Infinite Revolutions: An Interview with Tai Xiangzhou

Tai Xiangzhou, Alan Yeung

February, 2017


A: How does your upbringing in Yinchuan, Ningxia influence your artistic development?


T: Located in northwest China, Ningxia has a unique scenery and long cultural history. The Yellow River runs through Yinchuan. When I was a child, the Yellow River was very wide, and I could reach it by bike in 20 minutes. Around Yinchuan are several deserts, such as the Tengri and the Ordos. I’d often go to their edges, where I keenly felt the solitude and majesty of the vast wilderness. Growing up in Ningxia made fearless and gave me an open mind. Living so close to nature in its bare essence, I did not fixate on anything and felt I could always start life anew.


A: Ningxia seems far from traditional literati culture. How did you become interested calligraphy?


T: I come from a scholarly family. My grandfather was a teacher at a traditional school in Yanbei, Shanxi and skilled at geomancy and divination with the Yijing. My father was proficient in classical Chinese and a fine calligrapher. When I was a child, a very important calligrapher named Hu Gongshi lived in Ningxia. He was a disciple of Yu Youren and served as his private secretary. After the Nationalist Party fled to Taiwan, Hu was assigned to a reading room in Yinchuan to manage its holdings of periodicals. At the time the Cultural Revolution was ongoing. My father knew Master Hu and asked him to teach me calligraphy. Master Hu liked children and taught me diligently. I’d visit him in the reading room two or three times a week. He’d write on old newspapers to teach me brushwork and character structure. I studied with Master Hu until the early 1990’s, when he left Yinchuan and returned to Nanjing.


A: How did the cultural legacies of the Tangut Xixia kingdom and the Silk Road influence you?


T: Ningxia was the capital of the Xixia Dynasty (1038–1227). Xixia studies is a mysterious discipline. In the early 20th century, Western explorers discovered many historical sites in northwestern China. During the Song dynasty, Dunhuang was under the control of the Xixia, which was responsible for the Yulin caves. The core of Xixia culture remains in the Yinchuan area, including the North and West Pagodas and the One Hundred and Eight Stupas of Qingtong Gorge. These sites yielded many Xixia artifacts. I was very attentive to the archaeological findings. They were often of art historical significance, such as Xixia Buddhist art and the landscape paintings at Yulin, which bear a strong resemblance to Jing Hao’s style. All this was part of my artistic upbringing from a young age.


The Tangut script also made a strong impression on me. It took only three years to create and put to use. How could a culture so quickly establish its own writing system? Once you’ve understood the principles of a system of knowledge, then you can easily extrapolate from them standards and rules by which to generate writing, images, history, culture, and religion. The relationship between Heaven and humans is a key question for Asian cultures. The Book of Changes says: “To contemplate the patterns of Heaven to observe the change of seasons; to contemplate the patterns of humans to effect the cultural transformation of the world.”


A: Your artistic path has been very varied: you trained in conservation and mounting, worked as a media designer, directed cultural programs on CCTV, and founded the antiquities magazine Chinese Heritage. Do you regret these experiences?


T: If not for these experiences I may have been unable to persist in this path. They make me realize clearly my most authentic desires and ambitions, and because of this I have faith in my art. The experiences also broadened my intellectual and artistic horizons.


A: How did your study of classical cosmological thinking relate to your decision to become an artist?


T: Why paint? In 2003, I became acquainted with Liu Dan, who had just returned from New York. Hen was renowned in the West and had opened new possibilities for ink painting. He had a strong foundation in traditional ink painting, but his iconography and methods were very contemporary. I was working in interactive media at the time. I hadn’t left calligraphy and painting behind, but I was still in the stage of studying and copying and unable to progress. I was deeply impressed by Liu Dan’s work and admired it. I wanted to become his student. Master Liu said to me, “You’ve done quite well in other fields. Why do you have to paint? You need to think clearly about this.” This question remained on my mind while I was studying with him. Later, by coincidence I met Bao Lin, who at the time was the head of the Painting Department at the Academy of Art and Design at Tsinghua University. Professor Bao had studied philosophy in France, and his project was to construct a philosophical system for painting. I was very interested in his ideas, and I asked him, “Why do humans paint?” He said, “This question is too complicated. If you’re truly interested, come and study for a doctorate with me.” So in 2006 I earned a PhD in painting at Tsinghua. My dissertation topic was the “Concept and Structure of Chinese Landscape Painting.” How did landscape painting arise? Why did the Chinese love to paint landscapes? How did Chinese painting become a system? How should a contemporary artist using ink present and express this system? Addressing these questions ultimately led me back to painting practice. Both teachers shared their expertise with me unreservedly and helped me develop my own theory. I learnt that a personal pictorial language is only possible when concept and practice are unified. I understood that artistic creation of any period was founded on that period’s cosmology, which furnished its speculative schemas.


