Learning from the Literati 3
: Catalogue Essay
September 5th, 2012 - October 10th, 2012
Learning from the Literati 3
Central to the concept of “Learning from the Literati” is the idea that the past is not something which should be quaintly relegated to museums and costume dramas, but a lens through which we should experience our contemporary lives. The literati, China’s scholar-painters who were well-versed in calligraphy, poetry, law, philosophy and history, were keenly aware of this and lived their lives with one foot in the present the other firmly rooted in the past.
Artists Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing pay homage to this tradition in “Thoughts on Reading ‘Emperor Taizong Receiving the Tibetan Envoy,’” 2011. Their cloth sculpture is based on a silk scroll painting by Yan Liben and their choice of this particular painting was no accident.
Julia Murray describes in her book Mirror of Morality: Chinese Narrative Illustration and Confucian Ideology:
Taizong was unusually interested in the lessons of role models from the past, particularly emperors and the ministers who served them. He referred to history as a “Golden Mirror” the title of his treatise, (date 628), on basic principles of ideal rulership, which made abundant use of good and bad examples from antiquity.1
So the painting not only references learning from the past, but also illustrates another idea: that other peoples, in this case Tibetans, should learn from the wisdom of the Han
Chinese. Again Murray’s writing proves illustrative:Writings about the scroll from the Song Dynasty praise how it communicated the beneficial effects of the interaction between Chinese and foreigners . . . For example . . . the Tibetan ruler became Sinicized after marrying the princes and began wearing garments of silk rather than felt. . . they symbolize and celebrate the paradigm of the civilized Chinese center attracting foreign peoples from the periphery.2
But in Ji and Zhu’s work there is a clear difference. The whole drama of the Tibetan Envoy visiting the Emperor is staged on a wheel chair, perhaps an ironic reference to the sedan chair. By replacing ancient robes with Western suits, they pose the question of whether the dilution of traditional values means that the “center” still holds sway over attracting foreigners, whether they be studying in Confucius Institutes or in Chinas borderlands.
Like Taizong, Shi Jinsong is constantly leafing through the pages of history to find inspiration for his work. He frequently refers to classical texts and ideas as well as imagery and motifs. In his new work “Writing on the Wall” 2012, which first showed at the Mindset Art Center in Taipei, he painted a series of characters on the wall, which though quite elegant in appearance were meaningless. Viewers at the museum commented that they couldn’t read the work, often second-guessing and doubting their knowledge of characters.
Here Shi taps into the mystery and “unknowable” nature of the past. We think we understand history, but all we comprehend is a certain person’s interpretation of the past. Perhaps the account of what happened during the Spring and Autumn Annals or other historical texts is just as inaccessible as Shi’s nonsense characters. Even if we can read classical Chinese, our understanding of the past is so clouded by our current mindset that and so altered by the motivations of the authors of history, that we should consider ourselves at best incapable, at worst illiterate.
Wu Gaozhong takes this concept of learning from the classics into the realm of performance with his work “Book, Me, Rain, Dog,” 2012. He began with the Four Books and Five Classics — a kind of Confucian anthology that includes books such as Doctrine of the Mean, The Great Learning, and The Book of Changes — which he read through, then purposely left out in his garden overnight when rain was predicted. The rainwater soaked through the pages and later made the book impossible to open. This effect was his original plan, but then nature intervened a second time when his family dog took an interest in the book and chewed it to shreds, further compounding the difficulties of reading the book.
With this simple performance, Wu is tapping into a number of philosophical concepts referenced in the Four Books and Five Classics, for instance “hexagram No. 25” of the Yi Ching (referred to alternately as 无妄 wu wang, “Without Embroiling,” “Innocence,” or “Without Rashness.” ) states that:
Men should move in accord with the natural laws of the universe. When this happens, men are considered to have an open and simple spirit.3
Here the artist simply allows the will of the universe to act upon his artwork, letting the rain fall and the dog sharpen its teeth.
The combination of elements, the dog, the book, the artist, and the rain, sets up an equal relationship, one which privileges neither element and reflects the sense of harmony found in Daoist concepts of nature and Chinese traditional landscape painting.
This harmony with nature tian ren he yi 天人合一 was not only central to Daoist classical texts but also had a very important practical impact on the lives of the literati who, as landlords, relied upon the fruits of the harvest for their wellbeing.4 It was in more ways than one that nature impacted their lives and thus earned their respect.
