Chinese Nobel author scores with painting exhibition
By Jonathan Lynn
SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Chinese author Gao Xingjian, winner of the Nobel prize for literature, is also a highly original painter, and a new exhibition in Singapore shows the same struggle for expression and meaning found in his writing.
Gao won the Nobel for literature in 2000, the first Chinese to be so honored, when he was already living in exile in France.
Both the paintings and his writing have their own distinctive style — hardly surprising in an artist who refuses to be labeled as part of any school or “-ism” and rejects any connection between art and politics.
“I believe that the most important thing for an artist is to stay as far away from others as possible in order to avoid getting mixed up in some trend,” he said in 1995. “If one is able to find one’s own distinctive artistic expression, there can be no greater reward or joy.”
That stance cuts both ways. Gao’s work was banned in China after the publication of “Fugitives,” a play set against the background of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. But Gao also refused to make changes sought by pro-democracy supporters.
As a painter, Gao works exclusively in the traditional Chinese medium of black ink brushed on to rice paper. But he has been influenced by the techniques of photography and the ideas of depth and perspective in Western art.
And painting and writing are connected.
“In the grand tradition, both Chinese and Western painting have a close link with literature,” Gao told Reuters.
“In paintings there is something very spiritual, even literary,” he said by telephone from Paris where he now lives.
Both art forms are equally important for him. He started painting in oils at the age of 11 or 12 and wrote his first fiction aged 10. But the activities are mutually exclusive.
“If I paint I can’t do anything else… but when I write I can’t paint at the same time,” he said.
The difference is the medium. In painting there are no words, just the brushstrokes in ink, expressing an inner vision.
The exhibition in Singapore, which is trying to turn itself into a regional arts center, is the first retrospective of Gao’s work in Asia. It comprises 60 paintings, including 10 shown for the first time.
The dominant impression for the visitor entering the galleries of stark monochrome paintings is a sense of desolation.
LIFETIME OF SUFFERING
That may reflect Gao’s own lifetime of suffering — born in 1940 during the Japanese invasion, sent to a re-education camp in 1970-75 during the Cultural Revolution, when he burned a suitcase of literary manuscripts, assailed by official critics for his writings, wrongly diagnosed with cancer and later a political refugee whose works are banned at home.
But in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution Gao also began to experiment with black and white photography.
At first glance, some of his ink paintings resemble abstract modern photos.
Looking closer you realize that what appears to be a landscape of snowdrifts seen from above, or a sheet of creased and rumpled paper, in fact results from his mastery of brushwork that yields extraordinary textural effects.
Paintings that first come across as abstract turn out to be landscapes, with a few strokes of black representing a house in the mountains, a bird, or a solitary figure.
And while some see his paintings as an austere inner vision, others find them full of sensuality and sexual energy.
Gao was unable to attend the opening of the show, which runs to February 7, because of ill health. He is suffering from hardening of the arteries and recently underwent two operations.
Sickness has played an important part in his life.
In 1983 Gao was diagnosed with lung cancer, the disease that killed his father, but six weeks later a second examination revealed there was no cancer.
Faced with official harassment and the threat of a spell on a prison farm, he fled Beijing later that year and began a (9,000-mile) walking tour in the remote mountains and ancient forests of Sichuan in southwestern China.
The result of this voyage was the novel “Soul Mountain,” a complex masterpiece that explores Chinese history, folklore and landscape combined with an individual’s search for meaning.
Partly humorous, partly full of despair, the novel ranges from childhood memories to tales within tales to subtle dialogue highlighting the relationship between the sexes.
The narrator has no name, appearing as “I” or “you” in an experimentation with form recalling the way he works in painting.
Both paintings and writing revolve around a quest for free expression, but Gao is not taking a political stance.
“He’s not trying to challenge anyone — he is challenging himself,” said Helina Chan of Ipreciation, which represents Gao in Southeast Asia.
In today’s consumer society, with mass media delivering constant images, sounds and novelty to people with ever shorter attention spans, some would question whether there is still a place for serious literature or pure painting. Gao disagrees.
“In every age there will always be artists who work for themselves to express what they feel,” he said.