A Cultivated Controller and A Mad Experimenter
Who is Chen Qi?
Essentially, Chen Qi’s painting is to be gazed at and meditated with rather than talked about. After all, what language can be as precise and subtle as his printing skills? What words can be as intimate and tender as the tonality of ink and water? And what exhibition can present in extenso the lingering yet retained passion of a rational and self-controlled expeditionist?
Thinking of Chen Qi, I can’t help but to be reminded of how easily people get bogged down in stereotyping and the ‘black-or-white’ type of thinking; how easily people counterpose the inwards reflection, the sympathetic comprehension of the dim and the obscure to exhuberant curiosities; and how easily they set refined quality and techniques apart from intense emotions, thus dividing between exquisite sensibilities and rigorous thinking; and not the least, they fall into the antagonism between a rationalist spirit and an experimental attitude running amuck. Nevertheless, every generation is lucky to see artists who repeatedly subvert such demarcations and problematize our bias.
Slightly remorsefully, Chen Qi speaks of his mad experiements in the 80s, influenced by western mordernism. It was also the time when China first began the reform and opening up. He also speaks of returning to the serenity and exquisiteness of printmaking, which was a process of realization that bids farewell to trendy waves of art forms and returns to one’s inner being. Such story of the prodigal son has always been a delightful topic and has often been cited to admonish the restless youngsters. Yet, I’ve always believed that to any artist, all those that have been concerned with would lurk in his or her future works, ever-lastingly and in ways unexpected. It would even surge back up from the underpainting in surprising ways, permeating one’s action and mind.
Thus, the narrative of returning inwards does not end up in nihilisim as the ubiquitous oriental mysticists often do. Instead, it broadens its way through a point-blank process that pursues the acme of perfection. This is because the destination of the return journey — the self and the inner being — isn’t complete at the outset. It is not a mirroring object that is repeatedly re-presented. Instead, it is constantly being generated and constructed in the course of this returning.
Speaking of his subject matters, Chen Qi’s works exhibit an apparent shift moving from distinct forms of concrete objects to symbolism. In his early series of Ming furniture and antique objects, we can detect a trace of photorealism or even a sign of pyrotechnics: the strings and other details of the instruments demand an extremely accurate control of the amount of water and the gradation of ink. Such degree of difficulty would certainly bring a professional artist the satisfaction of mastery. Yet as his practice evolves, this tendency lessens, the symbolism of images per se slowly surfaces.
As a perfectionist of techniques, Chen Qi is at its extreme. Woodcut water printing, originally a traditional folk technique used for printing New Year pictures, is pushed to carry out the exquisite lighting effects that border on photorealism. Without a doubt, Chen Qi has attained great breakthrough in his skills. These delicate images may please amateurs while astonish the professionals judging from the techniques. Such overpowering sensation dares to challenge the techiniques and aesthetics of printmaking, unsettling and subduing his peers trying to compete. Its subtle profoundness is a combination of great workload and intense control. What’s even more terrifying is his constant output. Unlike a fledgling risking years of work on a single piece to attain amazement, Chen Qi’s works are delivered by an experienced printmaking studio, for whose productive capacity, incessant productivity, inconceivable workloads and scrupulous qualities are only quotidian. Ever since he started out his career as a printmaker, Chen Qi has produced series of works in rapid successions while assuring every single piece of the large corpus of unequivocal exquisiteness. Its degree of perfection is nearly suffocating. Both of its quantity and quality remind me of Albrecht Dürer in 1511.
Consequently, people often remember Chen Qi as a tirelessly hard-working cultivator, modest, rigorous and always with a prudent smile. However, I strongly believe that a tasteful controller must at the same time be an inherently mad experimenter. He is not only someone who painstakingly ploughs his own furrow, but also a breeder with broad visions and fantastic imaginations, and moreover, a hunter good at netting and waiting. Beneath the image of a delicate and rigorous Chen Qi is a revolutionary who calmly retains his composure.
With his profound exploration of technique and his pursuit of inner serenity, the tension between mind and matter intensifies. Most importantly, his quest for the nature of painting is the inherent motivation that precipitates this structure of tension. The philosophical nature of his work predestines his production of images not to be replications. This sets Chen Qi to be absolutely distinct from designers of symbolic images in contemporary Chinese art – those meticulously designed images may be soaked with concepts when first designed, yet once finalized, embark on endless self-duplications and subsequently sink into commercial production. Chen Qi ruminates while constantly pushes forward without repetitiveness. The quantity of his work is so massive that to select a single strain for an exhibition is especially difficult. Almost no single work should be left out.
