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Imagery Making and Six Categories of Chinese Characters --- Zheng Lu’s Practice in Art Author:​Lv Peng

Imagery Making and Six Categories of Chinese Characters --- Zheng Lu’s Practice in Art
Lv Peng
According to the Rites of Zhou, children started primary school at age 8, and Baoshi, their teachers, taught them the six categories of Chinese characters:
“1. An ideogram is a graphic character that we understand them the moment we see them and its meaning becomes clearer if we observe it closely, like ‘上’ and ‘下’;
2. A pictogram conveys its meaning through its pictorial resemblance to a physical object with its necessary curves , as is the case in ‘日’ and ‘月’;
3. A phono-semantic compound is based on the property of the objects with a similar phonetic symbol, as is the case in “江”and “河”;
4. An associative compound consists of two parts which combine to generate a new meaning, as is the case in “武” and “信”;
5. A transferred cognate chooses the same radicals for two characters that are mutually explanatory, as is the case in “考” and “老”;
6. A loan word is borrowed to represent a concept, as is the case in “令” and “长”.
                                    —— Shuo Wen Jie Zi ∙ Xu, Xu Shen

As a sculptor, Zheng Lu has placed his art in a fairly rich context. Like other sculptors, he creates in the context of Western classicism. Sculpture means exploration of space, materiality and tactile factors, and more importantly, of how to substantialize them. Since classicism has assisted realism in conquering symbolism, it stands naturally in opposition to lines, outlines, and symbols. Zheng is also influenced considerably by the concepts of art since the “New Art Wave” in the 1980s, which means there is lots of knowledge to take as ideological support, besides the fact he was from a family of literary tradition.

Among artists, sculptors generally have a particular craze for substance. As Rodin once pointed out that a sculptor had to conceive the two dimensional as a cubic rearward periphery and the form as cusp facing the viewer. And he added that the spring of life surged froth form the center and the flower of life bloomed from within. There was no line but volume only, so when a sculptor worked, he had to ignore the outline and focus on the high and rising parts, for it was these protrusions that governed the outline. (From Rodin d'Art by Paul Gsell, tran. Fu Lei, Tianjin Publishing House of Social Sciences). Here is the secret to classicism: a work cannot do without substance. Henry Moore was keen on holes and the abstract world, but he never abandoned substance. With substance having its grammar altered by Duchamp, ready made art expanded the category of art, exerting big impact on sculptural vocabulary. As one of the key components of contemporary art, sculpture has acquired more public and conceptual quality. Even so, after Duchamp, sculpture is sometimes confused with ready made art, but there still remains some, though ultimate, relevancy between sculpture and substance. The substantiality and determinacy, of course, are already untenable.

In the scenario of contemporary art in China, sculpture did not start as something independent, neither did it precede easel painting --- although “Silence”, by Wang Keping, met the public as early as 1979. During the ’85 New Wave, sculpture went hand in hand with innovations in easel painting, and later it succumbed to conceptual art and performance art, so in the context of new art movement after 1979, sculpture tend to be neutralized as “art” rather than an established genre of art with its own features. Obviously there has been discussions about the connection between Zheng and other important sculptors who are his seniors like Zhan Wang. The connection between Zhan’s Rockery Stones Series and Zheng’s “Transition”, For example. Zhan was greatly influenced by the modernist trend in the ’85 New Wave. When he graduated from the Department of Sculpture, CAFA, emerging art in China was in the midst of rapid growth, which undoubted played a key role in the formation of his  style. From his “A Girl on the Chair” (1990) all the way to the “Rocky Stones” Series there was a consistent trend of experiment with volume, weight and atmosphere. It seems that what Qiu Zhijie called “post-sense sensibility” in the late 1990s can be applied to more complicate cases in art, Zhan’s works for example. Whether it is sensibility or post-sense sensibility, it is fairly easy to include Zhan’s works in the framework of Western classical sculpture despite its reaction and revolt against the outdated, uncouth sensibility, to be more specific, the sense of weight, texture, time sequence, and even time and space --- though it is merely a kind of attempt. As to Zheng Lu, admittedly, he is engulfed in a sea of “post-sense sensibility”, but he differs from Zhan and his generation in context. In other words, what Zheng, born in 1978, was exposed to was mostly in the vein of “post-sense sensibility”, or even, it made up his everyday life, and, contrary to what we may suppose, what came before “post-sense sensibility” becomes something unfathomable to him. Here is the large gap between their motives and context for art creation. To Zheng Lu, weight, texture and time sequence have been given enough attention and there is no need for further discussion, so he does not focus on such experience.

