Creating Inscape On The Spot
– On Art Exhibition “Inscape On The Spot”
Written by Luo Fei (TCG Nordica Gallery Director & Curator)
1. About Jingjie(1)
Traditional Chinese culture consists of three strands: Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. These three strands share the same concerns about the existence and freedom of this life. They are concerned with the value and significance of the individual and their physiological needs, promising that any individual can be elevated through cultivation. The ‘jingjie‘ of life is the essential question, with other questions around it.
In modern Chinese language, the meaning of ‘jingjie‘ can be broken down into two parts. Firstly it has a physical dimension, i.e. the boundary between countries. Secondly it has a metaphysical dimension, it refers to a ‘realm of life’, it is the level or degree reached through meditation on morality, culture, psychology and beauty. By pondering on the cosmos, society and life, it suggests a departure from earthly values and a capturing of the wholeness of an internal exhilaration, described by Confucius as the act of ’sanctifying personality’. Unfortunately there is no equivalent in the English vocabulary for ‘jingjie’ which is the core concept of this exhibition. Therefore the author will use ‘inscape‘ to refer to the spiritual and artistical nature of the world and also to connect to the theme of landscape which is another vital element of this exhibition. ‘Inscape’(2) is an old English word which refers to the unique inner nature of a person or an object, especially when seen in a work of art.
In traditional Chinese poetry and painting, the theory of inscape took an important position as a definition of spirituality and exerted significant influence upon the thinking of Chinese language. As Wang Guowei, the famous ci poetry critic in the late Qing Dynasty, argued in his Renjian Cihua(also called The World of Poetry), ‘The most important thing in ci poetry is inscape. A high level of art is reached when there is an inscape… Some are focused on creating inscape, others writing inscape. This is the difference between idealism and realism.’
In the practice of writing inscape and the quest for creating inscape, literati use contemplation, meditation and spending time in gardens and amidst beautiful scenery. The attempt to ‘create inscape’ shows that they are unsatisfied with either the superficial depiction of natural landscape or the language game involved in its representation. Instead they aspire to bridge the outer world and their inner world of ideals. They aspire to transcend their feelings of loss, or joy, with the natural scenery before them, and to transform what they see into a symbolic schema to express the world of perfection as seen in their own mind. This process of transforming the scenes of nature into something that represents perfection is an attempt to reach the convergence of self and nature, a poetic contemplation of nature coloured with a hue of oriental mysticism. In fact, this vision of contemplation is not unique to the East, as ancient Greek Platonic philosophy also describes similar concepts and practices, which later evolved into an understanding of a personal divine being. However, in traditional Chinese culture, the contemplative view of nature does not lead to seeing the divine as an object of rational thinking. Instead, it defines subjectively that internal peace and pleasure is the possibility for a ‘completion inscape’ and is based in the viewer’s mind. Traditional Chinese culture objectively treats everything in nature as a source of universal revelation. A good illustration of such a contemplative view of nature is the traditional landscape paintings that are familiar to us all. Small figures together with overwhelming mountains and water, represent a convergence of humanity and nature, illustrating an inscape of serenity and unfettered freedom and an aspiration for perfect harmony between humans and nature. This reflects the quest of ancient literati in relation to the status of life and psychology, in poetry and painting, a schema and philosophy that had scarcely undergone any significant change during the long history of relatively self-sufficient Chinese culture.
This approach has led to what is called, ‘addressing every change with no change’. Although this attempts a definition of personality and also a definition of universal revelation and even though it outlines the concept of ‘completion inscape’, it does not address the source of nature or the divine. This inability to address these foundational issues, sheds light on the events of history. During recent periods of transition and hardship and the movement of Chinese society and culture towards modernity, there has been a lack of inquiry into truth, the absence of a transcendental dimension. The commitment to ‘jingjie, sanctifying personality’ has become an alien concept in a world where materialism and satisfying personal desires are the priority. Therefore ‘addressing every change with no change’ appears unable to deal with the modern world where the inscape of life gradually gives way to a pragmatic pursuit of success.
