"Permeating: A Visual Experience With No Place to Hide"On Ma Han's Art
Source:Artintern Date: 2009-09-11 Size:
An intangible puzzlement engulfed Ma Han. He hoped to express his feelings about urbanization by means of art. Yet, in what way and with what materials should he express such profoundly materialistic and spiritual changes.

"Standing on the roof of a building and watching people hustling and bustling in the street, I feel somewhat sad. They are a group of faceless people."[①] Ma Han wrote down this statement when he explained his work "The Ant's Plan". This is his impression of people and street scenes in a metropolis like Beijing. After graduation from college in 1994, he came to Beijing, the capital city of China where the ongoing tremendous changes were not seen in other Chinese cities. The market-oriented commercialism was rapidly changing the cityscape: Over the past fifteen years the city has expanded from the 3rd ring road to the 5th ring road, and tall buildings have appeared so quickly like mushrooms that the city's skyline is just a thick forest of cemented buildings. And more importantly, the enormous demand for urban construction, commercial development and consuming reproduction, like a giant whirlpool, attracts gold rushers, bread earners and financial investors from different parts of the country as well as of the world. Experiencing the vicissitudes of the 1980s, city-dwellers in the 1990s now became more pragmatic and realistic. The awareness of trading for commodities became the one and only way to determine production, circulation and consumption. Despite materialistic prosperity, people began to feel more spiritual pressures of different forms, not knowing what to do to alleviate these pressures.

An intangible puzzlement engulfed Ma Han. He hoped to express his feelings about urbanization by means of art. Yet, in what way and with what materials should he express such profoundly materialistic and spiritual changes? Ma Han was a student of oil paintings who had just graduated from China Academy of Art (then known as Zhejiang Academy of Art). Normally, choosing oil paintings as a way to express such tremendous changes should be as easy as a piece of cake to him. Yet, he seldom drew paintings these years. Why was it so? Let us take a look at his self-appraisal when he jotted down at the time of graduation, and we will find the real reason for his choice later: "In the first two years of my college I did some practice trying different styles, and in the latter two years, I gradually receded to my inner heart. In my own monologues, I came to realize that all things invisible to the eyes in the techniques of oil paintings, as Taine said, should not be highly regarded. So I shifted my focus to exploring the ideas behind art. When I buried myself in books, I found no peace, no peace of a moment in myself. I felt I had nothing……It could be said that books had saved me. When I wavered, hesitated and doubted my own capabilities, a book was like a late-coming visitor helping me find a potential power in me…… In the last year of my college life, I began to design my blueprint in the future…… It made me always in a tight-minded and hot-headed state. Sure, I would rather be a hot-headed person than a dumb-minded person."[②] Like other contemporary artists in today's China, Ma Han was earnest to summarize and reflect upon his education just before he was to leave college. He has realized clearly that as a medium of visual art, oil paintings should not intend to establish the art language through his own styles or forms. Styles and forms are not the art language in themselves; they are merely the external forms of the art language. In the early 1990s, while he was at college, different styles of art such as the Wyeth style, the classical style, the Freudian style and the Expressionist style were popular in China. Yet, all these were styles of oil paintings. In Ma Han's view, these did not touch art language itself. Then, what is art language he thinks? According to him, art language is "the materialization of an artist's feeling", and "feeling is of primary importance, and its direct choice of medium is language."[③] In other words, the existence and abundance of art language, first of all, depends on an artist's feeling about the surrounding world. What does this kind of "feeling" mean to Ma Han? It means "memorable experience and instinctive feeling"[④], which includes both the education and information dissemination of indirect experience and the presence and judgment of direct experience. And also, the existence and abundance of art language relies on the medium which materializes this feeling. Oil paintings certainly are a kind of medium. Yet, in many cases, oil paintings cannot fully express an artist's current feelings. And besides, many artists of oil paintings persistently hanker after the style, so they are not capable enough to convey people's feelings when they face the ever changing reality. Therefore, as a materialized instrument, the medium must follow the artist's feelings and the latter (the feelings) must face the current reality. "A style which does not show contemporary people's aesthetic values is incapable of representing the contemporary art language. Modern language makes it possible for modern man to find a direct approach to expressing the inner heart, and thus becoming a way of self-fulfillment."[⑤]

With such a thought and belief, Ma Han came to Beijing, and soon later, entered into Foreign Philosophy Research Institute of Beijing University to attend the course Contemporary Western Philosophy as an auditor for a year. Thanks to such a systematic study of philosophy, which is rarely done by many other artists, his conception of art changes substantially. He needs to directly respect his own instinct in his art, and his instinct needs to directly confront the contemporary life. An artist's style, as an external form of expression, seems to be unimportant. Starting from this moment, in Ma Han’s eyes, an oil painting is but a medium, and like cameras, video-cameras, ready-made materials and devices, it must be subjected to what he wants to express in the heart. Over the past ten or so years, he has been using different media forms, such as photography, behavior, devices and complex materials, to express his memorable experience and instinctive feeling. In terms of materials and methods, he has completely broken away from the fetters of the academic style of oil paintings, bringing abundant physical forms of language to his artistic creation.

