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The Best Painter Has No Rules: An Insight Into The Visual Koan

Author: Lin Ye Translator: Wu Chenyun 2021-01-01

Expression or representation, in any form, is in essence a garbled account that distorts the whole picture. After all, when confronting the intricate reality world and the similarly complicated inner world, we'd always feel we're bumping into a vast bunch of murky chaos that is totally beyond words, clue and logic. However, we have to resort to some kind of "rule", or "law", or so-called logic that is fostered from within such chaos to explain the unexplainable. It could only lead to one result: we capture one point but leave out the whole picture. In this regard, this article is also doomed to be a garbled account. Not only would it fail to present a holistic picture of Yang Fudong's work, but it could only cast light on fragments of the already obscure and muddled body perceptions when encountering, connecting and resonating with Yang's work.

Landscape Painting as Method and Practice

The opening part of An Estranged Paradise, Yang Fudong's first film, featured a montage of hands, which functioned as a lead to the film. It included a hand trying to catch eels in the fish tank, two hands that were approaching, touching, entangling with and resisting each other, a hand that was placing a ring on another hand, a hand that was nearly burnt when lighting a match, and a hand that was drawing a landscape painting. Irrelevant to the theme as these scenes appeared to be, the montage seemed to imply some intriguing dynamic relations: seizure and escape, control and struggle, manipulation and backfire, reminiscent of the game between rational control and elusive object. To me, to find the balance of such dynamic relations is a prelude to understand Yang Fudong's work.

Such dynamic relations run through many of Yang Fudong's works. It could even be said that the state of constant exploration, conflicts, quest, grasp and struggle probably constitutes Yang Fudong's world of art. What he pursues is to find a fine balance among all of these. Behind his camera, the hand that always wanted to grasp something, control something but eventually failed embodied the intellectuals in reality who were at a loss and hence constantly posed questions. They might be unknown literati who were emotionally perplexed, educated ones who held a brick in hand, wanting to make reaction to the reality but not quite knowing how, intellectuals who solitarily meditated on individuality and freedom, or officials who were waiting uneasily for the dawn breaking to meet the emperor at court... And the objects – which were always there and were always escaping, struggling and even backfiring – played the role as uncertain factors that permeated his work like air that is everywhere.

Those intellectuals seemed to possess "knowledge", the power of reason that enabled them to gain a mastery over the world and get hold of the reality. Then, why were they upset? They were like the "K" in Kafka's work. They kept moving in different times, constantly lost their way, and constantly wandered around, heading way to places they had never been to. Even in the some of the most trivial activities, senses of anxiety and panic caused by disorientation could be perceived, leading to a permanent state that was full of yearning and yet out of normal. They were people who fumbled their way forward in the mist, all by themselves. Not only had they fallen into the darkness of the real world, but they had also been trapped in the labyrinth in their inner world. Their bodies failed to build connections between the interior and the exterior worlds and hence had to struggle within all the dislocations and distortions. Probably that was why all of them chose to gaze into the distance to search for some definite spiritual support and lost their power of imagination but ordinary mind along the way.

Nevertheless, the "lead" accompanying the episode showing "drawing landscape painting" is worth noticing. Different from other episodes, in addition to the hand that was drawing, this episode also featured traditional music and voice-over, as if a landscape painter was painting and explaining his painting theories. "Landscape painting is a way for man to represent the nature. For natural landscape to communicate with human thoughts, the best way is perhaps through the language used by landscape painters..." To some extent, this part reveals the relationships among reality, body and spirit. Shi Tao once said, "Ink is given by the nature, and its color shades as well as the degrees of dryness/moistness follow the rules of the nature; painting brush is wielded by man, and the choices of strokes/textures and ways of staining follow the heart of the painter." Only if a man tackles the changing interplay between real world and the inner world with an accordingly changing approach could "rules derive naturally from painting", and hence could he reach the state that "the reason why I am who I am is my unique existence". Apparently, the episode in the film didn't mean to present a certain phenomenon or state. Instead, it seemed to offer an answer, euphemistically, through landscape painting, revealing a way for us to perceive the world as well as ourselves, to communicate and get along with the world as well as the nature, and to confront the dual chaos of the real world as well as the inner world.

