How to Make Time Visible? On Yang Maoyuan’s Recent Paintings
Source:Artintern.net Author:Gary Xu Date: 2012-11-13 Size:
The American artist Bill Viola, who represented the US at the 1995 Venice Biennale, thinks that time is invisible: “Time is the ultimate invisible world. It’s all around us. It literally is our life. We live in it like fish in water, then you regard it as something slipping away, that’s being lost. But if your interest is transformation, growth and change – wanting to ride the wave as it’s cresting – then there is no problem. You are immersed within the flow of time, and you are dripping wet!”[1] Viola is able to “spatialize” time through focusing on duration in his video art. His idea of time’s invisibility, however, is only one way of looking at time. Time is invisible to us because we live in the present: every moment of our life is abstract and invisible unless we associate it with the people, the feelings, or the events in our life. What if, one might ask, time does not equal the present?

  My mission: to say it more simply than I understand it.

  Schönberg, Moses and Aaron

  The American artist Bill Viola, who represented the US at the 1995 Venice Biennale, thinks that time is invisible: “Time is the ultimate invisible world. It’s all around us. It literally is our life. We live in it like fish in water, then you regard it as something slipping away, that’s being lost. But if your interest is transformation, growth and change – wanting to ride the wave as it’s cresting – then there is no problem. You are immersed within the flow of time, and you are dripping wet!”[1] Viola is able to “spatialize” time through focusing on duration in his video art. His idea of time’s invisibility, however, is only one way of looking at time. Time is invisible to us because we live in the present: every moment of our life is abstract and invisible unless we associate it with the people, the feelings, or the events in our life. What if, one might ask, time does not equal the present?

  The notion that we only live in the present is a contemporary one, after “history” is supposed to have ended. In Francis Fukuyama’s well-known proclamation, at the end of the cold war we have witnessed “the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”[2] History no longer moves forward. Without the imagination of a future of different forms of governance, we are forever “stuck” in the present and can only fine-tune identity-related issues in art and in humanities in general. This notion of history and of time, however, is too shortsighted when we leave the context of western democracy. In the mountains and the deserts, where human traces are rare, time flows according to the spinning of the earth. The time of the globe and of nature is what I call the “deep time,” which measures at billions of years and makes the human history insignificantly short.

  To bring up the notion of the deep time is not to trivialize humanity or the human history. Rather, the unimaginably long duration puts the human life in a perspective. If the natural time seems an eternity, then shouldn’t we rethink our desires, our anxieties, and our clinging to material wealth? In the logic of the present, these human desires seem most important and unavoidable; in the deep time, however, the desires amount to nothing.

  In 1987, when he first traveled to Xinjiang, in the great Gobi deserts, Yang Maoyuan first came into contact with the deep time. He did not know what exactly attracted him to the deserts, but he was mesmerized by the movement of the sun, the moon, and the stars. He was drawn by some unknown mysterious power to go back over and over again. In 1993, during a self-funded expedition in attempt to reach the ancient city of Loulan, Yang Maoyuan stumbled upon an even more mysterious city, the Merdek Ruin. The ruin was named by Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943), who, in 1906, was able to visit a site close to the ruin after getting the words from the locals that an ancient city was newly exposed when a storm blew off the layers of sand on top of the ruin. But Stein was never able to set foot in the actual Merdek City.[3] Yang Maoyuan’s discovery was archeologically significant, even if he did not have an archeologist’s training.

  In an interview with Art World in 2008, Yang Maoyuan confessed that he was surprised by the round shape of Merdek while the other cities in the Loulan area are square. Studies have shown that Loulan was at the crossroad of the early transcontinental traffic between the Roman Empire and China. As Stein has noted, the architectural division between the west and the east falls right into the Loulan area: the round cities were of Western influences while the square ones were impacted by the Han Chinese culture. Literally, Loulan was where east met west. Yang Maoyuan was not aware of most of the background information about that area, but his installation art onsite was significant in marking out the time and space of this ancient ruin.

 

Yang Maoyuan, Merdek, no. 9 (Photography and Installation), 1993.

  In making the road signs, Yang Maoyuan adopted an ancient method in measuring time: “observing the sky from the bottom of a well.” He would dig a dry well, which was cover by a rope net, and was able to identify the relative position of his observatory point in relation to the net and to the stars.

  Yang Maoyuan’s desert adventure and his installations in the desert are revealing of himself as a person and as an artist. He never stops thinking about the ancient, which marks the coordinates linked to the earth’s remote past; his explorative spirit separates him from many other contemporary Chinese artists, who live in the present and seek this-worldly pleasures.

  After he successfully applied his “sitting at the bottom of a well” technique, Yang Maoyuan never stopped experimenting with making time visible. One of his ideas was to measure the temperature of time: any given moment of the day can have a temperature index, which corresponds to a color in the spectrum. The cooler the temperature of the light, the darker the color. When the sun is at its brightest shortly after noon, the color becomes almost white. Day by day, Yang Maoyuan measured the temperature of different parts of a day and converted them into colors. These colors have become an indispensible part of his paintings.

  Yang Maoyuan likes to draw Buddha heads against the background of the colors of time. This choice of subject of course has to do with Buddhism’s notions of the deep time. For Buddhism, time is cyclical and of extremely long duration. The earth would die at the end of a big calamity (jie) before being reborn again. The cycle of the biggest jie lasts for about 27 billion years before everything comes to an end. If we measure time in jie, not by hours or days, the human history as we know of is stunningly short.

  To make the deep time visible, Yang Maoyuan paints small color strips, which link the otherwise loose lines into a superbly drawn portrait; the broken color strips, however, also threaten to dismantle the figures. The tension between coming together and falling apart makes his portraits even more sophisticated and intriguing.

  Buddha lowers his head and closes his eyelids, partially because he is full of pities for the human sufferings, but also partially because he wants to hide away from the insatiable human desires. Yao Maoyuan uses the figures of Buddha to counter the contemporary “end of history” hedonism. These twenty pieces he newly created are the result of his constant return, mentally and physically, to the purity of the deserts during the past 25 years. To a certain extent, we can compare Yang Maoyuan with Edward Harper, who hides the most intense feelings behind the tranquil scenes in his paintings and whose realism can be fittingly called “psychological realism.” Yang Maoyuan, similarly, hides inside himself strong feelings and love for art. Using the deep time as the central axle, he reaches deep into his psyche for intricate emotional expressions and psychological realism. Also a Venice Biennale artist who represented China in 2011, Yang Maoyuan separates himself from the likes of Bill Viola. Viola lives in the present; Yang Maoyuan lives forever in the deepest of time: the past.

  [1] Gayford, Martin (2003). “The Ultimate Invisible World: Interview with Bill Viola,” Modern Painters, no. 16 (Autumn): 22-5.

  [2] Fukuyama, Francis (1992). The End of History and the Last Man. Free Press.

  [3] Lin Meicai, “On the City of Padaka as Recorded in the Alexander von Stael-Holstein Collection of handwritten Dunhuang Records,” Dunhuang Studies, 1997, vol. 1, 128. 林梅材,《敦煌写本钢和泰藏卷所述帕德克城考》

[Editor] 常霞

    Artintern