Interview with Chen Fanyuan and Feng Xianbo

Chen Fanyuan's work

Chen Fanyuan’s work

Interview with Chen Fanyuan and Feng Xianbo

On the afternoon of January 29, 2013 at TCG Nordica Gallery in Kunming

Luo Fei: Please introduce yourselves.

Feng Xianbo (Feng): I first came into contact with art during middle school, watching old men write calligraphy. In high school, I formally began to study painting under Yang Mei of Zhaotong, and it was only then that I realized the subject could be studied in university. Before, I’d always wanted to be a doctor or something; it wasn’t until I’d started studying calligraphy and traditional Chinese painting that I discovered I really enjoyed it and wanted to pursue it further. Later, I applied for the calligraphy major at the China Academy of Art. Only once I was at school did I discover that I didn’t even know the difference between writing and calligraphy. I was a total layman compared to the students around me.

Slowly, I caught up to everyone else’s rate of progress. By sophomore year, my seal-style script was actually rather well-known, thanks in large part to the patience and guidance of my teachers Wang Yongjiang and Lu Jinzhu. Overall, what impressed me most about the teachers at the academy was their dedication to their profession; our thesis advisors there would even go so far as to point out punctuation errors in our essays. Having returned to Yunnan these past few years, I haven’t found a comparable sense of duty to their students in the university professors here.

My calligraphy particularly aspires towards simplicity and a lack of complication, in the vein of inscriptions on ancient bronze objects, or seal scripts from the Han and Qin dynasties. After graduation, I worked for two years at the Zhejiang Fine Art Press and also frequently taught substitute classes in Hangzhou, where I discovered that the pleasures of creating art and teaching are endless and mutually reinforcing.

In terms of traditional Chinese painting, I’m most drawn to the works of the Yuan Dynasty, and out of the four great Yuan dynasty masters particularly idolize Ni Zan. His kind of landscape is one of the most characteristic ancient styles of that period–very removed from reality, desolate and of a primal simplicity, solemn, quiet and bleak. It is particularly timeless. Many of our works today pander to audiences and tend towards the mundane. They seek only to be deemed pretty by the largest number of people possible. Absent is exactly Ni Zan’s turn away from materialism and the physical world.

Chen Fanyuan (Chen): I probably began down this path back in second or third grade, when I demonstrated particular prowess in writing. I continued to get the encouragement of my peers, teachers and managers, and thanks to this sense of pride slowly began to want to become a calligrapher. Because I spent my childhood in the countryside, it wasn’t until I was 15 that I really came into contact with writing brush copybooks and began to understand calligraphy, and only then that I learned about Ou, Liu, Yan, Zhao and other great classics of calligraphy script forms.

In 1997, I was assigned to work in Kunming, and from then on had more opportunities for study. At that time, contemporary calligraphy had just entered its most exciting period. The magazine “Contemporary Calligraphy” opened up new visual possibilities for me. Instinctively, I’m more inclined towards contemporary calligraphy. I like novelty and am intensely curious about the things I don’t know about. Contemporary calligraphy is obviously influenced by Western forms, an influence that I have only a very limited understanding of. Graphic design is a very good field for me to pursue further, as it requires one to combine new ways of thinking with the use of one’s visual sense. This is exactly what I want.

In 2010, I enrolled in advanced studies at the China Academy of Calligraphy and developed a more comprehensive knowledge of the treasure trove that is this traditional form. I had the further good fortune during that period in Beijing to meet a pioneer of contemporary calligraphy, Professor Wei Ligang, and study as a member of his International Shuxiang Society[1] . Actually, the course of my studies over these past ten or so years has traced a path from tradition calligraphy to contemporary calligraphy to contemporary Shuxiang. In this exhibition, the majority of my works have already broken away from the expression of Chinese characters themselves, and so I personally believe that they are more readily classified as a sort of contemporary Shuxiang.

LF: So you both began with calligraphy.

Chen: Yes. In fact, I can’t draw –the foundation of my work is pretty much only calligraphy. Before, I’d looked at calligraphy as calligraphy, but now, I increasingly view calligraphy through the lens of visual arts, and from this have found a number of new entry points into the discipline.

LF: Xianbo, you refer to ink paintings as traditional Chinese paintings, but do you find differences between the two?