Certainly, we can say the above is all so-called general truth and hence, cliché. It's always right, always there, but beyond reach. To some people, such general truth is more like cliché statement or slogan than practical method. However, the general truth in nature is not to be said but to be put into practice. It's not only applicable to landscape painting, but also to means of expression, or we can even say, to all aspects of life. Only by experiencing and pondering upon it in real life and implementing it into their daily practice can creators truly absorb the general truth into themselves.

Yang Fudong has always kept an eye on Chinese ancient painting, whether he was studying at the China Academy of Art or working on film projects. To him, ancient painting is not merely a Chinese tradition or cultural backdrop. Instead, it's a source of inspiration that is constantly developing. To look at ancient painting is like to "absorb nutrients". It's a silent way of learning. Even if you are just staring at it, without putting much thought into it, you are communicating with the painting, giving it access to entering into you. During Yang Fudong's practice, what he emphasizes and values is often not so-called theories, specific purposes or in-depth elaboration, but feelings, experience and breath. To be more specific, feelings represent responses to the outside, experience, inward observation, and breath, balanced interplay between the outside and the inside. In other words, he does not impose any existing and fixed "rules" upon the reality that he's faced with. Instead, he follows the principles of "feeling it before understanding it", and "resorting to understating to inspire feeling, and vice versa", which leads to his "painting as a film" (hui hua dian ying) and Imagery Film (yi hui dian ying). As a result, when viewers enter his work, they'd feel like they are faced with everyday life, and they are able to observe and experience the invisible images behind the work, combining them with their own experience and making an invisible film in their mind that belong to themselves only.

To Yang Fudong, landscape painting is probably more than an approach. It is also a concrete body practice. In this regard, film, photography, painting and contemporary art in his world of art could all be reckoned as "freehand imitation" which captures the essence rather than the appearance of landscape. He doesn't try to confine the reality world or his own feelings, thoughts, behavior and perception to any well-organized narrative logic. What he pursues is to "treat no rules as the rule, and let that rule prevail" and to present his work as an alternative reality which is chaotic and open. That's probably why his work abounds with leaps of mind, intentional blankness, multiple identities and polyphonic narratives. If we see the ink paintings, oil paintings, photographs, videos and installations in "Endless Peaks" as unique brushstrokes of a landscape painting, then the exhibition could be considered as a large-scale three-dimensional landscape painting in a contemporary context. Such a perspective would enable us to see through the appearance of the work, gain insights into the overall design of the exhibition, the various visual metaphors as well as the interplay among different elements, and have a mastery of what the artist wants to convey beyond the surface by resorting to our own experience and power of imagination.

Sage, Warrior & Luohan

Investigation into intellectuals has always remained a prominent subject in Yang Fudong's work. He himself identifies with the role of intellectual. It could be said that probing into this subject reflects his exploration into and reflection upon self-existence. From earlier works like intellectual film An Estranged Paradise to later works like the abstract film Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, and to the latest work Endless Peaks, an imagery film, changes and developments of the status of intellectuals in his work could be perceived, which indicates changes and developments in his mind.

Yang Fudong defined An Estranged Paradise as a film of unknown literati. The so-called unknown literati could be understood as a preintellectual status, meaning that the consciousness as intellectual was just about to emerge but hadn't developed into the state of intellectual identity in the true sense yet. In the film, we could sense that Zhuzi, the male protagonist, was full of doubt and uncertainties about his feelings and the world he lived in. The inward observation of and reflection upon himself caused some deviations on the logical level, resulting in the consequence that he thought he was ill. The three love stories were more like dreams than real events that had actually happened. It harbored his innocent imagination toward love and the world: curious and intimidated, proud and self-contemptuous, frantic and indignant. Under such a state, it would be impossible to talk about understanding, order or control, not to mention future development. Nevertheless, it could be certain that he didn't succumb to the pressures of everyday life and still struggled to explore outwardly and introspect inwardly, fumbling his way forward bit by bit, in an oscillating manner, to figure out his destiny.

