Koon Wai Bong: Shén Yóu
By Dr. Koon Wai Bong, 2019
Shén Yóu, literally meaning ‘spirit travelling’, refers to teleporting from reality to mindscape, in which an ineffable connection with nature is built. Although none of the scenery in my work is a direct record of any real-life scene, it is not arduous to conceive my interpretation of a bamboo stalk or a pine wood, for example, as a mixture of my close observation of nature and spiritual contemplation of the world. Thus, each landscape motif is intended to reveal my understanding of nature and my feelings towards the scenic sites I have visited. Through the process of painting, my intention is not simply to construct what I have seen, but to deconstruct the scenes in my head and reconstruct a ‘mental landscape’ based on what I felt during my travels and what I imagined afterwards. That’s why my paintings can be perceived as an artistic means of transmitting emotion from the innermost part of my mind, and as a portal through which you can enter my spiritual reality and travel with me imaginatively.
Shén Yóu, on the other side, connotes the idea that I always meander around time and cultures. Under the current of globalisation, city dwellers-whether Beijinger, Taiwanese, Hong Konger, Tokyoese, Seouler, Londoner, New Yorker or from somewhere else-all inherit their own indigenous tradition from the past, and at the same time are exposed in a wide range of cultures via reading, travelling or networking on the internet. As a Hong Kong-based artist, like those living in Beijing, Shanghai or Taiwan, I derive the essence of Chinese culture from my family, my education, my community and society. However, other cultural elements like the trends of contemporary art and Japanese aesthetics are of paramount importance to formation of my artistic thoughts. In my painting, the calligraphic expression of brushwork and the manifold layering of ink-washing or colour-tinting drive me to travel in ancient times and open a dialogue with the early masters. Nevertheless, I am concurrently conscious of the sense of contemporaneity and relish to wander back to the present time, often by fragmenting my painting into multiple smaller panels. Modern people have become used to visualise travel experience by taking pictures with smartphone or digital camera, view scenery on the Internet when they prepare for a trip, or seeing landscape through a window or a glass curtain wall in the modern city. The picture frames on screens or the architectural grids of a building inevitably offer a rather narrow and partial view for us to perceive nature. Thus, the polyptych shattering a panorama into multiple visual fragments is not only an idiosyncrasy of my painting, but also an analogue of today’s visual experience. Apart from riding a tandem of Chinese aesthetics and contemporary expression, my landscape painting is faintly redolent of Japanese sensibilities. For example, the shimmering of the golden shikishi cardboard reflects the decorative aesthetics of Japanese art. The repetition and iteration of a single motif and the intention to strip things to their essentials are reminiscent of minimal art and some concepts of Japanese design.
The Daoist master Zhuangzi once illustrated the notion of yóu by telling a story about a cook butchering an ox. The excellence of butchering, in Zhuangzi’s eyes, lay not merely in the cook’s technique for chopping an ox into pieces, but in his shén (spirit), which allowed him to achieve a blissful transcendence and freedom from all restrictions during the chopping process. In front of a blank piece of paper, an artist is like the cook, is encountering tremendous challenges and must seek out conceptual and technical solutions for subduing and overcoming all of the associated difficulties and problems and eventually turn the paper into an artwork. The term xieyi in Chinese painting is not only pertinent to the freehand style, but also suggests a ‘carefree and easy-going’ manner in which the artist can ignore limitations and transcend barriers, and then reach a spiritual realm that is beyond our reality. This, to me, is exactly what yóu means. I cannot say I have achieved it; I like to think that I’m able to go on travelling towards the spiritual realm during the process of art making.
Although I don’t travel very often, I have been on Mount Huang, Mount Hua, Mount Yandang, Tianhu in Huanshan, Cuandixia in Beijing West, Shangri-La in Yunnan, the Kalajun Prairies of Xiingjian, Niaodao in Qinghai, Arashiyama in Kyoto, Kumano Kodo on the Kii Peninsula and, of course, the landscapes of Hong Kong, such as the islands of Lantau and Sai Kung and the mountain ranges of Pat Sin Leng and Lio Rck Hill. Beautiful scenes such as the bamboo groves in Arashiyama, the virgin forests in Shangri-La and the remote sea views of Sai Kung have deeply impressed me due to their spectacle and tranquility. Bamboo Groves in Greenery Luxury, Whispering Woods and Listening to the Ripples are my direct responses to those scenes.
