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Neo-Orientalism—Wang Mengsha Solo Exhibition

The Heart-Mind through an Aperture: The Painting of Wang Mengsha

author:Fu Xiaodong

None of the popular interpretations can ever get to the profound core of Wang Mengsha as a woman painter. Still lifes in a feminine space have always been dismissed and rejected. Yet Wang’s paintingsachieve vibrancy and breakthroughs by delving deep into how intimate spaces (indoors) and trivial objects(containers, birds and flowers) transcend division by either material or conventionality.


1. Household Spaces

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard puts forward two ideas. The first is a house being imagined as avertical being. Since there is the attic and the cellar, there is a polarity between rationality and irrationality as well as an extension of dreams and thoughts in depth and height. The second is a house being imagined as a concentrated being. Concentration is caused by solitude centralized when yearnings for shelter and happiness are withdrawn to the subconscious like the shrunken space of a refuge. Like dwellings and clouds in Buddhist poetry, Bachelard’s dialectics of “heart-mind space” and “cosmic space” describe the progression from a shrunken house to an expanded one. Through “windows” and “curtains”, cosmic space is collapsed into a shrunken house whereas the psychological space expands and opens itself up to the outside world. 


Among Wang’s works, some celebrate the Buddhist ideals, expressed poetically, of dreaming away one’s physical being and wakening up to be at home with the cosmos.The openness, segregation and expansion of a house subtly interact in the three grounds. The intensity in the foreground shrinks the painting surface and blocks the viewer’s view. The furniture and curtains in the middle ground shrink and confine the physical space, hinting at communion between the inside and the outside.The declining woman in the house gazes at the cloudy mountains in the distance,revealing that the painter’s inner world is extending and that the house is expanding deep into the cosmos. The curtains wrap tightly around the woman while the wall, in its space of solitude, bursts open as infinitely as the cosmos. 

In his commentaries to Zhuangzi, Cheng Xuanying proposes that all creations are empty and that truth and wisdom will emerge when the mind is kept empty. Aware of the infinity of the heart-mind space, the seated, in solitude, observe the minuscule in an empty and quiet realm, connect the inside with the outside intuitively, and emancipate the individual from the collective and desires. As far as heart-mind is concerned, the Buddhist realm of serenity and the Daoist ideal of the perfect man are similar in that both of them share the same premise that the heart-mind is fundamentally empty and can be cleansed of all mundane filth. Whether it is the Daoist or the Buddhist advice, wisdom and felicity can be attained if the mind is untroubled by preconceptions and remains unperturbed. The quiet and serene connection between the inside and the outside and the progression from stillness to motion are elucidated by the analogy in Surangama Sutra of transparent domains being brightly lit from the inside and by the Daoist notion of connectivity being facilitated by the absolutely quiet and the completely still heart-mind. Wang’s works visualize not only such migration of space from house to heart-mind but also the heart-mind space in motion.


2. The New Vernacular

Like the slender peach With her flowers red-hot,So speeds the bride To chaste room and cot.--Taoyao, Shijing (Like the Slender Peach, The Book of Songs)1

The roots of Chinese painting and pictograms can be traced to Zhouyi (Book of Changes), which gives the purpose of a sign to be a full expression of the intent.The contemporary scholar Zhao Peilin di-vides the primitive rhetorical device of association into four categories by their origins: birds from totemic beliefs, trees from tree worship, fishes from fertility cult, and mythological animals from auspicious wishes. In his view, artistic norms are complex derivations from religious beliefs.The device of association induces the mind to associate one thing with another,much like that in mythology. In Primitive Mentality, the anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl suggests that the primitive mind is pre-logical and that parti-cipation mystique is a prerequisite to resolving logical contradictions. Very much at work in oracles, emotions, ethics and culture, association provides Wang Mengsha with a basic vocabulary. Her works are filled withunique and colourful imagery in the form of cranes, deer, peaches, mandarin ducks and phoenixes that are borrowed from auspicious vernacular paintings, or embodiments of folk customs and in turn primitive culture. To go a step further, she gives full play to her personal perspectives and composes modernist variations of auspicious motifs by juxtaposing abstract shapes and symbolic objects of all sizes in her still lifes to evoke alienation and unfamiliarity. In some of her works, different plant species are even arranged in an array as is customary in the field of natural history, bringing to mind The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, which puts forward the idea of the symbol as a characteristic mark, or primarily a mark for differentiation. Denoting something else, a symbol is not to be taken for its face value. Thus, mythology, poetry, history,illusions, prayers and chants are woven into a huge linguistic web. Disorderly as they are, the discourses do not hide the original order of things. Rather, they serve as their writing forms and point the viewer to the silent and primitive global language so that paintings and discourses are entangled in a prelogical way. After all, pictorial writing was the most primitive means for documenting thoughts and wisdoms. The immortal realm is also a motif in Wang’s paintings. Pre-Han alchemists believed there were two roads to immortality. One is by means of life-nourishing exercises and practices and the other by locating and physically living on immortal islands. In her works, Wang freely borrows her compositions and narratives from the stone reliefs and tomb murals of the Han dynasties. Multiple spaces are segregated by walls and curtains for depictions of the heavenly or immortal realm or a happy home so that fantasies and realities intermingle to form an integral, organic whole.


3. Butterflies and Dreams

Zhuangzi dreams at sunrise that a butterfly lost its way, Wangdi bequeathing his spring passion to the nightjar.[…] Did it wait, this mood, to mature with hindsight? In a trance from the beginning, then as now. --Li Shangyin, Jinse (The Patterned Lute)2

Aristotle argues that sight occurs when a visible object gives off a visible species and which is then received by the eye while Descartes advocates that, just as what can be felt at the other end of a stick, light moves through a transparent medium to reach our eyes. Hobbes, however, believes there is nothing other than us and that colours and images lie not in the object but in our feelings since they are impressions produced by the brain when disturbed. By this token, there is no distinguishing between dreams and real feelings. From Aristotle’s “Man is the measure of all things”to Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, there have been many philosophical theories asserting the speciousness of perception. It has been a common observation that dreams and wakefulness can hardly be differentiated. With little difference between the existing visual world and the projected synaesthetic world, it seems that we are trapped in an autistic world.


This is just like the story of Zhuangzi dreaming of being a butterfly, in which the self and the other morph into one another and are aware of the coexistence of the conscious and the subconscious, dream and wakefulness, and reality and fantasy.The ambiguity between dream and wakefulness fur-ther complicates the relationship between the subject and the object, let alone out-of-body dreams and dreams within a dream. One realizes it is all a dream only when one wakens from it. Wakening is a motional change while the great wakening hints at being cut off from all senses as in death. As a recurrent motif in Wang’s paintings, the butterfly, or the Chinese metaphor for dream, is the pain-ter’s avatar and an opening to the world of dreams.The fundamental elements of butterflies, flowers and rocks together create a space where the powers of dream and wakefulness confront,intertwine with and transform into one another. The textured rocks, colourful flowers and dancing butterflies, together with women either big or small, open up a synaesthetic space with the suggestion that what is being portrayed is a dream world that is to be gazed at and not to be disturbed.The butterfly that the scroll begins with takes the viewer on a journey of fantasy and transformation with mismatched time and space in a dreamland of multiple psychological realities. Elegant in palette, serene in form, Wang’s immaculate paintings overwhelm with their brushwork, thrusting upon you a surreal parallel space. Ethereal and yet solid, the delicate delineation and floating forms project a field of sensual force that is unique to feminine spaces. Like Alice in the fantastical,topsyturvy Wonderland, the woman painter unleashes her power and glides freely through a world where the perspectives are constantly shifting.