality that you talked about, and the dimension expands. So I think the contemporary art in Yunnan, landscape as a motif on this point, is a theme that will never end, independently of which age and time we are living in.

He Libin, Luo Fei, Lei yan, Guan Yuda


Young artists are not setting up an imaginary enemy, as if to challenge some collective. They enter into the natural self. Then the artist would like to find some common ground, which we called universality. Today we talk about the enlightenment. In fact, it is more a social category in China. As we look back at the May 4th movement, the Democracy (Mr. De) and the Science (Mr. Sai) have not really sat into China. In fact, it is still hanging in the air. Today, the younger generation of artists would not feel very excited about making this kind of challenge . This task is mainly carried out by liberal intellectuals and citizen journalists on the internet. They continue to pursue this matter. But the artists in Yunnan, especially those who participated the exhibition “Inscape on the spot”, are increasingly concerned about the inner life.


They were not concerned about a certain doctrine.


Yes. They were not concerned with Logos, with metaphysical things. But with very specific, story-oriented stuff. That is a way of life, as we said.

We talked about using landscape to heal wounds. It sounds warm, but I find it representative for todays young artists in Yunnan. By painting landscape, they are straightening out their heart. Their point is not the Nation like lots of artists in the ’80s, who were fighting for the liberation of the Nation, or for a democratic system. It required the revival of the Nation to give them(the 80’s artists) a footnote in art history.


So it is understandable that they started with an individualistic heroism, and finally implemented a model of collective heroism. The 50’s artists had a sense of responsibility. They transplanted the loyalty to the Party and the Country into other objects, for example Christianity. A collectivism and a grand narrative on a religious foundation. Ding Fang wanted to save the national character of China. When I saw his exciting paintings, I couldn’t believe that he transformed the Loess Plateau into the Christian Holy mountain. Waxy black in Mao Xuhui’s painting also’s got religion; artists are like lost sheep. As we are all God’s people, the sheep’s nature is divine. These were under a common situation in the 80s. In the 90s, artists emphasized the transformation on a daily basis. They put more focus on their inner, daily life and concrete things, so painting landscape appeared clearer.

This exhibition that Luo Fei curates, reveals an important thread of the contemporary art in Yunnan and in the whole of China. But also a very important modernist tradition. I think the chosen artists in this exhibition presents a new change: “Inscape on the spot” is the conception of making landscape in real-time, making improvised “Inscape”. Which is not making landscape as a conception or an idea. This is different from the generation of Mao Xuhui. This presents the experience of the exhibition vividly, but it also shows an important change of the Lanscape in Yunnan contemporary art of the 90s. I think it is a very interesting exhibition, although it is small one, but it brings forward some very sharp issues forward.

In fact, the essence of art is twofold: When you write art history, the important thing about the pieces is what you have drawn out of them. But I think that art history in Yunnan needs to pay attention to another point: The art of life; that is the Yunnan artists’ way of life. This may be the contribution of Yunnanese Art to the Chinese contemporary art.

I think that if Yunnan could contribute with something, it would not be the auction of art, but rather the charming and tempting lifestyle. Which is precisely what the artist could create. There are myths and misconceptions about people valuing art by money and numbers. This is misleading when we interpret Yunnan Contemporary art. Therefore, we need to aknowledge that the relationship between landscape and people in Yunnan is important. It reminds us of a way of life.


Let’s review the relationship between the Chinese contemporary artists’ life and their art work, which is something we constantly need to do (Guan: right!). Many artists ridiculed society through their art works (Guan: they actually worked within a sociological tradition), but they themselves led somewhat cynical lives (Guan: right!). They criticized others but never changed themselves. Sometimes they took part in exactly what they were critisizing. (Guan: They did not create an alternative way of life). It is thus an invalid criticism.


Like Van Gogh, if we separate his lifestyle from his works, how much meaning is left? I emphasize the charm of Yunnan lifestyle and hand-painting as method, because it can not be copied. You can even have a specific feeling from art works, about peoples’ body-temperature and living situation.

Like Liao Xinxue’s paintings, when you watch the old scenes of life in Kunming reappear. It’s different from the ugly modern artificial images that steals the space everywhere. Liao Xinxue’s paintings are a kind of visual testimony, put forward as a way of life. This is a transcendent value.


Yes, I think the word you used, “visual testimony”, is very important. For example, when normal people talk about Van Gogh, they first think of his life and lifestyle instead of “Sunflower”. But today, when you start to talk about life as an artist, people just wonder about how much you sell, and about your position on the market. Conception has changed. In Yunnan, there are exactly those conditions that could allow the artists to return to a kind of authentic living conditions. And then convey their work to the public. Thus, people would understand that life can be lived in another way. This is the testimony of art.