Chronologically, I suggest a first stage of technical preparation comprising Chen’s early works of Ming furniture and antique objects. During this stage, Chen had exhausted all possibilities regarding to techniques. His grasp of lighting, the ability of control, a sober temperament that speculates, and a wintry and aloof Zenist tenor were formed. Then, in the late half of the 90s, the contentedness towards detailed textures of light and shadow was soon overlaid by symbols of spirituality; lotus and Buddhist mudras glow in halos, achieving surrealistic implications. Yet, the outdoor landscapes always accompany the indoor contemplations. Moving into the new century, the image of water became a major inspiration for Chen Qi’s work as well as a necessary immersion for him to reflect ontologically about printing and to think about the figurative capacity and the abstract essence of visual graphics. Almost ten years later, he approached wormholes as if the gaze that had once observed water turned into a microscope, thus entering into the molecular or atomic scale. As the microscope was discovering a secret universe, it suddenly became a telescope looking back at him and his work from outer space. He saw vividly all that he had made, yet they were no longer a desk, a chair, an instrument or a part of water surface, but graphic plates of throbbing energy. In the end, he has become a de/re-constructivist of his own history, ambitious, vivacious.
Chen Qi’s career of printmaking, spanning decades, may seem like a deliberated imperial scheme: first, occupy the hilltop, strengthen the foundation, manufacture special weapons; Then, approach inwards the inner spirituality, shape ideology, create space for spiritual growth and construct an unique cosmology and world view. After that, as the territory expands, the system branches out, forming multiple levels and complexities; continue to expand, open up the border, re-narrate the history, construct its own traditions, hybridize extensively with other medium and become the center of world trade, in the end to transcend his lineage of printmaking.
Such clock-wise narrative is sufficient in depicting Chen Qi as a striving experimenter, constantly pushing forward and metamorphosing. This continuous experimentation could only be realized with the support of self-motivations within and opportunities encountered without. The persistent self-motivation could only originate from Chen’s ontological questions, asking what painting is, and what my relationship to painting is.
Generally speaking, there are two types of experimenters, one gets hold onto a base at the starting point, then pushes the boundary of experimentations by constantly revising the objectives of their experiments and incrementally progresses. The other type is much more frenzy. They spoil their curiosities and set foot in fields seemingly unrelated, therefore severely lacerate the body of their work. Nicola Tesla or Charles Darwin may seem to be the former kind while Thomas Edison and Leonardo da Vinci appear to be the latter.
Seen from the surface, Chen Qi is more like the former type – a rational experimenter, focused, constantly pushing the limits and progressing step by step. But this field of experimentation doesn’t always triumph. In fact, Chen’s practice has always been polyphonous or even battling against itself over and over again. After probing and recollecting the early series of Chen’s work, I was surprised to find the figure of a frenzy experimenter who has always been there, though in seclusion. Moreover, not only have I discovered his early venture into abstract expressionism which drew lessons from surrealism and expressionism, I was also startled to discover in Chen’s works, a temptation from the Pop art technique – collages of signs that was once popular in contemporary Chinese art (Wind from China). Of course, such vacillation was only fleeting. Nonetheless, it is sufficient for us to realize how simplification and stereotyping hijack our understanding of an artist by subduing him to consistency and abidance, which are after all forged by us for our own peace.
Having such a figure of a restless experimenter, we begin to be able to comprehend the ferentic strokes in the pile of works filed as “abstract experiments” by Chen Qi himself and placed under the section “chaos” in this exhibition. We also begin to understand his tireless overlaying of objects with wormholes and a great passion for trying installation. Lying beyond the ‘proper’ and delicate prints, these ferentic experiments make up an adventure, secretive and uninhibited, as if carried out by an underground worker. And, in this exhibition, these experiments are uncovered.
Hence, beyond a master of printmaking as a craft, constantly perfecting and improveing, Chen is also a non-stopping tunnel digger. Beside the rational experimenter contantly transforming himself, he is at the same time a wild undercover experimenter.
Conversely, it is exactly this kind of tension that fuels the experimenter’s persistent progress. It is also this tension that establishes the rigorous printmaker psychologically and enduringly.
A Printmaker’s Rationalism and Romanticism
In the contemporary Chinese art scene, we’ve often seen printmakers change into art critics, art theoriests, art historians; they might also become oil painters, ink painters and possibly the best designers. We may even discover astoundingly that some of them have become radical installation artists and media artists. Artists of the early Chinese media art mostly graduated from printmaking departments. This phenomenon may have perplexed many. However, in my opinion, this is necessarily so.
Printmaking has always been an art form related to books. In the epoch of printed books as the major medium of mass communication, the relative medium of art was printmaking. In the epoch of television, the relative medium of art was video. In an epoch dominated by internet, interactive art has come along. Not to mention that printmakers are innately undisturbed by replications. Their understanding of the original is open and forgiving. It could be said that printmaking was the media art of the ancients. Thus, it is almost inevitable that printmakers today are engaged with media art.
