One of Paul Gauguin’s most famous paintings is entitled Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where are We Going? (1897-1898, oil on canvas, 139.1 x 374.6 cm). The French painter executed this later work in Tahiti, his island of dreams, of exile and of disillusionment. It is the exotic remoteness that enabled Gauguin to ponder on the question of human origin and destiny, and to interrogate himself upon the fundamental questions of identity.
At the end of the 19th century it required a several-week journey in order to get into contact with the South Pacific civilisation. Today, however, the possibilities of communication tend to erase distances and render the world virtually simultaneous. In principle, it is possible to know what is going on in one part of the world from another. Tensions between local and global do not exist, everything is here and there at the same moment, which makes identification in relation to a place all the more problematical. One of the major dilemmas artists are confronted with today, could be summed up in the following ways: Should I cultivate a personal idiom or a specific cultural language in order to distinguish myself from the enormous mass of artistic expressions? Or otherwise, should I adopt a universal language in order to be noticed by the rest of the world? The artist, indeed, has to choose between two identities: one founded on difference and the other based on similarity. Between these two extremes, a great number of nuances are possible. Nevertheless, let us point out that only non-Western artists are entitled to represent the culture from which they come from: we look for “Chineseness” in the work of a Chinese artist or for some indigenous traits in that of an Indian artist; Canadian, while German or French artists, on the other hand, have the privilege of using a “universalistic” language.
Luo Mingjun left China in 1987. The emigration to Switzerland of this Fine Arts teacher at Hunan University and member of the Chinese Artists Association, not only generated a painful feeling of uprooting in her, but also an eager curiosity and a craving to assimilate the new environment. New country, new family, new life, and new culture: Swiss exoticism led her to question her identity and drove her to wonder about her own cultural heritage and the Western academicism taught in her country. We have to imagine the artist in an almost schizophrenic state: torn between China and Switzerland, between East and West, between here and there, between isolation and integration, between tradition and emancipation. Luo Mingjun is a prey to all persistent and irresolvable contradictions. She will, in the long run, end up finding out that the discomfort, or even the danger of the in between can be transformed into a challenge, into the recognition and the appropriation of a neutral, but in no
way consensual space, a space of negotiation and of translation, a space of struggle or of exchange, a third country, a no man’s land, thus a land to conquer.
The first step in this conquest was to abandon oil paint and canvas in favour of China ink and paper. Hence, the refusal of what was imported and imposed in China by the Russian academicism, and also a return to an ancestral tradition that once constituted the glory of the Chinese culture. This shift does not only involve a technique, but also a philosophy. Once dry, the oil paint is a paste that forms a layer covering the surface, the canvas, and which conceals this latter entirely; oil painting is in the domain of realism and illusionism; it is textured and materialist, and serves to reproduce reality. China ink, on the other hand, is fluid, belonging to the world of water and clouds. It integrates the support and lets it partially apparent: taking into account what is left empty. It does not reproduce reality, but creates one. With the help of China ink Luo Mingjun, first of all, explored the possibilities of Chinese calligraphy. She searched for means to break up the squares on which the ideograms were based or to confer a spatial dimension to them. From these specific cultural givens, the artist invented a new language, both private and universal at the same time, and therefore authentically artistic. This work of deconstruction was done in various steps: in 1992, she calligraphed the first eighteen passages of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching on three adjacent walls of a given space, thus enveloping the spectator with the Taoist spirit. The following year, the continuation of the text was fragmented into forty elements of rectangular panels. As each one was placed on two rods inserted in the wall, they were theoretically interchangeable: thus indicating the artist’s will to break away from the founding text. A few years later (1996) she decomposed the remaining eighty-one passages of Lao Tzu, covering the floor with these fragments: the text becoming a basis or a support, and an object to trample on at the same time. (Tao Te Ching means the Book of the Way). This principle was pursued by Luo Mingjun during an exchange exhibition in Geneva (1998), where she took several pages from French and Chinese dictionaries explaining the words ‘go’ and ‘return’, and placed them directly onto the floor so as to evoke a thirty-five-meter long red carpet that spectator was forced to tread on it with his feet. This installation put forward an important element that would characterize a whole series of subsequent works: the search for an active and participating spectator.
