Apotheosis of the Imagination: Duan Jianyu's Approach to Painting
Imagination can save your life, of that I am quite sure. When everyday routine becomes too dull, when it tends to kill your joie de vivre, a Pindaric flight of fancy can take you far from it all, among legendary personages and fantastic landscapes, to a world that's custom-made for you and/or by you.
Literature is a great help in this process, maybe more than any other human expression, more than painting and theatre. Be it for the very reason that to read a book requires more time than to view a painting, or see a play or a movie, or because words are more evocative than images, it really seems to be that way. I can easily think of several books that have 'changed my life', while I have hardly been influenced in such a strong way by an art work, even though I am an art lover. What makes this fact even harder to understand is that at birth we are not able to speak, let alone read, while we already have the inborn ability to see the world. Paradoxically, it could be this very fact - that things are already there for us to see - that makes them become less interesting, less mysterious and, even more important, less 'personal'. Or it could be that the 'imagination' is a fully 'cultural' activity that requires the acquisition of language as a necessary pre-existent condition.
Creation as Need
I believe that most people who devote themselves to a creative endeavor (be it visual or literary, the two realms I'll especially be discussing here) feel that so-called 'reality' (or what we may also think of as everyday life) is too narrow for them; they have the impression that it restricts their dreams, wishes, and possibilities. They feel constrained by it, rather than in love with it. This is often true for anything that relates to the human-made realm, rather than that of nature: the latter is usually perceived as magic, evocative, generous; within it, even the most sensitive soul can feel at ease. Most creative people have difficulty adapting to the innumerable rules created throughout human history in order to form a complex society. To be an accepted member of this society, one has to fit into a specific pattern, a model that has been strictly codified. I get goose bumps when I think of the way a person is supposed to behave, starting from her or his birth onward; all is predetermined, agreed upon, unless that person chooses to be an 'outsider'. But is it really a choice we have, to be 'in' or 'out', is it the only possibility? Will I be able to be a good wife, a good mother, a good daughter and a good worker, and dress properly, act properly, speak properly in every moment, situation and period of my life? Will I be willing or able to accept this lifelong pressure?
There seem to be people who easily get used to all these requirements, either because they really fit into this kind of world, or they just manage to accept it without suffering too much. There are others who instead suffer deeply all their lives, keeping this pain hidden within their soul, or transferring it to their body through unconscious somatic afflictions. Physical distress is always more socially accepted than mental distress. I often observe people who appear to feel good and to be perfectly adapted to their social context, and it seems to me that they have the ability to keep themselves busy with any little aspect of their daily routine. Once they have achieved that day's task, they feel fulfilled, contented and relaxed. Their minds are busy enumerating the many little problems they have solved and the activities they have performed, and they feel satisfied. They do not feel that inner urge, that never-ending anxiety of those others who, maladjusted to human society, seek to create another world for themselves where they can feel at ease and at home. For the kinds of people I'm talking about, this 'other' world is neither on the moon, nor in any 'real' space: it lies within the 'virtual', yet very tangible, realm of creation, namely literature and/or art.
I believe my friend Duan Jianyu belongs to this kind.
As is the case for all things, there are advantages and disadvantages to both conditions. As for the group of people I'm interested in, those who need to create a personal world that can be partly or fully shared with others who are on the same wavelength, they are the slaves of an expressive need that chases them in nearly every moment of their life. They are never really satisfied, never fully content with their achievements, always in search, restless and self-critical, always alert, always thirsty for new ideas, new perspectives, new possibilities. Life will never be easy for them, life will never be comfortable. But life will be rich, interesting, various, stimulating. Their overly developed sensitivity will make them feel unhappy, sometimes depressed, anxious, agitated, but it will push them towards achievements that others can't even dream of. They have no choice; they can only follow the path that suits them. A solitary path, that at times can allow them to establish a spiritual connection with others. These are the kinds of people who hardly ever read a book, or watch a movie or a play just for the sake of enjoyment, for them this is all food for the mind and soul that will be assimilated and expressed in another form, thus assuming a different, personal, highly unique appearance.
