February 2, 2010

I just got back from a little "visa re-up" trip to Hong Kong, the Hawaii of China. On so many levels, my time in Hong Kong reminded me of my Stateside trips to the Islands, and I will be sure to cover that in upcoming posts (a sort of parallel to my "Hapa in Honolulu" series). However, before I get into that, I want to write on something that happened to me there (yesterday, actually) while it’s still fresh . . .

Sometimes, I like to go to art museums. And when I look at the paintings and drawings therein, I can appreciate the skill involved (I am a mildly competent sketcher and painter). I like how the visual arts can give a different kind of insight into the mind-set of a culture. I think some works of art are quite beautiful.

That said, I am seldom touched by visual art. In fact, I can pretty much say that I am never really touched by paintings, drawings, or sculptures. On a very surface-level, perhaps, as I appreciate the beauty inherent in a particular work, but visual art does not tend to move me in the same way that music or film can. I don’t come out of a gallery or exhibition carrying the paintings with me, thinking on them, feeling inspired by them . . .

Except – yesterday – I was most definitely touched by visual art. Moved by it in a way I may never have experienced before. (*1)

It goes something like this:

Before my evening flight (ended up getting delayed until the wee hours of this early morning), I had some time to blow (on a rainy afternoon) and decided to go check out the Hong Kong Museum of Art. I haven’t gone to any art museums here in China yet, so I figured that would be a good thing to do (besides, the Planetarium was closed).

I bought my ticket and checked out the exhibits. First floor – traditional calligraphy and landscape paintings. Lots of black, white, and gray, but quite beautiful and interesting. (*2) Second floor – porcelain and pottery from the various dynasties. Pretty cool, again, a lot of white, some blue, some earthy magentas. Excellent craftsmanship. Fantastic.

As I’m walking through these exhibits, my mind is rolling around a conversation I had had the night previous with a second cousin of mine over dinner: all about how scared of risk-taking and "being different" Chinese culture is, and the pluses and minuses of that way of being. At this moment in my museum visit, I can’t help but think that it shows in terms of the art – as there are so many amazing artists in China, but all I tend to see are about three very specific styles that aren’t so different from hundreds of years ago. Cool, in some ways, and frustrating, in others.

So I’m in this state of mind when I hit the third floor and its exhibit on "the New Literati." I read the placard explaining who this group of artists is, and it’s more or less as follows:

The "New Literati" are a group of Chinese (mainland) artists from the 80s and 90s. They were mostly born right around the time of my mother – as World War II came to a close and the Communists chased the Nationalists off the mainland. But this group stayed in China. And so they lived through the Cultural Revolution (which is something I won’t go into now). As artists, they grew up in an era where art was controlled by the government, and the only art for public display (pretty much) was "for the people" – namely, propaganda posters and statues in honor of various martyrs and heroes. And then things changed. Deng Xiaoping did his thing, and suddenly these artists were able to create art that actually expressed . . . The art in this exhibit was the result.

I read that, and I get intrigued. What kind of art am I about to see? I had been wondering where the "Chinese modern art" was – was this it? So I enter the first hall, and to the side is a painting, more or less "traditional landscape style," and I feel crushed. Damnit. Expression and creativity really has been done away with here . . .

And then I walk around the corner. And I seriously had to stop and catch myself – I literally lost my breath and had to take deep ones to calm my pounding heart:

I saw color. Bright, vibrant colors the likes of which I never see in this country of black, gray, dark blue, or white clothing. (*3) And I saw such different styles and levels of expression. People were the focus of many of them – "common" people, given life and beauty. Many of them popped out at me and reminded me of paintings I’ve seen from various indigenous peoples. Others made me think of revolutionary artists like Diego Rivera. Many of the people depicted were peasants, or indigenous ethnic minority peoples.

These paintings spoke to me. They lived. I went from painting to painting, trying to get photos to remember them by. Literally taking deep breaths and trying to breathe them in. To feel them. I ended up doing three laps around the exhibit, closely examining every painting each time around.

Afterwards, I desperately searched through the gift shop (I have definitely never done that before) trying to find some prints, or a book, or even postcards of these paintings to have and to hold (I failed).

So what happened? Why did these images rock my world in a way other art never has? I’ve seen stuff more skillfully-rendered. I’ve seen emotions expressed in rawer forms. Revolution declared in images.

