Smile Politely

“Life.Color.” and a taste of China before the Spring Festival

This past Sunday heralded the onset of the Chinese Lunar New Year, also known as the Spring Festival. Last week, I found myself attending the opening reception of the “Life.Color.” exhibition of southern Chinese art at the Springer Cultural Center in downtown Champaign. Duan Xue Jing and Wang Xin Man, two art faculty from Yunnan University in southwest China, an area called the “Land of Eternal Spring,” presented their work to the Champaign community. Perhaps a perfect preface to the upcoming festivities this weekend, it was an introduction to the art, culture, history, and language of a specific part of China, while also functioning as a platform of connectivity for the local Chinese community.

Dr. Ian Wang, Curator of the Spurlock Museum at the University of Illinois, guest curated the event, as he had invited the pair to showcase their work in Champaign. Dr. Wang has previously curated two other shows featuring Yunnan art at Parkland College and the University of Illinois Illini Union Art Gallery. Wang met artist Duan Xue Jing about ten years ago in Yunnan when he was looking for art to bring to the Midwest for shows, and featured her work at the University. Bringing the two artists to Champaign to exhibit their work was a particular pleasure for him, as he is originally from Yunnan Province.

Of particular interest in this exhibit are the influences of the Yunnan School of Art — a movement that started in the 1970s. Near the end of the Cultural Revolution in China, which lasted from 1966–1976, this group of artists grew tired of the “social realism” that was the regime’s chosen form of expression, as they desired more modernism in their art. As they couldn’t rebel, they used the Yunnan ethnic groups and cultures to incorporate Western-like modernism or expressionism and its typically heavy, color-based, strong palettes. Dr. Wang brought these artists to Champaign both to help give them a platform and exposure, and also give people in the Champaign-Urbana area an opportunity to learn about other peoples’ culture and art.

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“Life. Color.” is aptly titled. Both artists’ work features vivid, strong colors, and includes strong philosophical ponderings, as well as distinct cultural expression in each piece. Both artists use rather Western forms of painting styles — for Duan, classic Western Surrealism, and for Wang, influences of the French Impressionist, Henri Matisse. Yet, there are elements of traditional Chinese philosophy found in Duan’s work, and cultural elements reflective of the Yunnan School of Heavy Color Painting in Wang’s. Both artists have different messages to convey through their paintings — whether a self-reflection to one’s own psychology and influences in life, or to greater social dialogue. These themes reflect, at times, something distinct to Chinese modern history, and yet also connect the viewer on the other side of the ocean to questions and critiques that are global in nature, and felt in every society.

I spoke with Duan about her work and what gives her inspiration, and she remarked that her art is really a “photo of [her] life,” and that despite its similarities to a Surrealist style, it really is a recording of things she has experienced personally. She focuses on people’s lives — particularly the common aspects of them. Her pieces “A girl in the Luggage” and “Person in the Cabinet,” which are at Springer, depict a kind of mindset using a metaphor — whether a suitcase or cabinet or room or other kind of “cover” — to illustrate places to protect our things, places that make us feel comfortable. In English, we have the phrase “comfort zone,” which I think is a close translation for this idea. Duan said sometimes we may wish to push this comfort zone mentality off, but we may not be able to do so. She drew a comparison to her own life, in the city of Kunming in Yunnan, a place with a warm climate, a very important city for Chinese contemporary art, but still small and ancient. When she’s living there, she doesn’t feel that her life can change very much; she feels the need to go to a different country or city to have some change. She says this thinking is a “cover,” or like the luggage in her painting. Duan likes to incorporate a lot of daily objects in her paintings — like a letter, a mirror, toilet paper, buttons, a sweater — which make these concepts relatable and also show what kinds of things hold one in the “comfort zone.”

Wang spoke with me about her series of paintings called “Lasting.” She remarked on how people of her generation — born in the 1970s, including those born in the 1980s — are in a similar position, where they are feeling depressed, lonely, and can’t find the things that can help them change their current situation in life. Despite this, they continue to try to achieve their ideals and dreams in life, no matter what the cost. “Lasting 1” shows a man rowing a boat in a sea of sand, which undoubtedly is an extremely difficult task, but he keeps rowing. “Lasting 2” shows a more Chinese-style painting, with tall rocks, mountains, and small boats in a lake. A person is squatting on top of one mountain, isolated and alone. Wang said that the person has two options: either to continue being alone or to jump off. “Lasting 3” shows a person who has had an arrow shot through the heart. Even though his body has died, his beliefs and thoughts (he hopes) will continue to persist. Again, in this painting, aspects of Chinese traditional art are prevalent, despite the Western medium of oil painting techniques. Wang said that this aspect of her painting is very important to her, as many modern artists in China are leaving behind their cultural roots to pursue that of the West.

The exhibit attracted a predominantly Chinese audience, but there were many people who had heard about the show and came to open their eyes to different methods and concepts. Betsy Wong, attorney in Champaign, particularly enjoyed Duan’s “Girl in the Cabinet,” as she could see many cultural relevancies with the United States. The concept of becoming a prisoner of one’s possessions struck her as something that has happened in the U.S., particularly in the last part of the twentieth century, as Americans have loaded themselves up with possessions, and now China is joining this kind of pursuit. She remarked, that “it’s interesting that she [Duan] is reflecting on some of the same issues in her culture, that we have in our culture.”

As a former long-term resident in China, I can say that this show was still an eye-opener for me. Seeing how modern Western lifestyles have affected younger generations, indeed my generation, and its subsequent consequences on those brought up in the East, was no real surprise in that it was almost expected. I lived in large, bustling, factory-driven cities in the north, but always enjoyed sojourning in Southern China, where it seemed to me more culturally-preserved and less of the chaotic market-driven lifestyle I was witnessing in the coastal cities. Watching my Chinese peers jump into Western culture so readily disturbed me, and I wondered what the future would hold for them and their culture. It turns out that such people as those who participated in the Yunnan School Movement and the current generation of young artists are bringing this discussion and predicament to the forefront for critique, and also, in a way, are developing the next movement. In the “Life.Color.” exhibit, the artists used Western painting styles with Chinese influences and culture for a profound critique. Perhaps this combination of styles, of Western stylistic influences with Chinese history, philosophy, and landscapes, will even lead to an interesting merger of thoughts — some similar and others opposed — that so clearly reflect the current status of Modern China.

The “Life.Color” exhibition will be on display through February 28, 2013, at the Springer Cultural Center.

Special thanks to Dr. Ian Wang, who provided much of the information on Duan and Wang’s work and the Yunnan School Movement, as well as arranging the interviews with the artists Duan Xue Jing and Wang Xin Man.

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