It is true that, at first sight, we would associate Zheng’s “Transition” with the breakthroughs Zhan and his sculptor peers made in sensibility, but there is more to Zheng’s work, I would say.

Sui Jianguo’s sculpture in the 1990s, or the conceptual art of this period represented by those conceptual sculptures, was actually the target of the holders of “post-sense sensibility”, which is very obvious in Qiu Zhijie. “By 1997, the theme-centered practice had become so shallow that it was not worth criticizing. Then I realized that something threatening was looming large in contemporary art in China: the so-called conceptual art was being reduced to a uniform taste, minimalist, bland, miniature-worshiping and wit-oriented. ” (Introduction to “Post-Sense Sensibility”, Qiu Zhijie). The fact that conceptual art could cause such a stir highlighted to a large extent the importance of this style. Sui impressed us with his symbolic work, “The Legacy Mantel”, attesting to the reign of philosophy in the kingdom of conceptual art. It’s another debate between poetry and philosophy, as unavoidable as any of its kind in history. The speculative statue, rich in categorical, symbolic and ideological connotations, was rid of the thing-in-itself in the material form, therefore completely cut off sensibility” , so we can say that there is neither post-sense sensibility nor  uncouth sensibility, and what remains is only trans-sensibility or preferably “de-sensibility”. Talking about his experience, Sui said, “For a work of art, its time starts exactly the moment it is completed. But for me, it is dead the moment it is completed. What we do next is just to display its body here and there.” (“Finally I Was Able to Step out of My Age”, Sui Jianguo, Harper’s Bazaar, Jan. 2015) He compared Musée du Louvre to Catacombs, a secret, eery museum with a collection of about 6 million human skeletons during a plague. This reference, introduced in such an honest way, was intended to illustrate the best strategy to keep art active: being ephemeral. An instant being is probably a lot closer to the ontological nature of existence, so for a sculpture, something that stands there for ever, it means everlasting death. Given the fact that even the holders of “post-sense sensibility” are aware of such danger, we know that conceptualists might not be so shallow as described in the post-sense sensible narration.

Afterwards, especially after 2000, Zheng found himself, in a fragmented field of art, having to make his choice between Sui’s conceptualized sculpture-making, despite the ideological impurities, and Zhan’s stress on the sensible function of sculpture, despite the symbolic overtone in the sensibility. In other words, he had to take side either with poetic sculpture or philosophical sculpture --- it is a to-be-or-not-to-be question. In 2009, soon after Zheng finished his postgraduate  study in the Sculpture Department CAFA, he held an exhibition in New Age Art Gallery in Beijing: “Interpreting Nonexistence: Zheng Lu’s Sculpture Solo”. It juxtaposed the two sides. On one hand, “interpreting” means “reading the characters aloud”, or “reading the article aloud”. The characters that made up of the sculptures therefore created a conceptual and semiotic context. On the other hand, “nonexistence” represented the sculpture’s visual aspect. “nonexistence”, in this case deriving its meaning from Henry Moore’s “hole”, reminded us of the tie with sensibility.

