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FLUX: Moving Visions

Katie Hill

“Wrap the melon with purple willow leaves. Hold a jade talisman in the mouth. Something fell from the sky.”(1)  

"Upon those that step into the same rivers different waters flow ... They scatter and ... gather ... come together and flow away ... approach and depart." Heraclitus (dates – 4–500 BC) (2)

Flux comes from Latin and means flow.
- the rate of transfer of fluid, particles, or energy across a given surface
 - the state of constant change in which all things exist (Heraclitus)
- a simple and ubiquitous concept throughout physics and applied mathematics is the flow of a physical property in space


Movement in space is part of our daily physical existence and as contemporary travellers, we are frequently flying around the world in relatively short periods of time, on endless journeys to this or that destination and back again. Taking the notion of FLUX from both Chinese and Western philosophies, science and mathematics, this exhibition presents Wang Huangsheng’s recent works as creations of flow: in and out of tradition, across space and time, invoking the visible and the invisible world in nature and physical matter. His exquisite and beautifully executed ink paintings are produced in the traditional way, with brush and ink on paper. They are highly refined works that retain aspects of poetic traditions in Chinese painting over hundreds of years but also enter the current engagement of ink in the rich expansion of contemporary art practice. 

In Wang’s Moving Visions, a suspense is created in which the painted line is freed from its representational or figurative function into a conceptual and philosophical mode calling into view aspects of space and time. In both Moving Visions and Lines Visions series, a continuity of brush and ink technique can be seen to stem from the exacting discipline of calligraphy, as control is balanced with freedom and consciousness is balanced with the idea of a journey in which, as the artist says, ‘you are uncertain where it will take you’(3).  Movement in these two series can also be conceived of as within and across the works, as a body of practice in which the artist’s creative possibilities are continually shifting across different modes. There is a crossing over of sensibility that entails brush-lines on ‘pure’ white spatial paper works through to scribbles and scrawls over grimy texts of printed daily news, signifying both the philosophical world of culture based in thought and also the real world, the constant ‘white noise’ of the social, political and economic environment that forms a contemporary backdrop of daily existence. In Wang’s 3D works, these ‘lines’ are taken further into a different spatial configuration, so that the finer materiality of brush and ink—the tools of the painter—are replaced by a three-dimensional physicality of materials such as cloth and barbed wire or sheet metal that are spatially arranged in space. 

There is a sense of departure in this series of works (made from 2010), following Wang’s earlier ink paintings that sit more decisively within the classical tradition, as exemplified in the painting Moonlight Clear Like Water (Heaven and Earth series), 2006, fan cover, painting on paper, part of a series depicting scenes in a garden setting with small pavilions or shelters and rustic chairs amidst grass and flowers, using the vocabulary of the scholar-painter evolved from the Yuan dynasty onwards. This kind of painting along  with his flowers series exudes a romantic dreaminess executed in soft loose brushstrokes, sitting firmly within the scholarly tradition of literati painting that has been vigorously revived in recent years. 

In Flux, the Moving Visions and Lines Visions are no longer figurative in the true sense. They pull away from lyrical themes such as the exuberant flowers in vases, veering towards, yet not quite reaching, a state of abstraction. Hence the journey in Wang’s creative process is marked by points of contact with origins in writing (calligraphy), painterly vocabulary (flowers and scenes) towards a kind of exploration of line itself that interact horizontally, vertically and from a floating perspective. 

(Moving) Visions

The whirling forms of Wang Huangsheng’s dynamic ink paintings evoke a sense of contained movement and speed of line within a single spatial sphere, a kind of network or dynamic drawing of continuous lines within and across space. A cluster of intertwining curvaceous brush-lines flow in and out of each other in a kind of loosened knot floating suspended over a faint shadow. One can imagine the length of the rigorous line as reaching on and on if one were to pull it straight into impossible dimensions outside the field of vision. This cluster also appears in a void of context, a blank ground filling the upper space on the large square paper. As though it has a life of its own, there is also a sense of a tension between thing and non-thing, the push-pull of a magnetic force. 

Throughout Moving Visions there is a purity of form that is whimsical and light but also tightly composed. A magical sense of nature beyond the specific and visible world brings us into one of physics, evoking spatial and gravitational forces that are integral to existence and normally only understood in a specialised field of particle physics. In a previous catalogue of Wang’s work that brings together numerous works over a period of four years, Wu Hongliang attempts to describe Moving Visions Series No. 6, ink on paper, in terms of what it appears to represent: ‘as if the light comes from afar, or attracting the viewers to view the distant place. The comet-like smudged tailing in the background are probably the gathering of light and search for the unknown.’(4) The idea of light and distance are very much within the painting, however perhaps a literal reading of a ‘search for the unknown’ diverts from the philosophical structure of the painting, which can be seen from both Chinese classical philosophy and also ancient Greek notions of ‘constant change’ in which time and space are irrevocably intertwined, a central idea in the Yi Jing, one of the foundational texts in Chinese philosophy. As Professor Yih-Hsien Yu says, ‘The book, one of the Six Classics of Confucianism, contains abundant elements of time philosophy together with a cosmology of creativity which turn out to be the metaphysical foundation of two of the leading schools of the Pre-Chin periods, Confucianism and Daoism.’(5)   

