Shandong-born artist Chi Ming looks on his generation with a complex attitude. Through round, Puyi-esque glasses, he sees a cold reality riddled with the quasi-mythical. His birthplace, Yantai City, today a major industrial hub, was where the emperor Qin Shi Huang once searched for the elixir of immortality. His grandfather was a painter whose life and labour revolved around the sacred aura of Mao Zedong, while his father painted cinematic posters propagating the Chairman’s messaging. From such roots, Chi Ming moved to Beijing in 2001 to study at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. At that time Chi’s creative environment was dominated by the prolific painter and professor Liu Xiaodong, whose fluid and narrative style of realism rode against the wave of Political Pop and Cynical Realism. Chi went on to forge his own brand of realism, pursuing emotional honesty over innovation for innovation’s sake and a philosophy of mankind as “earth-bound”.
Whereas his grandfather painted Mao portraits during the Cultural Revolution and his father caught the end of the “religion” of Mao, Chi Ming questions the effects of self as religion for his own generation. The end of Mao marked the end of an era of heroism and dignity owing to an intimate alliance among men united under a single vision (Friendship I is in stark contrast to Friendship II). For Chi Ming, China’s most rapid era of economic change delivered one form of freedom but a new imprisonment under materialism and cultural dissipation. Born without heroes or ideals, the only suitable posture for the Chinese youth of the last two decades seems to have a jaded acceptance towards a fragmented and materialistic reality. It’s a social condition aptly captured in Gates Opened, an ironically grandiose title for the scene of a bedroom with an unreachable window and lamp shining on an empty bed.
The urge for freedom takes shape in Chi Ming’s works as a defiance of accepted social norms, distorted perspectives and in some cases, a sublimation of reality, as Chi dances between Realism, Surrealism and Romanticism. A heady dose of the latter appears in Ballet Dream II, where Chi’s muse and girlfriend is depicted as a stone- faced Degasian ballerina; its inversion manifests as she appears in a blonde wig in the foreboding Black Skies and KTV, thereby offering a temporary release by allowing Chi to subvert the identities of his subject. As he looks for the surreal in life (A Fire in the Winter) or fashions it (Whereabouts of Harm), Chi captures the longings for a narrative arc. He also continuously seeks ideals amongst China’s Post-80s generation, one controlled by politics and money and caged inside its own superficial freedom. The absent figures in Past Lovers, for instance, create a sacred zone in the middle of reality protected from decay and disenchantment. Elsewhere, Chi Ming’s depiction of intense, almost intoxicating interior spaces, as exemplified in his Ballet Dream series, appear illuminated like a stage set with the players about to enter. The parallel of reality to theatricality in Chi Ming’s body of works reveals a desire to treat life with the same hallowed reverence that directors and actors reserve for the stage.
Producing his works from a modest studio, where neighbours’ laundry line the corridors and stray cats roam the communal grounds, Chi brings to life an autobiographical but powerfully representative world with expressionistic detail and a great sensitivity to palette. By depicting his subjects as cut-off figures, erased faces and seemingly unfinished spaces, Chi hints at an alternative reality and more vital force that evades our grasp. But whereas in Past Lovers that space represents a bygone purity, the motifs of sexual sadism in Midsummer and Chain, vanity and decay in A Chinese Book and Longing for Childhood), and encroaching perspectival layers in Ballet Dream I and Dry and Hot suggest that that vital force may be essentially destructive and uncontrollable. Indeed, in conversation with Chi Ming, he questions whether the force behind man’s heroism, his creativity and violence may well be one and the same.
The “life force” has indeed appeared before. It has been named Eros, Thanatos, and Bacchus in the West. Each time it seduced with a reaffirmation of life but ultimately reeled into chaos. In the East, as Chi Ming himself has alluded, the Bushido code of the Samurai offered a way to harness the fierce spirit of man under well-defined tenants of conduct and wisdom. But it was only temporary at best. Confucianism likewise may have underpinned Chinese civilization for millennia but was gradually taken to justify violence in private spheres. In After School the scene surrounding the self-portrait of a fearful-looking young Chi Ming is charming, comely and as tactile as the reams of paper upon which the young ward of a disciplinarian father is dutifully practicing his calligraphy. And despite or because of, his first-hand familiarity with physical harshness, Chi often depicts the aesthetic and the sensual or a sense of looming destruction, no matter how quotidian the scene. If re-engagement with man’s pre-civilisation spirit holds the potential for emancipation and cultural re-invigoration, Chi Ming approaches it with a mixture of fascination and caution.
