empathy

In The Hot Seat With Wang Huangsheng

I first met the Chinese artist, art historian and critic Wang Huangsheng at the opening of “los•ge•löst,” his latest manifestation in Berlin. Widely regarded as the preeminent museum director in China for his role with the Art Museum of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing (CAFA), this multifaceted and hyper-productive artist has been heavily honored with international accolades for his contribution to culture and the development of art in China.

On this particular evening, I was more lost than anything else by the behavior of the artist: instead of commanding his role as the center of attention, he kept wandering around the exhibition space sparking conversation and making connections here and there with the visitors – some known to him and others complete strangers, like me. This behavior appeared to echo in his drawings and paintings on the walls: a lone line of a brushstroke flowing and wandering around the paper, making unlikely liaisons and unpredictable shapes until it ran out of ink. Sounds simple, but trust me, it is that type of profound simplicity that’s so difficult to find nowadays in our complex information age where a lot of our roaming and connections happen online. But on the lines of this artist I found something else: the “you had to be there” characteristic of what I like to call "the meditative nowhere."

Through lines on paper and on-line, Wang Huangsheng keeps up do date. Photo: C. Phillips

Shortly after we made some small talk, I sensed there was an immense river of poetry flowing in the character of Wang Huangsheng––a hint that was also apparent in the profound simplicity of his body of work. Fortunately, he was kind enough to give APs an exclusive interview at a later date. The search for Wang Huangsheng was about to reach its end. Or so I thought.

Finding Wang Huangsheng

The morning of the interview, both the artist was already expecting us with tea, coffee, and––at my later request––wine (hey, I had a rough morning and wanted to loosen up, okay?). I had expected to ask him the routine questions: about the show's title, for example, which means both "roaming" and "apparition," perhaps an implication of the way he roams the paper until the ink runs out and he's left with the final image. But once there, sitting in the strange comfort of his presence, I became very much at ease (it wasn't the wine, I'm sure) and a more sincere conversation began to take hold between us.

APs: I enter your work through a sort of meditative empathy. I follow the ink thread you leave behind on the paper and, although I cannot possibly know your thoughts as you were making it, I do encounter myself with my own thoughts through your lines. What role does meditation have in your work?

Wang Huangsheng: This is a very interesting angle. While not having the type of “spirituality” you may be able to identify with, Chinese people do have their own beliefs, a sort of "original sense." Everyday a new high level of awareness is reached. So yes, my art is quite meditative.

APs: But is this meditation a type of detachment from the world? 

WH: You might see that when you focus on the surface of the paper, you are temporarily detached from the world. Other friends and colleagues have also pointed out that the intertwined complexity of the lines reflects the very complexity of the world. You know, the rhythm that this complexity indicates. So, in this sense, it is not entirely detached. It is part of it, directed to reflect on it. In the work there is no absence from the world; the world is always present.  

Artist Wang Huangsheng expanding on the connections found in detachment. Photo: Chris Phillips

APs: During the act of creation, what does the space around you look like? Are you alone or does it take place in public?

WH The work requires, quite exclusively, a certain amount of time around the day to be by myself. This isolation is very important to me. Particularly, I like to use an incense fragrance––Sandalwood––in my studio as I work. The burning incense also creates smoke flowing in the air. This is an inspiring resource for me (that I integrate in my movement).

APs: What do you mean? Do you imitate the smoke in your lines?

WH I would be careful to call it "imitation." When you see the smoke, your spirit is immediately responsive and you no longer continue to perceive the smoke as an object—or at least nothing to do with an imitative activity. 

APs: I know you also like to smoke from a pipe. I find it intriguing that, while you work, you are being responsive to the smoke that travels both outside and within you. 

WHYes, and it’s a different kind of appreciation. It encapsulates the smell of pipe tobacco, which carries a very different smell than that of cigarettes. Secondly, the making of the pipe itself: the wooden material, the solid shape…in your hand! You truly have this nuance of contact with an object. It gives you a very rich feeling.

APs: If your paintings were not paintings what would they be? Windows, mirrors, hammers, love letters, etc.

WHTo make a choice between all of the things you highlight, I would have to go with love letters. I attempt to capture the nuance and transience of my feeling heart. And as I try to express the feelings, they crystallize––although they were actually just happening in the moment! And how could you ever return there? But you at least capture the feelings and keep them immortal. The human heart is able to contain pain, love, anger, happiness—so many kinds of emotions.

Artist Wang Huangsheng in front of his largest love letter. Photo: Chris Phillips 

APs: If I asked you to draw on the surface of the water, what would you draw?

WH If I were to continue to draw the movements that you see here in paper [long pause]… if the water is not still and it is a slowly flowing river, I would actually find that image quite poetic. Because once the ink touches the water and you intend to continue to draw, the ink will dissolve in the water and flow down the river. That’s very poetic. I’m entirely inspired by your question—I may have to make another video work.

The Traces Left Behind

Having brought inspiration to this artist with a simple question, I knew better than to inquire further; Wang Huangsheng’s thoughts were already a river in motion. What I later asked, instead, was for an autograph (not realizing that he had already signed a copy of his booklet just for me). No, I did not ask this out of vanity. It's just that when an artist uses thoughtful lines the way he does, even a little doodle is a work of art. At least in the pages of my book.

Wang Huangsheng, if you happen to read this, I'll have you know that I ripped the page off from the booklet where you left me your signature (I've been referring to it as a self-portrait), and it is now hanging framed on my wall next to a window with a view to the river. Likewise, thank you for the inspiration.

Article by Jovanny Varela-Ferreyra & Carmen Herold