The heaven and earth that is left in the wake of the industrial revolution is not the heaven and earth described in genesis, where ‘God saw every thing that he had made, and behold, it was very good’(3). What is more, the intrinsic mission of art has evolved from exploring the concept of completion in the classic age to simply raising the consciousness of the problem in the modern age, with no attempt at offering a solution. As a result, today’s cultural and natural environment and the sentiment felt by artists when they consider nature are tremendously different from the ancient tradition. Now, it is much more effective to simply illustrate the problems themselves, to do no more than represent contemporary culture and current sentiment and couple this with personal experience. This approach is much easier than grappling with and attempting to create the inscape of completion.
Therefore, we are now in a world of competing contrasts; completion versus contemporary problems, idealistic sentiment versus present anxiety, the inscape of life versus fleshy desire. All these strains remind us of the stark gap between the ideal and reality, between tradition and modernity. However, there are artists whose work is still concerned with the natural landscape and who are exploring deeper thinking. Maybe they will lead the call for a new type of ’supreme completion inscape’ in these current ‘lost circumstances’.
2. The Context and Transition of Agrestic Art
As described above, nature has been the traditional object and theme for artists to express their ‘circumstances of mind’. In the early 1980s, the Southwest Agrestic Art began to emerge and much critical and academic study developed alongside. Both ‘Agrestic Art’ and ‘Life Flow’(4) and other later art movements, placed great importance on the influence of the geographic environment upon the spirit, style and schema of artists, believing that the nature of Southwest China and other social factors contributed to the emergence and thriving of ‘Agrestic Art’. However, with further urbanization and the advent of the age of globalization and the internet, ‘Agrestic Art’ and ‘Life Flow’ gradually withered and gave the way to the more representative style of ‘Chinese experience’. Despite losing widespread recognition and market opportunities, ‘Agrestic Art’ and ‘Life Flow’ nevertheless remain an enduring influence on many Yunnan artists, not least because of their close connection with local culture and the natural landscape.
In Yunnan where nature is rich and cultural traditions are diverse, many artists choose the expression of natural landscape as their principal form of art. Among them, there has been a unique phenomenon lasting for nearly half a century, which is characterized by the voluntary and persistent daily sketching of the landscape. This is illustrated by the enthusiasm for being integrated into and depicting nature by artists of the ‘Impressionist School’(5) and ‘Shen Society’(6) in the 1960s and 70s , also the ‘Life Flow’ movement in the 1980s and those artists today, old and young, who still go to the countryside to sketch from nature. Such a phenomenon stems from and reinforces two traditions. First is the academic tradition of landscape sketching which is about formal aesthetic feeling and technical practice consistent with a modernistic art tradition and epistemology. Second is the traditional contemplative view of landscape sketching which seeks to capture the sentiment and feeling of the individual, the ‘expression of feeling through the sketching of scenery’. The ‘Impressionist School’s’ and ‘Shen Society’s’ concern about the natural environment and countryside of Yunnan was essentially the expression and extolling of the minority cultures, through depicting scenes of countryside life with close attention given to the colouration. The ‘Life Flow’ school was committed to eulogising the free will and uniqueness of life when the ideology of collectivism was fading away. Today’s artists, when faced with the countryside landscape, have to consider problems such as the urbanization of the countryside and the modern pursuit of satisfying desires (fleshism). Consequently they turn to a different theme, one that considers the contemporary population’s mental circumstances. The Yunnan schools of art in the 1960s and 70s shaped their own art dialects, creating artistic forms and styles with provincial features, formed to some extent by their geographic environment. This led to widespread attention and a historical significance. However, as interesting as all this might be, is it enough to justify giving attention to a provincial cultural and art phenomena? At a time of accelerating urbanization, frequent migration to the cities and increased dialogue between diverse cultures, will the universality and transcendence of these themes, which we are referring to, become even more important?
