Gao Xingjian’s Latest Ink Drawings at Galerie Claude Bernard in Paris, France
A vein is a concentration of similarity that our perception associates with a line. A line is an accretion that follows a narrative direction here then here then here. The patterns of these lines suggest shapes to the eye. Gao Xingjian’s ink drawings record differences. In his chosen medium, these differences grow from the interaction between the liquid nature of ink and the material substrate of paper, the interconnection of fibers. From this interaction the artist adds his intension of where to apply the ink, how many layers to apply, which shapes on the material’s surface to respect and which to ignore. The image appears from the continuum of lightness to darkness, paper to ink. The image emerges not from the material but from the viewer’s memory, the sensations the viewer associates with places. As I look at this art I see feelings. An image titled Une vision makes me think of viewing exterior light from the inside of a cave. The light is narrowly framed. Each sheet of paper presents a point of view outward, a foreground viewed from the floor looking into the space, a distant horizon line, another distance accruing into a line, a mountain rising or a roof enclosing, a liquid dispersal of ink resembling a direction. I see a pattern of liquid spreading on the surface and I remember the flowing of water, I recall the immobile shape of minerals, I see the shapes of clouds. I remember that clouds are no more than contrasts of light refracted by moisture in moving air. One could pass one’s hand through any of Gao’s compositions made from ink dried into paper the way one’s hand would pass through a cloud. The only sensation would be a change in temperature. The only resistance would be the titles. Their insubstantiality embarrasses the imagination. We confuse them with images formed at the intersection of wind, light, moisture and longing to reach a place that always looms before our eyes as a distance out there, always separated from our selves.
They are out there, these figures and aspirations, always moving, blown by wind, dissolving into the moisture in the air evoked by the mixture of ink and water on the paper. They are always out there in a place that is not me.
All this reverie is my language responding to the artist’s work hanging in a gallery, a very nice gallery in a very nice part of Paris. I was there to see Gao Xingjian because his art presents a specific context. Very few visual artists are also great writers and few great writers are accomplished at prose and drama. The fact that Gao is also a filmmaker emphasizes the continuity of visual image, drama and cinema. Having read his writing, I look at his visual work as part of a continuum. A relationship between his drama and prose and the work of Samuel Beckett was evident thirty years ago. Looking at these painting by an artist best known for his novels and plays brought to mind the 2007 Samuel Beckett exhibition at Centre Pompidou. That ambitious show evoked the totality of Beckett’s art by gathering films, set designs and recordings as well as photos, manuscripts and paintings. The paintings were not by Beckett but by the artists with whom he had close relationships in Paris. I stood looking at the work by Bram Van Velte and wondered once again where the correspondence lay between these darkly colored pressured abstract shapes and Beckett’s work. The relationship was the darkness that came from a time and a place, a different time but same place in which Gao works today.
When seen beside such European art from mid-20th century, Gao’s visual work is more transparent than opaque, more approachable than defiant. His work is neither shocking nor comforting. The viewer is invited to see actual landscapes and figures in these drawings, and titles such as Les Marcheurs invite us to see those black strokes, vertical accretions of ink aligned to a blurry edge of water diluting the ink’s blackness, as people walking somewhere. The action may be towards or away from the viewer, but the direction is not the point, nor is the fact that they appear to be figures. The point is their insubstantiality, be they upright human beings or rising spiritual aspirations, in relation to the space they move through and their distance from the viewer’s eye. They are out there, these figures and aspirations, always moving, blown by wind, dissolving into the moisture in the air evoked by the mixture of ink and water on the paper. They are always out there in a place that is not me.
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