Feng Xianbo's works

Feng Xianbo’s works

LF: Xianbo, many of your works, such as those depicting Kunming’s Western Hills or Dianchi Lake, are made through sketching from nature. You also make use of poetic inscriptions. Oil painting has always been associated with the practice of sketching from nature, but traditional Chinese painting typically hasn’t. Why do you choose to sketch?

Feng: Actually, traditional Chinese painting also emphasizes the importance of sketching. It’s just that method of sketching is different. Sketching in traditional Chinese painting is first and foremost an expression of cultural ideals. For instance, depictions of flowers and birds are most frequently associated with Confucian thought. The plum blossoms, orchids, bamboo and chrysanthemums that often appear all symbolize a corresponding facet of the spirit. Landscape painting is more influenced by Daoist and Zen thought. In the Western artistic tradition, no distinction is made between sketches of bamboo and other plants. Traditional Western painting emphasizes realism, perspective, and the play of light and shadow in enclosed spaces.

Traditional Chinese art represents different perspectives of the same object on the same plane, and so demonstrates a more fluid relationship between reality as it is observed and space. The “three distancing techniques” of landscape painting clearly demonstrate this mode of observation. The first half of the title of Du fu’s “Roving an eye over the river (游目俯大江)”is particularly apt: one’s“eye” doesn’t remain fixed, but rather roves across the expanse of the river. There is no stable perspective; space itself is in flux because the observing eye is itself in motion. The process of “sketching” in traditional Chinese painting is this process whereby real world images are examined from different vantage points in space and time and thus transformed, purified and sublimated into an expression of the most ideal crystallization of emotions. Therefore Chinese painting is not constrained by space or time; images of winter can show up in a scene depicting summer.

Another reason Chinese painting is associated with sketching is related to the very technique of using brush and ink. In order for one to express the particular temperament and feeling of an object, one must necessarily first begin one’s studies of Chinese painting with imitation. Only after a particular level of brush and ink technique has been mastered can one then begin to truly depict objects. Yet it is also because one begins directly with the brush that it’s easy for everyone to mistakenly believe that Chinese painting doesn’t emphasize sketching.

LF: Your works have layer upon layer of mountains and lakes, and are dotted with thatched huts and ships, but all of these are drawn in an ancient style. Do you believe this to be authentic?

Feng: I believe the categories of “real” and “fake” are not so clear in art. Artists should seek to portray our most ideal spiritual state. Reality perhaps inspires my painting and directs my attention, but I need not reproduce it. To paint landscapes, one must harness one’s own cultural philosophy and individual brushwork style, and these are distilled from one’s experience of reality. What ancient styles frequently portray is a kind of cultural symbol. The objects in the painting are not just simple visualizations of the real, material world. The essence of a true landscape painting cannot be expressed in words, as its meaning remains boundless.

LF: Fanyuan, you didn’t begin with traditional Chinese painting, yet you create ink painting works. Does this mean that you come to ink painting with a fresher perspective?

Chen: Being traditional doesn’t mean being constrained. These traditions are in fact endlessly freeing; they are my treasure trove, an inexhaustible source. All of my contemporary Shuxiang is an extension of traditional calligraphy practice.

LF: Fanyuan, your works experiment with the use of multiple types of materials. Compared to the elegance of Xianbo’s work and the Chinese scholarly tradition, your approach is much wilder, and explores the possibility of integrating calligraphy with Western modernist traditions. Does this sort of exploration indicate that traditional ink painting has now become problematic?

Chen: I think so. Ink and oil as materials each have their pros and cons. Ink is inherently imbued with national characteristics, and was developed as a medium in our formerly sealed off cultural environment. In today’s globalized world, industrialization and modernization are changing the times. Artists must reflect the spirit of our current age, and must use different types of formal expression to convey this. Even among my teachers, many who continue to make ink paintings are slathering propylene, oil paints and other sorts of materials on them. I think what’s important is the spirit of a piece, an oriental spirit, which isn’t determined by tools or materials. So a lot of my works don’t use ink but still, in fact, are a form of calligraphy.

Chen Fanyuan's work

Chen Fanyuan’s work

Feng: I find the Tang dynasty particularly inspiring, as they played a large role in preserving the traditional forms of their time while also remaining open to new forms of expression. In this period, calligraphists such as Chu Suiliang and Lu Jianzhi inherited and continued to propagate the traditions of the Two Wangs of the Wei and Jin dynasties[2], while others like Zhang Xu and Huai Su were boldly exploring the possibilities of romanticism. The Tang Dynasty was very tolerant of foreign cultures, but at the same time its own culture was also very widespread. It is easy to become closed off from the outside possibilities if the conception of “ink painting” is limited to only its most traditional forms. Therefore it is important to explore, and within a multicultural context allow different traditions to collide and coalesce. Chinese art is essentially a tradition that develops along one continuous line, with periods of daring experimentation. Both these paths of development are necessary – they are not mutually exclusive, but rather depend on each other.

