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A chat with artist Danh Vo, and curators Doryun Chong, and Dakin Hart
A chat with artist Danh Vo, and curators Doryun Chong, and Dakin Hart
Video Transcript

DANH VO: It’s the combination of Noguchi’s work that is intriguing for me because it illustrates this beautiful, curious mind.

DORYUN CHONG: Noguchi for Danh Vo: Counterpoint is a two-person exhibition of Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi and Vietnamese-Danish artist Danh Vo. It is structured around the concept of ‘counterpoint’ which is a musical term that describes two separate, independent melodies that sometimes weave together to create a harmony and at other times exist independently and separately.

DAKIN HART: With the idea of the scholar’s garden, we try to use Noguchi’s to create a world, a universe for Danh to move around in and think about, and inhabit it seemed like an ideal metaphor for a way to connect them. Isamu Noguchi is an American sculptor, who was born in Los Angeles to a Japanese poet and an American editor and writer. He was a set designer, he was an industrial designer he collaborated with lots of different kinds of creative people across the spectrum and he really made a career out of, as he said being at home nowhere, precisely but making himself at home everywhere. And he really tried to see himself around the planet and to draw on many, many cultures obviously, he was bi-racial, and multi-cultural that became the heart and soul of his practice.

Play was extraordinarily important to him play is how we learn how to interface with the world and each other. He thought of something he called ‘non-directive play’ and the idea is to make playgrounds that are more like nature than they are like military training grounds which is what playgrounds looked like when he started thinking about them. Nature doesn’t tell you what to do with it nature is an open space with infinite interpretations physical interpretations.

DORYUN CHONG: Danh Vo—in the early part of his career he became known for mining his own family’s histories as refugees arriving in Europe after having left Vietnam that had been devastated by war and the continued turbulence. He is a connoisseur of forms and skills and craftsmanships with an incredible eye and one aspect of Danh Vo’s practice has been deep engagement with stories and histories and narratives of different individuals. Sometimes these individuals are not artists but are still people with incredibly touching and meaningful life stories.

DANH VO: When I started to work on We the People to recreate the skin of the Statue of Liberty I was interested in working in opposition to how people have framed my work at the time people talked a lot about that I was using my personal history in my work etc. and I wanted to work against that idea because I don’t think it’s true. I think one has to explore different ways of working. It was really interesting to discover that the Statue of Liberty was actually only 2mm thick in the skin. I thought it was important because I could take an image that most people have a relationship to so I thought I freed myself from the personal history and so forth.

DAKIN HART: Noguchi spent his entire life on the margins of the canon and Danh is doing the same thing now. Danh is trying to create an alternative parallel from the outside that asks different questions [and] provides a different perspective on old stories. Noguchi didn’t really think in human time. Human time is a blink. That’s why he loves stones because stones were a way to think about much longer arcs.

Danh, I would say, tends more to insert one cultural perspective into another. The root impulse is the same which is a sort of diasporic mentality... how to let seeds disperse, and help them take root and help them grow into new things.

DORYUN CHONG: What Danh Vo’s doing with Isamu Noguchi is not just an academic exercise of researching and exploring the older artist’s body of work he is thinking of Noguchi as a kind of a lodestar for his own body of work that is continuously evolving.

In the end this exhibition is about how artists can inspire one another.

Noguchi for Danh Vo: Counterpoint is the newest exhibition in the M+ Pavilion, running from 16 November 2018 to 22 April 2019. Here’s a round-up of what you need to know.

What is this exhibition about?

This exhibition is a dialogue between two artists, both considered to be some of the most influential figures in modern and contemporary art history: Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) and Vietnamese-Danish artist Danh Vo (born 1975).

The two artists never met and belong to different generations, geographies, and social settings; however, Vo has deeply explored and researched Noguchi’s life and art over the past few years. This exhibition doesn’t just let visitors see this exploration and dialogue in person, but also highlights the two artists’ independent bodies of work.

Who are these two artists?

Stone sculpture of a stylised dog head with a flat rectangular head with two eyes, small round ears, and an open mouth. The head is attached to a rectangular wooden pole.

Isamu Noguchi, Dog, 1952, Kasama stoneware, © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS. Photo by Kevin Noble

The artists’ transcultural upbringings and international worldviews are a shared point of connection, and have informed their artistic interests in exploring different cultures and heritages.

Isamu Noguchi was a Japanese-American artist, sculptor, and landscape architect whose career spanned six decades. His work often crossed the boundaries of many different disciplines: fine art, industrial design, landscape architecture, and others. Noguchi was also a designer and builder of modernist gardens and monuments, driven to create transformative public spaces—including ‘playscapes’—that can ennoble, uplift, and liberate the public.

Danh Vo was born in Vietnam in 1975, but his family fled the country as refugees when he was four years old, ending up in Denmark. He creates works that poetically conjure up lesser known histories and biographies through found objects and artefacts. Vo has exhibited, for instance, the chandeliers from the location where the peace treaty in 1975 between North and South Vietnam and the United States was signed, and the television, refrigerator, and wood cross his grandmother received from a Christian charity organisation upon her arrival as a refugee in Germany. In this growing family of lives from the past, whom Vo encounters, embraces, and adopts, is Isamu Noguchi.

Both artists challenge traditional ideas of what ‘art’ means. Noguchi’s work often blurs the boundaries between ‘artwork’ and ‘design object’, while Vo uses and sometimes transforms found objects, reframing and questioning their original contexts. Both push the boundaries of assumed meanings.

What can I expect to see in this exhibition?

Two images side by side. The image on the left shows a copper sculpture of a piece of an ear sitting on a stone wall in a garden. The image of the right shows a photogravure work on paper depicting a monochrome image of five men in robes posing while looking at the camera with serious expressions.

Left to right: Danh Vo, We the People (detail), 2011–2016, copper. Courtesy of the artist. Danh Vo, Bye Bye, 2010, photogravure on paper. Courtesy of the artist

You can expect to see works by both Noguchi and Vo. The works by Noguchi cover almost five decades and encompass many of the mediums he worked in, from works on paper to industrial design and sculpture in various materials such as stone and metal. Vo’s contribution to the exhibition consists not only of select examples of his practice from 2010 to 2018, but also of the design of the installation of Noguchi’s works.

Intimate Exchanges: Kinship, Madness, and Obsession in the Scholar's Garden
Intimate Exchanges: Kinship, Madness, and Obsession in the Scholar's Garden

Artist and professor Yeewan Koon challenges the conventional way of looking at the scholar's garden and explores the spaces of tension that open up when madness, obsession, and unusual claims of kinship transgress the traditional boundaries of the scholar’s world. How are issues such as love between men, devotion to a favourite rock, and memories of loved ones revealed?

Video Transcript

Note: This is a raw transcription of an audio recording. Part of our mission is to release transcriptions as soon as possible, to improve access to M+ talks. Therefore—while we strive for accuracy—in some places, these transcriptions may be imperfect.

YEEWAN KOON: When Doryun first told me that he was gonna be doing this... this show, I have to admit, I did scratch my head a bit and was thinking this is a rather unusual pairing of two artists. And how on earth are you gonna pull this one off? What's your theme for this that's gonna make this work? I'm pleased to say I've been to see to show, it works beautifully. But it did actually make me think about ‘counterpoint’, and ‘counterpoint’ if I was to put this back to the world of Ming and Qing Chinese art and in particular Chinese ink paintings, what would that look like? So essentially my talk today will be looking at these much earlier traditions. And I would take that theme of counterpoint as my starting point for how to think about some of the questions that I'm talking about today.

So if counterpoint is the relationship between voices that are harmonically interdependent but rhythmically independent—so you get these two different juxtaposition of voices—I want to take that definition, or least a variation of that definition, into the world of ink painting and the early representations of scholar paintings… and scholars’ gardens, sorry, so often idolised as a retreat for the cultivation of the gentleman artists. And the gentleman artists is the paragon of all artists in Chinese painting history—pre-modern period, at least. I want to show how artists use not the garden directly, but a representation of gardens. It’s pictorial language, and how this developed to the point where others could also take the formal elements of this particular language and turn these around to talk about things that are outside of what we today often expect of Chinese art and Chinese artists.