The process of printmaking requires immense mateiral, time and human cost. Consequently, things going into print must be extraoridnarily precious and worthy of wide publicity. This principle underlies the epistemology of printmaking. The earliest printed things are mostly religious texts, such as the Gutenberg Bible in Europe and the Diamond Sutra in China, which is the oldest existing print known to mankind, succeeded by maps, dictionaries, records of natural matters, medical illustrations and encyclopedia of medicines. Such epistemological condition provides printmakers with a comprehensive vision and curiosity, an inclination for the wondrous world views in Classic of Mountains and Seas, an impulse to catalogue the fantastic anecdotes and the unaccountable things. I’m willing to call it a “sense for catalogue” whose field of vision is that of an encyclopedia and natural history with an awareness of relationships, a compassionate scope of civilisation and an archaeological tendency that rises above the present to experience the course of the civilisation.
Fusing together craftsmanship and scholarship, this epistemological basis along with the distinct sensibilities derived from it has cultivated generations of printmaker. A special kind of literatus, a librarian, an inventory clerk, a knowledge administrator, a technique addict and a researcher and scrutinizer of the history of technology.
My previous knowledge of printmaking learnt during school years certainly precipitated how easily I’m convinced by Chen Qi’s techniques. Undoubtedly, Chen Qi is a diligent worker, taking pleasure in the solitude of working single-mindedly. His assiduity and pertinacity have attained adeptness and ease. Yet, the most felt admiration we have for his images doesn’t arrive from his precision, resulted from heavy workloads and practice, but the simplicity that underlies this heavily loaded intricacy.
Exacting and complicated to an unthinkable extent, the techniques of multi-layering, division of plates and overprinting not only challenge one’s patience, attentiveness and the rigid control of qualities, but also a willpower toughened by failures. The effect of water printing may be romantic and ethereal, yet it demands a committed observation of materials. A water printing printmaker must patiently wait for the precise moment to seize control, and thus grasping over and over again the subtleties of the relationship between necessity and contingency.
As cooking requires the careful study of fire’s temperament, a printmaker working with water prints has to become sensitive to the temperatment of water. This sensitivity doesn’t manifest in precision but in being an accomplice with time thus implanting the sense of time in one’s body, an intuition.
Hence, a water printing printmaker is almost preordained, in my opinion, to have one of his catalogues titled Notations of Time. Gazing at the water surface, it is fated that amid lilting ripples, the ancient words saying “it passes on just like this” would magically morph into hazy light and shadows stretching into the distance. Water has always been the metaphor of time. What’s also preordained is the gaze falling on the wormholes bored in books.
High quality printing consists of numerous intricate procedures. The decision to print any graphic image requires a certain kind of determination. This is unlike leaving freehand sketches on papers. It’s an entirely different kind of determination. Both leaving traces, a printmaker’s understanding of time is totally different from that of a hasty scribbler. Just like embroidery, the cost of printmaking does not only include the materials such as plates and colors, but more importantly, time. When a printmaker decides to print a trace left by a previous moment in time, he or she has to devote many more future moments. Subsequently, cost and value have to be calculated. Also considering the wide circulation, printmakers need to rationally select graphics to be printed, to earnestly lay down the incisions and painstakingly take care of the outlines.
To print an image correctly, the procedure of printing and registering must be controlled with absolute accuracy. It requires an elaborate planning of a workflow strictly followed and an exact layout of the working environment. The nature of this work requires its occupant to be a rigorous and painstaking rationalist. Or, it could be said that the process of this work necessarily turns its occupant into a prudent and rationalist thinker. Moreover, such administering and control of workflow require the occupant to have a clear self-consciousness relative to the process which necessarily makes him capable of scrutinizing the image through the various layers and during each step leading to the final result. Hence, self-reflection is inescapable.
Yes, the final image is coherent. Elements derived from different plates and stages of making are weaved together, forming a net and a shell, reigning over the viewers’ visual and spiritual experience. While the printmaker sees the entire workflow and its structuring, most people would only see the endmost effect. The printmaker thus becomes someone who self-distances and self-observes. A printmaker constructs his images at the same time deconstructs them with his or her gaze. Being an image-maker and a viewer, he has to be a schizophrenic who concurrently and perpetually reconsolidates his mind. To become a printmaker, one has to become a sceptic and a re-believer, simultaneously entering and exiting the image. All elements of the image have to be disassembled and reassembled endlessly in his gaze. Such scepticism, going in and out, coming together then disbanding, is what reflective thinking is and is where the starting point of philosophical thinking is. Therefore, a printmaker unavoidably critiques, and he critiques rationalistically.
