The artist who used thick red thread to stitch two halves of an apple together, and did the same with her Chinese and Swiss identity cards, has finally decided to take up residence here and now. Which gives rise to two questions: what is here? And what does now mean? Mingjun Luo's life path and oeuvre have both been shaped by her dual identity, and structured – ineluctably but so lucidly – around the concept of cultural hybridity.
First contradiction: in China in the early 1980s, at the Hunan Normal University's Academy of Fine Art, Mingjun Luo opted for majoring in oil painting, a Western medium often taught by teachers trained in Russia. Her talent with oils earned her a post as assistant professor, teaching a method with no historical roots in her home country. But when she arrived in Switzerland – and here lies the second paradox – contact with Western contemporary art forced her to give up her portraits and landscapes in oils and, instead of devoting herself to handing on a skill, to create herself a new idiom within her isolation. Like everything we tend to repress, the portrait genre she had successfully practised in China was to resurface in another form: in the final analysis, is her framing – of bowls, clouds, rolls of paper and tampaxes, all more or less centrally placed – not that of the portrait? And how can we fail to spot an ironic paraphrasing of the acclaimed propaganda painting President Mao Inspecting the Countryside in Guangdong (1972) in this family ramble in the Jura, with its central, white-shirted female character advancing down a road that
opens out towards the viewer? This forced return to the fountainhead allows Mingjun Luo to remain rooted in her tradition while demarcating herself from the contemporary art scene in Switzerland and Europe.
Chen Yanning, President Mao Inspecting the Countryside in Guangdong, 1972
Interestingly, each time she exhibits in the city she now lives in, in a context fundamentally different from the one she was familiar with in China, Mingjun Luo feels compelled to surround herself with the known. At her first exhibition at the Centre Pasqu’Art in Bienne in 1992 she devoted three adjacent walls to her own calligraphy of the first eighteen chapters of Lao Tse's Tao Te Ching; and the second time round she covered the walls of the city museum's biggest room with pieces of fabric printed every which way with hundreds of photographs of her life in China and Switzerland; the common factor was the colour red, and the installation was called Poussière rouge (Red Dust, 2008). The point here was to gradually conquer a new territory, to appropriate a place and cover it with signs that would give it significance – first of all for herself. I shall look into the possible deciphering of these signs later. In the same spirit, in Shanghai in 2007, at her first exhibition in China for more than twenty years, she showed Douleur (Suffering), a suspended length of white gauze patiently embroidered in red with words in French and Chinese and with everyday personal items – lipstick, a brush, a visiting card, a whisk – which she calls "little things": a new way of constructing a world, of appropriating a space. Indeed, it is "through 'little things' that she
marks out her world, a small world full of mysteries whose intimate nature excludes us."1
As we have seen, this conquest of a territory had begun with the abandoning of oil painting in favour of Chinese ink and paper: in other words a rejection of an imported, academic medium imposed by the Russians, and a return to an ancestral tradition that had been the pride of Chinese culture. Mingjun Luo began by using Chinese ink to explore the possibilities of calligraphy, striving either to shatter the implicit square that hems each ideogram in, or to endow the characters with a spatial dimension and thus, using these specific cultural givens, to invent a new language at once private and universal. This work of deconstruction began in 1992 with the Lao Tse work described above. The following year saw an ensuing part of the text broken up into forty rectangular panels, each placed on two rods set in the wall and thus theoretically interchangeable: an urge to point up a breaking-free from the founding text. Some years later, in 1996, she broke down the rest of Lao Tse's 81 chapters into fragments spread over the floor: the text, whose title is often translated as The Way and Its Power, serves here as basis, medium and guide. Mingjun Luo took this principle further in Geneva in 1998: pages from French and Chinese dictionaries explaining the words "go" and "return" were laid on the floor like a red
carpet 35 metres long, which viewers had no choice but to walk on.2 This installation highlights a major element that would characterise a whole series of later works: the quest for an actively participating viewer. The conquest of the territory culminates in a plinth constructed by the artist which enables each visitor to assume a position in a given space and in relation to others: an indisputable sign of the search for a here and now.
