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Lifelines——the visual poetics of Wang Huangsheng

And when the shadow fades and is no more, the light that lingers becomes a shadow to another light. 
And thus your freedom when it loses its fetters becomes the fetter of a greater freedom
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (1923)

In Lifelines, a range of works by the distinguished artist Wang Huangsheng are brought together in a public civic space in the centre of Hong Kong and at 3812 Gallery.  ‘Lifeline’ is a term in English that implies the saving of life when one is in urgent need of help and the connotation of rescue is here intended culturally, as a metaphor for Wang’s lines as cultural thread, just as the trunk of a tree steadily grows upwards, supporting all the branches, his lines form the key element throughout his oeuvre. As an important member of the art world and someone whose roles have navigated being a museum director, a founder of large-scale art events such as the Guangzhou Triennial and pursuing his own artistic practice over many years, Wang’s persistent artistic output and creativity can indeed be understood as a lifeline. His varied professional and artistic life has art at its centre, both publicly and privately. 

Over the years, in his expansive ink practice, Wang’s pursuit of line has departed from a more classical mode in his earlier works to a more experimental abstraction that take various forms – from dense clusters of curvaceous lines lightly swooping in and out to express a sense of uninterrupted movement in space, through to more horizontal modes of thicker lines in his more recent works that are softly textured yet rigorous and bold. Though brush and ink are his principal medium, he also works with textiles, resin, newspaper and barbed wire, expanding his visual language in sustained bodies of work that contain ideas of vision, trace, and metaphor as central threads, each series visually evoking an undefinable visceral sense of being and aesthetic experience. 

In the last few years, Wang’s exploration of Boundary-Space in his numerous exhibitions, have allowed an engagement with the dynamics of line as an expanded element that has been increasingly freed from representation and containment of form. Here, the latest work, daily-practice include further explorations of line and composition, as well as non-legible ‘calligraphic’ paintings that verge on, but do not actually form, language, that in his words, ‘recall his classical self as a teenager’, when he fervently took up the passion of poetry.  The suggestive quality of these works and the expansion of Wang’s distinct artistic language are important additions to his earlier series, some of which will be discussed below. 

In Lifelines, there is one further theme - that of language. Lines are in everything we read, in lines of text but also as the basic component that form words, whether in Chinese characters or the Roman alphabet, or indeed any script. Writing is essentially line and how it formed into so many variant kinds of script feels mysterious and arbitrary, recalling our ancient past and the foundation of different cultures. There is a tension in Wang’s work in the balance of the lines, suggestive of calligraphy, the fundamental tenet of ink painting, in the need for compositional harmony. His recent series are finely wrought pieces of almost-language - abstract brush-marks of poetic thin lines of controlled chaos calling to mind the wild cursive script that ‘flies’ across the paper.  The idea of language can be explored as a key form of human communication, with the relationship of ‘langue’ (language) and ‘parole’ (speech), as developed by Saussure separating an overall system from what we actually write or say, the specifics of human interaction.  Here, language becomes a memory, an illusion, and a trace, of meaning that has passed. The ephemerality of experience echoes the Buddhist notion of emptiness (‘that which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness for) the last line of the Heart Sutra, extracts of which are inscribed in Wang’s hand on his recent Moving Image (2017/18) series.

Since the Song dynasty, Chinese landscape painting (山水) has traditionally juxtaposed inscription and image, positioning the relationship of language to representation in a sophisticated dialogue that allows the subjective written thoughts of the artist guide the depicted scene (landscape) as interpretative, experiential and immersive, pertaining to the inner mind and the senses. The artistic language Wang has developed departs from the conventional mode in that it does not adhere to any set ‘rules’ of representation, rendering it in line with a discourse of modernity that proposes a breaking down of form. However, there are certain continuums arguably in its attention to spatial balance and harmony, the tension between dark and light (yin and yang) and the sense of floating perspective in the visual plane. In exploring new visual territory, its materiality is intrinsic to what it expresses, emitting a kind of energy that is sensory and often quietly joyful. In releasing the lines from both drawing (outline) and writing (script), Wang sets them free into a pure state, allowing their dynamic energies to rove in different formations. This answers to deep-held Daoist and Buddhist systems of thought that are particularly pertinent to ink painting practices in East Asia. 