In the past, Chinese people liked to connect with nature by travelling and observing it in detail. In On Paintings, the Southern Dynasty painter-cum-theorist Wang Wei remarked that one would ‘spiritually flushed with excitement at the sight of the autumn clouds or ponder over the grandeur of the universe when walking in the breeze of spring time’. Artists of the Northern Song believed that meticulous attention to the detail of nature and study of its underlying principles could increase one’s knowledge, which was the key to attain the Way. Thus, mountains and streams were often subjected to close scrutiny by landscape artists. In Lofty Ambition of Forest and Streams, for example, the Song master Guo Zi studied mountains in terms of a major object. He noted,
“its form may rear up, or it may be arrogantly aloof. It may be lofty and broad, or it may sprawl. It may spread vast and extensive, or it may be solid and bulky. It may be heroic and martial, or it may be sacred or awe-inspiring. It may glare down or hold court to its environment. It may be capped on higher peaks or ride upon lesser slopes. It may have others which lean upon it in front or support it in the rear. It may seem to gaze down from its eminence and survey the ground below. It may seem to wander down to direct its surroundings. Such are the major formations of the mountains.”
It can be said that what Guo illustrates here is not one particular mountain, but the nature, or essence, of all mountains. Through this way of seeing, Chinese artists are determined not to put a sole focus on the visual forms of landscape motifs, but to penetrate into the spirit of the subject matter to captures its ‘amorphous’ nature.
In my works, the bamboo stalks, such as those appearing in Bamboo Trees in Profusion, Silhouettes of the Bamboo Tress, Eau de Nil and Bamboo on a Rainy Day, are images constructed in my mind based on my understanding of this particular species of vegetation gained from travelling to Arashiyama in Japan and other scenic sties such as the Purple Bamboo Park in Beijing and The Chinese University of Hong Kong, which I have studied for 6 years and am currently living. Through years of study and travelling in nature, I have realized that ‘observing’ with the eyes is not sufficient to fully grasp the inherent substance of nature; that is why I try my best to open all my senses, including hearing, smelling, touching and mediating, when I am wandering around a deep forest or walking by a small grove. As city dwellers, we are often inundated with information and inevitably tend to shut down our senses to survive the population explosion and to endure air, light, noise, and water pollutions. Travelling in nature, to me, is a practice to resume using all my senses. It provides me with a chance to reflect on spiritual matters in solitude. In In a Bamboo Pavilion, the Tang poet Wang Wei wrote, ‘Sitting alone surrounded by bamboo clusters, I play the lyre, recite poems and versify some more; deep in the woods where no one would take any notice, there is only the moon shining on my solitude.’ The pleasure of being in a landscape, to me, is never escapism to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant reality; on the contrary, it is a practice of self-enlightenment to sensitize oneself to experience the exterior world or to reconcile oneself with nature. Therefore, my paintings should be viewed not as a portraiture of a tree or a life-sketch of a landscape, but as ‘mindscapes’ that exhibit my sensitivity and my feelings for landscape. For example, in Bamboo Groves in Mist and Rains and River Banks in Serenity, and the murky and gloomy cloud shrouding the sky of A Cloudburst in the Night are intended to put viewers in a melancholy mood. To me, solitary wandering in nature is spiritual travelling that enriches my senses so that I can feel the subtleties of the exterior world and understand the nuances of the seasons of a year or the times of a day; it allows me to mediate, or reconcile with, nature and be in the very moment of the present time to enjoy experiencing a sense of carpe diem.
In the Northern and Southern Dynasties, Zhong Bing brought out the notion of woyou, literally meaning ‘armchair travelling’, through which a piece of landscape painting could be considered a portal to teleport an indoor viewer imaginatively to somewhere thousands of miles away. Through my landscapes, I wish to take you on a spiritual journey towards my mindscape, where you can travel with me in my inner reality and unleash all of your senses and come to your own carpe diem moment to achieve self-enlightenment.
