To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
In September 2019, Tate Britain held the exhibition William Blake: The Artist. William Blake (1757–1827) was a great poet in the history of British literature, a pioneer of Romanticist poetry, and also a great print artist. The opening four lines to his epic poem Auguries of Innocence were translated into Chinese by such masters as Feng Zikai, Wang Zuoliang, Zong Baijia and Xu Zhimo. I particularly enjoy Zong Baihua’s version, which translates back to English as “One flower, one world, one grain of sand, one heavenly kingdom, boundlessness in the gentleman’s hand, eternity encompassed in a moment.” These lines have spread like wildfire over the decades.
In September 2019, Contemporary Gallery Kunming also held an exhibition, the solo exhibition The World of Flowers: The Botanical Art of Zeng Xiaolian. The clean, modern museum space was transformed into a four seasons garden, with real flowers and plants blending together with Zeng Xiaolian’s artworks on the walls to create a surreal experience. Visitors were able to take in nearly one hundred of the artist’s works up close, and experience the way the artist lives and breathes plants.
While preparing for this exhibition, Mr. Zeng was diagnosed with cancer. While the exhibition was on view, he was in Beijing recovering from a major surgery. He was filled with regret that he was unable to attend such a major exhibition of his work in his own hometown. He was only able to take part through videos and photos. All of his friends who shared their impressions of the exhibition with him could sense his regret. It became imperative to stage another exhibition of his works at CGK.
Upon his return to Kunming, Zeng Xiaolian went back to work with even greater vigor. He would get up at dawn every morning and work straight into the night. I would often receive updates from him in the middle of the night, and knew that he was just finishing a long day of work. In the two years since his surgery, he managed to produce over one hundred botanical and ornithological paintings. It is quite a breathtaking achievement. He says, wistfully, “I hope the heavens may grant me another five years to paint. I still have many series I wish to create.” On hearing this, I struggle to hold back the tears, and can only wish the artist the best of luck in his race against time.
In discussing the scientific illustration art of Zeng Xiaolian, we cannot define and evaluate his achievements based on simple classification of art forms. He spent sixty years quietly working away in solitude, using the methods of “practical aesthetics” to serve scientific researchers. At the same time, however, he always held fast to his artistic thinking and creation, which has been the basis for his unique and rich artistic life.
Over his decades-long artistic career, Zeng Xiaolian gradually came to realize that humanity is from nature, is dependent on nature, and must, in the end, learn to coexist with nature. Years of depicting his observations of living species gave him profound insight into the “survival of the fittest” and the miracles of reproduction. Those beautiful flowers are there to attract insects to pollinate them, and thus carry on the torch for the next generation. It was merely incidental that they came to fill our shared home with such beauty. His research and depiction of biological illustration gave him artistic inspiration. In our time of biodiversity, the world on which we depend also needs artistic diversity. Every art form is like a plant species, with its own environment and reason for being. This is why he proudly never chased artistic trends, and never underestimated the significance of his work “drawing specimens.” In his mind, painting every day became something of an ascetic practice, something far beyond the so called boundaries of work and art. Each flower and stem, each bird and branch became like gifts from nature to engage in conversation. The years passed like days as he quietly painted each leaf and each feather.
The deeper significance of Zeng Xiaolian’s scientific paintings is that in this day, as we discuss the boundaries of “art,” his art reveals a unique ability to forge connections. This connection between science and art has both artistic value and sociological value. It prompts us to think about how art can continue to develop within today’s cross-disciplinary fields.
To spend his life and career in Yunnan, a hotbed of biodiversity, was Zeng Xiaolian’s destiny. Plants bring cycles to life on Earth, while also giving it beauty and wisdom. For Zeng Xiaolian, who has spent a lifetime depicting the lives of plants, this is his religion, his world.
Buddhist Master Hong Yi once wrote, “One flower, one world; one leaf, one Tathagata.”