Asteroid B612 at the Apex of the Vault
“In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night . . . You – only you – will have stars that can laugh!”
Put simply, I am someone who relies on my eyes to create. Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) had a quite frank way of describing the eye: “insatiable and in heat.” I enjoy the sheer pleasure of “discovering” things in casual moments of life. Often this comes from images, ebooks, magazines, advertisements, textile patterns and other things I encounter on the net, on purpose or by chance. Then I reassemble and superimpose these images and coax out a conversation among them –meaningful or meaningless, murmured, inarticulate or verbally expressive.
It is a mistake to think that the painter works on a white surface. The figurative belief follows from this mistake. If the painter were before a white surface, he – or she – could reproduce on it an external object functioning as a model. But such is not the case. The painter has many things in his head, or around him, or in his studio. Now everything he has in his head or around him is already in the canvas, more or less virtually, more or less actually, before he begins his work.
On an ordinary day, I was surfing randomly, and I opened an electronic publication – a fashion magazine, I think – when a multicolored 3D globe appeared in its pages. Actually, it could not have been a more commonplace thing, and was hardly an amazing visual experience. But at the moment my brain felt as if it had been stabbed. It leaped to life. And in that instant, I hit Command-Shift-4, and did a screen capture. But that is as far as I went. The fate of the globe seemed the same as the whole host of images I had dragged or snapped onto my desktop, and ultimately filed away in a series of folders, each with a date on them, waiting to be awakened one day but always gathering dust.
Often, after it has been washed away by time and left as sediment in my mind, such an unimpressive little speck that once stirred my visual senses will reappear or counterattack in an unexpected way. This is how these colored globes came to occupy a major place in the works I’ve produced over the last few years.
In fact, it was only slowly and gradually that the Twelve Apostles took shape as the key concept for this exhibition. Right after I had finished the first couple pieces, I had an indistinct feeling that something still needed greater clarity. So I had no choice but to set the project aside and wait for time to catalyze things and put them in order.
As my thoughts gradually coalesced, certain memories and experiences of the past surfaced, vague yet somehow clear. I’ve already forgotten when it started, but the frescoes of the Scrovegni Chapel by Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337) have stealthily sunk their roots in one corner of my memory. That exquisite vault of ultramarine rising above the chapel is inlaid with golden eight-pointed stars, arranged in neat rows, radiating a spirit of pre-Renaissance simplicity, and the walls filled with faded frescoes in the same color tones tell and interpret stories from the Bible over and over again...
While my works have little in common with Giotto, the frescoes on those chapel walls became mysteriously entangled with the progression of my works several times. I am reminded of a time back in 2002 when my art had hit a certain bottleneck. I was in a bookstore and unconsciously opened up a book of Giotto’s paintings. As I looked at the many photos of the details of his work, at the heads of the angels lined up neatly in rows, the knot that had long remained unraveled in my mind suddenly loosened, and I seemed to have a premonition of something to come. That was how the concept of my 2007 painting, The Last Judgment under the Rainbow came about. To this day, it still signifies a connection with that chapel. I don’t know why, but these frescoes that have nearly no relation to my creative approach turn on a switch, and point a way for my thoughts to follow, allowing me to move forward toward the light at the end of every tunnel.
[P]ainting used to be conditioned by certain “religious possibilities” that still gave a pictorial meaning to figuration, whereas modern painting is an atheistic game.
So, why apostles? Actually, I can’t really say for sure... But what is certain is that they are not a new subject. In fact, they are a concept and a symbol that was overused long ago. When I decided to use apostles as my main theme, I asked my friends what they thought of when they heard of the Twelve Apostles, and they all replied: Of course they were evangelists the New Testament, what else?
I’m not a believer, nor am I particularly familiar with the stories of the New Testament evangelists, but they quite naturally evolved as the theme of my exhibition. Perhaps it was related to my past experiences visiting churches in Europe? Seeds that are lost or carelessly sown in the process of life can often sprout shoots when you’re least expecting it, or in inexplicable ways – that is, if the seeds don’t die! Ultimately, I took these things I encountered at different times in my life and stuck them together. Of course, I realize that apostles have a strongly religious air and symbolic significance, and it is a term of great gravity, but I don’t want to falsely requisition any meanings or symbols belonging to them. I simply want to borrow a little bit of their special presence, and make them a little lighter, a little softer. As each of them stands on their own sphere, each has his own realm (just like the planets that the Little Prince visited), looking out into the distance but also forming a world unto themselves.
If painting is a quest for order, I am searching from minute variations within order, like a slight touch of warmth in a picture. Especially in this exhibition, the symmetry of the compositions and the exhibition space have strengthened the sense of serenity. Perhaps this is influenced by the symmetrical images of church architecture. And the various apostles, standing on globes of different colors and shapes, slightly taller than the viewer, are like the statues of prophets or apostles standing on either side of the main entrance to a Gothic cathedral, looking down on the people entering the church. The viewer looks up at them, and perhaps this alteration in vantage point may produce a sense of exaltation. Interestingly, I recently learned that in the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, 2015 is the year when “the Angels” attack earth. I wonder if my apostles will have a different kind of impact?
The Virtual and the Real
Scavenging is a bad habit I’ve had ever since I was a child. Walking with my head pointed down, I’ve always been on the lookout for some little object that is insignificant yet intriguing. Anything either organic or manmade will do, and they have naturally become the subject matter of my art. Eventually, the locale of my scavenging shifted from the street to the computer screen. It seems today many things have evolved toward this paradigm, enacted with the move of a mouse... Yet the mind is affected by the conditions of the world. My direction shifts according to the people and the movements I encounter, just as all collisions may produce unexpected sparks.
