In endless space countless luminous spheres, round each of which some dozen smaller illuminated ones revolve, hot at the core and covered over with a hard cold crust; on this crust a mouldy film has produced living and knowing beings: this is empirical truth, the real, the world.
–Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)
“…a mouldy film has produced living and knowing beings: this is empirical truth, the real, the world.” This is how Schopenhauer viewed the world. Interestingly, Hsu Ruifu’s way of seeing the outside world more or less accords to it. In other words, it is an unspeakable similarity between Hsu and Schopenhauer while most of their philosophy on the real world overlaps.
Schopenhauer once said, “If you observe a life by focusing its every single tiny detail, you’ll find it extremely absurd and ridiculous. Just like watching a drop of water under a microscope, we can find millions of single-celled organisms there. While seeing them busy bustling and fighting each other, we cannot but mock at them. However, in our short lives, we human beings also have such ridiculous deeds that lead to nonsensical results.” Here Schopenhauer has illuminated a key point: If each life goes back its fundamental essence, then there is no so-called gap between human and objects. In his opinion, life is life and it is a unity while there is no difference among each life. In fact, Schopenhauer’s words struck me right at the moment when Hsu told me about his new series We Were All in One. Nevertheless, Schopenhauer’s philosophy of life has been too pessimistic and he always tended to restrain himself from turning moderate or optimistic. Such a tendency has left his life with nearly unbearable heaviness. Unlike Schopenhauer and his noticeable pessimism, Hsu has chosen a less radical way in his artistic creation by not deliberately revealing too much of his inner world. Instead, Hsu adopts pure color in his works, through which the artist’s inner energy has been thus strengthened. Therefore, in Hsu’s works, what we see is not “…(organisms) busy bustling and fighting each other…”as illustrated by Schopenhauer, but the thirty-two-year-old emerging Taiwanese artist’s self-contented life philosophy.
Hsu was born and grew up in the rustic countryside where he has spent a lot of time in the nature. Therefore, Hsu likes and is used to observing the evolution of every creature on different stages. As Hsu put it, “In my earliest stage of creation, I tended to use rubbish to be my subject matter, such as cans or other discarded objects. Of course, rotten stuff was also included. My works in that period were more or less similar to classical painting styles because I depicted my subjects by focusing on their delicate texture with high density. To others, what I have tried to present might be nothing but stinking stuff that can barely appeal to anyone in traditional aesthetic senses. However, they have meant something to me especially when they began to undergo some metamorphosis. Although they seem to have met their death at that moment, the expiration itself, to some degree, can mean some kind of completion. And only with such completion can another life begin.”
There is some kind of classical poetic divinity pervading Hsu’s artworks. What I mean by “classical” is not about Hsu’s painting techniques, but the equivocal atmosphere he has built on his pictures. Specifically speaking, this equivocal visual ambiance contains both a sort of external provocation and an outlined landscape of the artist’s inner mind. Therefore, Hsu’s paintings are not merely mental projections of his own artistic imagination, but some spiritual practice on his own philosophy of life. As for the divinity, I am not implying that Hsu’s works are ritualized. On the contrary, nothing is seen ritualized on Hsu’s pictures. What I really mean by divinity is that whenever Hsu reduces the temperature of color to a certain emotional point, he not only expands the scope of visual tension but also leads viewers further into his inner world. Therefore, Hsu’s art is vaguely mysterious, while at the same time has divinity as its main theme, which is so sturdy that cannot be easily moved.
In 2007, Hsu had a pencil-sketch work titled “Vomit and Mould Flowers,” which, in my opinion, was one of his first creation that had classical poetic divinity. Although Hsu continued using his classical painting skills with delicate strokes on this work, he began to adopt the skills of image overlapping in order to show the fine texture of each single detail. Despite its monochrome image, it still has visual tension with high density. Thus, I don’t think Hsu’s art should be categorized as surrealistic. In my opinion, this work can be said to be the artist’s manifesto to explore the essence of existentialism as well as to investigate the philosophy of life. As Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) revealed in one of his most famous books La Nausee (Nausea), the hero Roquentin—Sartre’s incarnation—kept revealing the facts that he was physically sensitive to time and memories. To be more specific, Sartre accentuated the connection between history, time and existence. He believed that the difference between human beings and physical things lay in the fact that we had subjectivity. With that subjectivity, we were then conscious of our actions, and our will could lead us to anywhere in the future. Also, it made our existence so unique that our external beings (divinity) and inner selves (innate human nature) could be balanced. However, Sartre’s ways to distinguish non-ideological beings from ideological ones are not what Hsu aims to extend in his creation. In fact, Hsu’s view on existentialism is much closer to traditional Chinese literati’s view while they used to see god and human as one unity.
