Fire and Water (detail), 2014 Ink and color on silk scroll, colophon on silk mounting by Bai Qianshen with three seals 65 x 1130 cm (65 x 1560 cm mounted)
Fire and Water (detail), 2014
Ink and color on silk scroll, colophon on silk
mounting by Bai Qianshen with three seals
65 x 1130 cm (65 x 1560 cm mounted)

It is perhaps more appropriate to discuss Hao Liang’s practice within the context of traditional Chinese painting than within ink discourse. Of course, the term “traditional Chinese painting” suggests a national identity that itself originates in cultural anxiety. This anxiety, in both the present globalized context and the history of China’s modernist path as a nation-state, in fact exists in relation to the same cultural other. If we ignore this cultural anxiety and return to the content of the paintings, we discover that in both so-called Western oil painting and Chinese ink there resides the painter’s intrinsic anxiety, which springs from the anxiety of the formal language. Then—rendering the painter yet more desperate—there is the idea that the history of painting has long since ended in both cultural systems, making it impossible to practice within any sort of linear logic. Some painters choose to work horizontally within the system, borrowing formally and quoting conceptually. For example, once ink is defined as a medium, it can either be restored to a pure signifier or regarded as a cultural symbol—but only if the painter is willing to make the necessary sacrifice of the historical depth of painting as a system of culture and knowledge. Hao Liang is among the unwilling painters. As a young ink painter, he derives motivation for his individual practice from his culturally conservative stance on painting, in which China is not only a cultural background, but also a cultural method.

Indeed, when faced with a Chinese painting tradition with more than a millennium of continuous history, fresh hands must inevitably feel a sense of awe. The exhibition title “Secluded and Infinite Places” not only describes the artist’s interaction with traditional motifs, but also hints at the intricate tribulations of his chosen path within painting. A look at the displayed works reveals that although Hao is a recent arrival in the painting world, his paintings in the traditional style have already undergone numerous transformations. The most profound of these evolutions is manifest in his attention to the totality of Chinese culture. His emphasis on a parallel pursuit of both knowledge and visual culture make his paintings stand out for their ambition. For example, Hao reconsiders the classical butterfly-style binding with text on the left and image on the right, choosing instead to place images on both pages alongside classical Chinese quotations. In a series titled “Searching the Wonders—Miscellanea on Leisurely Survival,” the various solar periods of the Chinese calendar provide a thread linking horizontal diptychs. Ostensibly abstract concepts such as nature and season are expressed as cultural behaviors possessing aesthetic consciousness. These pages rest open on made-to-order wooden display cases that viewers are obliged to stoop over, a viewing method that effectively restricts the visual interference produced by airy modernist spaces.

Hao Liang, evidently aware of the contradictions between contemporary exhibition culture and the formal display of traditional Chinese painting, paints in albums and hand scrolls, two horizontal forms that prove difficult for the contemporary exhibition system to conquer. The two hand scrolls in the exhibition, The Tale of the Cloud and Fire and Water, are mounted on facing display cases. The Tale of the Cloud is Hao’s attempt to use an Eastern cultural perspective to depict Western scientistic cognition and the void left by its means of changing the world. But this theme is perhaps too grand and complex; in the end it seems no more than a starting point for reflection. In comparison, Fire and Water tells a more subtle story. The painting’s straightforward composition comprises a vast sea gradually giving way to a raging mountain fire. Animals with nowhere to take refuge occupy the space between the two. How are we to interpret this scene? In the opinion of the exhibition’s curator, Zhu Zhu, the opposition of fire and water forms what Gaston Bachelard describes as a cosmic enigma. But from the perspective of the Chinese tradition of using objects to symbolize emotions, the opposition of fire and water might also be interpreted as a reflection of the increasingly polarized morale of Chinese society. Beginning with Han scholars who postulated a correspondence between mankind and the heavens, natural disasters in China were long interpreted as a signal of misrule. In the Song, this notion evolved into the idea that such catastrophes were divine reminders for the emperor to rule more benevolently. Regardless of whether Hao deliberately invokes these resources of traditional Chinese thought, Fire and Water unquestionably exudes an ethics rarely seen today. Sun Dongdong (Translated by Daniel Nieh)