The Verdant Peaks and Waters - Su Bin & Guan Saimei 苏斌 & 管赛梅 - 滇水苍风
The concept of the magical was made known to me by Márquez in the 1980s during the years of my irrational youth. Ever since I held his peerless masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude in my hands, I have found myself to be less solitary. I realised that he was really writing about Yunnan, or the world since 1966, for starting from one particular morning of that year, the world became magically unreal. It was as if everything had turned upside-down. The schools were closed, Red Guards filled the squares, booming megaphones dominated our eardrums, and Father was declared a counterrevolutionary. The world became a red ocean, a feverishly boiling pot that was emitting loud noises. To rebel was justified, and revolution was not a crime. Flyers fluttered in the air. Assemblies and processions went on and on while big-character posters covered every wall. Everyone became a revolutionary. Counterrevolutionaries, made to don tall paper caps, were paraded in the streets as targets of public hostility. Revolutionaries shook their fists as they angrily denounced these “rats”. They did the Loyalty Dance, asking instructions from and reporting to their superiors day and night. The revolution won a spectacular victory, an entire decade of it.
The magical refers to an unexpected change, a collective and unthinking madness, the internal loss and attrition of a race. It is an irrational but real state. And I have been “magicalised”, for I am drifting too far away from my subject now. I wanted to write about the feelings I get from the art of two young people. I sense a special poeticity in their works, but I end up babbling about totally irrelevant recollections of the past. That’s magic.
Magic is often a psychological feeling. But in the border highlands with the rich diversity of their natural environment and humanistic traditions, it is a reality. You can experience it for yourself if you live here for a few years. The rusticity and backwardness, the stubbornness and laxness, the fantasies and sentimentality – they all exist pervasively here. And animism is very deeply ingrained in the fundamental consciousness of many natives of Yunnan.
Su Bin (male) and Guan Saimei (female), both born in the 1980s, are two unmarried young artists who live together. They were born to peasants in the dank countryside of Dali, western Yunnan. They were students at the Fine Art Department, School of Art and Design, Yunnan University, and had studied in the Second Studio (where I taught) prior to graduation. Su Bin stayed on in school to teach, whereas Little Meizi (Guan Saimei’s nickname) became a freelance artist. The duo is typical of what I call “Yunnan seed” artists. These are, characteristically, natives of Yunnan whose works persistently relate to the province’s natural environment and incorporate strong emotional bonds with their birthplace (i.e., Yunnan).
The locality-specificity of the duo’s oeuvres draws mainly from Dali and Guishan. The former, being the artists’ birthplace, was a choice not their own but of their parents. Guishan, on the other hand, was a place I took them to as dictated by the curriculum. Equally natural are the differences between Su’s works and Guan’s. They are destined to be as disparate and interlinked as Yin and Yang.
Meizi’s paintings are full of sunshine and water. She paints personified manifestations of Nature that are sexy and brimming with vitality. Trees grow wantonly, coiling and creeping like snakes as they stretch eye-catchingly towards the light, airborne moisture and everything else around them. There are sunlit meadows covered with wild flowers, crystal-clear ponds, and a river that meanders around a stone village – the village where chickens crow, dogs bark, and the artists dwell. I recall that, in those days, whenever we went to Guishan to paint, our students and teachers would lodge in the stone houses, living and eating with the fellow locals. We would drink maize wine, smoke water pipes, and eat fishes caught from the ponds, as well as maize, potatoes and other produce that grew in the fields. We may say that Meizi’s works are themselves produce that grow out of this pure, primitive, pastoral milieu.
Needless to say, there is more in Meizi’s world than sunlight, rain, dew, greenery and flowers. Mysterious beings or supernatural phenomena feature undisguisedly in her paintings. Fangs and red tongues often appear in the cultivated fields or the stone houses. Sometimes the sunflowers wear high heels. There are trees that sit down like human beings, tree trunks with doors and windows, and a river by a village as transparent and soft as a woman’s body … The artist is almost like a psychic, shuttling between the sunshine and the shadows. There are frightening parts, but all in all, such stimuli remain contained within an imaginary state associated with fairytales and legends.
Meizi believes in ghosts. This belief was a force that flowed out of her being taught by her grandmother and took root in her consciousness during childhood. The ghosts described by elderly villagers were originally meant to inhibit the blind impulses of thoughtless children, but now they have become an essential element in the artist’s practice. It is the presence of such elements that gives rise to the magical poeticity. It makes Meizi’s oeuvre very different from the usual pastoral paintings, for the surreal elements take us closer to the mystique of Nature and the awe we feel towards it.