We can look at this relationship between the land, the literati and the peasantry as a kind of food chain — a theme Monika Lin explores with her piece “On the Way to the Imperial Examination…” 2012, a series of papier-mâché animals made out of calligraphy paper on which she printed the character for rice mi 米. The piece is the second incarnation of a work which was originally produced for a residency at San Francisco’s Performance Art Institute. During this performance, Lin wrote out the character 10,000 times — her actions paralleling those of the literati, who spent hours practicing calligraphy and learning the classics through rote. While the literati were awarded a high social status for their repetitive memorization labor or “mind work,” the peasants for their labour received little but corns, calluses and malnutrition. Lin’s performance combines both a sense of refined gentility in the action of writing and also a nod to the peasant lifestyle. The character 米, and the strenuous 12 hour-long days almost led her to a breakdown around character 6,000.
The use of the animals correspond to Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, a Qing Dynasty collection of folk tales which feature many entitites such as fox spirits, ghosts and other fantastical creatures. “Examination for the Post of Guardian Angel” for instance explores the theme of filial piety, while “The Boon Companion” talks about the virtues of generosity with a scholar being richly rewarded for sharing his wine with a fox spirit. Each story has a moral, while some are quite critical, attacking the court and the official examination system. Thus Lin is following in this tradition of social critique — exploring how the “excess labor” of the peasantry allowed these men of letters to exist.
Liu Zhifeng also looks at this relationship between virtue and the harsh realities of life in his work “Dirty Time,” 2012 — a series of alarm clocks. One piece bears the words: zero, eat, drink, shit, piss, sleep and zero. This corresponds to what might be considered, in a Western context, the physiological or most basic level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Another alarm clock features a series of Daoist and Confucian virtues (benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, wisdom, and trustworthiness) and on the other side, a series synonyms: cheating, deception, swindling, tricking and thievery.
Liu’s clocks — with a zero at the top of the dial and a zero in place of the “six” — employ a Western linear format with progressive increments of time to represent the cyclical nature of time (i.e. the hand returns to zero). The ancients had an awareness of time as something both seasonal and cyclical in the sense of historical events repeating themselves, but also time as something that marched forward in concrete steps. This concept is summed up nicely from a line in the Book of Songs: “Time passes like an arrow; days and months go back and forth like a shuttle.”
The aim in constructing such a clock is to illustrate how the urgent requirements of human survival infringe upon the ability to achieve more lofty spiritual goals. Virtue is the privilege of the well to do, yet so often those in this comfortable position to do uphold moral standards.
Chen Cheng examines this spiritual element of the literati in her paper cut work “Flowing Water,” 2012, which features mountain forms underlain with delicate patterns of waves and foliage interspersed with images of internal organs. A motif in Chen’s recent work, organs represent the emotional and intellectual components of literati life. In fact, traditional Chinese medicine dictates that each organ is related to a specific emotion. For instance joy is related to the heart, fear the kidney, and pensiveness, which in TCM means excessive intellectual stimulation, the spleen.
These five organs key organs in TCM (heart, liver, spleen, lung, kidney) can in turn be mapped onto the five elements of earth, wood, fire, water and metal. Thus the sense of tian ren he yi 天人合一 extends from the realms of painting and poetry into TCM. Chen’s work is a visual embodiment of this idea with the melding of different forms. Within the mountain forms, there is further shape shifting as the lines themselves evoke not only mountain peaks, but also veins and clouds, thus underlining the unity of the various elements of the universe and the body.
Ben Houge takes a similar approach of decontextualization, fragmentation, and re-combination in his sound installation “Landscape with Water and Woodblocks, ” 2012. The piece involves natural recorded sounds which are combined through Max MSP to produce a perpetually shifting soundscape. The randomness of this generative sound work resonates nicely with the work of Wu Gaozhong, where fate acts as the determining factor. This time, fate is not the weather nor an errant pet but a randomness that is “tweakable” through adjusting various functions of the software.
Houge writes that the piece seeks to create an ambient mood, “a vista, a space for contemplating one’s place in a boundless continuum.” In speaking of his past work, the artist reflects upon how he was inspired by the immensity of the sea, its vastness, and man’s corresponding insignificance. Man’s role in nature was an important spiritual starting point for the literati who used nature (gardens, bonsais and landscape paintings and hermetic sojourns) as a tool for meditation.