In the meantime, by using China ink, the artist developed a technique of her own. In the same way as she did with Lao Tzu’s text, Luo laid out 40 sheets of rice paper mounted on the same amount of wood panels in four rows of ten elements. Liberated henceforth from calligraphy, she produced spots and stains of ink onto these square surfaces according to a random rhythm. The result was a work with a significant title - Break up -, with forty
fragments of “constellations” impossible to reassemble into one single picture, for each element obeyed its own laws (of dispersal, of centrifugal movement, of dilution, etc.), and therefore rendered unique and impossible to copy or to reproduce. This liberating dripping allows the artist to move away from calligraphy and the classical Chinese landscape, with representation in short. Even if this technique refers to the traditional landscape style called “spattered ink”; it contributes towards creating an analytical artwork, by underlining the minimal ingredients of China ink: the dot of ink (which is an even smaller unit than a brushstroke) and the paper which is equivalent to the background.
Once having established these new principles in the most radical way, Luo Mingjun can once again devote herself to figurative painting, to the depiction of what she calls the “small things” that she classifies into two categories: the containers (the vase, the cup, the bowl, the glass etc.) and the instruments (chopsticks and other kitchen utensils, the nail, the pin, the brush, the electric cables etc.). The artist often creates series within a category (such as a set of nine bowls, a diptych of spoons, three rolled up electric cables). She develops her technique that becomes her style, and harmonises it with what she has chosen to represent. The vase or the cup for instance, objects that serve to separate liquid from its environment, are presented in turn as a volume with a richly decorated surface, as a two-dimensional form or simply as a contour, and are shown under all these different aspects. The way in which Luo Mingjun creates these vases or bowls is perfectly in match with the underlying concepts. Due to the application of China ink on wet paper, the objects dissolve, the contours liquefy, the vase becomes empty, and the content is no longer contained, but blends into its environment, the paper support, and sometimes even floods it completely. There is no more space left for technical control: the reality of the vase diminishes as the reality of the work increases. Nothing remains of the object apart from its aura, its essence. Lao Tzu once said that: “Clay is fashioned into vessels; but it is on their empty hollowness that their use depends.” While Luo lets the vase go off as an object, she tries to recapture it as an idea, as a painted one for that matter. This process can be called conceptual painting, or philosophy through the picture.
The other category of objects no longer concerns containers to be contemplated, but utensils to be handled, used for beating, for skimming, for grabbing, for hanging or for painting. They are represented in the same manner, in osmosis with the paper or the environment that they are supposed to affect through their action. All these instruments have a secondary pictorial function: the chopsticks no longer serve to seize food cut into pieces, they are put into action on the paper inscribing their shadows, their trembling, or basically their dynamics; they move and dance on their own. These utensils illustrate or duplicate the action of painting, of which the most obvious example is a picture showing a painted brush painting. Another more recent series of paintings depict objects like the lipstick, the handbag, the champagne glass,
the jewellery or the perfume bottle; all of which are objects coveted by Chinese women henceforth trained for shopping and for consuming luxury products. In 1958 Mao warned the nation against the threat of capitalist temptations by introducing the concept of the “Sweet weapon”. According to him, the bourgeoisie devoted itself to corrupt the people “by firing bullets wrapped in sugar” The fact that these dangerous objects are depicted by China ink, thus reintegrating the reality of the traditional support, proves that the artist learned in the meantime to make use of irony, a means of distancing, that enables her to occupy this space in-between cultures, that is to say the above-mentioned neutral ground. The irony culminates in these circular compositions accompanied by other feminine utensils, tampons, absorbing objects in the same way as rice paper onto which they inscribe their “tadpole” movements. The round format recalls the microscopic view and favours the association with a spermatozoon.
