Heaven’s Course Is Constant

The Art of Yu Nancheng


Dr. Duan Jun 

Art Critics, Fine Art, Tsinghua University

 

Chinese culture is currently in the midst of a remarkable period of integration into the broader global culture. Today’s China sees foreign and indigenous cultural elements bound up in a steady process of influence and mutual adaptation,and yet broadly speaking, these foreign influences cannot yet be said to have been completely incorporated into the main body of Chinese culture. Indeed many of the most significant cultural turning points in Chinese history have themselves been predicated on the introduction of foreign cultural forms which, after having been fully processed and reinterpreted along native lines, came to foster the birth of new modes of civilisation. It took, for instance, the complete assimilation and naturalization of Buddhist thought on the part of Neo-Confucian thinkers for Chinese philosophical traditions to reach new heights of sophistication. So although in this day and age it is no longer possible or even desirable for Chinese artists to restrict their artistic vision to the perspective of a single people or nation, this does not prevent them from using China’s own indigenous artistic traditions as a foundation from which to seek to understand the world at large.

 

In the course of his forty years as a practicing artist, Yu Nancheng has long since internalised the lessons to be learnt from foreign artistic traditions, but he is equally aware of the inherent allure that traditional Chinese culture holds; much of his work therefore seeks to reinterpret this rich cultural heritage in light of the particular challenges of the modern age. The series entitled Tai Chi, within his larger series, China Red, is representative of this trend in his art. Although many westerners inevitably associate the term Tai Chi solely with the martial art of the same name, it is in fact a concept with much deeper philosophical significance and one which occupies a place at the very heart of Chinese civilisation. The term has been variously translated into English as “The Supreme Ultimate”, “The Supreme Polarity”, or, in Richard Wilhelm’s seminal translation of the Book of Chan ges, as ‘The Great Primal Beginning’, and it can be roughly equated with that principle from which all existence ultimately flows. In the Book of Changes it states: “Therefore there is in the Changes the Great Primal Beginning. This generates the two primary forces. The two primary forces generate the four images. The four images generate the eight trigrams.” From this passage it is evident that Tai Chi is born out of Change and it is through the mutual interactions and alternations between the primary forces of ‘hard and soft’ – the active and the quiescent – that the myriad changes arise and give manifestation to form in a ceaseless cycle of generation, disintegration and regeneration. Yu Nancheng’s art likewise moves from the simple into the complex, in the Tai Chi series for instance, he takes this principle of Change and seeks to give it concrete expression in the crowds of people engaged in the practice of Tai Chi. The canvas itself moves out of extreme simplicity into a great complex criss-cross of wheeling, roiling figures all practicing Tai Chi and while the very complex can often be viewed as being somehow limited, in the case of Yu’s works, any spatial limitations are central position. Because the subject matter he chooses to depict abounds in social significance, generally speaking it is with this Confucian strain in Chinese culture that Yu Nancheng’s artworks share the greatest affinity. It was Liang Qichao who once wrote ‘In China, Daoist and Mohist thinkers have always tended to view practical matters as possessing little investigative value, regarding them as being somewhat vulgar and beneath their concerns. The ideal for them then has always been to leave society in search of a place that transcends mundane reality, and although their approach may yet be a little more down-to-earth than those intellectuals who live their lives purely in their heads, they are still at a very far remove from the common concerns of daily life. It is only with the Confucians that we see an earnest attempt to take the substance of social life as the foundation for their philosophical principles, be it in cultivation of the self, or for the betterment of society.’

 

Perhaps it is in these principles of Change and Predetermination that Yu Nancheng seeks to ground his artistic philosophy, for his works are deeply imbued with a sense of time in its various guises; sometimes ancient, cyclic, still – almost a time without time – at other times suffused with something of the peculiar temporal rhythm of the festival; a brief recompense from the daily grind and staid routine. As the media is constantly reminding us, everything today is in a state of flux. Everything is changing at unprecedented speeds and as the whole of society hastens down the road towards modernity, we find there is never enough time. But the fact is that it is not that we have no time, but that the onus now rests with us to create our own time. In his works Yu Nancheng seeks to construct a kind of time that has a place for history and space for the concerns of the individual; and so the viewer, when confronted by Yu’s works, may think back to the words of the ancient Confucian philosopher Xunzi when he wrote: ‘Nature’s course is constant, to Emperor Yao’s virtue unheedful and to Emperor Jie’s wickedness inviolate.’ Society, like nature, will change, but in accordance with its own laws and along its own natural course and art too will evolve and flourish in its midst.