A: Prior to this, why did you feel that you couldn’t progress as an artist?


T: Having written my dissertation I can now easily answer this question, but at the time I had no clarity. China’s art academies operate under two pedagogical prerogatives: the first is that art must serve as

cultural propaganda, and the second is that teaching must be practical and oriented towards survival in society. If you want to explore alternative ideas, you’ll find yourselves isolated and without opportunities to develop. I’m interested in experimentally combining art, philosophy of science, and cosmology, and I understand the differences in the mental lives of an independent artist and an artist working “within the system” (tizhi nei). In the past, however, these distinctions weren’t clear to me. Confucius said, “Students of the past studied for themselves; students of the present study for others.” What is taught in school tends to be “for others”—fulfilling social needs. What I’ve been exploring is “for myself.” I’ve been exploring the unknown, and what I discover is my own.


A: In your book, your mention that during the May Fourth period, Western modern thinking had already had an impact on ink painting.


T: The May Fourth Movement began the radical overturning of artistic traditions, including criticizing the Four Wangs, in the hopes of remaking art on the foundation of realism. For me, such revolutionary thinking and simplistic reconstruction are invalid. Chinese culture has been continuous for several millennia, and an essential part of it is the symbiotic relationship between language and images. Undergirding the language is an intellectual system. If that intellectual system remains, simply changing the images is meaningless.


A: After the Song dynasty, brushwork increasingly became an independent object of aesthetic appreciation. Did this already constitute a departure from cosmology?


T: Painting after the Song was mostly done on painting, and so “brushwork flavor” was sought after in its own right. For the Orthodox School established by the Four Wangs of the early Qing dynasty, painting was simply about replicating traditional schema and brushwork faithfully. It became a tradition of technique, without intellectual or conceptual breakthroughs. But in the millennium between Song and the present, there were many important artists who did aimed to articulate a cosmology through their art, such as Bada Shanren (1626-1705), Shitao (1642-1707), and Dai Benxiao (1621-1693). That tradition was never broken. It simply required individual artists to work more diligently and persistently.


A: In recent years you’ve established a distinctive personal style. Before this, you devoted a lot of time to copying classical paintings and especially Song-dynasty landscapes. What is the significance of copying to your practice now?


T: When painting my cosmic scenes, I often pause and return to copying and studying classical works. Copying them is mainly about technique; it is like mastering a language. My “mother tongue” in painting is the Song landscape. When I encounter difficulties I return to the Song masters and seek their guidance. My own creative practice and copying classical paintings are mutually illuminating. The Song people’s understanding of landscape was close to our understanding of the universe. It is a realm of ideals—ideals of nature and human existence. It is not mere scenery or something like a photograph.


A: Has contemporary science demystified the universe?


T: Human capability remains very limited. Through telescopes and spacecraft we can receive only simple images of the universe. A Song-dynasty landscape is like the starry night sky. The ancients’ awe-struck exploration of mountains and forests is very similar to our exploration of the universe. That’s why we call a Song landscape “monumental.” Today, our technologies have access to almost every corner of earth, which has gradually lost its mystery. It is pointless to continue painting according to the schema of Song landscapes. How to restore to painting a sense of mystery is a current issue. Our technologies give us more mysterious pictures of the universe and create more room for artistic creation.


A: What is the relationship between the feeling of awe and the pursuit of beauty?


T: Humans are always in awe of the unknown. At night, when I’m alone in the studio with the lights off, a fear sometimes arises in me. Such psychological nuances can be very resonant in art. Actually, cosmological awe is universal in humans. If we returned to antiquity and had to recalculate our calendars—arrive at the figure of 365.25 days in a year, and divide the year according to the four equinoxes—this’d be an immense undertaking. We’d use our most beautiful language and images to define this system in the most precise ways, and to express the awe and respect that Creation inspired in us. If one, as an artist working today, maintains this awe and respect, one’s art will resonate with more people.


