The Crisis Art and the correct interpretation of the Dark Domain in the Art of ink and wash of He Canbo

The Chinese modern art is a product of a social and historical turmoil which is yet to be overcome. It is therefore justified to call it an art of crisis. Contemporary art reflects historical rhythms in the society, promptly reacting to various upheavals in it, detecting, defining and resolving crises. The ink and wash art of He Canbo is not an exception in this respect making timely and judicial responses to social crises. 

A high level of sophistication reached by the traditional Chinese ink and wash painting over the centuries has become the obstacle in itself for the smooth transition into the modern idiom. Its history in the past hundred years, like that of the rest of Chinese art, is a witness of the pains and dilemmas linked to this historical transition. A system of thought and language had been created over a few thousand years of the development of Chinese painting with a strong emphasis on the self-perfection. For example, the renaissance of the art of painting in Daoguang-Xianfeng reign, mainly centering on the epigraphy, comes as a revolutionary transformation of the traditional Chinese painting which had undergone a period of decline just after the middle of the Qing Dynasty. In its history, art has always been caught in the whirlpool of various tendencies. However, the challenge posed to the Chinese art in modern times has been unprecedented. The traditional Chinese painting had undergone the influence of western thinking and western systems of values, including the political values, to the point that its very survival was put into question. Various endeavors, notably Xu Beihong’s introduction of West inspired drawing techniques, were instrumental in bridging the gap. Similar developments could be discerned in the transformation and the continuance of the ink and wash art which has become the focus of attention of most contemporary Chinese artists. However, this transformation of the traditional Chinese painting does not merely concern technical issues but, more importantly, it concerns the conceptual issues of the transformation of thinking.

On the surface it may appear that the Chinese art has been brought to bear pressure from the “colonial” western culture. In fact, it was necessary for the Chinese art to undergo a radical transformation in modern times. Western influence was only an external impetus which has set in motion the vital forces of the Chinese creativity. Just like the introduction of the Buddhist philosophy and art during the Eastern Han Dynasty, the outside force did not just created a crisis, but also brought new opportunities. The rejection of western learning and experience would have actually blocked the transformation which was due to happen anyway. In this debate we should endeavor to find out the very essence of “modernity” inherent in the western thinking rather than to debate whether the introduction of western values was appropriate and beneficial for the Chinese art.

The modernity is embodied in rationalistic, scientific and progressive thinking, in one word, in the pursuit of a positivist awareness of the world. In the art history, already in the Renaissance, we can find the germs of scientism. The study of anatomy, perspective, optics and the science of color, with its rationalism, brings the art from the mythical and religious domain into a secular and positivist one. In the process of modernization, human beings build up confidence that they can conquer the world. The objective representation of the real world assumes the meaning of a final conquest which comes as the terminal point of a linear trajectory that is the evolution of the history of art. As Arthur Danto rightly points out, Vasari’s narration of the history of Italian painting anticipates Hegel’s progressive historical view in philosophy. The technological nec plus ultra of western civilization imposes itself as a model to be emulated by the relatively less technologically advanced eastern countries. The strategy of learning from the advanced technologies of the West in order to resist western influence and power is a contradiction in itself. The whole era is under the shadow of western modernity, which, for the arts, means that they are taken hostage by the political views belonging to scientism. Applied to the Chinese painting of the modern times, this means that the extreme views such as the art revolution and the introduction of the western style drawing into the traditional Chinese paintings can be justified. In the context of the philosophy of enlightenment, modern concepts such as independence, freedom, democracy and equality needed to be introduced into the Chinese society. However, to put excessive emphasis on the principle of scientism would contradict the independence of art postulated by Kant. The advent of modernism introduces artistic independence and, at the same time, it ushers in the resistance to the rationalist posture of scientism. Thus, the modern art gives a different orientation to the traditional Chinese art.

As already mentioned, the transformation of the traditional Chinese painting in the past century occurs in the context of a struggle between the realistic perception of the society at large and the modernist view of the world. This formulation which has general connotations is also valid when applied to the post-modernism and what comes after it. The main problem is that the superstitious belief in the supremacy of reason takes over the whole human existence which it controls. At least in the arts, we should reawaken genuine feelings and instincts of the dormant human nature and give them a hope of a new life. If we do not grant independence to art and continue to view it through the prism of economy, science and technology, art may as well become a mere footnote in the history of humanity.

The artistic production of He Canbo conforms to what has just been said. .He Canbo is one of the few Chinese ink and wash artists with a true modern vision. He endeavors to set Chinese traditional painting on the path to modernity by breaking the mould of rationalism with the help of religious and philosophical concepts. 

For He Canbo, the starting point of his art is his own world view. Indifferent to the material aspects of life, he devotes himself wholeheartedly to his artistic creativity. He has come to the realization that the existence based on the striving for power and wealth not only deflects from a life of purity but it also generates social crises. Individuals have to choose their own modes of existence which in turn creates a pervasive sense of anxiety. An artist also has to choose his way of life actively engaging in the crisis rather than pretending that the crisis does not exist. For He Canbo this is the question of artistic dignity and valor.

