Xu Lei: New Works has been recently held at the Marlborough Gallery in New York and it is the solo exhibition of a contemporary Chinese ink artist presented by one of the world’s top galleries, which has drew much attention. Dr. Tang Keyang has written a review on this exhibition, from the relationships between space and paintings in Villa Livia and mural paintings on the wall of House of the Ceii.The visual and rhetoric themes on “the real” and “fantasy”, “the inside” and “the outside” has been introduced into the paintings by Xu Lei, which constitutes a homogeneous system. The ruins of collapsed ruins, how would they be reconstructed in the labyrinthine structure of modern paintings and derived the world view of universal value, which signifies the Chinese artists’ broaden perspective on cultures, but it also reflects the reprint of Chinese traditional thought with other heterogeneous civilizations and signs. This might be the reason that Xu Lei’s art has increasingly gained understanding and approval from the Western art world, such as the Pompeii runs and the “Peony Pavilion”, the words and sentence“So how deepest purple, brightest scarlet, open their beauty only to day well crumbling”( translated by Birch) are the symbol of human life, the multiple world is actually from a source, and the art especially could prove it. The Darkroom of Xu Lei By Tang Keyang Even before the invention of photography, the concept of the “darkroom” existed. The word hints at two ideas: creating a picture of the world through an immobile “negative”—as with pinhole imaging; or else a more sophisticated means of “developing” these images, so we forget their fundamentally illusory nature. Of course, these pictures don’t come from the primitive world of Plato’s cave, but the refracted soul of a “higher” civilization, such as the pastimes enjoyed by the ancient Romans with their exquisite, indulgent way of life. In Xu Lei’s work, we find a similar “darkroom”, perhaps because the world projects itself onto his landscapes in the same indistinct manner as an object is captured on a negative, and later developed. His paintings put me in mind of the indoor ancient Roman “garden” at Villa Livia. Two thousand years ago, untainted nature should have stood there, or perhaps we ought to say this interest in nature is different from now, people like thousands of pigeons looking out at the world from their cages, the latter panting for the necessity of life between the cracks, the former engaged in more aggressive spiritual pursuits. In the dining room of Villa Livia, the “garden” on display was actually an illusionistic fresco, later preserved and reinstalled at the Palazo Massimo in Rome, purporting to show the “outside” whilst actually being “inside”. At first glance, this is the prototype of a certain western style of “picture gallery”, and the “garden” is simply an unframed painting following the principles of naturalist way of seeing. Yet when the pictorial space of a fresco is dependent on an actual space, it often gives rise to an odd, unreal sensation, validating the idea that “inside” and “outside” have come to be mixed together.
With their richly suggestive settings and penetrating perspectives, Xu Lei’s early work fully demonstrates the connection between “in” and “out”, similar to the example of Villa Livia, the first type of apparent darkroom. Initially it appears you’re indoors, the tightly-sealed darkroom feeling somewhat claustrophobic. Yet after spending some time here, you find yourself slowly falling into a larger illusory landscape, as if returning to the time of Pliny and Augustus, rather than still being in a building. Here you won’t find the “picture frames” you’d expect to see in a picture gallery, while the walls around you present a garden of lush greenery and graceful trees, and the cool winds only to be found in an enclosed room waft towards you, seemingly more pleasant than the actual outdoors could ever be. Which isn’t to say that enchanting landscapes don’t exist beyond the villa, but it was the images on the walls, rather than actual scenery, that constituted the Romans’ idea of “outdoors”. During the scorching summer season, they would dine here surrounded by an eternal spring—the fragrance of iris and chamomile blossoms, grouse, pigeons and finches soaring between palm trees, pines and oaks… while pomegranates and quinces hung from the branches, an impossible seasonal combination in real life, emphasizing the difference between this imaginary landscape and the actual outdoors.
This is the starting point of Xu Lei’s “darkroom”. Just as Roman frescos seem to confer instant immortality, this Chinese artist creates an eternal built environment in his paintings, which surely is also the world in which Li Cheng and Guo Xi, not to mention other famous artists throughout history who’ve “sought from within”, lived in, by its very nature a garden of the soul—though compared to the Roman world, this garden requires other forms of light to illuminate it. On one hand, within the frame of Xu Lei’s work, we feel a similar atmosphere to Villa Livia, the artist’s overriding imperative to recreate actual life, just as Xu Lei attempts to use the realistic image to freeze ever-flowing time. On the other hand, such an ambition is at odds with the situation contemporary Chinese artists find themselves in, because we do not exist in “that” endless landscape, but rather outside of it, in an invisible “darkroom” looking back at everything, silently spying on it… As a creator, Xu Lei has undergone rigorous training in traditional Chinese painting, but keeps a strict distance from it, making him both an obvious insider and inevitable disruptor of the status quo, drifting between the visible and invisible orders, working hard to maintain various different equilibria; his images are replete with meaning, almost cloying, except that at the last moment, one or two silent gaps appear in this fullness. His compositions are often symmetrical, or abide by stringent rules of construction, yet at every moment are semantically inverted objects, growing images cared for and nourished by the artist, suddenly collapsing at the very moment they reach maturity, becoming nothing… Xu Lei tells me that he strives to exterminate the “binary” we have such faith in, the world view that can only contain yes or no. In his view, the world is always in the process of reversing its direction, a new means of understanding the “middle way”.