Still, the printmaker carefully traces and carves in order to revive a particular image formed in a previous point in time. He uses the innumerable present moments to preserve and recast a past one, to iteratively recollect. Every colour plate and every registering is a micro monument. What kind of image has the power capable of calling out such expense of life? This is the romance of a retained and silent printmaker who tells only the romance of the world. It’s only in front of a landscape or at the water do they let out their heartfelt emotions.
Such romance everlastingly hibernates in Jiangnan.
The Book of Jiangnan
Jiangnan is never just a geological notion in Chinese literary tradition. Jiangnan means life sprouting and resuscitating. It means infinite sorrow in the remembrance of former dynasties. At Jiangnan, people grieve over spring and passing time. Jiangnan is where the bustling noise ruthlessly clashes with the cruelty of fate. Jiangnan is a ukiyo-e of the world’s surge, billowing up dusts of a life-time’s noise. Jiangnan is where new and old friends arrive and leave, some never reunited. Migrants from the north fall in with the place and stayed for the next hundreds of years even though they may have vowed to return. Jiangnan has rich natural products and agreeable weather. The landscape and the ladies are supple. The northern expedition was thus infinitely postponed. Jiangnan’s architecture was the place where people met on a good day yet became reminded of the fall of their country and hence wept together. Jiangnan’s landscape evoked sadness and anguish for the loss. In Jiangnan,determined revolutionaries could only hold onto their weapons with no chance to use but lean on the railings, ambitions quelled. At the gate of the city of stones, one arrives in Jiangnan – the homeland for nostalgia.
Nanjing’s sorrow is that of a city of failures. It is said that the First Emperor of Qin (259-210 B.C.) buried gold at Purple Mountain. People dug for gold and intruded on the dragon’s artery – the form of the landscape resembled a crouching tiger and a hidden dragon – a good omen for the prosperity of the empire. A site of longeval reigh became a city of tragedies. Unlike Hangzhou, the city of the same elegancy accompanied by lakes and mountains, Jinling (an alternative name for Nanjing) never settled in its overclouded tenderness. The city was repeatedly spurred on by conquering ambitions. Dynasties were established but each time withered within half of a century. Due to the frequent alternations of dynasties, Nanjing became a site of the most number of former dynasities and capitals. “Mourning the ancient” is one of the major themes in Chinese literature and is mainly set in the cities of Chang’an and Jinling. “Where songgirls knowing not the grief of conquered land / Are singing songs composed by a captive ruler’s hand.”; “The moon which shone by riverside on flourished land / Still shines at dead of night over ruined town today.”; “We dig out broken halberds buried in the sand / And wash and rub these relics of an ancient war.” One after another, the dynasties were brought down to ruins and dusts. Nonetheless, Jinling always reflourished. Soon or later, friends and visitors would once again meet on River Qinhuai, indulging in its extravagance and luxury. Printmaker Chen Hongshou wallowed in the brothels by the river. Affected by alchohol, he was no longer able to tell the difference between the music and singing downstairs and Zhang Dai’s story – overlooking the boundary between virtuality and reality.
The city’s preordained fate becomes the shelter for writers and artists to settle down – and they too, are fated to be literati.
What did it mean to be a literatus? His or her activities were based around books – the technology of printing.
As language priests and literature’s confidants, literati guarded history. Memory and poetry were inscribed on printing plates and therefore circulated in the form of books. Texts have outlived dictators who sliced poets’ throats. Literati believed in words defeating armies and transcending time without being worn away. They believed their weak bodies to be imperfect intermediaries only made to evoke the texts which would be everlasting and light up the world. Literati’s lives are made by books and exist for books. They read, review, write, inscribe, print, teach and then read again. Deep and twisted holes by borers appearred on a book. A literatus looked at the book in a trance. With unthinkable patience, Chen Qi reproduced these wormholes, making books of them, as if these wormholes are more worth reading than the words they masticated; as if they are themselves a language forming a book of time over a book of printing.
Through the life of a literatus, a certain temperament came into shape. With it, one sees books in every detail in life. All scenes cross-reference books. Due to a veneration for texts, a principle that surpasses ego began to emerge among literati. The principle consisted of a consensus for precedence of culture. It was achieved over time through the build-up of logics, rationality and scholarly attainments. Su Shi and Wang Anshi’s political opinions were fiercely opposed to one another to a degree of life-or-death, yet they conversed about poetry and calligraphy. The literati principle transcends politics. And when necessary, given the name of memory, literati could squander their lives like wealthy spendthrifts; Deng Tuo once wrote: “Do not say scholars only have words, / Blood stains where they devote their lives.”
A Literatus Remembers
Language and books preserve memories. Literati are the priests guarding the Hall of Memory. When most of us live in a contemporary time of nine-to-five and seasonal cycles, the literati live in multiple time and space. One moment triggers another in his reading. One location is superimposed on another. While the feeling of nostalgia is shared by many, mourning of the ancient only belongs to literati. People of this collective always value things relevant to memory with reverence and solemnity. Even though some of them may claim that only plum blossom or bamboo accompanies them, these men displaying lonelines still form a collective of loners. A rhyme or a full moon would be enough for them to gather again, to thrive again.
Among this collective of literati, each remained in solitude. collectors of ancient paintings, calligraphies and objects regarded themselvs merely as temporary custodians. The brief encounters with the objects may just be to prevent the wormholes’ further spread, or rather, to read the meaning of the wormholes.
The Book of Landscape and Weather
Every part of Jiangnan’s landscape is potentially an archaeological site. Excavating deeper and deeper, uncovering layer after layer, the gaze sees the passed regimes, dynasties in ruins. Every part of Jiangnan’s landscape buries poetry. No matter how light and cautious the footsteps are, they will be echoed by the poets’ laments. It is impossible for a wander in such a landscape not also to be a read, even though the sceneries are drastically different compared with those lived by ancients. Standing at a railway crossing, Chen Qi awaits the barrier to slowly lift. He sees a kite brushing past rooftops as if to avoid the chimney. He sees that grass and blossom once engaged by Song verses are now being outside a farm shed by themselves. A pond moves in windless air. Stone statues from the Six Dynasties stand in the fields. Here is the landscape and moments of Nanjing’s suburb. They are suspended in between poetry of Tang and Song dynasties and the city bustle. They are not a patch of bucolic peace, but suspensions that reach nowhere, hanging in between the city and the rural. In Chen Qi’s landscape, aircrafts fly across, and trains puff smoke, in silence.
In the series Trade Wind, he arrives at an even remoter silence. Swinging reeds, melting snow, cows ruminate. This is the end of the world. Chen Qi’s landscape, be it Nanjing suburb, an anonymous site or even a window-sky seen from a dormitory room at Nanjing University of the Arts, is the end of the world. Whether at north of the Great Wall or south of the Yangtse River, through the lense of time, the literati always see as far as the world goes. The end of the world is where the empire’s borderland increasingly blurs, an abstract scenario in which a man alone faces the heaven and the earth. People visiting here are more melancholic than people who are fond of the cities’ prosperity. The empire only cares about its territory, not the end of the world which goes beyond. Yet there is one thing that the empire can’t take over – time. Ravens wake up to a setting sun; habitual schemes and manoeuvres are suspended. The gaze is carried afar by running river and rests at the sight of mountain after mountain.
The passing of people and the transformation of situations are the two most deeply empathized life experiences explored by Chinese literati. Chen Qi is no exception, and no Chinese literati wants to be an exception or ever succeeded in being one. It doesn’t matter which one of the 24 solar terms it is now or if it’s snowing, traces of the past, like those footprints left by a swan after snow, are almost the most important motif of Chinese landscape. The ancient landscape painters believed that in remote mountains shrouded in fog and veiled by clouds live immortals and recluses. In them, they find consolation for their wearied bodies – a nostalgic urge for coming home. However, Chen Qi’s landscape doesn’t echo such return. They are the landscape of modern China with its audio cable suddenly unplugged by grievers and sleepwalkers. The world freezes in a lost moment. The inescapable hustle of the mundane world is looming nearby. Much has been said about fate’s base colour in these silent moments.
Flying machines and birds neither ascend nor land, going neither forward nor backward. They are Zeno’s arrows, the eternal return. Years later, this resonance of Zen will become a productive force – thanks to the wonder of creation and its virtues.
Chen Qi’s landscape is melancholic, yet the book of Jiangnan is never just emotional release. Contrary to the ambitious North and a world-wide vision, Jiangnan has always been about the quotidian. Its vision may not be centered on the wide world, but it cares about the heaven and the earth. Thus the book of Jiangnan must also be a book of philosophy. Jiangnan has always been a field of experiments in Chinese philosophies, the later in history, the more so. The book of Jiangnan inevitably arrives at truth by way of sensibility.
From the Learning of Principle (lixue) to the Learning of Heart-and-Mind (xinxue)
Painting is not so much a means of self-expression as a “technology of the self” – an organizing act which structures the self, some sort of illumination and assembly. Paintings of this kind always have to be self-seeking and self-constructing. In this regard, at the very beginning of his career, Chen Qi has been a highly self-conscious questioner.
Chen Qi’s practice begins with inquiries into the phenomena of things. “One’s heart is the heart of the world, one principle of an object is the principle of the world. ” It is a consensus among Confucian scholars of the Song dynasty that all things on earth and the self are integral parts of the one. An ancient stringed instrument with a desk can well be the entire world where the self dwells. The artist always cherishes a feeling of great reverence for the objects surrounding him. He sees and he paints. The act of painting is the act of seeing of the most penetrating kind. The Confucian scholars of Song dynasty would call this multilayered act of painting, seeing and experiencing ge (investigation). Only ge, taken from the classical Confucian phrase gewu (investigation of things), would come close to delineating the artist’s delicate and subtle approach to things and the measured respect shown in the handling process. Yichuan (Cheng Yi) once said: “To investigate is to enquire deep, objects are principles. Only deep investigation can lead to extension of knowledge.” Cheng Zi’s method of investigation is: “should investigate one thing today, another thing tomorrow, once enough is accumulated, naturally the way to enlightenment is linked up.” While Zhu Zi said: “the so-called extension of knowledge depending on investigation of things means that, only when my knowledge reaches an extreme level, can I reach the perfect law of things.” Zhu Zi also has his approach for the sequence of investigation: “learn extensively, inquire carefully, think deeply, differentiate clearly, one advances through these four levels in turn. Investigation of principles has to be extensive; Understanding that on the surface is only superficial, seeing what’s profound arrives at the innermost.
Chen’s methodology in the early 1990s was exactly that of Confucianism of Song dynasty. The artist exhibits analytically accurate shaping and moulding skills with an extreme sensitivity towards the texture of things and the gradation of light and shadow. He treats every single object with deference and solemnity as if it is the whole world. This respectfulness is more pronounced and adhered to than any other attitude in Chen’s work. Straighten the mind and maintain the sincerity, then the law of things can be exhausted.
In Chen’s images, the objects look as if their backgrounds are keyed out. It is a technique granting things with metaphysical symbolism in a simple and straightforward way. His gaze penetrates deep into the interiors of objects, with a reverence for the objects. When comprehending the process of things, the disposition of the subject undergoes transition. This is how Li Bai and Mount Jingting get along with each other, “Stays with me Mount Jingting only, Each other we tirelessly eye.”. When we exhaust the profoundness of objecthood, we also exhaust the ingeniousness of the laws of things, thus stepping over instrumentality, reaching the depths of Tao, reaching philosophy. Chen practices the belief of Song dynasty Confucian scholars. Those pristine utensils are not only amiable visual delights but also entries into the world of symbolism. The pondering and polishing in everyday life, the close inspection of the simplicity and complexity of things, followed by rules and disciplines, as time goes by, lead to an epiphany that the object and the subject, the exterior and the interior, at the end of the day, belong to one entirety. The object-image of Chen’s, can well serve as the illustration for the books in Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi’s dreams. The images share the same Neo-Confucianist temperament with the grass and trees in Song paintings.
In the later days of this period of Chen’s practice, a gaze of apprehension settled on four ashtrays. As Chen said, when he saw the roving fish in the ashtray, he saw the spirituality sparkling in the structure of reason and order. He even saw the Tai Chi Diagram of Chinese Taoism. “When you stare at a space for long enough, you will see something that’s unseen before.” Different from Chen’s vision, I see some kind of Mandala in the four ashtrays, similar to the pedestal of a Tibetan Buddhist pagoda. This is a miniature of the world, full of reason and order. Through the construction of a structure and the measurement of the symbolism of the structure, it is proposing a certain cosmology. These ashtray mandalas have legs in four directions and eight sides, with harmonious square and round shapes. The roving fish at the center, is the mechanical core that drives the cosmos.
Right now I am sitting at D. T. Suzuki Museum in Kanazawa, Japan, thinking about Chen’s paintings. There’s a “room for pondering” here, with four austere walls surrounded by water. I saw a transition from an effort to extract laws from things to an effort to cleanse and elevate the self. The butterflies in Dreaming of Butterfly series are flying high, put in the “Loner” section of this show. They are souls with a stream of imagination in ordinary life, flying towards the kind and gentle hand in Faramita, seeking truth from a great tradition of indoctrination.
Confucianism in Song dynasty emphasizes on gewu, investigation of things. Although all things on earth belong to an entirety, yet in reality, because of the selfishness of the self, the gap between the self and everything else is unavoidable. How can we remove the gap, transcend the smaller self and return to the larger self? The short answer from Song Confucianism is “to change the temperament.” In my opinion, this stage of Chen’s practice, paying tribute to Buddhism, was exactly his spiritual journey involving “change of temperament.” It is an endeavor of self-inspection and self-regulation, an effort of sublation.
Chen Qi didn’t linger too long on the Buddhist iconography. Mandala, lotus and hand mudra are undoubtedly Buddhist icons. Those icons, loaded with spirituality and symbolism, are at the same time a genealogy with multiple variations. This genealogy brings Chen back to the investigation of things. When I addressed the cataloging fever of printmaking artists in the preceding text, I talked about their particular interest in a genealogical way of looking, which usually belongs to knowledge organizers. The modern neo-Confucianist Xiong Shili, heavily influenced by Buddhism, has interpreted gewu as “categorizing and probing.” This interpretation is also extremely accurate when describing Chen’s practice. It is exactly the state of mind before Chen got over Buddhist iconography and arrived at the endless “surface of water.” Chen’s trajectory resembles Confucianism with the impact of Zen Buddhism, turning from Song dynasty’s Neo-Confucianism to Wang Yangming’s thinking.
When Fang Yizhi talks about “zhice”(measurement of material aspects), he said: “Objects have causal relationship, which should be investigated. From cosmic evolution to plants and insects, their natures and temperaments should be grouped, their pros and cons should be tested, their evolution laws should be infered. This is called Zhice. ” When talking about constant changes, water is the best object to be investigated. Chen’s water is always formless, timeless and borderless. Similar to the works of his predecessor Ma Yuan, Chen’s water contains a genealogy of time and dynamic shapes. When water flows and changes, the heart follows just like ripples. When the heart is calm and tranquil, the water is free of disturbance as well. From one state to another, water leaves no trail in time. When the water changes, Chen traces it with his hands. The ripples on the water surface are just like the exchange between hearts. Mr Wang Yangming once said: “When you do not see the flower, the flower exists as you do; when you do see the flower, its color is at once perceived. Then we know this flower isn’t outside of your heart.” Water is to Chen Qi what flowers are to Wang Yangming. Wang Yangming once stared at a bamboo leaf, intensely and wholeheartedly, in the same manner as Chen delineated a chair. I guess the bamboo leaf in Wang Yangming’s eyes was similarly “keyed-out”. At the moment, facing this body of water, one can feel no difference between the background and the subject under the gaze. The border between the subject and the object dissolves.
Tunneling the subject and the object with an intuition of conscience, and then pointing to the differences between heavenly laws and mortal desires, dissolving the distinction between the interior and the exterior, are what Wang Yangming’s thoughts have contributed to Chinese philosophies. Having realized the nonexistent distinction between the subject and the object, one needs only to concentrate on ascetic practices in everyday life. After that, a perceiver who straightens his mind and maintains a sincere intention would be bound to become a vigorous actor.
Recent years, those overprints made by Chen Qi utilizing a large amount of old printing plates have shocked his contemporary printmakers who used to be familiar with his practice. The freedom and easiness shown in those works diverge from his usual public image of an intangible, aestheticist and rigorous person. For me, the freedom and vivaciousness in the old printing plates are the inevitable outcome if he’s following Wang Yangming’s thoughts of intuitive knowledge. As Wang Yangming puts in the following four lines : “the ontological xin-ti is neither good nor evil; it is the function of yi (volition) that makes good or bad intentions. Conscience is able to distinguish the right from wrong, while the elimination of moral badness and the conducting of moral action depend on the sound reasoning.” It is the Confucian manifesto of “investigate the phenomena of things in order to acquire knowledge” in action.
Those paintings of water often attempted to become panoramas, and to explain the whole world. Standing before these enormous images, we often see a range of illusionist, or even photorealist water surface, as we are far away. Again, due to the monumental size, we can only see pieces of interlocked colour patterns and abstract shapes when we are close upon.
When these printing plates of water superimpose on each other to create a dislocation, such debate of concrete and abstract becomes increasingly extreme, yet at the same time, both sides seem to reach a compromise. This kind of freedom can only be reached when one is handed over to the study of conscience.
Chen Qi’s Age of Credit
At Chen Qi’s studio, I asked Chen: “were it not the extravagantly beautiful and exquisite prints, which look more professional and classic, would you still have the courage and confidence to make this series of overprints today?” To a certain extent, as a rigorous, refined and mature printmaker, Chen Qi has accumulated plenty acclaim throughout his career. People are enthralled by his technique and trust the integrity of his artistic practice. This unreserved trust has already constituted a kind of credit. The set of iconic images accumulated over his long career, the degree to which these images are so firmly established, and their symbolic value as the memory of contemporary art history have altogether become a kind of capital. Thus, Chen Qi’s production of value has moved from the industrial age into a financial age.
This series of work utilizes the printing plates and graphics of his past artworks as capitals, and produces with the same rigorous manual labor. Some of the graphic elements clearly preserve the coherence of the original work while others are superimposed to reconstruct more images. Up to this point, Chen Qi consciously selects only printing plates of the same set to produce these images; plates used to print an image of water are now overprinted with themselves; plates for printing hand mudra are rotated and overprint on itself; the set of plates for lotus is overprinted with itself rotated to a new direction; a set of printing plates for an ancient stringed instrument dislocates from the print made from the same set of plates. Sometimes, a plate is missing in the set of overprinting, thus presenting a sense of varied levels in the image’s layerings. Chen Qi has not yet moved onto the more frenetic collage of images at his disposal, for example, overprinting the prints of lotus with the plates of ancient stringed instruments, or using the plates for printing images of water and lotus at the same time. I believe once he begins to do so, he will release a chaotic and crazy potential for printmaking. Thus, Chen Qi becomes a Dadaist of his own practice.
