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The Time of Yuan

A discussion about the concept of time in Liang Shaoji’s artworks Author: Bao Qian 2015

It is said that part of Guqin (a traditional Chinese string instrument) is the embodiment of silkworm and presents its spirit. The reason here is that the strings of this instrument are normally made of silk while the body part is usually made of particular wood, like cunninghamia lanceolata, Tung, Phoebe zhennan and Chinese catalpa. As recorded, Zhang Dai (1597-1684), a Chinese scholar, made and repaired Guqin himself. In the meantime, Zhang also bred silkworms, made the strings with silk and rubbed strings with hands, instead of simply playing the Guqin. Si ‘丝’ in Chinese means ‘string’ as well as ‘silk’, while Si She ‘丝社’ means ‘music society’. The music here mainly refers to string music. Zhang Dai set up a Si She, and the people involved were called Si Ren ‘丝人’. Liang Shaoji has been creating artworks with silk more than two decades. Likewise, he raised up silkworms himself. Not surprisingly, the silk he has used could circle the earth over ten times. Yan Tianchi (1547-1625), an administrator and a musician during Ming dynasty, once suggested that if you play (the Guqin) in a hurry, it might sound a bit of dysphoric. And it may also feel dull and flat if you hesitate while playing . The character of ‘hesitation’ has been enriched and extended in Xi Shan Qin Kuang (‘溪山琴况’, a book written by Xu Shangying (1582-1662), a well-known musician in Ming dynasty): ‘elegant melody suddenly appears from silence, lonesomely and far-reachingly’.    

When I walked into the exhibition space of Yuan (Back to Origin), I was immersed in a poetic picture: visible ‘Guqins (bamboos)’ were played by the masters, which contributed to an atmosphere that the involved physicals and souls were closely connected and interpreted. The melody, resembling white silk, rose and fell, leading to an illusory space. The echoing music might be light, might be thin, might be circular, might be of silence and might be of distance. The lightness refers to a certain character that is spontaneous instead of being expected and designed [1]. The thinness is presented by every single delicate thread of silk. The various circles, free with any delay or hesitation, dance with the rhymes freely [2]. Indulged in the silence, the sound, derived from the deepdown heart, is dedicated to find the inherent silence. The distance places the haunting melody into his imagination, ‘it is far from enough that we only create and expect music from strings. What’s more precious is to discover and unveil the spirit of music’ [3]. Inspired by the philosophy of music and the nature of silkworm, Liang has applied the enlightenment that he has got into his artistic practice. In this circumstance, the artworks could be regarded as the reflection of the artist’s imago.                  

A four-character Chinese phrase ‘Da Yin Xi Sheng’ (大音希声, means silence is the most beautiful sound) features a particular sound that is reached and comprehended by heart. There must be certain moments when the genuine heaven could be sensed and accessed, but it is hard to be represented in terms of daily routine life. For instance, the difficulty exists in the cognition and comprehension of ‘time’. What the invisibility has involved is largely exceeding the visibility does. Like Merleau-Ponty said, invisibility, symbolising the dimension of visibility, equals to the zero degree of visibility. In Liang’s work, what is unveiled is more about ‘time’ which seems much more immeasurable than silk. It is not only because that much time is needed to produce silk. The main reason is that the artist offers the opportunities for us to gain a knowledge of ‘eigentlich time’ between ‘realistic time’ and ‘original time’ as well, by sensing ‘nichteigenes time’. This is the duality of ‘元’ (origin) as well as what I have been concerned.    


It happens more frequently that the core tends to be a vagrant. Sometimes, the involved consistence could be experienced while ‘the existing’ jumps out of itself.  ——Gaston Bachelard

In Heidegger’s point of view, the ‘time’, which varies from or is even contrary to the ‘time’ that commonly exists in the daily routine life beyond philosophy, refers to the ‘eigenlich time’ as he defined. The ‘eigenlich time’ should be interpreted and comprehended by an idea of ‘origin’ [4]. Human beings have lost the original understanding of ‘time’. Actually, even though it is of much importance to possess an original understanding of ‘time’, individuals could hardly realise the necessity to think about the ‘time’ as existents, let alone get a deep insight of ‘eigenlich time’. Few people actually have an anxiety to understand it. However, some efforts could be traced in the field of art. For instance, Liang’s artworks give a sign.    

