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The Spiritual Realm After Boundaries Vanish: The Logic of Wu Zhipeng’s Artistic Practice

Wu Hong

Critic, curator, editor-in-chief of Art International, Executive Director of Songzhuang Contemporary Art Documentation Museum, Visiting Professor and Graduate Tutor of Jilin Institute of Art.

In today’s booming era of globalization, with the global circulation of goods and consumption brought about by the transnational flow of capital, the mobility of personnel is becoming more and more frequent. Just as New York Times columnist Marci Alboher mentioned in her book Slash Careers, people with multiple occupations and identities live in a pluralistic way; today, in an era of increasingly convenient transportation, more and more people choose to travel between different countries and regions. As a result, a new “cultural population” has emerged. Here we may borrow the concept of “slash, or/” adopted by Marci Alboher in describing people with multiple professional identities to define the cultural identity of such people with life experience in more than two countries or regions. The two sides of “/”are not just the simple juxtaposition of two cultures but represent the journey to and fro of specific people between different cultures. It is also different from the so-called cultural exchange and collision in the grand narrative style that we are more familiar with. The cultural dislocation expressed by “/” is more microcosmic and personal. That is to say, it is not a macro-narrative logic that takes groups as a unit, but instead addresses individuals as a thread characterized by the transformation and mutual learning of personal experiences in the shuttling between different cultures. For people living under these circumstances, on the one hand, it seems that the old “border” between countries has disappeared.  On the other hand, this frequent spatial transformation also brings another kind confusing attribute to the realm of cultural identity, in reality, the so-called “international identity” or “worldly person” is nothing more than a vague concept. For a person who lives in a specific cultural field, although the scene may change from time to time, the logic and starting point of his/her critical judgment still requires an original culture to function as their fundamental dimension of orientation. Otherwise, the frequent conversion and collision between various cultures and circumstances will inevitably crush personal experience into a fragmented nothingness.

In today’s international art world, there are more and more artists with diverse living experiences and cultural backgrounds. That is to say, in today’s myriad of international exhibitions, the suffix of the artist’s identity introduction is marked with “/”to identify his/her cultural multiplicity and artistic diversity. This situation is more and more in line with the characteristics of cultural nomadism proposed by Gilles Deleuze. As such artists and their works make it possible for contemporary art to penetrate more deeply into the complicated geopolitical and multicultural issues in the world today.

Since the early 1980s, with China’s opening up, more and more Chinese artists have emigrated or lived abroad. In recent years, as the domestic contemporary art atmosphere becomes more and more active, these artists who emigrated overseas in their early years are increasingly taking part in exhibitions or activities within the domestic art circle. More and more overseas Chinese artists have been traveling between their residences abroad back to the motherland for art related events in areas like Shanghai or Beijing. The work experience and cultural background of these artists have helped to shape their unique artistic style.  Though domestic art critics have conducted case studies of the more active individuals among the group, still as a whole, or a cultural phenomenon, the critics have yet to conduct a systematic analysis and research regarding this group. Though there have been symposiums and forums held relate to this topic, these artists are often vaguely classified as “overseas artists”. This line of research methodology is full of deep misunderstandings and theoretical bias. Regardless of whether these artists are in China, they have life experiences, knowledge and educational backgrounds that are fundamentally distinct, not to mention their time and motivation to leave China also vary. More importantly, the socio-political and cultural environment in the regions to which they emigrated, as well as their social status and professional characteristics in the regions which they reside aren’t identical. However, these are precisely the most crucial background elements that form their own artistic styles which have their own, individual characteristics. Therefore, if we can draw on some methods of cultural anthropology to carry out our work, I think that the study of these “overseas artists” or “/” artists may provide us with the opportunity to revise the logic of traditional art theory and research for the better.

The object of this paper is to analyze and study Mr. Wu Zhipeng, a Chinese artist who has lived in Australia for many years, a great example of a case that meets the background research criteria mentioned above. This paper attempts to start with the methodology found in social anthropology, combined with the analysis of his artistic style during different periods, and attempts to conduct case studies bilaterally: first from the entirety of “overseas artists” and then more specifically from Wu Zhipeng’s personal artistic trajectory.