Control over one’s mind and one’s behavior was one of the cornerstones of the literati’s intellectual foundation. Hao Nan takes this idea into the realm of performance in his video work “Chi—3,” 2008. In it we see the artist standing at a busy intersection in Beijing posing in a taiqi pose, with hands placed out in front of him as if to stabilize his body or keep something at bay. The artist is not moving through the series of taiqi postures, but rather standing as if transfixed in one position. It is the opening posture of the twenty-four postures called wuji, also known as “standing quietly,” “reconnecting with oneness and emptiness,”
and “quiet standing mediation.” The pose is supposed to imitate that of a tree, which serves as an ironic statement in the middle of a busy intersection. There is a palpable tension as cars whiz past the artist, who has thrown himself into the arms of fate, hoping the gods will protect him from the myriad of distracted, smartphone-drunk drivers. There are moments when he actually seems capable of stemming the flow of traffic with the cars halted in front of him, but his magical powers are a mere function of the traffic light. What emerges from this work is a very meager protest against the stress and chaos that is modern urban living.
This chaos of the streets also extends into the realm of the individual, penetrating our minds and making us incapable of focusing on anything, which requires more concentration than is needed to digest a text message. Girolamo Marri meditates on this theme in his artwork “Whenever I Try to Be Calm I Get an Itch,” 2012, a humorous video piece which examines our waning aptitude for deep contemplation.
Part of the curatorial process of “Learning from the Literati” involves a call for proposals, which is emailed to pariticpating aritsts, with a series of ideas and questions about the literati and how their values might be transposed onto everyday life. In this piece, Mari reads out the email, line by line, each question and idea, sometimes garbling his words and often answering with a cursory “yes” or “no.” He responds to it as if it were a customer satisfaction survey, expending little mental energy on these complex topics.
While the literati spent hour upon hour reading texts in classical Chinese, which required a deep understanding of Chinese history, poetry, philosophy and literature, most of us are barely focused enough to read an article online or play Fruit Ninja on our smartphones. What happens to a society that loses the ability to contemplate?
Christina Shmigel playfully offers a remedy for this conundrum in her work “Hats for the Contemporary Literati,” a series of scholar hats or “thinking caps” with a number of philosophical concepts on them drawn from Chinese philosophy. The hats mimic the various scholar hats in form and material — bamboo and the felt pads used in practicing calligraphy — but they also incorporate some modern elements as well, such as sequins and beads.
“Hat for Cutting Thru Delusion” for instance, features the characters zhen 真 and jia 假 for true and false outlined in sequins. The reference is taken from Dream of the Red Chambers, where zhen and jia are homophones for the words 真 and 假 — meanwhile the sequins and glitter are a reference to delusional thinking and call to mind the idea of costume and masquerade. Other hats such as “Hat for Preventing Wrong View (by Borrowing the View from Afar),” and “Hat for Stilling Monkey Mind (Like a Bird in the Sky)” hold up the promise of instilling virtue and calming the mind.
Shmigel’s playful work mocks the modern preponderance of quick fixes by offering a cure-all pill to complicated ethical and psychological problems. Today we’re much more inclined to look towards Prozac to calm the mind rather than getting to the root of the problem or seeking out more constructive mechanisms such as meditation. At the same time, Shmigel also plays with the concept of uniforms and identities. Because the literati wore these outfits, they were accorded a certain status and people assumed they possessed virtue, but perhaps they only used these garments to cloak their flaws.
The struggle for spiritual ascendancy was a mainstay of literati life, and often it involved secluding oneself on a mountaintop for extended periods of time. Wang Yizhou delves into this quest for enlightenment in his video work “High Mountain” 2012. The work features xuan paper shaped in the form of a mountain then placed in a tray of ink. As the paper draws up the ink, like a wick, the mountain turns from a pristine whiteto a dark, rich black.
There is something almost ominous about this landscape painting in motion, how the stain of ink spreads up the mountain, like an uncontrollable chemical spill. In writing about this work, Wang describes how man is humbled by the sight of a mountain, arrested by its presence. The only thing he is able to do is turn his head up and give into its gravitational pull. While this silent dialogue with the wild is a core part of the literati experience, such experiences are rare in a country where communing with nature often means communing with commerce, trinket, vendors and boiled-corn sellers.
