Turn round is barren field – On He Libin’s “Wild Field” series painting
By Luo Fei
Contemporary art we discuss today in fact is a kind of art on metropolis. It points to the modern social system of metropolis in such aspects as theme, style, trend of thought, economic system and target audience. Although such an idea can’t embrace all contemporary art, we can find that such a tendency is influencing the interest of mainstream artistic circle and the creation of contemporary artists if we refer to the themes of international Biannual exhibitions held in recent years. Indeed, as a cultural incident, contemporary art has its cultural pertinence to survival in metropolis, has criticism and concerns and holds together the echoing in cultural psychology with the target group-city dwellers, organic experience and survival experiences. This kind of grand depiction on metropolis can’t provide a kind of foreseeable critical stand to the survival situation of contemporary people, for the depicter himself is also at a certain layer in the society. Sometimes, we just get the opposite to what we wish and have a kind of fawning, i.e. the coquettish art in late 1990s, today’s big face painting school, prevalent brutal youth diary style as well as auto finishing swept the sculpting circle. In order to reflect the blundering and flattering reality, artists decide to make themselves and their art even more blundering and seductive. Such criticism is just an ineffective solution.
Such beyond-metropolis themes as natural scenery are also occupied by various schools in the modernistic art movements. In result, few people are willing to face the nature, and scenic art has become a kind of concept. There’s only stale methodology, or scenery painting under naturalism. They only secure their stronghold conservatively in contemporary cultural art and have no relation with the survival situation and spiritual appealing of contemporary people.
Under such a historical environment that contemporary art is urbanized and non-metropolis scenery art becomes obsolete, people are unwilling to let go of, but willing to be apart from the term “land” and related glossary which was popular in China in the 1980s, but was regarded as foolish from the 1990s to the present. In-depth mode is completely got ride of in the tide of art marketization.
However, at present when the people are easily dissimilated by metropolis, fame and power, artists who are loyal to the realistic appealing in the deep of human nature retreat from metropolis. They return to nature and land to pursue time and space belonging to themselves, distance from metropolis and to consider the survival crisis of themselves as well as that of modern people and metropolis dwellers. We hereby branch out our expounding with He Libin’s recent oil painting “Wild Field” as an example to see how the artist faces his inner world and the current spiritual land.
He Libin engaged in oil painting creation originally. In the past 10 years, he mainly conducted conceptual schema experiences with upon-frame drawing comprehensive materials, pieced together Chinese traditional landscape schema with earth, nail and burned newspaper. Twisting newspaper into a bar and tessellating into calligraphy patterns are the representative work in this period in order to concern Chinese traditional view on nature and the situation of its schema. In late 2005, for his love of painting and captivation, he resumed upon-frame drawing. During this period, he has made a large amount of black and white oil painting sketches on rural and urban landscape. In the summer of 2007, he carried large-size painting frames to Tiger Leaping Gorge in order to paint in the face of the steep mountain cliff. We can see from this that He Libin has a special sentiment to painting and the great nature. He cares about the influence of the on-site feeling to painting, and a large amount of sketch work done in a short period of time also indicates great energy contained in the deep of his inner world.
He Libin began to create the “Wild Field” series of paintings in 2006. The “Wild Field” series I mentioned here cover three groups of works with “Wild Field” as the representative. The number of paintings in the other two groups is relatively small. One group is the “Sun Chasing”, based on the original version of “Kuafu Chasing of the Sun”, the famous myth story in the “Book of Mountains and Seas”. The other group is the “Extinguishing” of an unknown fire. As the two groups of pictures occur in the “Wild Field” and have consistency and continuation with it in methodology, style and spiritual appealing, they are embraced in the “Wild Field” series in expounding.
