Water-Movie-Stillness - About the Art of He Wenjue
Source:Artintern Author:Lv Peng Date: 2008-10-09 Size:
He Wenjue, born in Hunan Province in 1972, as the most artists born in that decade, is stepping into the art world, taking the stance of self-worth identity, but not absolute liberalism.



He Wenjue, born in Hunan Province in 1972, as the most artists born in that decade, is stepping into the art world, taking the stance of self-worth identity, but not absolute liberalism. Affirmation of self-awareness and partial freedom constitute the creation background of the artists of this generation: instantaneous concern on individual value replaces the alliance of social will.

When He Wenjue began to paint “Green Water” in 1997, his state of mind was the same as that of most of us at the turn of the century: diversity of life interweaves with the spiritual weightlessness of individual. The period when He Wenjue studied in Shenzhen and Beijing coincided with the rapid and tremendous change of the contemporary economy and society of China; such background provides him with more necessary time and conditions for self-examination, just as what he said in his self-introduction in 1997:

“I couldn’t stop wandering for days, and my mind was totally blank. Confused with void, considering the vast but dangerous world I must face, I think sometimes indifferent and unconcerned attitude might be appropriate, but sometimes I tremble with fear for such idea… Do we really intend to create void things? That will give rise to such absoluteness that generates relativity, just like such brightness in face of shadow or such existence that is regarded as phenomenon? In my “Green Water” series, you can always see a man who looks perplexed but acts at leisure swimming towards one direction in the boundless green water. Maybe only he himself knows where he would go. During my creation, I had kept struggling with what I aimed to indicate things, which is the interaction between the randomness of the topic and the figure created as result of subjective impulse on art. When ‘casualness’ appears, the space where it appears the relationship between casualness and fixedness should unveil the existence to some extent. I try to explore the reality felt at the moment with techniques and tools available, and to be more exactly, to explore how to realize mental resonance with tangible reality.”

In fact, we find such a basic fact: when he began to create Water series (Water·NO.2 160*170CM 1997), the rapid transformation of life and society itself makes people feel fresh but perplexed, just like what the surface of the green water does. “Water” has been a topic in the past decade in my artistic career. I like the unique charm of water, one element of the nature. It is the source of everything on the world. It represents life and hope. Its nature of brightness, mistiness, and sensitiveness as well as its display of light fascinate me. There are some common grounds between its fluidity and the use of light by impressionists: both instantaneous beauties vary with time and space. I like the brilliant beauty when the light is made more splendid and colorful by water.”

In He Wenjue’s artistic works, water is a beautiful but collective spiritual weightless mirror, in which everyone can look back on his style of existence, but it doesn’t confirm the occurrence of internal self-conflict. Those in our time, who jump into the green water, have no choice but to enjoy the freedom of the age, or to lose sense of direction in the boundless green water. People, including the artist himself, inevitably find themselves in a huge social container. If they cannot discover the so-called solid evidences between the reality of life and the realization of individual spiritual goals, they will probably fall into the water-centered abysm of egoism. Thus, water is both the source of significance and the de facto spiritual swamp. The only living status of people in water is a kind of visually distorted simple existence on a self-controlled basis. Instantaneous freedom is set up in the water, and what possibly follows is endless self-cruise. It’s important and necessary to get to the far bank, the symbol of a destination of sense of safety, or an assurance of self-value. With the immense description without a near bank, the individual experience of the artist himself upsets, or even suffocates us.

In the course of Chinese cultural development, in most cases, water is the place of origin of freehand and religious mood; in the world of contemporary art, water once has played the role of “stage property or game-like” background in the paintings of most artists. On the contrary, in He Wenjue’s works, water is neither a game process, nor a stage property carrier; it plays the role of two incompatible subjective consciousnesses: to create and to destroy. We find more exquisite drawing language in He Wenjue’s subsequent drawing (Water·NO.8 55*25CM 2002), in which status of the swimmer in water is more free and variable. The power of water is further being increased and that of the swimmer is further being weakened, the surge of waves and the twist of body happen synchronously, and the individual consciousness of the swimmer is not revealed as usual. An objective instantaneous record of swimming, a factualistic or classic realistic method, unexpectedly, leads to an endless transcendentalist result free of solid evidences. Zou Yuejin made the following comments in “Impressions of He Wenjue’s Water series”:

“In my opinion, tension between the concrete and the abstract presented in He Wemjue’s works provides us with a starting point for interpreting the meaning of He Wenjue’s works in two ways. In terms of living status, He Wenjue seemingly only objectively records, observes and describes, in a zero factualistic way, a male swimmer practicing a certain swimming style; in terms of abstract side, He Wenjue seems to describe and experience a turbulent, up-and-down and groundless living status by reproducing and repeating, in an artistic way, the same swimming style. Unlike the critical attitude toward social reality of some realistic means, we find no negative comments on groundless living status in He Wenjue’s works, because we feel strong affirmative statement of unconstraint and freedom in He Wenjue’s works, or in other words, in the swimmer who has never been wholly under the water. What’s more, from the point of view of existentialists, free and void living status constitutes necessary premises for interpreting essence of human beings, although the person is an abstract one.”