I have the feeling that joy and suffering both reside here, deeply intertwined.
Artists and Art Professionals
I know there are many so-called artists at work today - and in the past - who are far from recognizing themselves in the portrait I have drawn. I would call them 'professionals' who happen to be rather skilled in art-related activities, namely techniques. There's nothing wrong in having a 'good hand', in being able to draw from life or from models, in being able to combine the many different visual patterns and subjects one may come across, or develop a 'personal system' of symbols, of recognizable ciphers that are carefully chosen so as to please contemporary tastes. It is understandable that achieving commercial success can be highly gratifying, but I am certain that this concern cannot be the aim or mainspring of an artistic endeavor, or of a genuinely creative frame of mind.
I am aware of the very realistic reasons why many young people choose to study at an art school in China nowadays. Lacking an aptitude for scientific or humanistic subjects, they tend to think they've found a less demanding discipline. When Duan Jianyu took the examination and was accepted at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, the situation was very different: at that time I believe true interest, true passion, true 'devotion' was the propelling reason for most students to embark on that journey (and they were extremely few, a handful compared to the country's population), which is one of the least economically rewarding and least 'necessary' in modern society. I agree with Oscar Wilde when he says that art cannot be taught. What can be taught, though, is to master a visual language that enables one to achieve self-expression. I do not think 'content' is there waiting to find its channel to be expressed. Content and form are strictly connected and surely influence each other, so the things we happen to learn influence our way of thinking and direct our attention in different directions, and in this respect art schools may play a formative role. But the inner 'need' or 'urge' that pushes a person to express her feelings through (in this case) a visual medium cannot be induced: that either is or isn't there within her. The reason why one person may possess such an urge is deeply hidden within the folds of that individual's personality, or, for those who believe in such things, the reason may even lie in a given person's cycle of reincarnations, or in that individual's astral positions at birth.
With these general arguments, I am not trying to escape from a detailed analysis of Duan Jianyu's artworks. I am just striving to explain what I mean when I say that, in my opinion, she is one of those persons 'possessed by' a typically artistic temperament.
In my dealings with the art world, I more and more feel the need to search for 'truth' and 'depth', or at least 'honesty' as opposed to mere 'appearance', 'surface', or 'cleverness'. It is my quest to find a sense in life that has taken me in this direction. I won't do anything that is not coherent with this aim and this has been my personal code of conduct. I try to be sincere and to dig deeply into things, feelings and ideas in anything I do so that I can gradually get in tune with my true self (if there is one), and, hopefully, with a truth outside myself. (But is this distinction real, or is it only in my mind, in my judgement ?) As my friend Daniela Rosi, a very sharp and honest art critic, says, we should no longer distinguish between fake or true 'artworks', but between fake or true artists.
History of an Artistic Friendship
Duan Jianyu has asked me to contribute to her catalogue so as to continue the long conversation we've shared during a friendship that's lasted about fifteen years now. I've accepted because I hope that putting down in writing my remarks will help me to understand her and her art better, and maybe help her to clarify something of herself that is still indistinct, unconscious, in the back of her mind. This dialogue has often been very intense; I've kept many hours of recorded conversations, which are sometimes playful and at others quite thorny. Both Jianyu and I tend to stick to our viewpoints and occasionally we are not able to understand each other. These disagreements, which are often merely a matter of form, of stubbornness, can explode in very unexpected moments, sparked as they usually are by some very common matter and then becoming bigger and bigger in a blind vertigo of obstinacy. We've managed to get over these moments and, waking up the following morning, we've kept in mind our mutual esteem and friendship, each trying to remind herself how meaningless it is to be rigid about abstract principles when it comes to a person's opinions.