A: Throughout history and across cultures, there have been various understandings of vision. Plato famously believed that light emanated from the eye and captured objects. Daoism and Buddhism also developed their own notions of “seeing.” What is yours?


T: The salient Chinese understanding of vision is encapsulated in this: first you “look at a mountain and see a mountain,” then you “look at a mountain and do not see a mountain,” and finally again you “look at a mountain and see a mountain.” It’s about synchrony and empathy between the mind and the universe. Chinese landscape paintings incorporate the viewer into themselves. The painter or the owner of a painting tends to situate himself or herself into the landscape. The same is true for bronzes. The inscriptions on Zhou bronze tripods, for example, are on the side of the front legs because they were intended for the recipients of the rituals. Painting likewise varies in conviction and conception depending on whom it is intended for.


A: To be inside a landscape and to look back at oneself from the outside at the same time—this transcends the dualism of “subjective” and “objective.”


T: Yes.


A: Is emotional expression a valid goal in art?


T: I started studying classical literature under Feng Qiyong in 1987. One of the first lessons he gave was on “Letter in Response to Ren Shaoqing,” from Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian. It contains a few sentences that can serve as principles for Chinese scholars and artists: “Study the interface between Heaven and humans, understand the transformations from past to present, and establish one’s own discourse.” The first task is to know the principles of the universe, the second to know the transformations in human history. Only when you have accomplished them can you succeed at the third.


A: We live in an age of augmented and virtual realities. What can painting offer that contemporary technology cannot?


T: I believe that the illusionisms offered by technology are merely optical. We also need to distinguish between popular and classical media. A two-dimensional painting is the more moving the more information it contains. Multimedia works are popular; they cannot reach the level of “holography.” They are simple images that are immediately understood and lack more complex structures.


A: A hologram retains the visual information of three dimensions. Does this pose a challenge to painting?


T: “Holography” can be understood in different ways. One is in terms of capacity for information. The other is intellectual and pertains to the reproduction of three-dimensinoal space, which is also something artists seek. “Holography” is about storing information—for example, the interview we are doing now is only a small segment in a potential hologram. It’s the same with painting. If a painting contains only a few pieces of information, it’s unlikely to stand the test of time.


A: You refer to T.D. Lee’s Science and Art project in your book. Can contemporary art truly be at the forefront of science?


T: Often the work of a contemporary artist isn’t accepted during his or her lifetime gains gradual recognition later. Contemporary art is art of the future—it is conceptually prospective. And conceptual prospection often manifests itself in the union of art and science. All Nobel Prize-winning work is built upon previous accomplishments and in turn opens new realms. Contemporary art-making must be ahead of its time. Good works of art always transcend their times. Munch’s existential anxiety transcended his time and is strongly resonant today.


A: Is the ink medium particularly suited to manifesting contemporary scientific ideas, such as the multiverse and the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics?


T: Every medium contains a lot of information. Through the ink medium I discover this information and connect it with my thinking in a very organic manner. The mysteriousness of silk and the fluidity of water generate special structures. Silk can be raw or sized. Many painters aren’t used to painting on raw silk, but I am familiar with the characters of both kinds and can switch freely between them. This way I create richer and more mysterious effects.


A: There are some imaginary structures in your paintings, structures that one doesn’t encounter in daily life.


T: These are visual structures that arise from the medium itself, and from the brushwork practice that I’ve honed over the years. My practice follows a certain internal rhythm, and accordingly gives rise to forms that aren’t stable in appearance but are coherent in principle. Every of my brushstrokes is generative, and their cumulative results are infinitely variable.


A: What do you mean by the “mysteriousness of silk”?


T: Silk is a textile woven from organic threads. Because of its sheen, its appearance changes when seen from different angles, whereas paper always looks the same. Raw silk is very absorbent, like raw paper. Water diffuses immediately upon touching raw silk, without forming any particular image. To draw a fine line on raw silk is basically impossible. So, during the first stage of a painting, I use a large brush to bring out the amorphousness of silk, and to suggest trajectories and imaginative structures. In fact these are precisely what is meant by shi [“gesture,” “dynamics”] in Chinese aesthetics. Du Fu (712-770) describes Madame Gongsun’s sword dance: “As soon as she dances with a sword she moves all four corners of the world, and accordingly Heaven and Earth rise and fall for a long duration.” Zhang Xu (8th century) understood the dynamics of cursive script. Du Fu said of Wang Zai’s paintings that “within them are clouds that follow dragons in flight” and that he “in mastery of circulation and dynamics far exceeds the ancients; [his painting of] a mere few feet equates tens of thousands of miles.”