The scenes that everything is covered with silk differ from the usual impression that people have, regarding the silk spinning process of silkworms. If the silk that produced by each silkworm could reach 1,200 metres, audience may realise the existence of the materialised time due to the social activity of silkworms. The gentle floating and overlapping silk stick out the visibility and measurability of time. No matter the wrapped object is sharp or thin, it would be regarded as something ‘snow-covered’, which keeps the involved tenderness and certainty sensible and touchable. Silk, featuring different appearances in various artworks, actually demonstrates the existence of silkworms. The silkworms in Liang’s work, firstly, illustrate the living individuals who possess particular laws and regular patterns of existence and movement. Like human, they could be easily sensed by guidance as a certain group of existents. Secondly, silkworms are defined as social groups that may inspire people to think about death, destiny and alternation of generations. Audience are normally unaware of the consciousness of silkworms. Instead, the ability of silk spinning is much more eye-catching. Day by day, it drives audience to recognise the reality that is implied by ‘time’.    

The beauty of Liang’s artworks lies in the implied reality of life journey and the abstract of vital essence that are emphasised and displayed in front of audience. Time tells everything, but it can be nothing as well. Resembling the ongoing life with ancient paradox, time possesses a kind of certainty that could not be eliminated. Through the reality of life progress that is presented by Liang, we are more likely to the access the definition of time while immersed in the materialised time. Confronted with the ‘time’, certain comprehension of ‘self-time’ might be enlightened. And this comprehension would be utilised as practical experience that could bring about the integration of life. The circulation of time appears to be: materialised time → existents’ reflections on the present time → the understanding of original time → time materialising into life. Regarding Planar Tunnel, I would say it reminds me of the circulation between ‘nichteigenes time’ and ‘eigenlich time’. And the fine layer involved features an idea that the ‘existent’ exists in the ‘existence’ (which is another question to be further discussed). The ‘we’ mentioned above refers to the ‘present’ of existents in Liang’s artworks. And the ‘time’ involved should be the ‘present’ time which is defined as ‘nichteigenes time’. Therefore, the circulation above means a ‘circle’ that constitutes of ‘eigenlich time’ and ‘nichteigenes time’. As the premise, ‘eigenlich time’ contributes to the possibility of ‘nichteigenes time’, which, without doubt, could be featured by art. And this is what Liang has done. Plus, he has presented his skillful practice and lasting reflections. His art creation talks more about choosing and strengthening, while he discovered the most authentic part of the abstract in the life and focused on living individuals instead of the over-transformed. This resembles the evolution as well.    


We wander in the time that does not belong to our time, but we have never deeply thought about the time that actually belongs to us. ——Blaise Pascal

Any kind of ‘nichteigenes time’ is hard to be defined. Or even like what Husserl said any defining modes could not gain any firm footing. ‘Nichteigenes time’ could be the time in the senses, the time regarding integration of physicals and spirits, the time that is rather emotional or poetic. ‘It is an allegory that we make up before it disappears. It is no more than the flickering smoke’, Nietzsche said. More importantly, it is the time that unveils the ‘existence’ which would no longer exist without the time. ‘Nichteigenes time’ might be invisible, but it is the time that is infinite and has a strong sense of being present. It could be daily, individual and sincere. It is another embodiment of authenticity. Like Levinas mentioned, ‘I’ am always there, connecting all the colourful lines that composes the ‘existence’. When it comes to ‘my’ awareness of time in ‘nichteigenes time’, there might be certain moments that ‘eigenlich time’ could be discovered, but the chance might be little. Liang’s artworks have reflected his experience of self-cognition and ideas. What he has done is to ‘disguise’ the creation, as if it is completely natural and has never been emotionally cultivated. It is the chance created for us.      

There could be countless versions of ‘nichteigenes time’ around us. A Move in Silence shows various moments of silkworms’ life stage: still silk, motionless traces left by the breakthrough and hanging cocoons. All these seem to be a standstill, but most of them symbolise the integration of various ‘nichteigenes time’, and the concatenation of the leaving ‘present’ and the coming one. The circular traces left on the ground, the moving lighting on the three-dimensional silk walls and hanging cocoons in the space are meant to lead audience to the points that are before or after the particular ‘moments’. The ‘present moments’ of silkworms could be demonstrated in various circumstances, like the life progress in the boundary, the spinning evidence in routine time and the alternations and experience due to the changes of life status. What Liang has concatenated is not to imply the continuity of time, but to welcome the cognition of ‘eigenlich time’ through ‘nichteigenes time’. Here, it is because that ‘nichteigenes time’ could be infinite. The artist selects and transforms his own personal experience into art creation. Unveiling his cognition gained from different ‘nichteigenes time’, Liang has successfully put audience into different ‘present moments’ rather than the middle space between the past and the present.          