When I first met Jianyu, she was still a student at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. She seemed to be very passionate about everything she was doing (except for household matters), a woman who could not and did not want to hide her emotions. I became interested in her right away. Later, as I had more opportunities to spend time in Guangzhou, I curated a show with works by her and other young artists of her age (Plural Identity, 1998). I went to see her exhibitions in Hans van Dijk's two art spaces in 1999 and 2001 (Beijing CAAW), and she visited me when I moved to Shanghai (2002), while we later traveled together to Hainan during a Chinese New Year (2003). Then she became a mother, and this partly changed her life, as it does everybody's. I invited her to contribute a photographic self-portrait for a project I was working on (2003), then, after a difficult and long preparation process, I managed to curate her solo show in Italy, in 2007, and on that occasion she spent some time in my house, enjoying the surrounding natural environment more than art, for once. I wrote an essay on her works, but she was only partly happy with it, and she told me so.
Later, I again wrote a piece on her for a joint exhibition catalogue (3rd Line). In the last several years, whenever I happened to be in Guangzhou, I stayed a few times at her house in the outskirts of Guangzhou. She was becoming more and more appreciated in art circles, and getting busier and busier and more self-assured. I was happy about it, but not surprised at all. Rather, a bit concerned that she would be carried away to a less authentic world, that of trendy contemporary art. We often had conversations about my worries and she used her humor to dilute them.
Finally, last year, she invited me to go with her to Brazil on a 'research trip' that was supposed to stimulate her to eventually produce some site-related works. I was meant to act as her bodyguard and interpreter, her compass and companion twenty-four hours a day. Brazil is not an easy place to be, if you don't know how to get around. Our moods oscillated between regret (at having gone there) and enthusiasm, disappointment and delight.
There we had some of our most sincere, painfully honest conversations. I consider Jianyu part of my karma, an artist and a friend who's connected to me and who's sometimes 'not easy to be around', meaning that she's someone who gives me a hard time since she's always very critical about what she's doing and what I'm doing. As I'm constantly trying to improve, her firm proding helps me to remain alert and not indulge in some of the bad habits an art critic may fall into.
We often discuss contemporary art and what we consider the correct way to 'behave' as an artist or an art critic/curator. I will now try to explain what I feel is the main difference between us, apart from age and cultural background. In my opinion, she's still not confident enough about her indubitable, refined sensitivity as a painter. Among her works, I deeply appreciate those that look less 'theory-based', those that don't deliberately utilize symbols (like the airline stewardesses) or grotesque figures (like the naked woman amid several countryside settings she recently depicted). In my opinion, she uses these for their conceptual impact rather than their pictorial achievement. I know this is a complex question nowadays and it is not easy to talk about clearly. To simplify matters, I would say that I do not think a painting should tell a story. In one of her lectures, Jianyu has said that she 'does not like the realist way of expressing things' - I guess she does not like to tell things directly, in a straightforward way, because there is no space left to the imagination, or for mystery and humor. I mostly agree with this opinion, although there have been, for instance, some brilliant Italian neorealist movies that are so important and necessary just the way they are. I mention movies because Jianyu is a great film buff and has a wide collection of good works. But getting back to painting, the medium she masters best: in my opinion, painting is a very specific, unique medium and should be taken to the apex of its most peculiar purpose, which is to display a purely visual language in all its nuances and subtleties. As I previously mentioned, a purely visual language is much more difficult to 'understand' than a written (or oral) one. The main reason, I guess, is the fact that written language tends to be strictly codified, (although there are so many different ways to write and, for instance, Jianyu still remembers her surprise in reading Kafka for the first time) while visual language, and namely the language of painting, leaves more space to the imagination; it is evocative, vague; it can instantly strike very deep, hidden chords within the viewer. The combination of colors, juxtaposition of strokes, alternation of emptiness and fullness, composition... these are all elements that, alongside the 'subject' if we're talking about figurative painting, can evoke reactions without having to be 'conceptualized' first.
When I look at a painting I don't think, I just follow my feelings and these manifest themselves in a non-verbal way as well. When looking at works from any era, if I find one I am in tune with, I am moved to the point that a spontaneous smile appears on my lips. It does not happen often, but it does happen, and when it does I tend to interpret it as that experience the German philosopher Schelling referred to as an 'aesthetic intuition', which I studied with great curiosity and longing when I was in high school. It is like looking at an astonishing landscape, but in this case there is a 'human' contribution, which means I feel its effect more intensely since it is the creation of a fellow human being.
