“This mysterious road leads to the heart, in which there is an eternal world – the past and future.” – Novalis
In order to arrive in E’jina Desert in Inner Mongolia, I went to Yinchuan from Beijing by airplane, and then took a small plane across the mountains and desert, as well as taking many times buses though you can drive a car traveling day and night through the continuous Gobi desert and depopulated zone, no matter what kind of transport you use, it is a great challenge for a novice traveler. However, the artist Liu Shangying has repeatedly penetrated this vast desert, for the last three years, staying alone in this lonely place where it is full of yellow sand and sketching large-scale paintings. On October 21, 2017, Liu Shangying held a solo exhibition of “Living Natures – Liu Shangying” at the ruins of the red town, an ancient pass of the Han Dynasty, in the E’jina Desert which features 31 large-scale oil paintings themed on the dead but immortal populus diversifolias in the E’jina Desert over the three years. After experiencing an unexpected fire which almost destroyed all of his works, this unprecedented field exhibition means a “rebirth in the ashes” for the artist himself.
As early as 2011, Liu Shangying began traveling to sketch Ali in Tibet. Being distant from the city, the inertia and trivial things are reduced, entering prehistoric nature in order to be “closer to the self”. He enjoys being guided by an indescribable, unknown mysterious force.
A Panoramic Nature: An Experimental Exploration of an Exhibition
The choice of venue is the part most worthy of exploration. When the unprecedented exhibition is unveiled, it gave the audience unusually strong and complex feelings, which were beyond the “magnificence”. Located in northern China, E’jina Desert is an untraversed region, with the ancient name of “Juran”, one important stop on the ancient Silk Road. It was called the “ancestral land” in Tuerhute Mongolia, which was often regarded as the earliest capital of the Northern Huns, with land of 110,000 square kilometers, and only 30,000 residents, the major part of the territory is covered by uninhabited deserts.
As the artist who first used an isolated exotic scene as the site of the exhibition, Liu Shangying presents the show at the ruins of the red town of the Han Dynasty 2000 years ago, for 15 days, the use of creations to form a 24-hour non-stop display space field. This unrestrained idea came from a rare experience of Liu Shangying’s when taking a photo of the painting, when the finished works were placed in front of the broken walls in the desert, the energy generated by the instant intersection of history, reality, nature and civilization greatly stimulated the artist’s imagination and determination – “like growing together.” It seems to swallow up people coming from afar. The artist brings the audience who is present at the exhibition a passionate and distorted experience of the on-site creation “the traces of the strokes seem to have an isomorphic relationship with the flowing earth of E’jina.” The self, canvas and pigments are like the dust in the universe. They are born in nature and eventually return to nature.
This unique and independent outdoor field, the “man” that occasionally appeared is not the most important viewer. The watching and reading of the heaven & earth, sun & moon, and stars from night to dawn, raging & entanglements of the wind & sand and the frost, together with the work constitutes the most important interactive relationships. Liu Shangying expressed his understanding of the “Living Natures” through the paintings and exhibition, abandoning the exhibition space of traditional art museums to bring an exploration of nature, bearing the challenge of the works which may be destroyed at any time, devoutly offering his works to heaven and earth, to complete a real dialogue with nature. Seen from this perspective, regardless of the starting point and the extent of completion of the painting, the artist Liu Shangying is one of the representatives who is extremely pure and idealist. Although it is a very challenging job, Liu Shangying and his team still overcame the difficulties to finish the exhibition.
From Looking at the Sky to Overlooking the Earth: the Creative Context in Recent Years
In the past three years, Liu Shangying has held a solo show every year, including “Myriad Vision Rise from the World” held at the National Art Museum of China in 2015, “Blue Mountains Loons into the Town” held in Changshu Art Museum in 2016, and “Living Natures – Liu Shangying” held at the ruins of the red town in the E’jina Desert in 2017. Prof. Ma Lu said that, “Shangying’s paintings have always had a strong clue of ‘life’”.
