Learning from the Literati 1: Catalogue Essay
September 9th, 2010 - October 31st, 2010
The River Flows East for Thirty Years and West for Forty: Understanding Our Conflicted Relationship with Literati Culture
By Rebecca Catching
China has gone through waves of embracing its traditional culture then rejecting it — a complicated dance between ancient values and Western modernity — one which endures today. Before we embark on the artwork, it seems relevant to provide some historical context to China’s alternating embrace and rejection of different sets of values.
As early as the May Fourth Movement, we began to see a questioning of the relevance of traditional society, Confucian values, and the family structure. Wu Yu, one of Confucianism’s most vigorous opponents, described the Confucian doctrine of filial piety as “a big factory for the manufacturing of obedient subjects,” and he described Confucian ethics as “man-eating mores.”
Writing in 1916, Chen Duxiu criticized the hierarchical Confucian relationships based on a binary model of “superior /inferior,” as being “incompatible with the modern idea of equality.” 1
But there were others, who felt that indigenous Chinese concepts should form the bedrock of Chinese society and promoted guoxue (the study of ancient Chinese culture) as early as 1905. Figures such as Liu Shipei, himself a scholar trained in guwen or classical Chinese, promoted classical knowledge through the Association for the Preservation of Classical Chinese Learning, which published a number of textbooks and the Journal of National Essence — a scholarly publication which included both articles on Qing thought and the European Renaissance. 2
This interest in traditional culture, however, was partially motivated by the desire to criticize Manchu rule as according to the myth of the Yellow Emperor, the Manchus were not considered part of the Chinese community and writings by Liu Shipei and others exploited this myth. As John King Fairbank and Denis Crispin Twitchett have stated:
These [writings] offered a definition of the Chinese peoples as a place, blood, custom, and culture. All of them pointed to some antique point of origin for the complex of national values which might provide a key to the restoration of polity and culture today. 3
In a sense, Liu and his compatriots were not only providing a basis to reject Manchu rule but also to legitimize themselves; since they had lost their social status due to the abolition of the civil service examinations. While they spent plenty of time with their heads buried in ancient history books, some literati tried to use “guoxue” as a way for understanding Western ideas and the modern realities. For instance, Liu used his research on the Western Zhou Dynasty to examine the similarities between Western and Chinese political systems. 4
Also at the turn of the century there emerged another Neotraditionalist movement called National Character or guoxing put forth by Liang Zhi’ao, National Character was a liberal brand of Confucianism which put emphasis on reciprocity (shu), “respect for rank,” (”mingfen“) and concern for posterity (“luhou”). Liang encouraged a sense of self-sacrifice and a mild liberalization of the typically rigid Confucian relationships yet at the same time underlining the traditional importance of the family. 5
After the founding of the country in 1949, the pendulum shifted; traditional values and culture became distinctly unfashionable. With the 1966 movement to “Smash the Four Olds” representing the height of anti-traditional rhetoric in China as described by Jiang Jiehong in “Burden or Legacy: From the Chinese Cultural Revolution to Contemporary Art”.
Red Guards searched over 10 million homes across the country and confiscated or destroyed ‘old’ property, including dynastic calligraphy and paintings, ancient books and archives, gold, silver or jade ware and jewelry. In the city of Ningbo alone more than 80 tons of books from the Ming and Qing Dynasties were pulped. Most of the idols — including statues of Buddha, folk gods, even Confucius — religious architecture, frescoes, and books failed to escape this cultural disaster. Records indicated that there were 6,843 cultural relics registered in Beijing in 1958, but only 1,921 remained in the 1980s. 6
Still, despite the political climate, traditional culture did survive, enjoying a somewhat clandestine existence. Chinese “guohua” (ink) painters still practiced their trade to some extent, some used guohua to depict revolutionary subject matter, while others produced works for private clients or worked in the privacy of their own homes, receiving financial support from relatives.
The Reform and Opening Up removed most restrictions on traditional culture and now, almost 100 years later, China is once again re-negotiating its relationship with traditional culture with a second wave of “guoxue.”
This guoxue movement, like the first one, is not completely divorced from politics, but it also speaks to a genuine interest in Chinese culture after the recent storms of modernization.
The current guoxue craze involves everything from government granting of days off for traditional Chinese holidays to the Confucius Institute, China’s arm of soft power abroad. Writer Norman Ho, discusses the growing guoxue craze,7 mentioning the prominence of Confucius at the Beijing Olympics, the recent government-funded biopic of Confucius directed by Hu Mei and the mammoth Qing History project:
In 2002, the government pumped about US$75 million dollars into the project, which has engaged more than 1,600 scholars from research and academic institutions across the country. The completion date is set at 2012, and it is estimated that the new history, which will also be translated into various languages and digitized into databases for global dissemination, will contain over 30 million Chinese characters and take a doctoral-level graduate student approximately 10,000 days to consume the material.
This act was, in fact, common of new dynasties, which would frequently invest time and money into creating a record of the previous dynasty, thus situating themselves in the long line of history.
Then there is the international interest in Chinese culture — which is being fueled in part by the Confucius Institute which has 316 branches worldwide. The institute focuses mostly on bringing Chinese language teachers to public schools and universities — one article by Xinhua brags that a remote learning class helps children in mountain areas of the US learn Chinese. There is also the “Da Zhonghua Wenku,” a series of bilingual editions of the classics which enable foreigners to learn about traditional Chinese culture — a series which has been praised by Wen Jiabao.
Though enthusiasm for these cultural initiatives abroad is often tempered with suspicion, and we must always be wary of the politicization traditional culture, the opportunity to learn more about Chinese culture is in itself not a bad thing.
Given the recent popularity of guoxue, it seemed appropriate to re-visit out “Learning from the Literati” series and view these ideas afresh regardless of their political associations.
In this show we hope to allow you to re-visit these artists in their scholar gardens and explore some of their values, ideas, and lifestyles — what lessons can we take from them when we re-enter the modern world?
Shi Jinsong offers us a succinct metaphor with a sculpture composed of a piece of rubble, which has been drilled with holes so that it looks like the traditional “scholar’s rocks” found in Chinese gardens. In the past stones were originally brought from Tai Lake near Suzhou and were prized for specific qualities: thinness, openness, perforations, and wrinkling.