An apparent feature of ‘now-time’ among ‘nichteigenes time’ has been revealed. Taking a look at A Move in Silence, the flashing light on the silk is rather linked up and free of estrangement. And the feeling of ‘cultivation’ and ‘breaking’ implied in the work could be interpreted into the tension of life time, instead of the discrepancy in order. The time in existence is likely to be hold. It is to say that only when audience enter, the compressed spaces would finally become unfolded. The original time in the consciousness contributes to the possibility to understand ‘present’. And ‘nichteigenes time’ certainly extends ‘a move in silence’: when audience still the ‘present’ of silkworm at the front, it feels like entering the unfolded time space, which activates the transformation and alternation of the ‘present’ and opens up our presence. Considering the practical experience in daily life, we could easily be confined by the common cognition of ‘present’. This leads to that ‘present’ is interpreted into the past, or the future. We place the‘present’ into the continuity of time, but what we have overlooked is the cognition experience of the ‘present’. Traces, revealing the connection with regard to time space and existence in ‘nichteigenes time’, could be found in the artworks by Liang. Both A Move in Silence and Stele have showed the delicacy and tenderness of traces. The time space involved resembles the space that is stored by time. While opening the storage room, every single audience becomes the centre of the time space. No matter it is the past or the future, the centre could only be the present. As what Husserl interpreted, the present houses the core of time. The outside of the core exists as the core of time: vision, thinking, memory and explanation which wrap the inside like silk.      

People all around the world keep structuring various kinds of ‘nichteigenes time’ among numerous versions of ‘gestalt time’. However, ‘nichteigenes time’ features certain time that is inherent, personal, modified, able to be overlapped and not restricted. It could vanish by any time. When we are able to figure out its identity, it might have already left. And what we could do by then is to give an authentic narration. Husserl mentioned in his Concept, ‘All the experience existing as time is actually a self experience.’      


The present is paused, as it has been broken and re-jointed the dauer of self.  ——Emmanuel Levinas

The mystery of ‘eigenlich time’ could be accidentally found out while featuring ‘nichteigenes time’. Owing to the coincidental discovery, it is learnt that the original time exists as our innate character, which imparts the knowledge in terms of the subtlety between the existence and the existent. Time features more than one existent that comes and goes without any rules. If time itself is an existent, then the ‘present’ would be its existing form. ‘Nichteigenes time’ is a phenomenon and trace, while ‘eigenlich time’, an interpretation of silkworm, human, work of art and audience, plays a mysterious role secretly. In this circumstance, ‘nichteigenes time’ which presents certain ‘now-time’ is no longer a turning point of the past or the future, or a self-repetition either. It becomes a start that stimulates something, or a destination that finishes something. And this is what the time of ‘元’ (origin) implies.      

The time of ‘元’ (origin) houses the duality of ‘eigenlich time’ and ‘nichteigenes time’. Apart from that, it also brings the nature of straightness that is integrated with time, the purity that is brought by the authenticity of ‘non-self’, and the character of self that is unveiled under the concept of ‘now-time’. The time of ‘元’ (origin) presents the relationship of time and life, as well as the one between time experience and art. Art lies in the expression of art. When people in the modern world have lost their understanding and interpretation of the ‘original time’, Liang lives in the mountain and thinks about silkworms. It is more like that he is directly sensing the ‘eigenlich time’ by condensing the idea of ‘‘nichteigenes time’. It could be said that one source of Liang’s creation is the behind ideas of time and Zen philosophy of time. The artworks by Liang have inspired and led us to enter the time space of the ‘now-time’ that is classified into ‘nichteigenes time’. In that case, I suppose the most exciting would be the moment when you sense the existence of others in your ‘now-time’ and find your trace in others’ ‘now-time’.  

‘The player, as well as the singer, stops the string at a certain point without reaching out three to four ‘分’ (a Chinese unit of length, 1 ‘分’ = 1/3 centimetre), extensively or gently. Wandering among the strings for four to five times, the melody stops. Moderate makes perfect [5]. ‘The time of ‘元’ (origin) symbolises the moment when ‘eigenlich time’ is discovered in ‘nichteigenes time’. It is also a moment that stands for a new start like the pleasing sound gradually appearing from the strings. The time cognition of ‘now-time’ generates from inside and would finally turn into the inherent structure of existent. Liang has picked out the immersed emotions and composed them into a song that could not be restricted by routine fingering. And likewise, it happens to the sensations of ‘nichteigenes time’ in the same way.

Bao Qian
Midnight, February 12, 2015

[1]Xu X. Y., Xi Shan Qin Kuang, China Book, Beijing. Page: 170
[2]Xu X. Y., Xi Shan Qin Kuang, China Book, Beijing. Page: 130
[3]Xu X. Y., Xi Shan Qin Kuang, China Book, Beijing. Page: 48
[4]Eigenlich is quoted to emphasise: it is better to let things to be illustrated in the original and natural way
[5]Xu X. Y., Xi Shan Qin Kuang, China Book, Beijing. Page: 199

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