If creativity and ‘constant change’ are found to be central in the Yi Jing, then Wang’s works can be seen as reaching to the heart of creativity as a deeply embedded structure in human life. At the heart of this creative pursuit is the idea of an inner freedom that constitutes the ‘boundless’ potential of change as a constantly dynamic force that is never delimited or linear in nature. In the 1980s, artists such as Xu Bing and Huang Yongping were seeking new languages to ally Chinese and Western critical and philosophical thinking. Wang’s works also evoke ideas across phenomenology, cross-cultural understandings of something we might call abstraction and conceptualism, and the recent interest in the universe from scientific and cultural perspectives, but from a deeply Chinese point of view. His own deep understanding of Chinese philosophical and artistic traditions arguably remains crucial to the positioning of the works as embedded in notions from Daoism, reaching back to the Yi Jing (Book of Changes), that was also hugely influential to Western contemporary art in the 1960s and 1970s, as interpreted by key figures such as John Cage, Rauschenberg and John Baldessari. Ideas from Daoism and Buddhism were translated in the West and in the American context, ‘art and culture were transformed by aspects of an Asian world view which led to the re-definition of the individual, the (re)placement of the ego […] and the re-evaluation of the macho nature of American culture’.(6)  

No ego seems present in Wang’s works, yet in his explosive ink painting that was made as a seemingly emotional response to 9/11, ink is used to powerfully render the shattering nature of this event in giant dark splash-ink splodges, along with printed marks to describe the rupture of buildings and scattered architectural debris. So for Wang, the versatility of ink is used as an expressive medium that produces a wide range of visual language that nevertheless maintains a strong subjective and painterly quality that is fluid but also sometimes specific and semi-representational. 

Lines (Visions)

Lines Visions, the series on newspapers, moves a step further away from the spiritual home of literati painting. Differentiating the use of lines through the brush, in these paintings, a different sense of dimension is created, as though the layering on the flat and printed surface of news, is an overlay, a kind of disturbance that both echoes and erases the drone of daily media-driven stories of everyday politics. This could be another engagement with long-standing traditions in China of the dialogue and debate in educated circles, echoing the motif of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove in which the withdrawal of poets from the muddy life of officialdom is perhaps continuing into the modern era. 

Definition of white noise: a random signal with a constant power spectral density

In contemporary life there is a continuous low-level noise, a sort of buzzing around us that we often fail to cut out entirely. This ‘noise’ is perhaps a blur of everyday life, of activity as it happens around us, like traffic whirring past, televisions blaring out soap operas or news, music emitted from car radios, people gabbling on their phones or clicking the keys on their keyboard.  

Wang Huangsheng’s paintings capture a kind of murmuring that is quiet and contained, yet also exude a force that is continuous and unobtrusive, evoking a sense of existence that has two layers: space and time. Space is rendered after the literati tradition of painting that opens up blank space (白) to allow a spiritual and philosophical opening to emerge. Over this are ‘written’ the lines, rendered simply in one continuous movement, suspended over the space and sometimes appearing to float punctuated by nodules—pauses in the brushstroke that convey a calligraphic tension acting as points of departure and continuity. (7)

One of the translators of the Yi Jing in the modern period, Richard Wilhelm formulates the basic idea of the Yi Jing as "opposition and fellowship produced together by time," which underlies a human consciousness of contrasts, subject and object, the inner self and the surrounding world. What is stressed by this idea of the Yi Jing is a moderate attitude towards our understanding of contrast, which enables us to avoid any extremes, and towards maintaining a harmony between our inner self and the surrounding world.(8)     

Wang draws together linear and spatial fields through his brushstrokes, modes present throughout all Chinese landscape painting, in which the formal and visual equation of line and space make up its central thrust. Wang’s works retain a strong poetic sensibility and this can be expressed through the words of the artist himself: Unbound: Flowers Painting Calligraphy (Night Time and the Imagination). The collapse of time in Chinese philosophy is not about an ‘essence’, but the understanding of a cosmological structure of thinking. Wang Huangsheng is a creative thinker, whose enormous contributions to forging cultural change in the contemporary development of the artistic scene in China has entailed a deep understanding of the idea of conversation across cultures, in dialogues with museum partnerships and exhibition projects from around the world. In this exhibition, Wang’s imaginary world is equally engaged in such a conversation both with and through culture as both a murmur and a dialogue.

(1)Yi Jing, Line 5
(2)Yih-Hsien Yu, ‘The Yijing, Whitehead, and Time Philosophy’, in Images in the Yi Jing and Their Cultural Transformations, p.16.
(3)In conversation with the artist, May 21, 2015
(4)Wu Hongliang, Boundless: Wang Huangsheng’s Works 2009–2013, p.142.
(5)Yih-Hsien Yu, ‘The Yijing, Whitehead, and Time Philosophy’, in Images in the Yi Jing and Their Cultural Transformations, p.17.
(6)Geri De Paoli,  ‘Meditations and Humor: Art as Koan’, in Gail Gelburd and Geri De Paoli, The Transparent Thread: Asian Philosophy in Recent American Art. Univeristy of Pennsylvania Press, 1990, p.15. 
(7)In conversation with the artist, London, May 21, 2015.
(8)Yih-Hsien Yu, p.16.

Dr. Katie Hill has extensive experience in the field of contemporary Chinese art, and has been involved in exhibitions as a curator and researcher. She is the Programme Leader of Art of Asia and their Markets at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London, as well as Deputy Principal Editor of the Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art (JCAA). Her recent work includes In Conversation with Ai Weiwei, Tate Modern; selector panel/author, Art of Change, New Directions from China, Hayward Gallery, London, and specialist advisor/author for The Chinese Art Book (Phaidon, 2013). Hill is Director of OCCA, Office of Contemporary Chinese Art, an art consultancy promoting Chinese artists in the UK.