Allow me to leave behind the avenue, turn into the dim back alley, softly push open the half-shut and slightly battered door, enter the now long-abandoned home and walk into the dark room. Sweeping aside those broken months and years, those dust-coated ambitions and unfinished blueprints, I may not find the secret I imagine, but I will witness another person’s life—even if he is already long gone.
At another moment, seeing the city come back to life in the frigid air of the dawn hour, headlights in the fog flickering this way and that in the directions their cars were headed, I had the illusion of “being alive,” as if I had unconsciously glimpsed some people in deep sleep, who dreamed in their dreams the same world as mine.
It is as though there is a kind of waiting in Wang Yin’s paintings: waiting for the arrival of this ordinary moment—a moment that is not necessarily recognized by the people who live it; waiting for the arrival of a moment that simultaneously affects painting, painter and viewer all at once. Accordingly, we can enter time, and although the place is unclear, the objective unspecified, it by no means hinders the possibility of viscerally connecting with another moment: the moment we once shared together.
In his early, unpublished story Fragment 1 (1992), Wang Yin writes about a man who volunteers to leave his tribe to guard a barren colony far from home. To the other members of the tribe, the colony is neither here nor there, and the only thing that persists in anyone’s awareness of it is that “no one ever talks about it, or has taken it seriously, or even remembers it.” When the man realizes he can never go home again, and that he has no need to go home, he is struck by a sense of relief and liberation he has never felt before.
To me, the transition between imagining the direction in which Wang Yin set off at the time and appreciating where he has pitched camp now, is like suddenly glimpsing a cabin in the woods after passing through the frontiers of the forest of history. And these so-called frontiers could be the borders of contemporary geopolitics or the group identifications of ethnology, but they could also be “places beyond consciousness”—they might even exist in our daily lives. As Benedict Anderson revealed through his research, the contemporary nation and nationalism arise from “a kind of modern imaginary form” that “originates in the profound transformations that occurred when human consciousness entered modernity.”1 So-called borders and nations are in fact “constructs of specific cultures”2that are used to demarcate the boundaries with the Other, which is also of course a way of visualizing the thresholds of the collective consciousness of group identification.If we see this as a metaphor for understanding the current condition of humanity, then through the protagonist of his story we can question why Wang Yin willingly wishes to leave ordinary life, and extend the question further to ask: Without this experience, would the artist have any way of learning the techniques that are on the verge of being lost to the world—techniques for cross-referencing the manifold images between self and other, individual and community? In the early modern period, when the horizon of traditional painting was rapidly darkening and the landscape of oil painting increasingly unsettled, it was on the basis of these techniques that many Chinese artists continually tried to seek a certain “formative capacity” between individual life and historical experience, and so enter the present; but, consciously accepting the historical fate that painting must confront, Wang Yin is more concerned with exposing the inherent genealogies in images.
This recalls what the French philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman writes about Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas: “We finally discover that the Mnemosyne Atlas works like a collection of Desastres: the play of the astra and monstra takes account of the cruelest and most violent aspects of human history.”3 And amid this sensory “montage,” the key problem is how culture will survive.
The subjects of Wang Yin’s paintings are always anonymous people, anonymous things, anonymous places. The more anonymous they appear, the more they seem to approach the primal state of our encounter with the world—when each gesture or bodily movement is full of meaning, and one has not yet stepped out of the background, as when one has not yet left childhood, left one’s memories of home. A state of chaos requires its corresponding brushwork and intermediate colors to conjure the scene of originary experience. Departing from this, the dynamic force that drives the structure of Wang Yin’s paintings is really more of a caress: the brush seems to touch life itself, such that the texture of the painting’s surface begins to suggest a way of caressing the world—one that is both bodily and sensory. And so the bodily warmth of the paintings comes both from their retention of natural light, and from the particular temperature that they emit as existential objects. Even as the painting infinitely extends our senses, it also breathes with the glinting of the light.
Wang Yin’s paintings escape “painting” by manifesting an even more sensible “appearance.”4 Bathed in an even, unadorned light, their figures and places exist in a loose, unfocused, somewhat “rough” state (formed by brushwork that outwardly resembles drybrush technique but retains an inherent warmth). Their existence invites us to speak; they guide, but without pointing in any direction; perceive, yet without assuming the self-evidence of truth; depict or inscribe, while merging with the subject.
But the fact is that the world itself has no need for expression, so I wonder whether, for Wang Yin, painting could be more like an exercise for testing the credibility of how we recount our encounters with the world. Being immersed in, wandering among these “appearances,” it is as though we are enveloped in an atmosphere that allows us to experience the proper conditions for life. Just as “appearances” are never true, yet contain truth, every “image” has its source in reality, is an aspect of the relationship that arises between the artist and real space-time, but the transformation of an image into an “appearance” is in fact the bodily experience of the artist’s long-term confrontation with a more abstract space-time, and its passing. As such, painting is itself the “necessary response” for the here and now, and so the “appearance” casts off excessive individual intent, allowing the moment of “emptiness,” the moment of “mutual transformation” to surface; allowing the world in which flowers and figures have the same structure to surface; allowing the site where ordinary acts and historical consciousness permeate each other to surface.
At certain moments when I turn back to certain scenes in Wang Yin’s paintings: the ambiguous silhouettes and poses, the indistinct places, the undefined actions and precisely the lucid but indeterminate atmospheres trigger my attachment to and permeation through other moments, as though it were this dim, diffuse light alone that releases us from the over articulated objects of the surrounding epochs to approach the other tones of color found in the bottommost layers of time. The historical Chinese painters were all well aware of just what kind of lighting would allow the spread of this color, and the light in their paintings was not external to the representation of matter, but was instead a dense aura that emanated from matter, such that “form” became “appearance” under the influence of “awareness.”
This is the light of dawn, the light of noon, the light at dusk when day changes to night and work nears an end, fatigue nears relief. This is when even the gesture of eternal parting is suspended in mid-air. When the organization of society collapses, and history’s promises remain unrealized, people stand facing the light in silence, and another day begins without expectations.
1The word used here in the Chinese, 象 (xiang), has multiple connotations including “form,” “image,” “semblance,” and “sign.” It is a key concept in the classic treatises on divination, namely, the Yi Jing (Book of Changes); at the same time, it is also used in Chinese philosophy and poetry to reflect the relationship between linguistic expression and natural entities.
2 Wu Ruiren, “Rentong de zhongliang: ‘Xiangxiang de gongtongti’ daodu” [The Weight of Identification: An Introduction to Imagined Communities] in Xiangxiang de gongtongti [Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism], by Benedict Anderson, trans. Wu Ruiren (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 2003), 9.
3 Ibid, 8.
4Georges Didi-Huberman, Atlas: How to Carry the World on One’s Back? (Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2011), 119.