The five-part film Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest abandoned clear narrative. Without referring to any specific, the seven intellectuals (sages) presented a group portrait of large number of people on a symbolic level. People with ambiguous identities constantly appeared in Yang Fudong's films. Sometimes they were people with distinct characteristics and remained aloof from the world; sometimes they were ambitious but subject to adversities, and sometimes they envisaged multiple identities and played different roles... Viewers, when encountering these characters, would get a peep of themselves of a certain period or in a certain state. Different from Zhuzi in An Estranged Paradise, these characters had developed a relatively definite identity since the beginning and shared visions and motivations. They seemed to come from the same spiritual utopia and fell into the secular world, yearning for self-realization through a series of actions. They might not know the world well, but they did know what they wanted to do as they had profound and extensive knowledge and expectation toward the world, cities, emotions, sex, rural areas and utopia. Nevertheless, they complied with the voice in their mind which said "it ought to be" but were not ready to accept the outside world as "it was". They intended to reconstruct (or restore) a real utopia through their efforts; but what awaited them was always refusal and frustration, which turned them to become some kind of "out-of-place" presence in the real world. At the ending part of the fifth episode, the intellectuals who once again returned to the city danced, fought and laughed wildly in a hotel, like a group of maniacs. And a bunch of working people (chefs) lined up neatly, watching them and applauding. The clashes and dislocations in the inner world of the intellectuals, who were supposed to be people with high self-esteem, self-discipline and self-righteousness, were fully exposed to the public, casting light on the paradox deeply rooted rationalism.

Several years later, these ambitious and yet frustrated intellectuals walked into the "mountains" in Moving Mountains. This time, in the face of the magnificent mountains they didn't rush into action. Instead, they once again felt at a loss. They probably had been fully aware of the harshness and complexity of the real world, so they kept wandering in the mountains, observing and testing, with great cautiousness, and envisaged various possible scenarios. After some fierce struggles in the mind, they made up their mind to shoulder the grave responsibility to "move mountains". The title "Moving Mountains" tended to remind viewers of the fable selected in Book 5 (Tang Wen) of The Liezi, a Taoist Text of the 4th century. But Yang Fudong drew his inspiration more from Xu Beihong's painting, which was created in the 1940s under the same title of the fable. In other words, his work could be deemed as a paraphrase of a paraphrased version of the fable. Xu Beihong's painting intended to inspire people to actively shoulder the responsibility to rescue the nation and fight for ultimate victory. The sense of mysteriousness of the fable was deprived in Xu Beihong's painting as it was placed in modern context, and a sense of patriotism was imbued and highlighted, leading to a fundamental change in the role of the "wise old man" (intellectuals). In the contemporary context, Yang Fudong managed to present the figures of Yu Gong (the foolish old man), mountains, wise old man, mother and children in a more abstract manner, representing them as the various status that people would be in when confronted with substantial challenges in life. Here, the process of consciousness transition of the intellectuals also became a particularly vital element. Perhaps it was one of the reasons that Yang Fudong placed a focal point on the cognitive shift of the intellectuals. Eventually, in the end of the film, the intellectuals took off their suits, put on clothes convenient to move mountains, and started to physically move mountains. On the other hand, Yu Gong and the mother took off the rural costumes of the 1940s and put on ancient costumes. The meaningful shift indicated some kind of spiritual inheritance – modern people took the initiative to reconnect with the spiritual traditional of the ancient people and decided to practice it in real life. If the intellectuals in Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest embodied the Taoist spirit to "cultivate the self" and pursue self-realization, then in Moving Mountains a kind of Confucian spirit could be perceived in them. Only that such a spirit encountered a different form of paradox of rationalism in "Dawn Breaking", namely the dislocation between knowledge and power.

