Han Mengyun is an interdisciplinary artist whose work seeks alternative discourses to Western traditions, most notably by incorporating poems and text.Read More
Born in Wuhan, China, Han grew up in Shenzhen before moving to New York, where she attended Bard College, earning a BA in Studio Art in 2012. Han then pursued the study of Sanskrit at various institutions, including Kyoto University, and completed an MFA at the University of Oxford, where she researched Classical Indology and Indian aesthetic theories.
Han Mengyun's work incorporates motifs, symbols, and techniques informed by Buddhism, religious art, and Indology to explore the possibility of a universal visual language.
Despite having studied in the United States and working across oil and abstraction—both typically associated with the West—Han has said it is rather Chinese philosophy that provides a spiritual structure to her work and offers insight to further her practice.
These influences can be seen in early series like 'Wandering Mind' (2012), which comprises four abstracted landscapes in monochromatic tones that reference the colour of ink and rice paper used in Chinese calligraphy and literati paintings. The viewer's progression from Wandering Mind I to IIII is meant to replicate a spiritual wandering from Daoist texts like the Zhuangzi, from the 3rd century BC.
Likewise, evoking Buddhist philosophy and notions of impermanence, the 2018 ink-on-paper series 'Splinters of Jade' draws from archaeological reports on Buddhist sites by British archaeologist Aurel Stein. The series depicts blurred outlines of headless Buddhas, armless Bodhisattvas, and fragments of archaeological findings, alluding to fading beauty over time.
Exploring alternative material and symbolic discourses on painting outside of the Western canon, Han's paintings often integrate traditional crafts such as Indian woodblock printing, words and scripts from Arabic and Persian, and diverse religious motifs.
The 2020 'Jewels of Impermanence' series, which includes the oil on panel painting Jewel of Impermanence 1 (2020), features images of a skeleton hand holding delicate objects such as a pearl, a butterfly, and thread, taking after Buddhist notions of passage and 17th-century Dutch vanitas paintings that explored the fragility of existence.
Another work in the series, Samsara I (2020), takes the form of a diptych to evoke an open book, with a tangled spider web on one side and Arabic script on the other, drawing a parallel between the painting and the text, with both forms presenting their own fictional universes.
This desire to revise existing modes of representation can equally be noted in Han's use of architectural structures, mostly religious. In the painting Whose Glory? (2022), the canvas is divided into day and night, with three obelisks resting to one side of the painting and three seemingly dead ravens at their bases, alluding to transitions away from old belief structures.
The brick surfaces of the obelisks are recovered in the triptych Purity and Danger (2022), which depicts a brick wall with prison bars, a segmented wall marked by the words 'purity' and 'danger', and a partitioned wall with a glass orb on the ground.
The same allusion to keeping an open mind is further articulated in Mandala of Insanity (2022), which renders the mandala symbol of the universe as a unravelling square made of layered ornamental shapes, with a black obsidian orb at the centre—a symbol of spiritual cleansing.
For the 2021 Diriyah Biennale, Han showed The Pavilion of Three Mirrors, a polished-metal mirror installation inspired by a Persian story of an ancient competition between Chinese and Greek painters, overseen by Alexander the Great, in which both civilisations contended to produce the best possible painting without seeing the other's work.
In the story, the Chinese artist reveals their artwork to be a mirror that reflected the Greek artist's perfectly, a metaphor recovered by Han to allude to the artwork as a reflection of the artist's mind, therefore introducing three mirrors to the pavilion, the third alluding to the relationship with the outer world.
Surrounding the installation were paintings that blend motifs, imagery, techniques, and languages from different traditions to allude to the creation of a universal visual language—with each work depicting a fable or song from different cultures and regions.
Han Mengyun's works have been shown in Asia, Europe, the U.K., and the United States.
Group exhibitions include Power Station of Art, Shanghai (2021); Diriyah Biennale (2021); Modern Art Oxford Gallery (2019); Shenzhen Art Museum (2017); and Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts, Taiwan (2014).
Elaine YJ Zheng | Ocula | 2022