I like colors and drawing. I began to draw in 1956, when I was 3 years old and my mother brought me chalk to use in school. The white chalk on the red brick floors of our home was particularly eye-catching. My grandmother was amazed, and said, “This is great, we should leave it!”
I like colors and I like beauty.
Everything in my memory is a color. If there were no colors, then there would be no pictures. If the pictures had no structure, then they cannot be parts of memory, or even fragments of a story.
I have had a lot of friends say that they can’t see colors in their dreams; they’re just monochrome. The colors in my dreams are rich and varied, whether I dream of a depressingly ordinary scene, a bloody battle, a romantic scene, or even a sexual fantasy that causes a wet dream. Form cannot be separated from color, and female charms bring visible colors to life.
When I confront the predicaments of life in a moment devoid of internal properties and intellectual possibilities, time becomes a meaningless fiction, a standard that represses individual ideas. Time seems to reflect the color of the sky. I once sat on the endless yellow fields of Inner Mongolia and wept because I was so moved by black clouds silhouetted against the burning red sun.
I was a worker for three and a half years, from late 1975 to early 1979. Every day, it was 50 kilometers each way from my home to the factory. It took 2-3 hours, or sometimes more, on a bus or a bicycle, and I learned everything on the route by heart. Most of the things I saw were broken, dilapidated, and cramped, but my eyes were filled with color. The colors flashed by my face and brushed past my body. Silent grey was optimistic amidst the darkness, and it was then that I began to love these colors.
Simply put, form is space. However, these words do not represent detachment, and my understanding of them is bound up in color. They are color, and they all have color. In another way, they are just textures in space. Essentially, color is ideological, and that is enough. Some have said, “History transcends nation, and language transcends history.” I believe that color covers language, which has made me ashamed of language. Language and color should reflect and complement each other, like Fuxi and Nüwa with their tails entwined.
The dance between color and language is an intellectual frontier, “The Gate to All Mystery.” The first chapter of Lao Zi’s Daodejing reads, “The Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name… Ever desire-less, one can see the mystery. Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.”
This Dao is not the eternal Dao; the Dao is not traditional and the Dao does not believe in religion. This name is not the eternal name, a silly demarcation between the known and the unknown.
The absence of desire is an unfixed presence, but it allows us to “see the mystery,” or see fresh intuition like a young woman dancing.
When I flip the left and right parts of the Chinese word for mystery, miao, they form the word for “young woman.” Woman is a pictographic character of a woman spreading her arms. “Young” is also a pictographic character of the word for “small” with a slanting gesture. The character miao conveys love, the passion between an active person being watched and a passive watcher. Here, the infinite raps out an echo of the limited. The opposite is text (rules and poetry).
“Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.” The character for manifestations, jiao, is a pictogram and an ideogram for silken texts, or words written on silk. They record, communicate, narrate, and summarize; they form a slow and strengthening rhythm that overlaps, reverberates, and echoes sounds.
This was Lao Zi’s description of the myriad things in the universe, but it is also a summary of the rules of art.
In the 1970s, when I was still in the production brigade in Inner Mongolia, I wanted to learn Western painting. I was worried about the extreme material deprivation of my environment, but one of my teachers, Zhao Yongzhi, told me, “You can’t find a teacher and you can’t find materials, but you can find poetry. Use poetry to refine your ideas and dreams.”
I started to read songs and write poems. Although poetry has never been my entire life, it became my partner in practicing, critiquing, and reflecting my images.
I also knew the poet Bei Dao and his friends in the underground poetry salon. Wrinkled pieces of paper were pulled out of book bags and passed around, covered with hand-copied texts. Poetry rose from young voices reading aloud in smoky rooms.
One day in 1974, Mang Ke brought over his poem “Green in the Green,” and I was surprised. Was this Modernism?
My poetic forms were old-fashioned, reliant on social reality. In April 3, 1976, amidst the chaos, I placed a poem, “The People’s Grief,” at the base of the Monument to the People’s Heroes. This poem was quickly published, printed as a central document with a red header and collected by the Public Security Bureau as one of the “Four Hundred Reactionary Poems from Tian’anmen.”