I should perhaps warn you that this is not going to be your usual Chinese art history narrative and that this is not a history of art styles or art influences. In fact, I'll be jumping all over the place in terms of timescales. But… And nor is this a history of gardens. So you may be wondering what the hell you're doing at this talk if that's what you were expecting. I should also point out that my title is somewhat misleading so I'm not really helping in my case about this talk. Because what I am talking about is not really the exchanges between artists in that most of the work that I'm looking at is more or less of one-way traffic. As how one artist may absorb, borrow and cite works from many different artists. And you can see how I'm taking inspiration too from what M+’s show is trying to do…in their show over across… on the other side of the island. And so that's kind of where my working basis is.

I am, in many ways, trying to manage your expectations. [chuckles] For what I will be doing is looking at the formal ways of how painting talks to us and to think of the language that is involved not only in what is being depicted but how something is being depicted. It is a case of looking at what art is doing, how that communicates through the themes, objects and way of depiction, and even go as far to ask how and if the object of the depiction ever looks back at us. Before I get to my point I will take you through—and like I said this… there's gonna be quite a few images that I’ll be going through and—but I will begin with showing you what the standard language of scholarly paintings are and how those work and how they will allow us later, the viewers, to understand the importance in particular of the social dimension that is involved in the pictorial language. The independent nature of pictorial language itself, so that's the independent side. And then how this social language then intersects with the independent rhythm of artists seeking to find personal, subjective meanings. We should see how the gardens and the things in it became the stage for these different sounds, if you will, and how they came together. And so by looking so closely at the formal language of art making I will show how these counterpoints were actually very necessary parts of the total sum of what is an artist. You need these weird, crazy things to happen in order to really be part of this particular art world in the sixteenth to the eighteenth century.

As we shall also see, some of the ideas of the Chinese garden, and the rock in particular, carry over into the twentieth century with Noguchi’s work. And although I understand there are dangers when you make these grand ahistorical generalisations, I will be throwing in images by Noguchi in this particular PowerPoint to show how some of the ideas of and within the garden are picked up, transformed, or re-enacted. So despite the difference in time and place, what they all share is how the garden acts as a site of performances. It's a site of different types of performances where identities, subjectivities, and also in particular the somatic experience of things create modes of relationships. And this is what I mean by exchanges, that go way beyond our scopic experience of art itself. And it is this that allows us to talk about some of the things we never talk about when we talk about Chinese art: madness, obsession, and love in its many disguises.

I'm gonna go off-script. In general when I give talks I tend to just talk rather than use notes but because I believe we have a translation, that's why I started with a careful reading, but I will go off track so hopefully this will all make sense as I kind of go through these images. I want to start with this particular painting and this is a Ming dynasty painting. It's one of the earliest Ming dynasty paintings of a garden. And what I want to show in this particular image of the garden is show how a codified language has actually been established and what it meant in the fifteenth century. So what we essentially have here is a party. This is a garden gathering and it took place on 6 April 1437, which is the first day of the third lunar month. And it was a gathering of nine of the most famous people, or famous scholar officials, in the country.

So this is a kind of crème… political crème de la crème of Ming China and it was hosted by a person known as Yang Rong. So he's the third person on the list that I've got down there. So those are the three Yangs, and the three Yangs were very important scholar officials. Essentially they were known as a group that actually helped the first emperor of Ming consolidate his empire. Now you will also notice that this is a painting which says it's after this particular artist Xie He. And Xie He was an artist who was a court artist and as a court artist he was actually one of the leading artists. The reason why it says after him is that this is probably not by him, there is actually another version that exists in another museum. And what generally happened is that at these particular parties what would happen is they would invite an artist to come in and they will record the event itself. And then these paintings were then given to the guests, to some of the people who took part in the parties. So there are… there must have been at least three because of the three top men who were actually taking part in this particular event. Now what you have there at the top is essentially part of what exists now. There should be slightly longer sections at the beginning and at the front in the original version. So we only have part of the painting so far. And what you have at the bottom is the detail of what we have.

You can see from this particular event that there are a number of different people and what I generally say… Let me step back a bit. What we have here are a number of different activities that they engage with. And that was one of the key things about these particular gatherings, it was a way of pursuing certain cultural pursuits that were seen to be indicative of the ideal scholar. And so what we have here are someone looking at artworks… Do I have a pointer? Yes. So you have some servants at the back. They’re pointing at some artworks, they’re laying out the tables. You have people looking at paintings over there. You have people making tea. Tea’s a very important part of this whole experience. All of which is taking place in this very elaborate garden in north… in Beijing itself. Now all gardens, all gatherings, actually look and take after this particular garden or this particular event. All elegant gatherings go back to this historical event. And this is The Orchid, it's a reference to perhaps the most archetypal kind of gathering that we have which is the very famous Orchid Pavilion garden which took place on the third day of the third month in 353. It’s a… And the reason why it's so famous is that this particular garden party was held by a guy known as Wang Xizhi who is the grandfather of Chinese calligraphy. We have no existing works by this person but it doesn't really matter. What he wrote, he wrote a preface about this particular garden and that is one of the most… most precious, prized calligraphy that we have today.

So as you can see from this, what generally happened at these garden parties, and it's great fun, essentially there's a river that goes along in the garden, you can see. There’s a river going on and then you can see there's these cups going down and basically it’s a competition. People… These men are composing poetry and they're having these poetic discussions and whoever wins or whoever loses will drink. It all just depends on who… how wild the party gets. And essentially it just becomes this very drunken affair that takes place, or at least according to Wang Xizhi. And part of this is that drinking is a big part of the creative experience of composing poetry. And then it carries on. You can… There's many, many different variations of these particular parties that happen. So any kind of elegant literati gathering, always go back to that particular gathering. But if you are to look at this particular painting you may notice something very odd. You may notice for a party they're all rather formally dressed, right? They are dressed in their finest. They're wearing their silk gowns with these big badges which would indicate their ranks and then of course they've got their official hats on. So what the hell is going on here? Part of it is that any kind of painting of gardens is never really about the party or the garden itself, it really is about the people who are taking part in this particular garden event. And so what we have here is actually a much more… It shows the positions of the people who are going to this party because there were nine of the most famous officials in the world, or in China, at this moment in time and they want to celebrate that. So they have to wear their most, or at least some of them will have them wear their official gowns.

What I generally do when I'm showing this to my students as I'm talking, I will ask them to try and see if they can figure out who's who. I have actually ranked these guys in terms of who is the most important. The first person at the top, he was a grand secretary. This is the highest post that one can have in China. Yang Rong is the person who's the host of the party and he was the tutor to the heir apparent so therefore also very highly placed. And also a grand secretary of a minor palace. And the person who is Yang Pu below is also a grand secretary of another minor palace. So… But still a very high position. When you look at this particular handscroll, and with handscroll paintings, you never actually see the whole thing in any one time, scroll. You actually only see part of the painting. So you only probably see about this… up to this amount and then you roll it, carry on rolling and then you see this second part and then you see the third part. So in many ways this is the centre scene so you kind of build up to the drama of seeing who's taking part in this particular event.

I would also add… see if you can spot or who do you think is the artist? Because the artist, unusually, is also actually included in this particular painting. This particular section is perhaps the most important because it is in the central position of the handscroll. And because it's in the central position of the handscroll, this is one of the key climactic points on what is going on. And if we are to look at this, we will see that you've got three men over there. Red is the highest… is one of the most important colours of the official gowns, so we know that this is an important person. We also know this guy is an important person, so we at least have two of the Yangs here. So we have to identify who is the third one. Now this person here we know from the inscription that's attached to one of the paintings that this is actually the host himself. And because he’s the host, it is actually likely that this is this guy, because the host will always sit next to the person who is the most important guest. It also makes sense that this is actually the most important guest even though he is not dressed in the most formal of dresses. He's not wearing the most highest gown… a gown… a colour of a gown that would indicate he is of the highest rank. It is precisely because he isn't wearing that, but also the fact that he's actually drawn in such a way that he has a stillness. He's almost done in an iconic presence in that he's always very symmetrical and he's looking out at us and he is the only figure in this painting who is looking out at us. In other words, he's kind of trying to engage with us itself. Now, the way of Chinese paintings, when you see the person who is actually looking out at us, it is… it will indicate that that is the viewpoint of how that painting should be seen. This is a party from his perspective. So it could well be that this could be the painting that would be given to him, but more likely because he is the most highest rank, he would be the person looking out at us, because it's his party. And then we have here, so this would be the second person–I'm sorry, this is the highest rank, this is the second and then the third one is taking part in this particular section at the end. The third part, itself.