Such an image conceals a state of instability, hinting that the invisible darkroom might finally lead to a major, unforeseen event; such as the woman in the doorway in Han dynasty stone engravings, forever existing in a liminal state, liable to vanish at any time, never to return… or more concretely, in Xu Lei’s painting, a white horse flashes past a crack in the door, flying along a line as thin as a wire, breaking apart in a fog-filled vision; stones are solid, yet also permeable and brightly-colored, and a rock amidst water seems both to be sinking and rising at the same time… The shutter clicks, and in the length of time it takes to rise and fall, practically becomes time-lapse photography, as the struggles of different worlds parade before the lens, and we obtain a unique photograph—exposed many times, images overlapping, yet giving a clear sense of a speck of decay within the static world. His most recent series is called “aegirite”, seemingly a footnote to precisely such circumstances—and when assessing an artist by an entire body of work rather than a single piece, time becomes more important, wiping away incomplete, drab reality, turning it once more into illusions, into atomic particles of the world, as with Taihu rock, acquiring rainbows moving at three different speeds as they arc across the sky—that is, the “illusion of illusion”, so even illusion itself goes through the process of appearing and vanishing. In our hearts, the mighty Chinese traditions have undergone such a modernization, going through the process of becoming contemporary, no longer complete but shattered into pieces, moving towards a poetic death, or else full circle to a new beginning. From the Buddhist point of view, the process from fulfillment to stagnation and rot goes: attainment, stasis, decay and finally nothingness.
Perhaps the most apt comparison isn’t Villa Livia, but Pompeii, one of the few perfectly-preserved Roman ruins, the Livia gardens dissected in public. Everyone knows about this site, buried in volcanic ash and excavated in the eighteenth century, giving us the opportunity to face a two thousand year old reality, just as Xu Lei’s work uses the techniques of Ingres to “develop” an image on ancient interiors, with similar straightforwardness, enabling the viewer to get a strong sense of antiquity directly from these classicist works, a form of time travel. Yet it must be pointed out that in a true historical context, this gaze obviously carries the intention to deconstruct, so the pictorial whole is created solely to be a ruin. For Xu Lei, these ruins are the result of a deliberate process, built on the destructive foundation of aegirite, the artist removing the ashy covering of a classical veneer, one shovelful at a time, leaving its true, unsettled face to be exposed to modernity.
As the physical darkroom vanishes, everything we see from our vantage point atop the rubble of tradition is an illusion – again, the “illusion of illusion”. In fact, ancient cities were not as open as the ruins of Pompeii; there were many old-fashioned painters of the sort who still exist today, insisting on holding on to their warehouse-like studios. If the volcano of modernity hadn’t erupted, there would still be darkrooms of the same ilk as Villa Livia. But lava did engulf the world, and because it lay too thickly and heavily overhead, when reality was excavated, most of the roofs and walls had collapsed, doors and windows disappeared, meaning no darkroom in the technical sense could exist. Xu Lei and his colleagues now have to face an “open” reality. As for the exposed brick structures, barely different from each other, within the ruins they have lost the distinction between “in” and “out”. If not for the deliberate reconstructions of various archaeologists, the dividing line between one building and another, one space and other, would not be easy to pinpoint. In the same way, we observe Xu Lei’s work though its exquisite forms—not through the fixed shape of any ancient space, in fact, but amongst traditions that have collapsed beneath the heavy weight of the modern, where from the perspective of the modern viewer, there are as many points of view as Rashomon; it is not bound to any arbitration, but exists as the sort of silent ruin so beloved by romantic souls. Now, this maze-like visual structure can be reorganized and made co-contextual, endlessly producing new sensations and meanings. And that’s exactly it. In Xu Lei’s work, the multiplicity of the world arises not merely out of games with scenography and tableaux, but also comes from re-arranged meaning and space. Yes, and time too. Perhaps the latter allied with the former is the essence of Chinese art. No matter how melancholy it leaves us to long for a past that can never be recovered, everything Xu Lei’s art accomplishes comes from its verisimilitude, just as any photograph developed in a darkroom must remain loyal to its negative, even if this darkroom is not that visible. This is especially true when actual spring arrives, when even a ruin will have the same breath of life and joy, fragrant plants and wild flowers growing within the earliest interior, transforming the ruins into a true garden. Here, nothing matches completely with what was already there, but everything comes with even more unknowable significance, inviting you to turn it over and over in your mind. Tr. by Jeremy Tiang
About the exhibition Date: MAY 12—JUNE 18 2016 Venue: Marlborough Gallery NY Address: 40 West 57th Street, NY