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【2016】On “The Gift”—Colin Siyuan Chinnery

 

The idea of gift giving seems nice, but what to give whom and how to go about it is a complicated business. It includes everything from buying flowers for your mother to large-scale bribes for political favours. According to early anthropologists such as Marcel Mauss or Franz Boas, there is no such thing as a free gift. Gifts are all part of a social system of reciprocity that is shared by all mankind. In Phil Tinari’s conversation with Wang Yin in these pages, Wang Yin refers to Franz Boas’ research on Kwakiutl Indians’ potlatch system as the source for the title of this exhibition. Potlatch is an entire economic system based on gift giving among Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest Coast of the United States and Canada. The Kwakiutl tribe took this to an extreme by dictating that honour could only be maintained by giving more than was previously received, creating an endless competitive cycle for honour. The bigger or better the gift, the more aggressive the gesture. China’s panda diplomacy can be understood as being part of this tradition, as the rarity and preciousness of pandas demonstrate beyond doubt the largesse of the gift. Far more unusual was Mao Zedong’s arguably most successful gift to the Chinese people – a case of mangoes. In 1968 Pakistan’s foreign minister visited China and gave Mao a case of mangoes, an extremely common fruit in the subcontinent but almost unknown in China. Apparently not fond of fruit, Mao decided to re-gift the mangoes to workers who had helped him suppress rival gangs of Red Guards at Tsinghua University. The workers treated the mangoes with awe reserved for sacred relics, and distributed them to several of their factories where they were placed on altars to be venerated. Workers would solemnly file past to bow before a fruit that represented Chairman Mao’s personal sacrifice by giving his gift to them. What followed was over a year of mango fever, with plastic or wax replicas being sent all around the country to be celebrated and paraded through the streets to scenes of mass joy and jubilation. 1 In 2009 Wang Yin painted a small watercolour after the official mango poster, replacing the mango with a sweet potato 2, perhaps referring to the village dentist of Fulin village, Dr. Han, who commented upon seeing a replica mango on parade that it looked like a sweet potato. He was arrested as a counterrevolutionary, tried, then paraded through the village and executed 3.

 

There are seven paintings in “The Gift” featuring mangoes. Although the exhibition has not been named after this particular benefaction, what is perhaps more interesting for Wang Yin is its symbolic significance. Unlike the Kwakiutl potlatch or even China’s panda diplomacy, the mangoes had little financial value, only symbolic value. Whereas financial value can be quantified, symbolic value cannot. Symbolic value has no boundaries, and that is perhaps the central significance of art and what endows it with so much power. So, although the idea of venerating a worthless plastic replica of a mango seems ridiculous, it had already taken on the symbolic value of Mao Zedong who in turn had the symbolic value of a living god. However, the mango was only one simple signifier that quickly lost its power. Art is not a signifier, but a system of signifiers that can tap into practically anything. Here, Wang Yin chooses to tap into the historical significance of the mango as a part of China’s recent historical legacy. A painting with the exact same composition as Sweet Potato has been included in “The Gift” – Mango No. 2, 2010. This time Wang’s depiction of a mango is clear and unequivocal as if the historical episode it alludes to has regained a confidence to face us. However, more often than not, Wang Yin’s paintings of mangoes are accompanied by a nude female figure. There are four such paintings in “The Gift”:  Untitled, 70 ×120 cm, 2010, p.45,Untitled 40×50 cm,2010,p.47 and Untitled (Right and Left) 90×210 cm 2015,p48-49. Wang’s preoccupation of combining mangoes and female nudes goes back to 2007 when he painted La Jeunesse and Mango, a painting of a young female nude with elongated legs sitting on the edge of a table with mangoes strewn about her. While to western eyes the visual association of a young nude girl and exotic fruit will probably bring to mind sexual connotations; in Wang Yin’s personal vocabulary they also have a different set of meanings. This brings us back to the notion of the ‘gift’, as Wang Yin is also interested in the relationship between the nude figure in oil painting and Chinese culture, or how Chinese culture accepted this very western artistic tradition. Wang Yin mentions at the end of his conversation with Phil Tinari that art historian Jean Clair wrote in his essay Identity and Alterity: A Short History of the Human Body and Face From 1895 to the Present that representing the nude is a uniquely European cultural phenomenon. It is true there is perhaps nothing more antithetical to the Chinese artistic sensibility than the nude figure, so the process of acceptance by Chinese artists was an important milestone in modern Chinese art that can perhaps even be understood as a gift. However, it is not really possible to accept the nude without its accompanying sensuality, and Wang acknowledges this with his painting of mangoes set against a close-up view of a woman’s buttocks in Untitled, 40×50 cm, 2010, p. 47 . There is something about the rosy buttocks in this work that calls to mind China’s own indigenous mystical fruit – the peach – that has been endowed with supernatural or sexual qualities in China for over two thousand years 4. This work combines the symbol for Mao with a woman’s bottom, but also combines two mystical fruit, one from Chinese cultural mythology and the other from Chinese political mythology. The painting also brings together two different symbolic gifts, the mangoes that symbolise Maoist ideology, and the buttocks that symbolise the Western gift of the nude to Chinese art. It is also a close up or crop from a larger painting from the same year, Untitled, 70 ×120 cm, 2010, p. 45, which features a full reclining nude that is a direct quote from a Xu Beihong painting from the 1930s titled Female Figure 5, emphasizing Wang’s reference to the nude’s introduction to Chinese art history.