As for who is the artist, if we had to have play a game of who is the artist, I suppose the obvious person to think about is this person because he's actually holding onto a brush and he actually has a piece of silk in front of him. But he's actually not the artist. The person who is the artist is this one, because he's the only one who's actually on his own. Everybody else is actually engaged in the social connections and that's the key thing about this particular painting. In order for this to be an elegant gathering, the people who are clumped together or the people who are in connections literally put close together are the people who are the partygoers. And so the artist himself, even though he has the privilege of being part of this particular painting, is always indicated on his own at the very beginning.

So one of the things that what this… this painting will indicate is how important social relationships are. How so much of the web somewhere is placed and how someone is depicted actually will tell you a lot about how that codified language works within a painting itself. But that was a garden in north of China. It really takes the south and in particular the Jiangnan region where the… where we get the explosion of Chinese gardens itself. And this itself is actually kind of interesting especially in Suzhou. Part of the reason why this particular area becomes important is that Suzhou or Jiangnan region becomes a hub for some of the most famous scholars. And by famous scholars what we really mean is the number of people who pass the civil examinations. So in China you have to take, in order to become a scholar, sort of like you do today, you have to pass examinations and there are three of them. And essentially it's almost the equivalent of taking your A-levels, going to university, and then doing a PhD. And it's incredibly competitive because once you have official status, not only do you have the privilege of being an official and therefore recognised within your community, it gives you a stipend for life even after you retire, it's a very prestigious position to have. And all men, all educated men, want to be a scholar official. This is the whole crux of why one wants to take part in these and become an artist. It's crucial to the identity of a male figure in China at this moment in time. But one of the things that will happen in Jiangnan region, for some reason it attracted or it had a lot of very good schools, it produced a lot of very good students. But one of the things that also happened was that in every single… every single region in China there's the limit to how many people can pass the examination. And there were just too many good students and not enough places, and so as a result you actually ended up having too many scholars who couldn't go forward to get… become an official. So was a bit of an issue.

What we're seeing here is the examination hall itself. And what we're seeing in this one is the notification of examination results. This is the day when the results come out and here we are a whole bunch of men looking up to see if they've actually passed the examination. Because it was truly very competitive.

I’ve included this one up here because this is just for fun. This is actually a cheat sheet. So in order to pass the examination you need to know, and off by heart, a huge number of books. You've got to do the full classics, there’s all these different various books you have to learn and you have to learn them by heart. Because you have to cite them. You have to good… cite them, it has to be perfect. And so one of the things that people would do, would try to have handkerchiefs with these very, very tiny writings that would actually write the whole book of Confucius in there and you… essentially you unfold a handkerchief while you take an examination. Now people kind of caught on to this, right, so you will be frisked before you go into the examination hall. So one of the things that then happened was that they started making this, which is underwear. I'm not quite sure how this would work because I don't know how you would take your clothes apart in order to see which line you want to look at. But this is kind of what's going on here; this is a cheat sheet. And this just goes to show you how competitive it was in this particular area of trying to become a scholar official.

Going back to gardens and why Suzhou. Now Suzhou becomes… In many ways Suzhou was a place that kind of rose from the ashes itself. So when the Ming dynasty, when the first emperor came on, what happened was that Suzhou previously had backed the wrong horse, let’s just say, in that they were actually backing a person who didn't become the emperor. And so the first emperor of Ming, because they didn't support him, he penalised them and he did two things. The first thing he did was he took all the land from all the rich elite. So he took and confiscated all the land. The second thing that he did was he levied the highest tax in the country in Suzhou. So it was extremely expensive to live in Suzhou.

Nonetheless, it flourished. And the reason why it flourished was because it became the hub for one of the biggest productions, which was silk production, and elite high quality silk. To this day it remains a very important hub for silk. The other thing that it was actually very famous for was that it was a very big producer of fruit and flowers. And actually, this is part of the reason why gardens became so important as well. Fruits and flowers were a very important part of a market [inaudible] economy.

So Suzhou flourished, but part of the thing that flourished, these two things both the tax and… the tax that was imposed and the idea of that Suzhou had very fertile land that can produce very valuable cash crops meant that one of the things that would happen was the expansion of Suzhou City to outside the city itself to just in the suburbs of the area which was much cheaper in land which also meant there were more land available. And so a lot of these gardens were actually, the early gardens, were actually taken out or they were built around the suburbs and then you had some inside the city itself. There was also a concentration of merchants because of their market for silk and so it was a booming economy at this at this particular period. With a booming economy also meant that there were a lot of art being sold at this moment in time. And indeed Suzhou was one of the biggest centres for art production as well as the forgery market, which often goes hand in hand with the art market as well. So it was a flourishing centre. And with it came lots of books and texts about what it meant to be… Books about taste, about what is tasteful. And one of the things to represent good taste is that you had to know how to build a good garden. And this is one of those books that would teach you how to build a good garden and there were certain ideas. I've only just cited some of the qualities that make a good garden. The idea of a comparison of scale is very important, the idea of large and small, the idea of hidden views, the idea that you should not be able to see a garden all in one go but actually experience it in units of space and time. These were all part of what is important. Another thing, because it's always about contrast, the other thing about moving and stillness so you must have water and with water you must also have rocks as well.

These are some more of the gardens. This is a typical plan in what one will have and... This is actually of a garden that exists today, you can actually go and see this garden today. It's actually a garden that’s, the current state that is in, it’s actually a garden, the Master of Nets garden is a garden that was actually named in the Qing dynasty. So it's not quite a Ming garden. But this is kind of typical of what one would have in a particular garden itself. Now the main entrance is where A is at the bottom and then you will go in, you'll go and see the library, which was… this is the main hall, this would be the library. And the furthest point away in this very small area is where the studio will be. Because there will always be a studio within a garden itself.

If that is the typical idea of gardens… So you have these books that tell you how to build a garden. You now have this idea that one should have a garden because it would represent yourself as a literary person, that it shows that you have good taste. It's also very good and economically very worthwhile for you to invest in having a garden. When it came to representations of gardens, they were never that straightforward. What often happened is that gardens were never… paintings of gardens were never really about gardens and they never looked like gardens itself. You would never look thinking that this painting… that this is actually of a garden. Actually this is of a garden that was not yet built. This is of a garden that was planned for a person, this is for Master Liu, a good friend of Wen Zhengming. And Wen Zhengming is one of the big scholarly artists of his generation. And he made this fantastic painting for his friend who was planning to retire, who was planning to build a garden. And this is what he had imagined. But you will often get these gardens… so-called paintings of landscape but were essentially really of gardens in disguise. Because they wanted to take this idea, because a point of the garden was that one would escape to it. As if one was climbing the mountains, it was the idea of being a sort of retreat from the city life itself.

And of course we have the pavilions, I just threw some things in there. And the point in these gardens, within the studio, is that this is a place where one would meet friends and you would look at art, and you will compose poetry, and you would do paintings and all these literary activities that will make you a scholarly gentleman. What is really interesting at this particular moment in time as well is that there are four cultural pursuits that people would say define a gentleman: the playing of the ‘qin’ [Chinese zither], the playing of the chess, the painting, and poetry. But one of the things we see from this period onwards is that you rarely get paintings of people painting. You will never actually see literary artists or literary scholars painting. You will get women painting, you will get pictures of court pictures paintings, but we never get literary gentleman. Indeed the whole point of painting will come to be seen as a type of labour. If you were to paint it, if you were to paint someone painting, that person is a professional artist. And instead that idea of the cultural pursuits, the painting as it came to be understood is about the appreciation of art. So it's appreciation of painting that actually defined one as a scholarly gentleman. As this guy is doing.

So if you're an artist and you're a literary gentleman and you wanna… because you, you know, you took the examinations, you didn't pass, you didn't have a job, what do you do? You sell your literary arts, you start making paintings. Now the most… the most expensive art you can get are actually portraiture. But portraiture, because it's a very skilful kind of art and it seemed to be a labour-intensive art, is actually seen as a very lowly thing. So you can't do that directly, you can't also be seen to be painting, you have to at least put on the disguise that you're presenting a painting or you're painting for pleasure, you're not painting for money. It's all very complicated negotiation of things that you have to do. So what do you do?

