Symphony of the Human Spirit and Freedom: The Body and Beyond – Chinese Contemporary Art Exhibition Author:Helen Buss Mitchell Date: 2012-03-06 Size:
In a 1946 lecture, Jean Paul Sartre defined modern existentialism: "… man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards." ["Existentialism as a Humanism"] This affirmation of the human spirit informs and enlivens the paintings in "The Body and Beyond."

In a 1946 lecture, Jean Paul Sartre defined modern existentialism: “… man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.” [“Existentialism as a Humanism”] This affirmation of the human spirit informs and enlivens the paintings in “The Body and Beyond.”

Though ancient traditions and techniques are deeply honored, they neither confine the imagination nor circumscribe the execution of the works in this exhibit. Instead, we discover a lively humanism that is awake to reality, aware of tragedies and challenges, and still embraces human agency and freedom. As these artists confront the furious pace of social and economic change, the too-rapid expansion of cities into pristine natural areas, the suffering caused by natural disasters, and the alienation of humans and animals seeking balance in the midst of imbalance, there is a concomitant celebration of human choice and possibility.

In Shang Yang’s homage to the ancient Chinese scholar-artist, Dong Qichang, for example, we find meticulously rendered stones that speak of both permanence and destruction. Their timelessness, however, is juxtaposed with overlays of ink and calligraphy, as the artist yearns to recapture and compellingly represent the enduring affinity between man and nature, modernity and tradition. All of this is at risk, as we see in Xu Ze’s “The Beauty of Winter.” The lovely overarching bamboo evokes tradition and harmony. Then, we notice buildings crushed by the encroachment of a rapidly-expanding city. As the artist allows further contrasts to emerge between past and present, unforgiving concrete and living earth, a "Tranquil Place” surrounded by chaos, we also observe his commitment to human responsibility for finding the balance point between progress and sustainability.

Meanwhile, in a nightmarish landscape, Qiu Guangping’s surreal images of straw corpses being examined and human ones transported by toothy horses into an uncertain future convey dislocation. Like their human counterparts, the horses seem alienated, desperate, no longer able to be natural beings in an out-of-balance environment. Pondering the very real material and human devastation of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Liao Zhenwu confronts both our horrifying losses and our collective responsibility for the imbalance and the suffering that is so evident on the faces of the victims he honors.

In Ma Lin’s images of the body awakening – returning to a sense of its own power and promise – we see how joyously the body may be inhabited, how freely and energetically it may surge up to meet the challenges and possibilities of the present moment. We feel the capability of the human being, the sheer delight in being alive. And yet, the optimism expressed in these bodies is balanced by the torpor in Yu Li’s subjects. The women in her paintings, though transformed by moonlight, reveal a lack of connection, a painful failure of intimacy in the personal realm. If “Love is colder than Death,” how do we navigate this strange, post-modern world and reclaim a material/spiritual wholeness that seems to have been irrevocably lost?

The faces in Wang Xiaolu’s boldly monochromatic portraits seem to fade into an ambiguous surrounding space, revealing a flash of emotion just before it disappears. And, in the stunningly haunting portraits of Ming Qin, there is a similar sense of fragments from an interrupted dream -- a body or perhaps only a face. Yet, we catch a glimpse into the interior life of the soul. Liu Xintao’s commentary on the psychological dislocation of modern life in his “Evening” series might offer a clue. Neon signs with their siren call to consumerism surround the lovers, whose embrace seems frozen on a TV or movie screen, as they kiss in the empty street. Perhaps surprisingly, the images most reminiscent of our technological age – Yifei Gan’s “Infinity” tubular sculptures – pulse with a vibrant organic life and burst into three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional canvas.

The break from an oppressive past is intoxicatingly liberating, and it can also be terrifying. As Sartre explained, we are “condemned to be free.” There is no one to thank and no one to blame for what we make of ourselves and our world. Without closing their eyes to present realities, the artists in “The Body and Beyond” celebrate both body and soul unfettered, perhaps echoing Walt Whitman, the poet of a young America, who wrote in the mid-nineteenth-century: “I have said that the soul is not more than the body, And I have said that the body is not more than the soul.” [“Song of Myself” 48]

Hu Jundi’s arresting brochure cover images remind us of our vulnerability to the seduction of a mindless materialism and the entropy caused by too rapid change and too many choices. Happily, we are equally likely to be seduced by the lure of freedom and the seemingly limitless possibilities for self-expression. We are also invited to joyfully inhabit the secular body, vehicle for the spirit as well as a theatre of earthly delights.

As we seek a yin/yang balance between bowing to the past and dashing into the future, the natural world – the abode of the Tao – still offers daily lessons in natural simplicity and effortless, ego-free action. Like the Tao, we may increasingly be called upon to hold two seemingly contradictory ideas at the same time – destruction and wholeness, alienation and affirmation, technology and ecology. As Whitman observed, we would do well to embrace the contradictions: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” ["Song of Myself” 51]

[Editor] Elemy Liu