In the works of J S Tan, the exploration of a culturally or primordially more authentic time and space plays out with equally haunting power. In his first solo exhibition “Culture of Entitlement”, Tan forced us to confront our modern institutions like a Dorian Gray before his portrait. For all of modernity’s achievements, it created an iron-cage of bureaucracy that entitled sanctimonious but disempowering institutions such as religious orders, monarchical powers and gender-based systems, to oppress or leave behind those who did not conform. Tan in such works as Girl Falling, Glutton and Girl Screaming unmasked the bitter illusions left over from the Enlightenment which had failed to deliver the promise of human order and liberation based on human praxis.
A year later, Tan has surprised his observers with a major conceptual shift. His figurative paintings have given way to a series of enigmatic charcoal drawings and inks. Human agents have been plucked out of the picture and in their place, shapes and lines, bricks and wires, and unnamable objects float in space. With the meticulous gradation of a monochromatic palette, Tan begins to liberate from the breakdown of man-made hierarchies into the order and security of unchanging geometrical laws.
Study of Space 1 could be a metaphor for such a transitional moment. Like some Weberian iron- cage of a technically ordered, regimented, dehumanized society, it taunts with a passage to freedom but finally clamps down with an impenetrable top. And although ordered, Tan’s hypnotic compositions such as Study of Space 2 and Study of Space 3 form a visual entrapment that arrests the viewer in contradictory states of inevitable escape and inevitable imprisonment. The paradox sustained in these works is a little like Schrödinger’s cat, the enduring icon of quantum mechanics which presents the scenario of a cat in a black box that is alive and dead based on a quantum truth but alive and dead when we look into the box. We step into the twilight zone again in the works Study of Chair in Space, where the world of qualities (the chair) eats into the dimension of abstract space as if the former belonged to a mightier, immutable substratum. But the illusion of security does not hold. Isolated and austere, the chair sits reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s 1964 Electric Chair, suspended in a wash of still mist with its arms pinned down by two dark ominous bars.
We are left wondering, with a mixture of attraction and fear that borders on the sublime, whether an alternative order is really being presented here.
Certainly the tumultuous decades of modernity, from its global wars and totalitarian regimes to systemic financial meltdowns, have proven society’s ability to forge new myths out of moments of despair. And so what began as an urge to escape has the power to transcend into a revitalization movement, not least of which is China’s opening- and-reform in the 1970s. Chinese artists likewise burst through the socialist representational tradition and its remarkably constrained but fertile environment to give birth to some of the most significant Chinese contemporary art movements such as Cynical Realism in the 1990s. Today, Tan’s work represents not only that of a generation standing at the tail end of disenchantment but at the intersection between art and mankind’s greatest creative power yet: technology.
The Hong Kong-born, Beijing-raised Tan these days straddles computer science, design and art theory as both a student and a practitioner in Rhode Island, U.S. And with digital design guru John Maeda as a major influence, Tan has embraced a new world of “magic”, programming vast, sprawling digital universes. The fascination and creative play revived by technology represents a crucial counter tendency in modern culture that has emerged to fill the void of departed beliefs. The longing for other worlds, once satisfied by religion and visions of heaven, is now being answered by virtual universes with new social architecture and identities, and their own rules of life and death.
As the modernist project delegitimizes, another response that has emerged is a re-enchantment with the spiritual or primordial. Indeed, recent years have seen the spiritualities and philosophies of the East migrate into the West, sometimes arriving whole, but more often cut up and customised. In Tan’s large-scale work Menhirs, towering blocks rise like caged ominous symbols, silent but expectant and guarding a light whose origin is obscure. By drawing on the image of Menhirs, ancient stones thought to have been used by druids for human sacrifice or remnants of a complex ideological system, Tan no longer portrays an individual or collective body struggling against a system, but a more mysterious primitive force awaiting liberation. In his ink works on rice paper, the impression of captive fences (Study of Lines 6 and 7) are challenged by a more playful rediscovery of lines and looser, calligraphic brushwork that call up a traditional Chinese artistic sensibility more intimate with the spirit of things than rigid outward form or realistic reenactment (Study of Lines 1 and 2).
As Chinese philosopher and writer Lin Yutang (1895 - 1976) remarked in Art of Living, “man is, as it were, sandwiched between heaven and earth, between idealism and realism, between lofty thoughts and the baser passions,” which could account for the inescapable fate of all man-made institutions to eventually cave-in because of the flaws inherited by its imperfect creator. Like the magical monkey we had enough power to knock on the gates of heaven but were not good enough, at least not on our own, to remain in the company of the immortals. Indeed none of the counter values, counter utopias or systems - not technology, not the new spiritualities - that man has come up with in the last few decades have proven worthy to uphold a new world order. The works of J S Tan and Chi Ming, in radically different ways, harbour the stirrings of a complex adaptive reaction to the decentering of our modern institutions. The honesty of their felt experience and their ability to explore dialectics in their art are a testimony of their talent as artists and as bold forerunners of a generation in transition.
- M. H.