The significance of this rock in a garden is that it can represent a mountain and help create the illusion of a vast landscape within the confines of a small space, explains Richard Rosenblum:
The French scholar Rolf Stein stated that early Chinese believed that somewhere in the highest mountains there was a cave that was an exact representation of the world outside. In its center was a stalactite that gave off the milk of contentment . . . this inward focus shows that Chinese culture looked for paradise inside of things, just as Western culture looked upward and outside. In Chinese art, this orientation caused a search for ‘a world within a world,’ for imagery in surprising and unpredictable places. 8
Shi Jinsong captures this idea of a world within a world in this work by creating a craggy peak of a piece of a chunk of bricks fused together with mortar — the kind of rubble which we find strewn across urban landscapes all over China. The name of the work, “Beifu No. 525” is the address of his former studio which was demolished. This title conjures up a number of interesting meanings: the itinerant life of Beijing’s artists (constantly trying to dodge various wrecking balls), the destruction of important urban communities and the disappearance of ancient values and culture.
At the same time, he offers us hope in the idea that beauty can be found in even the most ruinous corners of a city. In his artist statement he writes, “If we see a beautiful vision, does it matter in whose courtyard we see it?” Here he poses the question: “Do we need to be in a garden to find beauty or should we search for it within our everyday lives, no matter how decrepit.
Shi Jinsong’s artist statement was actually written in a classical Chinese style, a poetic string of images which alludes to “Travelling in the Garden·the Dream Interrupted,” lyrics from the Peony Pavilion. This reference alludes to his previous work “Peach Blossom Prose,” 2009 shown at Platform China in Beijing.
In this work, he staged an ancient Chinese feast with delicacies and several different kinds of peach wine. The centerpiece of the metaphorical table was a peach tree suspended in air, which was slowly being denuded of its bark. The peach tree, after being stripped of its bark, was later burned and brought to Shanghai for a separate performance.
“A play named ‘Peach Blossom Prose,’ was staged here last year. Everything which used to be alive (peaches and good wine) will be gone in time, leaving only is a dry well and wretched walls.”
The peach tree is a symbol of longevity, and his transformation of it, first killing it by uprooting it, then stripping it naked, then burning it, he performs a purposely-destructive act in a ritualization of the destructiveness of urban gentrification which is occurring all around him. Yet “Beifu No. 525,” asks us not to lament the changes in society but to make beauty out of what we can find — to turn wretched walls into scholar rocks.
Japanese artist Sayaka Abe is also fascinated by the miniaturization of landscape. Her work “The Imaginary Mountain and Fighting with Water,” 2010 captures a kind of poetic infinity — a landscape of the imagination which mimics shanshui painting but places it in a modern context. Using layers of chiffon as her canvas, Abe applies lino-block prints to create images of typical Dutch row houses, piled higgledy-piggledy into the hold of several ships. The ships, with their mountains of cargo, are staggered and recede into the distance, creating the sweeping illusion of distance typical of shanshui paintings. Between the mountains flow rivers of thread, blue and yellow stitches which perforate the white silk, at the same time an aura of blue is lent by pieces of green and blue silk stitched on to the back of the work.
Abe is originally from Japan, a land of mountains, but is currently living in Holland, a country where 27 percent of the land is below sea level, which is constantly fighting to keep water at bay. Her cloth sculpture exploits this tension to explore the relationship between man and nature and the consequences of global warming.
In literati painting, man is always a small figure struggling up a giant mountain, a minute element in a grander sphere. Contemporary society has reversed that balance: creating dams and dikes, roads and quarries, changing not only the surface of the planet but also the composition of the atmosphere. Here, Abe predicts a future for humanity where we will be forced into Noah’s Ark in order to escape the rising tides. Abe’s little boats look like small, overcrowded bonsais — miniature worlds, which are actually full-sized worlds crammed into an incredibly small space.
Water also plays a big role in the work of Qian Rong. His previous series “Spy Movies and Local Snacks,” 2009 which showed in “Re-visioning History” situates itself along the Bund — a symbolic site which marks the beginning of the semi-colonial Shanghai (and an introduction to many Western ideas) but it is now dwarfed by Pudong — the symbol of China’s financial prowess. Qian Rong is fascinated by the city’s waterways — canals and rivers which once wove an extensive network through the city. Zhaojiabang Lu was once a canal and the areas of Dongjia Du and Tanjia Du, which were named after ferry crossings, all which speak to the importance of water in Shanghai. Qian Rong frequently visits the canals, creeks, and coast on his scooter, exploring river life and fishing communities.
In his new series, “Lu Xun Boat” 2010, water serves as a metaphor for history and the passage of time, which was a key concern for literati. Confucius described time as something which is fleeting, something which passes — like a constantly-flowin river. And Daoists held the passing of time in high esteem, as something that passed by and went far away, then returned again in a cyclical fashion. 9 This cyclicality is summed up by the ancients’ concept of time: a concept which was more in tune with nature, and which connoted a sense of “timeliness” or seasonality, rather than the modern concept of time as something that can be measured in precise increments.
“Spy Movies and Local Snacks,” explores the cyclical nature of history, says the artist, “We eat the same things (xiaolongbao pork dumplings in this case) as we did 50 years ago and that the same structures and relationships that existed before also exist today.”
“Lu Xun’s Boat” reflects this concept of the cyclicality of history with an image of xiaolongbao, painted in a somewhat naive style. The sculpture is a hybrid figure which is half cargo ship and half man. The man’s torso is glued into the hold of the ship as he stares steadfastly into the distance like the great helmsman. The man’s back is supported by a pagoda — signaling the history and culture which are behind him and the image of Lu Xun on his chest.
Lu Xun provides an interesting symbolism as he is often associated with the May Fourth Movement, which criticized many aspects of traditional feudal society. Yet he was principled and rebellious, unafraid to voice criticism — qualities he shared with the literati.
China’s early years as a republic were fraught with these kinds of contradictions; it was a confusing time when Western technology, ideas, and consumables are flowing in but the interest in guoxue nonetheless remains strong. Qian Rong’s figure is stiff, as if paralyzed by this temporal schitzophrenia and the decisions he must. “The river flows east for thirty years, then flows west for forty,” says the proverb, but how do we know which direction we should paddle?
