Learning from the Literati
No contemporary artist’s studio is complete without a traditional tea set – with the arrival of guests signaling the beginning of a elaborate ritual of heating water, dumping out the first round of tea through the grates of the tea board, steeping, sipping, draining, whiffing, praising the quality of the tea and beginning the cycle again.
Traditional culture often holds an esteemed position in the minds of many artists, and the epitome of that culture is the literati painter. As early as the Han Dynasty these men defined themselves from the court painters by bringing a sense of personal expression into their depictions of the landscape – they were renaissance men well versed in law, poetry, calligraphy and philosophies such as Daoism and Confucianism.
Many played roles as leaders and moral arbiters in their communities, but in general they are known for their hermit-like behavior – their tendency to turn away from the evils of society and head to the mountains where they would lose themselves in thought and art.
“In Learning from the Literati,” eight artists examine what it means to be a literati and exploring the legacy of the literati in contemporary society.
Shi Jinsong expresses the contrast between the noble literati culture and our chaotic and fractured and often reality. The Artist has created specially crafted scholars rocks (the kind that typically adorn Chinese gardens) made from pieces of concrete rubble from the demolished neighborhoods of Beijing. Shi Jinsong has perforated them with a drill and to create a pockmarked look – that classical texture so prized by the literati but which represents the violence of being uprooted.
Artist Sayaka Abe looks at the idea of displacement playing with the words shanshui (“water and mountains” a synonym for Chinese traditional landscape painting). A Japanese artist, now based in the decidedly flat Netherlands, Abe explores the tyranny of water in the context of the Dutch terrain in a post-Copenhagen world. In her deeply layered textile work, lino-block prints of Dutch architecture piled into boats form towering islands/mountains which look at man’s relationship to nature – a typical concern of the literati.
With a series of sculptures in porcelain and resin Artist Qian Rong, also uses the metaphor of water to explore the conflicted relationship between literati values and contemporary society. A river is something that flows one way, and though Qian Rong admits that we cannot reverse time, we can still emulate the literati through perusing values such as independent thought. In his work, the symbol of the boat conveys the notion that literati ideals may act as an anchoring device to weather the tides of modernity.
Chen Hangfeng also explores notions of change and stability – in a work, which examines the waxing and waning of literati values in Chinese society. The work consists of depictions of plants such as pine and bamboo, “the Four Gentlemen” of literati lore rendered in snippets of black plastic bags. The leaves of the plants are affixed with pins (somewhat like a dead scarab beetle on pinned to a piece of Styrofoam), which convey notions of deadness. A fan mounted on the side of the work, causes a periodic rustling of the leaves, yet despite these wayward modern disturbances, the leaves always return to their original position.
Italian artist Girolamo Marri takes his exploration of literati culture to Stromboli, a volcanic island off the coast of Sicily. Surrounded by still active volcanoes Marri had the chance to contemplate the perilous relationship between man and nature and also the feasibility of a literati lifestyle. His installation – a collection of drawings and objects – asks the question: can we really escape into the wilderness to gain philosophical enlightenment from nature or is this quest rendered futile by the distractions of modernity?
Ji Wenyu looks at this desire for escape in a striking cloth sculpture. The work features a traditional shanshui mountain scenery marred by the presence of a dam at the top of the waterfall. In the middle of the stream is a white-collar man sitting astride a stone gazing up towards the mountain. Here Ji is looking at not only our desire to control nature (a precedent seen in bonsais or in Chinese gardens) but also our estrangement from nature – a theme he has been exploring in his work over the past few years.
Painter Shi Jing, furthers this theme of escape by transporting the viewer to an abyss of deep contemplation, with his monochrome canvases. His work consists of black paint raked into patterns which under the right lighting conditions reveal the image of a wild and emaciated pine tree posed on the edge of a cliff. Here we can see the tree as a metaphor for the literati lifestyle of quietude, longevity and perseverance – qualities no doubt needed to survive the hermetic existence on the mountaintop.
Also looking at the literati lifestyle is Gao Mingyan with a new installation piece – a reconstructed room, filled with gathered objects, which have been perforated with a pin in the pattern of a shanshui painting. A light placed inside these objects allows the image to be illuminated. In this work Gao hopes to create a contrast between our experience of viewing contemporary art (as something to be revered in a sterile white cube) and the literati experience of art, which was an integral part of their lives, something as normal as eating drinking or sipping tea.