中文English

No.6 - Litera and Cultura

Ruijun Shen (RJS)

in conversation with

Yang Jiecang (YJC)

 

 

Recorded: 4 February, 2018

Location: Yang Jiechang’s studio

 

Shen Ruijun (abbreviated as RJS):

What is the difference between a stele () and a calligraphy copybook () ?

 

Yang Jiecang (abbreviated as YJC):

The difference is significant. The calligraphy on a stele is written by someone in ink one or two thousands years ago, then the engraving is done by an artisan. After being exposed to the winds and sun, storms and rain for thousands of years, the original characters have become some kind of ‘ghost’s work’; on top of that, later generations kept making stone rubbings of the calligraphy from the steles, rubbings on rice paper, that are then mounted by craftsmen, which means what we see nowadays of the steles is different from their original appearance. Therefore, a stele is more like folk craft. On the other hand, a copybook is the original handwriting of a calligrapher, you can see how a character is written, how the horizontal and the vertical strokes unwind and enfold, how strong the brush strokes are, and how the energy in the strokes is transmitted. These traces allow you to see how the calligrapher wrote in accordance with the content and followed his mind at the time, even the spirit of the respective era is reflected in the work. Looking at the works of Mi Fu, for example, you can tell in a glance that the artist’s external skills and internal forces are truthfully implemented. When copying his writings, you are able to feel that Mi Fu seems to be sitting right beside you, like a tutor. For example, if you are copying the Lantingji Xu, it seems that Wang Xizhi himself is standing right in front of you. This way of learning is really an extremely advanced one. It is a shame that for the past four decades of reform and opening up, the most significant Chinese fundamental education – learning characters with a writing brush – has been abolished! The writing of Chinese characters is central to Chinese civilization; the writing of character is guided by energy, thus, to understand them is to reveal the book of heaven.

 

RJS:

Could you give an example of how do you interpret Chinese characters?

 

YJC:

For example, in the word 休息(to rest), the first part is composed of the radical for man (left side) and the radical for wood or tree (right side), therefore means a man who takes root like a tree. is composed of (self, upper part) and (heart, lower part), therefore to have a rest is to return back to one’s own heart. Yet today, to rest means to have a holiday or vacation. People keep on consuming their energies, the more they rest the more they consume and thus the more easily they get tired. Another example is 究竟 (truth): is a nine (, lower part) underneath a cave(, upper part), nine represents fullness in amount. Therefore to investigate (the truth) is to know much and to hide deep. is composed of (stand) and (see), meaning one would see farther if standing on a high spot. After knowing the truth, one does not behave like a headless fly.

 

RJS:

You said that calligraphy is a kind of inheritance. What do you think is the difference between this type of inherited education and our contemporary educational system of enlarged classes, namely the elementary school, middle school and university?

 

 

 

YJC:

It’s a pleasure to have a chat with you here in Foshan, my early years of mentor-disciple education started from here. What’s the difference between the enlarged classes you’ve mentioned and the mentor-disciple mode? Let’s just do some maths. There are hundreds of thousands of graduates from art colleges each year in China, yet very few of them can be considered as qualified! One out of thousands! How tragic. There’s no education alike in the history of mankind, only one talent out of thousands! The past decades have turned education into an industry, culture is an industry too, let alone the art industry… All have become money-making machines. Fortunately, there are some exceptions, which mostly still come from this kind of mentor-disciple education.

 

God Created the World, The Rest is Made in China (2015)

Canvas, ink

(courtesy to the artist)

 

 

RJS:

There are two aspects of calligraphy: one is the content, for example when you copy the Diamond Sutra; the other is the wielding of the brush, which reflects more of one’s internality. When you write, do the contents have an influence on your calligraphy style?

 

YJC:

Yes, when you copy the Taishan Diamond Sutra, the words chosen by the ancients for the translation are very subtle and accurate, there is no rarely used word, the same words appear hither and thither, there aren’t many words, yet they are truly intricate. I’ve copied it so many times that I  can recite it now, by writing you seem to have also chanted the Sutra once more. As you recite and copy, for example the phrase ‘says the Buddha’ for many times, certain energy is built up in your body spontaneously. Together with the majesty of carved stone of Mount Taishan and the classic and elitist taste of the artists, the practice slowly leads you into a certain direction. Chinese calligraphy is very interesting in the sense that even after thousands years of centralized rule, you can still see the unique style and the strong personality of each calligrapher in their writings, unrestrained and animated.

