Moving Beyond: Contemporary Painting in China (2013)
was the product of an invitation to work with two Chinese poets: Yang Lian (London and Berlin) and Zhao Ye (Beijing). I visited the studios of 25 Chinese artists with British photographer, Nick Howard in 2012 and carried out interviews in Beijing, Nanjing and Chengdu and curated an exhibition and wrote about 6 of these artists for the Edinburgh Festival, 2013 (Summerhall).
“The New Spirit in Painting: Moving Beyond - Painting In China, 2013”.
Moving Beyond: Painting in China 2013 is the first part of a project conceived in the summer of 2010 after a chance encounter with poet Yang Lian in St Andrews, Scotland where he was taking part in the Poetry Festival: Stanza. The work of the artists introduced by Yang to me, first in St Andrews and then London, was a revelation; his poetry too was compelling and elegantly iconoclastic, steeped in images from the natural world. In his essay, “A Wild Goose Speaks to me” he explains: “The poet - archaeologist, as if uncovering layer upon layer of earth, seeks the ever more deeply hidden self, and the poem, like an archaeological manual, records the experience of excavating ever deeper within one site”.1 I was thus introduced to the work of a key number of lesser -known (in the West) artists - Chinese painters whose work comprised a cohesive and astonishing mix of traditional and contemporary imagery, Eastern and Western perceptions and remarkable skill and energy. It seemed potentially able to inspire a renaissance of thinking and with the structural and philosophical dimensions to redefine Western Modernism. Yang Lian helped me to understand “the unbelievable impact of Mao, the exoticism surrounding the Cultural Revolution, and the unusual distance between China and the world in terms of geography, language and culture,”2 and the fact that all of these factors influence a person’s clarity of mind when judging values.
Moving Beyond (2013) showcases the work of six artists in China: Liang Quan (b.1948), He Gong (b.1955), Liu Guofu (b. 1964), Yang Liming, (b.1975), Wu Jian (b.1970) and Guan Jingjing (b. 1983). The philosophy inherent in Moving Beyond is based on: the essays by Yang Lian and his poetry; my interview with Xu Longsen (b.1956) in Rome; 3 interviews with twenty-five artists in China in April 2011, the lecture on Xu Bing (b.1955) given by Jan Stuart, Keeper of Asia at the British Museum in London (2011) at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London: “Landscape Art Past and Present”, and my interviews with Xu Bing himself at the Ashmolean in Oxford in February 2013 4 together with conversations with curator and scholar of Chinese art, Claire Roberts between 2009 and most recently in Melbourne in April 2013. In this essay I make reference to works by Shang Yang (b.1942), Xu Bing and Xu Longsen to illustrate the eloquent ideas and the majesty and elegance of their works because I regard them as capable through their sheer audacity to have a propensity to bring about change and to assert the inherent regenerative potential of humanity.
The skill in rendering the physical character of the paintings owes much to the ancient art of calligraphy, which underlies the subtle movement in the works presented in Moving Beyond. A definition of calligraphy in terms of its impact on Chinese culture is hard to find, but in ‘The Hall of Uselessness’ by Simon Leys (pseudonym of Belgian–Australian Sinologist, novelist and translator Pierre Ryckmans) the author displays a profound knowledge of both European and Chinese intellectual and artistic traditions, asserting that the unique continuity of Chinese culture implies a complex relationship between a people and their past. Calligraphy occupies a position of ascendancy in China and from the position of the West an “inexhaustible attraction”.8
“Since the dawn of its civilization, China has cultivated a particular branch of the visual arts that has no equivalent anywhere else in the world… Chinese calligraphy addresses the eye and is an art of space; like music, it unfolds in time; like dance, it develops a dynamic sequence of movements, pulsating in rhythm. It is an art that radiates such physical presence and sensuous power that it virtually defies photographic reproduction – at times even, its execution can verge on an athletic performance; yet its abstract and erudite character also has special appeal for intellectuals and scholars who adopted it as their favorite pursuit. It is the most elite of the arts – it was practiced by emperors, aesthetes, monks and poets – but it is also one of the most popular.”9
BEIJING – CHENGDU – NANJING, APRIL 2012:
In April 2012 the first trip to organise the exhibition: Moving Beyond took place. Photographer Nick Howard from London joined the group and took thousands of photographs of the artists and their studios. In this exhibition and in the publication, which accompanies it, his photographs capture the warmth, the profound seriousness and adventure we experienced, and enhance the reality of the project greatly. Organised primarily by poet Zhao Ye in Beijing, who has been active in the art world since the early 1980s, he has established a fine network: thus enabling for ourselves an intense round of studio visits to many of the best artists in China. We started in Beijing, and nearby villages: Shang Yang (b.1948), Su Xinping (b.1960), Xia Xiaowan (b.1959), Shi Chong (b.1963) Wang Chuan (b.1953) Ye Yongqing (b.1958), Guan Jingjing (b. 1983), Shao Yinong (b. 1961) and He Sen (b.1968). After a press conference at which Shang Yang and Su Xinping spoke in support of Moving Beyond, we flew to Chengdu to meet: He Duoling (b.1948), He Gong (b. 1955) and then to Nanjing: Liu Guofu (b. 1964), and Mao Yan (b. 1968).
