GAO XINGJIAN, Moonlight, 2002, Chinese ink on rice paper, 96 × 169 cm. Courtesy Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong. 

Layers of Light, Ink in Mind

Gao Xingjian

Alisan Fine Arts
China Hong Kong

“Form and illusion give abstract art its soul. Otherwise abstract art is no different from technologically generated graphics,” wrote Gao Xingjian in his 2001 book Return to Painting. For his eighth solo exhibition at Alisan Fine Arts in Hong Kong, the Chinese ink artist and Nobel laureate offers 12 works produced between 2002 and 2016, including three new ink paintings created for the show. “Layers of Light, Ink in Mind” meditates on the space between Gao’s solemn reality and his subconscious dreamscape to arrive at a sheer moment of tranquility and appreciation for monochrome art in its purest form.

GAO XINGJIANIn the Ocean, 2010, Chinese ink on canvas, 65 × 81 cm. Courtesy Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong. 

Gao once wrote that painting affords him a “certain pleasure” and a state of mind divorced from the repository of his past memories. Straddling a multifarious vocation of artist, writer and playwright, 76-year-old Gao is as revered for his elegant ink washes as he is for his works of literature, which are often semi-autobiographical and draw upon his experiences of life during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). Gao was the first Chinese-born writer to be honored with the Nobel Prize in literature, in 2000, and this year his seminal book Soul Mountain (1990) was adapted for theater by the National Taiwan Normal University. A pioneer of avant-garde theatre in China in the 1980s, Gao’s play Alarm Signal (1982) was notably banned by state authorities, and he has been forbidden to publish in the country since 1983. Leaving China in 1987, Gao has thereafter lived and worked in France and was subsequently granted French citizenship in 1998. Even to this day, all his literary and theatrical works remain banned in China; although his paintings, which have been observed by critics to be removed from his written work, are permitted to be exhibited within the country.

Exploiting the limitless possibilities of black ink, Gao creates vast hues of grey-on-white rice paper and, occasionally, on canvas, constructing rich, otherworldly landscapes that possess the essence of Zen. One of his earlier works exhibited in the show, Moonlight (2002), portrays a moon shrouded in the darkness of what appears to be a night sky, rendered in wispy layers of ink washes. As though sucked into an inverted universe where the cyclic rhythms of nature are reversed, nightfall and the moon consume the lower portion of the painting, which becomes progressively lighter as the ink appears to rise up the work’s surface. At the confluence of the East and West, Gao takes the traditional Chinese medium one step further, digressing from the customary use of paper and applying ink to a rough, porous canvas surface, creating a hybridity that only a master in the loose unpredictability of ink could achieve. In the Ocean (2010) visually separates the canvas in two halves; the ocean, painted in a deep gray, demarcates a horizon line dividing the land and sky. The texture of the canvas fabric remains visible in the work’s lighter areas, which at first feels rather confounding and even a little uncomfortable. The shades of gray appear to blend more chaotically, leaving behind harsher lines and disruptions in the canvas not seen in Gao’s paper works. The unfamiliarity of marrying Chinese ink techniques with the Western canvas requires longer moments of standing before the painting to appreciate its grandeur; but with time, Gao’s dreamy world shines through.  

GAO XINGJIANIn Search, 2014, Chinese ink on rice paper, 42 × 36 cm. Courtesy Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong. 

More recent works, such as MoodDaydream and In Search (all 2014) further demonstrate the finesse of Gao’s technique. Where his earlier works display distinct transitions between shades of black and grey, these newer pieces exude imperceptible blurred lines, blending from one hue to the next. In Search introduced a new element to Gao’s ink paintings: a lone figure in pure black. The figure floats in weightless space, its silhouette as ethereal as the world around it. The ghostly, drifting figure reappears in two paintings that Gao made especially for the exhibition. The strikingly simple composition of Moon and Wind (2016) makes it one of the most powerful works in the show. Against a smooth, soft gray background, the lone figure lingers mid-air in complete stillness; the only clue of the wind comes from the brushstrokes rendering the figure itself. At over one-and-a-half meters in length, Moon and Wind, alongside another painting of the same size, On the Shore (2016), span across the widest wall of the gallery, it’s presence enveloping and soothing.

GAO XINGJIANMoon and Wind, 2016, Chinese ink on rice paper, 91 × 156 cm. Courtesy Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong. 

Neither simply abstraction nor figuration, Gao’s paintings hover somewhere in between, tapping into both genres. Breaking free from the two-dimensionality of Chinese ink, the artist realizes his own spatial dimension, a blend of his Chinese roots and his studied knowledge of Western art discourse. A lover of classical music, which he often listens to while he paints, Gao pictorializes his internalized thoughts through ink and, quite literally, paints his soul.

“Layers of Light, Ink in Mind” is on view at Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong, until June 25, 2016.

Denise Tsui is assistant editor at ArtAsiaPacific.