 

 

天行有常——于南澄的画

 段君

艺评家、清华大学美术学院博士

 

中国文化目前正处于与世界文化的融合阶段,改革开放三十年以来,外来文化与中国文化不断地进行磨合,但从整体上看,外来的力量还没有完全融入中国文化的体内。在中国文化史上,几处重大的转折,都是在以中国文化彻底消化外来文化的基础上,所创造出来的新文明,比如宋明理学即是完全消化了佛家,才在哲学史上达到新的高度。虽然今天中国的艺术家已经不可能再把自己限制在一个单一民族或单一国家的视角,但这并不妨碍艺术家以中国的传统为基础来理解世界。

 

于南澄从艺四十载,对境外艺术了然于胸,知晓中国文化的内在引力,其作品是对本地文化进行的当代演绎。《中华太极》系列在他的“中国红”系列中比较有代表性。太极在中国传统文化中处于最内核的位置,《易·系辞传》言:“是故易有太极,是生两仪。两仪生四象。四象生八卦。”可见,太极由易而生。易是指变化,因天地间的刚与柔这两种原力相互推衍,而生出种种变化。于南澄在作品中由简入繁,把易的“理”具象化为众人打太极的场景。画面从极简易变为极繁杂,打太极的队列纵横交错。极繁杂通常被视为有限,但有限并不是指画面存在边界,它只是于南澄在空间上的感觉。

 

浪漫主义艺术认为,艺术是无限的到来在有限的躯体上借尸还魂。以此来看于南澄的作品,它正是有限和无限的结合。有限只是作为具体现实中的具体活动而出现,活动使有限成为重复性的运动,但有限恰恰是在运动中保存了自身。在于南澄的作品里,成排的、整齐的人群,标明井井有条的秩序,以此摆脱对零散的恐惧。但真正的困扰是:如何才能激活思想的能量,使人类的心灵具有理性和历史的厚度,从而不再感到无可名状的恐惧。

 

因此,于南澄把打太极的场景安置在天安门广场和天坛等地,因为天安门广场和天坛等都是中国社会和历史的象征。改革开放三十年的步履证明:国家社会的变革并非一朝一夕的事情,而是循序渐进的变化,因为天地万物本身即非一成不变,都是时时刻刻在发生变化。于南澄遵循的是古老的易的理:国家社会的改革并非头痛医头、脚痛医脚,而是要从根本处下手。

 

作为画家的于南澄,试图从社会和历史发展所根植的文化入手,他使用“中国红”元素在《中华太极》系列、《新上海》系列、《国粹》系列、《舞者》系列、《花》系列等作品中塑造出来的主体形象,在色彩方面具有较为强烈的传统感,不仅沉稳,而且单纯。以油画刀技法作画,虽然使他的作品失去了江南文化中常见的湿性,但于南澄获得的是画中形体的金属、雕塑质感,作品因而显得厚重。而中国文化本身即是厚重的,轻浮的质地不足以表达中国文化的特质。

 

中华民族之所以存在,最重要是因为中国文化存在,中国文化中又以儒家文化为主。于南澄的绘画,从整体上看更接近中国文化中的儒家,因为他的画面场景具有社会性。梁启超曾言:“中国的道家和墨家,认为现实的事物都很粗俗,没有研究的价值;要离开社会,找一个超现实的地方,以为安身立命之所。虽比专求知识较切近些,但离日常生活还是去得很远。唯有儒家,或为自己修养的应用,或为改良社会的应用,对于处世接物的方法,要在学理上求出一个根据来。”

 

或许“易”、“命”即是于南澄的作品在学理上所寻找的根据,他的画里有一种时间感,有时如同古老的、轮回的、静止的时间,有时又如同节日的韵律,是对庸常劳作生活的补偿。今天所有的媒体都在提醒我们,任何事物都在发生快速的变化,没有时间了,整个国家社会都在现代化的轨道上。而实际上,我们不是没有时间,而是要自己建构属于自己的时间。于南澄在作品中试图建构出属于自我和历史的时间,因此,看于南澄的画,会令人想到荀子的话:“天行有常,不为尧存,不为桀亡。”天和社会均按照它的自然法则变化和运行,艺术在其中同样生生不息

 

                                          

 


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