And I'm gonna concentrate on Wen Zhengming, that artists that we saw with the Living Aloft. And the reason why I've chosen him is that he epitomised what was the literati artist. Everyone wanted to be Wen Zhengming. But Wen Zhengming is actually kind of interesting in that he's a gentleman who was recognised as being very scholarly. He… Everyone thought he was the best poet, he was the best calligrapher, he was an amazing artist. He took the examination nine times. The examinations… The final examinations is every single three years. He took it nine times; he failed nine times. On the tenth time he also failed, but…


YEEWAN KOON: So we talk about thirty years of devotion of taking this examination, right, so this is what I mean. So on the tenth time he also failed but he had a good friend who happened to be working with… who was very close to the Emperor and said to him, ‘Hey, this guy's really good.’ And so, based on this recommendation, he was actually able to go to court. And… But he went to court, but because he didn't quite gain his place it also meant that when he was at the court he was actually accused of ‘just being a painter’. And as a result he was kind of side-lined by everyone. He actually then joined the wrong kind of clique of friends. It was the, you know, it was very cliquey within the… it was very political at that particular moment in time and he left after three years. And he went back to Suzhou and he became one of the most sought after artists of his generation. And a lot of the paintings we’re going to be looking at is actually looking at his… his… his kind of body of work.

But before I get there, back to portraiture. What do you do if you want to make money, such as Wen Zhengming and Wen Zhengming painted a lot of these kind of things, but you can't actually paint portraits. One of the things that you did was you painted gardens because there's a whole new genre of paintings that emerge from this particular period known as sobriquet paintings. So a Chinese scholar will have more than one name, you often have style names, you often have a sobriquet. So I could be called Master of Nets, I could be called… I don’t know, Mr Ban– I am The Man who Befriends the Cranes, that's a very popular one. I Play with Antiques, that's another very popular type of name that one would have. And that name would also often be the name of either your garden or your studio. So in other words, property, the name of your property, these very intimate property spaces, also became an alternative way of thinking and naming yourself. And so what you would do if you're a literati artist, you want to make lots of money, you know that this is where the audience wants it, you make paintings based on these sobriquets. And this only lasted for a very short period of time in Chinese art. And it's particularly true, it happened in Suzhou where there were all these merchants now building gardens and they also wanted to have a claim to this literati status and they would get artists to paint their sobriquets. So this is one of the earliest ones that you will get. This is Mr. North Sea, The North Sea, so it's a wonderful painting of the sea as it were and then the garden studio. Whenever you see a little hut, and it's surrounded by lots of stones, that's a garden. You may not know, but essentially that’s a garden. And only… But only if it's a small handscroll because it’s all… these are very intimate artworks. So Wen Zhengming did a lot of these and this one is of a good friend– and they're always about his good friend. Because again, you have to build a certain kind of relationship with the person that's going to be your patron and you have to be seen that you're not painting for money and so it's often negotiated. Wen Zhengming often negotiated for tea; tea leaves were very important. In fact, there’s this is great letter by him where he complained about the quality of tea that he was given. It wasn't quite as good as the one I got last time which is essentially is him saying this is not good enough, you need to give me more money. So it's all, again, part of this whole thing. So this is one of his… a very good friend, and the reason why I put this on is that this, up for you to see, is to show what is the typical Suzhou style painting at this particular moment in time and sobriquet painting. Again, it's a very small painting as you can openly see, it opens up with this incredible… a mass of rocks here. These are Taihu… Lake… These are rocks from Lake Tai… Lake Tai, Taihu rocks. And we can recognise them because of all the holes within them, and was also the most expensive type of rocks you can get. So this man was a very wealthy garden owner. But looking at this, you wouldn't think of him… it doesn't smack of wealth. In fact, everything about this seemed to be very pared down, it’s very bland, it's very limited in colour tones, it's a very bland kind of palette, it's only in the blues and very light reds, it's very light washes. And this is the studio itself.

And Mr… Mr… it will come back to me in a minute, the name of the person, but Mr... Zhenshang Studio had one of the biggest collections in paintings and calligraphy in Suzhou at this moment in time. But if you were to look at this it almost seems as if he has nothing, and that’s part of it. It's almost as if one had to pretend to be humble in order to qualify for this literati status. You had to play down your wealth, as it were. And suddenly, if you are Wen Zhengming, you would only paint in this particular way. Because this painting is also… The reason why you find Wen Zhengming is because he's a literati. He's a literati and he paints in that sort of bland literati style that emphasises the importance of his learning rather than that of his wealth. There's no conspicuous consumption of luxury or time in this particular painting. And with all of these things, these studio paintings, you will always have someone who's about to visit you and come and meet you to look at paintings together because this is, after all, about the gathering together of everyone appreciating art. This is a closer… you can see… so this is who he… that's him, that’s him, they're looking at scrolls together. Like I said, tea is very important at this particular moment in time. There's always young servant boys and you always see servant boys in these paintings and the reason is that servant boys is an indicator of social rank. These are ultimately always about the social standing of the person who owns the painting or who owns the garden itself.

Just to give you an indication of just how different this particular language of literati scholarly garden was like, this was the other type that was very popular in Suzhou and this is by a professional artist. He didn’t… He didn’t… He was not educated, we know very little about him. The reason why we know very little about him is that he's never left behind any textual records. Only those who are educated would leave us texts about themselves. So we know very little about him but he, like Wen Zhengming, were two of the most popular artists in Suzhou at this moment in time. So it wasn't that you didn't like professional artists, it was just that if you were asking him to paint you a painting, you're asking him for a very different reason. You will not be asking him to paint you your studio that is about you as a portrait, you will do it much more as this general gathering of men, looking at art together. And you can see from this particular painting, it's painted on silk first of all rather than paper. Wen Zhengming, he would only paint on paper. So silk itself is very expensive, like I have said before. It's also very highly painted, there’s a lot of colourful pigments in this particular work. And everything about it is completely covered in pigments, it’s completely covered in different kinds of activities. We know it's a garden, rather than in the wilderness, because we have these fences at the side to tell us that we are in a garden. He's got these beautiful screens and then of course he's surrounded by all these antiques by which they are viewing. So these are the two essentially visual languages that will go on.

I want to… I now want to wrap up this idea of what the typical scholar’s garden would look like with this particular one because this is actually slightly unusual. This is also by Wen Zhengming and it has a great name. It’s called… It has… You can either call it The Garden of the Inept Administrator or The Garden of The Unsuccessful Politician. It’s a great name. This garden, which still exists today, resembles nothing like this particular set of paintings. The garden belonged to a guy by the name of Wang Xianchen who was a censor in the Ming dynasty. And he's a long-time friend, he's a big collector and by friend, read that as patron. And towards the end of Wen Zhengming's life, he actually let Wen Zhengming stay in his garden and stay in his studio as his home. So he became an artist-in-residence, essentially. So Wen himself, as you know, was an official—you can see these the title works really well—he actually made two sets of albums. And the first one is an album leave of thirty-four paintings and poems, thirty-one of which are of images and for three of those leaves are poems. And essentially through this particular album he established this garden for this gentleman, Censor Wang. And Wang had actually built this garden in 1515. So this is still a time… So land is, like I had said, is actually extremely hard to get hold of because it's all been confiscated. In order to get land you have to pay huge taxes for… to… you have to actually pay rent and tax to the state itself. So in order to have land inside, in particular inside the city where this was, it's quite a hefty sum.

