Another Form of Nature
by Zheng Wen
In 1082, the fifth year of Emperor Shenzong’s Yuanfeng reign, Su Shi was exiled to Huangzhou from court for the Wutai Poem Incident, and, to commemorate his trip to Red Nose Cliff, he wrote the stunning poem Reminiscence of Red Cliffs. The Incident resulted in a divide of his poetry, so we can see a turn from vibrant, painstaking pursuit of making a difference in the world to a state of art that allowed him to embrace nature from time to time. The poem, unfolding from the image of “ebbs and flows”, has given Chinese literati over the past millennium a way of venting and transcending in face of ups and downs in life by presenting a case of strategic magnificence and broad-mindedness. The 2020 exhibition of Tang Guo’s latest works, also with the title of “Ebbs and Flows”, can be seen as an important point in his recent art practice, and it epitomizes Tang Guo’s latest exploration of art. These works can arouse new discussions of a series of dualisms, such as traditional culture and modern art, historical narrative and individual expression, material attributes and social value, the art industry and the freedom of creation… By pondering on this series of dynamic relations, we can learn about the artist’s way of interpreting the world and feel another form of “nature”.
Tang Guo’s art can be reduced to two keywords – “restoration” and “reconstruction”. For example, he has made attempts to fix the spiritual barrenness in modern life and vain efforts to restore “rootless modernity” with his early works, like figures of Buddha and cloud-covered mountains in his collages, moiré fragments of ancient buildings in his installations, paper editions of ancient literature in his mixed-media pieces, broken utensils in his long-scroll ink paintings, and the ancient residence in Zhaji village and the Tibetan Buddhist temple both restored by him personally in real life. Highly cultivated as an intellect from Jiangnan (south of the Yangtze River), Tang Guo has acquainted himself with the utensil types from the Han dynasty to the Tang and Song dynasties. Tang Guo’s artistic processing of historical remains is different from any common displays of historical materials or Marcel Duchamp’s conceptual logic of “readymade” from the Western art system. Tang Guo takes a “poetic and romantic” way of processing deeply rooted in Eastern culture, or, to be particular, he extracts images, symbols and objects from cultural relics or daily residential remains and works them into pieces of art so as to build a new contemporary understanding of history and culture. By turning “historical relics” to “creative elements”, he reactivates the cultural and historical messages carried by materials, and the wondrous process of turning sorrowful “reminiscing” and “mourning” to “rebuilding” and “remaking” can generate a totally different landscape of art and dimension of meaning.
This exhibition is to present a series of the artist’s latest large works made of natural pulp fiber, which can be traced back to his obsessive study of traditional papermaking in the 1980s. During that period, Tang Guo paid a visit to a master of the craft in Jing County, Anhui Province, and spent two whole years learning how to make paper the traditional way. The ancient workshop strictly followed the traditional technique of over fifty procedures, hence paper made without any chemical addition and according to such natural steps as raw material preparing and selecting, steaming, boiling, drying and cutting. Originated from a southern region of Anhui around Jingchuan county, the unique fiber material made by mixing the bark from the blue sandalwood and rice straws is the very ingredient of the renowned Chinese Xuan paper, the type in the real sense, not other types of “writing and painting paper”, various though, made of materials such as bamboo, grass, vine, hemp and bark. As Tang Guo sees it, Chinese traditional papermaking is not only a technical process of restoring and digging into the past but also a method of back-tracing in terms of source of water, geology and natural texture. Making art out of these is no early-stage preparation of materials to him but a way to personally feel and learn about various pulp-making plant fibers such as blue sandalwood, hemp and bark. One of Tang’s adopted fiber materials for this group of works is the very product of a perfect marriage between image making and the technique of making pulp out of the bark from the blue sandalwood.
Since as early as the 1990s, Tang Guo has become a representative artist of “new literati painting” with his refreshing works of ink and wash. And his mixed-media art and collage also pioneered the formal reform of Chinese modern art at the time. As an artist unwilling to repeat his own experiments, however, Tang would never get complacent about achievements of any single stage and cease to advance. He gradually put away some of his “tricks” already widely recognized in China and abroad and dove into more individualized work. Since the long period he spent restoring the Zhizhu Temple in Beijing after 2000, Tang Guo has been living in increasing isolation from the community of artists filled with trends and clamors. Like a papermaker in an ancient workshop, he spends most of his time looking for raw fiber material for papermaking in mountains and processing it the traditional way, including cleaning, soaking, washing, drying, brushing and tempering. As a lot of messages are inherent in the fiber of these diverse pieces of “paper”, Tang Guo has chosen to believe in the power of the “Creator” and likes to see images and landscapes self-generate in the fiber with a non-interfering attitude like an incubator. In a compact or loose form, the preset fiber flows, spreads and gathers rapidly or slowly until the generation of images… The power of the fiber is all it takes to form the work by condensation. And, in the process, Tang Guo goes after the moments during the flow, the natural demonstration of material, the traces of time flowing, and the accumulation and deposit over a long period. Besides, the state and character he pursues can be boiled down to “purity, quiet, liberty and naturalness”.
“Ruins are civilization of a higher level,” says Tang Guo. In this case, the fiber for traditional papermaking is not to, ultimately, be made into paper that carries images, but to become the very constitution of images and art; it turns from a medium of art to art itself, from a “ruin” of art in the past to a “civilization” of art in current times. During this subject-object switch, the artist has managed to inject new aesthetics and power to tradition and legacies through his technology-to-concept transformation, craft-to-ideology sublimation and traditional-to-contemporary evolution.