Artist and scholar Tai Xiangzhou’s distinctive ink paintings of cosmic scenes subvert pictorial conventions and radically remove the viewer from mundane reality, thereby reinvesting vision with visionary potential and images with imaginative power. Painting in him becomes a medium not only of representation or expression, but also of speculation at the grandest scale, pertaining to the natures of space and time and the possibilities of invisible or even imaginary universes.
Tai Xiangzhou was born in 1968 to a scholarly family in Yinchuan, Ningxia, the former capital of the Tangut Xixia kingdom (1038-1227). As a youth, he studied calligraphy with the exiled master Hu Gongshi (1912-1997), roamed the vast deserts of the northwest, and absorbed the diverse cultural legacies of the Silk Road. After training in mounting and restoration and studying interactive design in New Zealand, he led successful careers in digital media and founded the cultural magazine Chinese Heritage. In the 2000’s, he devoted himself fully to his calligraphy and painting. To enrich the theoretical foundation of his practice, Tai proceeded to earn a doctorate from Tsinghua University under the philosopher Bao Lin. Published as a book by Zhonghua Bookstore with a foreword by the eminent Princeton art historian Wen Fong, Tai’s dissertation retells the history of Chinese landscape representations by delving into their origins in classical cosmology, particularly its elaborate systems of correspondence between the celestial, terrestrial, and human realms.
Working in the literati mode, Tai spent years copying and mastering classical compositions and brushwork. He considers as his artistic “mother tongue” the monumental landscapes of the Sony Dynasty (960-1279), a golden age for both pictorial and astral arts. Tai’s classicizing paintings are lovingly and faithfully antiquarian, infused with his intimate knowledge of the materials of silk, paper, and ink. Like historical fiction, however, they also have a speculative dimension: they ask, counterfactually, what a Song-dynasty landscape would look like if it encompassed the vastly expanded scope of contemporary human knowledge and experience.
In recent years, Tai has developed a distinctive practice that marshals and expands the resources of traditional painting—particularly the techniques for rendering topography and atmosphere—to encompass geological and even cosmic dimensions. His cosmoscapes evoke extraterrestrial worlds and the invisible dimensions of contemporary astrophysics. Here gnarled and perforated rocks hover weightlessly in space, simultaneously emerging from and dissolving into atmosphere. At times they resemble organic forms like fossils and bones, hinting at an archaeological past or a post-apocalyptic future. Reappearing morphologically within and across compositions, the rocks undermine any consistency in illumination, perspective, orientation, or even causality.
Tai has also created interactive and multimedia installations based on classical Chinese cosmology. An example is The Gateway of Expedient Means, modeled on medieval revolving repositories of Buddhist sutras and constructed in wood using traditional mortise-and-tenon joinery. Inviting the viewer to interact with it corporeally, ritualistically, or by contributing in writing to its library of shared knowledge, the installation connects heaven and earth and reconciles rational thought, empirical experience, and metaphysical wonder.
Tai Xiangzhou's work can be found in the collections of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of At and Archaeology, Peking University; Art Institute of Chicago; Asian Art Museum, San Francisco; Brooklyn Museum; The Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Minneapolis Institute of Art; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Seattle Art Museum; and the university museums of Duke, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.