Issues of globalization, consumerism, and modernity have always been central to the practice of Chen Hangfeng. His work “Santa’s Little Helpers,” 2007 addressed the globalization of Christmas in a small village near Wenzhou. While his “Logomania” 2005-2008 series looks at the encroachment of international brands onto our urban landscape. But in the “Four Gentlemen,” he tackles issues of globalization on a more metaphorical level. The work consists of four unvarnished wooden boards upon which are pinned strips of recycled plastic cut to resemble images of classical Chinese bird and flower paintings. Here Chen replicates the “Four Gentlemen,” the orchid, plum blossom, bamboo, and chrysanthemum — plants which were valued because they possessed the qualities of a model gentleman.
The bamboo is prized for its strength as a plant that bends with the weight of the snow but is flexible and doesn’t break. In this way, it is seen as something strong and principled, yet at the same time humble possessing a sense of inner tranquility.
Overcoming the hardships of nature/society is a prominent characteristic of the four gentlemen. We can see this with the chrysanthemum, a hardy plant, which can weather frost and snow. It has the courage to bloom even though winter is coming and is therefore seen as a plant that is brave and defiant.
We see this bravery as well in the plum tree — raised for its hardiness — one of the first plants to poke out buds while the ground is covered in snow — it symbolizes the hope and faith that Spring will eventually come.
The appearance of the orchid, sprouting up leaves and producing delicate, yet striking flowers, signaled for the literati the beginning of spring. Yet orchids are a rare find and the flowers are often hidden shyly amongst the leaves. The orchid, like the literati, live a lonesome existence and the lesson that the orchid teaches us is that one must strive for moral and artistic excellence even if there are no spectators. In this sense, the orchid represents a sense of grace and moral purity.
Chen Hangfeng’s reconstructions of these plants are based on the book “Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden” 1701, an ink painting primer. His reference to this book points to the guoxue craze and the concept of “learning” about Chinese traditional culture. At the same time, by making “the gentlemen” out of plastic bags — bags often procured on shopping excursions — he is expressing the faddish nature of this craze and the often-superficial forms it takes. The plastic (a crude un-refined material) hints at the impossibility of returning to the literati garden. His mounting of the plastic with straight pins is also symbolic — like an artifact in a display case — literati culture is something that is already in a sense dead — wiped out by the process of modernization.
Girolamo Marri, an Italian artist based in Shanghai, has often tackled the confluence of Western and Eastern culture in his works — looking at the post-colonial implications of this dialogue.
In his video work “Opinion Poll” 2008, he roams around the lanes of the 798 art district asking unsuspecting passers-by to participate in an opinion poll. Bundled up in a thick winter coat with a shock of unruly white hair, the artist presents his subjects with a “microphone,” which is actually a lint roller brush and asks them innocuous questions like: “What do you think of Chinese contemporary art?”. When they attempt to provide an answer, he takes the microphone back and proceeds to give the audience his own opinion on the subject. This and other projects such as “Dear Chinese Friend, Learn to Make Coffee the Italian Way,” 2008 explore the one-sided nature of many cultural dialogues.
In Marri’s work, he often stars in the role of the arrogant, clueless Westerner — whose behavior becomes increasingly absurd. His latest project “What Did I Learn from the Literati,” 2010 also has the artist “in character” and attempting to reach a new mental plane through a commune with nature.
The three-channel video installation features two different modes of filming. The first two segments are shot in a mockumentary-style, where Marri takes on the role of a “character” discussing his attempts derive wisdom through a commune with nature. He recounts a humorous story of his separation anxiety with his mobile phone and laptop and whinges about buzzing and biting insects.
In the second segment of the documentary, the artist recounts how upon returning from nature he made it his mission to pass his newfound wisdom on to others. The result of these attempts is frustration at the inability to effectively communicate and the lack of interest on the part of his audience. We see the character work himself up into a complete frenzy over his failure and eventually come to the conclusion that “we can learn shit from the literati.”
Close-ups of his face, revealing tormented expressions — show a portrait of a person who is in a sense “too far gone” to ever be able to reach any state of mental peace and clarity. Here Marri is not only playing on the Western appropriation of Eastern spiritualism and the world of self-righteous proselytisers but the attention economy which makes us enslaved to our gadgets making any attempt at hermeticism impossible.
At the same time, he is calling into question the wisdom of the hermit lifestyle. Is going off into the mountains not an act of selfishness, a cop-out? In discussing his project Marri questions what we really can learn from nature. We do spend 99 percent of our time in society; couldn’t we learn more from working in an office for a year and learning knowledge, skills and an understanding of how to deal with other human beings? What kind of actual strategies for dealing with human beings can we learn in the outdoors classroom?
The last segment of the video features the madman artist — who as if driven over the edge by his isolation and then his failure — is dismembering a flower. By proposing a foil to the idealized figure of the literati — Marri warns us about the dangers of nostalgia — and urges us to really think deeply about the ideologies we espouse, and our human obsession with finding a panacea to all of our existential ills.
Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing are also interested in issues of man, his environment and his own mental space — a theme which they’ve been exploring since 2005 with their cloth sculptures “Enjoy Flowers,” “Watch the View,” “In Garden & Out Garden 2,” (all 2005) and more recent work such as “Edge of the Pool,” 2008. Typically these works depict individuals attempting to commune with nature with varying degrees of success. In “Enjoy Flowers,” a group of men stare reverently up at a flowering tree, while in “Watch the View,” a young boy grasps his balcony as he stares off at a fantasy traditional mountain landscape.
“In Garden and Out Garden” reverses this relationship of looking with a group of people stuck in a crowded courtyard staring out the window at the world outside.
With “Watch the View,” there is a pronounced sense of distance or unattainability with the people attempting to commune with a version of nature — which is actually not nature but something artificial and manmade. Their latest work “Feat of Humanity,” 2010 conveys a similar sentiment with a man sitting astride a rock gazing up at a waterfall constricted by a brightly-colored electricity dam.
Though the artificialization of nature, dates back to the scholar gardens of literati times, the artists are looking at a modern problem of large-scale infrastructure projects and their impact on the environment.
The artists date the current fixation with shaping and controlling nature to suit the energy needs of the country back to the May Fourth Movement, where a country suffering from insecurity due to the encroachment of foreign powers, took readily to ideas of scientific progress, regardless of the impact on the natural environment. “After 1949, this kind of thought was expanded, and leaders adopted the idea that, ‘with determination, mankind can conquer nature.’’ Earth-shaking changes soon happened in China,” write the artists. These changes entailed actual tremors caused by dams, the loss of communities and cultural relics, and ultimately a loss of identity.