In 1547 that regulation will change and then after 1547 they returned the land, basically you only had to paid land tax. You can actually have private ownership, but at this point there's no such thing as private ownership. In many ways, early Suzhou was a lot like Hong Kong now. You didn't actually ever own land, you could only lease land and then on which you will buy things. He actually built this particular garden on a temple ground. And it was a temple ground, there was a huge fire and rather than rebuilding, the temple left, the residents left and then he was able to actually rebuild on this burnt ground itself. And he built a very big garden. We know from records that this garden was about sixty-two acres–no, it’s less, thirty acres, which is substantial. Of which a third of which was of lake, which meant it had fish, which meant it had… you can fish in there, but it also provided cash crop… there was cash. More importantly the rest of the land was devoted to trees. Suzhou was very famous for oranges at this particular moment in time. Oranges were a very important cash crop because oranges can cross long distances and this is the time at the Grand Canal so [they] can go [to] many, many places. So oranges were very important and the other thing that it had was actually a lot of apples and apples, sour apples in particular, which could be pickled, it can be turned into flour, it could be turned into condiments, it was a very practical kind of fruit. So even though it was very expensive land, it is actually all very practical and a quite good sound investment as well. Not only that, because of the fame of Wen Zhengming’s thirty-four album, his first one, it also ended up in the guide for gardens. So one could also pay money to visit these gardens, it was also a tourist site as well.

But what I have here is one that was actually made by Wen Zhengming towards the end of his life. And it's one made in 1533 and it only has eight leaves in there. And you can see from this that this is a much more pared-down way of looking at gardens. The use of this album format is very useful for looking at gardens because what it does, it actually breaks down the property into units of spaces. So you never actually see the whole garden. And again, by not seeing a whole garden—which you don't really want to do anyway because it goes against the experience of looking at garden—but it also cuts it down in terms of its property. You don't really think of it—it breaks down this idea of seeing it as a cash-making space.

But there is also something very odd about this garden as well, so take a look at this. And there’s these as well. One of the things that's really odd about this particular garden is that we see it from a very elevated position. And that's rather unusual. It's not quite a bird's-eye view, but you are quite high up as you're looking down on it. So what the hell is going on here? Because this is actually a very unusual way of thinking about being in a garden. If you want to put someone being in a garden you want to bring them down, lower to the ground, so they can experience the idea, or walking through a garden. But by elevating up you actually take that experience of being in a garden to a kind of different sort of state. Now one of the things that when you are in the European tradition, if you are in this elevated land position, this bird's-eye view of looking out, you actually cast a very… it's all about the broad expanse of the land that it covers, right? So the more land you see, it's about the property that you own. But we're not doing that because we already said that that's not something that you would do. So if it's not about the broad expanse of land, could it be about height then? And one of the things that's actually been proposed by a scholar called Craig Clunas is that this is precisely about height in that it plays with the idea of what is a scholar. Another term for a scholar is Gaoshi, which means a lofty person. So the idea of height is very important, to register the fact that you are above the hurly-burly of the normal life of the city dwellers itself. And hence Living Aloft, this other painting that he has, he's elevated that person above. So this idea of an elevated viewing position is part of a way of also talking about this person being an elevated, a lofty gentleman.

But I also want to suggest that there is also other things going on here because that is a very unusual depiction of a studio in that it actually has… it's an empty studio, it doesn't have anyone in there, but it actually is reminiscent of this type of artwork that's much earlier of a thatch hut. And it's really about retirement, and it's really about old age. And in many ways this sort of pared-down ink painting where there's no colour– there's an absence of colour. But there's also, sort of, a way of thinking about the past, of reflection of the past, by looking and borrowing a style of painting that goes back to much earlier traditions. And in particular to a painting such as this as if evoking this particular theme of the thatch hut is a way of also thinking about retirement itself. But there's one other thing that is very odd about this particular garden, in that if you were to put these things together you can't actually connect any of these sites together. They don't really work together as sites that join and connect with one another. You kind of go up and down they don't really kind of fit into one to… they don't actually connect to create a cohesive space itself. And it is precisely this sort of acute sense of disconnections that's going on that breaks it away from the security and the performance of the idolised scholar. So the disconnections that we are seeing are actually doing a couple of things. And one of the things that he's doing he's breaking up the garden so we don't see it as being property. We are also not seeing… By not seeing the garden as property, though, one of the things that we're also doing is to what degree– or one of the things to have to ask, is to what degree is Wen also displacing the authority of the person who owns the garden and replacing it by himself. Because by breaking up the garden itself you’re breaking away also who owns the garden. And one of the things I'm suggesting is that these connections, these disconnections allow a conversation for Wen Zhengming to have with the owner of the garden itself. In that, are we looking at… are we…it allows us to think: are we looking at the person who owns the garden or are we looking at Wen Zhengming who himself was a very unsuccessful politician.

Okay, so onto the theme of madness. I want to suggest it is precisely because we have these disconnections, these self-reflexive cracks that we saw in Wen Zhengming's paintings that we’ve become increasingly… it becomes a space where there are increasingly a place for the subjectivity of the artist to be revealed as they move in-between the social contradictions of persona and the interior spaces of memories, of dreams, of passions and of obsessions. And is this that allows artists to penetrate deeper to talk about madness, obsession, and love. And it really is these anxieties that create these counterpoints.

So who is Mi Fu? Hands up all those of you who know Mi Fu already. Some of you, okay. So Mi is a very famous calligrapher and artist and connoisseur from the twelfth century. He also gained a title of being Mi the Lunatic. And the reason why he gained the name of Mi the Lunatic was that he was seen as the ultimate connoisseur of rocks. And he made this idea the passion was his rocks. And it was such an eccentric trait that's how he gained this particular title. And the story goes that when he was appointed a magistrate in Anhui in 1105 he came on—I love how specific these anecdotes are—he came across this large and bizarre rock and at once, the first thing he did when he saw this rock, was that he asked for his official robe to be brought out. And so he put on his official robe and he asked for his official plaque—you would have this plaque that you often used when you bow in front of the emperor—and immediately he took this plaque and in his official gown he bowed very, very deeply and he addressed this rock as his elder brother, Rock. Strange and bizarre. And it’s this particular act that we see actually being illustrated in this particular painting itself.

Because—this will come back—as I said before, he’s also known as an artist although nothing of his really exists. What he is known for is a particular kind of brushwork, a brush phrase known as the Mi dot. Essentially, it's just a dot. And this is kind of… This is by his son, it's very hazy, as essentially it's pushing down the tip of the brush to create these dot strokes and these came to known as the Mi dot strokes. And that's what he's particularly famous for, but he was also adviser to the emperor as a collector. He did, sort of, everything. Now during the twelfth century even though he himself had given himself the title of Mi the Rock, I mean, Mi the Lunatic, it wasn't really until much later that that particular persona took place. Part of it, it actually comes in, this idea of bowing to the rock itself, comes from a Confucian classic. This idea that one must always respect your brother, your father, the emperor. Those were… In that particular order itself. And we have an example of someone bowing towards the elder brother itself and essentially it is mimicking that particular behaviour. That's what Mi Fu is doing. That's why he's calling it elder brother Rock and performing in that particular way.

How many of you saw this particular painting when it came into Hong Kong recently? This was the painting that went for ridiculous amounts of money, I can't remember—I shouldn't say ridiculous amounts of money—it went for a very high sum. I'm sure Christie's didn't think it was that ridiculous. I can't remember how much it was; it was something in the millions and this is a painting by Su Shi. Now, these guys were more or less contemporaries around the same time. Mi Fu was a collector of rocks, so too was Su Shi. Except Su Shi did not… actually, he thought that Mi Fu’s love for rock was something that actually had to be controlled, because… And this I'm gonna introduce very slowly, this idea of this obsession. Because if you like things too much, if your desire for something was so much, you have to make sure it becomes a disease in itself. And so you have to manage this particular desire. Desire was seen as a bad thing. And so for Su Shi, he had this idea that one had to control his desires. So he's never became this idea of… So he’s never actually known to be a rock collector but if you read through his poems you realise that he also collected rocks. And the whole collecting of rocks really began in this particular period itself.

I also put these two things up because Su Shi, and the reason why this painting is a fabulous painting is that you can see the amount of energy of the brushwork as he's going through and depicting the rock itself. And that energy of the line continues into trees. In fact there’s a very… there’s a similarity of lines between those that connects these two different things together as if they are one and the same. And a suggesting of the qi that flows between from the artist to the inanimate object itself and giving itself life. What we see, however, when we see any depiction of Mi Fu and a rock, is the powerful presence of the rock itself. And you can see that what the artists have done in this particular section is how the rock– it has more colour, it has more density, it has more, thicker lines. In other words, it has far greater presence than the figure itself. And it’s the vibrancy of energy and the liveliness of this particular rock that actually lets it be elder brother Rock. And from the seventeenth century onwards, you continually have this… this particular theme of Mi Fu bowing down with the rock. And you can see how oftentimes what an artist would do in order to talk about that connection between rock and Mi Fu itself, to understand his lunacy, his passion for this particular rock, that he and the rock are depicted in such a way that sort of echo one another. There is a very similar sort of pattern of lines, that sort of line that we have here, even so much so that his belt that he has flicks up in energy itself. So these little peaks there, in some ways, echo the kind of peak and energy that we see. His robe carries that sort of excessiveness of energy that we see in the rock itself. But always, always, the rock is the most important thing here. And it is the rock with that incredible play of ink that actually allows us to realise that he is the person, the most powerful thing within this particular painting itself.