This thematic schism between the literati’s respect for the environment and our current disregard for nature is echoed in the video triptych of Li Xiaofei. His “Assembly Line 10” series features a number of images of industrial coal and copper mining which not only mimic landscape forms but also the muted literati color palette. The three-channel work features an image of copper slag spilling out of a shoot and smoke rising from it. The effect of the dark black image surrounded in fog is transcendental and poetic and its darkness nicely contrasts the second video, which features billowing clouds of coal dust and white tendrils of some sort of byproduct. Due to the lighting, the coal is actually white, and the effect is like the swirls of mist enveloping the karst peaks we see in landscape paintings. The third video features a Vermeer-esque video portrait of a miner sleeping on a ragged couch at the mouth of a coal mine. His dark green uniform and still body mimics the undulating forms of a low ridge of hills at the edge of the horizon. His body moves only slightly with the almost imperceptible rise and fall of his breathing. Ironically, the beauty of these man-made landscape paintings only serves to highlight the savage destruction of the actual natural landscape.
Much of Li Xiaofei’s “Assembly Line” series explores the underbelly of the manufacturing process — something that is frequently obscured from the consumer. Rarely do we think of how the earth’s resources are used when we go into a store to make a purchase. Su Chang also explores the theme of finite-ness in his sculpture work “Portrait of a Tree,” 2012: a series of plaster tree stumps painted with lines of black ink convey ideas of death, waste, and destruction.
There is something sorrowful about these portraits, the growth rings on the trees expressing a long history which has been cut short to create profits for a paper company or to serve the needs of the construction industry. It’s even conceivable that there are some trees still left in China which existed during the last days of the literati — they may have witnessed that era in their own quiet way.
These trunks, with their undulating lines, also remind us of topographical maps, open pit mines, or even rice paddies, and reveal how the act of vastly altering our natural landscape is a tradititon which stretches back beyond the industrial era.
Here, as well, the use of materials is quite significant; the palette of black and white and the use of ink is part of Su Chang’s continuing engagement with the tradition of the literati as he tries to re-capture the vitality of that era in depicting modern subject matter.
Xu Zhifeng flips this concept on its head using modern materials to make reference to traditional imagery with his work “Glass No. 1,” 2012. An architect by training, Xu has created a sculpture which consists of a reinforced concrete base with shards of green glass embedded in the concrete which is reminiscent of what one might see atop a courtyard wall to ward off thieves.
Both at the same time threatening and charming, the rows of glass look like a series of hills receding into the distance — a modern architectural rendition of a painting by Song Dynasty painter Qu Ding 屈鼎. The work explores how our traditional landscapes have now been replaced by topographies of glass and steel. Even the private garden, which acted as a miniature nature sanctuary, has been replaced by cramped courtyards used for storage space, filled with bicycles and old furniture; most urban dwellers have no outdoor space at all.
The use of the thief-proof glass is also an interesting metaphor for the scholar gardens, for these were traditionally private places. For all the influence that landscape painting and gardens have had on the formation of Chinese identity and culture, it’s important to note that they were ultimatesly the preserves of the elite. Most ordinary Chinese at the time rarely got a glimpse inside unless they were working as servants or gardeners.
Today with the ease of travel and open access to parks, anyone can partake in the delights of nature. Yet the parks are overcrowded and the natural attractions are obscured by swarms of tourists. It seems that despite democratic access to nature, a real spiritual connection with the wild is still virtually impossible. Perhaps, like the scholars, we must content ourselves with reading inspiring philosophical texts, meditating upon bonsais, or losing ourselves in the misty landscapes of the literati paintings.
1. Murray, Julia K, “Mirror of Morality: Chinese Narrative Illustration and Confucian Ideology,” University of Hawaii Press: 2007, p52
2. Murray, Julia K, “Mirror of Morality: Chinese Narrative Illustration and Confucian Ideology,” University of Hawaii Press: 2007, p53
3. Yi Ching Online http://www.ichingonline.com/25.php
4. Bodde, Derk, “China’s Cultural Tradition: What and Wither?” Dryden Press, Hinsdale, Il. 1957.
5. Harbsmeier, Christoph, “Some Notions of Time and History in China and in the West with a Digression on the Anthropology of Writing,” Eds, Huang, Junjie; Zürcher, Erik, Time and Space in Chinese Culture, p. 58, Leiden and New York: Brill, 1995.