This sense of helplessness is expressed by the figure sitting on the rock — dressed in non-descript clothing, with no facial features. The man stares up at the staggeringly impressive scenery in front of him — majestic mountains are made out of natural, hemp-colored linen, folded to resemble the creases of an ancient limestone peak. From the dam flows a fine gauze of water, which cascades to the ground and billows around the rock. The artists have perfectly matched the hues of the piece so it looks like a Chinese landscape painted on aging “xuan” paper, but they highlight the anachronistic presence of the dam with green and pink fluorescent markers which scream out in hysterical colors disrupting the scene.
Chinese landscape paintings are typically known for their sparing use of color and Shi Jing has taken this concept to the extreme, not using any color per se, but relying solely on the texture of the black paint, coaxing it into ridges and grooves which pick up the rays of light and thus create an image through these captured slices of light.
Shi Jing began working on landscapes in 2000, when he would often return to his home in Yunnan and paint the mountainous landscapes at the foot of the Himalayas. Sometimes he would go out and paint in nature but mostly he worked from photographs. In his essay about Shi Jing’s work, critic Edward Lucie-Smith discusses the relationship between photography and painting:
We see that the source material is almost certainly photographic. Chinese ink-paintings of mountains are never literal — they speak in metaphorical terms about the emotions such landscapes evoke. Shi Jing is aware of the way in which photographs often tend to turn the sublime into the banal. By making us look at his mountain-scapes obliquely, he aims to restore some of their mystery — one might say, he uses tricks to give them back their magic. 10
Often, the act of painting for Shi Jing was about understanding the essence of the landscape — a concept central to literati painting. Says the artist, “At the time, I chose subjects in Yunnan in order to learn to recognize my environment again. There are no special elements in these scenes, but still, the landscape nonetheless gives us a feeling with these big mountains and small mountains. I would often just paint water. Is this seawater, river water or lake water? We don’t know just that it has the nature of water.” 11
This interest in the “essence” of objects is deeply in line with literati thinking. Daoists believe that part of understanding an object is understanding the way in which it changes — Shi Jing captures this metaphor in his work by forcing the viewer to pivot in front of the work in order to see it from all its angles and incarnations — the appearance of the forms literally changing before the viewer’s eyes.
This idea of learning through observation was espoused by Confucians as well, who thought that travel was crucial in understanding the world. Landscape painting, in a sense, was an extension of this idea of traveling.
With Shi Jing’s work we are not necessarily traveling to a particular place but to a state of mind — a kind of existential plane filled with empty voids where we can ponder the vastness of the universe.
Here, Shi Jing’s choice of the pine tree is symbolic. In literati culture, pines embodied a sense of peace and longevity. The pine grasping onto a cliff — persevering against nature was symbolic of the literati himself — wiry and emaciated, the literati endured a hermetic lifestyle in search of inner truth. In Analects, Confucius uses the term, “hidden dragon” to emphasize that a man must develop moral cultivation before he is ready to join the government. 12
Gao Mingyan looks at the literati lifestyle as but fuses it with a much more quotidian aesthetic. In this case, he’s focusing more on the element of freedom. The literati had a tendency to overturn conventions; they would go on wild drinking binges, take medicinal herbs, which would invoke hallucinations, and would often take Daoist rituals and purposely perform them in the wrong way. The goal of their existence was personal expression through any means possible and sometimes in the heat of the moment, while painting, they would seize upon a blank wall and write down a few lines of poetry or sketch a painting on the seat of a chair. In some ways, their actions were very modern — artists such as Rauschenberg would be impressed with their use of found objects and their hijacking of Daoist rituals. If placed in a contemporary context, could easily be seen as performance art.
For them, life and art were as inseparable as night and day. Something that they lived, ate and breathed. In “Glittering Space” 2010, Gao Mingyan has collected a variety of objects that date to the Reform and Opening Up period and he has perforated them with a needle as to create a filigree of small holes. A small LED-light placed within the objects creates a pattern of light (almost like an astrological chart), which emerges when the objects are placed in the dark.
Using these objects, Gao Mingyan reconstructs a-seemingly banal room filled with references to great masters of traditional painting. While the original masterpieces inspire awe, his masterpiece-inscribed-objects evoke a charming naïveté. The Guangming brand milk carton inscribed with a simplified image of a pagoda shows how, within the garish visual culture of contemporary society, we can still find a sense of beauty and grace — much in the same way that Shi Jinsong constructs beauty out of a piece of rubble.
The use of objects from the Reform and Opening Up is also significant because it represents a time when China was at a crossroads between a strong socialist culture and a more international free-market culture. In the darkness of the room, we don’t see the dated furniture and consumer goods (a lifeless material existence) but an inspiring constellation of lights piercing through the darkness and reminding us of the wisdom of literati thought and values.
So what can we say we’ve learned from the literati? That man needs to learn to respect his relationship with the environment (Sayaka Abe and Ji Wenyu); that globalization and traditional culture have a conflicting relationship (Chen Hangfeng) and that going back to a literati mode of life is perhaps a futile endeavor (Girolamo Marri). We’ve learned that time is cyclical and history flows both ways (Qian Rong). We’ve learned that one can find at least temporary peace in nature and deep philosophical contemplation (Shi Jing) and, finally, we’ve learned that beauty can be found in the most mundane places with the help of imagination and creativity (Shi Jinsong and Gao Mingyan).
August 26, 2010
1. Wing-Tsit Chan, Hu Shih, and Chinese Philosophy, Source: Philosophy East and West, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Apr. 1956), University of Hawai’i Press, pp. 3-12
2. Tze-Ki Hon, The Yijing and Chinese Politics: Classical Commentary and Literati Activism in the Northern Song Period, 960-1127, pp 96
3. John King Fairbank, Denis Crispin Twitchett, The Cambridge History of China: Republican China, 1912-1949, Volume 12, Part 1.
