Regard tradition as the living culture resource – On Cai Zhisong's sculpture
Source:Artintern Author:Yin Shuangxi Date: 2009-07-21 Size:
Mr. Cai ZhiSong, a teacher in the Sculpture Department of Central Academy of Fine Arts in China, has been awarded the top prize, the Taylor Prize, at the 2002 Paris Autumn Saloon. It is the first time that a Chinese artist has won this honor during its nearly one hundred years history. This prize wa

Mr. Cai ZhiSong, a teacher in the Sculpture Department of Central Academy of Fine Arts in China, has been awarded the top prize, the Taylor Prize, at the 2002 Paris Autumn Saloon. It is the first time that a Chinese artist has won this honor during its nearly one hundred years history. This prize was conferred by French Artists, Sculptors, Architects Associations and The Taylor Foundation. The Paris Autumn Saloon was founded in 1903 under the proposition of Rodin, Renoir, Sculptor Franz•Rurdin and others. It was originally created to display the artwork of a group of artists who had been rejected from the official French exhibition. However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, it became an important organization in promoting French modern arts. For instance, the famous Fauvism and Cubism emerged from this exhibition. For nearly a hundred years, there have been over a thousand artists who have showcased their artworks here, including Gauguin, Cézanne, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, Bonnard, Maillol, Rodin, Brancusi and many more world-famous masters. The 2002 Paris Autumn Saloon featured 409 artists from various countries with thousands of artworks in display, including the works of six Chinese artists.

Cai Zhisong graduated in 1997 from the Sculpture Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and joined its teaching staff at the same year. On April 4, 2002, a press release from XinHua News made this taciturn youth well known. His winning of the Taylor Prize in the Paris Autumn Saloon forces us to reconsider the role hat Chinese sculptures should play in the world cultural exchanges, when there is a conflict between globalization and preserving the national culture. In Cai Zhisong’s case, this question can be transformed into how to recognize the value of the prize-winning works “Series of Motherland” in the current cultural environment.

I think there are two questions to be discussed. The first one is: with more and more emphasis on the "public sculpture" of the contemporary sculpture, how do we define the connotation of "public"? In other words, as a public artistic sculpture, where does its art value come from? In a social culture system with formidable ideology, being an individual with his own spiritual life, how does a sculptor preserve his independent spiritual exploration and balance it with the influence from the contemporary society?

Throughout the history of Chinese and foreign sculpture, the relationship between sculpture and other architectural arts such as mausoleum and grotto are closely related. As a big social and economical investment, sculpture has been endowed with all kinds of functions of social politics, culture and religion, etc. This put a great restriction on the sculptor's individual expression.  The conflicts and reconciliations of those two factors have become the driving force of the development of sculpture styles in different eras. In the late 1990's, due to the opposition to group consciousness and the need of self-establishment, artists' individual value system was increasingly becoming the starting point of the contemporary art creation. In particular, young artists' emphasis on individual experience and feeling had surpassed the attention on universal ideal and social group value. However, what contemporary sculpture faces is the generalized request of public value resulted from the fast urbanization. How to deal with this generalized request and the request for the individual sculptor to be unique? This becomes the essential question regarding modern art's public value. The key to this question is: above all, we need to pay attention to sculptors' individual spiritual world and educational backgrounds, especially their pure artistic exploration in traditional easel sculpture field. In summary, I believe, the development of contemporary public art (including city sculpture) should be based on the artistic exploration of contemporary easel sculpture. The latter will directly affect the artistic standard for the former. Without the free expression of individual sculptor with high standards, the development of true public art will not exist. Many city sculptures have sunk deeper and deeper in the swamp of style duplication in terms of abstraction, formularization, and generalization. These sculptures become sparkling, shining stainless steel trash. It is because in the hands of "commodity sculpture" producers, it becomes a practice of general product design and modular integration.

The second question is that, in the modern information society, when the prevalent popular culture becomes people's cultural fast food, can contemporary art fulfill people's need for self-expression and communication? Can it present the spiritual state of contemporary people by transforming and recognizing the elements in the traditional cultural resources?
Regarding Chinese cultural resources, artist Jiang Xu has a fine speech, "We should not protect the tradition as an heritage, but use it as an effective living resource." Unlike the traditional Chinese painting, Chinese sculpture is mainly based on the academic sculpture introduced from the West in the twentieth century. Its development based on the traditional culture resources is an on-going effort: the traditional Chinese culture and artistic concept are becoming the essential inspiration of middle aged and young Chinese sculptors.

Cai Zhisong has developed a strong interest in classic Chinese culture since high school.  At college, he had spent a great deal of his time on observing the sculpture collections of the department. Learning to sculpt by observing the modeling sculptures is, in fact, a method of studying art from the art history. In contrast to listening to lectures about the general art history and watching slide shows, Cai ZhiSong adopted a self-studying method of observing and copying in the museum.
With his sculpture work "Face" created in 1995, Cai Zhisong experimented to combine stone and copper materials. By the symbolic image of a thinker smashing the rock fetter, he expressed the conflict between industrial and primitive civilizations as well as between the material and the spiritual worlds. In 1996, his graduation works "Summer Day" and "Monsoon" (awarded GangSong Family Foundation prize and collected by the Central Fine Art Museum) not only demonstrated his solid modeling skills, but also unfolded his artistic pursuit of using postures to express the character's intrinsic spirits. In the work of "Yellow River in February," created in 1997, he portrayed a lying farmer with a pair of oversized hands and a grotto Buddha style head, which showed a national spirit of being calm and confident. His bronze sculpture "Fruit", created in 1999 (selected for the Ninth National Art Exhibition) was clearly influenced by Maillol: the body figure was abstract and with dignity, but the model of the head was with the charm of an ancient Chinese stone-carved Buddha. His works reflect his conscious rediscovery of the Chinese sculptural tradition, which motivated him to explore the possibility of the modern transformation of the traditional Chinese sculptures.  

Cai ZhiSong thought, “The field of contemporary art, in which people believe in the promotion of diversity, is essentially dominated by the society, having the responsibility to inherit native culture and carry it forward. Unfortunately, we have seen many regional cultures being disintegrated or marginalized by the prevailing western culture due to the different levels of the political and the economical development. Most of us are following the western trends right now; what I need to do is to break this monopoly and create another style of contemporary art. With this new modern cultural language that comes from an ancient culture of thousands of years and manifests the oriental national temperament, we can have an equal international dialogues in the macroscopic cultural field.”

The year 1999 was a key period in Cai Zhisong's art carrier. He created an ancient warrior's head sculpture using resin, copper plate, brass wires, sackcloth and other materials, and named it "Ode to Motherland". This work not only established the creation procedure of his "Series Custom to Motherland", but also laid the foundation of his ideas of creating the "Series of Motherland" – using ancient Chinese images to express the innovative national spirit, a mental state of being modest but confident. An ancient Chinese poem says, "The most exquisite ancient expressions are long forgotten, the ones who vaguely remembered them are very lonely". Today when people are pursuing efficiencies and profits, the classic humanistic spirits that emphasizes on the meditation, the unification of the human and the nature becomes a rare and precious heritage. The reason that Cai Zhisong named his works "Custom to Motherland", "Refinement to Motherland" and "Ode to Motherland" may be from his admiration and his recall to the magnificent times before Qin Dynasty when hundreds of different schools of art, philosophy and literature co-existed.

"Series of Motherland" expresses Cai Zhisong's recall of the lost Chinese civilization. Although it is modeled from the characters of Qin Terra-cotta Warriors, it is not just a simple copy like other popular works with similar theme. Cai Zhisong's models of characters look realistic, but are with a strong abstraction. He uses modern people's movement to demonstrate ancient people's intrepid spirit. Contrary to the standing-still figures, these figures possess a special movement style and an intrinsic spiritual intensity just like in Rodin's works. The use of sackcloth not only accentuates the visual contrast in style, but also promotes a feeling of returning to plain and original natural condition.