Maybe I should not have used the word 'understand' in the previous paragraph when talking about painting. The magic of painting is that everyone has different reactions to it and all have the right to perceive it in a very subjective way. In China it is common to say, when facing an 'obscure' contemporary work of art, that one (literally) 'sees but does not understand' (while in Italy we instead say that it 'does not tell us anything'). Maybe this linguistic discrepancy reflects different cultural expectations, whose roots are historical. It may also be true that Italians are slightly more accustomed to 'modern' art (which in this case means the type of art that is not aimed at serving a specific, didactic purpose, like classic religious altarpieces, or many works of 'socialist realism', but stresses individual creativity and originality) and therefore no longer expect a work of art to offer any 'precepts', but rather to elicit emotions.
I have noticed that it is still very common, in China, to expect a painting to 'tell a story'. Be it expressed in a very straightforward, 'realistic' way or in a more personal, unique manner, there is supposed to be a 'content' that can be 'translated' into words. In my opinion, this is a heavy inheritance stemming from the country having lived under sixty years of socialist realism (just to mention one of the most recent causes). I am persuaded that the more a painting and its quality can be expressed in words, the least successful it is visually. A painting and, in general, a work of art, should speak through chords that are independent and different from those of a 'narrative plot'. These will in turn cause reactions in the viewer that are not rationally or clearly explainable. Here resides the mystery, the beauty, the evocative and unique power of art in my view. The reason might be, as Rudolf Steiner thinks, that ''what lives in forms and colors as a living organ of the spiritual world may become a solid bridge between humans and the cosmos''.
But because those areas that cannot be fully explored by the brain and explained rationally may be problematic, moreover because the current era tries to dismiss non-scientific, non-rational, non-analytic approaches, the very human ability to feel and perceive has been neglected and underestimated for over a century, and many of us have lost touch with our emotive sensibility. This sensibility receives emotions mainly through the senses, and sight is one of them. The above may be said to be especially true of contemporary China, which is still prone to the fascination of 'scientific achievements and reasoning', while in Europe we've increasingly become more skeptical about this.
On Duan Jianyu's Pictorial Sensibility
I am quite convinced that, although Jianyu is very interested in literature and other 'narrative' expressive media, she is mainly a visual artist, and by saying this I not only mean that she works with a visual language, but that she expresses herself best visually, and in this sphere the language she masters best is painting. She is not a very 'rational' person in my opinion, she is rather emotional, and this characteristic makes her more sensitive than others. If she were a bank employee, this aspect of her personality would surely be a disadvantage, yet, as a painter it turns out to be a great advantage.
Talking with Jianyu, I often point out that she simultaneously focuses on two main 'genres' of works: one I would call more 'spontaneous' and 'natural', consisting of landscapes, flowers, animals and such; while the other I think of as more 'planned', constructed, conceptual, in which her unique, grotesque stories unfold, featuring stewardesses and watermelons, nursing mothers and a basket of eggs, naked women in rural landscapes, and so on. I often find these settings to be quite hilarious, full of humor with acute sense of the absurd making them truly original. It is here, as the artist has stated in one of her lectures, that she shows her ability as an imaginative storyteller, as a creator of paradoxical situations and grotesque plots. But I'll be discussing this aspect further on; for the moment I'm going to focus on her pictorial sensibility.
I am now referring to those works that are recurrent in her artistic curriculum and that are, in her view, in no way able to satisfy all her expressive needs, namely: landscapes, flowers, and other subjects that do not contain any 'narrative' plot and intention. In my opinion, they manage to achieve a poetry that the others, the 'planned' ones do not have. I'm thinking of paintings like Landscape 4 (2004, 210 x 190 cm), Good morning 9 (2005, 110 x 170 cm), Chrysanthemum 7 (2005, 120 x 120 cm) and so on. However, these very simple, repetitive titles do not indicate a conventional way of dealing with such universal subjects. For instance, although bamboo commonly appears in Chinese painting, the bamboo forest portrayed in Landscape 4 is unique, deeply different from any previous pictorial tradition. Jianyu manages to convey her personal interpretation of very widespread and familiar themes, permeating them with her sense of humor, her way of always being 'within and without' a tradition, a world, a 'system', and she achieves this result without the need to add external elements. The proportions between the various features of the painting are considered anew; bamboo trunks fill the canvas in such an unusually crowded way that one is left with no doubts: the painter cannot be said to have a 'naturalistic' approach in mind. She is by no means sheepishly following a tradition: the tiny pine tree that pops out on the vertiginous rock face of the mountain (Good morning 9) is really like a stab of humor that debunks an apparent tribute to the past. Nevertheless, these paintings are full of poetry and such an effect owes much to the history of art: the painter manages to distill and reconsider the past. Here humor does not become parody or satire; it just serves to make the viewer immediately understand that the painter is interpreting her cultural background and natural surroundings in her own way, which is contemporary and detached, yet passionate.