Chen: In the 50s, many Western artists were influenced by Japanese modern calligraphy, and their formal language became much more direct. Many works of Abstract Expressionist painters have countless ties with calligraphy. When modern calligraphy began in China in the 80s, it absorbed this Western style, emphasizing a sense of dynamism. At this point, the barriers between eastern and western culture were broken down, and they began to mutually influence each other. I believe that as the world becomes more globalized, this will become more and more obvious trend. There’s no way to turn back time; we can never again return to the cultural environment of our ancestors. It’s therefore even more important for us to pay attention to the present and the future. Artists and scientist have this essential point in common: both must explore the unknown.

LF: Xianbo, in one of your own autobiographical narratives, you write, “The ultimate aim of calligraphy is to ‘enlighten the mind and improve human relations. ’ If created in an age without faith, it will inevitably confuse right with wrong, be unable to distinguish what is genuine from what is imitation, beauty from ugliness, the high from the low.” In other words, you believe art is not just to be enjoyed, but also serves to educate and influence people, and to build human relationships. Implied here is a premise, also Confucian, that you see artists put in the instructive position of saints or intellectuals. Do you think that today, this is possible?

Feng: What is most lacking in the world today is exactly this. Now, many people study art just because it’s an easier way to get into university. After graduation, the majority of art academy students never again devote themselves to artistic work, because using one’s own artistic ability to make a living is terribly hard and is not a path as direct as that of other industries. To this day, I still remember that at the opening ceremony of our first school year, academy president Xu Jiang said: “If you had wanted to get a good job after you graduate, you might as well have gone to a vocational school, because all great artists of past generations never gave up on their craft no matter what their financial circumstances or how much of a dead end they seemed to be facing.”

People say that this is an age without faith. For this very reason, it is even more important for artists to have their own reserve of determination and courage.

Feng Xianbo's works

Feng Xianbo’s works

Even supposing calligraphy from now on is fated for a bleak future according to the words of certain prophets who say “the glory days are over, never to return again,” we cannot at this point lose our drive. Even if we fail and cannot return to the glorious days of the masters of old, we must still carry on the mission to continue our practice.

LF: Really, though, people of any age all have faith, it’s just that the things that they believe in are different. If we say there is no faith today, what we’re actually saying is that people believe in the wrong things. We worship money, material goods, and personal gain as God. The result is that hypocrisy, ugliness, fame, wealth, and excitations have filled our hearts.

Chen: We are actually doing this exhibition to open a discussion about the inheritance of tradition and broaden the sense of what that tradition can mean.

Feng: In painting and calligraphy, all is a balance between the two poles of emptiness and plenitude. One factor that affects this balance is the type of brushwork. If there are only strong marks and no soft ones, the work will look dull; if there are only soft marks and no strong ones, it will look thin. Another factor is the ink. Maintaining a proper balance of black and white depends on the interaction of the two shades with each other. Between these two poles, we have much room to experiment.


[1] Shuxiang(书象): a contemporary, experimental form that explores the line between calligraphy and abstract art.
[2] Eastern Jin Dynasty calligrapher Wang Xizhi and Wang Xianzhi, they are father and son, Later generations called them “Two Wangs”.

Translated by Becky Davis

related posts:
About the exhibition:
Interview in Chinese(本访谈中文):

Interview: He Libin

He Libin
(Interview with the artist in his studio. 30th April 2010. Present: He Libin, Luo Fei and Anders Gustafsson.)

I once read a text by Jeff Crosby, where he emphasized that Kunming historically did play an often overlooked role in China’s road to modernity: from it’s time as a French outpost, to its role as a refuge for Chinese intellectuals during the Japanese occupation, Kunming often led the way for China’s embrace of modern ideas. I guess the South West Art Research Group should also be mentioned here. Do you see Kunming’s art community building on this heritage, or should we declare it dead and buried?

