MADRID.- The extraordinary development of the Peoples Republic of China in recent years and the opening of new pathways of communication and business with the West have stimulated the worlds interest in Chinese culture. A series of major international exhibitions, music and film festivals, dance and theatre shows, books and literary publications have increased knowledge about this countrys contemporary creativity. Over and above the treasures of its very ancient traditions, China now appears as the setting for a change in sensibility that affects our relationship with our surroundings and tradition, time and customs.
Because of isolation lasting centuries, Chinese artists have developed their own world of images, without connections to what is produced in Europe and the United States. The case of the Yi School is highly significant. Although it was born at the margin of the abstract art and conceptual art that have dominated the Western art world in recent decades, it maintains points of contact with these two. It is art lived as an experience of retreat and meditation that explores contemplation, unity and harmony. After its presentation in Barcelona, la Caixa Social and Cultural Outreach Projects is taking to CaixaForum Madrid the first major exhibition of the Yi School outside China, organised jointly with the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture and the Beijing Culture & Art Foundation. The exhibition introduces eighty-two works by forty-eight Chinese artists of the last thirty years, divided into three periods. Yi art from the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) until the 1980s is characterised by an idealised humanism in opposition to the revolutionary slogans (Yi xiang, mental image). The second period is when art at a time of urban and cosmopolitan expansion recovers private spaces and incorporates Eastern symbols and writing (Yi li, mental principle). The third period, Maximalism (Yi chang, mental environment), arose at the end of the 1990s and devotes its main attention to the process and the context of the art work.
la Caixa Social and Cultural Outreach Projects has devoted several exhibitions to Chinese culture. One of the most recent, Confucius and the Birth of Humanism in China, introduced the thought and work of Confucius and how this was reflected in art over more than a thousand years. A few months ago, to coincide with the opening of a Representative Office of la Caixa in Beijing, an exhibition of fifteen works by international artists from the la Caixa Foundations Collection of Contemporary Art was put on at the Beijing Art Museum of Imperial City. The Yi School: Thirty Years of Chinese Abstract Art represents its counterpoint. It is designed to bring the general public in our country closer to an artistic school that has had decisive weight in Chinese plastic art from the 1970s until now and to make the work of some of todays leading Chinese creative artists better known.
The Yi School is defined as an artistic tendency in China, based for the last three decades on the aesthetic essence of Yi. It is distinct both from contemporary literature and conceptual art and from Eastern abstract art. In Chinese aesthetics, Yi does not mean just subjective thought, even though it is a fruit of our mind. It is not precisely equivalent to the terms concept, idea or significance, but represents a state of contemplation and meditation by creative artists, the way that artists or poets think about their surroundings or observe them. In this respect, the Yi School is the artistic style best suited to expressing meditation.
If we think that Yi is related not just to the thought of the artists, but also to the real environment and the objectives of meditation, the Yi School cannot be defined by any modern Western concept such as realist art, conceptual art or abstract art, even though it may look like all these tendencies, especially abstract art. In reality, the Yi School brings together almost all the characteristics of these three tendencies without restricting itself to any one of them in particular. This responds to a norm that has always governed traditional Chinese aesthetics, to stop art becoming excessively diverted towards the extremes.
In terms of expression of Yi, the artists have focused in different periods on different aspects of Yi. For example, at the end of the 1970s, during the Cultural Revolution, a series of non-official artists sought individual freedom in opposition to Maos propagandistic art. In this context, the Yi School focused on the search for individual expression and for pure art against conceptualised political art. The Yi School was expressed in the aesthetic form of Yi xiang or mental image. Artists sought unity and harmony between concepts and objects of nature, during the process of thinking about and observing the external world. Then the representatives of the Yi School at the end of the 1980s paid greater attention to expressing their ideas about the way to reform reality and cultural modernity through cultural signs. In this period, the Yi School defended symbolic concepts, the essence and start of an ideal culture and society. As such, the Yi School during this period is called Yi li or mental principle. From the 1990s on, decade in which individuals are overwhelmed by rapid urban development, personal meditation becomes a way that allows the artists of the Yi School to isolate themselves from society. In this period, the Yi School focuses on the personal experience of thinking about the materials and surroundings during the process of creating art works that involve an effort of daily and intense repetition. Thus the Yi School of this epoch represents Yi Chiang or mental environment. Creating works of art is equivalent to meditating in a private space.
First setting: Yi xiang, mental image
Yi xiang or mental image is the idealisation of landscapes and natural objects and is one of the categories of the Yi School. During the first half of the twentieth century, Liu Haisu, Lin Fengmian and Zhao Wuji, among others, set themselves the task of analysing modern Chinese art on the basis of the Yi xiang method, which became a major motive of aesthetic concern in Chinas first contemporaneity. Thanks to the Yi xiang method, Chinese artists began to delve again into modern art, from the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) to the 1980s.