While Chinese painting, as Li Xiaoshan asserted in his essay My View on Modern Chinese Painting, ended its deadlock at the end of last century, ink art rose to predominance in the years after the turn of the millennium and has become of the most well-received genres around the global. Ink artists such as Lui Shao-Kwan (Lyu Shoukun), Liu Kuo-song (Liu Guosong), Gu Wenda and Liu Dan are under the spotlight of the international art scene and thousands of ink paintings or artworks have attracted the attentions of artists, art critics, museum curators, gallerists, art dealers, auctioneers, collectors, buyers, and the general public. Why has ink, one of the most common materials in the practice of Chinese painting, gained such prestige and inspired so many artists?
The Tang poet-artist Wang Wei deemed that ink painting was aesthetically above other genres in Chinese painting and the modern artist Xie Zhiliu titled one of his publications Ink Painting. However, there is some discrepancy between the meanings of ‘ink’ in ancient times and in the contemporary era. In the 1960 and 1970s, Lyu Shoukun was a pioneer with a great artistic vision to develop New Ink Painting in Hong Kong, and after an experimental period in mainland China in the 1980s and 1990s, ink art has been thriving globally since the beginning of the twenty-first century. Unlike Wang Wei’s idea to equate ink painting with ‘visual poetry’, ink painting or ink art is now primarily the distinctive integration of materials derive from Chinese culture and the expression of contemporary art from all around the world. That is why ‘ink’, in the context, does not merely signify the age-old material that is the indispensable ingredient of the artworks, but now serves as a signifier of the ‘ambiguous’ concept of Chinese culture. Therefore, it is not a surprise that a work may be defined as ink art even if it is not made with Chinese brush, xuan paper or even ink.
Although I am not reluctant to claim my works as ‘ink art’, I have proclivity for viewing my painting as guohua (national painting) due to my strong affinity with the traditional aesthetic of bimo, or brush and ink. In the Southern Dynasty, the theorist Xie He judged a painting by the ‘bone method and use of brush’, which is the second of his ‘Six Canons’, after the ambiguous first canon ‘spirit resonance and vitality’. The Five Dynasties artists Jing Hao referred to the ‘Six Keys’ in his Note of Brush Methods and described ‘brush’ and ‘ink’ as two factors contributing to learning landscape painting. Later, the Ming artist-cum-theorist Dong Qichang wrote in his Notes of the Hua Chan Studio, ‘Judging by spectacular quality, landscape is advantageous to painting; and yet regarding the subtlety of use of brush and ink, nature would not be as good as an artwork.’ It is evident that brush and ink were constant aesthetic appeals in Chinese painting and artists were required to demonstrate a high level of technical proficiency and artistic expression in both. Huang Binhong, for example set out the ‘Five Brushes’ of balance, constraint, fullness, weightiness and variation as the aesthetics of brushwork, whereas Zhang Daqian, in his On the Art of Painting, remarked, ‘The brush technique calls for balance, straightness, weightiness, fullness, versatility, ruggedness, gracefulness and smoothness. Failure to observe these essential points will lead to unhappy results.’ These criteria were not actually invented by Huang or Zhang, who concluded that they reflected the artistic practices of the past. For me, the aesthetics embedded in brush and ink are never a technical restriction; there represent an open dialogue with the artists of the past. For example, the emotional expression in Reverberations in the Vast Mountains is reminiscent of the splashed ink technique used by Zhang Daqian, while the detailed delineation of the vegetation in Dancing in the Breeze-baimiao artists of the Song and Yuan Dynasties. The misty day in Glistering as Stars and Bamboo Groves in the Breeze could be considered my interpretation of a long handscroll by the Yuan female artist Guan Daosheng, whereas the dry and sharp brushwork in Pines Shrouded in Mist exhibits my understand of the dense forests in Wind in Pines Among a Myriad Valleys by the Northern Song Landscape artist Li Tang.
