Ocean and Sky
Xu Lei’s visual rhetoric is rooted in an inner dialectic or balancing act. His insight of “emptiness and substance as one” leads him to undertake the visual merging that finds “one color in sea and sky.
In the “Breath and Bone” series, above the ocean surface appear freely rendered mountain peaks which push the picture into the distance, while underwater the honeycombed rocks done in fine brushwork pull the picture up close: the two are linked “naturally” at the waterline to form an organic whole that does not seem jarring.
In that zone the color blue has chased away the color red; soliloquies have banished outcries; elusive experience has replaced adept effusions on revolution. Ancient palace-style paintings have been stripped of their mannered approach to lavish erotic themes-this is Xu Lei’s way of counteracting the crude, garrulous political exhibitionism of our era. Xu Lei’s strong suit lies in casting aside ideological imagery and rhetoric, making good on his vow that “my ink art will not follow along with the times”.
These paintings which one would be justified in calling visual traps present a sense of illusiveness deeply rooted in the idea of “emptiness” belonging to Oriental aesthetic awareness. By his rhetorical skill, Xu Lei restores illusiveness to object-forms, so that emptiness has phenomenal form, and phenomenal form serves to verify emptiness. Through a welter of externals it conveys a conceptual stance: “there was never a thing there, so how could have attracted dust.”
Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage provides a basis for describing artistic behavior and viewing behavior. The excitement one feels while scrutinizing oneself in the mirror, according to Lacan, confers primary significance to the forms wherein narcissism encases desire. Xu Lei’s mirror-images stay away from self-portraiture or autobiographical commentary. When the viewer’s eyes meander about these multi-angled pictures, he/she will be drawn into a labyrinthine space which constantly opens out and extends.
In Xu Lei’s paintings, the surface adumbrates depth through mirror images that flash obscurely into view, prompting a desire to go after them. Eroticism is treated as a means of enticement, and a textual memory of art history begins to manifest. This is not only a nostalgic reference to a classic with its irretrievable provenance; it is at the same time an emotive metaphor for the constitution of self through appropriation and revision.
Applying blue patterns to a horse is like “cold fragrance flying into lines of poetry.” The Yangtze region where Xu Lei spent much of his life was the most refined and decadent locale of traditional civilization. Thus his temperament seemed to take on a fading glow from the favored sons, literati and prodigals of those bygone days. On his “blue-patterned horse”—the most widely known of his works—he transplanted surface motifs from ancient ceramics onto the body of a horse. In this way the horse was deprived of primal vitality and impulsiveness; instead it was poised in space as something to be appreciated; it became a purely aesthetic object, a creature in a cage, with an implicit sense of masochistic sexuality. No longer partaking of nature, it belonged to the world of human artifice. If the image has significance as “horse,” it no longer points to the horse’s role for history and intellect; rather, it is the physical body with desires and memories. The blue patterns on the horse’s back are merely lingering traces of time. When asked where his inspiration for the blue-patterned horse came from, Xu Lei replied, “The blue patterns I put on the horse’s back are analogous to tattoos on a person. Tattoos are related to memory; they symbolize a sense of belonging, or they memorialize something.”
If we say that for Vermeer a map represented the inferred presence of the outside world, then for Xu Lei a map is visual evidence that actual history—the external world of the past—has by now dissolved into mist. “To thrive or decline is the way of men’s fortunes/ Mountains and rivers merely set the scene.” For Chinese people human life is impermanent, and even prosperity will rapidly be emptied of substance. This is the realization and emotional tenor behind the Oriental aesthetic. As Stephen Owen emphasized, remembrance was not just the literati’s convention of nostalgia for a fallen capital; rather it was a lyrical paradigm that informed the whole tradition. In Xu Lei’s work, a map is the outermost shell of geographical terrain, and it bears two layers of remembrance—the “vanished presence” of historical entities and the “vanished presence” that belongs to traditional aesthetics as a whole.
In the “Non-Substantive Words” series and paintings like “Edict Curtain,” the screening device seems a metaphor for how we paradoxically call attention to something by hiding it. Rather than making the visible world less easy to see, it is based on the idea that essential aspects of the world are not visible. He has emphasized more than once that “the important thing is what you don’t see.” Here again we are faced with paradox.
Lyotard has remainder us:” Perhaps the political unconscious is to be found in all artistic texts.” If we peruse Xu Lei from this angle, we will discover that his fine brush fabrications, be they ever so immersed in imaginary beauty and seemingly insulated from politics, are actually a reverse formation drawing upon ideology. The space that he encloses with drapes or screens is not an aesthetic utopia or a priori-world thrown open to our view. Rather, it is a passageway between external and internal worlds; or one could say it is a shell that reveals a glimpse of the inner world.
Record of an Empty City
Pictured in “Record of an Empty City” (2000), we see a black horse’s head protruding from behind a screen. The horse seems dazed, as if it has lost its way, and the place where it has arrived looks like a hidden chamber, dim and enveloped in shadows. In the dimness one can perceive endless winding spaces. On the screen which delineates this part of the labyrinth, one sees that a map has been painted, but the place names have all been concocted by the painter in place of rivers, mountains, towns and villages that had once been there. This whimsical substitution removes the map from the sphere of geography, placing it in a fanciful realm of dreamed-up appellations: this gives play to individual fancy and private desires. This painting belongs in a series with “Record of Return to a City,” “Record of a Lost City” and “Record of a Remembered City.” Each of these pieces moves back and forth along the borderline of historical textuality and personal experience.
Little World on a Table
A magician’s appeal does not always rely on use of props, for a masterful conception can outdo any sleight of hand. “Little World on a Table” took a cue from Yuan painter Ren Renfa’s piece “Emperor Ming of Tang Grants an Audience to Old Zhang Guo.” The original work features a magical performance in which a small horse is released from a pouch. As transformed by Xu Lei, the piece highlights dialectical meditations on smallness versus largeness, or on the relation of a mustard seed to Mt. Sumeru.
Xu Lei is clearly aware that hiddenness is the best stimulus. When everything is shown in the open, then what would be worth longing for? Not only in China but in Japan and the West, many paintings have used a voyeur’s viewpoint to reflect the temptation of a half-hidden scene. “In my paintings I understand that the sensual suggestiveness of limitation is important to the content. For me this has psychedelic effect…Many facts prove that in erotic life, the satisfaction gained by gazing intently is far above what you get from physical contact. If a person’s body remains at a certain distance, or if it is alternately uncovered and covered, it seems more strongly tempting. This sets up an ambience wherein one cannot stop the pull exerted by desire. Second best is when I deliberately present an erotic image, but even then I handle it suggestively.”
By entering deeply into such a picture, we can come close to finding the thread and solving the labyrinth: it is a site where visual forms of eroticism and history interweave, yet the artist is plainly proclaiming their illusiveness as well. With a magical combination of images he is evoking sensual “form”, but at the same time acknowledging its emptiness.
Under some conditions, Eastern and Western cultures can achieve a certain degree of accommodation, but disparateness of inner essence will ultimately show them to be mutually regarding poles. From this relation Xu Lei imagined a pictorial structure with an eggshell-like shape, wherein occurs the sleepwalking of two world views which pass through each other. In “Reverberating Wall,” the Western sculpture and the Chinese collectable rock are treated as vehicles for two disparate cultural outlooks; here they are unified by Xu Lei’s narrative structure and language. Through linkage of forms he makes veiled reference to a relation of eternal counterpoise.
In fact, the more one understands what painting is, the more one understands its limitations. Painting can only carry so much freight. It is not a weapon for directly amending the world, and it can never be an absolute representation of the inner world. Yet through spatial imagery it can elicit our surmises as to the essence of things in the world. In this sense painting remains a surface—a surface relating to essence or depth. As Hofmannsthal admirably put it, “Depth is hidden, and where? At the surface!”
The Da Vinci Code
There are two pieces in which Xu Lei engages in dialogue with Leonardo Da Vinci—one of the painters her most reveres. His quotations of works by that giant of the Italian Renaissance are not only salutations, they are also Xu Lei’s way of scrutinizing his personal ego and world-view.
Drapes are drawn halfway between reality and dreams or between observation and hallucination, thus serving as props for his rhetoric of suggestion. Within private space they constitute an even more private space—what we could call space within a space. Within it one can refuse the call of history and immerse oneself in textual imaginings and historical memory. Those layered folds serve to shut out the ideological pressures of the outside world thoroughly. These are the fortifications which he has designed and erected.
Any realm of being is an unforeseen encounter. The artist works transforms physical objects into imagined forms; he borrows substance to demonstrate illusion; he sets up an opera dais for a trance, then continually dismantles that dais even as he erects it. Roland Barthes once observed: “People should view a painting as an Italian-style theater piece: The curtain goes up and we view the play. Our expectations are aroused; we accept it; we understand it. When the play concludes and the picture fades away, we will remember: we are no longer who we were in the past, just as if we had merged into an old-time theatrical performance.”
Emptiness is at the center and all object-forms point to that center, but at the same time they cover up that center. Thus we see a spatial realm, which is partially curtained off, poised between openness and hiddenness. With its erotic forms in miniature style, it lures viewers to enter. Rather than to say that they enter, one should say that they stray into this space. This is why the space in his pictures does not recede respectively, thus hinting at its continual extension before it is given over to the ultimate void. Thus one should say that this interior, this inner world that he acknowledges, is emptiness in its original sense from Oriental cosmology.