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Suman Gupta 看画随笔

small notes on Chinese art

 
 
 

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蓝正辉的《作品697》与“几乎就”社会 (Lan Zhenghui's Threesome and the Almost-Society)  

2013-07-04 20:37:54|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Small notes on Chinese Art(4)  Suman Gupta 《看画随笔之四》 July 03, 2013

蓝正辉的《作品697》与“未达社会” (Lan Zhenghuis Threesome and the Almost-Society) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
蓝正辉 《作品697》(2009)
Lan Zhenghui   Threesome,380cmx520cm, ink-painting on rice paper, 2009



Lan Zhenghui's Threesome and the Almost-Society
蓝正辉的《作品697》与“几乎就”社会
Small notes on Chinese Art(4)  Suman Gupta 《看画随笔之四》  July 3, 2013

 

This is a pure abstract artwork, as Lan Zhenghui's paintings usually are.

In relation to Chinese painting (especially ink painting), the possibilities of formalist aesthetics and abstraction were influentially debated in the journal Meishu 《美术》 in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Discussions were inspired to a significant degree by Wu Guanzhong's (吴冠中) essays, such as “Formalist aesthetics in painting” 《绘画的形式美》 (Meishu 1979, v5) and “Concerning the Beauty of the Abstract” 《关于抽象美》 (Meishu 1980, v10).  These offered several frames for analysing abstract ink painting, and indeed contemporary Chinese painting generally, which have largely held since.  The first is: “Chinese art” and “Western art” are two essential and distinct traditions, across which influences should and could travel and syntheses be achieved – but with a perpetual recognition of separate traditions underpinning the effort.  Second: abstract art should be understood distinctly according to the two traditions to begin with.  Negotiating between the two traditions means drawing inspiration from abstraction in Western art (generally thought to be rooted in the modernist avant-garde) and drawing upon abstract tendencies/features available in classical Chinese art (especially calligraphy and scholar painting, and essentially ink-on-paper).  Third: abstraction marks liberation from the erstwhile political control of art (the products of which are inclusively dubbed Socialist Realist), and, in a way, dissociation from political resonance and engagement themselves.  Abstract art simply presents a politics of liberation from politics, usually either by playing with Socialist Realist styles and nuances or by invoking some deep spiritual quality (which is apt to turn into imponderable “Chineseness”).   These frames have naturally been challenged intermittently, but nevertheless they are persistently reiterated.

In contemplating Lan Zhenghui's painting it seems to me that these frames could be done away with.  No liberation from political resonance and engagement needs to be reiterated; on the contrary, it seems to me that current political resonance is available here.  To that I come in due course.  More importantly, we can do without underpinning references to two art traditions; we can do without implicitly essentialist notions of Chinese art or “Chineseness” (or East Asianness or Oriental-character or whatever the ethnically-loaded term going at the moment), or, for that matter, Western Art and “Westernness”, and still be able to think about this image in an informed fashion.  It is likely that my saying this for a Chinese ink-on-paper painting will strike some art aficionados as risky.  The medium and material are centred in constituting the tradition and in charting the history of Chinese art.  It is undeniable that in China art aficionados are variously educated and socialised to engage confidently with ink-on-paper paintings.  That makes it all the more meaningful that Lan Zhenghui's pure abstract painting, in this medium, does not necessarily thrust “Chineseness” upon the viewer.

Being au fait with the Chinese art tradition gives no especial advantage in viewing this.  But thinking about the nature of abstraction in art in a flexible, inclusive and worldly way – so that no tradition need be considered exclusive – does.  The same could be said also about other contemporary pure abstract ink painters of China, such as Zheng Chongbin (郑重宾 ) or Wei Ligang (魏立刚) (see below for a couple of images).

So, let me attempt some general formulations about pure abstract art first and then place traditions accordingly, rather than considering certain kinds of abstraction as consequent upon and possessed by particular art traditions.

I am concerned here with flat images which are not site-specific.  Within those constraints: in a pure abstract artwork no real-world thing or meaningful sign (e.g. from a writing system) can be discerned with certainty – no such thing or sign is featured as such, used as symbol, metaphor, icon etc.  A title or particular setting for the artwork may suggest reference to specific things and signs.  But those are outside the artwork and mainly accentuate its pure abstract character.

Three characteristic types of pure abstract art come to mind.

Type-1 abstraction >> where the artwork is an imprint left by an artistic act: i.e., by an act wherein artistic perception, contemplation, circumstances, skills and effort have combined to reach some kind of cohesion and unity.  The artwork is an abstract imprint left by that act, and is constantly presumed to refer to it (to its complexity and unity) and is assessed accordingly.  The artwork is therefore approached as after and as a result of the concentrated achievement of the artistic act.

Type-2 abstraction >> where the artwork seems to delve the deep structures of things and processes — to get behind superficial appearances and reveal some underlying reality (like a Platonic “form”) or essential idea (e.g. the subjectiveness of vision).  The artwork is approached as leading into deeper understanding, and is apt to take an ahistorical and metaphysical turn.

