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On the Form and Formlessness of Water Author:Huang Du

The good is like water. Water benefits all things without contention, and collects in places others dislike. Thus, it is close to the Dao.

Lao Tzu

In Daoist thinking, water is the embodiment of goodness and softness. Water is continuous and unbroken, entirely silent at its ebb, and a rushing torrent at its height. It does not struggle with others, and can encompass all things. Water has the virtue to nurture all things, bringing benefit to all without coming into conflict with others. This is the highest aspiration for human life. That is why “the good is like water” shows us the spiritual import of this material thing. Here, the highest level of human character is equated with the qualities of water, benefiting all things without contending for fame or fortune, occupying the overlooked or unseen places. That is why it is the closest to the Dao. Water is tasteless and odorless. It exists in many different states in nature, never violating its ways.

Zheng Lu’s solo exhibition at MOCA Taipei took the title Shiosai, a title that is connected to water and is derived from the novel by Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. Instead of presenting a visual narrative corresponding to the book narrative, Zheng Lu drew from the author’s description of the protagonist overcoming various challenges to reach a state of perfect love as a metaphor for the artist’s rocky path of artistic creation and the sweet rewards at the end. Thus, in this literary viewpoint, Zheng Lu has keenly grasped onto the logic and connections between visual traits, poetic narrative and linguistic expression within art history and knowledge structures.

Of course, Zheng Lu’s artistic creations have always followed his own artistic logic. His early work was inspired by the everyday image of an insect carcass eaten away by ants, leaving behind only wings, as well as the strong impressions left by his childhood studies of calligraphy and Chinese writing. These inspirations led him to begin incorporating sculpture with Chinese characters through a hollowing technique. Such works as Mayfly (2010) conveyed an imagery of cold beauty by forming stainless steel into insects and then meticulously crafting a poem from childhood into the wings to create a paper-thin structure akin to insect wings. He continually developed this artistic language, deepening and perfecting this technique of integrating hollowing and Chinese characters in a series of sculptures of the human form.

Zheng Lu’s practice is not limited to setting a model of artistic language. He has also constantly sought linguistic logic that fits with his artistic expression. He has recently discovered “water” as a focus and source of meaning in his works. Water is seen as a material medium encompassing multiple levels of meaning. Though it is a “formless” material state, it is also inextricably linked to human life and life in the natural world, an indispensable resource on which all living things on the planet, humans included, depend. As ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus believed, water is the source of all things. In other words, it is water that produced the state of all things in this world. From this we can see the importance of water to the living world. When the rains are steady, mankind lives in a state of peace and contentment. Historically, humans have always settled along bodies of water. Water has led to crises of survival, even war. Under unfavorable climactic conditions, water can become a powerful force for destruction, bringing natural disasters. In literature, writers and poets often use water as a philosophical analogy for people and things. In visual arts, artists often use their imagination to convey the dramatic airs or tranquil poetry of water.

When confronting the sociocultural import of water, Zheng Lu began to ponder how to convey the visual significance of water’s formlessness and form in sculpture. He has grasped water’s transparent properties and lack of fixed form, while also becoming fluent in the cultural symbolism often affixed to it. In Water in Dripping-Waves, the artist did not choose the continuous, tranquil state of water but instead conveyed a moment of leaping, surging waves, giving vivid expression to the dynamic splashing of water. He deftly fused the poeticism of water into sculpture. The stainless steel flowing water is infused with text from Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi’s poem Appreciating Still Water: “Those in motion enjoy flowing water, those who are tranquil enjoy still water. No object is as sharp as flowing water, no mirror as reflective as still water.” Just as this poem concisely describes the infinite imagination tied to the motion and stillness of water, Zheng Lu’s sculpture evokes this poetic realm through shape, capturing water in a fully dynamic state, and fixing that moment in stillness. The artwork has the traits of an installation sculpture. When hung in the exhibition space, the buoyant dynamism of water forms a sense of powerful tension with the orderly square space. This state of water produces a chain of conceptual linkage between motion and stillness, poetry and water, one marked with deep Zen and Daoist insight. American conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner is also well known for his use of words in his creations. Unlike Weiner’s insistence that the word is itself a sculpture (he uses common fonts to arrange words together with images whose connection is often difficult to understand, sometimes accompanied with a poetic phrase that is at once clear and obscure; he often transforms linguistic signs into the foundation of his creations, and words as the main carrier of his creative ideas as he raises doubts about the essence of traditional notions of artistic creation), Zheng Lu focuses on the relationship between the shape of the sculpture and the narrative of the words, using metal sculpture hollowed out to reveal elegant dynamic curves formed by poetry, treating the words as a spiritual carrier of the sculpture creation as well as a formative element of the sculpture itself. In this way, the words not only transcend their function as a medium for reading, they also strengthen the decorative nature of the formal language of sculpture, forming a unique art form where flowing formal lines and romantic poeticism intertwine.

