Yunnan is fertile ground for the artistic imagination. Though located far on the southwestern frontier, the unique geographic, natural and cultural terrain, and open cultural attitudes of the region, have long attracted artists from far and wide, while also fostering an impressive roster of native-born artists, many of whom have had a major impact on China’s art and culture.
The aim of this exhibition is to explore the role of these geographic elements in the artistic environment of the region through the eyes of these artists born since 1980. All of the artists are connected to Yunnan in some way, having been born here, having studied here or actively creating here. These young artists are all quite influential in the Chinese art scene, with some having already made an international impact. They have drawn creative nutrients from the local soil and their predecessors, while exploring the development of the regional artistic environment through “international” artistic language.
Ye Funa is one of the most internationally fluent artists of her generation. Here she brings her international artistic language to bear on a distinctly Yunnanese issue. The exotic imagination and the demands of the tourism industry come together to create some truly ridiculous notions about the province and its residents. A tour guide’s white lie about local minorities worshipping a jade cabbage as a god has inspired a whimsical mythology.
He Jing has also spent many years working and studying in a foreign setting, where she has kindled an interest in the mechanisms of cultural diffusion. This interest led her to cross paths with CGK’s building in the past, where it served as a supporting argument in her thesis on cultural imitation and diffusion. Her installation finds a missing link between the Park 1903 Arch de Triomph, and the original in Paris.
Li Donghai, often known for taking a radical break from the calligraphic tradition, here shows a deeper connection to its underlying philosophy than many have assumed. His black on black calligraphy explores the meditative aspect of the art form, while reducing the visual side to near nothing. Another calligraphy piece demonstrates total fluency in the techniques of calligraphy, while creating an expression that can only be of our own time.
The painters in this exhibition also put old traditions to contemporary use. Landscape painting is familiar territory here in Yunnan, and for good reason, the near infinite variety of terrains, climates and traditional architectural styles enough to entice any painter. Su Jiaxi and Li Rui have taken landscape painting in a new direction. It is worth noting that neither artist paints directly from nature, or even from photographs.
Su Jiaxi ruminates on his wanderings through mountain forests and valleys, arranging elements of beauty as if decluttering the thoughts in his mind. The resulting paintings are closer to the way the heart experiences nature than the way the eyes see it. Li Rui creates realms that are like dreams, at once compelling and just outside the edge of comprehensibility, a point driven home by the not-quite-natural colors and the indecipherable inscriptions on his paintings.
Li Gang is also featured in this exhibition as a “painter,” but the Dali-born artist is better known for his conceptual sculptures and installations. His paintings here are crafted on handmade canvases, and explore the fundamental purpose and possibilities of the art form. In making the canvas itself a subject of inquiry, these works straddle the boundary between painting and installation.
Yan Junjie makes a similar dissection in his site-specific installation. This accomplished filmmaker has in recent years been exploring the boundaries between auteur cinema and video art. Here he presents us with a hotel room, re-creating the scene of his recent video work, Woman in Black. The video depicts a young woman absentmindedly painting her nails while the television shows a new report of a horrific act of violence. While seemingly unaffected by the act, the woman voices the news report, almost as if speaking to the way such events affect us on a subconscious level. The camera watches the woman from all angles, often at extreme closeup, mimicking the way the human eye takes in a scene. The viewer can repeat that act by stepping into the hotel room, which stands, ruffled bedsheets and all, as if the woman has only just left.
Cheng Xinhao’s installation presents another form of observation. Trained as a chemist, Cheng Xinhao tends to observe his artistic subjects at a scientific level of detail, producing “field reports” that are a mix of anthropology, geology and chemistry, and take on myriad forms of presentation. While many outsiders tend to focus on the most exotic sides of Yunnan, Cheng Xinhao’s investigations uncover the extraordinary in the ordinary. The River Remains is an exhaustive look at the Panlong River, the main river flowing through Kunming. This is part of a long investigation into the river’s geological and human history. At center is a “core sample” of the river, an earthen cube made of layers of sediment dug from the riverbed at different points along its path. The samples include fossils, stones and even pieces of demolished homes. An eight channel video on the wall nearby shows the river at various points along its path, from its headwaters to its mouth at Lake Dian. An artificially-crystallized rock formation seems intent on reminding us that geological time also includes the present.
He Da is also fascinated by knowledge and science, and the processes which give rise to them. Known as much for his philosophical thinking as his art, he has zeroed in on the centrality of light in both scientific progress and artistic expression, breaking light down into its constituent colors to create a visual installation. The discovery of the prism, and the constituent colors of light, was a breakthrough that brought great transformations to human knowledge and art. He Da’s re-creation of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man in white lights and shards of colored glass embodies the artist’s understanding of this pivotal moment.
Guo Peng’s artwork has a slightly different relationship with knowledge and information. Long concerned with ways of seeing and the transmission of information, Guo now presents us with a wall of completely blank photographs, which due to the nature of the photography process, could be read as a total lack of information, or total saturation of information.
Each artist in this exhibition embodies the regional reality for Yunnan today, located on the country’s periphery and yet at the center of the latest national and international cultural trends, distinctly Yunnanese and yet facing the same challenges from technology and social change as the rest of their generation around the world. We have high hopes that this place, and these artists, will continue to make valuable contributions rooted in their unique situations, to the art of China and the world for many years to come. We at CGK also hope to join them on this path, and to play our own small part in Kunming’s artistic destiny.