Throughout the twentieth century, the cross-cultural encounters through the flow of ideas in the urban metropolis has led to fertile ground for modernity that has freed artists from allegiances to narrow forms of tradition. In the East Asian context of post-war abstraction, we might think of the Korean monochrome Dansaekhwa artists who used the notion of scribbling ‘écriture’ in their layered meditative works, worked in heavily repetitive daubs onto the canvas, creating extraordinary dense concentrations. In the words of Michel Foucault: ‘Writing unfolds like a game that inevitably moves beyond its own rules and finally leaves them behind.’8[ Michel Foucault, ‘What is an Author?’ in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Selected Essays and Interviews (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), 300.] In abstraction, the ‘rules’ have been left behind, leaving a huge challenge for the artist as to how one might navigate this non-language, this wide-open field in which anything can occur. In Wang’s works, as suggested in his titles, the lines become a metaphor of existence, the threads of perception, of connection, of direction. 

Wang’s works have been shown in numerous major museums in China and worldwide in the last few years, a measure of his growing recognition as an artist. The proximity to his home province of Guangdong in southern China in this exhibition begs the question of locality in the southern region. In a globalised, increasingly linked-in world, can we return to a sense of the local? How does this bear on the modern contemporary cultural condition that is infused with so many disparate elements? In considering this question, the giant entity that is ‘China’, needs to be considered carefully and the relationship between region, locality and the world to which individual artists respond in multiple ways.  As Gregory Lee asserts in his new book China Imagined, ‘China’s early history describes a multilingual space, ruled by a homogeneous elite with its own minority culture’.9[ Gregory Lee, China Imagined. From European Fantasy to Spectacular Power (London: Hurst, 2018). ] Hong Kong is undoubtedly predominantly a ‘Cantonese’ city, which has absorbed numerous groups in its relatively short history of trade and colonial occupation. It’s ‘accent’ is broadly Asian and specifically related to Guangdong, its artistic practices and intellectual traditions also closely connected to traditional Chinese culture with a strongly urban, hybrid contemporaneity.  Until recently, though, the border was less porous and the close geographical proximity was a local, rather than a ‘national’ affiliation. 

One of the key debates at the turn of the twentieth century in China was about culture.  Ink painting as a literati tradition was under severe scrutiny since it symbolised the apparent inability of China to ‘catch up with’ the military and scientific ‘West’ following the aggressive and violent incursions from the mid-nineteenth century, which ultimately resulted in Hong Kong’s positioning as a British trade port in East Asia. Ink was (and is still) perceived as the quintessential Chinese cultural form, though its reputation as ‘unchanging’ for centuries is highly contestable. The overthrow of the dynasty was a severe threat to ink painting as an elite form due to its connection to privilege and refinement at a time when Confucianism was under violent attack by the revolution. 

By the turn of the last century, ink painting was already being ‘modernised’ and transformed through encounters with other cultures and the rejection of the old order. Even the artists of the emergent modern period in the Shanghai School had formed new languages in ink, taking it out of the elite mould into something more relevant, socially observant and urban. Arguably, a whole century of survival can be viewed through the lens of the ink painters and their continuous adaptations, despite the radical rejection of the past, tussled with throughout decades of political disruption and devastation. Xu Beihong’s epic figurative allegories, Lin Fengmian’s Parisian-influenced modernism, modern shuimo masters such as Shi Lu and Fu Baoshi, each developed their own artistic language within ink across figuration and landscape, urban modernism, the new society and political imperatives. The Lingnan painters such as Gao Jianfu, Gao Qifeng, Chen Shuren were leaders as the important southern group who modernised ink painting from within, by combining Euro-Japanese elements, influenced by their study in Japan.  In turn, this movement influenced younger Guangdong painters, such as the master Zhao Shao-Ang (1905-1998) a student of Gao Qifeng who moved across the border to Hong Kong (along with many others) in 1948. 

