I hear that you've hit another creative block. This comes as no surprise to me. Much of any professional artist's time is spent dealing with setbacks. Your predicament shows that your painting has not grown to formulaic over the past few years, and that you still face each artwork with sincerity. I am very happy to see this.
You love fishing. You once told me that the fish and the mythical dragon are very much alike -swim through waters of untold depths in complete silence. You spend much of your free time refining your fishing techniques, and working on strange problems such as how to release a fish after catching it and how to tell its age from its scales. That is why I proposed Notes on Fishing as an art project. I hoped that it would allow you to bring together your creative experiments and spiritual growth from the past few years. You painted images of a young boy alone at night in the water with a fish, coming home in the evening with a fishing pole, or sitting in a room¡I see a bit of you in them. Your fishing experiences (such as your observations of the inconsistencies of fishermen by the pond, your encounter with a wild boar one night on Wild Boar Island, etc.) have imbued your paintings with fascinating and mysterious airs. I agree with your view that an artist's process of creative maturation is like a pendulum, wherein the larger the amplitude (the larger the breadth of experimentation), the more powerful it will become when it stabilizes. Notes on Fishing calls to mind the daily clashes of ideas in your artistic experiments: you in your studio with the big wooden boxes from Jingdezhen, carefully pulling the half-finished sculptures from their reed wrapping; you were wearing that robe, and at the height of discussion, tearing up your sketch; you writing the words "freedom" and "power" on the wall with an ink brush¡
Fishing is such a strange activity. It is the convergence of patience-stretched wisdom and serendipity, with unpredictable results. Perhaps a lifetime of squatting will amount to nothing, or perhaps an inspiring surprise will leap from the water just as hope is fading. The goal of fishing is clear, but one can never depend on the outcome. The best fishermen, like Jiang Ziya*, that legendary fisherman of old, are profound figures. For you, fishing lies somewhere between an act of life and the practice of inaction, an allusion to the creative state: hesitation, meditation, patience. Through Notes on Fishing, I have seen your probing of the essential questions of artistic creativity through pondering the "Tao of fishing". Why does an artist paint? Why is he enamored with unreal, mysterious things? Fishing becomes a metaphor for artistic creation, even the meaning of life. In these times, when the great sages are long gone, and the keys to thought have grown covered in rust, Notes on Fishing reflects the spiritual conundrum that a young artist faces here and now.
You're never satisfied with your paintings, and you make repeated changes on the canvas in a single-minded pursuit of spiritual dignity in colors, brushstrokes and facial expressions, swinging from mood to mood. You shouldn't worry about being perplexed like that. People only have self-contradictions and hesitation when they have a lot going on in their minds, and this is necessary for spiritual growth. Only through deep immersion in them will you make surprising discoveries. The profound nature of fishing lies in the process. One does not have to come home with a bucket full of fish to be a success. Now I realize that falling into your own trap is the key to unlocking yourself. Every artist is like a fisherman. In the flow of vulgar life, he chooses to be an observer. He is never washed away in the waves, and remains in lonely self-doubt. What matters is that you persevere in your belief that in these constantly changing times, painting is a quest for those "mystical traces" that transcend thought, and that this is an irreplaceable and sacred endeavor. For this you need extreme wisdom and tenacity; you need to swallow the drudgery of fishing with a smile.
It looks like we won't be able to go to Vietnam together, though I've always wanted to go. I'm scrawling out this letter to you under the lamplight, and thinking that right now you're probably under the stars in Jingdezhen, writing, pondering wooden architectural structures of ancient times, or reading ghost stories from "Liao Zhai" (Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, Qing Dynasty), doing spiritual fishing in the midst of internal chaos. I hope you can maintain this precious vigor. Think about it, in another ten years, our sharp mental worlds might recede; I hope that your thoughts on the riverbank are always free and unrestrained.
* Jiang Ziya, also known as Jiang Shang, is said to have caught fish without the use of bait, simply hanging his straight hook in the water and exhorting the fish to grab it. (From Tales of King Wu's Punitive Expedition against Zhou.)