RJS:

If you don’t copy, but write it yourself, for example in the case of composing a poem, what would be the relationship between the content of the poem and the movement of brush strokes?

 

YJC:

Copying is a crucial method in learning Chinese art, especially in calligraphy. Without practice through copying for a long time, free writing would only result in something like fountain pen calligraphy, regardless of how good your writing is. This actually is how most of the influential and talented people write calligraphy today. Art takes time and values need cultivation, only then your taste can emerge. Taste is conceptual. Your taste, your inclinations are often closely related to your mentor, to friends and the subjects of one's studyies. Learning and using calligraphy on a daily basis helps one to see his or her footprints, one at a time. As time passes, the forms and the contents of calligraphy become more and more natural. As a human being, with elegant taste, whatever specialist you are, your actions will be beautiful and radiant.

 

RJS:

The taste you just mentioned is not simply a tool.

 

YJC:

One’s aesthetic training and taste accompany one's entire life. Back then, in the culture of the literati, training for the ‘six arts’ was mandatory. Collection and appreciation are based on a high and classical taste. Value and price are only secondary. Intellectuals nowadays are not comparable with the past literati.

 

RJS:

How are they different?

 

YJC:

The character of ‘literati’ is written with a ‘ten’ on top of a ‘one’. It’s the way of making a ‘ten’ from ‘one’ and return to ‘one’ as the ‘ten’ is consummated. It’s a dynamic. The Chinese term for inellectual contains the word for molecule (the Chinese word for intellectual is 知识分子,分子 also means molecule’ ). Molecules are entities consisting of several atoms. The term is borrowed from Japanese. ‘Literati’ however, are particular. They are in fact people who understand the dynamics of life and nature and have a grasp of cosmic patterns.

 

RJS:

In fact, knowledge is a splinter.

 

YJC:

More fragmented than a splinter.

 

RJS:

As I’ve asked you previously about the relation between content and form in your calligraphy, we may still be able to delve deeper if calligraphy itself is a perfect synthesis of the two. What’s the reason for emergence of taste? In the end, taste is an outcome, and there is definitely a reason behind that produces such outcome. I’m not very clear myself. For example, when you are writing calligraphy, there is a state in your flowing movements. But how does it correspond with the content perfectly.

 

YJC:

Through cultivation, the individual’s quality continues to be improved. For example, in the first round of imperial civil examination, the examiners only looked at the calligraphy. If it didn’t appeal, the examinee was immediately eliminated. In passing the exam and getting ranked, students would never fail the examiners’ judgment. Calligraphy manifests an aesthetic in which content, form and mind speak to one another.

 

RJS:

So it’s not a simple relation between concept and form. It’s a law.

 

YJC:

Calligraphy (Shu Fa) is also called law of writing (Fa Shu). There are many laws. A calligrapher should have a relatively high level of cultivation. Only with that can he actualize and manifest such strict requirements. Nowadays, not many of us cultivate ourselves according to these requirements, instead many are aiming for vanity. Using a brush depends on the first sip of nourishment, what follows are just more and more reading and writing. Sometimes, it’s only at the age of 70 or 80 years old that the effect of that first nourishment manifests itself. Huang Binhong only steps into the realm of revelation at the age of 80. Before then, he kept learning from the ‘Four Wangs’ of Qing but never made them part of himself. Time is the furnace of law. Only relentless tempering makes a tool. I like Huang Binhong. 

 

RJS:

That sounds very interesting.

I think it’s related to the mechanisms of how the current society operates. For example, a manufacturer has to release new products every year since it needs to attract people to constantly buy. That is why ‘newness’ is very important in the current social context. Because you constantly want something new to win over people. We always feel the significance of being young, new and creative, they are the necessary motivations that drive the social mechanisms. As we’ve just discussed of a different model, which is from one to ten, it is a good counter-example. I believe that the reason for us, the modern people, being anxious, rootless and troubled by a series of problems is the constant demands of fast creativity and overturnings of the past. On one hand, such demands have driven the society to continuously develop, generating even more wealth as well as many more problems. You mentioned Huang Binhong and said that his works done at the age of 80 are the best in your opinion. It’s interesting that we are talking about this at this moment, in the current context.

