Essay and Interview


Cat - fish - melon, a new poetic dimension in Yang Jinsongs painting
Ursula Panhans-Bühler

           When I wrote a commentary on Yang Jinsong's painting in autumn 2004, massive cats had suddenly begun to appear in his workshop on Beijing ' s outskirts- meaning, on his pictures; and they proceeded to dictate new kinds of composition, color and brushwork.At that time, my essay ,” An Interplay of Poetic Scenarios“, concerned itself with Jinsong ' s art from his beginnings at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute.His art then centered exclusively on a personal world of himself and his wife She Cai. Their portraits were surrounded by a tender confusion of ordinary things, which seemed to be taking over, crowding their tiny apartment on campus. A gaily wandering irregular pattern of bright colors appeared to provide optimistic contrast to their melancholy miens. Even after their move to Beijing , where Jinsong found a big new studio, the couple had managed to retain a mostly miniaturized presence on bigger canvases with isolated iconic motifs.
           The appearance of the cat opened up a new dimension in Yang's work at that time, a tension between poles. I was very curious where this tension would lead him, and I said as much at the end of my essay.If you look back now at the paintings of the last seven years, you can understand that the cat came to announce a dramatic break in Jinsong's work, which went on to be carried by a triad of the cat, the water melon and the fish, supported by a few other meaningful motifs, for example those battered single sofas or armchairs, those dark landscapes of lotus fields in nightly hues, or a close-up of a burning log fire. Finally there were new, bright and gigantic scenes, split into atoms of motifs. And just as the first large cat leapt into pride of place from nowhere in October 2002, right onto a canvas of Huangjueping, Yang Jinsong's old neighborhood in Chongqing, those new visual metaphors drove out the narrow focus on one′s personal situation and opened up a view of China′s current situation, pressured by globalized economy, politics and culture.
           Understanding of metaphors depends on a cultural framework. Individuals may be able to sharpen a personal focus out of their collective communicability, but they usually can't create their own isolated metaphors.Therefore, Yang Jinsong's innovations should be recognized as all the more bold and surprising, as he takes the risk of establishing metaphors of his own, aiming at the nerve of current conflicts.And maybe one can see that his effort originates in a fight against cultural desperation or resignation, as he tries to alert others to a critical view of the precarious social situation.Therefore it seems desirable to intertwine Yang Jinsong's new methods with several strands that determine this situation: first, the tempestuous changes in China's economy, politics, society and culture; second, being dragged into a global capitalist process where nobody can really see where things are going, let alone set a course; third, the new commercial role of art as a “blue chip”, hampering its function as a critical mirror; and fourth, the individual artist confronting this situation, not wanting to be devoured by the mechanics of fashionable decoration. In the light of this tension I will once more attempt to follow the development of Yang Jinsong's art from 1997 to 2011 from a changed and dynamic viewpoint.
           Yang Jinsong is now referring to traditions of calligraphy and ink painting, via the medium of his oil paintings. His work has also come into its own in watercolors, which are providing a space of experimentation for his change in the field of oils.Drawings nowadays are not for preparation and try-out, and they are no intimate side-projects either. They are the medium of a lookout that circumvents a fixed and closed worldview, articulating open questions of our time. A fleeting association, a concept, an impression, hard to grasp and quickly forgotten, can be brought up by a drawing, as well as something brought up under the surface. To sketch is to open up a space that transcends manifest hints, to gain an immediate access to the sphere of feelings. When something fleeting comes up as the smallest common denominator of experience, viewers participate in the generation of a picture in a new way.
             But let us first go back to an aspect of Yang Jinsong's earlier paintings- we may gain a new understanding of them in the light of his new approach. Jinsong and his wife first appear as a confidently dominant duo in the center of his compositions. They are leaning towards each other, but they are also separate beings. Soon they acquire a monstrous identity of symbiotic twins melting into each other, a stylization of elongated heads, their pale faces only separated by a sharp shadow. Flat as a playing card, they seem to be trying to defend themselves against the growing anarchist heaps of consumer goods, a lively and colorful siege surrounding the couple's castle. They had appeared more at ease when they had occupied little islands on bamboo stalks, in window openings of swinging pumpkins, or in a sea of tea or lotus leaves, in their own little natural refuge.But the inverted proportions of large and small, of toys and the world of utility also touched their representation, and sometimes the pair seemed to drown in the throng of things, as if they had lost control of the incoming flood of objects. Apparently that which used to promise more comfort and pleasure began to show its dark side- a situation that literally seemed to become “hot” when in one of the new large paintings of 2003 an electrical cooker became the labyrinthine platform for the things and the couple; once connected, it could quickly destroy everything.These paintings in their dynamic sequence could also be understood as a critical commentary to a changing cultural situation, in which overwhelming consumerization and advertisement, along with the new role of media and consumer propaganda, make you suddenly feel the loss of your own culture as a price to be paid. Yang Jinsong is younger than the generation fixated on a critical view of the past after the economic opening, which came out in a sarcastic Polit-pop, notoriously satirizing the overbearing style of Maoist propaganda, full of clichés that were remarkably successful in the western art context. This view of the past still has the generation of Yang's parents in its grip, because of personal traumas from the Cultural Revolution.In a western context you could think of Pier Paolo Pasolini remarking that 20 years of Fascism had damaged Italian culture less than the spread of capitalist consumer society in the decades after the Second World War. The spreading of capitalist economy in China has not resulted in very explicit damage to designated cult objects of the cultural past. But old cities with their traditions have been radically razed for the rapid growth of the new Chinese megacities. The differences between urban and rural areas, between rich and poor, are accelerating as the cultural heritage mutates into alienated tourist sites. It would not be very surprising if Mao's portrait on Tiananmen Gate at the Forbidden City would be mistaken, by younger Chinese, for an advertisement poster by Andy Warhol. Maybe there is no other country in the world with such a thorough development in the last 30 years, a radical break with the past that needed at least 70 years in Western countries, not to speak of a longer period of preparation in the 19th century. For Yang Jinsong's generation, cultural memory and current development in their mutual incompatibility are painfully closer together than for any other generation before and after. This insoluble paradox seems to have become the driving force for the break in Jinsong's artistic approach. The cat, which he has called his self-portrait – you could also speak of a figure of identification – was the first in marking this break.