The scenery paintings constituted with black and white depict the trees, trails, wild fields, wild grass and reed in the wind, as well as wild field with boorish, concise and expressive style. Thick and unmixed paints are piled on the painting and special tactile feel is formed on the painting cloth. From the use of the painting brush, we can even see that the artist’s excitement at the time of painting and the brush is applied skillfully. We can even see He Libin’s pursuit of freshness in the picture and similarities in his way of painting to calligraphy in running script. “Wild Field” series have continued the visual experiences that He accumulated in comprehensive material experiment stage and the boundary between forms and structure is weakened by the mottled black and white relations, making the entire picture show an atmosphere of burning and imposing. What is interesting is that He Libin has pre-set different expression manners before making many paintings and challenges himself through the demand of scene and feeling. We can say that this series have no perfect methodology and pays more attention to the touch and creation obtained at the time of facing the landscape: some are depict of the landscape, some summarize the landscape in succinct style; some reflects the visional image in running; some presents the original tactile feel of land by piling up paints; some present the atmosphere of field with abrasive sand-alike picture tactile feel etc. Although different paintings have different expression ways, in terms of the overall style, “Wild Field” series have inherited the spiritual principle of expressionism: be loyal to the inner experience and spiritual state at the time of making the painting, and endow corresponding expression to the picture. The adoption of large amount of black and white and cool grey color has created a dream-like environment, just like the vanishing memory. Meanwhile, such a black and white picture has intensified the rational pursuit in the work. In contrast to the negligible standup and running people, such kind of “small figure and big landscape” makes people often associate the relations between people and nature in Chinese traditional landscape painting. In result, a straightforward view on nature and universe is presented. Different from traditional landscape schema, He Libin’s picture still adopts focus perspective, not disperse perspective, i.e. he enters the “wild field” in first person.
In “Kuafu Chasing the Sun” series, the first person perspective becomes very prominent, for the story comes from a literary allusion. The artist plays the role of Kuafu and goes to the fantastic and holy site of sun chasing in person. Staring at the dazzling sun in the field, what leaps before the eyes is the unevading sunlight—this is a fixed picture of the myth of “Kuafu Chasing the Sun”. As the first idealist in Chinese culture, Kuafu’s death has a strong tragical color and representative significance for sun chasing. Of course, people still have different views on Kuafu’s death and there are still many riddles. In the view of He Libin, “Kuafu chasing the sun” is not as insignificant as “a moth darting into a flame”. He firmly believes that there’s certain enlightment in the story. Therefore, he decided to go to the site for sun chasing, face the sun directly and press the pause button. According to Hegel, the realistic subject of primitive tragedy is deity. Deity here is not confined to deity under religious ideas, but divine ethic factors in the acts of some people in the world—i.e ideal(2). But there’s boundary between earth, ideal and paradise—chasing sun is not the same as being sun, which is the “boundary” that the God sets for idealism. The consequence for going beyond the boundary is death, which is the basic enlightenment from the myth of “Kuafu Chasing the Sun”.
In the eyes of He Libin, the purpose for painting is to solve questions of the human self, i.e. the ultimate question of “Where do I come from and where do I go to”. The person here is not a general concept, but an individual – or, he himself. In He’s eyes, we must go back to the wild field – the origin of spirit as there’s no modern civilization element there and people can cope with and solve many questions in urban life with a clearer mind from a distance(1). Out of this consideration, He Libin decided to step into the wild field alone to seek answer to the question in his mind.
Wild field ever was the barbarous land to exile the criminals. Later, it was made a classic image in modern literature. Both T. S Eliot’s lyric long poem “The Waste Land”, or Jame Joyce’s Ulysses are themed on the evil and declining of modern cities with the comparison of myth as the basic structure and the thinking of the fortune of the mankind as the basic topic. Why does mankind exist? What on earth shall be used as the value of mankind? It is rational or irrational, self explanation or belief? As modern industrial civilization and technology come from the soil of western rationalism, why there’s evil in the world? Why people are still sad, crying and bleeding? Shakespeare said: “The world is disordered and in chaos”. Such questions can’t be eradicated just like the flying dusts that Kuafu must face under the sunlight.
He Libin has entered a stretch of wild land overgrown with grass. It’s a place where no people govern for a long period of time, which is just the origin he expected. According to the Bible Genesis, the classic Judean work, the land when Adam & Eve stole taste the forbidden fruit is also a stretch of deserted land: “And no plant of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up” (“Bible” Genesis 2:5). Does this mean that before the occurrence of evil, this is a stretch of place of origin having no virtue and evil(3)?
