Hong Kong exhibitions showcase artist Yang Jiechang's mix of wit and woe
It is easy to understand why someone who grew up during the Cultural Revolution might have a darker view of the world. That seems to be true of Chinese artist Yang Jiechang, who says: "We live in a time of conflict and unpredictable change, where feelings of insecurity and disorientation prevail."
Not that Yang thinks the world is any worse than it has ever been. "Actually, the world is always pretty foul. Nothing has changed," he says.
Despite this dismal assessment, Yang's art can be witty and playful, as visitors to his upcoming exhibition will discover.
Even in conversation, there is a constant counterpoint of irrepressible joie de vivre that runs alongside his gloomy outlook. "China, the world, everything's a mess. But chaos creates opportunities, either for property developers or artists."
He has the advantage of being able to observe this mess from an international perspective. The Foshan-born artist has lived in Europe since leaving China in 1988 to take part in an exhibition in Paris just before the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Now, he divides his time between Paris and Heidelberg, and visits China several times a year.
He says his transnationalism has not erased his Chinese cultural roots. "It's impossible. I first picked up a calligraphy brush when I was three years old," he says.
Neither has he lost his fascination with Taoism and Zen Buddhism, which he studied under the guidance of monks in Guangdong province in the early 1980s.
But the fluidity of his identity is reflected in his art, which is about the absence of absolutism, and the space between right and wrong.
The series that made his name at the 1989 exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou was called 100 Layers of Ink. (A selection of these works will be on view at Alisan Fine Arts from June 8 to July 18 as part of this year's Le French May festival.)
His repetitive application of black ink on dried layers, like lacquering, creates large, meditative works that blur the line between painting and sculpture.
Described as groundbreaking at the time, its success did not trap Yang in the "modern ink" category of artists and he has adopted various media — from photography and video to performance art — while experimenting with new approaches to Chinese painting and calligraphy.
His more recent works will be shown in another solo exhibition at the Hong Kong Central Library from June 26 to July 10. "Good Morning Hong Kong" is curated by his long-time collaborator, German art historian Martina Köppel-Yang, who is also his wife.
"The show's name has to do with the fact that when I fly to Hong Kong, I always arrive early in the morning. It's also my greeting to the South China Sea. Living in Europe, I miss the subtropical sea air that I grew up with," says Yang.
The centrepiece is a 14-panel painting from Yang's ongoing Tale of the 11th Day series that has not been shown in public before.
Inspired by Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron — a collection of novellas in which 10 escapees from the plague in Florence take turns to tell 10 stories each over the same number of days — Yang decided to become the 11th storyteller during the global financial crisis. "The years 2008 and 2009 were terrible times when a lot of people, including my wife and I, lost a lot. We thought we no longer lived in a man-eat-man kind of world. Well, we still do," he says.
The 14th century storytellers in The Decameron sought distraction from the horrors they had witnessed with tales that were in turn moralistic and risqué. The paintings in Yang's series are along similar lines, although he is a lot more explicit than Boccaccio: set against a bucolic landscape, naked men and women are depicted having sex with animals.
"I want to present scenes of equality. Equality between man and nature, equality between species. When we are naked, we are all the same," he says.
It may sound utopian but viewers will be unlikely to shake off the feeling that they are looking at the stuff of nightmares.
This sense of unease also lurks in other works featured in the Central Library exhibition, such as his copying of paintings by Adolf Hitler, who famously applied to Vienna's Academy of Fine Arts twice but couldn't get in. Unlike the Chapman brothers' defacing of Hitler originals in 2008, Yang — a former teacher at the Fine Arts Academy of Guangzhou — wants to see what happens when he copies from a "bad" art student, and to explore guilt and innocence in art.
He is also bringing Oh My God, a 2002 calligraphy diptych accompanied by video installations that was his response to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York the year before.
Also featured at the library is a work inspired by Nick Ut's so-called "napalm girl" photograph. That image — so horrific that it helped prompt the American withdrawal from Vietnam — was an example of the power of art, he says, and why the exhibition's title gives a nod to the 1987 film Good Morning Vietnam.
Yang says he avoids mainstream politics and does not subscribe to any particular philosophy. He compares the role of the artist to that of a shaman — one who is moved by the spirits of heaven and earth. And yet, his works suggest an intense reaction to the acts of men. Every five years, he creates an artwork paying tribute to the victims of Tiananmen Square. (It's a quinquennial tradition because "doing it every year would be far too depressing".)
The two exhibitions in Hong Kong span his early and recent works but he is refusing to call it a retrospective. His interpretation of the world has always been the same, his wife says. Even the new works were inspired by the same thought, the same core idea, he had 20 years ago.
Happily for art lovers, Yang doesn't seem short of new ways of expressing that thought.
Early Works by Yang Jiechang: 100 Layers of Ink, Alisan Fine Arts, 2305 Hing Wai Centre, 7 Tin Wan Praya Road, Aberdeen, June 8-July 18; Hong Kong Central Library, Exhibition Galleries 1-3, 66 Causeway Road, Causeway Bay, June 26-July 10