 

However alien the nude is from the Chinese artistic tradition it is one of the fundamental basics of an oil painter’s training together with still life, landscape, and drawing plaster busts; and all these themes are represented in “The Gift”. While Mango No. 2, as well as its companion piece Mango No. 4, p. 41, are both works of still life, there are two more works that depict the painting of still life. Bare Foot Painter, 2013, p. 59, is somewhat unnerving because the artist has no face or even the shape of a human head. Instead his head and bare feet resemble those of wooden mannequins used to practice drawing of the human figure. In a disturbing reversal of roles, the training object has become the artist, and it is painting mangoes. In a second work, Painter No. 2, 2014,p.61 the same mannequin has now been joined by an out of place Japanese woman in traditional costume carrying a baby. No less disturbing than Bare Foot Painter, the baby’s head mirrors that of the ‘painter’ like she’s carrying a baby mannequin on her back. Moreover, both the easel and mangoes are gone, leaving nothing to paint or to paint with. Although the Japanese figure feels out of place in the composition, she is not out of place in this section of the exhibition grappling with the roots of painting, as one of the earliest routes that oil painting took to reach China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was from Japan, which was one of the most popular destinations for young and ambitious students of that momentous era. This might explain the otherwise incongruous presence of Untitled (Make up Mirror), 2013, p. 65, a clothed Japanese woman in a bathtub full of water doing her make up.

 

The next basic art training subject to be tackled is landscape painting, featuring Wang Yin’s artist father in Father No. 1, 2010, p. 53. Wang Yin followed in his footsteps by attending the same preparation art school as his father did before entering college, and was greatly influenced by his father’s art books and catalogues. His father is seen painting from nature with two Tibetan people squatting behind him. Despite their unnatural presence he is not painting them, but with his back towards them he paints a landscape out of view. If we come back to the idea of the gift, there can hardly be a more substantial gift than that of a vocation. Wang Yin’s father passed down to him something to do for the rest of his life. Another ingredient in this already complex cocktail of references in this section of the exhibition is Self Portrait No. 4 ,2009, p. 43. Wang Yin has made himself into a bust, albeit in flesh tones, deprived of a face, and with mango ends as horns. Plaster cast busts are one of the most familiar objects used in Chinese art education. Art students spend endless hours drawing busts of Michelangelo’s David or Greek philosophers, and Wang Yin had to go through the same training at art school. Here, Wang has made himself into one of those busts, albeit without its most important feature – the face. Although he often omits the faces of the people in his paintings, including himself, the significance of this gesture feels different when applied to a bust since it is an object of study or veneration. The earliest work of this series, Self-portrait No.2, 2007, features a disconcerting self-portrait made into the form of a bust. A physical bust is a representation of somebody just like creating a painting of someone. Painting a marble or plaster cast bust of someone is to paint an object that represents that person, like the countless student drawings of David. But to paint a lifelike portrait of someone in the form of a bust is to turn someone living into something dead, resulting in a state of being both living and dead at the same time. The image is living, but the form is dead. Such a self-portrait is further problematized by the format of the bust being an object of admiration. However, any suspicion that Wang Yin is portraying himself as an object of veneration can be dispelled by the expression of introspective doubt on his face. Wang Yin has projected himself onto this form, turning dead plaster into live flesh, identifying himself at a fundamental level with artistic practice. Here, Wang Yin seems to be turning into his own art. In extending the metaphor, the same flesh tones for the bust has also been used for the support and table on which it stands. In Self-portrait No.3 from one years later, Wang Yin’s face has been omitted, and on the plinth there is a mango and a knife. The realism of the original self-portrait has been replaced by flatter and more uniform surfaces, but the flesh tones remain constant. In Self-portrait No. 4 under examination here, Wang Yin has taken things a step further. The overall composition remains identical, but the knife is gone, and the mango has been cut and now adorns his head like the stumpy horns of a satyr. Wang Yin seems to be digging at the roots of Chinese modernism, the roots of his profession, and his own roots. In fact, it appears that he is equating modernist roots with his own roots, as if he may discover something about himself through modernism. After all, the cultural roots of Wang Yin’s generation do not share a direct lineage with traditional China, but with modern China. The strange devolution from serious looking bust-portrait to a somewhat erased figure represents a process of discovery. It’s as if the more he discovers about himself through his art, the less need he has for his own image. As his process of discovery progresses, his image melts away, and so do the brush strokes reminiscent of Republican era oil painting.

