By Chu Ting-yi (Deputy Curator of Asia Museum of Modern Art, Asia University)
When I first met Nien-tzu, we were both in our twenties and studying as graduate students at Tunghai University. In addition to the few classes we shared, we would always find the free time to talk about everything, such as art and love. Young and frivolous, we looked upon life with a sense of arrogance as time flew by. She was quite precocious, and possessed a vast spiritual intelligence and seemingly endless well of talent that materialized through her brushwork. Her works would never fail to receive the praise of teachers and senior classmates even if they were just a picture drawn casually with pastels.
In our early years, we all viewed life as dynamic, wild and exciting. These sensations eventually become a source of nourishment for artistic inspiration. Paintings serve as testimonies for that passion of life, and works of art are the children borne from the passionate lives of artists. Artists dedicate their entire lives to art. Throughout history, many litterateurs and artists completed their lives through a dedication to art. Art has become a type of completeness and salvation to life. If not for this, how would art be able to touch our emotions and beautify our lives? And, how else would artists attain an achievement of themselves? It is this path that had deeply inspired the young artists from my generation.
Along with the passage of time, all things are constantly changing as life opens along its own trajectory. Through twists and turns, life is an experience of peaks and pinnacles, frustrations and lows. After profound and peaceful contemplation, a light dawns for Nien-tzu, who carefully sketches figures across rolls of paper. The vivid colors already serve as the yellow flowers of yesterday. Life at this moment has already crossed over thousands of mountains to the edge of a murmuring stream; there is only heaven and earth near the water, only the proof of nature, and the whispers of all things of this world… As a friend of hers for all this time, I have always marveled at Nin-tzu’s pursuit of life and art without regrets. Passing the trials of life, she finally touches upon the heart of Tao to present the purest essence behind life and existence.
Life and Art
In her early years, Nien-tzu loved Dream of the Red Chamber and Eileen Chang, and developed a sophisticated insight into human nature as well as a keen and meticulous mind. From an early age onward, she began working with ink. She did not paint enshrouded landscapes, forest peaks, insects, flowers, birds, or other still life attributes. Instead, she often employed sketch-like brushstrokes to draw light outlines, filling them with smudges of color, and sketched imitations of women figures from ancient paintings. During her graduate studies, she focused on the development of ambiguous relationships through various postures, smiles, and gazes of figures. This offshoot perspective of femininity and yin in China’s extensive pedigree of painting is actually very worthy of attention and re-examination.
After leaving the context of an academic dialogue, Nien-tzu went to live alone in Hualien. With almost no contact with the outside world, she created new works intermittently for ten years. Every day she would just eat, sleep, take walks, or chat with children. For several years, she did not paint, while devoting much time to just sitting in tranquility. “If the painting process is a way of understanding ourselves, then the excessive accumulation of concepts will further remove us from our true identities.” (Note 1) Over those ten years, she attempted to relinquish every painting concept she had acquired from the fine arts department. No longer interested in exploring related topics of art history, technique, critique, or contemporary issues, she turned to pursue various knowledge regarding philosophy, the science of spirituality, and religion.
During this period, few works were being produced, most of which were filled with surreal images and symbols. Some are images from dreams of the deep night or those that suddenly emerge, while others reveal stories of life. They transform into images after a hundred thousand turns and twists of the heart. The elements of the surface are more chaotic and unpredictable with the emergence of exotic plants, animals, or human bodies with multiple hands and feet, alluding to the muddled realm from which humanity is unable to escape. The painting is an ornament, a surreal, exotic, and fractured manifestation of a mysterious Eastern ambiance that presents viewer with the impact of imagery while drawing out anxious emotions and a sense of inner turmoil.
In 2010, her works began to feature compositions of concentric circles. Their outermost layers are embedded with a naturalistic style consisting of sprawling plants that encompass the core, much like in protection of a garden. Through meticulous layers of ink smearing, this carefully drawn greenery presents an obscured visual dynamic. At the core, there appears an enormous lotus along with people and animals, or leopards lazily playing atop flowers, or someone hidden in the flower bathing with the petals, or maybe a rotating figure born in the stamen. Lotuses and petals serve as ineffable symbols for religion and purification. Whether they are leopards or people, they enjoy wandering, playing, purifying, or transforming in this protected, secret garden. The momentum of external flowers and innate energy construct a self-contained little universe, indicating change and the birth of new life.
These large scale works are stacked with mysterious narratives and illustrations that unfold a curious and unusual psychological space. The pursuit of an individualized and unique contemporary art world includes Eastern characteristics and temperaments along with original images and styles. They serve as testaments to the refreshingly new talent of Nien-tzu.