It was the exceptional quality of the work in terms of the concept and praxis of the individual artist’s language and the wider world that distinguished the experience. Four of the artists we visited are in the first Edinburgh Festival exhibition, which this catalogue accompanies (Liu Guofu, Guan Jingjing, He Gong and Yang Liming) they are joined by Liang Quan, our most senior practitioner, and Wu Jian. Representing what I have identified as a new spirit in painting- that Xu Longsen so eloquently defined in Rome, and further during a meeting in Beijing in April 2011 at which Xu and Nick Howard entered in to a long discussion concerning historic issues in East/West relations; Xu Longsen recommended to us specifically, The Problem of China by Bertrand Russell, (1922) one of many surprises we experienced on our journey, this longstanding text that has been of immeasurable value.
The artists we met (25 in all) can now be seen as a whole to epitomise the vast and wide ranging cultural manifestations of Contemporary Chinese. A euphoric cultural pride and cosmopolitanism due to the dramatic changes wrought by global economic growth now enables artists to travel abroad, to establish large studios with assistants and to enjoy creative freedom, previously denied under the Communist regime. Contradictions were, unsurprisingly, evident in China, where in the rush to update and in doing so to create vast new residential and commercial areas, it happened that existing older buildings were and are being razed to the ground. An eviction order had been served on two of the artists we visited - their electricity and running water cut off – a menacing inducement for the residents to comply with. After 5000 years of a glorious cultural history artists in China are clawing back the vital creative freedom and dignity lost to the individual under the Communist regime in no uncertain terms. Society had been crudely turned on its head under Communism enabling peasants, workers and soldiers to seek to run the country and dictate the rules pertaining to all aspects of society, culture and its complex history without redress. Although the regime has not been replaced and although aspects of life in China have changed dramatically, other aspects have not.
Language and Nature are the two subjects that traditionally defined Chinese culture. A solitary oneness with Nature was once the most important spiritual pursuit for most Chinese people. The tragedy is however, that the spaces required for the individual spiritual pursuit no longer exist. The land is now so terribly polluted and wilderness areas destroyed by the rush to modernise and expand, the population so vast that people must live in urban environments where nature is conspicuously absent. In the studios of Shang Yang and Mongolian-born Su Xinping vast canvases make a mighty plea to the viewer to take action to end the wanton and devastating destruction of the environment. China’s artistic spirit as evidenced in this exhibition then, provides a vital link to past times, an alternative to spiritual quests, and is more important than ever before in enabling the past to inform the survival of future generations. Such conditions are readily understood in the West, now victim itself to its own legacy of atmospheric decline and global warming. Thus it is all one world in the twenty-first century.
1. Yang Lian, “A Wild Goose Speaks to me”, 2006: www.yanglian.net
2. Yang Lian, “Stepping Outside Post-Cultural Revolution”, for Moving Beyond, (2012-3)
3. On Top of Two Empires -Xu Longsen, Museum of Roman Civilization, Rome, 22 June – 24 July 2011.
4. Jan Stuart, “An Exhibition to See: Landscape/Landscript: Nature as Language in the Art of Xu Bing”, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
28 February–19 May 2013,
8. Simon Leys, “One More Art: Chinese Calligraphy”, in The Hall of Uselessness, Black Inc Publishing, Melbourne, 2011, p.263
9. Ibid, p.259
Xu Longsen, Beijing
Su Xingping, Beijing
Shang Yang, 2012 Beijing
Guan Jingjing, Beijing
Liu Guofu, Nanjing