Wu Zhipeng was born in Xiamen, Fujian in 1959. As a coastal city in southeast China, Xiamen is located in the arc zone from Fujian to the Guangdong coast. It used to be an immigration corridor in the long historical period before modern China. The vast majority of the Hakka people take the “Central Plains” in a broad sense as their starting point, from Jiangsu and Zhejiang to Fujian and Guangdong, it extends along the interior all the way to the outskirts of Southwest China. Therefore, the Fujian coastal area is not only a channel for immigration but also a channel for cultural transplantation and diffusion.  As a highly sophisticated social and cultural form at that time, the Hakkas migrated to a  region of relatively less social and cultural sophistication. From the perspective of social anthropology, this phenomenon is referred to as the “colonial effect”. In other words, in order to survive, on the one hand, they must adapt to the natural environment and living conditions of the region as soon as possible; on the other hand, as a relatively advanced cultural group, in order to maintain their cultural superiority and not be assimilated by the surrounding less sophisticated indigenous cultures, they often form a “cultural island”. The “cultural island” phenomenon marks the effort to maintain the tradition inherited from their ancestors. Often, with the development of the times, some cultural practices disappear. In these settlements, cultural traditions or symbols are still deliberately maintained as a means of teaching an individual to a corresponding group and identifying a given cultural identity. These characteristics often result in the cultural mentality of both openness and conservatism in areas with populations of immigrants.

In addition, in this arc-shaped coastal zone, there are many mountains and viable land for agricultural production is scarce. In order to survive, one must face the sea; while the sea is full of dangers, life and death are often separated by one step between Yin and Yang. Therefore, in order to live, one must take risks; at the same time, survival is the first priority, one must possess pragmatic means for survival. In turn, the spirit of adventure and a pragmatic attitude are contradictorily unified in their personality.

Openness and conservatism, risk and realism, this seemingly contradictory unity, is not only required to meet the needs of the actual living conditions, but it also functions as a catalyst for the gradual evolution of the psychological disposition of a given group’s collective unconscious. These, I suspect, also unconsciously enter the realm of Wu Zhipeng’s subconscious, affecting his cultural attitude and artistic judgment.

Wu Zhipeng was admitted to the Xiamen Institute of Arts and Crafts in the early 1970s (later renamed Xiamen Institute of Arts and Crafts, Fuzhou University). Judging by the standards of the academic education system at that time in China, Wu Zhipeng is undoubtedly one of the most outstanding students from this school. From the few pictures that exist of Wu Zhipeng’s graduation works at the Xiamen Arts and Crafts School and later works after graduation we can see they are among the first-class works in accordance with realistic aesthetic standards at that time in China. However, Xiamen was destined to be a restless city. Under the influence of the surging “New Wave Art Movement” in the 1980s, the “Xiamen Dada” represented by Huang Yong Ping is undoubtedly one of the most avant-garde art groups in China. As one of the participants of this group, Wu Zhipeng gradually began to doubt his well-known way of realism under the influence of the new trend at that time. In order to explore the origin of avant-garde art, he also joined the upsurge of people going abroad during that same era, and in 1988 went and studied in Australia. However, as mentioned above, these artists who emigrated overseas in their early years have different backgrounds in life, knowledge, and education. Simultaneously, the time and motivation to leave China are also different. It is these personal differences which determine the different practical paths in the future of each of their art explorations.

Perhaps it’s the initial difficulty of integrating into a new environment and culture which prompts one to long for returning to that familiar habitat and cultural tradition. After finishing his studies in Australia, Wu Zhipeng traveled to Europe in order to develop a deeper understanding of the origin of modern western art. At the same time, when an outsider examines and observes the culture of the another, the opportunity to contrast and reference between the two cultures arises and that in turn deepens the understanding of one’s own mother culture. As a result, Dunhuang emerged as a symbolic carrier of that culture. 