Among the artists who focused on landscape and objects, Shang Yang, Zhao Wenliang, Ding Fang, Chao Ge, Qiu Shihua and Wu Jian produced for years landscape paintings, although the landscape shown in their works, over and above natural scenery, is a vehicle for expressing the feelings and emotions of the artists. In this respect, the landscape we see in their works is not just landscape; in their landscapes based on Yi xiang, a realist scene can become an abstract symbol and vice versa. Individual subjective experiences and the knowledge of external landscapes are interpreted as archaeological landscapes by Shang Yang, impressionist landscapes by Zhao Wenliang, traditional landscapes by Ding Fang, sublime landscapes by Chao Ge, landscapes of meditation by Qiu Shihua and landscapes of ruins by Wu Jian. The scene is characterised by personal feelings, distancing itself however from purely abstract symbols.
During the many years that they have devoted to studying the way to represent certain objects, Su Xiaobai, Qin Yufen and Liu Xuguang have striven not only to transmit the objects impression of beauty, but also to endow them with Eastern humanism and aesthetic taste. Going even further, He Yunchang and He Chengyao see their own bodies as bearers of individual senses. Unlike the mentioned artists, Bing Yi reinforces the narrative sense with stories that are only the fruit of his imagination. These are ideal tales, a long way away from fictional plots.
Among the artists who began to produce abstract art after the Cultural Revolution, we find Zhou Maiyou, Zhu Jinshi, Wang Luyan, Ma Kelu, Zhang Wei, Tang Pinggang and Zhao Gang. They all expressed their aspirations to individual freedom by using a traditionally Chinese free-hand brush-strokes. The images of their paintings are mental images.
Most of the works in this setting were produced at the end of the 1970s and in the first half of the 1980s.
Second setting: Yi li, mental principle
The main interest of the artists in this setting focuses on representing experiences of learning about the universe, culture and even individual life, by using Eastern symbols. Many of their works are representative of the rationalist paintings of the 1980s.
Although these symbols look like Western abstract geometrical figures, with an abundance of circles and squares, they differ from these in three main characteristics. First, these circles and squares do not stem from Western geometry, but from Eastern spatial philosophy. They are dynamic figures that transmit a sensation of depth and expansion towards infinity. Second, just like living natural objects, these symbols appear to have been placed harmoniously in mountains and rivers, with the emphasis on confluences, extensions and infinity. Finally, these symbols are based on Eastern pictorial effects, regardless of the materials used, through which they are endowed with both spiritual and material life. In other words, they are personalised symbols. This feature can be seen in the work of Yu Youhan, Li Shan, Ren Jian, Zhang Jianjun, Yan Binghui, Yang Zhilin, Huang Yali, Wang Chuan, Meng Luding, Tan Ping, Man Fung-yi and Lei Hong, among others.
In another current, artists such as Xu Bing, Gu Wenda, Qiu Zhenzhong, Wang Tiande, Zhang Hao, Luo Mingjun and Wang Nanming attempt to transmit their experiences on contemporary art, society and the individual by using symbols of traditional Chinese writing.
Third setting: Yi chang, mental environment
These artists represent a new category of the Yi School, Maximalism, which arose at the end of the 1990s.
Although Maximalism looks externally like Western Minimalism, its conceptual premises are different. It is not concerned so much with the meaning the works might express, but rather devotes attention to the process of production of the art works as experiences in contextualisation. Each artist employs a concrete shape and goes on repeating it, as a daily routine. Thus, Li Huasheng draws lines of ink on rice paper; Ding Yi introduces the symbol repeatedly on his fabrics; Zhang Yu stamps his finger-prints on rice paper; Liang Quan sticks ink-soaked paper on wooden plates; Zhu Xiaohe interprets an ancient work of art by using repeated short lines, in the manner of words, which gives rise to a completely different painting. Liu Xuguang, Zhou Yangming, Zhang Fan and Xu Hongming repeat various simple marks in their paintings. However, instead of flat shapes, they are especially concerned with achieving the invisible depth that is the fruit of meditating on contextualisation.
In this respect, the squares and fringes that appear in these paintings are considered the context or representation of a mental environment, which acts as a dialogue between the artists and their materials or between the artists and the environment in which they live. Its about experience and understanding at the same time. The philosophy based on the simple expression of everyday experiences and thoughts is rooted in traditional Chinese aesthetics. Maximalism in itself is a form of resistance against many years of Chinese art ideology and of rules established in terms of the international market and art institutions. We can affirm that the Maximalism of the late 1990s was a mirror of silent individual meditation, immersed in the circumstances of the outbreak of globalisation in China.