 

One question that Wang Yin does ask out loud is why he does oil painting. This may seem like a strange question in the field of contemporary art, but there is more than one layer to this issue, especially in China. During the Republican era artists may have chosen oil painting because of the progressive system of European culture and knowledge associated with it, but oil painting can hardly be described as being progressive now. Compare any good quality art fair or auction with an art biennial of a similar standing, and you will discover that painting is associated more strongly with the art market than with new artistic ideas today. But as Wang Yin is particularly interested in history, perhaps the only medium that can contain history in its very medium is oil painting. However, this makes Wang Yin seem like an artist stuck in the past – in his own past as well as in China’s past.

 

It is perhaps for this reason that “The Gift” takes on the form of a kind of Odyssean journey. The show begins with two themes that will be very familiar to anyone who follows Wang Yin’s work: the filling station and the train cabin. The degree of seriousness that Wang Yin treats the filling station theme can be gauged by the title and year for Filling Station No. 1, 2010-2015, p. 35. Not counting smaller studies in watercolour, of which there are many, this is the fifth oil on canvas work Wang Yin has made of the exact same filling station, and this small work of only 120 × 150 cm in size was completed over a period of five years. It’s scale and lack of any buildings in the backdrop suggests the countryside, but it is stripped of any hint of village life as if abandoned. The loneliness of the scene and the angle from which it is painted is reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting, but there is an added abject quality to it. Nonetheless, the fact this melancholy filling station is outside the city signals that Wang Yin’s journey has already begun.

 

Wang Yin’s journey takes us to China’s outer edges, to the northeast and northwest regions of China, and to Taiwan and Hong Kong – away from home territory. The sense of space that Wang Yin conveys in both Northeast, 2015, p. 66-67, and Northwest, 2015, p. 68-69, is quite different from his other recent work, as he rarely conveys wide open spaces. Something of the frontier emptiness confronts the viewer in both these images, creating a different kind of psychological experience when looking at these works as opposed to works based in the city. Wang Yin’s subdued palette and lack of painterly detail heightens a sense of desolation. In Northeast there is no sense of growth or life apart from the labourers. The earth feels utterly barren, emphasised by saplings in the middle background that don’t have either branches or leaves. Yet, strangely, this is not a bitter scene. No discomfort is conveyed in the physical gestures of the workers – in fact their movements seem effortless and natural. The scale of the landscape is made more palpable by the scale of the paintings – much larger than Wang Yin’s usual format. Interestingly, he transfers this scale onto the work Untitled, 2013,p.70-71, depicting young people in Hong Kong. All the information as to where this particular action is taking place has been erased from the composition, but not from its title. The frenetic bustle of Central’s people and traffic, the roadside shops and office buildings, and even the faces of those who are depicted have all been erased. The scene has been reduced to the very bare essentials of what Wang Yin wants to convey and nothing more.

