A Clear View of the Universe, and Heaven-Born Wit
By Ming Zhou
Contemporary Ink Paintings, especially Abstract Ink Paintings and Experimental Ink Paintings etc. has been a hot spot in the recent couple of years. Many artists have started to splash ink, or at least they are eager to participate in it. To explore the reasons behind, on one hand it is a “renaissance” of the Chinese culture, during which everyone has acquired new knowledge about tradition; at the same time, it is related to the characteristics and expressive power of Ink Paintings. On the other hand, this field of art has provided a huge experimental space for new concepts, new materials, new techniques and new means of expression. The Zen cultural background has allowed it plenty of space to convey ideas. This is a heated field of art that has low entry requirements and high participation level, and we need to return to the aesthetic experiences of the artworks to clarify and answers some questions related to Abstract Ink Paintings.
I have paid attention to the Abstract Ink Paintings of Sun Guangyi. Since the early “Ruturn to Shangri-La - Heaven” series which is highly atmospheric, and the large-scaled artworks today which are lively and spiritual, the expressive language and the internal tension of the artworks have been consistent, and the most enchanting quality of his artworks is that they touch the heart of the viewer. I pay much attention to the resonance inspired by the aesthetic experiences brought about by his artworks. More than once have I seen and heard of people lamenting, and even shedding tears, when viewing the artworks of Sun Guangyi. What does it imply regarding Abstract Ink Paintings? In a postmodern time and space that is gradually replaced by conceptualization, does this direct emotional response to the “beauty” of abstraction bring to us new ways of thinking on the nature of beauty?
As said by Sun Guangyi himself, his artworks are undoubtedly related to his Buddhist practice. It does not only realize his experiences and studies on Tibetan Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, Therevada Buddhism, and his many years of destined stay at Shangri-La, more importantly his Buddhist practice does not exist as an artistic pursuit or subject of interest, it is the devotion of his life – this provides us with an insight for understanding the spirit of his artworks.
This series of artworks came after his retreat at Meili, they are expressed through clear and carefree ink movements, which makes viewers feel deeply the influence Zen practice has on his life and art. “Zen” is a cultural idea that is extremely extensive, and it is also a style of art that is vague. It is mentioned time and again in our daily life, but we often forget the nature of Zen – Dhyana. Originates from Zen practice in Buddhism, it is a practice nurturing one’s inner awareness for life. This internal experience towards life, through the mist of concepts and emotions, directly points to each person’s origin of life, and the nature of everyone. Buddhist Master Huineng said, “Who could have expected that one’s essence could be complete in itself? Who could have expected that one’s self can produce all the principles of the universe?” Such ontology-like saying may have provided us with the key to understanding our aesthetic resonance with Guanyi’s artworks.
In fact, “nature” does not exist in any physical forms; Zen is not the counterpart or opposite of anything. It is not dullness and loneliness as opposite to earthly vanity; it is not the “wabi” and “sabi” in Japan; it is not traditional Chinese scholars’ temperament and interest; it is not enjoyment or penance. Zen is inner awareness, peace-of-mind, and complete freedom. The fact that it is not confined indicates that it has great possibilities. Having understood this, we will get to know Guangyi’s true “Zen” paintings.
In matters of meanings, Buddha taught for 49 years, but not a word had been spoken, it is also impossible for paintings to depict Buddha’s teachings completely, but Abstract Ink Paintings help us reach a sphere of enlightenment that is not easy to find, and it opens for us a gateway to experiences of deep fulfillment and joy. In these artworks, Guangyi’s use of brushstroke is more skillful and free, the functions of different techniques are no longer as traceable as those seen in the “Ruturn to Shangri-La - Heaven” series – it is not describable with terms like “powerful” or “hearty” because the “signified” of the brushstrokes has disappeared, and there is not a form of reference. The creative process doesn’t even involve aesthetic design and consideration(1), the “signified” means the “signifier”, this inevitably inspires us to re-consider one of the core concepts in Chinese painting traditions: observing the basics of the universe and one’s existence with a clear mind. “Clear Mind” is the practice of Zen, it is an action, and a format. Art eventually enters the sphere of inaction, realizing the “signifier” in all aspects. This is the basic DNA of our culture in the past and now.
Since 85 New Wave, Abstract Ink Paintings often appeared to reform and criticize. On one hand it was corresponding to the media and means of expression in the West, on the other hand it was corresponding to Chinese traditional ink concepts. But after the enthusiasm of pan-ideation, Abstract Ink Paintings seem to have entered an awkward situation, it has been trying to relate to something fun so it is not that “abstract”, or it has been looking for extension concept-wise, experimenting and crossing-over to other areas continuously, how do all these carry on? Western art history has clearly revealed the revolution and innovation under the binary worldview, to some extent it has interpreted an ancient concept in the East: “reincarnation”. It is not easy to break away from this confinement. The “signified” of revolution has deeply restrained the “signifier”. We need to re-evaluate the wisdom of Zen – Zen as in Buddhist practice. Instead of saying that Guangyi’s artworks stand out from the overwhelming trend of Contemporary Ink Art, it may be better to say that they have unveiled to us a brand new possibility: abstract, but closely related to the genes of Eastern civilization, navigating through ontology language to express enlightenment. This “abstract” is no longer the revolution and criticism of anyone, it is the expression of one’s nature. It is the tradition of using ink to express the basic of the universe and one’s existence, an exchange that is not confined by time and space. The resonance of experiences helps us regain our confidence in traditions – which have been made a mystery by people today. This possibility alone has aroused excitement.
Practice, life, ink and tradition – all these become a coincidence that has trained and nurtured an artist, and it is not easy at all. The future of this “genius” has inspired our expectations.
(1) The writer communicated with Sun Guangyi and understood the artist’s creative process.
Ming Zhou: Also named Ri Yue Zhou, his original name is Tong Xiao Feng, a scholar in Buddhist culture. He has studied Buddhist culture, Chinese traditional art and material culture etc. He annotated and published an ancient Chinese Incense Art book titled “Xiang Cheng (The History of Incense)”. He is the author of Buddhist cultural books including “Fo Guo Hang (A Journey in Buddhism)”, “Xiang Xi, Ling Hun Gen Zhe Jiao Bu (Westward, Soul Following Footsteps)”. He founded Mingshoutang, striving to promote the ideas and practices of Oriental wisdom.