In the theories of ancient Chinese art and literature, poetry, calligraphy, and painting are regarded as the Three Perfections (san jue). Although each “perfection” has its individual virtues, between the three of them are cross-fertilisations that establish relationships of a symbiotic spirituality, or as the Chinese saying goes, “Part of me is in you, and part of you in me.” Thus, art is a creation that incorporates meditation, the concept of words, and visual form. Concept, subjective in character, and visual form are not supposed to go to extremes, whereas meditation is necessary for maintaining an equilibrium between words and imagery. In this light we can find the justification for xieyi (“to portray only the meaning”) in both painting and calligraphy in traditional China. But xieyi is often misread as a certain rhapsodic style, like kuangcao (“wildly cursive script”) and pomo (“splashing of ink”) painting. Rather, the core of xieyi includes wangwo (“the forgetting of oneself”) and wangyan (“the forgetting of one's words”), both of which are fundamental approaches to meditation. The meditation of the artist differs from that of the thinker or the clergyman, since the former has to be in sync with the process of a certain materialisation. The making, the medium and material, and the meditation marked with wangwo and wangyan all merge to create artistic state in which the imagery of objects acquires the natural anima.
For this, a telling example may be found in A Portrait of Six Persimmons (liushitu)
by Mu Xi of the Song Dynasty. We cannot interpret the image of the six persimmons exclusively from a human perspective. To fully understand the painting, we also need to adopt the point of view of the persimmons, which are neither conceptual nor mere shapes but are the artist's restoration of the anima from the real persimmons. One will fail to restore the anima if one simply imposes a general definition or imitates any individual form. Rather, one will not grasp the anima until one manages to keep one's thoughts dynamically vacant (kong) and silent (jing) by means of meditation.
This explains why traditional Chinese poetry, painting, and calligraphy intend to save the meaning from words, or keep the meaning out of words. They aim at doing away with the reliance on some presupposed conventions in order to attain a higher state of art. In this sense, the xieyi of traditional Chinese painting is all about wangwo and wangyan; that is, respectively, to forget the normative narrations of the tenets in one's memory and to forget any rules and regulations of form. For instance, conventions and confines like so-called abstraction, conception, and realism will be demolished. Only without any presupposition or preset form can the artist create a surprising new state of art. Such a state can help to deliver the artist from the paranoia shown either in excessive verbal narration or in excessive imagery representation in contemporary art.
It is obvious that wangyan
is related to kong
(“vacant”) and xu
(“void”), two concepts in traditional Chinese philosophy. In art creation, one ought to be guided by kong
in dealing with medium and material, with craft and technique, with the objects to represent, and with the physical Nature. However, kong
does not refer to nothing at all; it stands for a stance with which to establish a dialogue with the artwork or with the wu
(“object”) in it. In other words, we cannot think of the images (e.g. mountain, river, rock, person) and materials (e.g. colour, canvas, ready-made article) of art as a mere instrumental language for the expression of our conceptions. On the contrary, we should forsake or partly forsake the ill-grounded intention to control the object (kongwu
) and, as artists, “nullify the absence” of any idea of functionality, or practical idea that carries either a social or a formal function. It is only this way
Press release courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries.