“Huang Zhiyang－The Phenomenology of Life: Chapters in a Course of Study” at the National Museum of China was the latest major exhibition by the Taiwanese artist. The exhibition included work from the seminal series Zoon Dreamscape, Three Marks and Beijing-Bio. Born in Taipei in 1965 and now based in Beijing, Huang Zhiyang produces work based on traditional calligraphic aesthetics and on the philosophy of classical Daoism and Buddhism—recognizing the life force embedded in all things, living or inanimate. Works primarily of ink painting and sculpture demonstrate an extremely self-possessed technique which is exercised in pursuit of understanding of the world and one’s identity within it. Huang describes his work as being a product of its age and his surrounding environment, but at the same time created in a consistent spirit.
In addition to participating in numerous exhibitions, Huang represented Taiwan at the 46th Venice Biennale in 1995 with works including figurative ink paintings. His work featured also as part of the seminal survey “Inside Out: New Chinese Art” at the Museum of Modern Art P.S.1 and Asia Society in New York in 1997. The exhibition at the National Museum of China was organized by Ink Studio*, Beijing, where a related solo exhibition (of the same name) continues until 11th May, 2014 (he has also shown previously with Pekin Fine Arts and Art+Shanghai).
I am from Taipei, but have lived since 2006 in Beijing; before that, I was also in New York from 1996–2001/2. At university, I majored in Chinese traditional ink painting, having learnt it at home first. When I was young, everyone who was learning Fine Art was studying Western fine art. So for us Chinese artists, the questions at the beginning were “What is fine art? What is beauty?” Impersonating it, or expressing it—like da Vinci, or Picasso…
It’s very confusing, because in China we have a great culture and history, but a totally different aesthetic. I always think “What am I? What is my culture?” I seek identity—how to use the artist’s identity to say or do something. It’s about individual language using paint and brushes. Calligraphy is not in any way similar to painting. When I work, I am always writing—“body writing.” But this is completely different from the work of Jackson Pollock; it’s very important to make this distinction between Eastern and Western approaches, though the resulting form may look similar. The foundation is different.
Early in my career, I was lucky to have had many chances. At university, I participated in Chinese painting group shows in Taipei, at the museum. How can one become an artist? I don’t know! It has to be natural. The museums and galleries chose me, so I was able to keep going. I’ve never had to do another job; we need professional artists like this.
Beijing has made a very big impression on my work. I think the best art comes out of difficult and contradictory situations—we all have to function within the confines of this particular space in which we find ourselves; everyone contributes their own attitude about how to behave in this environment. Of course, there exists conflict and contradiction, but we all have to figure out our function and work out how to thrive in this environment where there is a very interesting mix of people. Challenges and improvement—you need these in order to be productive. Taiwan is a bit too comfortable, in comparison.
This exhibition is the product of my time in Beijing, and has been heavily influenced by this city—power, tradition, the people and the land; it’s completely different from Taiwan and New York. Here, my identity and culture are much clearer to me. The calligraphic work (“Heart Sutra”, 2009) is my rendering of the Buddha’s central text. In it, you can see evidence of authentic Chinese line and brush work—everything I do comes from this point of origin. This calligraphy is literally and metaphorically at the center of the show, and I wanted it to be the focal point. Without that deep appreciation of the aesthetic of calligraphy, none of the other work could have been realized. I want to continue that thread that comes from the calligraphic movement of the brush. Although I work on multiple series at the same time, I am always looking for the same thing
As well as the calligraphy, part of the key to this exhibition are the videos of cells, seen moving under a microscope. Some years ago I came across a microscope—it was great fun, and I played with it for a year. What you see are living particles—on this level, everything can be equal. Everything has a kind of spirit or soul inside it, whether it’s a rock or a plant, an animal or a person. These videos are like the evidence of this microscopic life. Expanding the scale outwards, the marble sculptures (“Possessing Numerous Peaks—Dragon”, 2014) represent a microcosm of the landscape around Beijing. The city is surrounded by mountains, and Chinese people see the shape of mountains as a dragon. In this museum, in Tiananmen Square, we are in the center of the city, so I wanted to put my own dragon here, mimicking the overall landscape of which it is a part. The idea also comes from the Great Wall. I very often include sculpture in my shows.
In Chinese, the title of the “Three Marks” series is “1,000 Spirits” (2008-9). At the time when I began this series in 2002/3, I remember what influenced me. One thing was SARS, and the other was the digital age—at that time, I began to be deeply affected by these things. This virus and the global communications network (which was creating a digital society) are microscopic things that are invisible to the naked eye, yet they are the things which most affect our lives and our mental states. We exist now amid a bombardment of information. This series of works entail a form of spacing which comes from digital formats—these works couldn’t have been created except in a digital age. My feeling is that we are being suddenly engulfed by it.
I always keep going, from one show to the next. In the future, I will do better than this exhibition. But his is a very good chance for me to put many pieces from different series together. It gives me the opportunity to survey the work, and to see what I can approach more deeply, widely or differently next time. My wider sense of understanding comes not only from the discipline of traditional calligraphy; it comes from life and from people—from people’s life objectives and spiritual thinking. My choice of aesthetic is just one way to answer philosophical questions; we all have these life questions; they are not problems, just questions. We never really find the answers, but the more we think, the more we develop different approaches to them. This is what leads me to pursue art as an exploration of oneself and one’s purpose.
But art has never solved mankind’s nor an individual’s problems! You don’t pursue a career as an artist with a specific goal in mind. It’s a way of knowing oneself better and on a deeper level, and dealing with your approach to the world. The harder you work, the more art you make and the more you broaden your thinking – somehow it elevates your thinking process to a higher level.Wherever you are and whatever you are working on, you are going to respond naturally to the time of your life, to the environment, to the space available…Without it being planned, those things give you a sort of natural inspiration. I’m not wedded to the brush. If tomorrow I go to work in America or somewhere else and have no brushes, it doesn’t matter. Materials are not an issue—I can use anything.
In the past, I have basically removed myself from everyday life, preferring a more dreamlike or spiritual approach. I feel that whatever I do next might start to get closer to daily reality. I am not sure yet how, but it’s the next thing I want to try. You can’t really talk about your art work as if you have a definitive plan. For me, it’s something that will happen spontaneously—I’m not a designer or an architect. I drink tea and absorb my surroundings—slowly, the feeling comes. It can also just come from being bored! All sorts of things can arise. In a way, it is contradictory or ironic to use the most traditional medium of calligraphy to approach this very high-tech age in which we live. Throughout my work, I am most loyal to a spiritual path—qi—the life force which exists in everything, including yourself. I have to be loyal to that.
Meanwhile, children scream and clamber over the marble sculptures on which we sit in the middle of the room. Huang takes a photo, then rushes out for a cigarette before his next interview—he smokes two packs of slims a day.
This profile was composed from on a conversation between Huang Zhiyang and Iona Whittaker on-site at his solo exhibition at the National Museum of China.
* CORRECTION: The original post of this article stated that the exhibition was organised by Pekin Fine Arts in collaboration with INK Studio. The Guobo exhibition was sponsored by Ink Studio and not by Pekin. Pekin was not involved in the organization of the show in any way.