Voices from China
Considering the debate on tradition vs. modernity that goes on in our own land, I was very interested in reading some pieces, recently, on what is happening in the world of art in China today. In one of these, two distinguished figures, one of them a curator, and the other an art critic, were speaking of the tensions, the artistic dilemmas, that contemporary artists face there: the sharpening conflict between the past and the present: the coming to terms with developments in the west; the role of censorship, whether governmental or societal; the travails of curating; the greasy role of commerce; the clever and the facile edging out the true and the thoughtful.
To anyone knowing
something about the Indian art scene today, all this must sound very
familiar. The critic, Li Xianting, put it well, however, when he spoke
of the tension between ‘tradition and the new styles’. "This
is not simply a case of belonging to one tradition or another",
he said, "because the concept of tradition itself is
complex." He then went on to speak of the different streams that
continue to flow there: among them, the original Chinese tradition;
work done in awareness of Western realism and classicism brought in
around 1919; the concepts of modernism imported from the West in the
1980s. "So in China when we speak of tradition it is always more
complex, and you must understand that there is also a tension between
these different traditions".
But then there is also the case of Tian Shu – roughly translated, ‘A Book from Heaven’ –, probably the most celebrated work of contemporary Chinese art, by the artist Xu Bing who used to work in Beijing earlier. Starting in the 1980s, a little before the Tiananmen carnage, Xu Bing spent three years carving more than four thousand Chinese characters on wood blocks. These he then printed, on a traditional press, producing from them a series of scrolls and books and posters, which were bound and mounted in various ways. What is remarkable, however, is that the ideographic characters in these finely crafted works are, literally speaking, meaningless, a ‘nonsense script’, as it were. The characters are made up of ‘recognizable radicals’, or parts of Chinese words; these are then arbitrarily put together by the artist to take on the appearance of standard Chinese characters without making any sense. The work is thoughtful, provocative, not simply slick . The whole thing is in fact an elaborate conceit: something exquisitely crafted but, as one slowly discovers, devoid of anticipated meaning, these very facts turning it into a complex critique of life and contemporary society. As one writer put it: " There is a very interesting moment in our enjoyment of when our recognition of its ‘nonsense’ suddenly strikes us. Half drowned by the beauty of the aesthetic form, we are caught unaware by the ‘nonsense’ always already in the work. Immense enjoyment is followed by betrayal."
Of a different order than the works one has been speaking of was the work of the artist Chang Dai-Chien, also a contemporary but not a modernist. This remarkable man, who died in 1983 at the age of 85, is often spoken of as being among the last examples of ‘the traditional Chinese romantic artist’.
An account of Dai-Chien’s long and eventful life reads almost like fiction: kidnapped at a young age by a group of bandits, he was able to impress their chief by his own talent in drawing and ended up being his secretary but then escaped; in Shanghai he learnt weaving and textile dyeing in which he excelled; to protest the marriage forced upon him by his family, he entered a Buddhist monastery but left it before becoming a monk, put off by the idea of a tonsured head and scarring by incense sticks; he learnt calligraphy from some of the great masters of the art, but took up producing ‘versions’ of old works to be able to finance his new passion for old Chinese art of which he became one of the greatest collectors. Dai-Chien painted ceaselessly, but he also travelled extensively, both in and outside China: made copies over more than two years of the murals in Dunhuang, was taken prisoner by the Japanese only to escape, settled for a while in Brazil where he turned his home into a traditional Chinese garden, visited Pablo Picasso in Europe. But the image he sedulously cultivated, wherever he travelled, was that of an old master, complete with the traditional long beard: a free spirit, ebullient and restless, fond of wine and women.
Interestingly, Dai-Chien came also to India in
1950, and painted some works while here, among them the head of an Indian woman
which I find fascinating, casting the delicate face as he does in the mould of a
Kuan-yin figure from China. Did he work till the very end? Yes, for his energy
was prodigious. His last work, probably his most ambitious in scale, was a Panorama
of Mount Lu, which he painted for a hotel lobby in 1983: it measured
two meters in height and was ten metres long.