 

YJC:

The Chinese characters of the word ‘culture’ (Wen Hua), created by the ancestors, explain it clearly. ‘Wen’ is the texture of rocks. ‘Hua’ is a man holding a knife to separate. The soul of the Cathay civilisation lies in jade and stones. If you can see among the mountain rocks a piece of jade, and you separate it according to the jade’s texture, shaping it into a bi (a circular jade artifact) or a utensil…… “Wen Hua” is heavenly writing. Have you read the texture, ‘wen’ and separated accordingly, ‘hua’? Have you advanced from one to ten, then return back to one?

 

We Are Good at Everything, Except for Speaking Mandarin – PRD

2nd Guangzhou Triennial, 2005

Silk banner, neon lights, stage, performance and video

(courtesy to the artist)

 

 

RJS:

You’ve left China for many years. But speaking of things happening in Foshan, I believe you can talk more about it than many others.

 

YJC:

My birthplace Foshan is not a big city, yet it contributes to one fortieth of the national GDP. Through looking at Foshan, one gets to learn about the Pearl River Delta, through which one can see the whole China. The present is right under the feet, so is the tradition. When you’ve mastered your culture, you live in the present.

 

RJS:

You live in Paris and Germany. What’s your relationship with the life there?

 

YJC:

The further from China, the clearer one knows about China. Observations from a distance are not quite the same as observations from a too close distance. The later would miss the whole picture. Distance brings time, imaginations and nostalgia…

 

RJS:

You also have many French collectors who appreciate your works. How do they interpret them          

 

YJC:

Once during an interview in Oxford, a journalist with a loaded brain asked if my works are influenced by Mark Tobey, Jackson Pollock, Rothko and the other New York Abstract Expressionism painters. I asked him to think of it the other way round. I am at the original place of origin. They deviated and only hopped on halfway through the English version of Zen Buddhism of D.T. Suzuki and Erich Fromm. The gallery that I worked with since 1989 has a century-old history. The artists mentioned by the journalist had been close with the gallery. The reason the owner liked my works was exactly because he saw the place of origin in my works.

 

RJS:

You’ve said that German romanticism also has a big influence on you. When I look at your works, I can see a kind of emotion. Traditional Chinese paintings express a state, not an emotion. Yet romanticism is linked with emotions. We often think of violent gale and sea when we speak of romanticism. You construct emotions in details. That’s why I find the series ‘This is still Flower Paintingquite interesting. It has brushstrokes while obviously being a Gongbi (delineative) drawing. The combination is quite interesting. 

 

This is still Flower Painting 1911-2011 (2011)

A copy of Adolf Hitler’s watercolour painting, Chinese ink and mineral colours on silk, Dehua porcelain

(courtesy to the artist)

 

YJC:

My relation to Romanticism bears a fateful coincidence. In 1988, I went abroad for the first time, and my first stop was Heidelberg, the origin of German Romanticism. Later, I even built my own home piece by piece there; though I mainly work in Paris. Good stuff are all the same. Life and death, light and dark, past and present, what Romanticism emanates are congruous to my understanding of the Daoist worldview of Yin and Yang, right and wrong. 

 

RJS:

You’ve naturally found a bridge to make connection.

 

YJC:

This is what culture means. It’s your cognition, your action, a ‘seeing’ without eyes.

     

RJS:

I find your kind quite interesting.

 

YJC:

I also see with pupils, pores and nostrils. (Laugh)

 

RJS:

One doesn’t need to overturn either oneself or others since a path has already been found naturally. I think maybe the entire world needs this at the moment: not necessarily changing a culture with another culture, or forcing ourselves to change, but to see if we can find a path that connects.

 

YJC:

‘Everyone is buddha’. Joseph Beuys made ‘everyone artist’. Postmodernism and multiplicity are just like this, there are myriads of possibilities, and one mountain is always topped by another. We need to each improve ourselves, to acknowledge and mutually respect one another.