He Libin entered the wild field – this stretch of place of origin, with first person perspective; he also gazed himself who was watching and contemplating in the picture as an outsider. I had such feelings after watching the “Wild Field” series for the first time.
When people retreat from various affairs, depart from the chaotic and busy world and go to an unpopulated land, the small-sized people no longer are animals having breath on the earth. When people face sun and land directly, they will re-obtain the thinking on eternity and truth. When people re-review their values, the physical body and will no longer are vulnerable to the temptation of the world. The heart of loners is as peaceful as stagnant water. The soul of loners is well settled. Loners just watch silently in the wild field. They just watch silently themselves, the world and the circumstances for people in the world. In this process, the mood and feeling of the loner will be well released to experience the unique realm of “integration between myself and the world. But, why shall an artist select to stay alone? I think the artist is a person who lives on the world but doesn’t belong to the world. He is the watcher of human soul(4).
According to the original intention of He Libin, the purpose for retreating from metropolis to the wild field for a period of time is to obtain the sense of distance from the world and inner peace, which I think is a field that foreseeable cognition may be obtained. Just as what Jesus spoke to the crowd about John The Baptist: “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. (“Bible” Matthew 11:7-9). Here, the purpose for people to go to the field is to see and follow the prophet. At present when the Dao has retreated（大道隐没） and prophets are absent, silently watching and reflecting in the wild field may obtain a foreseeable cognition and critical stand. He Libin regarded himself as a skeptic and his skepticism directs at the rational utmost and progressive theory in the urbanization process after modern industrial revolution. This kind of doubt is really precious, just like what the German historian Jacob Christoph Burckhardt(5) said: “the false skepticism is prevailing in some period… but the realistic skepticism is already insufficient.” The recent “Extinguishing” series are also based on such a spiritual clue. The raging fire on the wild field comes from an accident? Disaster? Rage? Abnormal phenomenon? Or absurdism?
He Libin’s retreating to the wild field is just a turning around in his eyes. He began his artistic career on wild field theme 14 years ago and now turns around to face the wild field directly for those un-clarified questions. On the other hand, this kind of turnaround also reflects the reflection and peace needed today. This just comes from our affection to nature and ideal, as well as the call from the wild field.
In our culture, seclusion is a kind of perfect method to handle the contradiction between reality and ideal. But to He Libin, the purpose for secluding to the wild field is not for enriching himself as the mountain and water in the wild land is already endangered in the process of urbanization and industrial revolution and the leisurely and carefree mood can’t be obtained. Therefore, the turnaround doesn’t mean forever peripateticism, but one must face his spiritual land overgrown with grass. He said: “I have a strong impulse to release myself. Especially in the chaos world, secluding to the wild field and returning to the coolest and calmest state enable every one to face the reality with a sober idea.”
What is respectable in this group of “Wild Field” series, is that he was greatly challenged as he not only wants to seek ultimate answer in the wild field, but also to obtain breakthrough in skill, style and schema.
Nevertheless, the topic is wild field, not yard scenery, which is the realistic progress of Literati Painting. The paintings are profound reflections on the urbanization and flattering of contemporary art, as well as a vivid paradigm to scenic art.
Written in Liangyuan, Kunming on the night of March 18, 2008
1), Seek the Source of Spirit in the Wild Field: the Talk between Guan Yuda, Luo Fei and He Libin”, 2008
2), Hegel “Aesthetics” Book 2, Volume III, Translated by Zhu Guangqian, The Commercial Press, 1991 version.
3), According to Bible Genesis, the mankind was exiled out of the paradise for the grandfather Adam & Eve’s stole taste the forbidden fruit and the mankind becomes declined since that time. This is the original sin in Christianity.
4), The author’s blog “Watch Silently in the Wild Field” written on December 31, 2006. http://luofeiart.blogbus.com/logs/14404545.Html
5), Jacob Christoph Burckhardt, (May 25, 1818 – August 8, 1897), was born in Basel, Switzerland and died at the birth place. Jacob is an outstanding historian and his key research field is the artistic history and humanism in Europe. His most famous work is Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italian: ein Versuch.