Zheng’s imagery making was equally amazing. The seven sculptures at this exhibition were made of 20,000 welded Chinese characters that forms an article or a poem. The perplexity was thus left to the visitors who were not on guard against anything unconventional. How could they embrace these trypophobic works of art?     Were they expected to read these works as symbols for their inherent meaning or focus on the visual perception that they triggered as images, or both? Even in the beginning of his career, Zheng had to answer this question in a very special way. “Impression of Hong Ren Landscape” was no doubt the centerpiece of this exhibition. Characters made up the mountain’s outline, even its reflections in water. In the meanwhile, thousands of Chinese characters worked to highlight the tip of the iceberg of Chinese culture. His works in this period were represented on two different levels. The sensible aspect took the lead and got registered on a visitor’s eye. Landscape, whatever material or whatever details were used, invariably called forth sentiments about nature at the very start. Almost simultaneously, however, soon after the perceptual impression formed visually, one discovered that there was a semantic level as well --- you were actually so startled by this discovery that you could not but doubt if there had been some deviation in his understanding of the first level. Here came the trouble. How were these symbols related to the sensible outline of the mountain? The audience would probably try to explore the implication of these characters, as well as the “inherent” relation between these characters and the mountain’s outline. Zheng’s initial strategy was based on the duality of sensibility and concept, in other words, the duality of philosophy and poetry, as he explained:

“I used Chinese characters first in my graduation work. That choice had a lot to do with my family of literary tradition, and indeed a few members of my father’s and grandfather’s generations are engaged in literary work. They did have influenced me. My choice was based on the most plain, immediate sentiment and subconsciousness, as well as on something “kenophobic”. The scripts pasted on the sculpture not only gave a sense of density but also implied some narration and materialized poetic sense.       (“Zheng Lu's Account”)

Admittedly it belongs to conceptual art, but we have to keep in mind its difference from Sui Jianguo’s style: unlike Sui, who referred to symbols for the production of concepts (even though sometimes there was a touch of ideology), Zheng took advantage of the sensible aspect of the symbols to produce richer sensibility.

On the other hand, he elaborated on some ideas about post-sense sensible sculpture. As far as the entry point is concerned, Zheng has something in common with Zhan and his post-sense sensibility school.

“The metal and the hollowed-out derived from characters. To build a tangible image with characters, I had to first cut the characters’ outline out of the metal sheet and then hollowed them out, thus changing the metal’s nature --- the otherwise heavy, lumbersome steel sheet became lithe and light. When hollowed out and polished, the surface gave off dispersed highlight that invalidated the inherent solidity of the sculptural volume. The emptiness inside the sculpture and the “substantiality” of the sculpture’s volume conspired to bring out some kind of tension. The invalidated “negative form” became a new “concrete form”. It was then that I began to show in the reduction of the sense of block and volume in sculptures and started to experiment accordingly. ("Zheng Lu's Account")

With such train of thought, Zheng held his exhibition“Interpreting Nonexistence” in 2009. It was no doubt a ingenious tactic: instead of taking side with either, he found a subtle balance between them, i.e., sculpture as poetry and sculpture as philosophy, but the tactics could not go far, which the artist was well aware of, as they are fundamentally contradictory. Even if the audience looking at his sculptures could switch freely between the two concepts, the inherent conflict was still there, i.e., the switch might lead to the shifts between different contexts, which meant unbearable barrier to interpretation. It would eventually result in “Rabbit-Duck Illusion”, an arcane paradox Wittgenstein mentioned in his Philosophical Investigations.

After two years’ careful thinking and preparation, Zheng had another exhibition “Passage of Time” in 2011. This exhibition included a pieced called “Dayfly”, a sculpture he did in 2010. The insect’s body was made of stainless steel, its wings were delicately and thickly dotted with carved poetic lines the artist wrote in his childhood, and ink was splashed on the wall behind the sculpture.

“It is my memory of insect remains. These remains, very common in summer,     was gnawed away by ants, leaving only the wings, symbol of the spirit after the physical body was gone. Their transparent and delicate wings, as well as their lives in oblivion of our earthly time, led me to reflect on my youth that had be idled away and my ephemeral life. I then decided to fill the wings with a poem I wrote in my childhood, trying to arrange and cut the characters in such a way as to create the “membranous” effect. And the ink marks on the wall therefore became its source. This sculpture in this case became the memory of my youth. It materialized my dream: many times I have dreamed of flying and many times I had knocked my head on the wall, so the ink mark on it must be my blood.”