As a contemporary artist, I never allow myself to live in the past, so my guohua is always striking a balance: on one side, it is dipping into the tradition of Chinese painting; on the other side, it is straddling the boundary of Chinese art and communicating with the aesthetics of contemporary art or art from other cultures. Simplicity, which is an aesthetic often applied to modern art or Japanese design, is my favorite form of expression. Although I disavow the pure abstractionism of suprematist or minimal art, which focus on the basic geometrical forms such as circles and rectangles, the bald and unadorned compositions, the limited range of colors, and the repetition and reiteration of forms and lines inspire e to develop my paintings. In Standing à Deux, for example, the composition restricts each bamboo stalk to a position straight down the center to the end of each paper strap. Such straightforwardness shows, as the suprematist artist Kazimir Malevich remarked in The Non-Objective World, the ‘primacy of pure feeling’. The color green, to me, is no different from ink, which is nothing but a particular ‘hue’ of blackness. That is why the greenness in the pair of painting is present in tonal variations within an extremely narrow chromatic spectrum. Such simplification of composition and coloring effectively strips the subject matter down to its essentials to reveal the ‘spirit’ embedded within it. In addition, I relish the rendering of multiple layers of foliage with hundreds of simplified brushstrokes, which can be regarded as a departure from a visual representation of greenery and a vehicle to transport viewers to my fabricated and imaginative mindscape.
Moreover, I adopt the polyptych form, which prevailed in the alter pieces of the Renaissance because the panels could serve as story boxes for telling Bible stories. In China, it was a common format for large paintings due to limitations of paper size, or for a series of artworks under the same theme, such as the four seasons of a year or the Four Gentlemen of Chinese paintings. to me, a polyptych is an art form that can reflect the visual experience of city dwellers, whose view is often blocked or obstructed by the picture frame on a screen or the grid structure of a building. We inevitably get used to seeing images via a smartphone or a computer monitor, or catch a glimpse of landscape through a window, a glass curtain wall or a narrow gap between two skyscrapers in the city. By fragmenting a panorama into multiple panels, I produce a visual experience in my artwork that brings a guohua from the ancient world to the present. In Bamboo Trees in Profusion, Gentlemen and Dancing with Shadows, for examples, the grid structure formed by the shikishi cardboard and the zig-zag arrangement of a series of individual panels give the pine and bamboo paintings an edge of contemporaneity, whereas the unusual narrowness of the painting space in Bamboo & Coffee/Tea unveils a view of nature that has been distorted by the suffocating living space of the metropolis. Furthermore, in a polyptych, the fragmented view of landscape in each panel is an ‘incomplete’ part of a whole. Such ‘incompleteness’ suggests the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, which a worldview centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. In fact, the Japanese are highly sensitive to change in the world and aware of the impermanence or transience of reality, which generates the sentiment of transient sadness called mono no aware. Such sensitivity is exhibited not only in the multiple-paneled presentation, but also in the choice of color. The decorativeness of the gold in Glimmering in the Twilight and Bamboo Tress in Profusion is not a celebration of the beauty of splendor or flamboyance, but a representation of a sunset which one can empathize wistfully with the passing of time and feel the emptiness of ‘self-nature’. This is the notion of mono no aware.
In the past, ink artists tended to see Hong Kong as a cultural hybrid or dichotomy of East and West; however, in my eyes, the situation is more complicated. Like those who live in Beijing, Shanghai or Taipei, Hon Kong artists are in a land of multiple cultures, in which we are unavoidably bound to Chinese tradition. Thanks to globalization, we are also extensively exposed to other cultures, not only from the West, but also from the East Asia – in my case, Japan. If my paintings is a teleportation of the viewers to my mindscape, I would like to escort them to travel in my time and culture and experience my sense of the anachronism of old and new, and the pluralism of multiple cultures.
Chinese art, especially xieyi painting, has long been regarded as a practice of achieve self-cultivation. There is, to me, nothing truer. A xieyi artist is required to keep practicing and practicing to reaching a moment at which he finds enlightenment and knows how to capture the ‘spirit’ of the subject atter through the outward forms and, more importantly, through calligraphic brushwork. Xieyi can refer to a ‘freehand’ style or a ‘carefree’ expression in art. However, xie means ‘write’ and yi means ‘idea’, which is why xieyi painting is aesthetically related to calligraphy and a xieyi artist often spends a great deal of time practicing, and then ‘writes’, rather than draws, his idea in pictorial form.