Despite this, I find it hard to accept the idea that the visual arts perpetuated the enlightenment of poetry in the 1970s, if you could call the 1970s and 1980s the enlightenment of China. The transmission and construction of this enlightenment was multifaceted; it came from inside and outside of China, and it came from new language and innovative styles. At an extremely desolate time, poets made great strides forward, and words became the standard-bearers for imaginative freedom. The period after 1980 was slightly different, because artists used form to occupy familiar spaces in life. Regardless, there is historical evidence for who came first.
Visual art ferments over time, and it requires more careful handiwork than poetry or prose. Visual art requires ordinary, solid foundations, such as canvas or sculptural supports, and these you need to make yourself. The understanding between hands and heart grows with time. Some people talk about creativity, doubt, and youthful sparks, but the concepts they represent changed constantly and inferior work cannot hide in the shadows of the classics.
Prose and poetry are two different forms, but these two forms (materials) are separate in the Chinese classics. At that time, the three perfections of poetry, calligraphy, and painting were used to judge the character of the literates. I often think that these texts can be re-worked, such that those poems or art can subvert tradition, but my hopes are often undermined. Looking to the future, it seems that hope is simply an old dream. China was once a creative power, a country in which prose, poetry, and art had limitless possibilities. China was also an anti-creative power. I find it hard to believe that the decades and centuries of cultural paralysis failed to affect intellectual people?
Since the 1970s, things have changed immensely. One popular trend has followed another. Fortunately, I was fairly fit, so I could both work and consider “ever desire-less, one can see the mystery. Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.”
In 2006, I made Four Reds, which was the herald of Language-Color. One of those paintings was A Limit Reached, in which I allowed the colors to reflect texts. The words elaborate the color, which are gifts to certain people.
T.S. Eliot said, “There is emotional sensibility.”
Michelangelo said, “The best painting has the quality of sculpture.”
The art world has spotlighted numerous masters and classic works, but I have continued to explore language and color. I worked on the series for nearly ten years after clarifying my process. I don’t think that this series will be short; the temptation of Language-Color remains, and I can only continue to dance with it.
Language-Color is the color in language or a colorful environment recorded in text, but the visual effect is most important. Even when there is text, it melts into the colored background.
Language-Color can be traced back to the broader tradition of the three perfections of poetry, calligraphy, and painting from the literati era, but I let my imagination run wild. As a result, my methods run against counter to Chinese contemporary art. Instead of traditional Chinese precedents, I want to keep close to personal examples.
In 1978, the exhibition ‘Nineteenth Century French Rural Landscape Painting’ showcased150 years of early oil paintings in Beijing. I was one of the closest observers of the paintings, and I was very moved by this direct interaction with some of Duchamp’s works. After about a century, they are not that distant. When these paintings came to China, they completed my artistic enlightenment.
Duchamp’s works structure color. The blending of each stroke of color was completed on the canvas, so the colors were made in space. The brain directs the hands, the hands move the brush, and the colors move space. Some details move entire paintings, becoming the rhythm and meter of the subject and the life and breath of the painting.
Accumulated and scattered colors were sometimes piled like crops in a field; sometimes they spurted from the main line like blood. Still other times, they stopped like cars an intersection with a red light.
In other words, active (not scribbled) brushstrokes is one of the goals of painting, like a theme or a background. Through the resonance between the background and the theme, painting gives a sense or conception of three-dimensionality.
You could say that brushwork is an expressive technique, but it is directly related to the meaning of the painting. When you open art to intellectual movements, you place creativity above all else, but when you care about the results of the painting from the outset, you openly place content and style above all else.
Duchamp’s methodology was an open secret, but after the secret was widely publicized, it was made secret again. There was another secret in this open secret: anyone can achieve popularity, but no one can obtain exclusive secrets. Public contemporary art does not need color or linguistic exercises, and it does not need a sense of volume. In fact, the details and principles are no longer necessary in art, so this type of artwork is enveloped in tradition and sealed up in a museum.
Contemporary art is the magnificent transformation of the universal principles of consumer society; we all feel its warm light.
It would be a misunderstanding to say that the eccentric Duchamp opened the Pandora’s Box of my mind. Strange ghosts rushed out, leaping and jumping. The little demon that most entranced me was Language-Color.
It unexpectedly appeared in Beijing, the reddest of piece of earth on the planet.
The texts of the city are hard as iron, but full of intense life.
February 2, 2015