Paradox prompts thought. Arriving at the unthinkable after proceeding, step-by-step, along the path of reason, unsettles comfortable mental routines and points – obscurely – towards something new. Nothing twists this prompt more intensely than time-paradox, which grates thought open upon the basic tangles of reality.
The main creative current of Shanghai visual arts grasps this instinctively. Whilst predictably multidimensional (and in other respects unpredictable), the work revealed by Shanghai artists and art spaces gravitates distinctively towards themes and techniques that can be plausibly described as neo-traditionalist. This inherently paradoxical inclination is itself a deep tradition, with relevance far beyond the visual arts and knotted roots that can be traced back to the Song Dynasty.
At the Shanghai Himalayas Museum Inaugural Exhibition (scheduled to last until the end of September), this neo-traditionalist tendency is represented with unprecedented scope and penetration. Entitled Yi Xiang (意象) in Chinese, it has been translated (lamentably) into ‘Insightful Charisma’ in English, but this is only a minor tripping point. (‘Meaning Manifested’ would have been far superior.) Yi Xiang, or the tension between essentials and their expression, echoes China’s historic neo-traditionalist response to the challenge of modernization, as formulated during the Qing and Republican period: ‘Chinese learning as essence, Western learning as application’ (Zhongxue wei ti, Xixue wei yong, 中学为体，西学为用). Further scattered echoes of this deep impulse – to guarded assimilation – can be heard, preserved even through superficial inversion, in such recent expressions as ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’.
Yi Xiang is a complex exhibition, divided into five sections, each labeled by a single Chinese character. Threaded through each is a neo-traditionalist current, modulated in different ways. This is most economically grasped as a refusal to decide between past and future, tradition and modernity, but to aesthetically stress both together, in a single cryptic direction. The inevitable consequence is a time-scrambling artistic (and curatorial) jolt, which simultaneously progresses into the past and regresses into the future.
The show is self-consciously refracted through China’s landscape tradition of shanshui (山水) – literally: ‘mountain, water’ – the aesthetic fusion of the rigid and the fluid, permanence and change, stability and flux. Shanshui is extended beyond scenic representation into a method of historical reflection, exploring an intricate time-scape of modifications, appropriations, blockages, deluges, accommodations, and adaptations. The sweep of this insight more than suffices, on its own, to justify the entire exhibition. (I should note, however, that one brilliant but determinedly contrarian commentator has interpreted this focus upon shanshui as an evasion of fengshui, arguably bypassed due to its politically awkward associations with ‘feudal superstition’.)
Shen (神) or ‘spirit’ is housed in a single softly illuminated gallery, filled with classic Shanshui works from the Qing, Ming, and even Song dynasties, along with a smaller number of early modern pieces directly inspired by them. This exquisite, compact sub-exhibition elegantly illustrates the way in which the modernization of tradition is itself a tradition.
Li (理) or ‘reason’ (a term with rich Neo-Confucian reverberations) is devoted to ‘Chinese Cube’: an explicitly philosophical uptake of the classic Yijing into a variety of modern codes, translating tradition into a recursive, cryptographic puzzle box.
Qi (气) or ‘internal force’ (‘familiar’ through the Dao and Traditional Chinese Medicine), is the largest part of the show, consisting of cutting-edge works presented within a coherent, neo-traditionalist curatorial context. The quality of the work displayed is outstanding, including pieces by Li Hongto, Shao Yan, Wang Jieyin, Wang Tiande, Yang Yongliang (and Ma Haiping), and many others. (I hope to return to these artists in future posts.)
Jing (境) or ‘imagery’ is devoted to architecture, with the neo-traditionalist theme partially displaced into a negotiation between nature and urban construction. The visionary work of Ma Yansong dominates this part of the show.
Yun (韵) or ‘rhythm’, with its musical sub-theme, pursues the involvements of mountains and water more determinedly than any other part of the show. A complex work by Ding Yi is perhaps the center-piece of this section.
Neo-traditionalism is the main driver of China’s cultural renaissance, and the manifested meaning of its greatest aesthetic delights. Urban Future will be returning to it as frequently as practically possible.
Neo-Traditionalism in Hong Kong
The momentum of modernization is directly proportional to the restoration of tradition (discuss).
Abundant evidence relevant to this thesis is on show in Hong Kong, at two art exhibitions of exceptional interest.
At the Hong Kong Museum of Art, The Origin of Dao: New Dimensions in Chinese Contemporary Art (curated by Pi Daojian, open until August 18) exemplifies the infolding of audacious experimentation into profoundly conservative aesthetic commitments. The show is divided into two parts. One includes works in a variety of media, and is moderately stimulating. The other, devoted entirely to recent ink works (with supporting video) is truly outstanding.
Works by Yang Jiechang, Gu Wenda, Zhang Quan, Shao Yan, Kan Tai-Keung, Qiu Zhijie, and others, excavate the creative potentialities of traditional Chinese media and forms, propelling them into a dazzling variety of new horizons. One especially conspicuous theme is the fluid boundary between text and image inherited from the Chinese script, evoking meandering lines of exploration, elaborated in the cryptic gulf between pictorial representation and intelligible sign. The modernization of native aesthetic tradition progressively liberates these lines — whether broken or unbroken — from both resemblance and significance, on a path of escape into pure form.
Shao Yan demonstrates this trend with particular vividness, through the creation of ink abstracts poised between calligraphy and landscape. An accompanying video shows Shao at work, like a gongfu Pollock, realizing a type of Chinese action painting that draws upon the occult root of cultivation (anticipated by the equation of calligraphy and sword-fighting depicted in Zhang Yimou’s Hero).
At the Hong Kong Asia Society, Light before Dawn: Unofficial Chinese Art 1974-1985 (through to September 1) concerns the liberation of Chinese art from the constraints of Socialist Realism, as shown through the work of the Caocao, Wuming, and Xingxing artists. From both a Neo-Traditionalist and Shanghai perspective, the Caocao Society works are especially significant, consisting of ink paintings that explicitly (and provocatively) revive artistic impulses which had been ideologically proscribed due to their associations with the Confucian literati. Qiu Deshu’s masterpiece 3-5 Times Shouting (1980) steals the show.