Another of Zheng Lu’s large-scale installations, Shiosai, seems to draw inspiration from Chinese Southern Song painter Ma Yuan’s Layers of Waves and Japanese Ukiyo-e painter Hokusai’s Great Wave. In this work, he subjectively fixed crashing or rolling waves in place, giving them the sense of potential motion in stillness. This is particularly the case in one microscopic detail he captured, combining the aesthetic concept of “viewing the large in the small” with dramatic scenes to present the instantaneous spectacle of foam atop a giant breaching wave. It is almost as if we can hear the rushing of the water in that great wave. Zheng Lu finds just the right combination of image narrative, formal language, rhythm of motion and stillness, complexity and simplicity, using literary language to push the waves closer and closer to the climax, so that tranquility and action, minimalism and complexity build off each other to form a highly rhythmic visual narrative. As we can see, Zheng Lu places great importance on the connections between physics and form in his artworks, and to this end has meticulously rendered the formal language. Near the ground, he uses mirrored stainless steel plates; in the central area, small waves rise up in grayish white, eventually transforming into black waves that relentlessly climb into the sky. The massive wave at the visual center has been subjectively colored black in order to heighten the artwork’s visual strength and emphasize the sculptural installation’s sense of weight. The arrangement of the three different colors and material states creates a rich sense of rhythm and melody in the artwork. Meanwhile, the artist intentionally turned the side walls lining the interior installation space into mirrors, creating a reference and extension of space between the real and virtual, while heightening the theatrical effect for viewers interacting with the artwork. This is Zheng Lu’s vivid recreation of the tides.

For artist Zheng Lu, water is a system of traits: tasteless and odorless, fluid and changing, sometimes gentle, sometimes surging with energy, subject to outside forces that can make it soft and delicate, or explode with energy. Whether the water is moving or still, Zheng Lu uses decontextualizing methods to transform this medium from a narration of content to pure form. As a result, when it is presented to the audience as a visual image, it inevitably gives rise to different associations and ideas. In this sense, the image of water is not purely formal visual beauty; it also encompasses related social meaning. That is to say, it is at once seen as a spirit of freedom and as a metaphor for relationships in state and society. In discussing the relationship between rulers and their people, Warring States period thinker Xun Kuang likened the people to river water, stating, “The ruler is a boat, the common people the water. The water can lift the boat, as well as capsize it.” This metaphor has much philosophical import for society. The people, the water, have the power to carry the ruler, as well as to drown him.

Aside from his water-themed works, Zheng Lu’s 2014 Tomb of Honor, a giant stainless steel artwork created for the exhibition On Sharks and Humanity, is also quite striking. For this artwork, the artist chose a unique creative image. Instead of directly employing the image of a shark, or that of a human, he chose a cross section of a human heart as the form for this sculpture, which he pieced together out of thousands of steel fishhooks. In producing the work, he welded the hooks together so that their points face inward. From the outside, you see a smooth vertical shape suspended in space by a cubic frame. From a distance, it appears as if the heart is immersed in a jar of formalin. Up close, we see an unnerving array of sharp metal hooks. The smooth outer surface and the dangerous hooks in the structure form a powerful contrast, a metaphor for a resplendent exterior concealing inner darkness. The use of fishhooks to create a human heart for the theme of “sharks and humanity” not only directly touches on the root of human avarice, it also alludes to mankind’s wanton slaughter of sharks. The visual import of this artwork is a warning to humanity about reining in man’s desire and greed, both spiritual and material, and finding a way to live in harmony with nature.

We could say that the young artist Zheng Lu is already keenly aware that in an artist’s individual practice, he must establish his own system of artistic logic and language. He is well aware of the necessity of skill in sculpting, and fluent in the meticulous crafting process of metals required to turn them into exquisite carriers of symbolic meaning. He has folded the elements of hollowness, words, water, animals and space into a self-contained conceptual framework that forms a unique language for expression. We catch glimpses of this in his recent works, where he has interpreted the myriad forms of water from multiple angles. Drawing from the softness of water to allude to the infinite potential forms of life and thus illuminate ways of dealing with individual development within the social environment, as well as how to deal with the relationship between nature, self-nature and the self. He uses water as an allegorical body, striving to reach accord between form and content and create a poetic vision. With contemporary language, he has bestowed water with the beauty of vastness and emptiness, making his works a rich embodiment of history and reality, tradition and modernity, visible and invisible, poetry and vision, life and symbol.

December 3, 2015, Wangjing, Beijing