4.Tze-Ki Hon, The Yijing and Chinese Politics: Classical Commentary and Literati Activism in the Northern Song Period, 960-1127, pp 94-98
5. John King Fairbank, Denis Crispin Twitchett, The Cambridge History of China: Republican China, 1912-1949, Volume 12, Part 1, p363
6. Jiang Jiehong, Burden or Legacy: From the Chinese Cultural Revolution to Contemporary Art, Hong Kong University Press 2007, p64
7. Norman Ho, Unlikely Bedfellows: Confucius, the CCP, and the Resurgence of Guoxue, Agriculture, Vol. 31 (2) – Summer 2009 Issue
8. Richard Rosenblum, “The Symbolism of Chinese Rocks” from Hu Kemin’s book, The Spirit of Gongshi: Chinese Scholar’s Rocks.
9. Gao, Ming. Commentaries on the Silk Scroll Book of Laozi, Boshu Laozi Xiaozhu. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1996
10. “Shi Jing” Edward Lucie-Smith, Dharma Garden, OV Gallery, 2008
11. Interview with Shi Jing conducted by phone in August 2010.
12. Tze-Ki Hon, The Yijing and Chinese Politics: Classical Commentary and Literati Activism in the Northern Song Period, 960-1127, p82
三十年河东, 四十年河西: 了解与文人文化的冲突关系
OV画廊最近的展览“问故而知新”探讨的是自1949年至今我们对于历史的描述和消费的问题, 而此次“向文人学习”新展则是将追溯历史的行为再退回一步, 并延续过去与现在的对话, 讨论文人画家的重要性和他们对当代中国社会价值观的影响。
传统社会、儒学价值观和家庭结构的问题早在五四运动时就已经出现, 它们之间的矛盾与质疑也在当时显现出来。其中儒学思想的反对者吴虞曾描述儒家学说中的孝道为“出产顺民的大工厂”, 并称儒学是“吃人的学说”。1916年, 陈独秀指出儒家关系分为“高等 /低劣”的等级, 这种旧思想与现代平等的观念是格格不入的。1
此外, 由梁启超发起的另一名为国性的新传统主义运动也在同一时期出现, 国性运动代表的是儒家自由主义, 以互惠互利为重点, 他还提出要尊重阶级并关注后代。梁启超主张鼓励牺牲自我意识和适度的儒家关系自由化, 同时强调了传统在家庭中的重要性。5
1949年建国后局面开始扭转, 支持传统价值观和文化的声音骤然减少。1966年“破四旧”代表了反传统言论的高度, 姜节泓在“遗赠或负担: 从中国文化大革命到当代艺术”一书中写道:“红卫兵搜遍全中国超过千万户家庭, 没收并捣毁所谓的旧产, 包括了历代书法绘画作品、古代书籍和档案、金银珠宝等。仅在宁波市就有超过80吨的明清书籍被毁坏。佛雕像、民间神像、甚至孔夫子像, 还有宗教建筑、壁画和经文书籍都未能逃脱这场浩劫。据记录有6,843件文物于1958年在北京登记入册, 却在20世纪80年代仅剩1,921 件”。6
然而政治风潮下的传统文化传播在当时还是存在的, 虽然时常以地下形式出现。中国国画家仍在一定程度上进行实践和贸易往来, 有些运用国画形式叙述革命题材, 另有一些则在私底下为客户制作作品, 又或者是接受亲属的资金支持维持创作等。
之后, 改革开放解除了对传统文化的限制, 而今是100年以来中国在国学的第二波浪潮下再次对传统文化进行商议的时刻。
这场国学运动, 就像第一次那样难以完全脱离政治背景, 却在现代化风暴后谈及了中华文化的真正影响。
此番国学热潮的涵盖面甚广, 例如政府对中国传统假日的拟定, 孔子学院的建立和中国在国外的软力量逐渐扩大的趋势。作家侯孟沅曾在“哈佛评论”中写过一篇优秀的文章, 讨论日益增长的国学热问题。7 文章中提及了在北京奥运会中的体现的孔子思想, 和由政府资助韩刚导演的孔子传记片等案例。另外, 他还提到了专家论文中描述的庞大的清史纂修工程: “2002年, 政府注入7500万美金到这项工程中, 从全国范围内聘请1600多名学者从事科研和学术讨论。竣工日期定在2012年, 预计将开创新的历史。这项工程而后会被翻译成多国语言, 同时记载到数据库以供全球传播, 字数超过3000万, 这意味着一名博士级研究生需要约10,000天的时间来消耗这组材料”。
侯孟沅提到这一行为是新王朝存在的常见的迹象, 不断寻求新记录并为此投入时间和财力, 从而树立在历史长河中的地位。
代表国学热的还有孔子学院的建立, 在全世界已设有316家分支机构并由汉语老师授教。新华社在一片文章中这样报道: 一个正在建立的远程学习班是为了帮助美国山区儿童学习中文。大中华文库的经典双语版系列则是为了使外国人更方便地了解中国传统文化, 此项举措得到了总理温家宝的赞同。
虽然这些跨国性的文化活动积极性很高, 却避免不了少部分外国人的质疑。尽管对这些政治性传统文化的怀疑意见不乏存在, 有机会学习更多的中华文化也并不是件坏事。