 

Wang Yin’s journeys into the unknown, or the exotic, are usually associated with his paintings of Chinese national minorities. This theme has taken up a serious proportion of Wang’s output since 2007, but has almost been completely left out of this exhibition. In previous works such as Tibetan Dance No. 2, 2012, or Buyi Dance No. 2, 2013, national minorities are shown dancing in their traditional costumes, and happy looking exotic creatures are often inserted into in works such as Spring Grass Grows Beside the Pond No.2, 2008, and many others. The national minority is an important painterly subject for an older generation of artists, as they searched for authenticity amongst the Mongolians nomads or high altitude Tibetans. Such places were otherworldly and relatively unaffected by the political and ideological climate of the cities – perfect material to express a sense of humanism in contrast with the cruelty of China’s political movements. Representative artists of that genre include Ai Xuan and Chen Danqing who are both known for their paintings of Tibetan people, and Yuan Yunsheng who made a reputation for his decorative depictions of Yunnan minorities. These journeys or pilgrimages to China’s furthest reaches by artists of that era is just as much part of Wang Yin’s artistic upbringing as drawing busts of David. However, this was an ideological pilgrimage as much as it was an artistic one, and Wang Yin’s dancing minorities also refers to another important ideological use of China’s minorities – propaganda. Unlike the sentimental humanism expressed by Ai Xuan and others, government propaganda has used images of happy national minorities engaging in ethnic dance to convey a sense of China’s vast diversity and national unity. This latter use of imagery is what Wang Yin is particularly fond of using, often over and over again. In fact, these are the only people in all of Wang Yin’s work that show any emotion. However, their broad smiles are not what Wang Yin has painted, but what he has quoted from the source photographic imagery. Wang Yin has interestingly avoided these smiling people altogether in “The Gift”, and the only place where national minorities have made an incongruous appearance is in Father No. 1, p.53, showing an important development in attitude in Wang Yin’s recent output, seemingly giving up such quotations from art history or official media.

 

Nevertheless, the imagery for the squatting Tibetan on the right in Father No. 1 has been used in at least six works 6, and the composition of Wang Yin’s father painting from nature appears in four works 7. Sometimes his father is shown with Tibetans, sometimes without. The same can be said for the Tibetan, who sometimes is painted alone 8, and sometimes with his father. As described earlier, the filling station composition has been used several times, as has the painting of the single mango. In fact, Wang Yin has a constantly growing and changing repertoire of scenes and characters that can form different combinations. The Japanese lady with her doll like baby from Untitled,2014,p.63, has been included in the composition used for Painter No.2,2014,p.61, to create Untitled (Painting from Nature) No. 2, 2012-2013, and the road cleaner from Untitled, 2014,p.99,  has been used in three paintings from 2009 9. Sometimes Wang Yin uses the same composition for different paintings, such as Picking Osmanthus No. 3 , p. 87, and Picking Osmanthus No. 4, p. 85, both 2014, two of at least four versions of the same work.

 

Repetition is clearly important for Wang Yin, but it is the reason why that interests us here. The phenomenon of repetition has always been an important trait in art. Religious and traditional iconography is naturally repetitive by functional necessity, and modern artistic concepts were emphasized by endless repetition by their practitioners. Conceptual art then introduced repetition as an idea in and of itself. However, none of these traits seem to relate to Wang Yin’s practice. Wang’s separation of interchangeable scenes and characters may come from his training in theatre set design. During his studies at the Central Academy of Drama, Wang Yin became interested in both avant-garde scripts and theory when there was still very little text available to Chinese artists. This made Wang acutely aware of issues of narrative and representation, and the role that staging plays in both constructing and reading a scenario. Wang behaves almost like a theatre director in front of his canvas, organizing his set of scenes and characters, juxtaposing them, offsetting them, and creating awkward clashes between them. While some of his scenarios feel normal and familiar, other works remind us of their artificial and constructed nature, forcing us to acknowledge the presence of the artist’s hand in his work. Wang Yin does not allow us to become comfortable with what he constructs for us, and constantly feels the need to kick up interpretational dust that might have just settled, further obscuring the understanding of his work. However, there are some themes that remain relatively stable in his oeuvre, especially that of mundane street side activities that take up most of the last section of “The Gift”. When looking at the street cleaners or repairmen that populate works of this type, one feels something approaching empathy on the part of the artist towards his subject matter. Although Wang Yin scrupulously avoids narrative or sentimentality, there still remains a connection between himself and those he is painting. One possibility for this can again be explained by Wang Yin’s theatrical background, as the spirit of Samuel Beckett seems almost to hover over these works. They resonate with Beckett’s affinity with lowly and poor, and reflect his plays in which hardly anything happens. In fact, the simple people who populate Wang Yin’s paintings can almost be characters from Beckett’s plays. Moreover, the work of theatre director Jerzy Grotowski, who Wang Yin studied for his graduation thesis, seems to compliment this Beckettian sensibility. Grotowski’s theory of a ‘poor theatre’ advocates an art form stripped down to its bare essentials, avoiding the trappings of visual spectacle and temporary trends.