This sculpture set the tone for his style. Or rather it helped him to find a solution in dealing with the conflict between poetry and philosophy. He found a new world before him in which words and images were reconciled, as is the case in Taoism: you never know if the words made the images or vice versa, but one thing is sure that in their constant exchange art was born. In the empathy between painting and calligraphy, since it was put forward, there has always been a kind of tension. If words and images are functionally different, then any effort on the human part to unify or coordinate them might be too idealistic. Zheng traced the root back to Chinese character formation, which helped him to bypass the conflict. The secret lay in “associative representation”, meaning a word, in this case a Chinese character, or ideographic painting, is an image by nature. Therefore, whether it is a word or an image, if it goes back to its ideographic origin, there must be a centralized outburst. It stands amidst all the differentiation, just like the chaos in the beginning of creation. Characters, in their initial period, or as primordial images, have both functions: it was both communicative and mediumistic, or was the synonym for being. In short, it related to its target neither in a logical nor a significative way --- it pointed to mythological association.

If Zheng has been trapped in the structural conflict between the ideographic function and sensibility in his early works, then “Dayfly” marked his discovery of a solution that allowed him freedom after the conflict was settled. Then he set out to develop for his imagery making system basic vocabulary, which, as a matter of fact, did not differ fundamentally so much from the six categories of Chinese character formation.

“A pictogram, also called pictograph, conveys its meaning through its pictorial resemblance to a physical object with its necessary curves, as is the case in ‘日’ and ‘月’.(meaning ‘sun’ and ‘moon’ respectively).” Then came his “Water from Water” in 2013. In this work that featured the movement of water with characters, he began to shift to words, or more accurately, further exchange between Chinese character formation and imagery making. As he explained:

“I was actually looking for the connection between the text and the sculptural form, even their exchange. Take the “Dripping” series for instance. The characters are from “Reflections on Still Water”, a poem by the Tang Poet Bai Juyi. The poem starts by saying that people who were active enjoyed flowing water while the quiet type preferred still water. In the end the poet pointed out that he was not simply making a tour there ---he was connecting the landscape and the personality, and in the still water one could understand those who enjoy quietness. According to Zhuangzi,  flowing water could not serve as a mirror but still water can. Whatever form water takes, it was invariably the reference and introspection of our mentality. The poem became a vehicle for the particular instant of water that is always in motion and surgy, so “still” had double meaning here, and it was more than merely depiction of water’s various forms.” (“Zheng Lu’s Account”) .

Is there a rule in imagery making, as is in the formation of Chinese characters? The ancients thought that “水” (meaning “water” in Chinese) resembles “flowing movement”, but was there other possibilities the moment this character was born? Zheng’s sculptures seem to confirm it --- right in the iconographic period in the formation of Chinese characters. In this sense we can compare sculpture to a poem, a public poem or public resources. Its appearance is as simple and intelligible as scripts, or simpler and more intelligible, from a graphical perspective. Even a baby knew the stainless steel there represents water, but its implications were as rich as that of words. An iconographic poem was actually a mirror to word-forming images. To a pictogram, its pictographic aspect becomes its narration, but in Zheng’s imagery-forming system, narration became pictographic.

“Resurface”, his solo in Gajah Gallery in Singapore in 2014, was a continuation of his iconographic logic. The paintings were polished and overlaid to create special texture for the sentiments to retreat to emptiness. “Transferred cognate means choosing the same radicals for two characters that are mutually explanatory, like ‘考’ and ‘老’.” Here Zheng was bent on discovering some kind of mental projection between images and non-images, between this image and that image, like what we usually do in Rorschach’s inkblot test. “考” and “老” are of the same kind and are mutually explanatory. Here the artist was trying to approach, in a sequence of images, some intention, sub-consciousness, sentiments, identity and sensibility. As he elaborated on polishing in this series:

