by Shraddha NairApr 28, 2021
The shanshui tradition of painting dates far back into history, a traditional style of painting originating from China holds a place in Tao culture. A meditative practice which can be traced to as early as the 10th century, shanshui translates literally into ‘mountain water’. When these characters are used together in the native language, they represent the word landscape. However, to see shanshui as mere landscape painting would be to rob yourself of the elegant structure it builds upon.
Shanshui painting has its foundations in philosophy, which lends itself as a manual for the technical aspects of this art form. The word shanshui itself points to yin and yang elements, namely water and mountain. Yang, represented by the mountains, is stable, warm, dry and continually reaching upwards. Yin holds complementary characteristics - fluid, cool, moist and rested on earth. Shanshui is an expression of the Taoist worldview of the universe as a product of the interaction between yin and yang energies. This form of painting, unlike European landscape painting, has a rather strict directive on colours. Each hue is representative of one of the five elements (earth, water, wood, metal and fire) and they are used in combination, in accordance to their relationship with one another. The compositional aspects of shanshui are also directed by intricate concepts known as paths, threshold and heart, a language which is further detailed by symbolic motifs like humans and trees.
Despite this ancient and rather holistic school of thought which guides this painting technique, artist Yuan Hui-Li focuses new light on the subject many centuries later. Having studied shanshui painting for several years, her practice examines the patriarchal orientation of the narrative presented by historically chronicled art of this form. Hui-Li says, “My art practice has always been focused around study of different subjects, including brushstroke and texture from Chinese traditional landscape painting. In 2007 my life went through a major change which I considered as a new opportunity to probe into a new topic series. Since then, I am able to try to cast aside the traditional painting technique and express my own emotions through graphic images, which in a way can be regarded as an art therapy for me.”
Cun, or texturising, is a technique essential to the form of shanshui painting and the primary subject in the revolution of contemporary ink painting. She uses this technique to emulate and express her own emotions in a process of self-healing, while simultaneously addressing the issue of the male-dominated discourse in the medium of ink. Concerned with patriarchal systems and female liberation, the artist shares her views, “Women nowadays enjoy more liberty than before, we were able to present our opinions and be heard. For me, what a woman can do today is, therefore, to make up for the lack of female presence in the history of landscape painting. In the meantime, we are also complementing the ‘emotions’ that’s been missing (hidden) in traditional painting”. The artist’s series They Shanshui works to address and heal her own traumas, using texturising forms like peaks and valleys to metaphorically denote her physical and mental experiences and reactions. They Shanshui addresses what is beyond gender divisions, emphasising non-binaries.
In a recent work, Manual of Yuans Texturising Strokes, Hui-Li looks at the Qing-dynasty Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden (1679), reconstructing the traditional school of cun through the female lens. She says, “In discussing the various texture strokes pattern in Chinese traditional landscape painting, there are many interesting topics that I feel drawn to study, and my point of view can be different depending on historical and cultural background or context. I chose Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden, an illustrated instruction manual on how to paint natural landscape, a classical text which I transformed into my own language as a way to respond to my cultural history.”
In a recent exhibition presented by Tina Keng Gallery, Hui-Li showcases the product of the past four years of the artist’s life dedicated to this process of discovery, healing and expression. Hidden Emotions in Texture is a curation of recent works by the artist, but it is the conceptual child of a gestation period of almost three decades long. Yuan Hui-Li has been investigating the materiality of ink since 1992, and its surrounding narrative. Her path is a meld of personal as well as social influences, birthing a contemporary purview of an ancient subject. The artist’s recollection of ancient texts invites the viewer to remember history with a critical eye, bearing in mind the imposition of socially oppressive systems. This approach works in favour of the artist, serving as a direct confrontation of “the man”, as one might colloquially say, resulting in a robust body of work, relevant even today as we witness cultural upheaval globally.