Learning from the Literati 4
: Catalogue Essay
September 14th, 2013 - October 29th, 2013
False Idols : Unpacking the Significance Behind the Symbols of Literati Culture
Just as many Western countries bear the imprint of a Judeo-Christian tradition, China still cannot distance itself from the legacy of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. Increasingly we can see this culture rising to the surface in myriad ways. For instance many compare the gaokao (college entrance exam) to the civil service exams of the literati. Ancestor worship is returning, this time with strange modern permutations such companies offering grave sweeping services for ancestors buried in far-flung places. There is also the resurgence of feudal ideas about female virtue — the rights that a virtuous woman is entitled to versus a so-called depraved woman working in some marginal industry. (1) This zeal for the ancient has manifested itself not only the erection of a Confucius statue in Tian’anmen Square, but also a great push to study the classical texts — the resurgence of national studies fever and si’shu schools where the classical texts are taught, not to mention the massive popularity of Yu Dan’s reflections on “The Analects” within the general public. (2) And in terms of Buddhism, faith is growing as well. In 2006 an official gesture was made in support of it with the World Buddhist Forum — which was reportedly the first major conference on faith since liberation.(3) This was complemented by the exhibition of Buddhist relics from the Yunju temple in Beijing and the restoration of “Caves of a Thousand Buddhas” in Turfan.(4)
Even within the urban fabric, the motifs of traditional China — which always existed in Taiwan and Hong Kong — are starting to resurface. For instance the apparition of shrines in virtually every business — yesterday I passed a restaurant on Huaihai road and found the door set ajar with a large table blocking it and offerings placed on either side of a tray of incense — a sight I certainly would not have witnessed in 10 years ago. Or there is the example of the complete facelift of Jing’an temple which rose like a bling-ed out golden phoenix beside the Jiuguang shopping mall.
But with the resurgence of traditional culture, and the beauty and wisdom it bestows upon us comes a certain kind of malaise — similar to the kind of malaise experienced when China transitioned to a market economy.
In this show we seek to explore both the triumphs of this culture and the discomfort associated with some of its more conservative elements.
Just as with any ancient texts, there are always challenges which arise when incorporating these principles into modern life and it takes skill and creativity to resolve them.
We can see similar kinds of challenges and frictions with strict and literal interpretations of the Quran or the Bible or even the US constitution where the anti-gun-control lobby tries to cite the laws written over a century ago as valid reason to bear arms.
Monika Lin explores this disjuncture of values in her work, “The 24 Exemplars” based on a Yuan Dynasty collection of parables about how youth should respect their parents. One tale mentions how a child exposed himself to mosquito bites to protect his parents, another talks of a young boy who used his tears and the warmth of his body to melt a hole in the ice in order to procure fish for a soup for his step-mother. Lin juxtaposes wood-cuts of these ancient tales with the articles of the newly introduced law for the “Protection of the Rights and Interests of the Elderly,” which states that children can be prosecuted for failing to provide for the material and spiritual needs of their parents. The limits of the law were recently tested by a 77-year-old Wuxi woman who took her daughter to court over failing to visit after the two had a falling out.
By placing the two sets of filial piety rules side by side, Lin uses this formal device in her work as a metaphor for the parallel structure of two generations living together. The older of which has sacrificed everything for their children, the younger feeling that their parents’ demands for “gestures” of respect are burdensome. Her use of woodcut as a medium is also significant in that woodcut as a medium was often employed because of its ability to quickly disseminate information as early as the 8th century when it was used to produce Buddhist books.5
Also exploring the need to question dogmas is Girolamo Marri in his work “THE MYSTERIOUS MASTER, HIS DISQUISITIONS, HIS INDISCIPLINED DISCIPLES AND THEIR DELUSIONAL DIZZY MISSION” 2013. In this performance piece he dresses in the character of a monk or sage, and sits in the gallery surrounded by his disciples or students all dressed in long traditional gowns and but wearing ridiculous masks — some echoing the traditional such as Monkey King, others referencing Western culture (Groucho Marx). This role of court jester, is not a new stance for Marri, who has sparred with the stultifying traditional aspects of the literati culture and our general lack of ability to harmonize ourselves with ancient values in previous itinerations of the “Learning from the Literati” exhibitions. This particular work explores idea of communication and how knowledge is transmitted. Though the literati did sometimes challenge the emperor in traditional society — they nonetheless frequently referred to the classics for wisdom — rather than generating wholly new ideas. Whereas rote learning and mastery of classical texts conferred the literati a high social status, Marri’s disciples would be seen in a contemporary context as cultish raging lunatics worshipping a “tree of knowledge” composed of essentially garbage. Marri satirizes their slavish devotion to the master in his performance where the disciples act as mynah birds (a favorite element of the scholar garden) merely repeating the words regardless of their usefulness.