However, in “Water·NO.8 55*25CM 2002” by He Wenjue, the head of the swimmer is raised out of the water. Does it stand for the temporary gasp of life, the awakening of self-consciousness, or the finding of safe landing of reality? No matter which possibility is true, we should draw such a conclusion: with the life experience and artistic creation process, we finally see faint light of hope, that is, the rebirth after a long suffocation. In the point of view of the artist, the rebirth marks the triumph of a kind of “striving” status. “By describing the distortion of body and change of posture of various individuals, He Wenjue reveals the ways that different individuals take in striving and struggling for life even if they are lost in different water currents of life. I use the light and shadow of water to stand for hope, which emerges at any moment and disappears in a short time. I would like to praise the unremitting struggle of human being by this means.”

Nevertheless, the temporary waking of consciousness was replaced by a more visional way in the late stage of He Wenjue’s artistic career, particularly in his series produced after 2003. Character became an inessential scene element,and such metaphysical and abstract themes as freedom, anxiety, value and ideal were no longer the focus of attention in his drawings. Sure enough, in the ever-changing new century, what matters is the style itself, instead of the metaphysics itself, and what we go in for or care about is only the ever changing self-style. Perhaps, He Wenjue now has an easier way to express his buried mood after having effectively acquired his self-style in late 20th century. A new tension has been created between the green water body and the more blurred character, as shown in “Water·2007 80*160CM 2007”. But we cannot jump to a conclusion that He Wenjue doesn’t ponder on essentialism any more. A more peaceful form of drawing perhaps indicates He Wenjue’s relief, but the inherent conflict in human spirit has not been resolved in nature.

The above-mentioned transformation of artistic career is closely connected with He Wenjue’s personal video & photo experiences, and the transformation ultimately gives rise to the “Watch Movie” series. The “Watch Movie” series also follows He Wenjue’s same creative philosophy: to keep the fragments and void and endow them with significance. The artistic transformation is just like what He Wenjue describes when talking about his growth: “I don’t think there is much room for development as far as swimming series are concerned, and here I mean the expansion of scale or content. I have drawn Water Series for more than 10 years, and I think it’s difficult to bring it to a higher stage now, either in terms of exhibition or in terms of academic nature. Similar questions have been haunting me in the past several years. Certainly, it doesn’t mean that what I am drawing now is easier to be brought to a higher stage. It’s not true. I have been planning to change, but too many obstacles prevent me from taking the paintbrush. Furthermore, I have been considering how to change. Now I rarely take part in exhibition, so as to concentrate my time and energy on such drawings. I have a movie complex. I have been a filmgoer when in my childhood. My mother was a film company employee, thus I learned how to draw posters in my tens; and this year happens to be the 100th birthday of China movie. In addition, to the best of my knowledge, no artist has systematically painted film scene, and no artist has systematically studied the connection between film scene and drawing scene, both domestically and overseas. Films can be divided into various types, such as horrible, erotic and violent films. I intend to try the classic scenes in various types of films before I select certain branch, for example, erotic, violent or war films. Then I will develop an annual drawing plan. It’s not possible to do all the things at the same time, so I will do it step by step. ”




What are the absolute solid and void elements of our times? The point is that both the solid and the void are all part of the reality. He Wenjue has initiated pioneering artistic practice with “Watch Movie” series. On basis of film scenes - after the made-up story has been turned into physical videos and photos – He Wenjue carries out subject creation by using excerpted scenarios or character images. Like the narration style of a film, it creates new subject awareness with the script and participation (as a role in the painting) of the subject.

The method that He Wenjue uses seems to hint the instantaneous possibility of time and the uncontrollability of eternity. Prior to creation, instantaneous image or scene is fabricated; but the images or scenes themselves in He Wenjue’s drawings feature the separation of abstract and fictionality. Except the actual intervention of the artist himself, there is no absolute eternity. Film scene and character mood, originally the elements of performing arts, now become the results of various materials on the canvas. Unexpected conflicts occur between the potential motives of the artists and the logic scenes, which have been designed to provide causalities. The traditional artistic way of narration transcends historical experiences. As drawing itself stems from another hypothetic way of narration, we are forced to re-evaluate our way of perception and attitude towards narration, and give up artistic judgment and discussion of the significance of the factuality thoroughly. Now we come to an obvious conclusion about the question of “factuality and fictionality”: the perception of fictionality itself is real. Thus, it provides a reliable philosophic premise for the further release of He Wenjue’s fascination for the casualness of time and artistic introspection of freedom itself.

