Watch Movie, Spot Train——About the Watch Movie Series of He Wenjue

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Watch Movie, Spot Train

——About the Watch Movie Series of He Wenjue

By Feng Boyi


He Wenjue used to play with water.  For nearly ten years, he had been painting water and swimmers.  Of course, in Chinese contemporary art, there are quite a few artists who have a fancy for water, such as Fang Lijun, Zhang Xiaotao and Zhang Jian.  Although adopting different approaches, these artworks somewhat serves for a similar purpose.  Water is turbulent and unstable.  Water can be gentle as well when it surrounds you or flows through your fingers.  Water also contains massive power.  As the famous Chinese political parable says, “the water that bears the boat is the same that swallows it up.”  As a social person, drifting in the water of can have every imaginable possibility.  The world we live is like a vast water area, in which we walk, drift and struggle to find a direction.  Obviously, in both He Wenjue and those other artists’ paintings, water and drift are used as a metaphor of our real life.  Just like those artists who play with plant, animal, space, architecture, or daily necessities, they use water and the drifting in water to express the experience and feeling of wondering in real cultural world.  When interpreting their artworks, most critics, including myself, would firstly look at their life experience, historical background and current reality from a point of sociology.  That is simply because there contains too clear a signification, metaphor and symbol to be ignored.  In thus way, it endows Chinese contemporary art habitat some evident common symbols and styles.  In another sense, this just testifies the outstanding intelligence of Chinese contemporary artists.

However, what surprised me is that He Wenjue has stopped “playing water” recently and turned to “watch movie”.  “Watch Movie” is the title he gives to his new series, with the name of a specific film as subtitles, such as “Watch Movie· Red Sorghum”, “Watch Movie· In the Mood for Love” etc.  This is how he watches movie:  He selects some favorite movie clips, mainly those with Chinese characteristics, and copies them onto the canvas.  It seems like the comic books we used to pass around in childhood.  In a professional term, it is like the continuity of a film.  Of course, he does not realistically replant the figure or scenario in the movie into his canvas, but makes a relatively objective and intentional depiction, with a language somewhat imitating the German artist Richter, who is rather popular in China.  I cannot tell whether he does it intentionally or has some special meaning.  I guess it is similar and coherent with the concept and approach of his new works.  He borrows the methodology of post-modernism, such as copying, replanting and altering, including his language, which is appropriated from Richter.  So we would rather say that He Wenjue is “painting movie” instead of “watching movie”, just like some contemporary artists who are “painting photos”.

There are two types of film images under his brush: The first type is inspired by such movies as Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, Raise The Red Lantern, and Curse of the Golden Flower directed by Zhang Yimou, In the Mood for Love by Kar-WaiWong, and Mountain, People and Dog, etc.  In these movies, he takes evident favor on the melancholy images of heroines acted by Gong Li and Maggie Zhang, or those clips with solitary scenario.  With blurred facial depiction (as in some paintings) and poetic background, these artworks have an obviously aesthetic and sensitive tendency, as well as an alienation effect between reality and ideality.  With thin colors, subtle brushstroke and mild rhythms, the artist depicts a desolated and solitary feeling aroused by these movie images, thus to inspire the sympathy and sentiments of viewers.  Through these familiar movie scenes, the artist attempts to represent and interpret the reality in his memories and an abstract feeling in his heart.  In his artworks, we can read not only vicissitudes of life and lapse of time, but also destiny of individuals under the torrent of reality.  His visual text is deeply imprinted with his personal memories and feelings.  In his paintings, this imprint is endowed with a warm and exquisite color and a refined texture, adding an atmosphere mixed with beauty and melancholy, as well as an imprudent courage to step into an unknown future.  This is actually coherent with his sense in Water Series.  The second type is inspired by some Hong Kong movies, such as Color Blossoms, It's A Long Way Home, and In the Mood for Love.  From these movies, he mainly cuts some porn scenes.  In some sense, no privacy should exist between bodies.  Porn materials contain a great mount of languages about desire.  So through literary, especially the resources from the movies and internet, sexual desire can be partly met.  Although you can have your own judgment on the taste and quality of various porn materials at all times, you have to admit that their major function is to relieve or to compensate desires.  The diversity of artistic expression is rooted in the complexity and mixture of life and humanity.  At such a period of social transformation in today’s China, when each person is facing rapid changes, this kind of mixture and complexity is even more furious.  

If we place He Wenjue’s new artworks into the context of changing contemporary Chinese art, we can find that they have another typical meaning.  Since the May-Forth New Cultural Movement, cultural radicalism has taken the leading role.  The calling for “art for life’s sake” has always accompanied the development of Chinese culture and art.  It is also the flag of the Chinese avant-garde art since the opening-up of China in 1979.  Their artistic creation is more about challenging the tradition, overthrowing the order and disclosing, criticizing, reflecting on and piercing into the history and the reality, sometimes even with extreme approaches.  This is directly links to their concern on reality.  In fact, there is another tradition obscured by the left wing in modern Chinese culture, namely “art for art’s sake”.  Apart from the modern movement of salvation and enlightenment, there also existed a modern movement for aesthetics.  However, this tradition of pure art has lacked an opportunity to fully develop itself and has long been oppressed by modern art system in China.  The globalization and marketization process starting from 1990s and the rapid growth of Chinese economy brought forth a series of historical and social changes that are hugely different from the modernity since May-Forth.  The frame that has been used to “interpret China” since May-Forth cannot interpret the reality of today’s China society any more.  The “art for life’s sake” cannot serve the life of globalization and marketization either.  Art gradually gains purity, becoming a tranquil area allowing for exploration and discovery.  This is the very token of “the culture of new century”.  The heavy mission shouldered by the “art for life’s sake” has been quietly unloaded.  Pure art begins to build a base for its independence.  Art gradually goes back to art itself.  It does not mean that art has an “ego” isolated from the real world, but means the idea of and demand for art has changed.  That is the new form of art in this new age.  It is the same with He Wenjue’s artworks.  When looking at them, we focus more on the people and scenery that he feels sympathetic.  Sometimes, the artist would create two paintings in sequence for one scenario.  He even created five paintings in sequence for the smoking posture of Maggie Zhang in In the Mood for Love, with a plural and gradual arrangement, just like film clips.  These exploration and experiment preserves every detail of his artistic feelings, highlights the melancholy, transience and mystery of these movies, and transmit an implication of “world in the mirror” and "images beyond image".  In thus way, the artist offers us a diversified point of view to redefine the possibility of artistic language as well as finds himself a larger space to identify his new judgment and interpretation on painting and art.          

In many situations, the true feelings of individuals can be hypothesized or be submersed by sudden turbulence or changing currents.  However, they would just be determined to survive and to grow, especially when all tempest calms down.  There is always some complex that is hard to forget for us.  With the growth of our age and experience, this complex would grow as well.  How can an artist fully and perfectly weave it into his works and avoid the randomicity of trainspotting game?  It depends on the personal determination and luck of each artist.