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【评论】Borrowing East Wind: the Pictorial Ideals of Modern Scholar, Sun Xiuting

2012-08-19 11:05:12 来源:艺术家提供作者:

  This doubtless is an age of global mechanical reproduction, the attributes of which, as predicted by Walter Benjamin of modern society, are becoming increasingly distinctive in contemporary China. As felt by loafers in Benjamin's description, the monument to capitalistic materialism will without fail fall. Able to experience truth and discern facts in the fables of abandonment are modern Baudelaire-style men of letters, whose dissimulated gaze of the city of Paris seeks a channel of awakening. Chinese artist Sun Xiuting is also having a similar experience and observation, and his artistic creation likewise.

  Growing up during the Cultural Revolution, as a teenager, Sun was able to adroitly paint the holy portrait of Mao Zedong, exhibiting his artistic gift. After the Cultural Revolution, he enrolled in Tianjin Academy of Art, where he experienced a violent clash of ideas, waged between socialist realism, as taught by the school and long accepted by the artist, and modern art ideologies. In the 1980s, with his oil paintings "Far Horizon" and "Souls" teeming with a sense of life and mysterious consciousness, the artist became in the 85' Art Movement a representative artist of Tianjin (a Chinese megacity). After that, he went to Europe and studied free painting at the Braunschweig University of Art, during which time he also studied at the Academy of Fine Arts of Seville in Spain. Later, the artists worked and lived for a number of years in the US until 2005, when he was retained by Chinese National Academy of Arts.

  For decades, Sun Xiuting traverses between Chinese and Western cultures, gazing like Benjamin's loiters at the world landscape that is becoming more and more capitalistic. The dawning of the consumer society in China caught people off guard, and the increased momentum of the westernization of society and of art shocked the artist. For many years, although accustomed to the environs of western art, the artist has not been able to find his identity and felt like drifting, rootless. The inherent appeal of culture brings him solace of homecoming but the commercialization of contemporary Chinese art bewilders him even more. Like any conscious Chinese thinkers, the artist sees his country suspended in the anxiety resulting from the dual absence of modernity and tradition. Thus was born his artistic thinking. In reference to the West and modernity, he has corroborated them with his art and experiences in the first half of his artistic career. Now, back in China and using memory as an axis, he traces his vision to the depth of history, and to his childhood years. Sun Xiuting believes that true art must be related to the eternal values in history and to his unique life experiences.

  The history he pays close attention to is secretly merged with personal expectation. At heart, he sees himself as a man of letters, which may be attributable to the culture that has been dormant for a thousand years in our genes. Thanks to the profound influence of Confucian and Taoist traditions, Chinese literati have evolved a sentiment that while concerned with the world at large, yearns for reclusive life in nature. The ethos of Chinese literati cherishes the coexistence of soul and nature and this is reflected in their calligraphy and brushworks, which vividly depicts the ethos. Sun Xiuting develops his special pictorial language from long traditions of dignity and leisure. Consisting of expressive and conceptual contents, the canvas is both tangible and intangible, and resembles a long melodious and mystical song that keeps unraveling but never stops.

  Although sharing some empirical affinity, traditional Chinese freehand brushwork differs from western expressionism in their intrinsic orientation: the former seeks the ultimate experience of merging and union (soul and the body, heaven and men), while the latter has its motif in depicting and lauding the human soul. That is the key to bridging the two. And having been for a number of years in both cultures, the artist has developed his unique visual language, imbued with distinctive personal characteristics.

  After the artist came back to China, there appeared three phases in the spiritual outlook of his works and each phase geos a bit further than before.

  "Night Revels of Han Xizai" is a work by GuHongzhong of the Five Dynasties period in which is depicted a narrative that is oblivious to the world outside and obsessed with pleasures. The fame of the painting derives not only from its well-known pictorial language but from the carefree attitude in life, which is characteristic of the literati. Sun's oil painting "Night Revels" brings back the classical literati ethos which has survived thousands of years and is still vibrant with life. What the artist attempted was to present an imaginative memory which is not only traceable to individuals but is a part of the ethnic and cultural pulse. In restoring memory, another worldly attitude becomes distinct.

  Coincidentally, another artist, Wang Qingsong, produced a photographic work entitled "Night Revels of Lao Li", which is also based on "Night Revels of Han Xizai" but puts celebrated art critic, Li Xianting, in the center stage, ridiculing the fact that in a society without ideals, literati can only be subject to depression. Sun's work however does not directly point to reality but affirms and seeks to rediscover the energy in literati life. This phase lasted five years and extended to more images of men of letters, and to a restoration of life.

  In the works that follow, he went back to his memories, especially the days he lived overseas, far from his motherland. He kept thinking over the correlations there were between those days and his art. Why do all the living things exist? In his spiritual world, those who are baffled and at the end of their wits in dealing with his personal vicissitudes should be illuminated by the Buddhist aura. In "Buddhist Nature", this was presented.

  Sun Xiuting's latest works "Borrowing East Wind", unleashes a mystic realistic landscape, incorporating ancient literati life and the artist's personal life experiences in a new visual structure, and integrating millenniums' of historical sentiments and the artist's perspective. "Borrowing East Wind" stems from a famous war in ancient China in which a decisive military counterattack by the allied forces of Shu and Wu states is ready but for the east wind. After the wind is summoned and made available, the invading forces are utterly defeated. In this metaphorical concept by the artist, the interconnectivity of the Chinese and Western cultures is brought into consideration. Upon his return to China, who is he? He is an outlander both to the West and to the East. In a culture that combines Western and Eastern ingredients, one's own history and trajectory becomes mystic, just like what is depicted in the works. It is Sun's expectation that contemporary art is all but ready except for the wind.

  "Borrowing East Wind" highlights the subject of pictorial language, which exists not only as something descriptive but also assumes an exclusive pattern of growth. Stemming out of uncertainties are the concrete forms and structures: earth walls, tile-roof houses, loiters, borrowing arrows with straw boats, borrowing the wind. In the painting, Sun Xiuting creates a vivid artistic style that matches the concept with visual forms, reflecting an artist's visual contribution. In the lingual expressions, the hands are driven voluntarily and unconsciously, without being confined by representational and rational analysis, which conveys the artist's own style. The tactical sensation that he emphasizes visually happens to be the natural revelation of life, which is what Benjamin termed the lost aura of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.

  Like many forerunners in the cultural realm, Sun will be seeking between the two cultures and will be wandering and loitering like Benjamin's Baudelaire. A different path in contemporary art has been created in Sun's paintings, which differs from conventional pictorial patterns but is associated with the descriptions of life experiences at home.

  Text by Hao Qingsong, Ph. D Candidate, Department of the History of Art, Tsinghua University

  Date: August 19, 2012