In “Watch Movie·In the Mood of Love”, “Watch Movie·Ju Dou”, “Watch Movie·Raise the Red Lantern”, “Watch Movie·Postmen in the Mountains” etc., we find that with lonely or even helpless images, He Wenjue reproduces the humane or introspection structure of the film itself. Especially in “Watch Movie·Postmen in the Mountains” and “Watch Movie·Raise the Red Lantern”, main body of the character is blurred. “This kind of drawing effect provides us with a possibility and room for imagination; it’s specious. When producing a drawing, I usually choose some scenarios and consistent elements, which are not what you see in the camera lens, just like the way to tell a story.” With casual scene capture, blurred tones and patterns of the makeup, in fact it is more like the way of stream-of-consciousness shooting. The original moral and value idea of the film now, to a large extent, is presented by means of the humane power that the character itself captured by the artist can provide. As a matter of fact, what the artist takes is a kind of neutral artistic standpoint: blurred background is adopted, the story itself is not created on basis of the whole play, and the story is the post-modernist process of what we see on the canvas. The leading actors/actresses will not longer nag their belief. On the contrary, what they tell now is the belief of the artist, just as Feng Boyi’s description in the article of “Watch Movie·Train Spotting – about the ‘Watch Movie’ series by He Wenjue ”:

With thin colors, strokes and rhythms, the artist describes his sadness, solitude and loneliness evoked by movie pictures, arousing sympathy and sentiment of audiences. Actually, with film scenes that audiences are familiar with, He Wenjue aims to express and interpret, from the point of view of the creative subject, factuality in his memory, a kind of abstract and real emotion reflected in his heart. It not only records the change of people and society, the lapse of time, but also re-produces the hardships of life, so as to show concerns for the destiny of individuals under the macro background of factuality. He Wenjue’s visual text has been influenced by his personal memory and emotion, and the influence is shown in his paintings as warm and exquisite tones and delicate sense of reality, adding an enjoyable but melancholy atmosphere, and perhaps as well as bravely embarking on a journey with an unknown destination. This is in line with the characteristics of his previous water series.

A calm confrontation and the disadvantage of power seem to be the inherent extension from “Water” series. In “Water” series, the “calmness” in the special environment is passive: the swimmer is in uncontrollable boundless deep water. To the contrary, in “Watch Movie” series, the calmness we see results from the positive selection of the subject: the suffocating unknowability of water is replaced by knowable sense of melancholy. To some extent, the logic coincides with the way of evolution in which the society of China at the end of the 20th century and the early 21st century develops: first people just passively accept the social transformation, and then they begin the slow process of self-examination. The former is to take pressure, and the latter is to release pressure. Thus, we have good reasons to believe that by instantaneous and fragmental means and with exquisite consciousness of the artist (as the subject), He Wenjue, in two different ways, reveal a basic fact: there is serious conflict between the casualness of time and the inevitability of turning the subject’s value into reality; and the environment and society in which we live, besides the routine life logic, have to look to external power to bring the possibility of safety. From the instantaneous freedom in water to the freedom moment in movie, from the self struggle in water to the subject solitude in movie, all these verify He Wenjue’s artistic philosophy: as a result of the massive power of time and history, people has become an uncontrollable, disturbed and passive participant. Delighted life experiences stem from self-reconfiguration of fragments. Meanwhile, we also find another thread running through the creation of both the “Water” series and the “Watch Movie” series: to turn the running water and the flowing pictures into still time symbol. In still scenes (passive) and calm realities (positive), we feel the release of powerful introspection capability. It’s not a result of oppression of the artist himself; it can only be interpreted as results of the combination of the artist’s philosophy and techniques.

Thus, when looking back on the past 10 years of drawing career of He Wenjue, it’s safe to say that he is artistically developing a kind of public value pedigree in a way that he deems as correct, as currently no value has been accepted by the public. Simultaneously, in his artistic works, such subjective consciousnesses as freedom, conception, restraint, sentiment, time and fragment have been aesthetically released to the utmost extent in a “from-calmness-to-stillness” way. Twisted bodies and blurred faces constitute a part of unknowable “water” and knowable “movies”: we have to strive as if we are in a boat going against the currents, or we have to stand alone for a long while or retrospect; besides the above-mentioned ways, there is only one way to reduce pressure from our routine life: to seize the instantaneous factuality.


[Editor] Mark Lee