Nature, they say, but they mean progress. They being the modernists, the technocrats, the party. Painterly Romanticism has a long and glorious history of resistance to the modern disenchantment of the world although it remains to be seen in what respect the sensibility of, say, a Constable or a G¨¦ricault could be meaningfully compared to the conditions of contemporary China. Painting may offer the psyche a retreat but it remains to be seen if this retreat serves an altogether reactionary program or it readies people to fight for life.
Sure enough, the medium of nature is an ancient topos of Chinese painting itself. Memories of exile fed into subtle perceptions of disintegration that relate both to the social entity as a whole and to a sense of self always under threat. Traditional Chinese landscape is tragedy and psychosis, to a degree. It also speaks of a particular desire to overcome a condition of enforced contemplation which, of course, has consequences for the painting's viewers. Reading a painting properly is an excercise in making ethical sacrifices. Some sense of self has to be given up in order to fully enter a picture and leave it unharmed.
Western painterly Romanticism dedicated much of its brushwork to atmospheric hues. Getting the landscape right, providing a convincing vision of mist and depth, was an attempt to fuse the physiological determination of the eye, and of sight, with an intellectual awareness of a realm beyond the horizon of human reason. After European Enlightenment this realm could no longer be perceived as a source of magic proper. Its only access was critique, or the uncompromising questioning of the foundation of the very world we take to be given or, to put it briefly, of reason.
The painting of Duan Jianyu confronts the viewer with a particular iconography but also with a flatness and monochromatic vision that blends traditional painterly conventions with a narrative of rural modernity. This is all the more remarkable as the official image of Chinese progress rests with the mega-city and urban space. But people harbour in their mind an after-image of what landscape meant before it became building site, or what peasant-life entailed before it became agriculture.
Giving the after-image its due vision is slowed down in Duan Jianyu's work, even arrested, as the viewer is asked to take in the enigmatic consistency of figures and ground: naked women showing their jouissance on the back of an oxen or a farm courtyard, the fabulous pink creature in The Mountains and water Always Echo Our Love No. 2, or the breast-feeding women next to a basket of eggs, all these figural constellations wrapped into a highly agitated, almost nervous surface of painterly immediacy. Just look at the all-over blossoming red of You are Welcome No. 2. Like in a dream, there is not much to be gained from taking Duan Jianyu's imagery literal. There is also no need for a vulgar psychoanalytic reading. The appropriate attitude in front of the painting is to accept the enigma as what is¡ªan enigma. This said, we cannot help to relate our own memories to the representations at hand. These chains of memories will probably be different for a Chinese than for a European eye. The important point though is that Duan Jianyu is not leaving us with the spectacle and excuse of different cultures but is equally not throwing us into the arms of one global or consumerist culture. She occupies an in-between space of infinite possibilities, the site of the Chinese unconscious.