At the same time, and still working with Chinese ink, the artist had developed a distinctive method. On 40 sheets of rice paper individually mounted on wooden panels, arranged like Lao Tse's text in four rows of ten entities, she broke free of calligraphy and dotted the square segments with randomly orchestrated ink marks. The result: the significantly titled Break Up (1999), 40 "constellations" that could never be brought together as a single image, as each obeys its own laws of, for example, dispersion, centrifugal movement and dilution, and thus cannot be copied or reproduced. Having thus taken her experiments with Chinese ink to their desired conclusion, Mingjun Luo was now free to return to oil painting.
These new works on canvas effect a perfect synthesis between the media of Chinese ink and oils. White paint on unprimed canvas
functions in the opposite way from black Chinese ink on white paper, and yet it retains the ink's essential parameters: fluidity, and the visibility of the picture support forming an integral part of the composition and thus excluding all retouching. However it is photographs – the very opposite of the imprecise and the unfinished – that serve as a point of departure for Mingjun Luo's paintings and drawings: images marking out the course of her life from her childhood in China to the present day. Transposing these photographs into another medium, that of painting, she reproduces a reality based on fragments of her biography; but at the same time she cuts free of this reality, depersonalising it, distancing it, and creating a new reality accessible to all. For the object to take on an independent, universal reality, it must undergo a process of paring down, of effacement or, rather, of coding, the aim of which is to render the understanding of a document impossible to anyone who does not possess the (de)coding key. So something apparently contradictory is involved in Mingjun Luo's approach: a real effacement of the image on the canvas, together with a determination to make it, to a certain extent, comprehensible. But what exactly is to be decoded and made accessible to everyone? The Chinese context? The Western context? The artist's personal, biographical input? Yet isn't all this coded, ciphered in turn by a consciously chosen technique that leaves the viewer real freedom to project his or her own faces, landscapes, feelings and knowledge?
The introduction of the concept of trace, which immediately triggers the more active notion of a traced-out path, allows us to resolve this seeming contradiction. The idea of the trace permeates all
Mingjun Luo's explorations, including her scrutiny of her own trace in the world ("red dust") and of colour on canvas, Chinese ink on rice paper, pencil on paper and ephemeral installations in particular spaces. In her work the trace of a culture and accumulated memory finds concrete expression in a path made by paint or graphite, or even in a photograph or a video. This pendular movement triggered by the trace and the path – between fragment and totality (the trace being at once whole and fragment: a totality manifested as a single part), between the finite and the non-finite, between the journey and its goal – is actually the negotiating space, the third country, the free territory there to be conquered. Working from the concept of "creolisation", the French anthropologist, philosopher and poet Édouard Glissant takes issue with the "false universality of thought systems" and makes a case for a "trace thinking . . . valid for all": "I believe we have to move closer to trace thinking, a non-system of thought which will be neither dominant nor systematic nor intimidating, but rather intuitive, fragile, ambiguous and the best suited to the extraordinary complexity and dimensional multiplicity of the world we live in."3
The ambiguous, subtle and (by definition) fragmentary traces that Mingjun Luo consigns to canvas or paper develop an insistent presence it would not be mistaken to describe as auratic. Walter Benjamin associates trace and aura in his Arcades Project: "The trace is the appearance of a nearness, however far removed the thing that left it behind may be. The aura is the appearance of a distance, however
close the thing that calls it forth. In the trace we gain possession of the thing; in the aura it takes possession of us."4 Benjamin's perception of landscape5 was the trigger for this famous formulation of the dialectical relationship between trace and aura, proximity and distance, acting and being acted on. And China, by stressing correlation, frees us from rationalism (rejected by Glissant), Manichaeism (which Benjamin seeks to transcend) and composition (practised by Western painters). What characterises Chinese landscape painting, says French Sinologist François Jullien, is "this opening-up of a distance within the very heart of a nearness."6 He goes on to explain that "China replaces the unitary term 'landscape' with endless interaction between opposing factors which enter into partnership and through which the world is matricially designed and organised."7
Mingjun Luo's world, the outcome of tough negotiations between two cultures8 and thus powerfully symptomatic of the multiplicity of the modern world – the "creolised" world, Édouard Glissant would call it – is essentially dialectical: open-ended, fluid and relational, without ever reaching a synthesis that would stand as a kind of final, fixed result. Whichever medium she chooses, her use of it is always relevant and unexpected. In her pencil drawings she deploys the classical (Western) techniques of hatching and areas left in reserve. But far from zeroing in on a motif or expressing it directly, she prefers to suggest it by indicating only the shadows. On the other hand, in her photography – almost exclusively comprising nocturnal images – she focuses on the lit areas.9 Her media complement each other while retaining their independence. The entire oeuvre has to do with transition, the exchange between light (often no more than a twinkling) and shadow, solid and void, order and chaos,10 appearance and disappearance, precision and vanishment. As memory strives to catch up, the trace appears along a path and the reflection conjures up an originary but totally elusive object.