I have been practicing xieyi painting for years and finds the Chinese brush and xuan paper or bark paper are highly sensitive and require each practitioner to invest considerable time and effort into mastering them. The use of brush and ink is a ‘form’. There is a saying that ‘form comes first, and heart ensues’, meaning that if an artist and work to master the form self-enlightenment from the bottom of his heart will follow. A transformative practice in which mastering form is a means to attain an inner, or spiritual, experience is common in Japanese and Chinese traditions. In the Japanese tea ceremony (chado), the etiquette of ceremonial preparation and presentation of matcha, a powdered green tea, dictates that the host and each guest perform in a refined and elegant manner. Although I don’t know too much about the ceremony, I know that even water kettle, for example is rather hot and heavy, and the way to fold the chakin (cloth) for wiping the chadogu (tea set) is complicated and sophisticated, the practitioner has to lift all the equipment and follow all the procedures with grace. In my eyes, the easy-going and beautiful performance of chado is not to celebrate the aesthetics of elegancy or refinement, it is to allow us to transcend the elaborate ritual, or etiquette (which is a ‘form’), and enter the spiritual world.
In China, the Daoist master Zhuangzi deemed that such transcendence was not only to be found in the ritual, but also in daily life. In his Xiaoyao You, he said,
“A cook butchering an ox of Duke Wen Hui. The places his hand touched, his shoulder leaned against, his foot stepped on, his knee pressed upon, came apart with a sound. He moved the blade, making a noise that never fell out of rhythm, it harmonized with the Mulberry Woods Dance, like music from ancient times.”
Duke Wen Hui exclaimed, ‘Ah! Excellent! Your skill has advanced to the level?’
The cook put down the knife and answered, ‘What I follow is Dao, which is beyond all skills. When I started butchering, what I saw was nothing but the whole ox. After three years, I no longer saw the whole ox. Nowadays, I meet it with my mind rather than see it with my eyes. My sensory organs are inactive while I direct the mind’s movement. It goes according to natural laws, striking apart large gaps, moving towards large openings, following its natural structure. Even places where tendons attach to bones give no resistance, never mind the larger bones! A good cook goes through a knife in a year, because he cuts. An average cook goes through a knife in a month, because he hacks. I have used this knife for nineteen years. It has butchered thousands of oxen, but the blade is still like it’s newly sharpened. The joints have openings, and the knife’s blade has no thickness. Apply this lack of thickness into the openings, and the moving blade swishes through, with room to spare! That’s why after nineteen years, the blade is still like its newly sharpened. Nevertheless, every time I come across a joint, I see its tricky parts, I pay attention and use caution, my vision concentrates, my movements slow down. I move the knife very slightly. Whump! It has already separated. The ox doesn’t even know its dead, and falls to the ground like mud. I stand holding the knife, and look all around it. The work gives me much satisfaction. I clean the knife and put it away. ’
Duke Wen Hui said, ‘Excellent! I listen to your words, and learn a principal of life.’”
The exclamation of Duke Wen Hui was not only at the ‘light touch’ manner of the butchering, but also at the cook’s heart. Which strictly followed Dao – that’s why after years of incessant practice, he didn’t need to see the ox with his eyes because whole animal could appear in the cook’s mind. Of course, such competence was the result of erudition and technical proficiency, which indicates the cook’s familiarity with the ‘form’. In my eyes, the anecdote of the cook in Xiaoyao You aims to illustrate Zhuangzi’s idea of yóu, which refers to transcendence of the form as well as the untrammelledness of the heart.
Chineses artists, like practitioners of the Japanese tea ceremony and the cook, are concerned with form and heart. Forme, mastering form is more than solving technical problems or familiarizing myself with the necessary tools and materials because it can penetrate into the inner part of my mind to look for spiritual travelling. For example, the automatism of the splashed ink and the white pigment in April Weather and A Cloudburst in the Night is a intricate balance between accidentality and controllability. Mastering the technique is indeed a training preparing my not only to attain greater technical proficiency, but also to go beyond the form. In Whispering Woods and Glimmering in the Twilight, the multiple layering of brushwork in the shape of the Chinese character jie to delineate the foliage across the 3.5-meter painting surface, and the reiteration of 12 bamboo trees at a height of 2 meters each, are elements of a spiritual practice allowing myself to open all my senses and reach my heart in the bustling city, and to begin a spiritual journey by teleporting into my mindscape in solitude.