In response I would like would like to introduce the concept ‘Creating Inscape on The Spot’. This concept’s themes and symbolism originate from and yet transcend a provincial nature. It is activated by individual thinking but is projected towards the universal mentality of the human race. It is a call for change, to turn the external-internal inscape, whether complete or incomplete, into ‘Supreme Completion Inscape’.
At the foundational level, ‘Creating Inscape on The Spot’ is the technical ability to capture a scene from nature, at the highest level, it is a contemplative experience, a practice of artistic creation, an expression of the internal thoughts of an individual and the universal condition of humankind, all in the form of a landscape.
For this exhibition we choose the art works of 6 Yunnan artists, Lan Qingxing, He Libin, Guo Peng, Shi Zhimin, Sun Guojuan and Lei Yan, as well as a Guodong artist Mai Zhixiong, and Jonathan Kearney, a British artist with many years of life experience in China. They have been chosen as their work interprets this theme from various angles.
3. The Artists
The paintings of Lan Qingxing retain the feeling of agrestic paintings and internalise it into a ‘Transcendental Nostalgia’. In his oil painting ‘Landscape without People’, a wondering dog, a bizarre and thick withered tree, a distant chimney, together constitute a picture of sadness hinting at the strain between an agricultural setting and modern industrial development. In the long-frame sketch ‘Scheme’, there is a fragmented ‘home’ among weeds, bonfire, bed, dinner table, desk, coach, fridge, all scattering in the weeds. A man casually wonders about, without doing any serious business, simply killing time, with his posture reflecting the frustration of getting lost near his own house, all by himself, yet the shabby building nearby is irrelevant to ‘home’. The figures and animals in Lan Qingxing’s paintings show a sign of concentration, as though they are constantly thinking of the way back home no matter whether they are climbing, running, carrying things, laboring or having a rest. Yet the red-earth land, small roads and grass under the starry night sky provides suggest opportunity but also seems to cause more frustration. Ever since Adam stole the forbidden fruit, the voice asking ‘where are you?’(7) is lingering in the innermost mind. We may be absolutely certain of our geographic location, we may already be in our hometown, and yet we cannot get rid of a strange nostalgia, which originates not from a certain coordinate on the map, but from a calling in the depths of our spirit, a longing for an ultimate homeland – a ‘Supreme Completion Inscape’ as dwellers on earth.
The expression of ‘Transcendental Nostalgia’ is also salient in the oil paintings of He Libin. The series ‘Wasteland’ endows the wilderness and the void, as well as the little lonely figures in the picture, with the black and white expressionist style. Different from the contrast found in traditional Chinese landscapes, here the contrast between large scenery and small figures is not the serene ‘Completion Inscape’, but an inscape of sadness that highlights anxiety and void, in order to induce a cry for ‘Completion Inscape’. Here the smallness of the figure does not originate from the natural view of humility, but from the helpless view of life. The painter chooses wasteland and wilderness to highlight the dual loss of both body and soul of modern people. Physical and mental fatigue becomes evident against the void of wasteland and wilderness, while the aspiration to get rid of the void is exactly the vision needed by Kua Fu(8) when he was chasing after the sun.
Similiarly, Shi Zhimin from Dali also draws from the local nature in his homeland. The town of Dali, coupled with Cangshan Mountain and Erhai Lake, are richly endowed by nature and is itself a town of wonder. When I first went to Dali this sense of wonder is exactly what I also felt. The natural characteristics are internalised by the artist giving a unique feeling to the series ‘Glacier’. A view of a glacier is characterized by seclusion, joy of life and super-realism. If nature has lost its ability to encourage inscape as a result of human’s crude plunder, the fragment of a still mysterious glacier may well hit at the existence of another poetic schema.