           The cat, the water melon and the fish, these three big metaphors in Yang Jinsong's recent painting, do not appear together ; they are isolated topics. What they do have in common is that they are more than conventional subjects, as in genre painting or in still lives. Another common feature is that the surface of the painting does not have to be filled with color and motifs in every corner. Jinsong risks something a painter doesn't do very easily- that his paintings could be mistaken for large drawings. And as the double portrait of his wife and himself virtually vanishes, he builds up a new distance to his artistic topic. The tight private circle is broken up towards a further-reaching public investigation.

How did Yang Jinsong come up with these new metaphors, so charged with critical meaning? Let us take the cat first and venture a comparison with two famous appearances of cats in contemporary art. At the 1999 Biennale di Venezia, the South African artist William Kentridge, invited by Harald Szeemann, showed his animated film Stereoscope , with a cat in a leading role. The film represented the disparate state of South African society with a white businessman, caught up in his business deals and losing all contact with other people in his country, including his wife or lover. His torn state of mind is shown through an animated double screen, which is criss-crossed repeatedly by the cat. The cat moves between different sides of a split personality and a disparate society. When the conflicts, demonstrations and uprisings about the conditions of life and work are reaching a climax, the cat rolls itself up and becomes a bomb that explodes and destroys everything. Maybe Mr. Kentridge wanted to stress the untamable independence of this beautiful animal, whose dangerous energy comes to represent an invariable force of nature.