– It is building on that tradition. Compared with other citites, Kunming woke up early in relation to modernity. The first Chinese art community started here (Chuang Ku/Loft, 1999). It was influenced by the Western world. During French and Japanese occupation, this influence was forced upon us. The Han culture didn’t have such a big influence here, so Kunming could accept different cultures.

– It’s actually quite interesting that many Kunming artists are rather lazy, or very relaxed anyway. This also means they’re very free. So if there’s an interesting opportunity, the artists can easily gather. Chuang Ku is an example. Another case is the Jiang Hu-project 2005-2006 (a project supported by Lijiang studio). It influenced lots of young artists and was awarded a price for being the second best art project after the Shanghai Biennal in 2006.

But isn’t the Kunming art community more scattered now than say four-five years ago?

– Yes, definitively.

But is that a sign of the artists cooperating less? Or of something else?

– We cooperate more, actually. There are more opportunities and possibilities. Four years ago, there was only Loft. The exhibitions were more simple at that point. Now we have more art spaces, which results in more cross over art.

I’ve noticed that people in Kunming often remind us foreigners about the minorities influence on the culture of Yunnan. You are of Naxi heritage yourself. Do you see any influence from the minority cultures on contemporary art?

– Personally, the Naxi culture doesn’t attract me. I’m mainly living with Han-people. Even though Yunnan is a minority province, Yunnan’s main culture is Han. Just look at the menues in the restaurants. The minority food is often there more like a decoration.

– Another important thing is, that in the 20th century, even if we have many minorities, we where occupied by Western countries. That influenced us. Minority culture is maybe more influential in song and dance, but not so much in the visual art where the Western influence was stronger.
As far as the art academies educational tradition is concerned, the visual arts relates mainly to the Western system and the Chinese traditional painting: More precisely, the Western tradition of realism and the Chinese one where the students copy old masters and paint plants. So the influence on contemporary art is marginal, in my opinion.

– In early 1980’s there was an art wave, the Heavy Colored School and the Scenery School, who were influenced by minority culture. All the artists were Han-people, and they combined minority culture with western influences. Most of the minority art is more utility based, for religios ceremonies and so on. But it doesn’t reach independent or fine art. Different minorities have different religions. This means that they are enclosed in there own circles; it doesn’t spill over to other cultures.

– If you compare original minority art, with the Heavy Colored School and the Scenery School art, they are very different. The latter are landscape paintings with strong colors. But already in the 90’s they were less influential. They were hardly scratching the surface of the minorities cultures. It never dealt with the feelings of the individual, and it never acccounted for the individual’s experiences.

– When I watched them, they all looked the same. Soft, beautful, like a poem. I’ve lived with minorities, and I know that this beautiful side is only part of the truth. There are sorrow and suffering too. That kind of life is never covered by those paitings, and they don’t show these people’s real life.

– I think that the government knows and likes the Heavy Colored School and the Scenery School art, and those artists use this style to present a romantic idea about minorities to Westerners. They want Yunnan to be the biggest tourist province in China, so they portray it like the Garden of Eden.

It’s not only the minority cultures that distincts Yunnan from other provinces in China. It’s also the geographical proximity to Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. Myanmar is Yunnan’s biggest trading partner, for example. Is this influencing the Kunming art scene?

– The cooperation with these countries takes plcae within the economical sphere, but very rarely on a cultural level. So if we look back on the past years’ culture events, very few of them are in any way connected to these countries. (Even if the day before this interview an exhibition from Thailand opened at Yunnan Arts Institute).

– In recent years, we’ve learnt that the differences between art in Yunnan and, say Laos and Thailand, are really big. So we influence each other only to a small extent, if any. Their art education, exhibitions, collectors and foundations are all of Western origin. This will continue, I think, and the main reason for this is that in rescent history they were occupied by Western countries.

Mao Xuhui talks about your “anxiety”, reflected in the loss of the traditional landscape conquered by the destruction of modernity. Do you agree with this?

anders-interviews-helibin– Almost all Chinese have anxiety, it’s only on different levels… Personally, I don’t see myself as an intellectual. My anxiety is mainly about lifestyle. Being caught between on one hand my dream of a pure and simple life, on the other hand the modern life’s with its speed and its urges. So I’m almost afraid to go to the super market, it’s a big waste of products and resources. I’m afraid it’s all about desire. Maybe I would have preferred to live the simple life of minorities.

– The traditional Chinese intellectuals lead divided lifes. They wished to join this world and at the same time escape from it. So I don’t see myself as an intellectual. I can not totally embrace the traditional intellectuals’ opinions or feelings. My culture and knowledge system is only slightly influenced by Konfucianism. Deep down, I much more prefer daoism. Daoists usually live in forests or mountains.

