Han Xin's brush with irony

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 May, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 May, 1997, 12:00am

On the night Deng Xiaoping died, Han Xin was sitting up late in Columbus, Ohio, listening to the radio. The reaction of the Chinese people would only be known, the broadcaster remarked, when they woke up the next morning.

'But I thought well, I'm Chinese and I'm reacting now,' said the Shanghai-born artist who has lived in the United States for the past 17 years.

And he painted through the whole of that night, using his dining table as his studio.

The resulting diptych includes one of the funniest paintings in Hong Kong 1997 - - It must be Shangri-La, the latest in Hong Kong's fertile (and seemingly lucrative) crop of handover exhibitions, which opened at Hanart Gallery on Tuesday night.

The piece, titled The Philosophy, includes a painting of Deng carrying two very fat, immensely long, pet cats - one sly black, one grinning white. It is instantly reminiscent of Deng's famous feline philosophy - that no matter the colour, it is the rat-catching abilities of a cat that counts in the end.

Yet the cats in Han's painting are plump Persians, luxury cats whose mouse-hunting capabilities seem dubious, and who are almost weighing down the former leader with the weight of his analogy.

On the other side of the diptych is a swirly abstract of grey and white clouds, which seems to suggest that if you blend black and white what you get is a sludgy grey.

They are not too hard to read, but subtlety is not a pre-requisite of the Hong Kong handover shows appearing at almost every gallery in town. Use of unambiguous symbolism is, it seems, the current rule for marking in paint and ink a political event which is itself stuffed with symbols.

This exhibition - with its pop-art mix of realistically executed portraits of Chris Patten, Tung Chee-hwa, Mao, and other men of the moment, with abstracts of fireworks, bicycles and other representations - is light-hearted with a twist of irony.

Before the show had even opened, it had proved its popularity among searchers of 1997 memorabilia, willing to pay between $18,000 and $35,000 a frame.

A picture of Mr Tung and Zhou Nan drinking champagne against a red background, matched with a black and white photo-style picture of Mao doing the same - suggesting that today's China is perhaps more red than yesterday's - sold before the show opened, by a buyer on the telephone, who had seen the painting depicted on the invitation card.

Another instant purchase was One Duck Two Systems. To the left is Mr Tung, in restaurant worker's overalls, unhooking a roast Peking Duck; to the right Mr Patten is force-feeding a live duck so it fattens up quickly.

Wishful Thinking, a triptych showing Deng and Margaret Thatcher shaking hands in the middle, with their poles-apart dreams of perfect results (represented by a laughing Buddha on one side and a chocolate-box rider on a white horse galloping into the sunset on the other) was snapped up by David Tang at the opening.

'It's the point of view of an outsider to Hong Kong in one way,' admitted Han. 'But I've been to Hong Kong many times and I feel involved in what is happening.' Ask Han where he lives, and he rattles off the list: a parental home in Berkely, California, a studio in New York, that dining table in Ohio, a family home in Shanghai and friends all over the world.

A recent, evidently painful, divorce means that he has many homes and none. And it also meant that when he sat down in February and - painting for up to 18 hours a day - put together this show of 70 small gouache on paper paintings for Hong Kong, he was filled with that nervous energy that comes from personal trauma.

Like too many mainland artists, Han - whose grandfather died in a communist prison for diplomatic collaboration with the British, and whose parents were actively persecuted in the Cultural Revolution for being teachers - has had a share of trauma.

At the age of 17, Han (now a youthful-looking 42) was the youngest artist to be declared a 'black painter' by the Gang of Four for his immoral artistic tendencies. What was he doing? 'Actually I was experimenting with Impressionism,' he laughed.

'China was so isolated, you just didn't know what was happening everywhere else. We were so naive then: I came to Impressionism about a century late.' Years later, Han was invited to spend six months as a guest artist at Claude Monet's house at Giverney in France. 'Sometimes I laughed at myself, especially sitting in Monet's garden, in June 1989. Life is so full of irony.' He usually paints landscapes, he said, but recently - and mostly for Hong Kong, where he had a show last year called From Mao to Now - he has been experimenting with pop-art political cartooning.

One of his own favourites is a pastel picture of Jiang Zemin playing accordion.

'I was very amused to hear that during a conference in Manila, Jiang Zemin was asked what his favourite tune was, and he said that it was Love Me Tender.

'It made a lasting impression and made me think about Hong Kong, and how it needs a bit of tender love from Beijing right now.' Hong Kong 1997 - It Must Be Shangri-La, Hanart TZ Gallery, 5/F Old Bank of China Building. Until June 7