Wing and a prayer

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 March, 2008, 12:00am

Ye Yongqing says he doesn't think of himself as a professional artist. 'Art is not a profession,' says the Kunming-born, Beijing-based painter. When art becomes settled and fixed, he says, it stops being art. In tune with that, his works range from Gauguin-like idylls in his early years, to almost violent, politically charged art, to the rarefied, spiritual simplicity of his most recent series of bird drawings.

As Free as a Bird, a retrospective organised by Anna Ning Fine Art at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, will show a selection of Ye's art, focusing on his more recent works.

Active since the late 1970s, Ye is among the foremost practitioners of Chinese contemporary art. From the idealistic 80s, when everything seemed possible, through the tough disillusionment of the years following the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 and beyond, his work is both highly individualistic and exemplary of his generation.

Like the migrating birds in his drawings, Ye does not like settling in any one place for too long. Instead, he enjoys flitting back and forth between different identities.

'My life is rather fragmented,' he says. 'Sometimes I'm a curator. At other times, I go back to the studio, then I'm an artist. Sometimes I'm a boss, running a business.'

Ye, who turns 50 this year, used to operate partly commercial art spaces in Chengdu and Kunming comprising galleries, restaurants, cafes and shops. 'At other times I slip into the role of a teacher in my old art school in Chongqing. And when I sit here drinking coffee with you, I'm just someone drinking coffee with you.'

Ye, a tall man with a gentle voice, has an air of self-awareness. Stating that his life is in fragments does not come out as a complaint - on the contrary the sense of instability and flux helps him avoid getting trapped in his roles. 'Art is about expressing the dynamics of the heart, the movements of the mind,' he says. 'That's why in art freedom is absolutely indispensable.'

A strong sense of freedom was on the rise throughout the Chinese art world in Ye's early years, the late 70s and 80s. 'It was like a dam bursting,' Ye says.

He entered the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in Chongqing in 1978, the year that colleges accepted students again for the first time since the Cultural Revolution. 'There were age differences of up to 30 years between the students. Sometimes friendships between students were more like father-son relationships.'

In the same year, Ye and some fellow students - among them some of today's most influential Chinese artists such as Zhang Xiaogang and Mao Xuhui - went on a months-long trip along the Yangtze and later on to Beijing and Tianjin to visit artists, see their exhibitions, hang out in their workshops, chat, learn, make friends and explore what was going on.

'Explore,' says Ye, 'that was the key word at the time. As everyone knows, life is full of questions, puzzles, mysteries, and we set out to explore all this by our own means.

'In fact, the whole 1980s were like that, such a process of exploration, and quite intense. That was a time of experimentation, not just among some painters but everywhere among Chinese intellectuals.'

This euphoric sense of a fresh start, of a new era, came to a nasty end with the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989. 'The 1980s were really like a fairy tale. A very idealistic time, but of course, that all came to naught in 1989.'

The change is clearly visible in Ye's art. If his paintings in the 80s often seemed inspired by ideals of arcadia, the idyllic landscapes abruptly disappeared from his works. 'After 1989, I took a good look at the Chinese reality. What's going on here at all? What is the state of the mainstream culture? Which are its main ingredients? It reminded me of the Cultural Revolution during my childhood.'

Ye turned to formats inspired by propaganda posters and combined this approach with forms and materials from ancient tradition, as in his silk paintings.

The results look violent at times, like dirty graffiti on the walls of a long-abandoned garage. A cartoonish, half-dead bird, one eye crossed out, smeared ink, a few lines from a sentimental Teresa Teng love song, the whole thing painted in yellowed, time-stained, mossy hues, as though it had just been excavated from an ancient tomb, with a big, fire-red index number plastered over the tableau.

'These paintings deal with contemporary problems, but formally they mimic ancient art, like the silk scrolls found in the Mawangdui tombs [Han dynasty burial sites excavated in Changsha during the 70s],' says Ye.

In his view, there is no tension in his silk paintings between ancient form and contemporary content. 'The Chinese have always been very anti-history, forever negating, discarding, destroying tradition, so from this angle, old and new in China go together well, they're consistent. Every age had its cultural revolution,' he says.

In the 90s, Ye's works took on brighter, lighter tones. He produced collages that resemble travel journals in picture-form. Gravity seems to be cancelled out in these complex arrangements of random things that take on unexpected significance in the paintings, rather like snippets of diary entries, reflecting the artist's sense of fragmentation, flux and non-attachment. The work also hints at the Buddhist concept of non-self.

'The sense of self really comes about through being in touch with others, rather as in a house of mirrors,' Ye says. 'But after a while you ask yourself what do you really need, what has really something to do with you, and the result is that you begin to engage in a work of subtraction.'

That is visible in his recent works, highly reduced drawings of birds. The focus on one theme, for example birds, may be unusual in the west, but it is solidly grounded in Chinese tradition where different themes each have their own expressive significance. In the Tang and Song dynasties, shan shui or landscape paintings ceased to be attempts at realistic depiction. Instead, artists turned them into a means to express psychological and spiritual states. Similarly, the bird motif has been a way for artists to express their character, their inner nature and their deepest ideals.

In the bird drawings, Ye is looking for simplicity, throwing everything overboard that's not indispensable.

'The bird is something lofty in the old upper class culture, but among the common people it's a dirty word,' says Ye. 'And so you can enter some kind of game of deception, something I enjoy.'

The same is true for his drawing method. The bird drawings seem like rough, quick, spontaneous scribbles on first look. On closer examination, it becomes apparent how finely crafted they are. Ye uses complicated techniques to enhance the impression of coarseness.

This contradictory approach plays tricks on the mind, but then, as Ye says: 'Art is about undermining rigid patterns of thought.'

As Free as a Bird - an exhibition of paintings by Ye Yongqing, Apr 5-19, 4/5F HK Arts Centre, 2 Harbour Rd, Wan Chai. Inquiries: 2521 3193