The tackling of the crisis in He Canbo’s art bears an indelible mark of modernity. Breaking away from the tradition, he postulates a firm link between the spiritual existence and the art of wash and ink which opens new horizons for the artistic creativity and expression. The essential characteristic of wash and ink art is its spiritual disposition which affiliates this traditional technique to the modern art thus transcending the narrow boundaries of the national and the cultural. However, the artistic language of He Canbo is firmly grounded in the reality of the symbol in contradistinction to the traditional ink and wash which is focused on the descriptive and the concrete. He uses a symbol of the Chinese character “几” which from the semiotic point of view can be interpreted as a closed space in transition. The curling line of this character encloses a human shape filled with a void indistinguishable from the void of the surrounding space, the latter being likened to a rational principle which governs lines and shape. The semiotic meaning of the character is of secondary importance, what matters is its concrete form. One can go a step further and postulate a similarity between the 几 form and the figures of saints painted in simple outlines on the medieval icons. The icon, through its dignified simplicity exerts a magical influence on the beholders keeping them under its spell. The simple form is thus invested with a notion of sacredness. The modern beholder watching He’s几’s has the illusion of partaking of sacredness while still being rooted in the rational modernity of the contemporary life. Thus, the symbol, through its very form, becomes a vehicle for both the sacred and the rational. 

In the ink and wash of He Canbo the几symbol undergoes three stages of development. First, the几is abstracted from the sacred human form. Next, several几’s are combined in abstract relationships and configurations which reflect the inner conflicts and dilemmas of the contemporary society. Finally, a semblance of a dialogue between these forms is established and this brings a glimmer of hope for the resolution of the social crisis.

In his art, He Canbo is not exclusively concerned with the individual freedom understood in the modern sense. He turns his gaze to the destiny of all human beings. An emphasis on the rational, positive and progressive inherent in the modern thinking cannot obscure the fact that underneath this positivist picture of reality lies a hidden world of spiritual values. It can be envisaged as a dark domain, a shadow below the spotlight of a bright surface. Human beings have confidently built up complicated theoretical constructs and system with which to explain the nature of life. However, the life of wisdom cannot be simply equated with the validation of facts. There are phenomena in life which are beyond the grasp of science. While conforming in his philosophy to the spirit of enlightenment and reason, Kant also leaves space for the theology. Benjamin blends the theoretical practice of materialism with a kind of Messianic theology. Both these thinkers seem to try to uncover the hidden domain of the spiritual. This dark, hidden domain cannot be brought to light with the help of outside forces. It can only be made manifest through the spiritual energy which emanates from itself. This also applies to art: the positive energy emanating from the dark domain can illuminate the path that leads out of the existential crisis that characterizes contemporary society. 

In his splash-ink, He Canbo depict, apart from human beings, the outside space filled with mountains and seas. The nature is either a puzzle or a manifestation of the dark domain. The mortals gather at the foot of the sacred mountains, looking up at the top of the mountains with humbleness and respect. In the marine scenes, they are praying for the coming of the Noah’s ark. Beside the above symbols, He Canbo also installs some straight lines and geometrical constructs. Their function is one of orientation: they point to the path of enlightenment, the path out of the crisis. Although art cannot be equated with the thought, it can realize the thought. By removing the cover from the dark domain, the ink and wash art of He Canbo sheds light on the critical issues of the contemporary life. His art transcends physical existence guiding the viewers towards the self-knowledge, the love of life and the respect of the sacred. By so doing, He’s art also transcends the crisis in art and offers solutions for the resolution of the social crisis in the general sense. 


25 July 2012 by Tsinghua  Park
(Translation by Dr.Rasko Radovic &Wang Tao)

Hao Qingsong

Hao Qingsong, a native of Handan County, Hebei Province, was born in 1973. Doctoral candidate of fine art studies at the Academy of Arts & Design of Tsinghua University, and former editor of Northern Art, the journal of Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts.
He has published Influence – Report of Female Artists in Tianjin, published many theses in such magazines as Jiangsu Art Monthly and Arttime, and curated and hosted such exhibitions as “Elsewhere – Female Art,Tianjin” and “Wounded City”.
His main theses include “As a Mode of Revision – Chinese Abstract Art after the Sociological Turn”, “De-Artified and Re-politicalized Chinese Contemporary Art”, “Political Appeals and Reality Anxiety of Chinese Contemporary Art”, “Feminist Gesture Outside Beijing”, “Undertaking and Practice of Female Body Art – The Political Field of Vision of ‘Bald Headed Sharp Woman’”, “Step Out of Ideology – The Survivalist Field of Vision of Chinese Contemporary Art”.