Part of the paintings themed on Tibet is considered as “the relative classic traditional sketch” by the scholars, although these works show an abstract expressionist style, we can still vaguely find specific objects such as the skyline, mountains, lakes and blue sky. When Liu first faced the vast prehistoric place, he felt that paintings were totally dumbfounded. Going deep into the place, he had to abandon the experiences of traditional painting, failed rigidly in adhering to the form of painting language & an elegant style, and engaged in the practice of “simple labor”, while the calm process made him “feel at ease”. It was the beginning of his dialogue with nature, which has also become a turning point in his painting career.
Changshu series is an episode which is similar to “healing” for the artist’s creation. In the spring of 2016, Liu Shangying was invited by Wu Wenxiong, Director of the Changshu Art Museum, to visit Changshu in the regions south of the Yangtze River to sketch. During the creation, all the paintings stored in his studio were destroyed by a fire which was caused by the circuit failure during a thunderstorm including all the works finished in Tibet, the sketches in E’jina, Inner Mongolia, as well as the works finished in Changshu. As a witness to the fire, he experienced the tragic and the shocking, losing all the creations he had made over many years. After a period of depression, he finally recovered and started drawing. Although it is only the refined landscapes of the regions south of the Yangtze River, Liu Shangying’s creation in Changshu was blended in his own perception of geographical history, culture and life, showing the deep & heavy regions south of the Yangtze River which deviate from the public visual experience.
While the works of Ali in Tibet look up at the sky, the works of E’jina in Inner Mongolia overlook the earth. Curator Olivier Kaeppelin talked about the three dimensions of Liu Shangying’s paintings. Firstly, he was influenced by traditional Chinese painting, poetry and philosophy, the ideal of the ancient Chinese theory that man was an integral part of nature, the minute of people in the nature of the universe; secondly, it was similar to the experiments of action painting, which were different from the Impressionist outdoor painting that was in pursuit of the light and image itself, the action painting emphasized the expansion of the involvement of the body in the expression of painting. The experience of watching, the experience of action, and the natural changes involved in the process of the painting were more important than the traces that remained on the screen; thirdly, the interweaving of art and nature, “art creation belongs to its own nature, namely the ‘second nature’ that possesses an independent territory, space and laws”, and the field of life created by the painting or sculptural actions, was Liu Shangying’s core to this exhibition.
A Mysterious Road Leads to the Heart: Liu Shangying’s View of Painting
As an ancient artistic form which is difficult to develop a new road in contemporary art, the development and possibility of painting is the same problem that is common and faced by all people in this global cultural context of the digital age. Liu Shangying’s thought on painting and the exploration of his creative way both has a significance of breakthrough in the individual practice, and an effective response to the problem of contemporary painting. Within an original chaotic ecology, Liu Shangying found a new creative way for landscape painting. He stressed on “at the scene” rather than “painting the scene”. Whether he was in a plateau or a desert, overcoming the great physical difficulties on-site to create large-scale paintings, in order to perceive and enter nature through the paintings, and then move towards the heart, searching for the self, rather than to describing the landscape itself.
Olivier Kaeppelin questioned himself and the artist about “nature and art, which is more viable?” Olivier Kaeppelin believes that works of art are a projection of nature on the human mind, allowing the “death” to have an eternal life, so that art has a longer life than nature. Liu Shangying believes that the vitality of art lies on the spiritual level, with some kind of inspiration for the future; while the natural vitality has always been in the same place with the same form. They are mysterious and holy, quietly living hidden in the objective phenomenon, over and over again.
German philosopher Friedrich Schelling saw both the “spirit of the world” in nature and people’s minds, while the nature and spirit is actually the appearance of the same thing. Therefore, the romantic poet Novalis revealed to the secretary that: “A mysterious road leads to the heart”. It means that all of nature exists in the hearts of people, if one can enter his own heart, he will be close to the mystery of the world.
Text by Zhu Li, translated by Chen Peihua and edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO
Photo by Wu Songbo