Li Xiaoshan Unusual Things Done by Unusual Person

2011-03-24 16:32

Li Xiaoshan

In the spring of 2006, Long Sen, a few other friends, and myself roamed about Yandang Mountain. Afterwards, I had a strange dream. In my dream, Long Sen painted a work, as majestic as the Xiansheng Gate on Yandang mountain, that overlapped with the actual landscape and reflected off each other’s glory. I told Long Sen my dream in detail and joked that “Xiansheng Gate” is like a prophecy, shedding light on the future of your creative career.

Today, Long Sen has painted works grander and more splendid than “Xiansheng Gate.” There is a visual invasiveness of his paintings, full of tension and oppressiveness, so much so it allows the viewer’s vision and mood to expand endlessly.

Artworks are only indicators in understanding and learning about certain artists, rather than the only channel. It is often said that unusual people conduct unusual things. Long Sen is an unusual person who is unique from most, an individual among the special ones. I haven’t known Long Sen for long, yet I felt like I know him inside out. Because he’s a simple person, someone can easily identify with him. With my experience and observations, there are those people who never allow others to know their true selves, always diplomatic, courteous, and having the appearance of a gentleman.  Then there are others who wear their hearts on their sleeves, transparent and decisive. I like the saying of Zhang Dai of the Ming Dynasty, “One cannot be friends with those without shortcomings, who lack truth.” Long Sen has many “shortcomings,” but there is also more “truth”. Long Sen often reveals childlike naivete and simplicity, which is quite distinctive from his age and life experience.

Long Sen and I often discuss academic matters because he is eager to learn and wishes to strengthen his creative foundation. Knowledge is instrumental for him.  He’s someone without any pretense.  Since our generation has been through many hardships, which has made us intellectually malnourished. Thus our knowledge can be scanty. In comparison to Long Sen, with my humble amount of knowledge, it seems I am slightly more educated.  In our conversations, we are able to provoke thoughts and emotions for him. Long Sen’s thoughts are not quite assimilated, and I’ve joked that his body of ideas is comparable to a medium rare steak. He accumulates knowledge whole and live, in pursuing his ultimate goal with continuous passion and persistence. Every artist with ideals and ambitions has an ultimate goal – Long Sen has positioned himself at an unreachable height in order to mobilize all his energy and power to achieve it. Therefore, with his scanty knowledge, he is full of vigor, which contributes to his fervent passion and ideas. Long Sen exhausts himself, while taking pleasure in such process. The bits and pieces of glorious truth from his words often astonish me.  This comes from his passion, which is also a reason for Long Sen not achieving his ultimate goal.

Long Sen likes to talk about history. I, on the other hand, believe in the relationship between individual existence and spirit vis-à-vis history. History is a meaningless and dissident force. This is our difference.  In fact, those who treat history as an individual relationship have strong beliefs in utilitarianism and empiricism. The reason why I think history is a meaningless, dissident force is to grant higher and more literal treatment for the creative individual. Either in the past or the future, it is not directly related to the creative individual. What I mean is those, who mark themselves as a signpost for history, manifest themselves as typical imaginary scenarios. In other words, what does it mean to instill the glory of success in the unpredictable future? I have point out to Long Sen that the width and length of ourselves is the standard for measuring ourselves.  Beyond that, there is nothing else.  I would like to clarify that it is out of place with the mundane desire for pride. By the same token, that mundane pride, in comparison to history, is an even more dangerous and vile trap.

The dialectics of the human existence tell us that contradiction and paradox are human tragedies, both of which can be especially apparent on certain people. Long Sen whole-heartedly wishes to climb to the pinnacle, but what is his foundation? My nihilistic historical view often made me sink into the marsh of rationalism.  Long Sen seems to be more optimistic – of course, his optimism is not a thoughtless outcome, it is only expressed more radically. Long Sen’s mood wanders on the boundary of the rational and irrational, which unquestionably produces a kind of tragic force. Historical tragedies are often played on the stages where heroes are the main actors, and the entirety of human tragedy concentrates on the tragedy of the heroes. This is the secret of existence. Therefore, the capacity and ability of Long Sen to climb to the pinnacle relies on, none other than, reality.  To abandon reality results in the fabrication of all discussions.

What is Long Sen’s reality? What position does he take before us?

For example, certain artists climb from being unknown to famous, from being local to international, from small circles to larger disciplines. All of such scenarios are not applicable to Long Sen. From all the examples, there is a formulaic and uniform path in becoming famous. I have told Long Sen, in our era, if a master, who had not followed this path to success, emerges, he will be the new force that comes to the fore.  As a hurricane and a miracle, his emergence would be unpredicted and unfathomable. Thus, his creativity must be unique and indispensable.

Chinese landscape painting, Long Sen’s main medium of expression, has been on the decline over the years. Many reasons contribute to this decline, and many people’s discussion of the phenomenon seem hesitant and outlandish, including Long Sen himself whose opinion is constantly changing. Often, the key to learn about and resolving an issue does not rely on our learning capability.  Either we take the external or internal approach to understand the issue, which might eventually allow us to reach its essence. In other words, just like peeling an onion layer by layer, eventually its outcome might still be nothingness. However, the logical relationship of an object tells us any of its external symptoms conceals its hidden roots. In our entanglement in the complex relationships between history and reality and the future and reality, knowledge is obviously not a definite outcome of experience. As Long Sen has convinced himself that those so-called landscape artists of today are “folk artists”, he has in fact positioned himself as a true “creator”. As it is known, one kind of destiny for a creator is loneliness. I have told Long Sen as you are reach a certain height, the air around you will be very chilly and no one will be there to give you warmth. You can only resort to your inner self. Moreover, you will not be able to return to the comfort of the collective – although due to  crowding, it will produce the necessary warmth out of human instinct.