In 2002, the French film auteur Chris Marker begins a documentary about the appearance of a cat in Paris . The cat shows up on many walls, often difficult to reach, grinning toothily. The anonymous street artist who paints it sometimes adds the signature “M.Chat“. There seems to be a connection to the precarious political situation in France , where the right-wing candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen almost won the first round of a presidential election. This threat to democracy in the country was lessened in the second round. But the cat also witnessed the preparations to the American invasion of Iraq , instigated by President G. W. Bush after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. There were many debates and demonstrations in France about this at that time. At these demonstrations, the grinning cat showed up on signs and banners, saying “ faites des chats, pas de guerres“, ” make cats, not wars“. The cat thus becomes a symbol of humorous independence and individuality against inflexible politics. Unfortunately, says Marker, this independent attitude disappeared after a few years, along with its visual feline presence in the city.
Yang Jinsong's cat seems to pick up on this feral independence and its ambivalence, gazing at the viewer in an upright majestic pose, or arching through the whole picture as a dark animal, with fiery eyes and a red, bloody tongue in its open mouth. Sometimes the cat is rolled up and seems to be indifferent to everything, or it might be rearing up and regarding a helicopter like some strange kind of insect. In some pictures the cat rests like a mountain of rugged fur, in others it lounges lazily on its back. If you think of all those tiny dogs in China , overbred and completely dependent on the next available animal clinic, the untamable energy of these cats becomes even more eye-catching. They seem to be saying, “Just you wait.”
While Yang Jinsong's cat represents this untamable power, he lets the motif of the fish become a metaphor of the looming self-destruction of civilization. Western languages are used to fish as metaphors, for example when Pieter Bruegel draws a huge fish like a mountain range on the shore, disgorging smaller and smaller fish, while a fisherman climbs on the big one with his harpoon. The picture's title, Big Fish Eat Small Fish, means the exploitation and humiliation of the little people by the powerful. There are no such metaphors in Chinese. Fish are fish, although they may be prized at the family table or at a restaurant dinner with friends. Yang Jinsong's fish paintings are all the more unusual and exciting, showing plundered and destroyed fish in ever growing formats, up to a canvas of four and a half metres in length and 2.5 metres in height, a huge painting in three parts that was completed in April 2008 and has left the artist's studio only one time since then, to be presented in his solo exhibition in the Indonesian National Museum in Jakarta in December 2008.

                If you want to define a metaphorical space for this iconographic motif in Yang Jinsong's work, you could hardly go back to traditional Chinese motives of living fish swimming happily in their natural environment. So we have to remember it is not only a destroyed, dismembered, maltreated fish, but also a stranded fish, a fish out of water, caught or strung up on barbed wire, and sparsely strewn with tiny emblems of political, economic or media violence like tanks, bulldozers, transport hooks, clearing vehicles, demolished houses or factories with smoking chimneys, TV-screens, helicopters, or broken passenger planes.

                     In Western metaphors, the shipwreck has become the metaphor of a failed civilization – from Turner to G é ricault's Raft of the Medusa, to Caspar David Friedrich, to Mallarm é 's poem “Un coup de D é s ...“ (‘Casting a dice will never abolish chance') and to a series of paintings and drawings by Martin Kippenberger in a late part of his career. Civilization losing out against the uprising of nature. But although Yang Jinsong's fish sees this kind of catastrophe as a failed harmony with nature, it would be too much of a shortcut to reduce the fish to the problem of a failure in protecting the environment. The shock of this fish metaphor goes deeper and is ingrained with a sensitive, intuitive perception of self-destruction in a globalized world, torn from economic and political competition.

                 The series of oils, starting in 2005, is accompanied by many water color paintings, from which you can plainly see the influence of traditional Chinese ink painting on Yang Jinsong's new picture concepts. While his cat playfully morphs into a mountain range only occasionally, the transformation of the fish motif into a general representation of nature requires the fish to apparently change into a landscape. There are different approaches. Either the brush strokes furnish the landscape dimension, or the fish is surrounded by the articulation of a genuine landscape. But in the latter case the fish becomes again merely a motif, and so the larger oils tend to tie in the brush strokes of the fish with an empty varnished background. Therefore I prefer these pictures, which concentrate the drama in the drawing of the fish, with very expressive, partly chaotic strokes. The melodramatic charge is not in a surrounding landscape, and the act of destruction shows up very directly. Tortured nature is represented in the gaping fish jaws; a state of exhaustion becomes a continuing process.