The majority of Guo Peng’s photography draws on the views found in gardens around Kunming. The scenery in Green Lake park, the lake’s surface, rock-work and bamboo forests. As described above, the concept of ‘Creating Inscape on The Spot’ at the base level is a practical approach, manifested by the technical ability to capture a garden view. It is an attempt to obtain an artificial miniature of the elegant ‘completion inscape’ by mimicking the natural landscape with flower pots, pools and rock-work. Garden design is used to provide a place of mental recreation and spiritual rest for the literati and officialdom, from official career to inner world, from reality to ideal, from clamor to serenity. On the other hand, the close and extravagant nature of gardens made it possible for the declining literati to escape from the reality and live a corrupted way of life in the backyard of leisure. Today, in a society where over-entertainment is rampant in urban life, and the protection and succession of elite culture is absent, gardens have turned into the People Parks for the entertainment of the general public. Here the manufactured landscape remains as it was, but the inscape no longer exists. Guo Peng attempts to present a colorful myth of the garden through the manipulation of colour, to fabricate an alienated backyard of literati, in an attempt to realise what Martin Heidegger called ‘the perch of poetry’.
Sun Guojuan’s ‘Sweetness Is Gone’ series is an interpretation of ‘Creating Inscape on The Spot’ by the use of brain teasers – mirroring on the spot. The artist, while holding a butterfly ornament in her hand, is lying tenderly in front of a mirror on the road side. The mirror is reflecting peach flowers in the park, with spring very much in the air. On the back of the artist is a pair of angle wings made of sugar, adding a playfulness and romance found in a child’s household game. Ornament, mirror and sugar wings reveal the stage property of Romantic Inscape. Sugar has been used as a metaphorical language in Sun Guojuan’s art works for years, symbolizing on the one hand women as the object of tasting in a male dominant society, and on the other, women’s attempt to retain their youth for ever by turning their bodes into sugar. Fictitious and fragile, the image of spring in the mirror and sweet fleshy body speak of the bankruptcy of women’s desire to retain youth forever. While the sweet feeling of the body is the only dignity and comfort alive, the sweet feeling of heart has been devoured by consumerism, the loss and fragmentation of humans cannot be saved by simple stage props. In No. 5 and No. 6 of ‘Sweetness Is Gone’, the dagger in the artist’s hand clearly indicates the anxiety and fear after the fragmentation of body and heart when ’sweetness is gone’.
Lei Yan’s photography continues the methodology of her ‘Freezing’ series. Elements raging from photographs of comrades in the army, to revolutionary articles, to images of the trenches are all put in ice cubes and photographed again, generating an archaeological memory of the image, while a woman’s career in the army is recalled in such a sad yet private way. In her work about her military career, Lei Yan reduces soldiers to men and women, the machinery of state to a school of childish faces, monument of hero to one tombstone after another, sacrifice to price, collectivism to mutual help and revolutionary romance to sentiments in the sealed history. The significance and nobility manifested by life itself are much more significant than any transient state in the long river of history, since life has soul and soul is immortal.
Mai Zhixiong’s ‘Sanctuary?’ series retains his simple style of object, scenery and colour and refined abstraction. However the artist has undergone a shift from his previous work and has rejected any possibility of symbolic construction. The scene in the picture in brightened, Beacon Mountain appears but the title is questioning sanctuary, showing the artist’s rethinking of symbolism. A sanctuary is considered a holy place in Judaism and Christianity, the innermost chamber of the Jewish temple was called the ‘Holy of Holies’, regarded as the dwelling place of the LORD God. Only the high priest could enter the ‘Holy of Holies’ once each year on the ‘Day of Atonement’. However, such a place built by human hands appears too small in front of the all-mighty God, hampering the relationship between humans and God. The curtain that blocked the ‘Holy of Holies’ from human access was ripped apart when Jesus died on the cross. Christianity holds that it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats to take away human sin, however, as is noted in the book of Hebrews in the New Testament, ‘we have confidence to enter into the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus’. The quest for the sanctuary, however, is not for the beacon, nor for the holy mountain beyond, but as Jesus told the woman of Samaria, ‘a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth’.(9)
Whereas the 7 Chinese artists discussed above raise questions in their art as a cry for a ‘Completion Inscape’ or even ‘Supreme Completion Inscape’, the video work of British artist Jonathan Kearney, by focusing on the process of colours following across time, creates an image of ‘Completion Inscape’ in micro scale across a timeframe. If the other artists in this exhibition mainly draw their images from the location in which they are living, Jonathan treats the micro objects in his art as a kind of ‘local experience’. It is worth mentioning that Jonathan has also exhibited his art works via off-site live broadcast over the internet, a remarkable departure from the dependence on, and significance of, location when ‘Creating Inscape on The Spot’. The advent of a digital, internet era makes concepts such as ‘on the spot’ and ‘location’ seem insignificant, maybe even redundant. The important thing is the presentation of ‘inscape’ itself.