In my view, "Endless Peaks" represents a new attempt by Yang Fudong to interpret the status of intellectual. This time the protagonists were no longer intellectuals who wore suits and ties and took handbags. Instead, they were Luohan who practiced Buddhism, wore monk clothes and had their hair cut. They were not like the ambitious and reckless intellectuals in Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest. Neither did they experience the shift from being at a loss to fully determined to move ahead as those in Moving Mountains. Tenderness and sense of assurance were perceived in their eyes as well as actions. They wandered in the mountains, looked into the distance on the rooftop and worked in farmland, following the law of the nature and their own heart, like a group of visionary landscape painters. They put the idea that "ink is given by the nature, and its color shades as well as the degrees of dryness/moistness follow the rules of the nature; painting brush is wielded by man, and the choices of strokes/textures and ways of staining follow the heart of the painter" into practice, and to them it all came naturally. Deprived of any sense of mysteriousness, these people appeared so ordinary, placid, refrained and simple. The fact that they didn't rely on so-called knowledge or reason to get hold and take control of the reality world made it possible for them to reach an ultimate harmony with the nature. They didn't need to fulfill themselves by changing the world. Neither did they intend to imbue their actions with grand values such as patriotism. They just lived their life, let their sense to follow sensibility, and took actions according to the changes in the nature and their heart.

It reminded me of the famous koan of Zen master Zhaozhou.

Zhaozhou asked master Nanquan, "What is Tao?" Nanquan said, "Tao is nothing else than the ordinary mind," Zhaozhou, "Is there any way to approach it?" Nanquan, "Once you intend to approach it, you are on the wrong track." Zhaozhou, continuing to inquire, "Barring conscious intention, how can we attain to a knowledge of Tao?" The master, "Tao belongs neither to knowledge nor to no-knowledge. For knowledge is illusive perception, while no-knowledge is mere confusion. If you really attain true comprehension of Tao, unshadowed by the slightest doubt, your vision will be like the infinite space, free of all limits and obstacles. Its truth or falsehood cannot be established artificially by external proofs." At these words Zhaozhou came to an enlightenment.

Under many circumstances, people were obsessed with "knowledge", with things that were visible and explainable. It seemed it was the only reliable and definite way. And they then imposed the visible and explainable "knowledge" and "rule" upon the world. However, as Nanquan said "Tao belongs neither to knowledge nor to noknowledge. For knowledge is but illusive perception, while no-knowledge is mere confusion", how people got along with the reality world didn't fall into the category of knowledge or no-knowledge. The so-called "knowledge" was merely a garbled illusive perception; and no-knowledge referred to the awareness of "everything was created equal", and such awareness was neither good nor evil. In the ever-changing reality world, there was never any existing "knowledge" that could give people foresight to distinguish right from wrong. Only "no-knowledge" could enable people to tackle the changing reality. The monks in the Endless Peaks, a "painting as a film", did nothing more than to keep that "ordinary mind": "if you want to sleep, then sleep; if you want to sit, then sit"; "get some coolness if you are hot; make a fire if you are cold". We should not misunderstand it as some kind of negative and passive escape from the secular world. As a matter of fact, it should be a basic status of people dealing with both the interior and the exterior worlds. In this work, intellectuals finally managed to reach a mechanical balance, the status of "endless mountains".

Reality, Body, Spirit

So-called "Endless Peaks", on the one hand could be reckoned as all beings in the reality world. These beings are in nature equal. They are not to be distinguished by their status or priorities. They expand and diminish, grow and wither, endlessly and infinitely. On the other hand, "endless peaks" could be deemed as all the perceptions of the inner world. Likewise, inner perceptions which are constantly in flux, expand and dimmish, grow and wither, endlessly and infinitely. Whether or not people could get along with the world depends on if they could build a proper connection between the two heterogeneous kinds of "infinite mountains", belonging to the interior and exterior worlds respectively, through their own bodies.