A notable painting from 1959 by the Guangdong painter Yang Zhiguang (1930-2016) shows a young Mao Zedong chatting on a bridge to his young recruits at the Peasant Movement Training Institute in the 1920s in Guangzhou, showing a variety of different stylistic elements such as outline, splash, shadow and perspective. This hybrid form of modern ink painting answered to a new national framework (guohua) marking a decade of the People’s Republic of China, a history painting, displaying a southern subject, with Lingnan features. Fu Baoshi’s moody weather-scapes of sweeping rain and clouds focus on the subject of nature in the immersive, wet climate of Sichuan in the wartime period, where he was able to enhance his techniques in creating wonderfully expressive aesthetic through his distinctive, strongly individualised brushwork.  Abroad in Paris from the late 1940s, the modern painter Zhao Wuji produced huge abstract canvases of dynamic energy in oils and yet later in his life, he also returned to ink. His kind of abstraction would have been impossible to develop in China up until the 1980s, when the expansion of art forms and the development of a new avant-garde dramatically changed the cultural environment.  Some of the most dynamic and exciting artists in the contemporary art field come from Guangdong, exemplified in collectives such as the Big Tail Elephant Group in the hugely playful and expansive Yangjiang Group. 

In the past ten years, a revolution in ink has occurred in China and a range of practices, from young artists working in meticulous and subtle ‘gongbi’ style in the academy, to such highly expressive, humanistic works by the established contemporary master Li Jin, whose prized works are sought for extortionate prices on the auction market. Ink has been freed of the expected forms it took for centuries, however brilliant and expansive some of the Qing masters such as Bada Shanren (1626-1705) or the famous individualist Shi Tao (1642–1707). Calligraphy has also exploded and older generation artists, such as Hangzhou-based Wang Dongling, born in the 1940s, are inserting themselves onto the global scene. started Important, landmark exhibitions have been mounted in the past few years to mark the significance of the medium, exemplified by the Metropolitan Museum’s Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China (Dec 2013-April 2014).  Currently there is an exhibition of Hong Kong ink painter Lui Shoukwan (1919-1975) at the Ashmolean in Oxford, a figure greatly under-appreciated in art history whose belated exposure is reviving interest in a forgotten group who pioneered a distinctive form of ink abstraction in Hong Kong.  Indeed, ink is now no longer a medium but an important and complex discourse in art stemming from the expansion of its creative potential, spilling out into film, animation, performance, multi-media and installation. 

Wang Huangsheng, born in the 1950s, also came through a difficult period when he was young and describes his experience of learning from the classics as formative in opening up his imagination and fuelling a desire for culture and knowledge. As he acknowledges the lineage of the region in broad terms, he also rejects the idea of coming from a particular tradition or ‘school’ stating, ‘It is safe to say that in the history of modern Chinese painting in Guangdong, there is neither a unique artistic concept nor a unique artistic style.’10[ Wang Huangsheng, Notes for reference, unpublished, December 2018.]  For contemporary ink painting, one is more likely to think of a classical centre such as Nanjing (where lao Wang studied), a city with a significant number of established ink painters who have been quietly and continuously produced ink paintings for many years in a culture that is well known for being reluctant to accept contemporary conceptual art that has burgeoned in the major centres of Beijing and Shanghai. Some of the Nanjing painters such as Liu Dan and Xu Lei, have achieved prestigious recognition in impressive auction sales and their works are held in numerous important museum collections worldwide.  

Craig Clunas explores the patterns of artistic lineage in the Ming and Qing (zi cheng yijia) referring to ‘the discourse of painting, but equally [as much from] the realm of family, property, and the practices that link ancestors to both’.11[ Craig Clunas, 2013. “The Family Style: Art as Lineage in the Ming and Qing”. In The Family Model in Chinese Art and Culture, ed. Jerome Silbergeld and Dora C. Y. Ching (Kinmay Tang Center for East Asian Art. Princeton: New Jersey, 2013), 459-474. ] As he asserts: ‘It is thus simultaneously an act of acknowledgment of the past (since the phrase is never
used without a listing of the names and sometimes the achievements of
the masters who have been studied) and one of founding, of supercession, of going beyond.’12[ Clunas, ‘The Family Style’, p.460.] In the post-Mao period, ink was barely acknowledged in the global discourse of contemporary Chinese art during its emergence in the 1980s, even if many artists were renewing it in their practice, after years of problematic political manoeuvres in the cultural field. 