As a woman, Meizi is one who would reveal her own state of being – inclusive of fantasies, desires, insecurities, as well as feelings linked to her body and emotions – in her paintings candidly. This represents an excellent artistic quality. Incidentally, this quality is also found in the great O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo, by virtue of which they were able to set a glorious example for those who came after them, especially female artists. Meizi might not have been influenced by them directly, but she does possess this special, inborn forthrightness, such that once she chooses to paint, she is able to fuse Nature-based subjects and her own state of being together in an organic unity, and enter into a form of unbridled expression. The fact is: when artists born in the 1980s freely express their states of being today and happen to touch on sex, they are free from the psychological repression so commonly present in their predecessors from the 1950s and 60s. The thinking of the times has changed dramatically. Much of what used to be forbidden has been thrown open by the progress of history.
Su Bin has the simplicity and sturdiness of a Yunnan borderland peasant. However, this does not mean that he is simply a hardworking and courageous man. His artistic expressions are actually also filled with a magical poeticity. He feels that the silent mountains that have been his companions since childhood have souls. They have deep-looking eyes, not to mention tears. Particularly, during the night, they are – like the stars – entities you can converse with. The artist is simply enthralled by the nocturnal colour tones of his homeplace. The mirror-like paddy fields, the old wooden houses, the fruit trees, beasts and wild birds – they are all part of a perfect and sentimental world in the night.
Back in the university years and the 1990s when my life was more or less uneventful, I used to take my daughter and friends on self-cultivation trips to Dali. The natural sceneries there were indeed comforting to the soul and subtly edifying, but I had never transferred their grandeur and the good impressions they left onto my artistic creations. Nor was I able to do what Mr. Louis Cha did, which was to present Yunnan’s ancient landscapes as an exotic setting for intriguing stories. This was a somewhat regrettable lacuna for me. I had actually always been eagerly waiting for something to emerge – something that veers away from the ethnic, borderland exoticism that tourists see, and yet is not purely localistic art either. It should be rooted in this land and the old customs here, overflow with a deep love for them, and – very crucially – enfold within itself authentic personal experience and a special perspective. The eventual appearance of Su Bin’s works, fortunately and undoubtedly, brought me joy. It was not only because I was his teacher. What I saw in his art was how a village child, born in this locality and immersed in contemporary culture, was able to passionately express an ardent love and sincerity towards his homeplace, the colourful and richly magical Yunnan highlands.
Dali as painted by Su Bin is mostly the locus of an ancient, agrarian civilisation. From wet mists, ink-black mountains, humble villages, fish ponds adjoining waterlogged fields, to blooming fruit trees along dirt trails that lead to the foot of a mountain, he integrates his experiences in Guishan into a celebration of the homeplace. To put it differently, he has assimilated the red land of Guishan into the home territory that exists in his heart. This is the artist’s magic. The aesthetic logic he constructs takes in whatever element that works for his art-making. In his loyalty and passion for his homeplace, the artist finds freedom for artistic expression. In this sense, he is always a happy man. His happiness does not come from anywhere else but a dialogue with Nature (or the land) itself, an intimate exchange not unlike secret whispers.
In contrast to the freshness and bright gorgeousness in Meizi’s art, Su Bin’s paintings are marked by sombre tones and a profound attachment. Meizi favours the dreams of daytime, whereas Su Bin loves to gaze into the night. Meizi applies colours with transparency and fullness, while Su Bin captivates us with a vigorous brushwork. Although the two artists have a lot in common in terms of background, birthplace and how they grew up, they differ starkly from each other in terms of artistic style, disposition and gender. Nevertheless, they both belong to the group of young artists from the 1980s who weave magical poetry as they stand rooted in the Yunnan highlands. The values they inject into contemporary culture are green, pulsating with life, and bonded with Nature via archaic connections. Their mode of art-making is not irrelevant to the present age. In the China of today, the incessant efforts of contemporary art to engage with present reality are constantly being stifled by rapidly shifting complexities. Being compelled by overpowering economic development, values are slipping again and again, not only in life but also in art. So people are returning to the land and to the locality they came from, to Nature and the forsaken past. To turn back and walk a little slower is not conservatism, but the fulfilment of an inner need. People ultimately have to return to the embrace of Nature, to retrieve their conscience and bottom line. Through their solitary art-making, young artists of Yunnan are really allowing their souls to reach the greener pastures on the other side ahead of everyone else.
August 4, 2011
Chuangku Studio, Kunming