Looking at the centuries of landscape art, there has been revolutionaries, conservatives, and those who took the middle road. And to summarize the success of landscape painting over the past centuries, there has been many sparks, most of them small with limited influence. Engels once stated in his talks on the Renaissance that the small stars brought this movement to its mid-point, but the masters pushed it to the pinnacle. We all know that the Renaissance was a time to “call on masters and produce masters” – thus, the period certainly produced masters. Then what about our era? Is it also an era that “calls on masters and produce masters?”

In my view, not only we are confronted with a reality that is out of place with the Renaissance, but with one of imminent collapse. Induced by severe distorted views on beliefs, values and life, as well as an absence of social cohesion, one’s motivation for achievement has been lost. Consequently, spiritual character is on the overall decline. People have become god, and god is personified. I am deeply aware of the insufficient perception in my thinking, and “knowledge” obstructing my decision making. Long Sen emphasizes repeatedly one must eliminate one’s “prejudice”. In fact, issue of “prejudice” is a matter of degree, rather than whether or not it exists. Without any prejudice, one is easily convinced by others; whereas too much of it makes one jaded. Therefore, the creator needs to eliminate his prejudice, although, he wouldn’t fly off for having pulled his hair. In the midst of collapsing, we can only believe in coincidences--all possible heights and depths, all outcomes that capture our eyes and transcend time are individual miracles and coincidences without having any necessary relevance to the “calling” and “production” of the era.

Accidental, singular miracles almost lack any basis. In other words, once its existence is legitimized by its emergence, it solidifies its historical legitimacy. This sort of logic does not prove that I am a mystic. In many specific eras, there have been artists and scientists that have emerged in such a fashion. Long Sen proclaimed to me with vigor that we are living in the most hopeful era since the Han dynasty. What would have given him such an idea? Why has he ignored two thousand plus years, but views today as the most spectacular stage? His statement is grounded on the reinvention of everything in our lives, the existing regulations, values, mentalities, customs, etc. that have all become ineffective, like the phrase “the helplessness in the falling of flowers”. Because we are at the early stage of rebuilding, the traditional, western, ancient and current are all at our disposal. Moreover, in terms of our vision and acceptance, we have long surpassed the “stars” from the past; therefore, we have the capacity to achieve.

Overlooking Long Sen’s referential standard, at the very least his optimistic attitude is helpful. The motivation of achievement pushes him forward. The speed of this progression often comes as a surprise, even to himself. Psychologically speaking, the pessimist is active in thinking and the optimist is eager to act. Two points are worthy of our attention—the first, Long Sen’s optimism does not come from self-inflation, self-pride and self-affirmation; his actions come hand in hand with constant reflections and contemplations. Secondly, his optimism comes with the irresistible national conscience of his generation. “I” is often associated with “we”. “I” am a member of this nation and our nation has encountered unprecedented opportunity, thus “I” am creating “our” future.

    More than one person has asked me why Long Sen is infatuated with painting works at this scale? Is the quality of his work relevant to their dimensions? In answering this type of question, one must establish the existing context. First of all, as I have mentioned earlier, Long Sen is an unusual person. He attempts to break away from all pre-existing boundaries in landscape painting, and his primary choice in doing so is dimension. The dimension of the work is irrelevant to its quality; however, it does change the viewer’s viewing experience. Secondly, landscape painting is no longer the singular form of the past. Contemporary art does not discriminate via medium--oil painting, sculpture, installation art, and video are all involved in this visual competition. Only the most unique and that which creates the most tension takes the crown. Therefore, scale is not crucial, but uniqueness and tension are the key points. Thirdly, audience participation in contemporary art, compared to the past, has become more intimate and direct. “Being present” is not only a concept of individual appreciation, but a method to create an atmosphere and penetrate it. I remember a man carelessly saying that Long Sen’s paintings are the past traditional master painters (such as Wang Meng and Li Tang) made large. There is momentum in one’s visual experience. The traditional forms of landscape painting have already been fixed, no matter how many variations there are. They do not separate from habitual visual experiences. I wonder if Li Tang and Wang Meng were still alive, would they paint like Long Sen? I would imagine so – they would take their approach to participate in today’s visual competition, although they would only be complacent to reproduce like craftsmen.

In fact, Long Sen has put in a lot of effort in mastering techniques of landscape painting. I have seen some of his earlier works, which I call “reading notes”. I once told him that if I ever wrote an essay on his work, I would call it Keeping with Imperfections. What I meant by this is Long Sen wishes to fully comprehend the essence of tradition, for which he has read and studied extensively on traditional painters, becoming an outstanding landscape painter with such a foundation. His breakthrough came about in recent years, mostly in the last two years. It is uncertain which day it was, but he reached an epiphany that led him to completely break away from his past practice, to abandon all “prejudice”, and to finally rise in the ruins that he made himself. Eventually, Long Sen found the visual expression that belongs to him. With this new visual expression, things from the past, the present, and even those of the future are mixed into one. This is Long Sen’s discovery – an unique outcome of his unique individuality.

We are shocked at Long Sen’s large-scale paintings, while being drawn to their rich content. His approaches of expression are diverse, some literal and others concealed in mystery. His witty ideas entice us to enter into the world he has set up. And in the end, we become part of his system, participating in the festivity of his visual expression. One thing about Long Sen touches me, he’s always works over twelve hours everyday. His amazing motivation and energy allows him to become one with his creativity. Therefore, I think he is an unusual person. It is logical that an unusual person conducts unusual things. Of course, Long Sen is still immersed in his tranquil creative life. Yet he surges forth with his own excitement, loss, confusion, optimism and determination to achieve the purity of an artist. Such purity is his guarantee – assuring him to strive for the pinnacle in his mind.