As China continues to expose its culture to the world, artists such as Ling Jian undertake a pivotal role in providing commentary regarding contemporary Chinese culture through their own intimate journey of self-expression.
by Kevin Chan
Traces of cultural identity are often embedded in commonly used objects. The ergonomics, materials, fabrication techniques or simply the imagery of an object alludes to certain cultural idiosyncrasies. Although familiar objects such as vehicles, technology or buildings embody significant societal values, there does not exist a more powerful representation of a culture’s identity than art. As China continues to expose its culture to the world, artists such as Ling Jian undertake a pivotal role in providing commentary regarding contemporary Chinese culture through their own intimate journey of self-expression.
Shortly after the conclusion of Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution, Ling Jian graduated in 1982 from Tsinghua University, Academy of Arts & Design, and moved to Europe to allay the stringent pedagogy of traditional Chinese art. While living in Austria and Germany, he studied the works of storied European artists and pursued different perspectives on creative expression. These experiences enabled him to develop artwork inspired by introspection — commonly regarded as taboo in traditional Chinese art. Through developing paintings with a more personal motive, Ling Jian’s work has adhered to intimate revelations that have provided insightful commentary on contemporary Chinese culture.
Ling Jian’s current work reflects the conflicts between traditional and contemporary cultural values by depicting figures — often women — with politically charged undertones. During his formative years in the cultural revolution, the portrayal of people — especially women — as sensual, vulnerable figures was prohibited in an attempt to fortify the image of a strong and capable Chinese society. However, throughout Ling Jian’s stay in Europe and upon his return to Beijing, China’s willingness to import and export cultural media has muddled the self-perception of the Chinese people. With the influence of international media and its penchant for promoting glamour, the amalgamation of traditional conservative values and contemporary ideals of beauty have provoked a crisis of identity.
The introduction of international media has elicited a contradiction between what is reality and what is fantasy. Ling Jian’s work illustrates this notion through the realistic portrayal of idealized figures on painted canvases, which have subtle hints of culturally provocative elements. Although his artwork touches upon contemporary Chinese affairs, the manner from which these topics are unraveled and designed are intimate insights into his personal thoughts. In an interview with HOME, Ling Jian described his relationship with art akin to “cleaning a mirror” — the more labor put forth ensures a clearer vision of one’s self. Moreover, he believes the creation of artwork is a liberating activity, where the most important notion is not only moving the audience, but also stimulating one’s own spirit by listening to his or her inner voice.
Ling Jian’s impression of contemporary art in China is that the discipline is relatively young because its development was forged alongside recent shifts in cultural values. Regardless of this notion, however, he emphasizes that contemporary Chinese art is a revolutionary aperture from which China’s cultural concerns can be acknowledged. With a bevy of work in process and some already completed, the future of Ling Jian’s career is much anticipated. As for 2012, there are no major exhibitions planned, but if you are in Beijing before Nov. 18, Ling Jian’s watercolor exhibition will be on view at the Hadrien de Montferrand Gallery.
What is your relationship with your work? How would you explain your relationship with art?
The relationship between me and my work is my means of living. To me, my work is a mirror of life: I constantly clean it. During these cleanings, I can see myself more clearly. Art to me is the same as a hunter to his pray. You cannot own it every day, but once you do, you may be cruel, but at the same time elongating your life.
The majority of your work focuses on young female figures that evoke a certain sense of vanity, fragility and sexuality. Why do you choose to portray your subjects in this light?
Young women are a very ancient and eternal art topic. During my return to the Chinese culture in recent years, great changes have taken place there. I grew up during the cultural revolution period. Sexy, vane, vulnerable women do not exist, or [they are] not allowed to exist. But the reality of today in a commercial society, all of which shows in front of you, the ideal values and the practical values have conflicted greatly, causing the vanity, vulnerability and sexuality.
The creative process is often laborious and turbulent. Have you ever experienced failure while painting? If so, how have you coped with it?
Creation is an independent behavior. In fact, it is a self-moving process. You have to learn to listen to your heart, slowly cause its sublimation. Therefore, online pokies for you failure is a part of creation. Only going beyond it will one be able to produce more exciting work.
With greater international acclaim, many artists embody a critical perspective that is indicative of their culture. How do you represent Chinese culture through your work?
In fact, criticism and praise are like devil and angel: They have things in common, consistent with cultures that have grown in the presence of criticism and praise. How will I express Chinese culture through my work is a great question. I am searching for the answer, and I will continue to paint to find out.
The work of creative individuals often represents themselves. How did moving to Austria and Germany influence or change the way you view art and painting?
Living in Europe for many years enabled me to have the chance to appreciate the works of great masters, and I had a comprehensive understanding of the relationship of an artist with his culture and time. The artist must withstand the limitless challenges time gives to art.
Do you find that the majority of Chinese artists operate as singular entities? With whom do you speak about art? Are you in contact with other Chinese artists?
Art is the best media. Chinese contemporary art is very young. In a specific environment and time, they must coexist with each other, support each other and mutually influence each other. Nature in aesthetic and representation is similar. In such a social environment, individual ideology finds it very difficult to exist independently. I and some of my contemporary friends, whom I have known for more than 20 years, don’t talk about art when we are together, and we do not give each other strong criticism. This is perhaps because of the Confucian Harmony.
What is your fascination with portraiture? The expressions on your subjects’ faces are noticeably subtle. Why do you choose to portray them this way?The selection of portrait painting is because it is the most direct manifestation of the human nature. In his face, you can see all of the emotions and the background stories. During the course of my creation, I will slowly enter people’s deep ends, comprehend them, inspire them, understand them and then communicate with them. Every time this makes me question the human nature. The face that inspires many thoughts takes me to an indescribable world.
Where do you seek inspiration? What drives you to continue working on your paintings?
As far as I am concerned, inspiration mostly appears in a private environment, for example, in a driving compartment or the corner of a bar. Life and love are the biggest factors that drive my creation.
How do you feel contemporary Chinese art fits into the development of China’s art history?
Chinese art history is a revolutionary art history. It is chaotic and unstable. I hope that we pay more attention to China’s past and present as an ancient Chinese saying called “the mirage.”
How many new works have you completed in 2012?
A few. Some are still in the process of creation.
Do you have a muse that inspires you?
Yes, but it changes with time and mood, which are constantly changing. What inspires me is not only my muse, but also my life. In other words, my heart is my true muse.
Ling Jian’s answers in Mandarin below:
This post is also available in: French