Of course, the reason why Wu Zhipeng chose Dunhuang as the subject of his intercultural research at this stage was not to simply reproduce some hallmark images of Dunhuang murals to show off a cheap exotic sentiment to Western audiences; at the same time, he’s not using Dunhuang as a theme to express his homesickness either.

The term “inter-sexuality” comes from biology and is also called “androgyny” or the “third sex”. It refers to the phenomenon of dioecious organisms or organisms which have both sexes.  After the word “interculturality” was extended into the realm of the humanities and social sciences, it too was used to describe the dialogic relationship between the subjects of two different cultures and the texts which they produce. It is not just the static juxtaposition between two cultures or a dynamic intertextuality between cultural subjects. To seek out this cultural phenomenon, we can even go back to the crescent-shaped Hakka cultural belt where Wu Zhipeng’s hometown in Xiamen is located to find such a cultural archetype. In order to break through the restriction of the living conditions in the inhabited areas, the Hakkas, on the one hand, extend inland toward the southwest; On the other hand, they continued to develop southward via the sea. This is the history of the Southwestern coastal Hakka “all the way down to the South China Sea” re-immigration process. These Hakka people in the lower Nanyang region were scattered across Southeast Asia. On the basis of extensively absorbing the indigenous culture of the habitat, they also indirectly accepted the influence of the “colonial culture” brought about by the European colonists in East Asia at that time, which had already established themselves as patriarchal cultures. Through the retrospect of the so-called “Nanyang Culture” brought back by the Hakkas, who were scattered in different regions and periods all over Southeast Asia, we can find this multicultural phenomenon which reflects the above-mentioned intertextuality in the Hakka cultural belt along the whole Southeast coast. More importantly, through exchange and mutual understanding, this kind of multi-culture has formed a new generation. This cultural phenomenon of eastern and western interaction in both modern and ancient times can be observed in some buildings, diets, and languages in the southeastern coastal culture.

Throughout the creative process of Wu Zhipeng’s Impressions of Dunhuang series, which started in 1990 and lasted for nearly ten years, we can see that he attempted to explore some common internal connections between western abstract expressionism painting and Eastern ink freehand brushwork painting. Of course, the purpose of this attempt was not to use abstract expressionism to explain freehand brushwork or “xieyi” (寫意) in Chinese ink painting, nor to use traditional ink freehand brushwork to explain abstract expressionism. After Wu Zhipeng found some common internal psychological basis between the two, he separates them to form another manifestation of his own, that is, the reiteration of the intercultural effect mentioned above.

His experiment proved to be a great success. After being funded by the Queensland Ministry of Culture in Australia, the project was exhibited in Taipei in 1998 at the invitation of Jiang Xun, a well-known Taiwanese art theorist. If he continued in this style, Wu Zhipeng might have found both fame and fortune. But for Wu Zhipeng, an academic artist with a clear motivation to go abroad, he knew very well that this was not the ultimate purpose of going to Australia, this was only a part of the process of his research. In order to better integrate into the local culture of the place of residence, and enter into a deeper level of research, he knew that the local story must be told in a language familiar to the local people.


Australian story

Australia’s mainstream visual culture is, in itself a very interesting phenomenon. On the one hand, Australia has a series of first-class contemporary art museums as well as the Asia-Pacific triennial one of the most prominent triennials in the world. At the same time, Australia’s portrait painting and landscape painting are revered as visual art forms capable of representing and embodying the nation’s culture.

Australia’s mainstream visual culture is, in itself a very interesting phenomenon. On the one hand, Australia has a series of first-class contemporary art museums as well as the Asia-Pacific triennial one of the most prominent triennials in the world. At the same time, Australia’s portrait painting and landscape painting are revered as visual art forms capable of representing and embodying the nation’s culture.