“Without knowing, I used a different color each time I sprayed paint. After the polishing work was done, the high spots on the surface of the sculpture showed convoluted texture, i.e., overlaid fracture surface, marked by the residues of paints of different colors. At the low spots there was only one layer of paint. Since then I have begun to depict this state by polishing and overlaying. Some of them, mostly overlaid portraits, still had visible images, like in “Family”. I enlarged in geometric proportion the portraits of my parents and grandparents, seven in total, and polished the overlaid images on the aluminium plate with abrasive paper and a angle grinder, leaving images that showed all the five organ senses, but they were to blurry to tell which family member it was. “Family” photos were generally group photos which could revealed the relationship and blood. My deliberately overlaid, blurred images, however, could be recognized only with vague and fragmented memory. The other images were more abstract. Images, with their relevant or irrelevant themes, were repeated no less than six times before being given the same treatment. As the graphs were irrelevant to the composition, after being polished, the images became more abstract fragments of color blocks. When constructed and deconstructed, the indeterminacy and the contingency of the spoiled image become my interest.” (“Zheng Lu’s Account”)

“Shiosai”, his exhibition in 2015 at Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei, marked a more challenging period in his art in which he started to mobilize more media and material. When treated in different material and in different shapes, water takes different forms, so isn’t it similar to the six categories of character formation? Transferred cognate, loan word, ideogram, associative compound, phono-semantic compound and pictogram are never separate from one another; rather, they are included in a wider semantic and pictorial context. So is Zheng’s imagery making system, in which all the isolated substance, images, symbols and logic are converted  from something else, in other words, the real and the virtual keep transforming themselves into their opposite.

According to Confucius, “Flowing water cannot be a mirror, but still water can, as only still things can keep other things still.” (Zhuangzi --- Chongdefu ). In 2016 he held at Parkview Green “Transition”, his first big solo in China. About sixty percent of the exhibits, like “Winter Solstice”, “Rain Drum”, “Drizzle in Dongting”, “Free of Distraction”, were site-specific and shown in public for the first time. This solo was  focused more on time sequence, space and changes, so in this sense, the poems about imagery making began to shift to philosophy of imagery making:

“Re-sist-ance” has been fermenting in my mind for a year. “Resistance”, as a physical term, is synonymous with “obstacle” in everyday life, something to overcome in interpersonal relations or the relation between people and their social relations. As Liang Qichao pointed out, “Everything in this world meets resistance, and we call it a success when resistance is crushed.” Sometimes, however, resistance means convenience. Take for example the rising patterns on the bottle cap. It was designed to facilitate the opening of the bottle cap. In response to resistance, I made a sound tower that created resistance with layers of aluminium pieces. The resistance then become an obstacle to the free falling body. About ten thousands aluminium pieces were put in the shape of a tower in the center of the exhibition hall. What is tall and in tower-shape are generally given religious and spiritual meaning. The carefully designed structure of aluminum pieces was a resistance to the falling steel balls. Each time it falls, the resistance it met turned into sounds, therefore forming a sound field.” (“Zheng Lu’s Account”)

To an artist, imagery making has become something magic that can be used to build the passage between his spiritual world and the physical world. Moreover, as is said in Huainanzi · Benjingxun, “When words were invented, it rained millet and ghosts cried in the night.” The fear of character formation or imagery making was deeply rooted in our mind. Word formation and image making, essentially speaking,  follow the rule that the form should resemble what is depicted. There are formal and formless sculptures, so Zheng is looking for such thrilling magic outside the system and lineage of imagery making and word formation. The ancients believed “Habent sua fata libelli”, so does imagery making in various forms. The six categories will not be something indispensable the moment an artist unveils these ossified forms and secrets that have been hidden outside our memory.

According to the introduction to the exhibition “Shiosai”, the title was borrowed from a novel published in 1954 by the Japanese novelist Mishima Yukio. Talking about the love story between a young fisher and the shipowner’s only daughter, the novel coveys the idea that true love and sweet ending won’t come until the young man went through lots of trials and experienced all the hardships in life. Zheng’s solo echos the implication in this novel by revealing the outline and development of this work. Be that as it may, Zheng’s interest in Mishima Yukio points to “contrariness ”.