I am really fond of the way Jianyu uses colors too. She has managed to 'come out of the womb' of academic teaching, she does not follow the rules of color combination. She bravely juxtaposes not just all kinds of color, but different ways of treating the surface as well. In one painting there might be large areas covered in one tone, but they will never be flat and even. There will be more or less visible, smaller or larger 'interventions' of the brush: dots or fine lines, drippings and so on. One could say that Jianyu's paintings are figurative when seen from afar, while abstract close up. In my eyes, all her paintings share this fantastic 'painterly sensibility' ; it's just that in some of them she chooses to superimpose figures and stories.
Sometimes I wonder whether Jianyu fears that she will not be fully appreciated if she paints only this kind of 'simpler, more direct' work. I know she'll shake her head as she reads these lines, she will claim that she needs to rely on other ways to fully express her artistic vision. I still think that the real 'gift' she can give to art is to devote herself to deepening her pictorial mastery and subtlety. This opinion might be due to the appeal for me of the Chinese saying ''to draw a snake with legs''; this relates to the story of how a person in a painting competition, after having drawn a snake in a very short time and realizing that the other participants are still at work, adds four legs to the original sketch in order to kill time. This action spoils the original achievement. I am very fond of simplicity, of 'subtraction', of short, vibrant, pregnant verses and of silence and emptiness.
This personal preference does not prevent me from appreciating sophisticated, complex, multi-layered works. I can enjoy them with my brain; through my 'detached, analytical abilities', I can apply the semiotic interpretation system I studied under Umberto Eco, or I can also consider such works from a psychological angle.
But when it comes to the types of works described above, I enjoy them right away with my whole heart.
The Painter as a Meta-linguist
Now, let's talk about that other 'genre' in Jianyu's artistic activity, the one she considers the most important and the most meaningful. I am referring to those works - and they have existed from the beginning of her independent artistic career - where the painter's imagination and playful, ironic, humorous tastes are fully expressed. Sometimes this happens to the detriment of the immediacy of the painting, but this is Jianyu's will. She likes to use the word 'explore' when referring to her approach to painting, and this is confirmed in her view of literature and movies too, her other strong interests. I guess one of her main wishes is to be able to contribute something new to the history of painting, something revolutionary and very personal that would enrich the pre-existing visual language. She is aware of the fact that she is confronted with thousands of years of human creation and that her effort would need to be superhuman, yet she accepts the challenge.
