Pearl Lam Galleries Shanghai presents Theatre of Paper, a group exhibition that showcases a prime selection of painting, installation, and video works by six Chinese contemporary artists: Ni Haifeng, Qin Feng, Qin Yufen, Qiu Deshu, Shen Chen, and Lan Zhenghui.
As the earliest artists in China to experiment with abstract or conceptual art in the 1980s, living between two or more different cultures—either physically or spiritually—each artist has forged a unique language of art in the past three decades. In light of this, Theatre of Paper aims to reveal the subtlety and sensitivity of each individual artist’s practice in the indefinable and shifting transitions from one culture to another and vice versa. Rather than try to make generalised statements to frame these artists in overarching artistic theories, each artist should be seen as an individual working in his/her own personalised micro-theatre.
This exhibition encourages audiences to look at each artist’s works on their own terms, both visually and intellectually. Each artist depicts his or her own reality with different possibilities in today’s globalised world, where tradition plays a vital role and is a key factor in encouraging local–global dialogues in an unbiased way. Therefore, the micro-theatre of an artist can be imagined as a subversive micro-utopia that challenges the homogeneity of culture and hegemony of capitalism. Invisible threads linking to Chinese ink painting tradition can be traced in the practice of artists such as Shen Chen. Referencing traditional painting technique, the artist says, “My works are composed of the most simple brushstrokes. Overlapping parts of strokes form black strips (yong bi), while the space between brushstrokes makes white lines (liu bai). I use both the entire brush and the corner of a brush.” Shen Chen achieves the state of freedom and transcendence as pursued in literati painting, but in a conceptual and time-condensed manner embodied in repetitive strokes. Qin Yufen’s installation work Extension is an open scroll of Xuan paper (1.5 metres wide and 100 metres long) rolled on a wooden axis. At its centre is an electric wire in place of actual painted ink lines, which mediates between the artist’s traditions and her current state of being. Qin began to create abstract paintings in 1982 before she moved to Berlin and has been acknowledged internationally for her sound installations since the 1990s. The exhibition also presents Qin’s most recent series of ink paintings, In Search of Lost Time. ‘Fissuring’ hints at an evolutionary process resulting from the aggregation and disaggregation of energy. When Qiu Deshu discovered it in 1982 as a unique painting technique he has carried on with it relentlessly. It is his source of spiritual strength and represents his pursuit of independent spirit, technique, and style. Reinventing tradition from within, Qiu subverts the way ink and brush are defined in traditional Chinese landscape paintings by tearing up Xuan paper, re-configuring and remounting the pieces to create ‘fissures’ on top of a coloured base layer, combined with rubbing and carving multiple layers of paper. This contemporary rendering of landscapes is rooted in Qiu’s deep respect and love for the tradition, which he sees as his spiritual home. From this, Qiu has developed a new art language that stands on its own terms. Similarly, Lan Zhenghui has been experimenting with ink painting for more than two decades since his involvement with the ’85 Movement, in which he was known for his revolutionary conceptual text installation The Newly Excavated Undecipherable Urgent Telegram Sent from B.C. to A.D. In search of a universal language that resides in tradition, Lan focused on researching the structures of symbols throughout the 1990s before he moved on to calligraphic ink paintings with ink-splash strokes monumental in both their size and energy. Lan adopted the methodology of ‘writing with surfaces’ in the early 2000s. Though seemingly abstract, these works expand the context of tradition by focusing on the emotional dimension of writing and subjective surface-ink strokes that are an integral part of the artist’s life. Seeing cultural influences as in flux, after moving to Berlin and then the United States in the late 1990s, Qin Feng tends to define his artistic practice in a wide range of mediums as ‘ postmodern ink art’, with an innate emphasis on his own tradition and personal experiences. His works endeavour to synthesise extremes such as East and West, tradition and contemporaneity, and touch on fundamental topics on human existence. Tradition is under construction in one way or another. For Amsterdam-based Chinese artist Ni Haifeng, the state of constant translation between traditions and cultures is one of his main concerns, which, as put by the artists, is “part of an ongoing process more complicated than anyone can grasp.” Differences are being produced rather than preset—it is as true in culture as in artistic production, which is rightly opposed to industrial production led by the logic of capitalism. For Ni, ‘creating a zero moment’ or a sense of temporality is an attempt to offer an alternative value system that is critical in essence. In his recent video installation Tautology, a seamstress sews her own patterns on four pages from an art history book based on what she can understand. Ni brings in the social dimension of production juxtaposed with the writing of authoritative art history, depicting the labourer as an active maker and seeing creativity as a form of cultural resistance in a late capitalist society in the broadest sense