Now, part of why we start getting the story of Mi the Lunatic coming in from the fifteenth century onwards, and in particular from the seventeenth century, is that this was a period when rock collecting once again became very popular and so too did writings about rocks. And one of the things that all these writings would share is that rather than seeing rock as symbol that stood in for a mountain, in Chinese writings about rocks, the rock is a microcosm of a cosmos. In other words, the rock is the mountain—it doesn't replace the mountain—it itself is just a miniature version, it’s doing exactly the same thing as what the mountain is doing. And part of this all goes back to this idea of the rock and a miniature rock and why the miniature rock remains a very prized possession today can all be traced back to this Han dynasty censor. The Rock… What we have here is not a rock; what we have is a mountain which looks like a rock. And this is a magical mountain and at the bottom is a wave of sea and then these holes inside. This is a censer; you put incense inside so that you have… when you light the… the censer... incense inside, it will create these clouds of smoke that would come up from the holes and it will seem as if the whole thing is engulfed in mist. Because this is an immortals’ mountain. Because the mountain is what connects Heaven and Earth and is part of the language of the primordial beginnings of Earth itself. As such, we see it as a form of magical place for immortality. But what is important here is its ability for transformation rather than its ability of connectedness. It's not about how the mountain connects Earth with Heaven, but rather transformation that takes place in that particular journey. It is far more about alchemy than is about physics because the power of its… or its internal power, let's call it ‘qi’ at this stage, lies in ability of the form of energy that can transform and create. It is important to recognise that it is the changefulness of things that is everlasting rather than a permanence of things.

Now, more than any other scholar—and so this is another example… these are more or less the same thing—more than any other scholar in Chinese art history it's John Hay who has delved into this subject of the scholar’s rock and its connection with mountains. But also he has gone as far as to claim that the depiction of the rock in Chinese art is sort of like the equivalent of the nude in Western art—Sorry, just…this is more rocks itself—he was asked to write a paper on: why are there no bodies in Chinese art? And his response was ‘Well there is, it's just the rock.’ And the way that he describes it is that if we understand the way that people are writing about rocks at this particular period was that they often understood it almost in physical terms of the body. In that there is a pulse, there is a body, the ‘shi’ [rock] itself, and there is the energy that gives it life. The body… The rock itself was also described in terms of leanness and this to this day, this is still used, today. The idea of… It's not necessary that it's a skinny rock is not about how skinny a rock is but it's really about the fleshy bodyness of the rock, and rocks tend to go up, builds up, rather than builds across. Of surface texture, so the skin, and ‘tou’ [head), its penetrated points itself. So there need to be spaces where one could see in. Let me just carry on with this before I show the next one.

In order to understand the different types of rocks that are it is therefore not the outward shape that is important, but also for different qualities of lines. And line here is not about the descriptive quality of form that can allow for the understanding of a rock in space; that will be, in some ways, treating the rock as if it is a Cartesian kind of body. But rather, the body here is its internal structure, the qualities of line that make us look at what's within. I want to emphasise that materiality and the physicality of the rock were elements that were very important, the skin and bones, the somatic presence that then channels into a central nervous system, as it were. That will gain us entry into the internal world and artists are always trying to capture this somatic presence. It is perhaps not surprising that it is in this period where we exactly have lots of stories apart from paintings of rock, we also have lots of stories about rocks itself, of rocks coming to life, of rocks that can self-combust because it would shatter itself rather than be in the hands of someone who's not worthy to own it. So, in other words, for Mi Fu’s story to work, and its popularity, is that the rock has to recognise the fact that it is an elder brother. It's not enough that Mi Fu is paying respect to the rock; the rock has to actually come back and respond to Mi Fu itself. And that's in some ways what all these artists are trying to do. To create an artwork that actually allows for that presence of the rock to be a real thing, a real figure itself. And just to… So… To just kind of talk a bit more about why the importance of line itself, the way of understanding line… And I put Noguchi's painting here and this is one of the paintings that he did when he was in Beijing and he studied with Qi Baishi himself, so he did this series of beautiful ink paintings. You can see, how he uses line is actually very different from how the earlier Chinese artists were using lines. The earlier Chinese were using lines, the way that there were doing it, it’s actually much more… it turns inwards far more. What he’s trying… What Noguchi's trying to do, in some ways he's trying to understand shape through form, through space, so you can see how the movement is actually how things turn within space itself. It's very sculptural, which makes sense, and it’s very… it's about the form of it. What artists in the Ming and Qing dynasty were trying to do is actually trying to capture something which is far more internal. Whether they succeed or not is up to the reader or the audience to decide for themselves. But that's what they're interested in. They're actually less interested in the actual form of the actual rock itself nor are they actually interested in how the rock sits in space, they're not actually interested in ‘is it wide?’ You often see that they don't actually have any backgrounds and that actually it's often quite flat in some ways. They're really just kind of far more interested in the internalness of this particular rock itself. That which gives that kind of physical experience that will allow it to come to life. And in some ways, this idea that the ground that we walk on can in fact feel pain, if the rock that we stand on feels pain then we ourselves are in pain is actually something I think has very modern connotations. But that was something that was actually very much part of the discussion and discourse of rocks in this particular period in time.

Which leads me to talk about obsession. Now one… one of the reasons why obsession becomes really big is because obsession actually has to do with a way of mitigating that taint of commercialism, right? Because everyone's collecting rocks now and so by saying actually I'm collecting rocks because I'm obsessed by rocks is one way to get out of it and really I'm just copying what to Mi Fu is doing. He was a lunatic; I'm a lunatic, that's kind of what was going on. But what is also very interesting and the idea of lunacy, and the idea of obsession, it's actually something that has a very long history. But certainly by the time we come to the sixteenth century when we have this medical text—and this is what I translated this in full here—there are people who concentrate on something until it becomes obsession. This is essentially a dictionary of medical illnesses and so this is under ‘pi’. So anyone who can read Chinese character you will see already, I should have pointed out, that the character for obsession uses the disease radical. So there is already this idea that obsession is actually a form of disease. When this develops into an illness it creates a knot in our bowels, it will solidify and form a stone. Sometimes the change is from soft to hard as in the case of salt brine turning to crystals. Sometimes the change is from movement to stillness as in the case of plants to fossils. When birds or animals turned to stone then the change is from animate to inanimate. Although mineral seems like a hard substance, the creative transformation there within are infinite. The idea that it is a pathology is actually crucial to the development of this idea of ‘pi’ in the... in the scholarly world. Because it's trying to suggest to you ‘I can't help myself, this is something that's just so in me, it's not something that I want to or choose to do; this isn't desire, this is something that I have, a disease, I cannot control it myself.’ So it was a very clever way of getting out of this. But it is also interesting because part of this idea of obsession started giving way to these incredible paintings as well.

One of the things that we had, and this is by one artist who actually isn't a very good painter. He's a great calligrapher, he's actually not a great painter at all, but he's a very interesting figure. He was a very loyal soldier. He was a very loyal scholar official but who was also soldier and when the Manchu came along and took over China he actually committed suicide. That’s part of the reason why he remains a very influential person in Chinese history itself. But one of the things that he did paint very well, even despite the fact that he wasn't very good at landscapes or anything else, he did paint rocks rather well. And that was because he was obsessed about rocks. And he made many, many pictures as you can see here of different types of rocks. And this is kind of what he talks about rocks. I'll let you read it itself. And you can see how he's experimenting with different qualities of lines to create different individual rocks as if they are themselves portraits. And part of this—all of these: obsession, lunacy—the fundamental thing about this is the idea of the importance of individuality, and that the artist must claim a space for itself as an individual. And we see a big shift that happens in the seventeenth century. And more than anyone else, there's this particular artist called Shitao who talks about, and makes a claim for, individuality. And one of his most famous quotes, of all quotes, is: ‘I am myself because myself naturally exists. The whiskers and eyebrows of the Ancients cannot grow my face nor can the entrails exist in my stomach. I have my own entrails, I have my own whiskers, my own eyebrows, I owe nothing to the past.’ And this is a very radical break to how people were thinking about the idea of creativity. All of a sudden now this idea of creativity came from within one rather than that which is inherited from the past.