鉴于近期热门的国学, 以及上一期展览中我们展开了对50年代至70年代关于历史问题的讨论, 因而没有比此时做一个中国文人文化展览显得更合适的了, 抛开政治因素来审视价值观的问题, 以求开启一条新的发展思路。
我们希望通过这个展览让您在文人气息的意境中, 领略艺术家的作品和体会他们对价值观、思想和生活方式的一些探索, 从而在重新进入现代世界的同时获得些许教义。
虽然“文人画”一词往往仅限于中国画的特定时期。我们可以看到文人的精神已作为贯穿中国史的一部分, 不仅包含了传统价值观的信仰, 也是以个人的形式表达对艺术的信念。
文人精神随着海派艺术的崛起而日渐衰落, 尽管如此, 有相当一部分的艺术家比如徐冰、谷文达、蔡国强等都尝试过在作品里植入传统文化的元素, 对中国文化遗产进行引用和评论。
我们希望以此借鉴, 在展览中使用传统材料、图像和哲学, 探讨当代社会的文化意义。
史金淞以一件由废墟制成的雕塑展示出一个精彩的比喻, 一件凿孔钻洞的石块, 被打磨成传统意义上太湖石的形象, 尽现“皱、漏、瘦、透”之美。
这种园林假山石的意义在于它帮助展现了山石的姿态, 并在一个花园的范围内创造出幻想的风景, Richard Rosenblum 解说道:“法国学者 Rolf Stein 也曾描写关于中国古代的一个传说, 在某处高山的地方有一个与外面世界相同的山洞存在, 山洞的中心有钟乳石, 滴下的液体具有使人感到快慰的魔力⋯比喻中国文化寻求的是内在的魅力, 而西方的文化则是崇尚外在。中国艺术因而形成了“世界中的世界”的文化内涵, 给人充满惊奇和不可预测的想象。8
史金淞运用“世界中的世界”的思路, 从无人问津的废墟中创造出这件作品, 名称为“北皋525号”。北皋村曾是艺术家的工作室所在地, 现已被动迁, 这使人想起许多有趣的故事: 例如北京艺术家的流离动荡生活是为了不断地躲避各种伤害。与此同时, 出现了人类社会团体纷纷消逝, 文化遗产遭到破坏的现象等。
史金淞唤起了我们在城市废墟的角落寻找美丽的愿望。在他的作品说明中提到, “赏心乐事谁家院?”出自观“牡丹亭·游 游园惊梦”, 意境深长。我们只能在花园内寻找美景吗, 还是可以脱离思绪的羁绊随时随地尽情享受？
史的作品说明以古文的方式叙述, 充满诗意的字符串影射出他先前在北京的站台 － 中国制作的作品“戏剧: 桃花散”。在那件作品中, 上演了桃花美酒和各色美食的盛宴。宴会的主角是位于展厅中心的桃树, 在慢慢地剥去树皮了后吊挂悬浮在半空, 被观赏者成群地包围着。展览期间进行不停的拍照记录, 现场还装置了录像设备, 拍摄对话作为剧幕的片段。
这个材料处理的环节, 是表演作品的一部分。在桃树被剥去表皮之后, 在现场将其燃烧, 而后被带到上海参加另外一个展览。
桃花树是长寿的象征, 而艺术家扭转了这一观念, 连根拔起夺取其生命, 然后剥去表皮, 再将其燃烧, 展现出时光流逝的意味和道家思想中生命轮回的概念。道家指出不必害怕改变的可能, “北皋525号”同样告诉我们不要为社会的变化哀悼, 而是尽可能发现它的美好, 所谓将颓井残垣变废为宝。
日本艺术家阿部同样关注“世界中的世界”和内外在的概念。在她先前的作品“玛利亚”中, 表现的是一个荷兰女性穿戴华美装饰, 饱受禁锢画面。玛利亚作为核心人物, 是深居城堡内的尊贵女王, 身上挂满珠宝头戴奇特皇冠。最近的一些系列如“GM House,” 是另一个探索内在世界的作品, 她用丝质面料制作的空间还原祖母的居所, 并在上面描绘原先生活细节的图像: 盘子、盛糖的碗、装鸡蛋的容器和米罐等。
她对于内在的兴趣正契合了典型的文人思想, 通过欣赏风景画和修剪盆景的方式感受广大浩瀚的风景。事实上文人文化正是在不同尺度内扩展空间, 就像你在绘制和欣赏风景画的同时需要进行视野调节和控制一样。盆栽由眼和手并用修剪而成, 这些盆景少许放大后组成园林, 可供人步行参观, 此时我们便运用无限想象的诗文将欣赏到的风景锦上添花。因此在一个园林中, 可能存在四种方式的风景, 盆栽、画、诗文和园林本身。
阿部在她的作品中抓住了这种诗意无穷的境界, “虚幻的山与水的战斗”就是对风景的想象, 以山水画的形式展示现代社会的背景。作品运用油地毡印刷的方式表现荷兰低矮的房子, 凌乱得堆积在画了数艘船只的绸布上。船体因为载满建筑物而显得摇摇晃晃, 有些渐渐驶远, 产生山水画中近大远小的视觉感受。在山与水的围绕中, 穿梭着蓝色和黄色的绣线, 还有一些在后面的层次中隐约而现, 给人色彩重叠的效果。
阿部来自日本, 一个到处是山脉的地方, 与家乡的地形大为不同的则是低于海平面的荷兰, 那里终年持续为蓄水所困。她的布艺雕塑是对人与自然关系的探索, 以一种异想天开的方式探讨全球变暖的后果。在文人画中, 人在宏观而巨大的山景面前显得如此微观。当代社会则逆转了这种生态平衡: 不断建造水坝和堤防, 公路和土地等, 不仅改变了地球的表面, 也包括大气层。作品也象征了人类对未来的预言, 在不久的将来会被迫进入诺亚方舟以躲避日益上升的海平面。她的小型船只看起来像微型的盆景, 拥挤得仿佛要将全世界塞进一个令人难以置信的小空间里。
水在钱嵘的作品中占据很重要的作用。他以标志着上海半殖民地的外滩历史建筑为背景, 创作2009年作品“美食谍影”系列。钱嵘着迷于城市的水道与河流, 它们四通八达, 穿梭在城市的各个角落。肇加浜路得名于河流的名称, 就像董家渡和潭家渡一样, 可见水在上海的位置甚为重要。钱嵘时常骑着摩托车走访江河, 溪流和海边, 探索沿岸的的生活和捕鱼区。
水在他的2010年新系列“鲁迅号”和“修复山水”中象征了历史与时间的流逝, 同时也是文人关注的问题。孔夫子描述时间之短暂, 就像流水一样。道家则相信时间在流逝然后在回到过去, 具有周期性。9 这个循环总结了古代的时间观念: 概念更接近于自然之道, 意味着时效性或季节性, 而不同于现代时间中可以精确测量的概念。