Starting with the conception of art and always following his own instinct, Ma Han began to think long ago such questions: "On what basis can an art be called a real art that speaks for our contemporary life rather than an art merely found in museums and textbooks? In what way and with what media do we express the many more possibilities? And what is worth our efforts to express?"[⑥] Such a questioning of artistic targets or subject matters, from another perspective, shows that his redifinition of art style, his expansion of art medium, his thought on the innate quality of art and his loyalty to memorable experience and instinctive feeling are in effect the result of his strong concern for the development of this capital city and other chinese cities. It is this kind of deep concern and hard thought, which he himself describes as "tight-minded" and "hot-headed", that makes his artistic creation in recent years always closely associated with the influence of rapidly developing economy and society on contemporary people’s ideas, rather than merely aimless metaphysical thought or book knowledge in the ivory tower.


For Ma Han, in an age when visual information runs rampant, does the explosion of knowledge mean that people's spiritual life becomes richer or poorer? With the change of pictures, do memories and experiences become more uncertain and more difficult to discern? With the thick forest of cemented buildings and the endless urban sprawl, have we long lost the space for thought and poetry, nothing left but the ceaseless pursuit for profits and the aimless hustle and bustle for a living? If what we see in crowded streets and cemented buildings is the fall of our body, then where is our soul? It is suspending, just like the duckweed, rootless. Ma Han is fond of reading books, yet in 2001 and 2002, he discarded books by producing a few works of behavioral photography: Wind from the North, It's Wind and The Moving Bookshelf, for the purpose of satirizing people's superficial understanding of knowledge. People tend to associate knowledge with wealth, forgetting its spiritual role of cultivating mind. In this exhibition, he once again built up the high edifice of books, exposing the absurdity of knowledge being misused and misinterpreted. In his well-known photographic works City Map and The Ants' Plan, he uses the methods of continual overlapping and cyclic extension to exaggeratedly reveal urban people's busy state like the worker ants, producing a map in which people lose way and cannot find their home. In several exhibitions both in and outside China, he intended to name his subject matter Maze, which was based on the idea of the winding and surrounding space device of the ancient-styled Floating-cup Pavilion, in order to give people a strong shock of not knowing why. To highlight his feeling about the urban people who are simply like selfless ants, Ma Han creatively uses tens of thousands of miniature humans and rice grains, their size as small as fingertips, to let them twine, climb, creep, permeate and inhabit in various kinds of historical sites and cultural images, hence his own style "the Ma's Symbol". His series of Mountains and Waters Today, along with Plum, Orchid, Bamboo and Chrysanthemum which is on display this time, are rightly his clever use of ancient famous paintings as an allegory to the sharp impact between traditional culture and contemporary society. While he draws lines with "iron wires" and regroups and transforms these miniature humans and rice grains on the canvas, those ancient classical images are tainted with a deep sense of sadness and elegance, only more significantly in a current situation.

Thus, whether in target objects or subject matters, Ma Han's art aims directly at the materialistic and commercialized life of present-day cities. However, unlike the realist pattern of narration which has been prevailing in recent twenty years, he refuses to imitate and duplicate the real scenes in which people live, for he thinks this sort of surface or visual experience is hard to gain a deep insight into people's real life and is unable to convey the complicated inner-heart feelings behind a particular object. It is a constant process of making promises for rewards and yet dumbing the sense of percetion. It is a never-ending gambling game in which nobody will pay for your cost and sacrifice unless you keep playing the game. It is a kind of stimulation and perplexion never felt before, and just like a nightmare, it makes all people who touch it inescapable. What Ma Han wants to convey or materialize in his art with all his heart and soul is rightly this kind of feeling.