In the series of landscape creations named “Australian Sentiment”, Wu Zhipeng presents all the natural landscapes that he has visited during his time living abroad in Australia. In this series of works, we can see that he does not strictly follow the criteria of western landscape painting. On the contrary, he is again using the aesthetic conception of  “sparse enough for  horse to pass, dense enough to hold back wind” in traditional Chinese painting, where dense layers superimpose each other and use the seemingly inadvertent blank space to convey a certain “implication”. The painting is not only on par with Australian landscape paintings, but it also displays traditional Chinese aesthetics. This reminds me of Zhang Daqian’s use of traditional Chinese ink painting techniques to represent the pine trees and mountains in Brazil and the west coast of the United States. In comparison, the two seem to have a similar effect.

Over the past ten years, Wu Zhipeng has begun to commute frequently between Australia and China. After successfully integrating into the mainstream society in Australia, Wu Zhipeng seems calm and collected when he comes to observe and examine his mother culture and the social reality of his birthplace. It’s as is if he were merely a “bystander”. This is not only a cycle of life but also a cycle of cultural identity. Wu Zhipeng’s 24-meter oil painting masterpiece, Passerby, which was completed in 2013 over a period of more than one year, is the panoramic reflection and presentation of the survival scenes of Chinese society realized from this observational perspective.

In the picture, more than 60 characters are arranged according to the chronological axis, which can be regarded as the entire bioprocess of a specific life from birth to death. Sharing resemblances of “Ukiyo-e Painting”(“picture[s] of the floating world”) suggesting the reality of Chinese society. In the long axis through which all kinds of people are depicted, the theme that can be derived is “the world is hustling for profit, the world is bustling for profit”. Golden chopsticks are not only the most fundamental motive to reveal the life cycle of this work, but they are also a clever metaphor for the current state of Chinese society.

Wu Zhipeng has tried to extend the meaning of painting to two linear poles in his great work Passenger, then in his installation work Encounter, he further tries to open the limits of painting on  all sides, so that each element of the painting becomes an “information point” that can be connected to at any time. As a result, each small painting which was once relatively independent has become part of a multi-dimensional crisscross network of time and space. Therefore, I prefer to regard this work composed of nearly 100 independent small portrait paintings as a painting installation. Regardless of the nearly 100 paintings, the techniques alone have reached a realm of liberation, as Wu Zhipeng’s interest is no longer limited to the mundane painting language or skill level.  The nearly 100 portrait paintings combine to form an installation work, like a “black hole of meaning” that has compressed the history of human civilization for thousands of years. Everyone is lost in it and has to reflect, who am I? what is the significance of my existence?

This work can be regarded as a turning point in Wu Zhipeng’s artistic practice.  After breaking the restriction of closed space painting, Wu Zhipeng began his liberation in artistic creation methods and means. At the same time, because the methods and means are less constricting than before, it also forms a greater space for him to think about the significance of his works.

The respect for multiculturalism and the protection of cultural diversity are the social consensus of Australia. Therefore, from the current cultural status of his country of residence, Wu Zhipeng’s basic understanding of cultural globalization following economic globalization is one which embodied by “the long-term co-existence of diversity and resistance”. It is from this sort of survival experience that his recent works place individuals in a world-wide state of “cultural anxiety” brought about by huge cultural integration as well as cultural conflict. In real society, various contradictions and conflicts caused by various reasons such as economy, trade, culture, and religious beliefs emerge constantly. Even during this age of informationization, mankind is highly likely to regress into the religious wars of the medieval era. In order to get rid of such anxiety, we must return to the intersubjectivity of culture to construct a form of cultural identity that allows for a dynamic process of occurrence and development. Only in this way can human society eliminate all kinds of cultural prejudices and religious narrow-mindedness, breaking down the closed borders and while moving towards a freer, more open state of consciousness. This is true of culture and even more so of art. Therefore, in Wu Zhipeng’s recent works, in order to express his ideas more freely, his works are no longer confined to the narrow classification of easel art or non-easel art. Everything is based on the accurate transmission of ideas, grasping the basis of different connotations, and completing the final construction of works throughout the dynamic process of production.

April 25, 2019 Beijing


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