Li Haifeng also employs elements of post-consumer waste in his work “Rockery” 2011 which depicts a stone forest in Shanghai’s City God Temple outlined in a tangle of thin penciled lines with the strange inclusion of small bundles of garbage wrapped in plastic bags. This incongruous juxtaposition not only reminds us that both “the past” and “traditional culture” can be consumed and disposed at will, but also that that the level of public decorum has declined so far that even a temple is not safe from defilement. When the City God Temple was founded in 1403, would it have even been conceivable that anyone would have dared soil its grounds with a bag of trash? Interestingly the area surrounding the City God Temple used to a be a thriving commercial center, just as today the primary focus of the tourist complex is consumption. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
There is also an interesting parallel between the bag of trash and the rocks as objects. The scholar’s rocks are frequently referred to as “wrinkled rocks” and graded according to several categories such as “awkwardness or overhanging asymmetry,” “resonance or ringing when struck,” “representation” or “resemblance to landscape” and “figure, texture and moistness or glossy surface.” The garbage bag is also “wrinkled” in terms of the folds of the plastic, and we could also say that it is glossy, but it would be certainly lacking in “resonance, resemblance to landscape or awkwardness” — the qualities that make it aesthetically pleasing. The two, however, both possess the character of emptiness. But while one contains the detritus of our society, the other is a monument to ancient Buddhist and Daoist ideals — a symbol of a higher plane of consciousness. In contemporary society we’ve maintained a zeal for the symbols of Daoism and Buddhism, the substance of these ideas often remains elusive.
“Concrete Bonsai” 2013 which involves a bonsai of a pomegranate tree encased within a block of cement. The bonsai, was in the past, a common feature of literati gardens and used as a tool of meditation — to enable monks and scholars to calm their minds as part of a quest for self improvement. Xu’s bonsai is very similar to a traditional bonsai in that its growth is contained to a small area — but the use of a solid geometric rectangle of polished concrete makes the small tree seem more of a prisoner than a spiritual talisman. Xu originally studied architecture and his overall practice reflects an interest in urban design and landscaping. In discussing this work he mentioned how trees in urban environments are similar to bonsais in that they are confined to a very small space.They must protrude from a small space in the sidewalk and every Spring and they are ritually pruned so as not to interfere with power and telephone lines. Both the Chinese scholar garden and the bonsai are small idealized versions of nature — distilled through the mind of a man and hand-crafted to create a certain experience — an abstract representation of nature not nature in all of its wild untamed glory. Our urban environments are the same — only that most of the time they are less artfully arranged than a scholar’s garden and thus lay bare how truly artificial our experience of nature within the city can be.
Wu Jian’an (Andy Mo) who goes by the nickname of “Zhuzi” or bamboo examines a similar theme in his pencil drawing “Bamboo Grove” 2011. In it we see a pathetic little stand of bamboos buttressed by a bamboo grid which is used to keep the small plants from succumbing to the forces of nature. In the urban nightmare of Beijing, Wu Jian’an came upon this scene of a gardener fixing the brackets on the bamboo and was touched by the fact that bamboo was still used as a part of urban landscape design. This scene, though contemporary, offers a powerful metaphor of the state of the literati in traditional China. The bamboo, was often seen as a symbol of the scholar class as it grew in the mountains and was flexible, strong and elegant. Yet these bamboos are not strong, and because of their brackets they are no longer free to bend. Rather they are confined to a rigid system which allows for little movement or individuality, just as many literati were stuck within the confines of not only the sociopolitical structure but also the rigidity of the classical texts.