One year later, however, Nien-tzu contacted me with a number of new works in hand. She spread out her works, which were filled with vivid and colorful landscapes. I was immediately shocked and surprised as I viewed a brand new appearance to her works. Completely pure and translucent, these tranquil and natural works abandoned the inner bonds and nostalgic temptations of emotions, as well as magnificent appearances and the dependence on images. Complex imagery and piles of layers were abandoned, and the ingenuity and operation of the works by the artist were let go. All that was left was a pure simplicity in the wake of magnificence and ingenuity – an inherent appearance after an excluded pretense and form.
At the same time, I am pleased that Nien-tzu has arrived at a different realm of life.
Drawing upon a different backdrop of life, the works serve as projections of a bright and translucent inner landscape. The surface is strewn with lines of ink, sometimes like gossamer threads, and other times like iron wires. Like an intertwined fate, it distinctly clarifies the territory without a single moment of hesitation. The delicate marks of brushstrokes mark the moments of the artist’s intentions; they are without past and without future. The brushstrokes are dense and diluted, long and short, or maybe independent and interwoven, as they construct a tremendously detailed landscape across the paper. Whether it’s a pale desert valley, faint halo, shifting universe, dry stone of Zen, lively trace of water, or a blurred swirl, it is sometimes serene and other times vigorous. In this set world, everything expresses themselves vividly, directing viewers towards a spotless spiritual realm.
Tao and Art
In her biography, Nien-tzu states that, “One day I sat by a small stream for an hour. After I got home, I automatically began to outline everything I felt by the stream with thin brushstrokes. When I let go of the distractions in my mind, I perceived the scenery before my eyes as being alive, be it rocks or flowing water. They were like souls filled with consciousness. Even the recollection of a drizzle descending from the sky felt magical. When I closed my eyes, it was as if I saw another even greater universe. The images emerging from inside are like groundwater exuding out. I am unable to explain why I draw like this. All I can say is there is a divine power and order to the natural world. When we turn our hearts towards inner peace, it is as if we tune to the same frequency in which we receive clear messages from the natural world. In the process of translating these messages via painting, I discovered that the amount of ingenuity to the inner senses of humans was limitless. Currently, I have only experienced just a small bit…” (Note 2)
People are a part of the natural world, included in the motions of the universe and enclosed within the innate nature of Tao. Through a continuous and pure practice of austerity, this world may gradually revert to a sense of completeness after we let go of all its burdens and complicated delusions. Close to a natural essence yet filled with an endless supply of power, we may become one with the universe, alongside everything.
In Nien-tzu’s paintings, momentary brushstrokes are made without advance planning and painted without complicated thoughts nor apprehension about the results. And so the Tao extends toward itself, dominated by the brush, so that the works become their own natural selves. We marvel at how the delicate lines of ink display such boldness and energy, and how a simple and tranquil picture manifests an attentive realm and vigorous spiritual strength at the same time. If viewers gaze at the artwork or perceive the calls of the artist, they can see the detailed tranquility of everything. Vivid scenery of dharma and nature appear in the midst of meditation.
From eliminating obscurity to attaining oneness with heaven, the Eastern realm of philosophy and aesthetics and the Tao of art pursued by Chinese literati have always revolved around the insignificance of individual existence and a reverting to the Tao of nature. Painters come to realize the nature and ways of the universe through the practice of art. Conversely, they also exude the Tao of nature through their paintings. Speaking of pen and ink, the core tools and methods developed by Chinese culture and tradition inevitably ends with the realization and pursuit of art and Tao, rather than form-style methods and innovation. I think the recent works by Nien-tzu over more than a decade serve as good reminders and examples. They also let us have faith in the practice of Eastern aesthetics amidst the creative context of contemporary art. Facing the mainstream while using ideology to guide the route of creation, they do not regard art as a means or tool, but rather an introspection of life and a return to the body of human nature, where it presents profound spiritual strength amidst tranquility.
The creative process of Nien-tzu is closely related to her pursuit and practice of life. If she had not been able to give up all worldly matters with resolution and sincerity, and if she had not wandered to the end of Heaven and to the bottom of Hell to seek Tao and a sense of determination, she would not have arrived at this spiritual realm. In her early years, her innate talents and sentiments came from her rumination and mapping of passionate life experiences. Thus, this enabled her to become exceptionally good at developing a unique style of imagery through a touching and emotional poetic quality. However, a clear understanding of the impermanent volatility of joys and sorrows momentarily constructs an artificial creation of imagery, ultimately short and ever changing. So she turned piously to nature to seek a more authentic state of existence, courageously going beyond the birth, death, and rotation of inherent ignorance to finally attain an epiphany of the mind. If an artist cannot let go of indulging in their achievements, persevering with natural talents and habits, and the burdening of secular values and superficial appearances to honestly and tirelessly conduct an exploration inwards towards the unknown, it would be impossible to reach the core of art, materialize the Tao of art, and expand upon the state of self-existence.
The paintings express the spiritual essence that remains after removal of extravagant and impure qualities. Aware and luminous characteristics are therefore presented – brilliantly clarified and filled with spiritual strength.
Notes 1 and 2 are cited from Chen Nien-tzu’s Creative Autobiography