Endless Peaks I consist of fifteen photographs and painting works, unfolding gradually like a long scroll painting. The photographs were shot at Mount Tiantai in Zhejiang Province. And the painting part features Yang Fudong's copying of The Sixteen Luohans, a long scroll painting by Yan Hui, a Chinese painter who lived during the Southern Song and early Yuan dynasties, in the form of acrylic on canvas. While looking at the long scroll, viewers were naturally drawn into Yang Fudong's film, or say, into a space where the past and the present were interwoven and narratives were integrated. Each work functioned as a scene of the storyboard, taking our feelings out of a linear timeline and projecting them onto an alternative time/space unique to this work. Viewers sometimes wandered among the lofty mountains in real world, and sometimes conversed with the Luohans who were at ease with themselves. In some of his photographs, with the use of black acrylic glass the artist managed to imbue the space with more subtle reflections and sense of layers. And in the meantime, he also seemed to allude to the profound chaos of the reality world.

Endless Peaks II remotely echoed Endless Peaks I. Different in size and number of works, Endless Peaks II was also a long scroll consisting of photographs and paintings. But the paintings in Endless Peaks II featured Yang Fudong's own version of Luohan rather than copying of ancient painting. Moreover, the use of red filter in the photographs distorted the color of the picture, drawing people into a somewhat dreamlike and imaginary time/space.

Quite intriguingly, Yang Fudong added two unique installations into the two groups of works respectively. "Drawing of Pine Trees" of Endless Peaks I functioned as a window so that viewers could step into the "painting" to go upstairs to the gallery space on the second floor. And the moment we entered the time/space constructed by Endless Peaks II, we'd immediately bumped into ourselves in the work since a mirror was set up in the work. The two groups of work echoed each other, metaphorically, due to the interplay between "mirror" and "window".

In 1978, Robert Heinecken John Szarkowski, director of Photography of MoMA, New York, put forward the famous "Mirrors and Windows" theory in his Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960. He divided over 100 American photographers into two schools, namely "Mirrors" and "Windows". The former referred to those who treated photography as self-expression; and the latter, who explored the exterior world through photography. In the essay, Szarkowski made the division based on content of the photography works. But the categorization he proposed also alluded to the duality of image (or say picture). In other words, image was a channel through which one could both introspect and express the interior world (mirror) as well as observe and explore the exterior world (window). It's a medium that integrated the functions of "mirror" and "window" together. In this regard, the two "tricks" Yang Fudong set up drew exactly on the mirror-window effect of image (picture), making it possible for viewers to transcend the materiality of the work and travel between the two worlds (interior and exterior) he constructed.

The gallery space on the second floor, which viewers stepped into by "entering the painting", presented a visual metaphor of the reality world. Works on display here were mostly realistic photographs and videos. Surrounding the space was a series of still images in which we could see the Luohans (monks) in modern times walking, stopping, working and resting in the mountains and the temple. With their tender facial expressions, they seemed to be in full harmony with the serene natural environment. The black and white images imbued the space with more possibilities for imagination. For a moment, we might wonder whether these people traveled back to the past from the present, or the other way round. In the middle of the gallery space was a large video installation. A piece of antique-like long scroll unfolded in the vitrine. A collage made by paintings and drawings embodied the dual worlds of both the interior and exterior that were chaotic, deprived of any logic and beyond words. Above the vitrine there were a dozen of color videos projected vertically onto different positions on the long scroll, integrating seamlessly with the images on the long scroll. The monks lived so naturally in such a chaotically complex world, symbolizing a certain state of man and the world. Man lived in the nature. We were merely a part of the nature and made adaptations to the changes of the nature. Chaos represented a kind of harmony in itself.

We once again went down to the gallery space on the ground floor. In the face of Endless Peaks II, we began to realize that mirror had already absorbed us into the work. We had to choose a different perspective to look at the work, to ponder upon why the mountain forests in that photograph were in red, and why the painting was not a copying of the ancient painting. At this point we might come to understand that the distorted photograph probably embodied our imagination and inner projection of the outside world, and that was why it seemed beautiful and fearsome at the same time. And we might come to understand that copying ancient painting could be a way to treat it as something drawn from reality and to absorb the innate cultural spirit of it. The painting works were response made when the inner world received the information. In other words, it was the result of self-digestion, absorption, reflection and generation. Evidently, the work referred no longer to the outside world, or say the reality world. Instead, it referred to the "endless peaks" in our mind. Moreover, thanks to their visual authenticity, the photographs of the two groups of works which reflected the reality world as it was managed to anchor our bodies that were struggling between the two worlds in "now and here". Hence, the two heterogeneous kinds of "infinite mountains" were connected through our bodies, intimately relying upon each other. Now if we took another look at the work at the entrance of the gallery, Endless Peaks – Rely Upon, we'd perceive something special that we had missed previously.