In this exploration and its shifts not only between cultures but also between media, Mingjun Luo's clouds represent a significant stage, an astonishing degree zero of simplicity and the self-evident. These are not trompe-l'oeil clouds: they cannot be illusionistic given the assertive presence of the raw, unprimed canvas they are painted on. They contain no symbolic meaning, no reference to any world beyond themselves; all they offer is a minimum of heavily diluted white paint, virtually nothing, more than an intimation of paint – even, I would say, a paradoxical effacing of paint. This is, once again, the Chinese ink technique, unavoidably monochromatic, but here in the negative: white paint on dark canvas. The artist simultaneously uses and reverses a traditional principle described by Hubert Damisch: "the painting of the 'scholars', which is the subject of most of the Chinese treatises on landscape painting, first and foremost among them Shitao's Comments, is monochrome painting that uses only tonal differences."11 While drawing on some of the parameters of classical Chinese painting, Mingjun Luo's clouds decidedly do not belong to the landscape tradition, one of whose favoured motifs is a mountain bathed in mist or clouds. "Having no fixed form in the Chinese view of things, clouds are especially effective embodiments of the mutations taking place within what the Chinese perceive as a universe in a
perpetual state of flux."12 Each landscape painting is an emanation of this philosophy of the relational, of the circulation between yin and yang. For a Chinese traditional painter a cloud cannot be considered simply for itself – which is exactly what Mingjun Luo does when she sets one at the centre of her compositions, with no mountain for it to veil and/or reveal. Yet when the cloud is "placed" on the raw cotton, its random shape enters the fine, straight-line weave of the canvas, soaking the vegetal surface with pigment and oil in a perfect symbolising of the earth/sky dialectic. Emptiness here is more than mere unfinishedness: it is deep receptivity. And just as emptiness can give rise to a shape – or the opposite of a shape: an ephemeral cloud – the roll of paper that appears on this void is a potential bearer of text or image.
To sum up: Mingjun Luo's emigration to Switzerland had brought a painful uprooting, but with it an enormous curiosity and eagerness to assimilate this new environment. New country, new family, new life, new culture: the exoticism of Switzerland challenged her identity and led to a calling into question of her cultural heritage and the Western academic approaches taught in her homeland. We have to stop and think about this artist torn between China and Switzerland, here and there, isolation and integration, tradition and emancipation. Prey to endless, enduringly unresolved contradictions, she would nonetheless ultimately learn that
"in-between" can morph into a challenge, into recognition and appropriation of a neutral yet non-consensual space, a space of negotiation and translation, of struggle or interchange – a no man's land that could be conquered. Mingjun Luo is advancing gradually through her conquest of this "third space" of freedom and universality. This space is here, evolving into the space of the oeuvre and of the exhibition (by espousing Elsewhere as well), just as the confrontation with the past is happening now, before the eyes of the perceiver (in his embracing of the Other). Here and now: not a culmination, but a project without end.