A: Painting is a continuous dialogue with the medium.


T: Correct. There are two kinds of painting. The first kind involves creating a detailed draft and then transferring it to the work proper by projection or another means. I prefer expressiveness, indeterminacy, and not having a definite end. Maybe the painting is never definitely complete.


A: If a painting is never complete, it always leaves room for imagination. Aside from the awe-inspiring mysteriousness of the universe, your work also seems to contain a sense of randomness and play. The game of Liubo was related to divination. The palindromic Xuanji poem is also a game.


T: Unknown worlds need to be completed by imagination and thought. Having endured for four or five millennia, Chinese civilization has developed a comprehensive cosmology and a comprehensive philosophy of human development. These systems have given rise to many interesting games, such as Weiqi. In Sudoku, every number has a predetermined place, whereas the chess pieces in Weiqi do not. If we translate this difference to art, then I am inclined towards the freedom of Weiqi. There have been so many Weiqi players over the past millennia, but no two games are the same. Herein lies the philosophy and mystery of the East.


A: What do you think of paper?


T: Although it’s said that paper lasts a thousand years, there’s much low-quality paper being produced now. We must distinguish between paper that’s suitable for art and paper that isn’t. This is basic. Historical documents mention Emperor Li Yu’s (937-978) Chengxintang paper. Li Gonglin (1049-1106) refused to paint on anything other kind of paper, and Mi Fu (1051-1107) refers to it as well in a piece now at the Palace Museum. How was Chengxintang paper made? According to historical records, it was made on snowy days, using fermented rice paste as a dispersant. When properly breached, the paper had the appearance of jade. For a long time I wondered about the difference between old and new paper. Through archival research and practical experience, I found that the first difference is raw materials, and the second the treatment. Old paper was treated with calcium carbonate, a substance similar to ceramic clay. In ponds in southern China, beneath the surface black clay there’s a layer of white clay called Kaolinite. It was ground into powder, dissolved in a solution, and applied evenly on the paper. This increased the paper’s tonal range. Modern factory-made xuan paper accommodates only about ten distinct grey tones, while Chengxintang paper could show more than a thousand.


A: How did Gateway of Expedient Means come about?


T: In 2009, I visited Longxing Monastery in Zhengdeng, Hebei, with Professor Hang Kan, Director of the School of Archaeology and Museology at Peking University. We saw a resolving sutra repository over two meters in diameter. Professor Hang said that according to Song huiyao jigao, this was a Song-dynasty library. Monks housed sutras in it and turned it to retrieve them. This was the immediate inspiration.


Second, I wanted to explore the structural correspondences between Heaven and Earth so pervasive in Chinese culture. For example, the Northern Dipper corresponded to the Emperor, and the Forbidden Purple and Supreme Palace enclosures corresponded to the Forbidden City and Zhongnanhai and Dong’an Market. The interlocking brackets support “Heaven,” i.e. the weight around and throughout the structure. And the structure revolves, just like the seven stars of the Northern Dipper.


Visitors to Tibetan Buddhist monasteries like to turn prayer wheels. This means they’ve “learnt” the sutras or mantras embedded in or cast on the prayer wheels. It’s an expedient means, much like the instant conveyance of all knowledge by Abhisheka. It’s also a positive suggestion that everyone is endowed with the ability to read the sutras: today you may only be turning the wheels, but someday, if you so choose, you can actually start reading and change your life. Through this work, I also hope to invite visitors to write history together. That’s why I’ve made a thousand blank volumes. I want visitors to enter the library, pick up a brush, and write down their ideas about the universe. I want them to co-create the work with me.


A: For a Buddhist practitioner, turning a prayer wheel is also a way to accumulate karmic merit.


T: Yes. Octagonal structures also appear in the Kalachakra stupas of Tibetan Buddhism, which are models of the universe. Kalachakra stupas feature few icons; they are rather mandalas that structure the year and the appropriate times for rituals, agricultural activities, family affairs, and even medical treatments.


