A Medium and Its External Features—Further Thoughts on Tan Ping’s Art
Source:artintern Author:Yi Ying Date: 2014-05-26 Size:
  Random effects in painting and print-making are quite different. Both are connected with the unconscious, but in painting the random traces we see are left by execution of bodily movements; in print-making, such traces are generated as “procedural errors” in the production process. What is

  Random effects in painting and print-making are quite different. Both are connected with the unconscious, but in painting the random traces we see are left by execution of bodily movements; in print-making, such traces are generated as “procedural errors” in the production process. What is more, these effects result from the medium itself. The medium has no independent significance to begin with. In traditional art, the medium is simply the basic requisite for representing the subject matter. The medium determines how form is to be executed, and form constitutes representation. The medium rarely has a direct function in representation. As for Tan Ping’s artworks, they take the medium as their language, setting up a connection between medium and spirit.

  Effects produced by the medium are decided by the medium’s properties and by the person who acts upon the medium. The return to medium is a historical process of modern art, proceeding from the separation of form and image, then to expression of pure form, and then to independence of the medium. Independence of medium saw its first breakthrough in traditional, two-dimensional art, and in contemporary art it has become an ordinary phenomenon, though people may not be sufficiently aware of it. The medium decides form, but at the same time the medium breaks down form. That is to say, if one comes to know the artwork by way of medium as language, one tends to exclude image and form, being more concerned with the effect produced in the medium through operation of a certain force. In general, shapes are created in etchings by lines; an imitative effect is produced by dense arrangements of lines. If the aim is not imitative, then free arrangements or combinations of lines can produce expressionist or abstract effects, conveying spiritual intensity. Tan Ping’s etchings are composed of just one line—a slender, refined line, not constituting an image or shape (form); it is a trace of the medium. Likewise, Tan Ping’s woodcuts only have relations of black with white. In the printing process, particles** exert a random effect which enlivens the black-and-white relations. For this kind of artwork, the key explanation points to limits of form or transcendence of form. There is a continuum from representation to abstraction, and then from abstraction to working with limits. Working with limits is not a matter of form, and it allows the medium to be expressed directly. The thought-progression in modernism has followed a course leading to post-modernism. Medium is presented by means of form, yet the meaning is not found in form; instead, it lies in the relation between person and medium; it lies in the process of a person acting upon the medium; it results from straightforward presentation of the medium’s properties. From image to abstraction, picture formats have a decisive function, and identical or similar formats can even be realized in different media. As for medium-based expression, which does not take the picture format as goal, there is no way to judge or predict its result. In fact, this is the advantage of medium. As we see in Tan Ping’s artworks, there is no way to analyze them according to pre-established picture formats. The exclusion of picture formats is something that Tan Ping has sought painstakingly. Tan Ping has a suite of pared-down paintings with only a single color on each of the large canvases, looking much like minimalist pieces, inasmuch as minimalism is also a product of medium. Tan Ping does not work with an original medium, but he fully exploits the irreproducibility and non-interchangeability of medium-based expression to create a form that is not like any other form of modern art. He repeatedly brushes pigment onto a large canvas; each application is an overlay of the previous application, giving a superficial impression of being a minimalist monochrome. However, each layer lets lower layers show through in a veiled manner. Such an artwork does not call for perusal of the visual surface; rather, the artwork is a process of overlay—a process becomes a record of spirit and will, expressed through the elemental quality of a medium.

  Tan Ping’s piece “+40” deals with limits using the simplest materials and technique, by action of his body upon the medium to produce the simplest traces. If we say that lines in brass etchings are rational and artisanal, then the woodcut line is physical and primitive. It extends itself within an expansive space, with what Michael Fried calls “theatricality.” It is not a presentational experience which can be taken in at a glance; instead, it is a discursive experience which plays out along the trace. The discursive realization of “+40” does not gravitate toward an ultimate visual effect. External features of the medium are signs referring to life-force. Although the surface features are simple, they feelings they convey are not casual. He does not pursue an attractive effect, and he does not seek understanding from viewers, particularly understanding of painterly qualities. In comparison with his other works, “+40” puts more emphasis on the function of medium. When a person’s body acts upon the medium, the medium must possess properties that can interact with the body, so that the body’s language will be lodged within the medium’s external features. Being a surface indication of life-force, the medium is not a literary, poetic figment; instead, it is a locus registering creative pressure. The limits of minimalism, in themselves, are not the aim, and concept is not a result that subsumes the visual. In the medium’s traces, his intention is to explore non-traditional expression. Just when we believed that imagistic language and abstract resources were facing a crisis, we find that a previously traditional medium can still create new expressive treatments. The materials, tools and execution are all primitive, or one could say they are traditional, just as people are shaped by tradition. Expression through the medium itself is a contemporary mode. Thus, Tan Ping’s medium is a return—a return to inherent properties and even to the underlying nature of life, because it is a primitive medium acted upon by a body. If we understand life as creative power, then challenging the limits of a medium is also challenging the limits of creativity.


 In a certain sense, external features of the medium are also external features of the body: they are new objective facts shaped by unconscious actions of the body upon the medium. This is what we see in Tan Ping’s sketches. Tan Ping’s sketches are abstract; they are pared-down abstractions, but they are not encapsulations or simplifications based on objective form. They are traces of the body’s unconscious movements left on paper by a charcoal pencil. Modernist painting emphasizes the unconscious function of line—it is a historical, cultural, personal configuration built up in the unconscious mind, reflected by a line made non-purposively. Tan Ping’s line of course has these properties; the difference is that his line is independent. In modernism the line is usually used to create shapes or configurations. Tan Ping’s line does not express any subject—it is a result produced by direct action of his body upon the medium. Dense arrangements of lines or single divagations may resemble varying existential states of life. If this medium were to be exchanged for another, there would probably be no such effect. He fully utilizes both the obduracy and fluidity of the medium; he lets the medium do the talking—of course this is a mutual action of body and medium on each other. It seems likely that there is another possibility, namely, that Tan Ping possesses a special touch—both with hand and heart—that others cannot match. Thus his impulsive line comes out with better expressive quality than that of others. His line enters directly into his inner life and by virtue of the medium’s function, his line is more compelling. It is possible that both the former and latter statements are true.

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[Editor] 曹英