I’ve never visited this church, nor have I held or collected the toys or other objects depicted in these paintings. I picked them up on a jaunt through images and the internet. Everything was superficial. There was no real contact. I “experienced” them in a different way, and they were deeply planted in a certain corner of my memory. In the past I would physically touch and handle objects in order to depict them in my paintings, but now I’ve already become accustomed to extracting images from the internet and then reassembling and juxtaposing them as my principal mode of creation. The capacity of the internet has replaced the physicality of personally visiting places and seeking out things. Virtual things are reproduced, and I have turned into a medium or conversion device processing a large volume of image files and information, collecting actual travel experiences of the past and memories of internet searches, and storing them as images that are fleeting yet can be accessed at any time. The virtual and the real harmonize to become a new experience by which to view the world and pursue art. And along with my memories, these fragments, constantly increasing into the thousands upon thousands, have been stored away with chaotic order, until the moment when they are summoned.
Since Google searches have taken the place of scavenging, I can gather a large quantity of information every day. Experiencing the world and searching for things has become extremely convenient, but this approach lacks a degree of warmth and physical authenticity. My ability to process and acquire has increased, but the time for waiting and digesting information has also been compressed. Yet conversely, my process of making pictures is in fact slow and repetitive, and possesses a certain ritualistic feeling, adding and subtracting different colors layer by layer, covering over, polishing, and covering again... Perhaps working the picture to give it a special feeling of space and texture gains back some of the lost warmth and allows the experience of these images to leave a deeper impression.
“One can see details better at a distance.... It's an illusion to think you have to be close.”
I’ve always heard people say that when they look at my works they feel a sense of distance, either psychological or linear or spatial. If I calculate it with a ruler, or measure it by the length of my arm from fingertip to shoulder, or count it off with strides of different sizes, nothing I do can accurately determine the appropriate distance. I’ve pondered how it came about, and what affect it has on my art, or on the viewer.
I think it may be that my artworks are too “calm” or too “quiet.” But this form of pictorial expression or technique is not the impression most people intuitively have of “coldness.” In fact, even I as the artist feel a distance from my art, which varies with each work. This distance, generated half consciously, half unconsciously, allows me to address my works contentedly, without producing a cloying feel. Perhaps, their existence plays a role similar to that of a bystander. Even though many of them seem cute, charming, amicable, in fact they are not as they appear to be on the surface. They do not urgently search for empathy, but tell their own story over and over. They are independent entities with presences all their own. Yet for the viewer, after this intangible space has been dragged into existence, it forms magnetically attractive polar opposites that produce a psychological state of give-and-take. I think, if the viewer is not in a rush to hear their own story or one related to them, and if they spend a little time perceiving, then maybe they will see more things that lie deeper than the surface. It’s like making friends with someone.
Every day I attach less and less value to intelligence. Every day I become more aware that only by going beyond it can a writer regain something of our impressions, that is to say, attain a thing in itself, and the sole substance of art.
I recently reread The Little Prince. I’m quite ashamed to say, I seem to have become one of those “very strange” grown-ups who “never understand anything.” In the last few years, I’ve tried to not overanalyze my art, to learn to make art without too academic a mindset, and as much as possible to say things that I myself understand. Maybe we all rely too much on intellectual experiences. Maybe excessive analysis and interpretation increases an artwork’s “gravitas,” but conversely it can also weaken our ability to perceive attentively. Therefore, I try as much as possible to let my artworks absorb external communication, as an excellent form of protection. But if an artist can sincerely bring together his own observations and experiences in his art, connecting every dot into lines and planes, no matter how flimsy and fragile they are, they will gradually be able to hold weight, and appear before the beholder with grace. Whether the apostles are apostles, whether this cross is the true cross – frankly, this has no direct bearing on appreciating an artwork. “Yes ... The house, the stars, the desert – what gives them their beauty is something that is invisible!” Perhaps invisible things run deeper.
Language extracts us from the sensible world and spares us from having to experience or reexperience or mimic a thing, an affect, so as to be able to imagine it. The aim is to short-circuit experience; it is thus that the concept comes into being. We still have this preconceived idea that intelligence requires abstraction.
When I stand under the ultramarine night sky, or sit in the chapel looking up at those neat rows of stars, do you believe an apostle could be there too, gazing at us? Or if I dress up neatly to introduce this Asteroid B612 to you, will you be more likely to believe in it?
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince, chapter 26
As cited in Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, tr. by Daniel W. Smith (London: Continuum, 2003), p. 55
Ibid., p. 86
Ibid., p. 8
James Lord, A Giacometti Portrait (Forgotten Books) p. 45
Marcel Proust, Contre Sainte-Beuve (publie.net) p. 59. The original French reads: “Chaque jour j'attache moins de prix à l'intelligence. Chaque jour je me rends mieux compte que ce n'est qu'en dehors d'elle que l'écrivain peut ressaisir quelque chose de nos impressions, c'est-à-dire atteindre quelque chose de lui-même et la seule matière de l'art.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince, chapter 26
Christian de Portzamparc and Philippe Sollers, Writing and Seeing Architecture, tr. by Catherine Tihanyi (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2008) p. 24