Type-3 abstraction >> where the artwork does little more than draw attention to its own materiality, its substance and composition and surface, and to the fact that it is no more than a thing itself.  This, so to speak, stops the gaze on its surface and neither refers back to nor leads into anything further.  This kind of abstract art undermines type-1 and type-2 abstraction.

There is no reason why any of these types couldn't be found in any art tradition, and indeed they are; historical factors determine where one or the other might appear and to what effect.  In dominant narratives of art history, type-1 abstraction is often associated with Chinese calligraphy (and certain kinds of scholar painting): the histories of abstraction in some Chinese characters (especially ideograms) seem to invite concentrated artistic acts in an abstract direction.  Type-2 abstraction seems to be particularly associated with the early 20th century Western European avant-garde (this direction of abstraction is charted well, for instance, in Kandinsky's and Mondriaan's work), which influenced ink-wash paintings in China too (the distinctive direction can be seen, for instance, in Fu Baoshi's (傅抱石) and Wu Guanzhong's (吴冠中) work).  Type-3 abstraction appears repeatedly in Dada-like moments of interrogating the art establishment and the art market.

Back to Lan Zhenghui's painting.   Threesome can be viewed as almost any of the three types noted above – almost one or the other but not becoming one or the other, almost but not quite. The three parallel forms have a sidewise distribution and series of appendages, a fluid emphasis which is vaguely calligraphic, and yet these are not recognizable signs – almost but not quite type-1 abstraction. The dominating forms gesture back towards a concentrated artistic act in the strength of application of the brush, the drama of unhesitant and firm swipes that form the painting, the controlled serendipity of ink splatter. But what the three forms could signify is withheld even as they are strongly foregrounded, as if the artistic act almost achieved recognizable signification or thing-like texture but stopped deliberately short. That draws attention to the three dominating forms as being dislocated from type-1 abstraction (though almost that kind of abstraction), and possibly amenable to type-2 abstraction. They tempt, in other words, the viewer to see them as approximate to real-world things and signs, and yet going deeper than superficially recognizable things and signs – in the way one might find shapes in clouds. The three forms might be shadows of strange beings, like aliens or robots from the Star Wars films, with heads aligned in a single direction, heads developing from the sharp sliver of the figure on the right to the horse-like curve of the figure on the left. Perhaps they have arms held up in one direction too. The possibility of three-dimensional perspective is shadowed there, because in the background are indefinite lighter grey and white spaces. These draw the eye inwards and suggest depth. There is gradation from darkness to light from the bottom right to the top left of the painting, which might just be akin to the backdrop of a firmament against which these shadowy figures stand (or move). And yet, that type-2 abstraction suggestive of depth and light and mere figurative presence is ultimately almost there but not quite there, on the verge of being realised but only if the viewer takes responsibility for seeing them. The viewer might well feel a draining of confidence in seeing them there; they might be there, but maybe it is just the viewer doing more than is justified. The best the viewer can affirm is that the painting can almost be seen thus, but not quite. The uncertainty is sharpened because the painting is, after all, quite large. It easily appears close-up to the viewer, or, rather, it is easy to get close to the painting – it is designed to loom large in a confined space. Moving closer to the painting means that what might perhaps resolve into figures or characters breaks down effortlessly into dabs and strokes of paint. The largeness and solidity of the ink application is accentuated by the smaller drips and then the indefinite fractal dispersals at the edges of almost-lines, which draw out the slightly rough but fine texture of the paper (the effect is similar to going close to a television screen and seeing pixels). Perhaps, ultimately, there is nothing more than type-3 abstraction here – the painting does no more than offering its substance and surface to view, its material to scrutiny. But that’s not quite it either, though it almost might be. Half-close the eyes or move back a few steps and the almost-forms with depth and light and the almost-imprint of an artistic act come alive at odds with either.

To my mind, then, Lan's painting appears to teeter between different directions of abstraction. It flickers between type-1, type-2 and type-3 abstraction without quite being any one. It is almost but not quite any. That impression chimes with the shadowy environment of flickering white and grey against which the heavily inked three forms stand out. The painting doesn't in any definite way mean anything or suggest anything specific, but by almost meaning and almost suggesting various possibilities – all of which are nevertheless held back from certainty – it presents what I think of as the “almost-feeling”. The almost-feeling of the painting encapsulates much; the almost-feeling bridges what the painting offers and the viewer sees (I find it there, anyway) because, of course, the almost-feeling is a very familiar one. It is part of our social and political and economic environment, and we are within the element of this almost-feeling. We – artists and viewers of art – are familiar with this feeling because we are within an almost-society.