 

RJS:

I don’t think it’s like this yet.

 

YJC:

Isn’t it?

 

Shen:

I think yours is even better.

 

YJC:

Over the past thirty years of living in Europe, I find myself shy and not good at blending in, unlike Zao Wou-Ki who is the veteran of engaging in French culture. I think negotiation is more equal than integration. Martina got it right, ‘coffee and tea can’t be drank together.’

 

RJS:

I think this is not yet negotiation. It is just Chinese wisdom. The ‘you’ and ‘I’ are mutually situated in one another, seeking commonality while maintaining differences. It is a kind of negotiation.

 

YJC:

I always negotiate with my boss. Also when we two work together, our negotiation is also heated. Right? Talk first, then the two sides each take what they need and attain a common recognition of the future direction. It’s a beautiful potential when people of the art and culture scene gather and sit together. Attacks, jealousy, annoyance and suicides have nothing to do with contemporary art. It takes no responsibility. 

 

RJS:

Perhaps that’s how contemporary art used to be. There is a misunderstanding here. A minority of contemporary art actually facilitated the improvement of society, for example, works reflecting upon the Vietnam War, or feminist movements, etc. They indeed pushed social and political developments. But I don’t think those cases can summarize the role of art as a whole.    

 

YJC:

I think to get a clearer view you have to stand on a higher spot. You talked about the interesting case of Vietnam War during which so many artistic phenomena emerged. When politics is extremely dark and life is driven to a dead end, facing death, a desire of life and beauty instantly emerges. Through art, humanity inclines to goodness. In the 1960s and 1970s, many great people emerged. During political disasters, people choose life, beauty and freedom, that’s what art does.

 

RJS:

So actually you are talking about doing the right thing at a right time.

 

YYJC:

Yes, at the present, you should be able to see, know when to cut in, and when to withdraw. If you can manage both, you won’t get hurt.

 

Tale of the 11th Day – Golden Mountain (2014)

Ink and mineral colours on silk, three panels

(courtesy to the artist)

 

RJS:

Can we talk a bit more about copying?

 

YYJC:

All Chinese art forms, including opera or painting and calligraphy, require copying as a main learning approach.

RJS:

Why is that?

 

Yang:

Let me mention the book Ten Thousand Things, written by Lothar Ledderose, professor at Heidelberg University. I completely agree with how he analyses Chinese civilization. Using examples of Chinese characters, ritual bronzes of the Shang and Zhou Dynasties, Terra-cotta Warriors of the Qin Dynasty, lacquerware, porcelain, silk, calligraphy, painting, architecture pieces, printing and Daoist rites… He exhaustively explains how Chinese deploy their wisdom in cleverly learning from models, using moulds, and other forms of copying, and then create thousands of different things. This is a good book that everyone should read.

RJS:

So he actually seeks for consensus first.

 

YJC:

Consensus should have direction, with a good teacher, and like-minded friends.

 

RJS:

Can you give one or two examples?

 

YJC:

For instance, you are interested in gardens recently. The consensus of garden is nature plus self-ease – finding yourself through the law of nature. It is a very beautiful art form. People can actually walk into the landscape of traditional paintings. The painters usually draw very tiny human forms in the painting, as they treated human as part of the nature. The concept of the unity of heaven and men is very important. The art of landscape gardens reaches its peak in Northern Song Dynasty, as Song people admired Daoism. Taking another example, Emperor Huizong of Song, Zhao Ji, was a very interesting person. He had so many creative ideas for art. He liked stones, so stone has become a treasure until today; he loved paintings, so the first art academy in the world was established; he was fond of art, so the imperial examinations, calligraphy, painting principles, architecture, printing, paper mounting - all forms of art- had been established. He even standardized the sizes of Xuan paper. After 22 years of attention in art, he eventually lost the country. However, for the thousand years ever since, no matter who invaded or occupied China, they paid the price of losing their own names! I’ve talked too randomly, let’s go back to the details. Look at the gardens in the paintings of Song and Yuan, it seems they didn’t cost much money, as most were built according to the shapes of mountains and the features of water ways. The purpose was to be safe, tranquil and good for everyday life. They put a fence here, built a pavilion facing south, and planted some bamboos in the backyard, some trees at the entrance. Sometimes there was a suspension bridge, strangers or animals couldn’t come in, neither could storms and floods – perhaps a big rock coincidentally obstructed them…Their gardens only borrowed scenery from nature, respected the environment. Compared with today’s gardens, which are all just piles of human resources and money, they show a completely different condition and a different taste.