And I love this painting, Ten Thousand Ugly Dots to Make Mi Fu Cry. I already said Mi Fu [chuckles] was the person who did a Mi dot so he made this great painting. And this is what I call the Jackson Pollock Eat Your Heart Out painting. It's an incredible splash ink painting where he really does capture that essence of…of individuality. But one of the things we also have to recognise, that although there is this thing about individuality, individuality of the artist, this idea of obsession, you can now talk about how it is a disease within one; you can't control oneself. This all is this bodily approach to thinking about creativity itself. There are two things I want to raise here. One is that the rock is very much about a male identity and we see it very much in here; because it has a very virile presence. The other thing is that the rock always has to be very stable and that's part of its virility as well. What we have here is a set. And you can see that it's strange but it's only strange up to a point. It still has to remain within the conditions of how people understood ink painting itself. So even though this has the free expressions that we had, that we saw in Shitao’s work, it is only free up to a point itself.

Gao Fenghan made this set of paintings. He did this as well. You can see what I mean; this capturing of the idea of rock and the idea of the scholar’s rock as a stable presence itself. And in this one it literally looks like the ground itself. Gao Fenghan’s also very interesting because it's very rare to find rocks where you don’t… where there isn't that sense of stability. Apart from this. And a reason why he started becoming this unstable rock is because—we're not quite sure why—he was in prison. He was thrown… He was a minor official, he must have done something, he was thrown into prison for three years but we're not really sure whether… it's all very blurry where he was for those three years. But during which time he lost the use of his right hand. Some say it may have been arthritis, he was just very sick. Others said that he might have injured it from whatever punishment he received in prison, we're not really quite sure. But whatever happened, he then had to learn how to paint with his left hand. And we have one of the rare descriptions of how that creative act of painting is. People rarely talk about, like I said before, you never really talk about how you paint. You just paint and it's the result of what is painted that is important. But we do actually have this description that he wrote about how he basically had to twist his body around so that his body will move in one way and his left hand will move in the other way, thus creating this kind of effect of actually movement itself. And I put this in because I want to show that even though there's a lot of movement in his paintings, and he made loads of these paintings, he became extremely popular as an artist, his paintings were actually, you know, flying off the shelf if I was to use a modern expression. Because it became a performance of his deformed hand as well. Which in itself was a form of…of strangeness and weird lunacy as well.

I want to show this particular series of rocks, and these are a fabulous, of portraits of one rock. I'm going to show you, this is my version. [laughs] I did that just for fun. This is the rock; I'm just going to show it to you slowly. Because it really is just tantalisingly beautiful. It's all portraits of one single rock.

Now, this particular rock itself, supposedly of one rock, he did this for a patron of his who found this one rock, or rather the rock came to him. Because remember all rocks… You don't… you don't go and pick rocks, the rocks come to you because they're alive at this moment in time, if they are to be that special rock. So this rock came to him and he loved it so much it actually put all the other rocks in his collection to pale and he only cared about this one rock. So much that he wanted nothing but portraits of this one rock itself. And part of it is to show that obsessiveness. So that if you are painting this one rock ten times, the same thing from different angles, it shows this obsessive behaviour of the artists but also of the patron himself. Except there’s also something odd about this rock. You can't really put this together as a single rock; it doesn't quite make sense as a rock. Because you kind of think: what angle is that? So they don't quite join together, this rock; they sometimes do and then sometimes you’re like… you really can't put it together.

And part of it is to do with the artists who he has chosen to depict the rock - Wu Bin himself. Wu Bin was known for his fantastic landscapes. He created the oddest landscapes. These are almost like magical mountains where immortals will live. And so he had actually chosen an artist who actually depicts things that are not true; they’re fantastical… itself. Which then makes you think about well how does this work as a fantastic? One of the things that is actually really interesting about this particular rock is that while it looks… it looks almost like a real rock; it feels as if it has volume, it feels only that there's almost like a Western-style of realism that's going on creating this particular piece, there is a sense that this is a real thing. But what it is, is that it actually puts realism as part of a language of fantastic. So rather than the idea of realism as that which depicts the truth of the eyes, you know, what the eyes see, it plays with it to create this idea of that actually creates the fantastic. You cannot trust your eyes. And it puts that down as part of the experience of this being that which is weird and strange and transformative. Because, remember, the idea of the permanence of things is not what is important, it is important that it cannot be just one thing.

I want to end with women, because I have already suggested that the rock itself is very much part of the men’s… male world, the men's world, the male scholar’s world. So where are the women? While you will never see women depicting gardens in the same way that you were seeing male scholars depicting gardens because women cannot own land. Simple as that. So while there cannot own gardens it also means they cannot own their own studios within gardens so why would they depict that? But also partly just because this a language of gardens, this language of rocks, have been so embedded within the male scholarly world of social relationship there's no space for women to enter in quite that… and do something very similar. We do see women, of course, though because gardens were–the other thing about what gardens could do is that it provided a sense of privacy. This was often a place where… where trysts and sexual encounters would take place. And what we actually have here is exactly that. This is actually an entrapment that's going on here. They're trying to bring down this particular person and so they teased him with this beautiful courtesan who comes in. If you ever see a Chinese woman in this particular period playing a lute, she's a prostitute. So they’ve brought this prostitute out to entice him and if he was a really, really good lofty scholar he would say no but of course he engaged in this particular like night-time escapade. We know it's night-time because we will see there's a candle there and the screen itself has a little moon at a top. But also part of it is this voyeuristic experience that we have looking into the garden. You can see how the artist, what he's done, is put this giant rock there so we can't really see in. In fact, even the tea makers are actually pushed to one side as if there are peeping in to the space itself. And that's kind of what's going on, this idea of a voyeuristic experience within the garden itself. And that's how they would present this idea of sexual fantasies, or in this case of a sexual entrapment.

So you will see that kind, and there are quite a lot of this kind of artworks, where the idea of the scholar and the beauty and the idea of sexual encounters between them will take place. That doesn't mean that women didn't paint rocks itself, but when they did it, it felt very different as we can see here. This is Wen Shu who's the fourth generation descendant of Wen Zhengming himself, the person who took the ten examinations and failed each time. And this is her painting, but you can see there’s a different kind of energy that's actually involved in the depiction of the rock. The rock itself looks a little limp; it doesn't look very strong and virile in the same way that the other rocks we have. Smaller in size, this is far more about the relationship of the flowers with the rocks itself. And one of the things that you often see is that it also has… the way that the colours… it’s far more colourful. And then the way the colours are done, it's kind of put in a way that actually, they're kind of scattered around in this way. And it actually is far more similar and reflects more embroidery than it does of actual paintings itself. But what was actually really popular amongst genteel women who were depicting a garden they would depict that which happened on the ground itself.

That is unless of course you're not an ordinary woman. In that if you belong to the world of the courtesan, you could then take on the persona of being a little strange yourself. That you can take on eccentric behaviours that will allow you to paint in the voices of men. A form of cross-dressing is what I call it, in art itself. And this is one example of that. She was a very famous courtesan. She was a very famous courtesan because she was famous for several things. She was very literary, she composed poetry, she was a very good calligrapher. But she was also very famous for her horse riding skills and on the back of the horse she was able to shoot arrows. She was very, very good at that. She was able to shoot, and this is a quote, she was able to shoot two balls from her crossbow one after another and made the second ball strike the first and break it in mid-air. Another trick she could do was the place a ball on the ground and by pulling the bow backwards with a left hand while her right hand draws a bow from behind her back and hit it. Out of 100 shots she does not miss a single one. She's a famous horsewoman. And she was… she was an incredibly successful courtesan in that she married five times; she became a concubine five times. One of the things about concubines is that they can terminate their contract, unlike wives. And she did terminate at least one of her contracts. More often she actually became courtesan of much older men. One of them was fifty years older and actually left her a hefty sum as well. She did well.