So I think it is a pity that this Yunnanese tradition never has been reviewed in the history of art. What’s specific about Yunnan? Most importantly: Do not compare the speed of life between Yunnan and other places. If you do, it will cause laughter among Shanghai people; or if you compare the height of the buildings, Shanghai people would cry. These are neither the essence of Yunnan, nor Kunming. If Kunming is still symbolized by its slow pace, this slowness is not reflected in several of its bars. In fact, it happens to be the unique way of life and the unique view of time. If a city needs an artist, the reason can not be to beat top the list of successful businessmen. It is about changing people’s views and way of life.

Therefore, the vulgar sociology of Chinese contemporary art just contains pathological values and a kind of pathological analysis. Just like takes from an X-ray, which shows how a malignant tumor got moldy, and that’s it. Chinese contemporary art is full of too many such things, and it reveals a kind of boredom. But the boredom itself doesn’t counteract this boredom. It lacks a constructive meaning. I think artists in this age, especially the generation after the ’80s, should create art with a constructive meaning, such as which value is a better one. Not just say that “I have tumor here”, and there “I lost a piece of my body”. Or if there is a scar, just licking it, only displaying the wounds and then tell people how cool you are. I think that is meaningless.


First of all it’s about artists’ sincere feelings. We had strong political pressure in the 80s, now it comes from capitalism. Both deals with a kind of broken situation that finds no peace and stability. This exhibition is referred to as “Inscape on the spot”. Which means that although we stress the “on the Spot”, it’s about the ground beneath our feet. But there aren’t any perfect places on the ground, therefore we make an inner landscape of our hearts and minds.


There are two meanings. “On the Spot” refers to a moment, this moment here and now. But the Landscape appears when you combine it with your emotions. Secondly, this landscape is rooted in the heart; it is an Inscape of mine. Anyhow, it is not limited to this place and this moment, although it is here and now “on the Spot”, it might be more of a cultural ideal, an ideal of life, a kind of positive thing. I think this topic is great, since it contents double meaning.

Thus, art can not become a movement. The wave of ’85 was a movement, but when it finished we had nothing to do. Or art got caught in the rapid commercialization and became symbolic, but life is an every day thing. You can not engage in art, because there isn’t a movement.


The wave of 85 was following Mao Zedong’s strategic direction. Everybody engaged in movements, like when you were doing “clean work” (note:.“Clean work” is when people collectively go out to perform a task. For example when people clean the city. Basically , this is always based on a decision from above; the residents would never clean the city themselves, but wait for an authority to tell them.)


Yes, there are remnants of post Cultural Revolution within the wave of 85. Thus, protest is necessary.


Those movements are still happening everywhere today, such as the movement to sweep vulgar things on the Internet. This is still very much according to Mao Zedong’s thinking, and it is the reason why Mao could become a political pop symbol.

Lei Yan (hereinafter referred to as Lei):

In fact, much of the art in the west is increasingly close to daily life, but for a long time we have been controlled under the Party’s rule. This is difficult to change.


We talked about the importance of methodology. But when it comes to lifestyle, I think values take priority. Build the values first, and then give those values an output. Methodology is not the essential. If the methodology became the essential, it could easily be neutralized.


Yes. It wasn’t accidental that the first Arts Community appeared in Kunming. An Art Community reflects a city’s ecology, such as Shanghai Moganshan, Beijing Wangjing or Kunming Loft. For the same reason, “Jiang Hu” could only happen in Kunming. Art made a very important transition in the ’90s, from a syndicated, antagonized movement into everyday life. Therefore, it is important to review aesthetics in Yunnan.


This transition produced two results. One is completely secular, or completely commercialized. For example an emphasized sense of boredom. Another is that the artists were more inclined to focus on their own personal stories. For example, like Lei Yan’s works, stuff fizzed inside of ice. Also He Libin. He did not sanctify secular life, but rather found himself lacking something.


This is the poetry of everyday life. Previously, in Mao Xuhui’s generation, it was epic. Well, today, this poetry could be still-life, it is a sketch, like poems in the Dynasty of Tang and Song. It was describing trivial details which represented a more abundant and poetic everyday life. Life is not just boredom, there are surprises and the unexpected, which is the character of 90’s art. When art returns to this point, it could be real. But it can not be made into an artificial God. The Scars Art exposed the wounds that needed to be healed, but some of them just put up the wounds as idols. That is meaningsless.

I always thought that TCG Nordica’s project “Log Book” was particularly good, with its cross-cultural intentions. Unfortunately, it wasn’t too well documented. I hope that Luo Fei later, when the economy allows us, could continue with documentation of the “Log Book”. Yunnan has done a lot of very interesting things, but there is no exchange platform. Also in those cases, they weren’t too well documented.


A way of life, through art, starting from Yunnan.


If we as artists can really be an integrated whole, it could be called “The Yunnanese way”.

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