钱嵘先前的作品“美食谍影”也探索了历史的周期性问题。他认为我们吃的一些食物（例如小笼包）在50年前就有, 而且某些事物与关系早在今天之前就已经存在。钱嵘的“鲁迅号”是由一个人面船身的混合体构成的, 人物边上描绘了小笼包的图像, 说明了历史具有循环性。男人的身体和船体紧紧相连, 目光凝视远方, 如同一个杰出的舵手, 后背依靠着一个塔式的建筑, 胸前装饰有标志着文化和历史的鲁迅头像。
将鲁迅纳入作品中是一个有趣的概念。他在五四运动中批判传统封建社会, 是代表中国开放, 接受西方思想中的科学理性与民主的重要的标志性人物。
有一句谚语: “三十年河东, 四十年河西, ”暗指的是财富急剧逆转, 原先的思想潮流不断变化的意思。从五四运动到西方技术、思想和消费品充斥的现代社会, 对国学的兴趣却仍然不减。钱嵘的作品表现出僵硬和紧张的概念, 彷佛在暗示现代环境中陷于瘫痪的困境, 又必须做出决定时的窘迫状态。
艺术家通过这件作品, 将全球化问题的看法表现得更加隐喻。他把再生塑料袋剪成细小碎片, 用钉子固定在细木工板上, 依照传统中国花鸟画中的构成组成图像。作品中的梅、兰、竹、菊就是取自“四君子”的传统题材。这些植物因其象征意义而存在价值, 常用来形容人的品格。
竹, 被积雪压弯了的身躯可折而不断, 因坚韧不屈而显得珍贵, 常被看作是强大和高尚的珍贵植物, 同时传达出谦卑和内敛的平静感。克服自然与社会的困难的精神是四君子共有的高贵品质。菊花, 同样作为一种耐寒的植物, 承受霜冻和雨雪的天气。它不畏严寒, 可见其勇敢和顽强。
梅花也具有相同坚强的品格, 在皑皑白雪的冬季里最早发芽开花, 为春天即将到来带来希望与信念。
兰花, 待新叶发芽后绽放出精致而引人注目的花朵, 标志着春天的开始。虽然兰花的花朵较为罕见, 却还是隐约而羞涩地藏于绿叶之中。兰花就像文人一样寂寞得存在着, 它的精神告诉我们即使没有观众欣赏, 也要为追求卓越的艺术与道德努力奋斗。它代表了一种优雅和道德的纯洁感。
作品中的这些植物, 是基于一本叫“芥子园画传”中国画学习的范本, 陈航峰对它们进行重新塑造, 与此同时指出关于国学热潮和目前日益膨胀的中国传统文化的问题。通常意义上, 塑料袋是用来采购物品的, 在这件作品里被当成了材料, 艺术家运用材料本身粗糙的性质, 借此表达出这股文化热潮中赶时髦与肤浅的表面现象, 暗示出无法回归的文人环境。另外用大头针固定塑料袋碎片的做法, 类似于博物馆昆虫标本的固定效果, 同样也具有象征意义, 文人文化从某种意义上说, 已随着现代化开展的过程被消灭殆尽了。
作品的旁边安装了一台微型风扇, 以定时器来控制运转。这种开启关闭的过程指的是自然界变幻无常的风向, 也是在暗喻西方对中国文化兴起与衰弱的影响。
Girolamo Marri 是一位居住在上海的意大利艺术家, 他在作品中常常扮演一名傲慢和无知西方人的角色, 并伴随荒谬的行为出现。
作品“民意调查”（2008）, 表现的是艺术家在798艺术园区闲逛时对一些路人进行访问调查的过程。他穿着厚厚的冬衣, 头顶凌乱蓬起的白发, 手拿一个由滚筒刷做成的“麦克风”, 问路人一些无关痛痒的问题例如你对中国当代艺术怎么看, 而当别人回答问题时, 他又将麦克风夺回去表达自己的观点。这与另外一个作品“亲爱的中国朋友,学用意大利的方式泡咖啡”(2008) 一样, 探索的是在许多文化交流中的单向性的问题。
他最近的作品“我们从文人那学到了什么呢？”, 也是通过幽默的手法, 从心理层面与自然进行交流。这项三个视频的装置展现了两种不同的拍摄风格。前两个部分以仿制纪录片的形式出现, 呈现了一个“身份”的角色, 探讨他与自然沟通并获取智慧的意图。作品描述了一个关于分离和焦虑的故事, 在脱离了手机、笔记本这些现代工具, 进入自然后, 耳边不断有昆虫嗡嗡作响和身体被咬后发出的抱怨, 显得十分幽默和讽刺。
在第二部分叙述的是他从大自然回归后, 艺术家试图向他人传递从自然中获得的智慧和领悟, 其结果却令人失望, 因为观众并不感兴趣而无法和他进行有效地沟通。我们看到人物陷于焦虑之中, 最终得出“从文人那学不到任何东西”的结论。
面部特写透露出“无能为力”和充满折磨的内心, 渐渐失去了和平和清晰的精神状态。这里 Marri 不只是在表达中西方文化上的断层, 也是过去与现在的分离。与可以完全脱离社会的文人状态相比, 我们已经失去了没有电话等通讯工具的能力。
与此同时, 他对隐士的生活方式提出质疑。归隐山间难道不是一种自我和逃避吗？我们能从自然中真正学到什么？我们在现代社会中花99%的时间, 在工作中学习为人处世的方式、知识和技巧, 难道不是一种进步吗?在山间又如何学习与人相处的实战经验呢？
视频的最后一段表现的是 Marri 变成疯子的情节, 陷入孤立和失败的边缘, 不断地吃着花朵, 幻想脱离现实的文人状态, 他告诫我们怀旧的危险性, 同时鼓励要深入思考我们所赞同的思想和观点。
计文于和朱卫兵对人、环境和精神空间的问题也极有兴趣, 自2005年来他们就已经探索了这个主题, 例如作品“赏花”、“观景”、“园里园外”, 以及“池边”（2008）等。这些作品以独特的视角不同程度地描绘了人与自然之间的联系。“赏花”表现的是几个人对着开花的树虔诚地凝视的景象, “观景”则是描绘了一个男孩手扶栏杆, 彷佛沉浸在眼前壮观的风景之中。“园里园外”表现的是一群人在四合院内向窗外张望的情形。“池边”将这种联系上升至更超自然的水平, 高高的铁栅栏边围坐着数个人, 眼睛注视铺满卵石的池底, 池塘中间长出粉色的花朵颇有卡通效果。和“观景”一样产生明显的距离感和不可达到性, 这里的自然事实上已经脱离了现实, 而是人造意义上的自然。
艺术家将当代人类对自然环境的改造的想法运用到作品“人类壮举”（2010）中, 一个骑坐在石头上的人凝视远方的瀑布, 一个色彩鲜艳的水坝映入眼帘, 显得突兀。
