‘Ke Chong Meng Dong’ (瞌充梦东, Catch the Muddle) is a seal carved in relief. I came across it at the corner of a painting during my first visit to Song Ling’s studio. Later, I learned the phrase was a transliteration of a phrase in Hangzhou dialect, which describes a muddled state of half-dream, half-awake. I surmise that the proper characters for the last two sounds should be 懵懂’ (meng dong, muddled), and the first two might be ‘瞌虫’ (ke chong, drowsiness), related to ‘瞌睡虫’ (ke shui chong, literally means a ‘bug’ in Chinese mythology that causes drowsiness) — I also found another possible written version, ‘瞌憧懵懂’ (also pronounced as ‘ke chong meng dong’).
People often talk about a ‘surreal’ implication in Song Ling’s paintings, investigating dreams and subconsciousness, which were precisely the approach of the back-then surrealists. One source of the surrealists thinking was Freud’s psychoanalysis and research of dreams. The core Freudian concept is ‘repression’ and its return and resurrection. The character ‘印’ (yin, to press) in oracle bones and epigraphy is the protoform of ‘抑’ (yi, to repress). This allows us to think more deeply about the generation of ‘imprinting’.
Tracing back to exactly a century ago: in the spring of 1919, André Breton, a young clerk who delivered magazines for a publishing house and at the same time proofread In Search of Lost Time, together with Philippe Soupault, completed the first attempt of ‘automatic writing’, The Magnetic Fields, at Hôtel des Grands Hommes in Paris. This marked the birth of ‘surrealism’ as method. Breton told Louis Aragon, The Magnetic Fields is a ‘poem that springs up after waking up’, an unconscious and accidental piece of creation.
Song Ling did not take up this ‘mechanic’ operation, though machines and instruments often appear in his paintings. He admires several surrealist painters. Without him enumerating, we can pick up these names from his works: Magritte, Dali, Chirico, Ernst and even a bit Picabia and Duchamp, and also Henry Rousseau, who I believe sits at the deepest, and is also one of the original sources for surrealism… (The first Rousseauian leaf appears in Meaningless Choice? No.9 (1986), which explains the cloud in Man-Pipe No. 1 (1985), and the origin of the seemingly Warholian juxtaposed images in earlier paintings of the series Meaningless Choice? )
This self-evident “master-disciple” relationship as well as the recreative seal remind us that Song Ling paints ‘ink’. The significance of this seemingly plain, but often forgotten fact within the shell of contemporary art is: the ink here is not simply a medium, but more importantly, a method and mentality linking up the past and the present. Those above-mentioned names, in the tradition of ink painting, are ‘predecessors admired by a painter’. The similarities and correlations in painting, and the relationship between ‘imitation’ and ‘archaism’ are natural-born. Yet all of this is suppressed by the concept of ‘originality’ in the contemporary art world—every artist wishes to become an independent unit, self-governing and self-sufficient. However, by the fact itself or by logic, one cannot acquire absolute solitary autonomy or ultimate ‘originality’, while the ‘anxiety of being influenced’ and the effort to cancel it become another form of paradox and irreconciliation. This only causes a termination to ‘study’ from the past, or a demand to hide and get rid of one’s own learning history and traces. As ‘repetitive labour’ is not recognized in this value spectrum, one has to create an individual and unique, yet self-enclosed path. However, in truth, the evolution and progress of mankind come indeed from innovations and breakthroughs obtained from repetitions of the past, and that is the so-called ‘différance’.
Luckily in the world of ink art, ‘copying’ and ‘originality’ share a positive connection. As memories cannot be sent back and forth directly between two corporeal bodies, copying becomes a channel for acquiring predecessors’ abilities and even resurrects ‘originality’ in different aspects. The first is ‘resurrection of images’, attaining the ability of producing them. The second is ‘resurrection of men’, resurrecting through a living person the ability of ‘creation’–that is, making something out of nothing. The third is ‘resurrection of spirituality’, also commonly described as ‘spiritual encounter through seeing’ or ‘understanding with heart and spirit’, in which predecessors’ actions, thinkings, moods, scopes and dispositions are furbished and appreciated. However, this ‘resurrection of spirituality’ could already possibly take place during the first ‘resurrection of images’, which is the process of copying.
