“The recent Tao of Nature exhibition at Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai showed that the Chinese urbanites’ appetite for their nation’s history extends beyond Zhang Yimou swordplay flicks. Blanche looks at some of the young artists embracing the 2000- year old philosophy and making the ancient modern.”


Anticipate the difficult by managing the easy; If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading; When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be; these are just a few beguiling quips from the of the intriguing but  notoriously hard to define belief system of Taoism. While outlawed during the Cultural Revolution, Taoism’s presence in the preceding two thousand years of Chinese history means it has played significant role in the creation of the national character alongside Buddhism and Confucianism.


Taoism is no longer restricted in the country of its origin, but it is hard to see how its principles could exist comfortably alongside the new capitalist impulse of the world’s most vibrant economy. The recent ‘Tao of Nature’ exhibition at the MOAC, Shanghai, suggests that in contemporary art, the philosophy often manifests itself as part of a wider nostalgia for ancient Chinese history and culture, evidenced by Li Lei’s richly illustrated landscapes inspired by old myths and folk customs, and the traditional calligraphy-influenced works of Zhang Hao and Huang Yuan Qing. Of the work on show, however, the spirit of Tao manifested itself perhaps most explicitly in the paintings of Liang Quan and the fibre art of Shi Hui.


The former’s interest in his country’s ancient traditions occurred relatively late in his career while exploring the colours in the dying traces of tea, coffee, and Chinese medicine. After ten years of teaching at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, in the great tradition of Chinese poets, artists, and philosophers, Liang Quan sought new residence in a place of mountainous tranquillity, relocating to the countryside of Guangdong near Shenzhen.


Liang Quan’s early work had been favourably compared to the abstract artist Cy Twombly with its colourful collages and suggestions of form. He enjoyed success but as his concepts matured, the “colourful structures and youthful passion” of his old paintings looked to him as though they are not his own. Liang Quan left Hangzhou to find a new individuality of expression, perhaps following the advice of Taoism’s spiritual father Lao Tzu who advised, “He who knows others is wise. He who knows himself is enlightened.”


Liang Quan describes his new artistic explorations as giving up the careful ‘fullness’ in painting and instead putting ’emptiness’ at the core of his work. “When the relationships between the lines are handled in a sophisticated way, they will become real substance that maintains balance,” he explains.  “These trivial lines seem meaningless when separated. However, once they are put together without rules, the painting is completed. The ‘richness’ and ’emptiness’ come to an agreement.” The pursuit of emptiness relates to the Taoist principle of action without action. The Tao Te Ching states, “Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it? I do not believe it can be done. The universe is sacred. You cannot improve it. If you try to change it, you will ruin it. If you try to hold it, you will lose it.”


Taoist philosophy is inspired by the workings of nature which transpire successfully without man’s intervention.  For his paintings, which he describes as ‘abstract landscapes,’ Liang Quan employs a colour palette which is neutral like nature itself; one which is beautiful without being forced to be so. He guides our eyes through his compositions in a similar way to traditional Chinese landscape artists, using multiple points of perspective, allowing our eyes to follow a river from the foothills to the mountains in the distance, but does so without pictorial representation. Instead his vertical tea and water stained strips intermingle to create a similar effect. His work captures nature’s effortless perfection and suggests the possibility of inner peace to those who accept things as they are


Shi Hui graduated from the Arts and Crafts Department of the Academy of Fine Arts in Zhejiang and began to study with the renowned tapestry and fibre artist Mary Varbanov. Heavily influenced by Varbanov’s teachings, Shi Hui uses the traditional Chinese materials of paper pulp, cotton, hemp, bamboo, wood, intertwining them to create natural juxtapositions that seem to grow into space. Her work is visually complex, as is the process of its construction, however, her descriptions are innately simple. She does not use conceptual vocabulary to discuss her creations, but instead uses titles such as Nest, Knot or Pillar, allowing her work speak for itself.


Like Liang Quan, she explores the concept of ‘Emptiness’ as an ideal but more in terms of materiality rather than composition. Old Wall, created in 2003, consisted of pure white paper spanning wooden posts. Drained of the colour, texture, and wear that would usually define an ancient wall, the work became a symbol of purity and a celebration of white paper. As well as making her own paper, Shi Hiu recycles rice paper, xuan, covered in practice calligraphy In doing so, she usurps not only the function of the paper but also the idea of total abstraction. In seeing and understanding the letter forms, we are touched by something tangible, however, the recycled nature of the letters allows for a certain level of imagination. The recycling of existing scripts also allows for an element of chance to exist in Shi Hui’s work as she cannot control the original content. Liang Quan may appreciate such willing foregoing of control. In the face “of this endless and mysterious world,” he says, he does not struggle but submits himself to it.


TEXT: Michelle Harvey

IMAGE: courtesy of PIFO Gallery