Besides, in Hsu’s belief, the physical things are ideological beings and such a fact should not be overlooked. And their ideological system cannot be scaled by the standard set in human world, but by the homogenization among the system itself. Take Hsu’s early works for example. When you look at them at first glance, you will find clear contour of each human face. However, if you can enlarge the picture, you’ll find the face is not real human face, but aggregation of considerable single cells. Also, those faces may remind you of a scene in the movie The Mummy where numerous heads transformed from desert sand were fiercely roaring. Moreover, through Hsu’s fine drawing strokes and perfect proportion, those monochrome faces still remain their depth. Thus, viewers can see the high density created by overlapping themes. To be honest, Hsu’s works during this period have been always my favorite. It is mainly because Hsu built a classical poetic divine landscape as well as life beyond the space in his works where he manipulated the ambiguous but strong incomparable vitality and made his pictures go beyond the conventional visual practices. No matter what essence of life Hsu has tried to describe, on his pictures exist cycles of powerful force from the breathing in and out of life. That force is extremely obscure but self-sufficient, which indeed holds the divinity and poetic rhyme tightly on his pictures.
To emerging Taiwanese artists at Hsu’s age, it is no longer a difficult task to depict a portrait with classical approaches. However, Hsu chose not to take portraits as his signature. He’d rather lift the essence of life that he concerns most to a certain height, thus making the life itself more complex. With Hsu’s sophisticated but natural description, both objects and human are well characterized, thus successfully creating an equivocal visual ambiance that he has been longing to convey.
And, speaking of which, Hsu is really an expert in creating a good visual ambiance.
In Hsu’s new series titled Observation Record in 2010, there were no longer contours of human heads in his pictures but some kind of abstract creature constructed by numerous pseudo-spores, which were not only overlapping one another, but also hustling and bustling in turbulence. Hsu started to put color on the screen at this period. “But,” Hsu continued, “What I mean by color isn’t really multicolor. What I did is to add a bit more colors such as indigo-purple, gray-purple, grape-purple, burgundy-red, or so in my paintings, while no longer stuck to pure black or gray as usual. The reason why I refused to put colors in my works at first is that I wanted to free my works from the conventional concept about colors. In other words, I am afraid that each color accompanied by certain established emotion might bias the viewers. Due to such a concern, I decided to present my paintings in pure primary colors so that they can be viewed in a simpler way. But later I realized that too much use of monochrome would turn monotonous and uninteresting someday. To prevent it from happening, I made a concession by adding colors in my creation—but only simple colors. It is just like adding a little more color on the cell samples before observing them divide under a microscope. With added color as a background, the process of the cell division can be more evident.”
In fact, those abstract creatures Hsu has depicted in that series are mould. At first glance they seem to be a huge black hole in the universe. But if you look at them more carefully, you will find numerous mould spores continuously springing up and expanding with such a powerful force that can be hardly suppressed. No wonder this series is commonly regarded as Hsu’s “most attractive” creation. Also, this series reminds me of a very famous Renaissance artist in Milan—Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593). Arcimboldo was renowned for his grotesque. None of his portraits had any resemblance to traditional ones. Instead, they were always composed by fruits, plants, animals, landscapes or some implements. What Arcimboldo did was to challenge people’s conventional view that human beings only have one systematic appearance. In his paintings, human beings were free to become any other species. And through the combination with various species, human beings had so many different looks that could provoke much of viewers’ imagination. As you look at Arcimboldo’s works, you will feel the classical poetic divinity as found in Hsu’s creation. Still, there lies a difference between Arcimboldo’s divinity and Hsu’s: Arcimboldo’s art is a visual maze, while Hsu’s art has some visual musical sense. If you want me to define what kind of music is in Hsu’s art, I will say it is like a powerful symphony performed by a large orchestra. Since colors have been introduced in this series, Hsu experimentally used round pens in order to create different strokes. Also, with the technique of over-dyeing commonly seen in classical paintings, Hsu made the spores look three-dimensional with thickness variation. Due to such different scales of thickness, viewers may have an illusion that those spores still kept springing up when they focus their eyes on them.
In Hsu’s 2011 new series We Were All in One, the artist adopted a similar technique in Chinese paper-cut art and combined different space. He used black as background—pure black with rich shades—in order to create dual dynamics of compression and looseness in time as well as in space. Subjects Hsu chose in this series are mostly creatures that have long existed on earth, such as mosquitoes, crabs, seahorses, monkfish, among others. What is interesting is that there are many different species cramming as a unity within the body of each creature. What Hsu tried to illuminate in this series is again the philosophy that every being has its ideology. He believed that to some degree human beings have the same character as objects. We probably find such species as crabs or mosquitoes are only relatively low-level creatures, but it is all because we view them with our accepted experiences. If we look at crabs or mosquito in their respective ecological chains, we won’t find them low-level since they may have their own social ranks and roles. “From different outside appearance, we can infer that all creatures are different. However, if we focus on the inside, we may find that all creatures share the same essence of life,” added Hsu. That is why Hsu has adopted a magnanimous view trying to bring out different degrees of penetration among time and space. By doing so, he is declaring his belief that all species are dependent on each other.
Those who grew up in symbiosis with the nature usually don’t see reality as a science fiction. Therefore, I don’t think Hsu’s art will be in the form of sci-fi. Furthermore, I like the artistic ambiance Hsu has created for himself. And as an emerging artist, Hsu is not ambitious of an adventurous life; instead, he leads a self-contented life and has in-depth observation on all creatures as well as their unity. Therefore, he maintains a stable temperature in his creation.
And I believe that the so-called divine landscape in classical poetry lies right in such mild temperature in Hsu’s works.