But for Song Ling, ‘copying’ also means ‘alienation’. In Study series, Song’s birds and insects are transformed into geometrical planes, while plants and rocks become strange forms with mottled edges. This echoes with both Fabricated and Simulation series, in which the metal instruments grow parts with undefined function, or begin to liquefy and flow. The two processes seem to be contradictory in physical forms: the melting of hard objects, and the solidification of soft objects. Yet they share a consistent inherent logic, both are ‘aliens’ brought about by ‘alienation’. We have indeed seen Dali’s limp metal, Magritte’s nibbled leaves and smooth transitions, and Rousseau’s plump leaves and fruits altogether… All these analogous elements are carefully read and studied by an ink painter in the manner of ‘copying’ and ‘archaism’, then adopted, organized and integrated into a brand-new structure.
In fact, this issue has never been thoroughly analyzed: what happened when a Chinese ink painter admired, studied and later experimented for a long time ‘surrealism as a genre’ in his own art practice? What has it now become, when the long-idled movement is revived in a distant foreign land, in a young man’s artworks?
This is an ‘alienated’ history in itself. The key point regarding these questions is how the emergence of ‘surrealism’ in the life history of the artist in the 1980s was actually a resistance and rebound to ‘realism’. For the ‘realism’ was not exactly realistic and true. Those exuberant workers portrayed in paintings were actually nonchalant and silent in real life.
Thus came The Sea Paver, Song Ling’s graduation work in 1984, and the succeeding Man-Pipe series. Those machines and instruments alienated later on were already held in man’s hand in the early Man-Pipe series, and the ‘man’ by then had become a man in the pipe as well as a man with a body full of pipes. For Song Ling, machine, as a kind of ‘aesthetics’, stood at the opposite of the ‘taihu stone’ aesthetics (lean, porous, connected and crumpled) in traditional Chinese painting: it is a dense, hard, smooth, cold and unnatural artefact.
However, if we further pursue the relationship between indifference and enthusiasm, realism and surrealism, we will notice more complicated and entangled evidence. The original surrealists did not actually lack the enthusiasm for the revolution that ultimately led to ‘realism’. It was also them who published in their own magazine La Révolution Surréaliste 16 headshots of faces with closed eyes, expressionless, as if in dreams. They were photographed in the then newly installed photomatons in Paris. Behind the curtain, a temporary enclosed space emerged, and the reality subsequently folded and closed, becoming a ‘surreality’. What is different this time is that the ‘automatic’ is not a pen in the hand, but rather a camera interacted and operated by a person. The eye of a camera, celebrated for its ability to record reality, now captured pairs of closed eyes that shut the reality outside but seemed to reach a ‘deeper reality’.
This may explain why the artist, graduated from the Chinese Painting Department of Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now China Academy of Art), paints more ‘animals’ besides ‘instruments’—his first lesson at the art academy was bird-and-flower painting. In addition to the tradition of ‘symbolism’ in a broad sense, the animals as images are actually a kind of ‘incarnation’, they ‘personify’ yet lead to no solution. Their ‘poker faces’ are more unreadable than the surrealists’ self-portraits, constituting an indifference impenetrable by language.
Talking about his understanding of surrealism, Song Ling once said:
‘Everyone or every object has a projection (shadow), and surrealism strengthens this projection. Projection is not the result of light, but itself is the content. We used to paint projection to show the light. But for Magritte, Dali and surrealism, the projection has no relationship to light; it is simply a shadow.’