Endless Peaks – It's the Wind I, which was at the end of the gallery space, was also a piece of acrylic on canvas. But this time the artist copied the Sixteen Luohans by Shi Tao, a Chinese painter in early Qing Dynasty. Shi Tao wrote in the postscript of Sixteen Luohans:

"When drawing portraits of Luohans, Buddhas and Taoist masters, I put them under the backdrops of heaven, the dragon palace, the Western Paradise and the Eastern Land. A sense of transcendency and sanctification could always be perceived from within the brush strokes. An extraordinary sense of blessing and felicity was imbued into the portraits since the moment when the brush touched the paper, which could hardly be embodied if without the dragons, ghosts and deities. It seemed that world could be observed as something held in hand, and the secular world which was as diverse as sands in the Ganges River were delineated metaphorically. The latter seemed true while the former didn't. It was quite beyond comprehension. Such was the idea behind the portraits made by Qingxiang Monk Bitter Gourd."
According to the understanding of Jonathan Hay, an American art historian of Chinese painting, Shi Tao's paintings of Luohan "managed to achieve 'a sense of transcendency and sanctification' through himself and considered artistic creation as a channel to access heaven". In other words, he managed to build a bridge between his inner world and the nature through artistic creation. Back to this exhibition, probably we could say that Yang Fudong resorted to his work as a medium to enable the interior and exterior worlds to fully communicate and integrate to acquire an infinite equilibrium state in which the interior and the exterior were in perfect harmony and everything was created equal.
To the left of that work and at the corner of the gallery there hung a small oil painting Endless Peaks – Propitious Clouds. At first sight, a colorful work like this seemed quite out-of-place for the gallery space. Nevertheless, the seemingly inconspicuous "piece of propitious cloud" played the role as the notch of seal carving, giving the exhibition a vent to "breathe". This sense of "breath" was more like an ingenious design to lead the exhibition to another direction than a pure consideration on the form. It drew viewers out of the context that overwhelmed them and inspired them to take a different perspective to think of the exhibition. Beside Propitious Clouds was a small gallery that formed an independent section. Three sets, namely Beyond Tiantai, It's the Wind and Formless Hermits, consisted this section. In Endless Peaks – It's the Wind II & II, through the juxtaposition of photographs, drawings and acrylic on canvas the artist cast light on relationships among reality, body and spirit, which were independent and yet interconnected. In the meantime, it corroborated the structural relationship between Endless Peaks I and II. The so-called "it's the wind" referred to the judgment on things. Wind symbolized something invisible and yet sensible; and here it was used as a metaphor for the implicit relationships among reality, body and spirit. While stepping into the gallery space, our bodies got entangled within such relationships. By drawing a connection between realistic photograph Endless Peaks – Beyond Tiantai and the ambiguously delineated acrylic on canvas Endless Peaks – Formless Hermits, one actually objectified his own body and managed to make objective affirmation and judgment of the relationships among the three and gain insights into their inner equilibrium through reflecting upon himself.

To some extent, the exhibition “Endless Peaks” could be considered as a visual koan ingeniously constructed by Yang Fudong. By implanting a variety of elements into it, he managed to build a specific scenario that appealed to the bodies of every one of us. As long as one entered the context of this special time/space, we became part of the exhibition. Our actions of walking, looking, gazing, experiencing and pondering virtually built a connection among reality, body and spirit. And at this point, our bodies also became the "endless peaks".

[ Editor's note: The titles of works mentioned in this page are simplified. All works belong to the Endless Peaks ]

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