              For four years, Yang Jinsong has been experimenting with new fish paintings, with new positions of the fish, a change in the surface from solid color to graphical drawing, torn up and charged with emotion. Yang Jinsong was also testing color hues. There are fish in black and white on a grey canvas, and other pictures with soft pink and grey hues on a brownish background. If you look into this process more closely, you can see two dangers – the hues of the painting should not become too beautiful, and the painting should not be taken over completely by outbursts of raw drawing. The grey-in-grey fish helped the painter towards a concentrated relation between form and color. He was able to anchor the stranded fish on the picture in the form of a mountain range, suggesting foothills in the lower margins and an endless stretch of 'landscape' at the top of the picture, while the fish at the core keeps the whole manifestation together dynamically.

          Comparing the water color pictures with the oils shows us that that water color painting helped Yang Jinsong to integrate expressive moments of drawing into his oil paintings. They acquired a different density and a more acute emotional weight. This journey into traditional ink painting was not simply an attempt to resurrect old conventions. It was a means of furnishing his oil painting with a thematically relevant force, expressing the spirit of his time. If you see this development in contrast to his earlier period, you could say that a closed-up, self-contained form was broken. And so an enormously powerful drama was set free, which is present in the current social situation. Yang Jinsong's reflected artistic sensibility helps him to attain an emotionally accessible identity, behind the masks of a world plastered with advertisement designs and consumerism.
           The fish paintings could also be, ironically, titled, “Grand Banquet”. Yang Jinsong has used this name for his series of water melons. In 2003 they were the last refuge of his domestic idyll, before they morphed into broken ridges. Now these side walls make the viewer - and in a recent painting from 2010, Jinsong and his wife themselves, seen from the back – seem to be standing in front of a new Great Wall. In 2004, in the sea of a greasy Chongqing hot pot, the production junk, consumer junk and control junk of a brave new world was swimming together in a wild mix of large and small. These allusions seem to have been swept up to the wet surface at the edge of a water melon slice, accompanied by other objects on the side slopes of the melon ridges.

                   We can also find two new motifs among these allusive items. Half-naked miniature prostitutes are crawling around on the sweet fruit, not very different in color, so maybe you don't see them at first glance. But above all there is almost always a dismembered doll; sometimes the head is torn off, or an arm and a leg. This doll also belonged to the junk on the easy chair, alluding to pompous furniture from the Mao era, since 2006. In contrast to earlier pictures with easy chairs, you get the impression of a recent destruction having caused this chaos on those threadbare sofas of a bygone time. But the dismembered doll on the melon mountains seems to contain yet another allusion, especially in combination with the prostitutes. At this banquet, the female in general is thrown on the side of wear and tear, of careless consumption – a discreet and minute hint, expressively shocking nevertheless.

        W ater melons are very large fruits, predestined to be used as metaphors for the Grand Banquet of modern consumer society. But let us first think of their colors, green and red. It is a combination that may evoke, despite the juicier hues, at least in China , a memory of Chinese landscapes. Sichuan province, where Yang Jinsong comes from, is known for its red earth contrasting with green plants. You could also think of monuments of tradition, receiving tourist attention nowadays, like temples, monasteries and palaces with earthy colors, where this kind of color contrast is used for walls and roofs. Finally, you could think of a trivial transfer of these colors onto current mineral water bottles in China , for example in the brand “Nongfu Spring“.

           The red sea of the melon slices as a landscape element is enhanced by pastel-colored, landscape-like surroundings of the melon ridge. The sparsely distributed things with associative meaning, lost all over the fish landscapes and melon ridges, as well as the examination of calligraphic tradition in the fish paintings, have prepared an altogether new kind of format, which can be seen in three big paintings from 2010. They don't have one large motif dominating the whole canvas; it is an exploding pattern of things that carries a contemporary world being lost in boundless infinity.