When shadows stand alone, apart from the forms that were inseparable, a second layer of life is alienated and derived out of it. In 1924, the standard-bearer of New Culture Movement, Lu Xun wrote ‘The Shadow’s Leave-Taking’:
‘If you sleep to a time when you lose track of time, your shadow may come to take his leave with these words:
“There is something I dislike in heaven; I do not want to go there. There is something I dislike in hell; I do not want to go there. There is something I dislike in your future golden world; I do not want to go there.
“It is you, though, that I dislike.”
“There will be myself alone sunk in the darkness. That world will be wholly mine.”’
This was written in the same year Breton’s Surealist Minifesto was published, in which he claimed confidently, ‘I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.’ However, under Lu Xun’s pen, the opposing two sides, the ‘shadow’ in a ‘dream’ bids farewell to a ‘you’ that has a form for nothing. And whether it’s heaven, hell or the golden world, the ‘shadow’ is reluctant and unwilling to go to. In the end, ‘There will be myself alone sunk in the darkness. That world will be wholly mine’. These short essays filled with dream states and surreal implications were later compiled into Wild Grass. Though, the very same Lu Xun would later be increasingly recognised as a ‘surealist’ master, multiple reversals layering up, full of complex upside-downs and twists.
‘Catch the Muddle’ (Ke Chong Meng Dong) imprints and impresses exactly the moment ‘you sleep (or awake) to a time when you lose track of time’. If a ‘dream’ is a space which unfolds possibilities arbitrarily and then rationalizes them, then itis the time involving together the dreaming and the awaking—this is also the space-time that ‘Catch the Muddle’, as an exhibition, creates—
THE EXHIBITION’S SPACE-TIME
Most of the works presented at Pond Society this time were never exhibited or selected. As an artist lived abroad for a long time, faded out from the domestic art world, yet of vigorous creativity, Song Ling has participated in several exhibitions in the name of ‘retrospective’ after his return to China. The stereotype generated and conveyed in those exhibitions is also the object this experimental exhibition hopes to overcome.
Instead of an exhibition hall, the audience will first enter an irregular polygon corridor, as if resembling the body part of the geometric bird in Study. With inner walls painted white, the corridor grows narrower from the entrance to the end, and gradually disappears into the darkness in the distance. When the audience walk into the darkness, they then turn left into another black corridor, which also turns narrower as it extends forward. Now, the audience will encounter the first piece of work, floating on the wall of the dark space—Dreamtime. Dreamtime represents the era of heroic generations of the respected ancestors of Australian aboriginal people. It then summons Untitled, hanging on the opposite: there are some inexplicable sights and mottled residual marks. ‘Untitled’ does not imply ‘no title’ or ‘no subject’, but is a suspense to them.
After these two corridors, the modest-size exhibition hall could be seen in a single glance: ‘alienated’ objects of various sizes as well as flower-bird-fish-insect are hung on the wall, surrounding a long table at the centre of the hall with many black objects of undefined shapes on it, which are latest creations by the artist. They lead us to the painting (Beautiful Agony) that covers the whole wall in the deepest end of the hall. It depicts the moment when one is separated from one’s self, or the moment closest to ‘Ke Chong Meng Dong’, and even to animals while awake (the moment right before ‘Kenja Time’). The irregular assembled frame, together with the freehand brushwork, constitute an unstable yet complete state.
The ‘half-dream, half-awake’ moment opens a ‘gratuitous’ space. In the exhibition, the backgrounds of all paintings are either white or black. These are not simple ‘colours’, but the ‘limits of colour’. As backgrounds, they suggest the ‘gratuitous appearance’ of subjects in the paintings and the lack of context, reason or result of an item in the foreground. The happening and ending follow a sudden befalling, activation and disruption, as if an encounter in a dream, with complete openness.
As such, the overall environment has converted Instrument and Still life, the two most realistic groups of paintings that depicted everyday objects at the either end of the space, into the most unusual existence.
In fact, what ‘Ke Chong Meng Dong’ truly wants to signify is at the same time a ‘surreal’ state and a certain space-time in which ‘practice’ can happen, and even an archetype of ‘practice’ itself. In chaotic, absent-minded, ambiguous and muddled states, without knowing or realising, certain things emerge out of nothing. It could come from a ‘dialect’ that is full of the origin of ‘alienation’. It is (neither) traditional and (nor) contemporary.
At the core of ‘practices’ lie the understanding and grasp of this ‘happening’. It is to undersatnd and grasp what is ‘a stroke as if done by the gods’? The ‘god’ had visited, but the brush has been in ‘my’ hand—the hand of a man. So by what virtue had I accomplished ‘a stroke as if done by the gods’, something exceeded my ‘capacity’? How to bring into play not only ‘ability’ but ‘potentiality’? It occurs in between consciousness and unconsciousness, in-control and out-of-control and goes beyond the dualistic cut between ‘free will’ and ‘determinism’. The real meaning of ‘painting the unpaintable’ is ‘becoming who I wasn’t’. This is the breakthrough pursued by all artists, breakthroughs achieved on the edge and over the rim of a blade.
The essence of surrealism is actually the ‘unintended’—if the ‘unintended’ forms a self-sufficient ‘space’, it also gives the ‘self’ a chance to smuggle out of its reign. But perhaps, what is more interesting than ‘automatic writing’ is ‘self-writing’, a more ethereal state brought about by input or intoxication, when ‘moods have led the way’.
The highest attainments in the history of Chinese art and the tradition of ink paintings are always accompanied by ‘out-of-control’ (beyond control). Whether it’s the slightly intoxicated Wang Xizhi or the indignant Yan Zhanqing, there indeed was ‘something higher’ that descended at the moment, when the ‘self’ was activated and ‘art practice’ was no more than an auxiliary. This is also what The Twenty-four Realms of Poetry speaks of by the first realm ‘Sturdiness’, ‘holding it humble, it comes inexhaustible’, meaning whatever that can be controlled, certainly isn’t the strongest. Only power coming from the outside is endless.
And this ‘hold’ can even be directly imagined through ‘holding a brush’: painting-brush-hand-mind-eyes-painting, a complete feedback ‘circuit’. A painting is like a ‘battery’— in terms of images, physical forms, shapes and strokes, traces of brushwork are made, imbuing it with energy. The work and ‘form’ then ‘seal’ this encounter and save it for a reverse decoding in the future—to decode it back into lively movements and transmit the energy again and onwards. Many artists discuss their creative experience without any concrete concepts, but their circuits build themselves once the brushes make contact with the paper, and the artists just know how to proceed. They are involuntarily guided by a certain thing. Out-of-control is not accidental but inevitable.
Therefore, the question becomes: in this world, what has been connected, and by which determining force? ‘Autonomy’ is a dangerous ‘short circuit’. To be ‘connected’ and ‘determined’ is a more lasting circuit. A connection in the midst of exploration is both mysterious and historical. It belongs to the worldly and human. En route of this much longer hyper-space-time circuit, artists are conductors—and good artists are good conductors—like Franklin’s kite and key conducting electricity from the sky. This conduction can be seen as the return of the self of the “severance of heaven-earth communication”. The highest form of all ‘medium’ is undoubtedly the psychic medium.
The course of art, for most of the time, is trying to answer the following question: how to achieve something that was supposed to be impossible? How does the chance to change and transcend oneself appear?
‘Ke Chong Meng Dong’ is the moment of truth and the transcendence of truth. What flickers in muddle and trance is the legendary ‘boundary of universe and humanity’ summoning the absolute ‘now’. That being so, the English exhibition title ‘Catch the Muddle’ is a re-transliterating of the transcribed dialect. A mighty dream, who is to awake first? (from a poem of Luo Guanzhong) A skilled hand, catch the artwork by chance (from a poem of Du Fu). The so-called ART is nothing but the remains or evidence after the moment of ‘catch the muddle’, by chance.