In a distant suburb of Shanghai lies a complex surrounded by a highway, a plant, fields, and a narrow, age-old street. Inside forlornly stands a newly erected cluster of residential buildings. Han Feng’s studio is housed right here. Maybe it is a euphemism to call it a studio, as it is actually a shopping premise in this complex that cannot be rented. The white walls, cement beams, simple symmetrical doors, crude toilet equipment and a small sink is everything here, where you cannot even find a decent chair. In this sprawling complex you can hardly see a single soul, while the buildings, largely abandoned, sport a desolate sight. It is here that Han Feng has been living and working for over two years.
Such a tableau of desolation reminds me of Cast Away, a film starring Tom Hanks that chronicles the four years that the hero Chuck Noland spent on an isolated Pacific island after a plane crash. It is a film about a single person. Chuck had only one “companion”, a volley ball by the name of “Wilson”. The valuable he had was a pocket watch given by his fiancée that had her thumbnail photo inlaid on the back of its lid.
This is an island of a single person.
An island is not only physically resembling the complex Han Feng lives, it is also a subject he has rendered on the canvas. He has even made an installation work in which many buildings made of vitriol paper form an “isolated, floating island.” Is it a mere coincidence or an unwitting metaphor? In a cluster of buildings far from downtown, just like Chuck, Han Feng and the people in that complex are simply cast away by the metropolis of Shanghai.
“Island suggests frailty, anxiety and perseverance of a certain sort”, Han Feng’s words remind me of the image of the poorly clad and hairy Chuck, who was waiting anxiously and trying desperately while standing on a rock on the coast while flexing his self-made harpoon. He is almost a stand-in of Han Feng, a man who began to speak much later than his pals in his childhood, and protracted his high-school education for a staggering eight years, a man living far away from his wife, keeping painting on his isolated island in his late 30s.
In an almost fading painting that seems to be done quite a few years ago, any new painting may appear hollow and pale by comparison. In his paintings you can see a jumbo plane that stretches its wings to an abnormal length, a multideck bus almost as high as a building, a floating, transparent row of terrace houses, and a towering staircase that leads to a wall, and a ventilation pipe that seems to be growing. In his “paradoxical” paintings and installation works, the tough subjects are softened by fading colors and edgeless lines. What is recognizable only is their structure sand outlines. In “The Waves”, however, you can see rigid lines that incarnate the clashes between surging and ebbing; the silhouette is almost mechanical, showing persistence even when the colors are faded away. The softly rendered images of man-made subjects and the tough images of natural subjects form a fascinating contradiction of Han Feng’s creation.
What on earth does he want to say?
“I often don’t want to paint, although it makes me very happy”, Han Feng’s output is so small that one doubts whether he is a professional artist who makes a living on his art. No matter what series he presents–“Jumbo Plane”, “Bus” series, “Balloon”, or the recent “Waves”, “Staircase”, “Pipes”, and “Industrial Mechanisms”, the quantities are limited, 4 or 5 pieces in each, or even 1 or 2. The way he paints is just like the way Chuck managed fishing on the island. Only until it is desperately necessary do they begin to take action. “I may get lost in wild thoughts while painting, and sometimes I even forget who I am. But after that when I take another look at this man-made world, the view will be distant and crystal clear.” For him, painting is just like dropping short notes after long meditation, or bracing for a dash in the last stretch of a Marathon. This is a fitting comparison as most of his paintings were done in a short while.
In his “Man-made World” series, all the subjects, including animals, are products done by the humans: Such is the result of his calm thinking and close observation of the “para-human” subjects. Animals are tamed or caged by humans, living in a restricted space and adapting to human wills. Airplanes and buses are results of human pursuit of speed. But more often than not, such pursuits of humans lead to a paradox of “the more giant the more absurd”, and “give rise to anxiety”. The pipes and the high-rise buildings are both tough and frail, as if they can “grow” like a tree or a human. They represent the result of human wills, and they are constantly being mechanized. Living in such subjects, humans are finally tamed like animals, and their mentality are also mechanized. In Han Feng’s depiction of the body-shaped subjects, caged animals and pipes with dead ends all prove to metaphorize the encircled living spaces of the humans. His island formed by residential buildings and the crooking pipes are light and hollow, giant yet soulless, seemingly strong but actually powerless, providing a visual reference to the psychological status of the humans.
However, contrary to this “Man-Made World”, “The Waves” is the most intimate, personal work. It was produced without much mental elaboration, or in his words, “in a calm mental status”. Only in “The Waves”, in the almost mechanical strokes, we can see a tough element that refuses to reconcile. The emotion surges and ebbs, representing a confrontation against the objects created under the exaggerated philosophy in the man-made world. However, even “The Waves” assumes a calmness, as if there is not much emotion or warmth in it, just like the sea waves, it surges, ebbs, re-surges, re-ebbs, before it finally fades away.
While working on these paintings, Han Feng held the painting brush in his hand, but what he really wanted to do was to “jump out”, to keep his brain and his hand working in a cold, mechanical manner. In his paintings, those installations and the enclosed space for human activity turn out to be a different landscape. They assume no change to their appearance, but their spirits have got on the different track from ours.
“Paper or canvas, such flat materials have the same soft nature”. Han Feng reiterates the so-called “soft nature” of the art of painting, particularly when they are compared with sculptures, installations and movies. But his masterful command of this “soft nature” enables him to extract the “tough” elements from his subjects, and to forge a pure “tough expression” with a strong sense of form. These almost abstract forms mobilize the visual system of the viewers, or exterminate their logical thinking. What looms large is the oriental philosophy of the weak and soft outweighs the strong; strong is below, and that of what is soft and weak is above. (Lao Tzu Ch. 76) As an oriental artist, maybe Han Feng knows perfectly of the soft approaches like “spin, wash, sweep” techniques and the art philosophy like be straight and one shall be crooked, have little and one shall obtain in traditional ink-and-wash Chinese paintings, and applies them masterly to his own art.
Is this all that Han Feng wants to say? Or my narrative has gone far from his creation?
“If I want to describe something with words, usually I cannot do it well. But through paintings I can do better.” Such is Han Feng’s comments on the relationship between his rhetoric and his paintings. But it is more important to take note of his comments on the relationship between his paintings and his ideas: “I believe that something really valuable results from thinking, while an artwork is just a perfect combination of ideas with specific materials at the right time. They should come naturally.” With reference to such paradoxical narrative, how can we understand his creations?
Maybe when he mutters such rhetoric to himself, the meaning will truly emerge. This reminds me of Chuck in Cast Away again: The only object that he confided to is the speechless volley ball Wilson. In the four years he did not get any response from his addressee, but he kept telling to this lifeless thing how he missed his fiancée, how he wished to return to his familiar world, how he hated his bitter life and ventured out of the island. When he finally set sail and lost the volleyball–his companion for four years–he fought to its rescue but ended in vain. At that moment he plunged in utter despair. This is also another perfect metaphor for Han Feng: to him, painting was the only channel of narrative. It is fortunate for him to have painting in his company in this “isolated island”, and the art has become his vehicle to express his emotions. He invests his thoughts, struggles, anxiety and revolt in painting.
However, just like Chuck held his gaze on the photo in-laid on the back of his watch lid but did not speak to it in the four years, Han keeps a “cold pool of spring in the deepest depository of the spirit”. He is constantly observing and thinking about the world he is living in and also concealing his own sentiments, the hot horrent of which is presented to us as a cool, fading and soulless structure.
Maybe this is not an isolated island of a single man, as all of us are already there.
September 29th, 2011
Translated by Henry Zheng