The companion work in this show “Channel” 2010 offers another reference to the literati, if we look at channel as a reference to the Daoist term “the way”. i.e. channel in Chinese is “tongdao,” and the way is “dao.” This rather abstract drawing seems to feature elements of waves, clouds, hills and trees and takes us not on a physical journey to the housing compounds of Beijing, but rather on a spiritual journey to a vastly different place — the main vehicle, one would imagine, is meditation or some other spiritual practice. But how, one might ask, can one reach such a destination when we are so deeply deprived of the element of nature which was such a crucial part of meditation practice.
Li Xiaofei also explores this theme of man and his environment as a spin-off of his ongoing series “Assembly Line.” In the video work “Bag of Salt” 2013 we see a series of images of a sodium sulfate factory — a wide pan across the sprawling factory grounds, large mounds of salt, close ups of coarse grains of salt moving across a conveyor belt and a foreman discussing the details of the business against the backdrop of parched landscape. At one point he discusses the difference between sodium sulfate and salt, how salt itself doesn’t really fetch a great price anymore, but also how salt must be properly disposed of so that there is no danger of environmental damage. While these messages of environmental protection are conveyed through the characters in the video, the visuals (parched dun-colored landscapes and grey factory interiors) echo the colors and themes of Chinese painting — which always placed landscape in high regard. Purposely muted colors, dimmed to a grey with a mix of pale greens and blues combine to create a mobile Chinese landscape painting.
One scene even features a train of boats, rolling along the river each carrying a cargo of salt. These barges are laden with small white mountains which are set off by the river and the reeds to create a vertical a landscape painting on a loop. There is something evocative of “Along the River During Qingming Festival”— the Song Dynasty painting of Kaifeng, which centers upon the life of the city using the river as the main thread which holds the composition together. “Along the River During Qingming Festival,” just like Li Xiaofei’s work aims to show the everyday life of not only the wealthy but also the working class, the farmers and country folk going about their everyday tasks. But these days China’s industrial heartland is so cut off from the major cities that many city dwellers are not aware of the rhythms, pace of life and scenery of these regions. While the literati made voyages into the mountains and the countryside as part of their everyday practice, we are often seconded behind the walls of the city. Li Xiaofei’s work always manages to squeeze beauty out of the chaos of contemporary life. Through a bit of imagination, editing and after effects, he can turn a depressing salt factory in a remote part of China into a Song Dynasty masterpiece — expressing an almost literati-like ability to transcend the material world into a different plane.
Chai Yiming also resides in an alternate dimension — in talking of his work he frequently refers to the Japanese ukiyo-e or floating world6. Japanese poet Asai Ryoi in “Tales of the Floating World,” writes about this culture in a way that could be equally describing Chai Yiming’s work:
… Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; … refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world…
In Chais’ work “Journey to the West 1 & 2” lines meander drunkenly across the page like a scholar who has imbibed in a little too much huangjiu. What looks like some kind of internal organ, reveals itself as a plethora of hands upon closer inspection. A penis becomes a root. A flower becomes a vulva. A peach becomes a breast. But as with the hybrid forms of Georgia O’Keefe, none of these forms could ever be construed as vulgar.
Chai’s work looks out at the viewer with a glint in its eye — a subtle humor that reveals itself upon close inspection. A bottle of Cola spouts liquid in an orgasmic way. A large fingernail embeds itself in a sheet under which peek out the feet of two people and what seems like the tail of a lion — a ninter-species ménage a trois. On the edge of the sheet there is a small almond-shaped form that could just very well be an eye. But of course it’s an eye. Chai Yiming’s whole oeuvre is full of eyes — watching, observing, spying, peeping. He does a very good job of disguising these forms in to the faces of rocks and mountains but somehow the human mind is always quite adept at identifying the erotic and mischievous elements. Indeed not much has changed since the writing of works such as or “The Plum in the Golden Vase.” In using guohua (Chinese ink painting) technique and many traditional motifs, (plants and animals) and a traditional format (folding book) he creates a link between the past and the schizophrenic, attention deficit disorder plagued world we live in.