The logic of Luo Mingjun’s trajectory is clear: it starts with the reinvention of the China ink technique and with the resort to calligraphy and to Taoist philosophy, passing through the gradual deconstruction of the text towards the appropriation of a personal imagery, to finally end up in an ironical critique of the tradition. Once this return to the sources had been done, Luo succeeded, in 2004, at Moutier in renewing her old academic oil paintings, dated before 1987, that she had took out of their frames and had kept in a corner of her Swiss studio beforehand. Hung on hooks on the wall, she combined her series of portraits with visiting cards that she had framed or provided with passepartout, recalling engravings and drawings. The visiting cards came from unknown people, Chinese and Swiss equally, of all ages and all professions, hence anonymous as the people depicted with the oil paint. The artist seems to imply that everything is about exchange and relations nowadays, that the identity of someone is of little importance. Would the precise and unchanging identity that allows oil painting be nothing more than a delusion, rejected in favour of the fluidity and spontaneity of China ink – that Luo Mingjun never stopped using? For the artist herself, would it be less a matter of choosing between a Chinese and a Swiss identity, than to open up a space of negotiation?
By accepting to intervene in a temple or church, from 2002 Luo Mingjun attacked another founding text of a civilisation, the Bible, and thus found an ideal space of negotiation. Having learned classical Western painting, Christian iconography was not in the least unknown to her. Yet, she dealt with the subjects that were imposed upon her in a, let us say, Chinese way, opening therefore a vast “ecumenical” field, the term to be taken in the largest sense of the word. The starting point was the biblical text and the approach consisted of seeking for images/objects in order to arrive at a plastic work of art At the Pasquart church in Biel (2002), the theme of the empty tomb, the first sign of the resurrection of Jesus, allowed her to
visualise the absence by erecting a soft, thin wall of torn fabric bands, punctuated by large commas (the sheets in which Jesus was supposed to be wrapped in were apparently found beside the open tomb). Working in a subtle way on the notions of absence, of tearing apart, of openness, of absent corpse/corpus of the invisible text, the artiste actually managed to converge, without forcing things, the Christian theme of the abandoned tomb and the concept of the void – the Taoist theme par excellence Another religious work by Luo Mingjun, financed by the German temple in Biel, on the Ten Commandments, was presented under the aspect of a series of glasses of water onto which were printed the words “ A thousand rivers reflect a thousand moons”. This poetic sentence (maybe taken from an old Chinese poem) evoked the problem of uniqueness and multiplicity, a possible reference to the First Commandment that says, quote Thou shalt have no other gods before Me!” The glasses were put at the disposal of the visitors of the exhibition/the temple. The water they contained could have been interpreted as a purifying agent, or even a communion between the people present, who could, for that matter, take the glasses away with them, another example of a work that demands the active participation of the audience.
A third work by Luo Mingjun, executed in 2000, also integrates Christian iconography: her Noah’s Ark is a nine meter-long boat made of daily news papers from all over the world. Hence, Noah’s Ark is nothing more than an excuse for dealing with the matter of globalisation through an “archetype” image. What can save us? Information - the wall of the boat - is fragile: wouldn’t there be too much information or an insurmountable chaos on the level of communication (a new Tower of Babel)? Or on the contrary would the mix of identities, of nations, of languages, be a guaranty for the salvation the world? As the Genevan go/return, this papier mache boat is an autobiographical work that deals with the dangers, uncertainties, but maybe also with the privileges, with the in between. Twenty years after her last exhibition in China, Luo Mingjun goes home to her country of origin as an artist. The Creek Art Centre in Shanghai offers her shelter, that is a space to make her own, a place to protect and to unveil herself. But it also supplies her with a symbolic material, halfway between liquid and solid, hard and soft, close to paper: the cloth (linen, veil, curtain, skin, sheets, shroud, wall, tent...), that she will use to inscribe her life, her sufferings, her desires, her intimacy upon, to bandage her wounds, to spread out her scares and her experiences, to meditate upon her multiple and changing identities.
Bernard Fibicher, June 2006
Translation: Zsuzsana Szabo
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