To a great extent the art discussed in this essay provide justification for considering the landscape around us and comfort for our minds and inner self. They also challenge us with profound insights into culture and life.
Provincial, cultural and natural resources should not become the prerequisite for an art movement or artist to receive historical recognition. The reason why a geographic characteristic or ethnic culture is widely recognized is because it carries a fundamental reflection of self and maybe something universal for all humans. The concept of ‘Creating Inscape on The Spot’ and this exhibition are simply designed to introduce such a possibility. Just as the Southwest school of ‘Life Flow’ inevitably turned into the ‘Chinese experience’ movement, ‘Chinese experience’ will itself return to life.
(1) Jingjie: the degree or limit of boundary, country, or the accomplishment of people or artworks in spirit, culture or morality.
(2) Inscape: noun, poetic/literary, the unique inner nature of a person or object as shown in a work of art, esp. a poem. ORIGIN mid 19th cent. (originally in the poetic theory of Gerard Manley Hopkins). Know more about this word on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inscape
(3) According to Genesis, 1:31, On the the sixth day of Genesis, ‘And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good’.
(4) ‘Life Flow’ is a school of painting evolved from agrestic painting by some Southwest artists, originating from the expressionist style of life flow paintings by artists such as Ye Yongqing, Zhang Xiaogang, Zhou Chunya, Mao Xuhui and Pan Dehai. The artists choose the expression of their own life experience, internal journey and sentiment as the purpose of their artwork. This approach has gradually become a cultural tradition for contemporary Southwest art.
(5) Kunming Impressionist School: a school of artists, active in the streets and suburbs of Kunming and keen on the daily sketching of landscape in 1960s and 70s, formed a unique style of Yunnan oil painting characterized by gorgeous colours and strong expressive force. Its representatives include Pei Wenkun, Pei Wenlu, Jiang Gaoyi, Sha Lin and Su Xinhong.
(6) Shen Society: an art society formed in 1970s by artists such as Ding Shaoguang, Jiang Tiefeng, Liu Shaohui and Yao Zhonghua who were born in the 1940s. In 1980, Shen Society as a group held a exhibition
in Yunnan Museum, with their primitive decoration style starkly different from the revolutionary realistic style popular across the country. Later, Ding Shaoguang and Jiang Tiefeng emigrated to the U.S. and formed the ‘School of Contemporary Yunnan Heavy Colored Painting’, which has wide influence internationally.
(7) According to Genesis, 2:15 – 3:10, Adam and Eve, lured by the serpent, ate the forbidden fruit and hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden, ‘And the LORD God called
unto Adam, and said unto him, Where are you?’
(8) ‘Hai Wai Bei Jing’ in Shan Hai Jing recorded a tale that a man named Kua Fu exerted his utmost strength to chase after the sun but eventually died of thirsty and became a grove of peach trees. Based on this tale, He Libing drew an oil painting titled ‘Chasing the Sun’.
(9) Quoted from John, 4:21-24.