In China the almost-society is pervasively lived and talked about without being quite articulated as such. It has something to do with the constant negotiation of abstract boundaries which are erected as measures of achievement or non-achievement – which define the state of almost being there or not quite being there or passing it only to find other almost reachable boundaries. It is the abstraction of these boundaries that underpin the “almost” condition of reaching for them: “catching up with the West”, reaching towards the highest GDP, competing in the “happiness index”, gauging the “standard of living” and “the consumer index”, keeping a close eye on “growth figures”, productivity, foreign investment inflow, exports, volume of trade in Africa and other areas, the number of rich people and the average wage and the Gini index, and so on. There is a grid of abstract lines which are dramatically crossed or imminently crossable or withdrawn; and the lines are under constant adjustment. Targets are set, competition gauged, success or failure measured in a continuous way according to this shifting grid, so that almost-getting-there becomes a perpetual condition and the almost-feeling a perpetual affect from news, policy documents, institutional reports, expert pronouncements, examinations of various sorts, and so on. This is the condition of the almost-society. It would be a mistake to think of this slightly malleable grid as a symptom of “liquid or fluid modernity” (with that metaphor of fluidity). It is a firm grid really, not dissolvable or washed away into drains – its main quality is its abstraction. Its firmness is an abstract firmness. Its opposite was not solid but material; and that opposite material-modernity is close enough historically in China to render the abstractness of the almost-society particularly dramatic, filling it with a kind of ongoing thrill. In the recent past, setting measures of aspirations predominantly by material production (how many tons of coal, how many factory units, how much steel) and actual investment of labour (so many hours to produce how much per person), for instance, seemed to enable progressive steps of achievement and success. Utopia seemed achievable step-by-step – not an almost-society, but an on-our-way-society which everyone has a material grip on. The traumatic transition from on-our-way-society to almost-society is a matter of transition from material to abstract targets. There is no clear historical line from one to the other, but the transition is quick enough to retain ghosts of the past emphasis on materiality within the abstract measures of aspirations in the present. Perhaps the subtle shift is most clearly signalled in the shift of terminology from visionary leadership towards (from 1992) bureaucratic leadership: from “Great Leap Forward” until the “Four Modernizations”(四个现代化) and then towards (from 1992) the “Three Represents”(三个代表) and the “Three Supremes”(三个至上) and so on. There are continuities in the latter and there are small rhetorical gestures which gradually give the optimistic materialist terms a relatively passively abstract turn – still reaching (almost there) but not thrusting forward (from success to success). But I am digressing here. Tracing that rhetoric of transition is a project that needs a separate space. The point is that the almost-feeling is pervasive and abstract, and artists and viewers of pure abstract art can tap into it effortlessly. And Lan Zhenghui's Threesome does.

Lan's paintings – and indeed such pure abstract ink paintings by other artists – travel well outside China and do well in the international art market. That is not in the least surprising. The almost-feeling is tapped in art effectively and everywhere now because the almost-society is far from particular to China (no “Chineseness” there); the almost-society is very close to being a universal condition. Whereas in China the drama of the shift to almost-society seems scaled-up due to one path of historical momentum, other paths of historical momentum elsewhere are also scaling-up and dramatizing the condition of being in an almost-society. Tottering growth figures and measures of recession (almost one, a double-dip one, a triple-dip one), swooning employment figures, gauges of under-development and development, of profit- and loss-making sectors in private and public spheres, of democratic-deficit and democratic-authenticity, etc. have steadily become centre-stage as the only certain measures for articulating the drama of our present-day. Those abstract measures seem more firm and certain than anything else. The everyday life tragedies and political inequities, the thrusts and retrenchments of bureaucratic and corporate power, numerous small-to-gigantic scale protests and civil strife and wars are repeatedly given shape through these abstract measures. The drama of almost democratic peace, almost revolution, almost the victory of the hidden hand of markets, almost the defeat of terrorism, and so on, grip the almost-society of our world – all latched to an abstract grid of measures. Understandably, the pure abstract art that conveys the almost-feeling is resonant amidst circuits of the global almost-society.

If I were determined to emphasise type-2 abstraction in Lan Zhenghui's painting, I might see three faintly humanoid/animalistic figures moving from darkness to light, from right to left – facing towards the left with stretched arms. But I am unable to say what the figures are, that these are figures at all, that they are moving at all, that there is darkness and light (even though uncomplicated by colour). There almost are all those, but none are quite there. I am unable to say whether an approach in term of type-1 abstraction isn't perhaps more apt, whether there isn't a coherent artistic act which is signified in and can be admired from this image. I can almost see that too, but not quite. I am unable to say whether ultimately I can see anything more than a type-3 abstraction, which is not an abstraction at all but just the negation of anything but the materiality of an ink painting on paper – the thing that is this artwork.




蓝正辉的《作品697》与“几乎就”社会 (Lan Zhenghuis Threesome and the Almost-Society) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Wei Ligang (魏立刚),
Flying snake, acrylic and ink on paper, 2008

蓝正辉的《作品697》与“几乎就”社会 (Lan Zhenghuis Threesome and the Almost-Society) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Zheng Chongbing (郑重宾),
Zone (5), ink and acrylic on paper, 2011

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