I find your project, Recording Shenzhen, particularly interesting. You and some volunteers painted the city’s sceneries, but used water instead of colour. The art work lasted for a maximum of two hours. Isn’t that quite Daoistic?

– No idea, I hadn’ t thought of that, haha. But probably. Just like my recent works, where I only used water, air and other simple resources. Another important element in my work is about time.

Time… Isn’t there some similarity between the ephemeral or unreachable nature of this vaning waterdepictions of a hypermodern city, and the traditional landscapes of some of your other paintings? I mean: Aren’t we often projecting our contemporary thoughts and worldviews on a distant past that in some sense is unreachable?

– Yes. I always try to reach for it, but it disappears. It makes me sad, and if you lift up this feeling, it’s somthing like impermanence (a Buddhist term). And you can’t really know it or control it.

It looks to me that you are speaking the same language in The Forgotten Views and The Lost Writing; there you are using newspaper as material to depict traditional landscape or calligraphy. Newspapers as a material are ephemeral, even if not as much as painting in water.

helibin– Yes. But as you know, I’m not the person who plans everything. In this progress I tried different materials, but finally I choose newspaper. It’s cheap, actually it doesn’t cost me anything. And it’s a good material, easy to work with. All the newpapers came from friends, they’re for free. I can’t finish it, cause people always ask me if I need more newspapers…

– During the works I found newspaper as a material has its limits. Time will change it, it won’t last. I tried with other materails as well, like sand and metal. Mixed material. Time will change everything. Deep down I’m a pessimist. Impermanence, is a word I really understand and can identify with.

TCG Nordica is celebrating its 10 years anniversary. Please give me your thoughts on which role it – and Chuang Ku – has played through the years.

– They’ve played very different roles. Chuang Ku was established by Ye Yongqing and Tang Zhigang. In the beginning it was like creating an enclave. They were idealists, in a way they wished to build Utopia. With enclave, I mean they wanted to create a life style that was quite different from other citizens. Their land was sort of up in the air, it didn’t land.

– But because of these artists’ hard work, Kunming’s art events became more and more a part of the city’s daily life. There was a distance from the public, maybe. But art became more and more a part of daily life for artists, with exhibitions, platforms and so on. Before Chuang Ku, the opportunities to see or particpiate in an exhibition was very limited . It was limited to the official museums.

– In Chuang Ku there was a thinking mode that it’s “us” inside Chuang Ku, and “them” outside. To make a difference between them and the artists supported by the authorities. “We are Chuang Ku(Loft) artists, they are outsiders”. Maybe Western artists see it more as “I” and “you”, rather than “us” and “them”?

– When I read the last generations diaries (like Mao Xuhui, Ye Yongqing and so on), it was a lot about us and them. They were different, that also went for the relation to society. Today it’s a big difference. The boundaries have been blurred. And this is because of their success. They have become accepted, before they were a more heterogenous group.

And TCG Nordica?

– I see Nordica as a bridge. The founders wanted to share different kinds of culture with everyody. This sharing was not to make everybody be the same. In fact, it makes everybody different. This is the biggest difference between Nordica and Loft. Nordica was not just only for “us”. Instead it made us realize our differences. I think this is a culture difference. For Westerners it was I and you. For Chinese it was much about us and them; us always eating and drinking tea, playing cards together, for example.

– I think Nordica is the most inportant place at Loft. Without it, Loft would be a local community. There would be no dialogue, no conflict.

– According to Nordica’s vision, there’s still a kind of idealism, But it’s not Utopia. It has a positive view on everybody’s life style and culture. If the art community thinks: “Let’s build an alternative life style”, it’s more utopian. It makes everybody look the same. Like communism; everybody are the same.

At one point in a discussion woth the Loft artists, we tried to explain how we at Nordica work more with a flat organization, rather than a hierarchial one. One of the artists ironically exclaimed: “Ahh, you are the real communists!”

– Actually, even when there’s a cooperation with Nordica, everybody still have their individual work.

So will this – and should it – change for the future, in your opinion?

– I think Nordica shouldn’t change their role much in the future. I wish Nordica can just go deeper in their communication between different cultures. And also, I wish there could be more communication.

Other cultures, not just Scandinavian-Chinese, you mean?