A: What inspired the nine-panel ensemble Parallel Universes?


T: The Chinese speak of “nine heavens.” Classical Chinese astrology-astronomy referred to the Nine Stars of the Northern Dipper—seven visible ones plus the invisible Fu and Bi stars. The Dragon King was believed to have spawned nine sons. The painted lacquered coffin of Mawangdui likewise shows nine dragons and birds. Traditional Chinese architecture often features Nine-Dragon Screens. Parallel Universes borrows from these traditional ensembles of nine. The panels are interrelated, but each is also a standalone composition.


A: What attracts you to clouds, mist, and atmosphere?


T: The Song-dynasty landscape painter Guo Xi (ca. 1000-1087) liked to watch clouds. His landscapes were in fact not about topography, but about atmosphere. He discovered the secrets of atmospheric perspective some five centuries before Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). What impresses me most is that, through astronomical research, we’ve discovered that throughout the universe there are solid planets as well as gaseous ones. Some galaxies consist of gases entirely. Li Bai (701-762) had a fanciful thought that “clouds arise from rocks.” Our understanding of atmosphere is far more complex than the ancients’, and we thus have many more possible ways to represent it. I understand atmospheric structures not as clouds, but as the mutual transformations between solid and gas. In many of my paintings, you find meteor-like forms that are half solid and half disappeared in mist. My ideas and my brushwork naturally motivate each other.


A: Hubert Damisch in his A Theory of /Cloud/ points out that linear perspective can never incorporate amorphous clouds. In classical Chinese paintings, clouds often serve as transitions between disjunctive spaces and times.


T: There’s a Buddhist transformation tableau upstairs with many buildings and figures. It tells a host of stories set in different spaces and times. To place so many different themes and scenes in the same painting requires the use of clouds as buffers and transitional devices. Also, cloud-computing is a trendy topic in technology nowadays.


A: How do clouds and rocks relate to each other structurally?


T: I’ve long thought about the structural relationship between clouds and rocks. My basic goal is to make rocks fly. According to conventional thinking, iron is heavy and clouds light. If I paint clouds that are heavier than even iron, then iron naturally appears to hover by contrast. What clouds and rocks have in common is that they’re both very difficult to fix in three dimensions. They become strikingly different in affect when seen from different perspectives.


A: When you speak of subverting conventional ways of thinking and looking, I’m reminded of your interest in M.C. Escher (1898-1972). He uses the linear perspective and chiaroscuro of the Western pictorial tradition to create impossible spaces.


T: Escher’s paintings employ certain mathematical models that I find fascinating. For example, if you project a section of a sphere in a certain way, you get a straight line, but if you project it in another way, you get a curved line. But both lines issue from the same sphere. In painting, structures composed of curved lines and those composed of straight lines have different affective impacts on the viewer. The former have no definite boundaries and extend like clouds; they are ambiguous and mystifying. The latter are closer to design drawings. Escher’s fish recur infinitely, becoming smaller and smaller like fractals. Some Chinese painters also employed this principle of infinity, such as Wang Meng (1308-1385) with his S-shaped “ox-hair” texture strokes and Dai Benxiao (1621-1693). Dai Benxiao’s paintings seem to picture the crossing of two distinct spaces; his trees look like mountains, and vice versa.


A: The astronomer Carl Sagan famously referred to the “pale blue dot” of earth as seen from outer space. What are the ethical implications of transcending the human-centric view of the world?


T: Living in the smog of Beijing, we cannot help but think about the environment. But my main concern is with conceptual and visual structures. Humanity shares the same earth and the same universe. This is a very important point if you want your art to inspire people of the future. It’s like Einstein’s theory of relativity. Will there be a new formula that describes the structure of the universe so comprehensively? Can your art be in synchrony with the grandest ideas?


A: Those who don’t know you well may think you want to restore a kind of Chinese orthodoxy. But that’s not your real goal, which is rather to explore universally human experiences and imagination.


T: Humans’ relationship with the cosmos is not a Chinese issue. Chinese traditional culture only gives me a familiar language and means by which to explore it. Today we no longer think in terms of East versus West, but rather about humanity’s position in the world, in the universe. You should think about the significance of your work in the history of civilization. If your work truly expresses the knowledge or beliefs of humanity, everyone will recognize its value.