I was quite favourably impressed when I saw Jianyu's solo show at the Vitamin Creative Space in Beijing, in November 2010. There she constructed a highly complex, multi-layered composition of paintings, written quotations, and objects, so that the gallery space looked like an independent world, a phantasmagoric fruit of her imaginative mind. There even her identity was part of the plot: she could pretend to be an amateur painter who, having ended up in some remote countryside, among peasants at work, extracts from the sole of her rubber boots a tiny palette and a minuscule brush, and, after having exercised her hand on some geometric pattern, ventures into more demanding tasks. This painter's greatest wish is to add 'flavor' and 'unexpectedness' to everyday routines. A naked beauty depicted in erotic, inviting poses is placed within a typical rural setting where life still goes by in a daily struggle for basic needs. In my favorite work from a pictorial point of view, unexpectedly, on a huge canvas, are depicted two copulating monkeys that have just received a basket full of fruit and flowers for their 'honeymoon'. Jianyu seems to have thrown the most unusual subject matter into a top-hat, to have shaken it well and then combined its various elements, randomly creating the most unexpected settings. Even the quotes on the wall are pervaded by subtle irony and amusement. A lazy Santa Claus is seated on a famous designer chair with his legs up and his belly naked, exactly in the same way as many Chinese men (though not the most elegant) are in summer to get relief from the heat. There is an absurd, surreal arrangement of many contradictory aspects of contemporary life. Some actually exist in today's China, one of the most surprising and unpredictable countries in the world, and others exist as a virtual reality - the fruit of a bizarre conglomeration of themes taken from all over the world. Nowadays it is very likely that a Henanese person from the countryside, say from Zhumadian or Shanqiu, might dream of visiting Denmark's typical tourist attractions and imagine the sight of the Little Mermaid statue before a gaudy sunset background. In an imaginary tour of the world which might last just a few days, or a lifetime, such a tourist would travel from the North of Europe to the desert, and then on to a dreamy island filled with stereotypical palms on stereotypical beaches.
Jianyu has always been attracted and tempted by the most 'popular' and 'kitsch' themes; let's just think of her numerous reproductions of the Guilin landscape. Every time she ventures into these realms, she seems to prove that she can still make such well-known sights look different and fresh. I guess it is her way of looking at life, of trying not to see the repetitive aspects of it, but rather to enhance the unique bits, the surprising, small details that can add taste even to the most stale routine.
Another milestone Jianyu is not afraid to challenge is traditional Chinese painting (in her days as a student, she used to be keener on subjects from the history of Western art, such as Manet's famous paintings). Her works playfully include the most common inhabitants of the famous Suzhou Gardens, namely, 'plum trees, orchids, bamboo, chrysanthemums, peonies, and pines', while further elements include 'mist and mountains'. These are considered 'noble', 'cultivated' themes and most classical Chinese painters have tackled them, expressing their refined taste and masterly technique, their individuality imbued with the spirit of nature, of life. Even talking about such elevated matters should be avoided by someone not possessing the due respect and knowledge, let alone Jianyu's irreverent choice of juxtaposing these almost sacred visual icons with the trivial items of everyday life, such as Chinese cabbage, watermelon, carrot and eggplant, or her depictions of the omnipresent 'arty chicken', curled up on a peony bush, peeping among a bunch of lotus flowers... Seldom do Jianyu's chickens behave like ordinary chickens in their natural environment, although in a few of last year's paintings we may notice an exception. In these works, the destabilizing effects are attained through other personages: like the naked beauty and the humble nursing woman, symbols of an anachronistic, yet wistful, sense of universal maternity.
In the most recent paintings I have seen, a dancing beauty performing upon a threshing floor to the musical accompaniment of a peasant playing a traditional Chinese string instrument, shows signs of aging as her plump naked breasts have lost their firmness. In another canvas, the naked female 'goddess of music' displays the same embarrassing sight, although the feminine, elegant way of turning away her face and her carefully dressed hair clash with the heavy bosom. Gourds are mixed with instruments, but for me the most interesting part is the velvet background, painted in such a vibrant way that the eye is never tired of getting lost in it.
I believe there is no need to describe other works by Duan Jianyu, since what really matters is the way the artist plays with all the elements, freely mixing them with no holds barred. Yet the artist does not intend to be derogatory towards them; certainly not towards her beloved Chinese tradition, nor towards popular or Western culture. She deeply respects all of these, she enjoys and needs them all, as she grew up with them. She just claims the right to give them a new possibility, a new life, and to be the creator of this miracle.
To conclude this lengthy disquisition that has allowed me to express my personal point of view, I would like to quote two excerpts from an important essay written by Susan Sontag at the beginning of the Sixties, titled Against Interpretation:
''Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back on content so that we can see the thing at all. The aim of commentary on art now should be to show ''how it is what it is'', even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.''
''In place of an hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.''
Vigolo Vattaro, June 4th, 2011
Proofread by Francesca Giusti
Thanks to Christopher Taylor