– No, my point is that we need build more communication in Kunming, with other culture areas. Not only art, but literature and so on. It’s not only the Nordica staff’s responsibility, but everyone’s.

Can you give a concrete suggestion?

– For example the HIV-project. That was a very good example of a sort of cross-over project, where people meet on a bridge. I wish we could move further, where artists take responsibility for society. In the past years, the art scene has been more profound than the other culture areas.

So, for example, we arrange a concert and let artists and poets create from their experiences during it?

– Yes, and artists could cooperate with scientists.

And how about the future for Loft?

– There are many, many problems with Loft, and everybody knows that. But I think it doesn’t matter if it’s there or not. The most important is how the artists work in the future. I think that even if there’s no art community, it’s not important. If the artists bring art into the daily life, it’s something that could happen everywhere.

– The art communities in China was probably a phenomena related to a certain period of time. The artists needed to make themselves known, needed to gather energy from each other. When or if the artists become stronger, and aren’t considered as being on the edge of society, I think the communities will dissappear naturally.

– Even if Loft disappears, it’s not necessarily a big problem to Nordica, who can still continue their work. All the artists in China have found that the art communities haven’t been the most important thing. The organisations have been more important. Within each art community, there has been a maximum of one or two organisations that have done most of the work.

In one discussion I had with Jonathan Kearney, we both agreed that Kunming’s culture life is different than what you find in the coastal megacities. Kunming can maybe not claim to be The Real China, but that it can claim to be A Different China.
If you agree with this, what is the main contribution of the Kunming art scene, that makes it stand out from the rest?

– I agree. A different China. The Director and founder of Lijiang studio Jay Brown even made an exhibition in Germany with that name. I think all the events happening in Kunming contributed to the whole of China. Some of them had much influence. Generally speaking, the Kunming art scene even made Kunming different from other cities.

In what way, more precisely?

– There were some cases with big influences. The New Concrete Group in the 1980’s influenced many cities. Also, the Chuangku/Loft influenced other cities. Another one was Jiang Hu (The before-mentioned project in Lijiang). It was tightly connected to the local experience, it could never have happened anywhere else. It was a village project outside Lijiang. Invited international artists to connect with the local experience and culture.

– And then there’s Nordica.

– Most of Chinese contemporary art is about an urban experience. In Yunnan the contemporary art connects with experience from nature. Those who come here find other influences and raise other questions, in relation to nature. Yunnan can give the artists inspiration for “slower walking”.

– These things make art life here stand out from the rest of China.

The current party secretary, Qiu He has personal ambitions for Kunming’s future. The universities are moved to Chenguang, outside Kunming. A new airport, China’s 4th biggest, should be ready next year. Rail lines linking Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou, Guangxi and Chongqing will be upgraded. Construction of a high-speed rail between Kunming and Shanghai is already underway. Improved roads to Hanoi and Bangkok will shorten the time between Kunming and these cities drastically.
How do you think such changes will affect the Kunming art scene?

– It’s hard to say. I haven’t thought about it that much. I think it won’t change a lot for the artists themselves. They mainly focus on peoples’ hearts and experiences. But there might be changes in the patterns and structures, relating to the city’s enlargening. I haven’t seen any action from the government towards the art community, so the change might not be so big.

– The small art communities might spread out in different places, because of the economic development strategy. It will hardly make art develop faster, though. In order for the local art scene to stay healthy, it will need local curators, collectors and galleries. But that will take a long time.

You have chosen to stay here, although many artists follow the money to the coastal region. And it’s not that you haven’t seen the world. You have travelled to Scandinavia, for example. So what’s most attracting for you here?

– My family. Maybe I could earn more money in some other place, but I enjoy life here. I don’t want to leave my loved ones: parents, wife, daughter. The daily life is most important to me. Only then comes art.

Interview by Anders Gustafsson
Photo by Luo Fei


For more information about artist He Libin, please check his CV and works at,  thanks!

Creating Inscape On The Spot

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.

4. Conclusion

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

(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.

A Conversation with Zhang Yongzheng: The Significance of Process


Zhang Yongzheng VS Luo Fei

Zhang Yongzheng: Professional Artist.
Luo Fei: Director and Curator of TCG Nordica Gallery in Kunming, Artist, and art blogger.

Time: the afternoon of 24th, December, 2007
Place: The Studio of Zhang Yongzheng on the Road of Longquan in Kunming
Record Script: Xia Yun Continue reading