人类对自然的塑造和控制要追溯到很久以前, 五四运动时期开始接受科学进步的思想, 忽略了自然环境。“自1949年后, 这种“人定胜天”的思想迅速扩大, 中国发生了翻天覆地的变化, ”艺术家说到。这些变化带来文物与文化的损失, 最终丧失了身份。
这种无助感体现在作品中的人物身上, 他穿着一件毫无身份象征的平凡外衣, 凝视着眼前惊人而庞大的风景。艺术家用亚麻布制作出雄伟的山脉, 并用皱褶表现出古老山峰间凹凸不平的形态。从水坝上垂落的细纱布, 就像瀑布从高处倾泻而下, 绕过岩石形成波纹微澜的样子。作品整体的色调, 契合中国画在泛黄的宣纸上的感觉, 大坝上粉红和绿色的标记显示出时代落伍的信号, 同时也是与整体画面格格不入的。
中国山水画通常以简洁的用色著称, 史晶将这种风格发挥到极致, 基本不用任何颜色, 而是单纯依靠黑色颜料制造纹理, 在光线的映射下, 显现出画面的效果。
史晶从2000年开始从事风景画的创作, 时常回到家乡云南, 画一画那边的风景。有时候他会出去写生, 但大多数则是依照相片绘画。评论家 Edward Lucie-Smith 这样描述史晶作品中摄影与绘画的关系: “我们能看到材料的来源几乎是摄影。中国的水墨山水画从来不是依据表面意义, 而是通过隐喻的手法表达出对景观的感情。史晶熟知将这种壮丽的景观平凡化的方式, 从他笔下的景色中我们感受到迂回的奥妙。可以说, 他的特殊技巧赋予了这些作品魔力”。10
绘画让史晶感受风景的本质与精髓, 体会文人画的核心。艺术家说: “当时之所以选择在云南, 是为了重新认识那里的环境。那些场景中没有特别的元素, 但仍然能从这些大大小小的山群中找到感觉。我常常只是画水。海水, 河水还是湖水并没有清晰的界限, 其实都属于自然之水”。11
史晶将此概念蕴含在作品中, 使观众不得不以画为轴心从各种角度欣赏作品, 该形式的出现改变了观众的视角。
儒家提出向经验学习的思想, 并认为这种思想在周游和认知世界的过程中至关重要。山水画, 从一定意义上说, 是游览和经历后的一种思想延伸。
对于史晶的作品来说, 我们不一定要前往某个特定的地点, 更多的则是感受心境, 和对空无存在的浩瀚宇宙的思索。
作品中的松树具有象征性, 在文人文化中是和平和长寿的意思。在悬崖边屹立不倒, 与自然抗衡, 仿佛文人一般瘦弱而坚强, 忍受与世隔绝的生存方式, 探求真理的存在。论语中提到的儒家术语“卧龙”, 强调的是人需要修生养性后才可入仕途。12
高铭研的作品也是表达了对文人生活方式的关注, 并且注重对自由元素的运用。文人会颠覆常人的习惯, 他们时常喝酒作乐, 食用草药产生幻觉, 甚至故意以错误的行为演绎道家仪式等等。他们也常独自一人, 享受画画的激情, 灵感涌现时在墙上题几句诗词, 或是随意在座椅上勾勒出植物的样子。从某种意义上说, 他们的行为相当现代化, 同超现实主义艺术家劳森伯格对事物的探索一样使人印象深刻。搞道教仪式的行为, 在当代的概念里近乎于表演艺术。而他们的生活和艺术如同白天和黑夜不可分割。生活离不开吃和呼吸。“闪光处”（2010）集合了从改革开放以来的各种生活用品, 然后在这些物品上打出许多精致的小孔, 组成山水画的图形, 里面放置的微型 LED 灯从物品内部投射出仿佛占星图的效果, 在黑暗的空间里闪闪发光。
高铭研用这些物品将一个看似平凡的空间重构, 充满了对传统绘画大师描述。基于对原来杰作的鼓舞和敬畏, 使得作品流露出迷人的天真, 光明牛奶盒上刻出的宝塔形状展现出在这个充满过多粉饰的当代视觉文化社会里, 仍能看到美丽与优雅的一面。与史金淞在废墟中重建美好的概念一般, 有异曲同工之妙。
使用改革开放时期的物品也同样意味深长, 那是代表中国处于十字路口的时期, 有着面对强大社会主义文化与国际化的自由市场文化双重的特殊性。在这个黑暗的房间里, 我们看不到过时的老家具和消费品, 而是让人新奇和振奋的灯光群, 使我们想起文人思想和价值的智慧。
我们要如何表达向文人学习呢？首先, 人需要尊重与自然共存的现状(阿部和计文于朱卫兵);审视全球化进程与传统文化之间的冲突关系(陈航峰), 单一回归或追寻文人的生活方式可能只是一种徒劳（Girolamo Marri)。另外, 我们知道时间具有周期性, 历史也呈双向发展（钱嵘）, 还认识到自然界的短暂和平带给人们深刻的哲学思考（史晶）。最后, 我们意识到通过想象和创造, 在最为平凡的地方发现美。
1. “胡适: 中国哲学史大纲”, 陈荣捷, 来源: 东方与西方哲学, 夏威夷大学出版社, (1956年4月), 第6卷第1号, 第3-12页
2. “易经与中国政治:北宋时期的经典评论与文人激进主义”，韩子奇, 第96页
3. “剑桥中华人民共和国史 － 革命的中国的兴起”, John King Fairbank, Denis Crispin Twitchett,1912-1949, 第12卷第1部分
4. “易经与中国政治:北宋时期的经典评论与文人激进主义”，韩子奇, 第94-98页
5. “剑桥中华人民共和国史 － 革命的中国的兴起”, John King Fairbank, Denis Crispin Twitchett,1912-1949, 第12卷第1部分第363页
6. “遗赠或负担: 从中国文化大革命到当代艺术”, 姜节泓,香港大学出版社 2007, p64
7. Norman Ho, Unlikely Bedfellows: Confucius, the CCP, and the Resurgence of Guoxue,Agriculture, Vol. 31 (2) – Summer 2009 Issue
8. The Symbolism of Chinese Rocks – Essay by Richard Rosenblum Kemin Hu’s book The Spirit of Gongshi: Chinese Scholar’s Rocks
9.（中华书局, 1996 ）帛书老子校注（新编诸子集成第一辑）[高明撰]
10.“史晶 达摩花园”, Edward Lucie-Smith