From the late twentieth century onwards, lineage is an interesting question in the consideration of contemporary art practice. Due to the radical political changes in China, the period up to the late 1970s is marked by rupture and a struggle against traditional cultural values so the question of lineage is left in a state of disarray, broken by rigid ideology. Many contemporary painters have been defined by their academic training and the department they attended (oil, ink, printmaking, sculpture etc.) and the structure of the academy has its regional and historical lineage, continuing certain approaches, ideologies and styles. Beneath this structure though, are psychological impulses that carry longer family histories following political division, exile or migration. Tracing regional cultural affiliations can lead to fruitful insights into an artistic approach over a lifetime, where often the legacy of ‘home’ can be discerned at a deeper level.  

Arguably the regional aspect of Chinese culture is privileged in the culinary and linguistic sense, even though the lineage of the literati in south-east China has a strong sense of identity in the Jiangnan region associated with the lineage of the Southern Song lyrical tradition. The specifics of localised regional identity in art can perhaps define a broad sensibility, yet the complicating factors of late twentieth-century globalisation, the expansion of artistic forms, and the increasing movement of artists also obfuscates and refutes the idea of ‘regional style’.  Nevertheless, cultural specificity is vital to seek to acknowledge and understand, even if this entails numerous factors – social, geographical cultural, generational. If the main cities housing the elite art academies have formed major cultural hubs of artistic activity (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Chongqing), there are still networks of artists in China who have their own regional ‘circles’ (quanzi), particularly associated with the ‘laojia’ (old home) through dialect and food. 

As an artist, Wang Huangsheng is unusually broadly connected in China due to his prestigious position in the art world as a leading organiser and thinker, moving from city to city at different times in his career. Yet his use of line and the sensitive quality of the work does in many ways recall a south-eastern gentility connected to a cultural affiliation with Chaozhou and Fujian, what he calls ‘the gentle and appropriate comfort in the work of the silk thread and the ancient meaning of elegant’. He lights up into poetic mode when mentioning Chaozhou culture: ‘Chaozhou music is clear, with a dense rhythm, the classical charm of Chaozhou, Chaozhou drawn yarn, Chaozhou tea, Chaozhou cuisine... all of this, the warmth of the heart and the pure and delicate workmanship have brought the meaning of the word "exquisite" to the limit.’13[ Wang, ‘Notes’, Dec 18. ] The sensibility is transferred in Wang’s works in the past few years in his delicacy of execution and aesthetics. In the Moving Visions series, there is a flowing, liquid energy to them, with deeper masses of darker washes of ink out of which emerge areas of flecked strokes streaming outwards in a splashy continuum. Nevertheless, his work also deals with a tangential engagement with realpolitik, in works that deal with pain, separation and violence, evoked in the red-soaked gauze that he describes as a bandages covering wounds and the curving spiked wires calling to mind border-control and imprisonment. 

Visions, Vacancy and Life-force 

In Wang’s oeuvre, the works’ titles carry ideas for multiple works that are produced in series: Moving Visions, Vacancy Visions, Trace Visions creating a kind of longer rhythm to his work over time. The word ‘Life’ has many variations in the Chinese lexicon using different word combinations and perhaps the openness of Wang’s works carry different possible interpretations.  Moving Visions evoke primordial matter (生物), deep in the universe or cosmos, carrying connotations of the mystery of physical forces beyond human control or understanding. They are executed with apparent ease masking great skill, and the spontaneity of form seems to carry its own force, evolving into varied masses of lines floating up across the void. Like giant flocks of birds or clusters of bees, they take on a swirling movement that is poetic and magical.  On the other hand, his newspaper series have a more vernacular quality, with the freedom of lines scrawled over print, overlaying already inscribed meaning with illegible marks moving across the page.  

I do not know its name, but force myself to nickname it ‘Dao’
Force myself to name it ‘great’14[ Laozi, quoted in James Liu, Language-Paradox- Poetics. (New Jersey: Princeton University Press), 6. ]

Vacancy Visions are purer, white on white, with a textural quality produced by the thin, curvaceous lines appearing to be woven into or protruding out of the paper. These smaller discrete works have a modernist feel to them, as they reach towards two-dimensional sculptural form in blank monochrome.  In the English context, these recall Ben Nicholson’s White Reliefs in the 1930s, but white space as solid form is an integral part of Chinese painting. In the words of He Weimin: ‘Empty space is a philosophical concept, it is a synonymy of void or nothingness. Daoism advocated ‘attaining the limit of empty space, retaining extreme stillness (Lao Zi 16), further regarding that ‘only the Dao (Way) accumulates space. Space is the fasting of the heart’ (Zhuangzi Chapter 4, Worldly Business Among Humans).’15[ He Weimin, ‘The Mystery of Empty Space, An exhibition of twentieth century Chinese painting.’ Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 26th July – 16th October, 2005. See: https://www.heweimin.org/Texts/mystery_of_empty_space.pdf] White space is present in all of Wang’s works as a vital component of compositional equilibrium. 