When she painted gardens, and what makes this a cross-dressing, is that she is painting in a way that only we expect men to paint. She's doing ink paintings and what we have here… What we don't have in this painting so much or even in this painting; certainly not this one; a little in this one, but what she has is movement. She has energy and movement and flow. This kind of… this idea of using ink as energy, as flow, is something that is seen as very eccentric amongst women. And so the fact that she was doing this is also part of how she was putting on the disguise of being a man and painting like a man. And she wasn't the only one.

Now for those of you who've been paying attention, you may realise that who she's actually imitating. She literally did cross-dress. She was also another courtesan, not as famous as Su Shi who was one of the most famous courtesans in Suzhou at that moment in time. She… She was… But she was a very smart courtesan. She knew what she wanted. She wanted to meet this particular scholar who she knew was actually going to be someone who would publish a lot of women's work and she wanted her poetry to be published. But she also wanted to become his concubine. And so what she did was she dressed up as a man. She dressed up as a man and went to meet him and when she met him she actually asked him to be her teacher. And so their relationship began. So literally this is a Mulan story. And then he did, he took her on as her concubine… as his concubine during which time then she took on… We don't actually know her name. We think we know her name, but as with most women artists, we don't really know a lot about their… their names etc. But she was given this particular title. And it means a retreat from willows. And willows is often another way of talking about brothels, so she's retreated from her world of the brothels itself. And she's now become a full-time painter and this is one of the paintings that she made. As you can see, she's imitating Wen Zhengming, the most loftiest of scholars there were out there. And she did it very well. Yet another one. You can see there again similarities between the two.

But this is an odd one. So this is a great thing. This is where it’s… you don't see a whole album being strange but you'll come across one or two pictures and it throws you off. And the reason why this one throws you off is that it’s of cranes. Now you'll say, well cranes, plenty of cranes in Chinese art, we've seen them already. Cranes, cranes, cranes; they're everywhere. Except these cranes are doing something very different. Cranes, you often do find cranes in gardens, and the reason why you find cranes in gardens, they're often seen as highly individualistic animals. They're considered the elder of the bird world.

Their scream, their cry, is so… it’s so much so… it’s so sharp, so penetrating, it is supposed to be the voice of enlightenment. I mean so you can see why people want to have cranes in their gardens itself. It talks about them as being very immortal. And oftentimes they have them in certain kind of poses. And one of the most common kind of poses that you get— they’re often either doing this or they're kind of pecking at their… their feathers itself. They’re fairly in control of themselves. What we have here—it's not only the fact that we have nothing else but cranes that make them highly unusual—we also have them dancing. Has anyone's seen dancing cranes? You should YouTube it, it's great. Most postures have cranes or poses of cranes have names and titles. One of the ones that you don't really have is dancing. I did actually go and YouTube what dancing cranes look like and they have this very odd dance. First of all what they will often do is they will bow to one another. Which is what they're doing over there. So there's a little bow. Then they will bob their head up and down like this. [laughs] I’m gonna do my dancing crane. I just realised you're recording this. [laughs] And then after bobbing your head up and down, what you would then do, is you flap your wings. And you would carry on doing that. There's nothing elegant about this dance. It's not ballet; it's definitely more disco than ballet with these… these… these particular cranes.


YEEWAN KOON: It's fantastic but what makes them even more fantastic is that they've actually danced for no reason other than pure pleasure. And it is exactly that idea that they are dancing for pleasure—my time’s almost up—that we… is what makes this so incredibly important as well as someone who is playing that role of eccentric.

Love. Last one, very, very last one. And this is the painting, there are two paintings. I'm going to ask you to spot the difference between these two. One of them is by Jin Nong who is a very established artist and one is by his student who loved his teacher. He loved his teacher because he saw his teacher as his other dad. Luo Ping… Jin Nong was not actually very good artist but he was a great calligrapher. That's by him and that's his self-portrait by his teacher, I mean by his student who’s a significantly better artist and was a ghost painter for Jin Nong himself. Now, Jin Nong was very famous for also conducting homosexual affairs with his students. Homosexual affairs were not that unusual. He just happened to have many students many of which were very young and he would write about it, he was very open about being gay. And that in itself was actually no… no… it wasn’t unusual at this particular period in time. There's actually lots of homoerotic tales that often takes place. What is unusual is that he talked about it and painted it as well. And that we see it here, in one of these paintings. Now after he died, one of the things that Luo Ping did was he made copies of his teacher's artwork. And when he made copies of his teacher’s artwork he was doing it to invoke the memory of his teacher himself.

Have you spotted which one is his, or which one you think is different, the two difference between these paintings? I'm just going to try to summarise it much quicker. Part of the reason why I want to bring this up is that lovers’ trysts between different sexes, and same erotic, were very common. But the place where it took place is always the garden. One of the things that's going on in this particular album is that this is actually a memory, a private memory. So Jin Nong painted this album when very shortly…when he's much older and he was reflecting on a particular former student of his that he was particularly very fond of. And he was reflecting back on their former tryst that took place in a garden itself. In other words it's a very private memory of a particular loved one. And what Luo Ping did in painting this he's not… he’s not just imitating his teacher’s artwork—that's not what he's doing here—what he's doing here is actually capturing his teacher's memory. And he's literally capturing the memory of his teacher itself. Now copying in Chinese art is usually about transcendence of memory. So in order to not do that you have to show respect. So how does he show respect? But this is actually… he's doing this because he wants to think about his teacher as opposed to that he's trying to one-up his teacher's ability to paint. And he does this by two ways. One of the things he does—he does not copy the same writing, the calligraphy that Jin Nong is famous for. And the other thing he does, he adds a servant boy. And you can see in one of the paintings there’s a little servant boy. And, as I said before, servants are usually a way… Can you see? This is a single guy looking back talking about a lost love. And this is him… a picture of his teacher thinking about his lost love. And in many ways he himself puts himself as this other young boy looking back. This is a painting that goes beyond any sort of tropes about eccentric, strange obsession. There is nothing disjunctive here. This painting does not fit to any of the usual social language of art. And this is the turning of the garden from a stage, which is what we've been seeing all the time and people performing these different sorts of social roles, to something that is at its most private. The turned backs of the figures, and pushed right to the bottom of the frame, prevent us from looking in. It is a painting of treasured memories of love that have since been lost. Thank you very much.


You’ll see artworks both inside and outside the M+ Pavilion. The inside of the gallery space is inspired by the scholar’s pavilion and garden, a leitmotif in traditional Chinese painting. In the centre is Vo’s Untitled (Structure for Akari PL2), a small pavilion adorned with ‘PL2’ model Akari lamps by Noguchi, who saw his collapsible paper-and-bamboo lanterns as sculptures that anyone can own. Surrounding this illuminated seating area are almost three dozen works of Noguchi’s, chronologically ranging from the 1920s to the 1980s. Vo, acting as the ‘scholar,’ prepared and installed these works and objects.

Most of Vo’s works in the exhibition are found outside, in the backyard of the M+ Pavilion building. The Noguchi-designed Play Sculpture is also installed outdoors. Made by conjoining six large long elbow sewage pipes into an undulating loop and spraypainting it in a bright red, the sculpture is one of the play equipments the sculptor designed for his utopian ‘playscape’ and invites viewers to interact and play with it.

Anything else I need to know?

Chair with a rounded seat and backrest made out of wood and bamboo woven in a basket technique. The armature and legs are made out of  elegantly bent iron rods.

Isamu Noguchi, bamboo basket chair, designed 1950, made 2008 ed. 13 of 50, Shioji wood, bamboo, M+ Hong Kong. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York

Keep an eye on the exhibition’s programmes! Programmes accompanying the exhibition include lectures, a teachers’ private viewing, and a series of guided tours. Access services can be arranged in advance.

This exhibition will also have a M+ shop on the ground floor of the Pavilion (you can read more about the making of the first M+ shop here). This time, the store will offer a range of products selected or adapted by Danh Vo as well as items designed and inspired by Isamu Noguchi—including the Akari light sculptures mentioned above—extending the dialogue presented in the exhibition.

This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

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