Wei Qingji is also working in the vein of traditional painting. A graduate of Nankai University, he is one of the few in the show who actually comes from the guohua tradition — and he is also perhaps one of the few who studied guohua who was able to break from its strictures. His works completely ransack the tradition — its subtleties, muted colors and balanced compositions — and employ only the symbolic language of guohua — the scholar rocks, the cranes and the mountains. He paints them on xuan paper in a charcoal colored (almost violent) black — so that hey look as if they’ve been burned onto the paper rather than painted. Here there is an interesting parallel in the idea of burning — how images can be “burned” onto our retinas or ideas “burned” into our mind. I think we can say that the ideas of the literati have been burned or branded onto the psyche of this nation.
Though Wei insists that there is nothing sinister associated with the use of black in his paintings — that it is merely part of the guohua palette — one cannot help but sense a palpable feeling of menace in these works. These symbols are not benign — they are powerful. With handwriting scrolled across them, his paintings drip with a kind of cynicism that forces the viewer to ask what do these symbols really mean to us? They can certainly have meaning — there is no doubt — but we can’t sit back and passively consume them. Rather we need to mine them for ideas — understand them and accept or reject them based on their merit.
Ouyang Wendong also uses traditional materials but as with Wei Qingj, the effect is far from traditional. “De-Materialized Sculpture,” 2013. This piece consists of a long coil of incense which snakes across a five-meter space and coils into a mountain-like shape. It’s almost as if the incense once-tightly wound has figuratively “let its hair down.” Interestingly, both forms, the line and the circle, have been applied to Western and Eastern concepts of time respectively. The incense was hand made from Chinese eaglewood, from Hainan, and various other materials from the Middle East and other parts of the world such as benzoin, musk and francincense, and its slow burning releases a pleasant fragrance into the air. While incense has been used in the East and West for religious ritual, it is only in China that it’s been used as a way to measure time. Writes Robert Beer, “… it was widely utilized also as a means of measuring time in the palaces, government offices, Buddhist temples and scholar’s studies.”(7) Incense became such a common instrument of time measurement that incense sticks were marked with little increments to further delineate the time into smaller segments.(8)
Incense also played a big role in Buddhist mediation and Daoist ancestor worship. There was even an element of aromatherapy in Chinese medicine, for instance Chinese eaglewood, is used in incense form to help treat women with menstrual problems and sandalwood is supposed to have a calming effect upon the nervous system.
For Ouyang the making of the incense is important way to re-discover this culture and bring it back into contemporary life. It also serves as a metaphor for spirituality — while it is common for us to focus on the image of the Buddha, we need not to think about is the image but the ideas and the sense of being there in the moment and absorbing what is around us. “We can choose to not look at the image of Buddha,” says Ouyang, “But we can’t not inhale the incense.” This sense of the audience inhaling the art brings up the idea of mixing — how incense is a mix of different woods, how it combines with the molecules and other scents in the air, how it enters our nose and creates a feeling or sensation which is different for every single viewer. In fact the idea of mixing and hybridity is very central to traditional Chinese culture, the mixing of medicines uniquely designed for each patient, the idea of yin and yang, how every thing contains a small part of the opposite thing.
With this show we hope that we’ve accomplished something of what Ouyang is trying to do. To provoke the viewer to inhale and embrace some of the ideas of the literati, by creating an environment steeped in the aura of the literati ideal. But at the same time, we hope that you do not become too intoxicated by the scent of this incense. In absorbing ideas new or old, it’s always vital that we keep our wits about us — god forbid we succumb to another opiate of the masses.
1, This is a reference to the Li Tianyi case, where Yi Yanyou, a law professor at Qingghua University, posted on Sina Weibo, “A correction about my previous comment: Raping an honest and clean woman causes more harm than raping a bar girl, a night club girl, a female escort or a prostitute.”
2, Melvin, Sheila, “Modern Gloss on China’s Golden Age, ”New York Times, September 3, 2007
5, This is a reference to the Li Tianyi case, where Yi Yanyou, a law professor at Qingghua University, wrote on Sina Weibo, “A correction about my previous comment: Raping an honest and clean woman causes more harm than raping a bar girl, a night club girl, a female escort or a prostitute.”
6, Lane, Richard. “Images from the Floating World.” Old Saybrook, CT: Konecky & Konecky, 1978. p11.
7, Commoners however employed more common measurements of time i.e. the time it took to drink a cup of tea or eat a bowl of rice.
8, Beer, Robert, Serindia “The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols”Publications, Inc., Chicago, USA, 2003, p5.