             The first picture, finished in May 2010, still has the large fish as a structural landscape element, but the fleeting brush strokes of the parts in burgundy and silver-grey colors seem to be melting into the white background. All those watercolor sketches have contributed to this new lightness. Grey lines, which seem to denote either cables or parts of barbed wire, or both, paradoxically, are also structural elements and nuances of scenery, supplemented by smaller and larger distributed objects. The white background makes this fissured or dismembered landscape into a vague phenomenon, hard to define. The relations between its elements seem to be accidental, as if the painter wanted to show that in this modern world everything is situated or happening next to something else in a chaotic way, without any apparent logic. The viewer has to make up his own relationship between the artist on the left, who is looking at a tank across a smoldering fire. Maybe the tank is on its way towards him, and he won't be able to stop it. A terrorist on a monitor, toting a Kalashnikov, is connected by cable to a raw, torn-out heart in the front, a looming explosion. This could be a comment on the absurd interchange of reality and the world of the media. At the sides of the picture, the motifs are overlapping, be they a cigarette butt, an erupting volcano or a building from Tiananmen Square . And so the heterogonous associations could be going on forever into a space that cannot be concentrated in a single view any longer.
                      With this picture, drawing has acquired a new weight in Yang Jinsong's painting. The drawing elements enable him to show the chaotic disintegration of our world, and at the same time visualize the feeling of being torn apart and lost in this world. One picture title is a paraphrase of this new creative approach: “Travellers among Mountains and Streams” from October 2010, where the smoldering fire is a dark ridge delineating a larger scenic formation, while a raw, dismembered lamb has been distributed over the picture. We know the colors grey and pink from the first painting, and here they are supplemented by the changeable green of large lotus leaves. An astronaut in his white suit with his helmet closed is standing lost in the middle. We are not sure if he is just another motif in this torn world, or if he is a visitor from another world, looking – just like the viewer – quite accidentally at this strangely apocalyptic scene.

                    At this point it is time to speak of the particular beauty of these catastrophic worlds, which are manifestations of the artist's passionate wish to do something for this world. Ever since those fish, Yang Jinsong seems to be occupied with the paradoxical coexistence of beauty and terror. It is not easy to hold these two in balance. If one of them gets stronger than the other, the result would be either Kitsch or negative prophecy. This is why the best of those fish demand a certain hardness and discipline of color, and there is a balance between the verve of the drawing process and the blooming colors. The emotions of the painter in his experience of our reality cannot be separated from each other; they are joined to each other like the infinite ends of a parabola.

                       The development of Yang Jinsong's art also follows an inner personal logic, in addition to the artistic logic. We can see this from a few smaller new pictures. It is as if the painter would return to his old passions: to cover every last bit of the canvas and show the familiar motif of a couple in close embrace. But I think Yang Jinsong also puts a new kind of reflection up for discussion. He and his wife are seen from the back, in a boundless landscape, either in a sea of lotus or above the clouds, looking at an insular idyll far away: a small plot of land with a house, a window with their faces, as shadows or lit up dimly by a lamp. You see a wish imagined, and you also see that its fulfillment is very far away. And in between there is his field of occupation with contemporary experience of a warped globalized world.

                     The poetic logic in Yang Jinsong's painting has changed the direction of its view, but kept to its substance. The occupation with traditional ink painting has not led to an invocation of impotent forms of the past, a flight from the modern world. It has enabled suspense and tension between the past and the future. The small portrait of a black cat from 2008, reduced in a close-up to eyes and mouth, the black fur of the face cut by the edge of the painting, could be read as an apotropaic mask, set up with its glowing eyes and mouth in front of a present marked by deep conflicts, and by an absent-minded refusal to acknowledge them.

Ursula Panhans-Bühler
Beijing, Jun e 2011
Translator:Jacqueline WINTER