Cai Zhisong's "Series of Motherland" has given a modern explanation to the great strength and large scale of Qin and Han Dynasty's sculpture. He imbues the still Qin Terra-Cotta warrior figure with vivid posture and countenance; he connects the figure's firm will with Chinese national spirit. These made us feel the great summons from ancient civilization. It is not the repetition of the sculpture model of Qin and Han dynasty, but is the re-understanding of Chinese humane spirit. In Cai Zhisong's works, the images of the Pre-Qin dynasty figures are presented in a modernistic style. The fine processing method not only irradiates the material's aesthetic sense, but also depicts the peaceful and solemn classic artistic concept. A sense of order and balance, brought by rational rigor, has been achieved through simple modeling and precise material processing.
Picasso believed, "It is beneficial for an artist to understand all art styles in his time or before his time. No matter it is for the purpose of seeking for the motivation, or discovering the mistakes to avoid, it is a symbol of strength. However, he must never set out to look for the examples. It would be fatal for an artist if he starts to follow other people's examples. Being true to oneself is the only starting point of creation." Cai Zhisong's utilization of the Chinese traditional cultural resources, to a great extent, has borrowed traditional art's formularized expressional style. His "Series of Motherland" has a very strong visual aesthetic sense, both in terms of the format and the use of material, just like the Qin Terra-Cotta Warriors, which have the portrait-like individual character expression within a great uniformity, is a modern interpretation and reconstruction of the ancient characters.

Exploring the language of forms and shapes in the traditional art and using it to express people's current ideas and mentality is an important research topic in contemporary Chinese sculpture. As early as in the 60's, the sculptors from the Sculpture Department of Central Academy of Fine Arts and Academy of Fine Arts in ZheJiang, including  Kaiqu Liu, Qingding Zhou, Tianyou  Hua, Linyi Wang and Zhushao Zeng, had already noticed the importance to learn from Chinese traditional sculpture. As a successor, Cai Zhisong has made a solid step and proven that this integration is a promising direction for contemporary Chinese sculpture.

In China, modern sculpture is a relatively new subject, which needs a long period of adoption. The traditional realistic sculptures in the academic world still hold an important position because the educational background of sculptors restricts their ideas. Through the sculpture figures that people are already used to, they tried to explore a new cultural connotation from different combinations of structures, as well as the diversity of understanding and explanation of the significance. Being in the modernization process, the contemporary Chinese sculpture can explore many possible courses. However, if this possibility is merely the enrichment of forms and details without any original ideas, it will lose faith in nature and humanity, becoming the ambiguous and trivial collages. I hope to see a future exploration in the direction of diverse sculpture practices, which will make the contemporary sculpture with a more distinctive presence. I also hope to see that the sculptors, using sculptural language, try to relate their work with contemporary Chinese people's living conditions, feelings, and cultural situation, and enrich the cultural connotation of sculpture using various historical resources and contemporary ideas, and increase the spiritual value of sculpture in the construction of an excellent Chinese national culture.

In the process of globalization, each of the developing countries has to face the cultural value conflict – at one hand, they need to be open-minded and borrow the western ideas and systems in politics, economy, law and culture that are beneficial for their own development. On the other hand, they must pay attention to preserve and carry on their own culture and values. To Chinese artists, the fundamental problem is not about the attitude toward western culture, but toward their own cultural tradition. They need to understand the intrinsic logic of Chinese culture and historical from the viewpoint of the continuity of a culture, and rediscover the traditional Chinese culture in the process of modernization. In a country's modernization process, re-examining of the national culture and values and expressing them in a new art language is exactly the modernity in the art, even if the topics and the styles of this expression might be very different.

Robert. C Morgan, an artistic critic from New York, pointed out in the book "The End of Art World" that the most interesting things in the contemporary art works, especially the kind of expressions that are both appropriate and with penetrating power, come from the artist, but never from the lengthy critical theories. We need to pay attention to those artists who highly promote the use of intuitions and imaginations to express their individual visions. In the time when fashion and pop cultures dominate, daily life is fast-paced and filled with information, and people are willing to gamble with high stakes, the biggest challenge for the artists is to resist the temptations, focus on their own work with the passion for the art they are engaged in. Cai Zhisong has studied sculpture for more than ten years. The award he won in Paris is only another start point in his journey. The path of art has already unfolded in front of his eyes; all he needs to do is to make greater efforts. As western culture prevails today, Cai Zhisong thinks that the Chinese nation with rich heritage should sculpt its own modern cultural appearance. Perhaps this will be the focus of his future art creations, which I think, is worth a wait.

[Editor] Elemy Liu