 

RJS:

I agree with what you said. I just came back from New York, and I saw an old painting in the Metropolitan Museum. There’s a garden in that painting, I think it belongs to Su Shi. Like what you said, they dug the ground to create water, and built an island in the middle.

 

YJC:

Maybe the water was there long time ago, they just borrowed the scenery to express emotions.

 

RJS:

Maybe they only planted some bamboos, at most. Or maybe the bamboos were original as well. We wouldn’t know. I want to return to the topic of gardens. The reason why I’m interested in it is because they are man-made. But our gardens, to put it simply, are built in accordance with the law of nature. Many things around us now are artificial as well, especially cities, which are planned by men. All elements in Chinese gardens are man-made, but they are in correspondence with nature. Our society, especially the city, should also be capable of echoing with the nature through certain man-made objects. Of course, Western countries use linear and geometrical approaches to abstract nature, which is also a way of responding to nature. There are more to be discovered in Chinese gardens, I’m not saying that we should make some rockeries, yet if we use the law (of nature) to make things in the present, concepts carried by gardens and the implied relation of man-and-heaven could be applied in our contemporary living. 

 

YJC:

The question is quite subtle. We definitely can’t propose to retreat to a hermetic life like Tao Yuanming. Yet today’s literati should at least know about the ideals, taste and mind-state of people in the Eastern Jin Dynasty, as well as their awareness of catastrophe, thus their entering and withdrawal from the mundane. Today's urban planning and nation-wide expansion can’t simply be explained and dismissed by a wish for affluence. Compared with Germany, which is also a country developed from an agricultural society. Our ancestors’ ideas of a peaceful mind' and “nature and ecology” are exactly Germany’s principles for development. The size of Germany approximates that of Sichuan province. Both have a population near 0.1 billion. But most German cities are planned and constructed for a population of less than ten thousand, demarcated with farmlands, rivers and brooks, forests and mountains. Even the bigger cities rarely exceed a population of one million, while Foshan, a second-tier city with fifty thousand people when I was small, has reached a population of 7.5 million people today. The city won’t be able to survive in calamities such as epidemics, not to mention a war. There won’t even be water to drink. Now Guangzhou and Foshan are interlinked, and also the Greater Bay Area… Without a responsible and reverent relation with nature, there will be no escape. An economy of people’s livelihood needs to endure, not to be pressed on regardless. The initial aspiration of the garden was to sustain life, different from regarding development as the absolute principle

 

RJS:

I think your answer is exactly right. Now the problems of cities are results of splitting and a mindset that considers no consequence.

 

YJC:

It’s dangerous. The pattern for business development has dominated our country, and culture is a latecomer. Nowadays, there should be a re-definition for culture, or a rectification of its name.

 

RJS:

What should development be in your mind?

 

YJC:

I think it is education and upbringing. In Germany, they focus on birth and death. The government encourages birth, and treatment of illness is covered by social security, death is also cared for. What’s in-between these stages has all kinds of shapes, completely free.

 

RJS:

I understand.

 

YJC:

I can chat endlessly. Let’s finish it here…

RJS:

Ok, thank you.

 

YJC:

Thanks for coming from Guangzhou to Foshan.

 

Yang Jiecang has become one of the most prominent and discussed contemporary artists since the 70s. During 1970s and 1980s. He was born in Foshan, Guangdong in 1956. During the 70s and 80s, he was trained in traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy. His artworks involve diverse media, including painting, calligraphy, installation, performance and video. Chinese traditions and contemporary art are well mixed in his works. He cares most on how to utilize and exercise traditional Chinese aesthetics and philosophy in current time. After taking part in exhibition Magiciens de la Terre at Centre Pompidou in 1989, he has been living in Paris and Heidelberg.