But I realized – seldom, in this world, does somebody see art made for them. What I mean by that is that the art that gets front-billing in the world is generally from a different generation from the one in which the viewer has lived. It’s probably from a different place on top of that. And, if you’re a person of color or from another underrepresented group, the artist probably looked and lived nothing like you.

Even art made for the underrepresented world is hard to connect to, fully – because it still lives in its rawest form in a specific time and place. Diego Rivera’s images, for example (I use him because of the connections I see between what I saw yesterday and his style), can hit you. They are revolutionary and attempt to speak for brown people and their freedoms. But he still lived in a particular time. And although his themes certainly translate to current times, they just can’t speak the same way to . . . well – me, for example. Somebody out of time and space from his creations.

So to find art that hits home like this is so rare. Art that I can enter into a real dialogue with. This art was created by artists finding their identities and expression coming out of an era where that was simply not allowed – running parallel to my formative teenage years as I began to contemplate the world and my own identity in different ways. The art is so very Chinese in its genesis and roots, but with clear connections to both the paler and browner people of the world and their artistic influences. It’s about people and the simple reality of everyday life – the struggle, the joy, the beauty. And the color – the vibrance and ecstatic life of it all – coming out of dark, grey times; surrounded by a grayscale world. A celebration of life and survival.

Another individual will read it totally differently – but this is what I saw yesterday: a piece of China that was so much more than Chinese – and could speak to and for me, the foreigner with Chinese blood and a brown-hued mentality, without condescending, slowing down, or deferring.

I still have trouble breathing when I think about it. The excitement is still running rampant in my soul. I never believed that visual art could do this . . . but I have this sense of hope now that wasn’t quite there before. And I can’t explain why – or how long it will last. But it’s there. A celebration within, and the knowledge that even the most brutal oppression cannot break the beauty and fighting spirit of life.

This is what happens and how it feels when you walk through life never being spoken for or even directly to; and then having the most unexpected stranger suddenly acknowledge you and express your feelings and experiences better than you ever could. (*4) These artists, who I probably couldn’t even have a decent conversation with on a literal level (due to my limited language competency), just nailed my soul with paint, ink and pastels.

And it’s not something I’m likely to let go of anytime soon.

So this is my attempt to share it with you all. A positive, colorful image in a collection of bleaker posts. It certainly can’t move you to the degree in which these paintings moved me, but I hope it gives you something, a little glimmer in your chest, to help bring a smile on the uglier days.

(*1) Interestingly enough, the only other time I can remember feeling emotional about a visual art exhibition is when I was in Honolulu and saw an exhibit at the Bishop Museum focusing on the PIKO gathering; in brief, PIKO was a gathering of over 100 worldwide indigenous artists, spending five days together creating art, comparing their histories and styles, and doing collaborative pieces. I almost started bawling as I walked through that exhibit . . .

(*2) I couldn’t help but notice how many of these famous Chinese artists/monks had been warriors back in the day . . . fodder for another post I’m working on.

(*3) Everybody seems to own exactly one red piece of clothing (for good luck), but the rest is drab and lifeless. Ironic, since the gaudy, bright colors of temples and historic sites is enough to make a person giddy.

(*4) Check out my post on Kumu Kahua theatre for a similar experience.

(*5) These photos were taken with an outdated camera behind glass – they can never do the real art justice; they also won’t likely speak to my readers, but I have to share some of it, right?


One comment

  1. Hey CVT – a really fascinating post on visual art and the power of finding a piece that you really connect to. I don’t think I’ve ever been moved by art the way you describe, but your post was so vivid that it made me yearn for the same thing. Especially your image here – “this is what I saw yesterday: a piece of China that was so much more than Chinese – and could speak to and for me, the foreigner with Chinese blood and a brown-hued mentality, without condescending, slowing down, or deferring” – made me catch my breath for a minute. Because it’s true – while I can appreciate and even be moved by many various works of art, it’s so rare to find art that speaks directly to my identity in that way.

    By the way, if you ever get a chance to go to Beijing, I would highly recommend that you check out the 798 Art District (literally pronounced 七九八; the joke is that it sounds similar to 去酒吧, or going to the bar). It’s this wild, avant-garde epicenter of Chinese modern art mostly housed in old communist factories and with all sorts of influences – I think you’d like it 🙂

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