“To me, art making is like looking for a contrary state, like Mishima Yukio’s contrary treatment of the beauty and the sublime. He thinks that humanity is Tanbi-bound, but beauty is always erratic, attracting people but at the same time abandoning them, so it is better to build beauty of despair in the way we destroy beauty. We tend to reconstruct in a constantly devastated system of self. We are all perfectionists with an inferiority complex, very sensitive and careful about details.  Sensitive people tend to be over-concerned in a contrary state, so it is not difficult for them to approach the subtleties. They can feel keenly the “emptiness” of life, so death would become something full.”( Zheng Lu’s Account”)

The contrariness here takes the form of transformation and loss of substantiality.  From the stainless steel to the smooth surface of the mirror, from conceptual art to post-sense sensibility, from easel painting to multimedia installation, a single image makes shifts and elapses in different physical properties. Both Sui Jianguo and Qiu Zhijie have talked about the particular sensibility an artist shows in response to life and death.

On Oct. 27, 2016 “Re-sist-ance” , Zheng’s first large solo in Shanghai, was held at Long Museum (West Bund). This exhibition included six new sets of works he completed in 2016. “3000 Meters of Woe” echoed the extension and the force of “emptiness” in the space. It is miraculous that the continuity in the space created a sense of unchecked growth that blurred the border between our inner world and the universe. Zheng’s sculpture, it reminds us, has been actually growing toward mental images. Its outward expansion did lead to some large works, but they penetrate deeper and deeper the depth of the inwardness of our consciousness. “Sun and Grass” continued to search for the connection between the visual sense and thing-in-itself, but at the same time, there were also experiments with video from his perspective as a sculptor. These trials, admittedly, had bearings on the conflict and mutual penetration between the fluidity of images and the sculptural solidity, as was the case in “Leaving”. This work, based on a classical motif, featured suitcases that recorded and experienced an episode of moving images but were at the same time static and silent. Nicolas Bourriaud was well justified with his prediction that art was being folded into some tangible experience rather than something concrete on the wall, namely, it had to respond to fluid and variable experience. Such experience was not only embodied in our visual sense but also pointed to a compound of experience that was expected to become, in limited time and space, as complex as possible. Like tear gas, it was expected to cover the whole body with what is released from a very small space.

If these carefully selected works represented major categories in Zheng’s art, then “Re-sist-ance”, title work of the exhibition, was a towering cubic made up of about ten thousand aluminium pieces. This special structure was an obstacle for the ten thousand steel balls that were dropping. Every time there was resistance, a sound was produce, so in the end the exhibition hall resounded with a chorus of the universe. For the first in his career Zheng had embraced sound on such a grand scale, which took his “imagery making” to more profound depth. From the inherent elements of image like time sequence and space, then probably to the tactile sense and finally to sound, he finally got access to the field of interaction, in other words, a filed of synaesthesia. By saying that sound would become a principal media in the future, Zheng did not mean any experiments on sound but something we can call “sculpture of sound”. The marvel of this filed does not consist in some meaningful sounds but in the higher-dimensional treatment of the sculpture or the installation by means of sound. In this filed of sound, we have to be clear that it is the sound not the form that Zheng is trying to take in control. “A phono-semantic compound is based on the property of the objects with a similar phonetic symbol, as is the case in ‘江’ and ‘河’ (both meaning river)”. Sound and form make as interdependent a pair as “耳” and “且” an analogy. Here we see a subtle coincidence with the ancients. It is about imagery making, but from a brand new perspective: a creation with four dimensions, i.e., space, time, thing-in-itself, and sound.

“To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit,” Shakespeare told us.

Indulged neither in philosophy nor in poetry, Zheng feels rich and full in this state of transcendence.

Then I would like to make a summary.

Zheng’s solo at Long Museum is an experiment. Here he tries to detach himself from the conflict between sensible treatment and the concepts that have been bothering him for a long time, so that he can enjoy more freedom and liberty when depicting his inner conflict. Nothing about human life or the world we understand is clear or doubtless. Each landscape has its reason to be there. You might come across a “natural” landscape, but it could be a kind of illusion, as even the flowing water can be a reminder of another material or symbol. Surrounded by some universal power, you may be fearful or excited. If we leave this world and try to return to where we started, however, we will be subject to suffering from idealism: whether you return to the beginning or stride toward future, it will always be a tragedy.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Sunday  Oct. 30, 2016