 

Such theatrical influences of Wang Yin’s do not undermine the independence of his work. Instead, they emphasise the different route that Wang has taken when approaching his work as opposed to other Chinese painters. I use the word ‘painter’ rather than ‘artist’ deliberately as Wang Yin mentioned in his conversation with Phil Tinari that the question as to why he has become an oil painter is one of the fundamental issues he faces during his work. Indeed, this question forms the basis for much of his work. Wang Yin especially uses the word ‘oil painter’ as opposed to ‘painter’ to emphasise the specific medium. This goes back to Wang’s research in to the cultural roots of modern China of the Republican era. ‘Republican fever’ has become something of a cultural phenomenon in contemporary China for the past five years as if China has been catching up with Wang Yin. Rather than being stuck in the past, his work essentially sucks time out of painting, leaving only a sense of time. Although Wang Yin’s earlier work echoed Xu Beihong’s use of brushwork, his recent work has dispensed with that particular layer of meaning. In fact, there are few indicators as to what era or what time Wang Yin’s works depict. It is one of the many details stripped away by his need to keep things bare. His paintings contain time, but not era. There are elements of disinterestedness and distance in Wang’s work that is needed to keep sentimentality at bay. However, in addition to keeping a disinterested distance in the work, Wang also keeps time at arms length also. He seems to need to slow things down to his sense of time. Time seems to refer to him personally, as if the time in Wang Yin’s work is somehow part of a larger formula that describes him.

 

Maybe “The Gift” is autobiographical beyond that of an exploration of why he has become an oil painter. Perhaps the works form a deeper search into the self, his self, which reflects who he is on many different levels. There are paintings of his son Untitled, 2015, p. 77, and his wife Untitled (The Cup), 2013, p. 109, as well as his father. There is a bust of himself, that might be more than simply a metaphor for the work he is doing, but might describe the broader autobiographical nature of his work. The journey that Wang Yin has taken us on, taking us to the further reaches of China and back again, is not an exploration of China or of national minorities – Wang Yin does not travel to paint from life itself, but more a symbolic journey into himself as an artist. The feeling of looking at Wang Yin’s work is to both look through his eyes, and to look into the artist at the same time, somehow equating the internal and external. Maybe we can understand Wang Yin’s gift as being to himself, creating an internal cycle of appropriation and reciprocation. After all, there are few artists whose work has such close affinity with the artist that they are mutually indistinguishable, but Wang Yin is one of them.

 

1 Mao’s Golden Mangoes and the Cultural Revolution, edited by Alfreda Murck, (Zurich: Museum Reitberg Zurich and Verlag Scheidegger and Spiess)

Sweet Potato, Watercolour, 26.5 × 37.5 cm, 2009. Wang Yin quotes the official mango poster from the Cultural Revolution in several works in oil, and the watercolour in question simply switches the mango for a sweet potato, perhaps wryly mocking the similarity between the exotic Mao icon and the humble tuber.

3 Zurich: Museum Reitberg Zurich and Verlag Scheidegger and Spiess


4 Patricia Welch , Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery ( Tuttle Publishing,2013) 98,109.

 

5 Female Figure, 57.5×101cm,oil on canvas,c.1930s.Collection of the Beihong Memorial Museum