When the global economic crisis, which results from the financial storm in 2008, spreads to every corner of the world, Ma Han shifts his focus to the ethical or moral principles concerning the fairness and justice in the control and distribution of mankind's resources and wealth. In his early years of stay in Beijing, while studying philosophy, he did odd jobs (making graphic design), working as a nine-to-five white-collar employee for a company, and experiencing the advantages that "knowledge changes fate"and that "knowledge is wealth". After a short span of ten years, the admirable job and income of a white-collar worker has been merged into a mysterious social group which is nicknamed as "black-collar". While white-collars rely on their knowledge and skills for wealth and success, the vast group of black-collars easily obtains a handsome profit by relying more on the monopolization of major resources, and their real income is intangible. In terms of personal ability, these black-collars are not competitive, yet they as a group have controlled and shared most of the wealth which originally should belong to all the people. Wherever they go, these black-collars are followed by commercialists, for they possess a far more robust capacity of consumption than white-collars; their emergence further broadens the gap of wealth between rich people and poor people of the same society. Like many clear-headed intellectuals, Ma Han feels this hidden group's control of and penetration into public resources and wealth, which is a serious infringement upon the fair and equal principles of distributing resources and wealth in the process of building a civic society, and this intangible monopolization is far more harmful to people's soul than the materialization of commodities. Now he wants to use his art to express his concern for this new kind of soul alienation, just as he did in Floating in 2002, using behavioral photography to expose the wandering, struggling and directionless state of white-collar workers in the cities. This time, as he has done many times before, he does not directly use visual pictures to recreate and restore these omnipresent yet unidentifiable groups; instead, he chooses to use hundreds of black shirts, which are dip-dyed with rice gruel, to show them flying out of a dark room, just like bats or ravens, fluttering up and down in the enormous exhibition hall. Some of them, like locusts, make trees wither where they go. Some, like clouds, hover high at the top of the exhibition hall. Some, like moths, dash recklessly at the audience who enter the hall from the wide open door. And some, like dead bodies, are pressed and fixed inside the glass frame. This is a clever use of metaphor. The collars of the black shirts are certainly black, but they do not cover up the black-collar people's fleshy body, and there is no need to depict or display those black-collar people's actual physical forms. Yet, from these unrestrained, limitless, casual and high-hanging models of black shirts, the audience can feel an unprecedented coldness and pressure which is hard to describe.

With the aid of apparel rather than human body itself, Ma Han once again makes his art "really speak for contemporary life". Because of his own personal experience and his long-time observation and reflection, he has come to realize "what is worthwhile to express" in today's world and in what way it should be expressed. Black shirts, as ready-made materials, are lifeless in themselves, but after the artist’s selection and treatment, they become a symbol for a particular group of people. When they appear in the exhibition hall in groups and piles, they are transformed into a special language of visual art. They are omnipresent and regardless of anything, so they make the audience feel an inescapable oppression and stir up an endless imagination.
Ma Han's art shows the state of human beings' survival in the background of global capitalization. His art is characterized by a persistent use of the social surroundings to depict and set off a person. This "person" is not a specific individual person, but a particular group of people with social attributes. They are faceless, for they are dimmed and merged by the pressures of the survival environment, and yet they have a strong force of life. They are the living beings in a particular social space and they are changing and reshaping their own survival space, thus producing different types of unusual scenes. A Path in the Woods (deriving from Heidegger's philosophical work Holzwege), which is a big-sized work of art, displays a path full of climbing miniature persons in the thick woods. The numerous miniature persons, driven by desires and pressures, are climbing and struggling. They have transformed the natural prosperous trees into merely a line of sight-seeing trees entangled with pains and desires. They have long lost the spirit of Heidegger's thinking in the woods, only with the pains and desires of human beings who look like ants. [⑦] By presenting these absurd and bizaare trees, the artist attempts to rid these people of their nightmare and let them return to normal state of personality.

A general survey of Ma Han's artistic creation in the past ten-odd years shows that while focusing on the tremendous changes in the real world, he is able to select and extract the most metaphoric and symbolic materials from the real life and give them an artistic transformation, thus forming his own visual art language which is full of instinct and inspiration. In such an age when everything is materialized, intended for exchange and linked to power, what an artist can do is to use a visual form to make people conscious of their situation in which they have no place to hide. If such a visual form can function, then, an artist's work is of poetical significance to enhancing people's awareness.

Gao Ling
29 Aug.- 1 Sept., 2009
[①]Ma Han: A Smooth Description, not published
[②] Ma Han: the manuscript of Self-Appraisal, written on 17 June, 1994, not published
[③] Ma Han: the manuscript of his graduation thesis The Silent Sound, written in May to June, 1994, not published
[④] Ibid 1
[⑤] Ibid 3
[⑥] Ibid 1
[⑦] “Holzwege” is a work by Heidegger, published by Maine-Frankfurt in 1950, totaling 345 pages. Quoted from Selected Works of Heidegger (Part II), edit. by Sun Zhouxing, Shanghai Joint Publishing Company, 1996, P.1328

Relative link:
"Permeating: A Visual Experience With No Place to Hide" Ma Han's Solo Exhibition    

 The infomation of Ma Han's exhibition in Chinese

[Editor] 于添