I didn’t dare ask Chen Qi why he didn’t go to the extreme. In fact, such restrained offsets of repeating synonyms are as intriguing as reduplicatives. Yu Yue, a master of philology and studies of classics in late Qing dynasty once described a scenery in Jiuxi, Hangzhou as “hill upon hill, turn after turn, tinkling babbling creeks, trees short and tall”. Such tight-knit briskness phonetically implied rightly resounds the heartstrings plucked by Chen Qi’s overprinted images. These sounds endow the images with a strange sense of rupture in time, as if a floating instrument, a camera lense slightly shaken, a moving object captured in flash light, an image squirming left then right to flee from our sights, a figure thrusted in a quandary of entering the stage as a role unfamiliar to audiences, or the few moments before striking the pose in a peking opera.
These images remind me of the moving horses and ballerinas repeatedly depicted by Edgar Degas. It’s the shape of time which we are also seeing in Chen Qi’s rotating office chairs.
One night many years ago, the great master of sculpture Rodin took his great secretary Rilke to a sculpture. Rodin raised the candle in front of the sculpture and scanning across its surface, revealing shifting core shadows across the uneven surface. Rodin asked Rilke: “Can you see these lines? Lines not only exist as contours. Lines are on the front of the sculpture. You see, all these lines constantly vibrate. You need to see them”. Years later, Rilke wrote: “we are bees of the invisible”.
The changes of phenomenon. One projects his or her gaze at an object from different angles in space, gazing and moving only the body and thus the field of vision, like Rodin’s gaze, Rilke’s candle lighting up the sculpture and Giacometti looking onto a sculpture head closer and from afar. The changes of phenomenon might also be observed by sitting still. Looking at these images until the heaven and the earth begin to quaver, and they begin to disassemble, sliding and flipping around as if trying to escape us and to return to the vast and hazy world when images were yet to be made. And would we then be able to appreciate better those discernible parts? Like the bamboo leaf in young Wang Shouren’s hand, it walks out from the notation of time, dances on the edge of the blackhole, thinking of a parallel universe.
The printing plates haven’t disintegrated. The graphic elements are still discernible. They are merely warning us of their dissolution at any moment. It will crumble into pieces and disperse, turning into areas of black, dark grey, light ink and white. It is reminding us that it’s not just an instrument or a flower or a patch of water. As painting, I can transform endlessly but at this moment and for the time being, I am what you think you see, this patch of water, this instrument, this flower.
Chen Qi is a skilled Photoshop user. But it isn’t some accidental mistakes in Photoshop that inspired the break-out of this series of work. Quite the other way, the central concept of the software is derived from “layering” in printmaking rather than photography made of single exposures.
As an administrator of image layers, Chen Qi is destined to be an excellent designer. Yet, his new works are not the outcome of design but rooted in the experience of manual labour.
In the end, after having become the most refined, the most extreme and the best printmaker, Chen Qi strives to become a “metaprintmaker”. Just like Wittgenstein is a “philosopher of philosophers”, Chen Qi with his latest works is becoming a “printmaker of printmakers”. That is, he reformulates the questions of “what is printmaking? What is a picture? And once again, what is printmaking?”
In fact, in this series of work, Chen Qi is returning to his initial query into painting: “why do I paint, and what is the meaning of painting?”
An oil painter or ink painter should, to some extent, be jealous of such productive force exclusively possessed by printmakers – the productive force of a printmaker who excels in self-management, owning hundreds and thousands of printing plates without having discarded any of them. As a painter, he is distinguishable: every stroke of every painting he has ever painted still exists and can be reused, not just in memory, but in the studio. They will answer his summoning and be revived at any moment.
A painter as such does not only live in the present moment, but in every past moment superimposed onto the present: the moment of now is overlaid by a multitude, the now eternally returns. Painting attains self-consciousness just like artificial intelligence begins to write and compose an AI sofware. A time that we have never encountered before has arrived. We panicked because of an unspellable familiarity. This is a world so magnificent and boundless. I don’t know whether, facing such a world, Chen Qi has ever slightly quivered.
Painting has entered the age of algorithm.
He does as he wishes but never oversteps. Hence, he is able to control himself in freedom.
I wish to thank Professor Chen Qi for giving me this opportunity to write, as I have learnt much from him to my heart’s content through this process of writing.
Mid-Autumn Festival, 2018