Traces and Metaphors 

In the Trace and Metaphor series, Wang’s ‘Visions’ gain a different feeling. Using thicker, textured lines, they contain a less fluid aspect in the lines, which appear floating but are imprinted showing delicate cloth from which they are imprinted. The black and white Trace Vision 160925 shows a mass of ribbon-like strands that float over each other from a dark lower ground that lightens as the eye moves upwards. The perception of space is effectively created in a kind of floating perspective producing a sense of depth in an undefined pictorial enclosure that acts as a vortex into which the eye enters. The word Metaphor, in the English translation, is derived from the Greek metapherein: to transfer. The idea of transference is a long tradition in East Asian art, often confused in the complex issues of ‘authenticity’ and ‘copy’.  But taking an image of something is the time-old method of printmaking, the imprint.  Wang’s traces and metaphors might be understood as a dialogue with tradition or early human settlement, a conversation in the present that echoes and reverberates in its use of material and visual language that is perhaps both intertextual and trans-temporal.  On mountainsides in China, one can witness centuries of inscription, carved characters that act as sites for transference, from which are taken rubbings, as a trace to commemorate and take with you. These pilgrimages mark time gone by, to retrace the steps of previous travellers. Both inscription and the trace are deeply embedded in society, forming a kind of collective consciousness that binds the present to the past. 

In Wang’s Wall series of 2017, there is a more assertive quality. The thick lines of fine gauze are saturated and layered cumulatively creating a solid blockage, allowing overlap to create varied textures in the nuances of the ink’s application. Here, the element of chance and unpredictability intervenes in material ways and the tension of the final piece again plays intent against nature or physics in the process of production that is both prepared and instantaneous.  The horizontality of these works lies in contrast with the flowing swirls developed over a period of several years. Wang keeps the two directions going simultaneously, presenting a multiple perspective that emanates from the same source, just as his paintings float and flutter in different modes. The three-dimensional sculptural installations, moving image works and solid resin forms expand one’s view towards a harsher material (and political) reality in the spiked barbed wire, softened only with light and shadow. Lines thus take numerous forms and directions and in this exhibition, the range is nevertheless unified in the singularity of the artist’s approach to space, material and visual perception grounded in contemporary theory and ancient Buddhist thought. Words are intended to make sense of the works shown together here across two spaces to provide an attempted narrative, as we can only articulate through language.  However, these words remain inadequate and perhaps Wang Huangsheng’s works should be left to speak for themselves.  In viewing and experiencing them, we might get a sense of them as heartfelt, spiritual lifelines that connect our existence with the mysterious world. 

One day he'll build a statue with his hands
So gentle when he tries to understand
This subterfuge he never really planned
Now you're living in the lifeline

We're moving
In the lifeline
We're walking
In the lifeline
We're throwing
So live and let live in love
Spandau Ballet, Lifeline (1982)

 8,Michel Foucault, ‘What is an Author?’ in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Selected Essays and Interviews (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), 300.
 9,Gregory Lee, China Imagined. From European Fantasy to Spectacular Power (London: Hurst, 2018). 
10,Wang Huangsheng, Notes for reference, unpublished, December 2018.
11,Craig Clunas, 2013. “The Family Style: Art as Lineage in the Ming and Qing”. In The Family Model in Chinese Art and Culture, ed. Jerome Silbergeld and Dora C. Y. Ching (Kinmay Tang Center for East Asian Art. Princeton: New Jersey, 2013), 459-474.
12 ,Clunas, ‘The Family Style’, p.460.
13, Wang, ‘Notes’, Dec 18. 
14,Laozi, quoted in James Liu, Language-Paradox- Poetics. (New Jersey: Princeton University Press), 6.
15, He Weimin, ‘The Mystery of Empty Space, An exhibition of twentieth century Chinese painting.’ Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 26th July – 16th October, 2005. See: https://www.heweimin.org/Texts/mystery_of_empty_space.pdf