By Wang Anyi
I always think that Shi Dawei has an excessive desire for the capacity of his paintings like Tianjing Incident (1986), 1941.1.14 Wannan Incident (1991), and The Long March 1936 Ganzi (1996). Incidents of great historical import like these demand a good deal of knowledge of what goes on in the foreground and background. Literature might be an better medium for such knowledge, but painting is something that appeals directly to the eye. Everything has to be made plainly visible on a flat surface, about which doubt is inevitable as to whether or not painting can be a proper medium for presentation. Shi Dawei, bent on achieving what is extremely difficult, seems to be consciously looking for trouble. As if to increase the capacity of his painting, he has developed a liking for ever-greater size from the normal to today, which is more or less forced. Of course the reverse might also be true, i.e. an obsession with large size leads to a preference for great content. Regardless of their relative importance, in the end the central question is one of presentation, that is, to fill a pictorial space.
This obsession with great content is probably nourished by a love of literature. Most of the people born in the 50s and raised in the 60s have a memorable reading experience. Young children are naturally fond of fantasizing, for which literature can provide not only material but also the means. In that age of simplicity, the capacity for fancy also grows in a simple way. Everyone has at least a story of how he or she obtained books. The typical story is nothing but one of buying a new book with one spared pocket money. The book may well be Yang Shuo essays that roused a love in young hearts for their society. This reading experience, therefore, has a republican quality; it is that on which our emotions are based. During the Cultural Revolution, school life was suspended, and reading literature was almost one entire intellectual life. It not only cultivated the capacity for fancy, but also compensated for the education lost, creating a lopsided cultural constitution for that generation. I refer to the literary element being predominant in the mental constitution when I say it is lopsided. But I speak without any remorse; on the contrary, I think of it with compassion as a great recompense for the education lost. It keeps the generation from having a shrunken spirit, and allows it to maintain many righteous ideas.
I once attended a panel discussion with writers in Taiwan. Zhu Tianxin, a writer from Taibei, when speaking of her impression of writers from the mainland, had an interesting thought. There are, she said, only two categories for all things in the world, and they vary according to people. For the sexologist, humanity can only be divided into men and women; for the politician, only royalists and revolutionaries. She knew an otologist who uses dry and wet earwax as two distinct categories. For her, a writer of fiction, there are two kinds of literary composition he lineage of one can be traced to The Three Kingdoms, the other to The Story of the Stone. Writers from the mainland are mostly of the Three Kingdoms type. It has something to do with the republican character of the mainlanders who pretend to be inheritors of orthodox history, yet who are also overwhelmed by the violent passions of history. Shi Dawei, to adopt her words, is without a doubt a member of the Three Kingdoms category, i.e. of the "epic school."?
Shi Dawei started his professional career as a cartoonist. He has drawn comic strips for Zhou Libo' novel Tempest, Ding Ling' novel Sunshine on Sanggan River, Yao Xueyin's Li Zicheng, Water Margin, and, it is true, also The Three Kingdoms. Drawing comic strips satisfied his need for epic subjects, and gave him a good deal of training in handling them. As the ancient saying goes, success and failure are both one man's doing, however, Shi seems to be irretrievably lost in the mode of storytelling. His choice of subject matter, as is just said, is overly influenced by the importance of the theme and the complexity of the plot. Wannan Incident concerns the Anti-Japanese War, Communists and Nationalists, and their conflicting policies and struggles. The sortie scene is admittedly a sad sight, but it is insufficient to fully represent the nature and content of the incident as a whole. Shi Dawei is obviously aware of this. He moved the most impressive sortie scene to the background and filled the foreground with the important characters involved in the incident. From this his intention to represent the entirety and depth of the incident is clearly evident. Equally evident, however, is his effort to take up onerous work. In fact, even though the people involved are all allowed to speak, the details of the incident can not be completely brought to light. What holds the sight in subservience are ultimately the lines, spaces, colors, and light and shadow in an interactive and harmonious play under the governance of an underlying order. This is, as it were, the theatricality of vision. It is a spur-of-the-moment response. Without a temporal dimension, it does not allow any possibility for interpretation. The Long March 1936 Ganzi, for example, would be completely obscure without some knowledge of the history of the Communist Party of China. You should at least know the people involved---zhang Guotao, Xu Xiangqian, Chen Changhao, and Qin Bangxian. What I am very curious about is whether "1936 Ganzi"is a deliberate choice of those political heavyweights as a suitable time and place for the staging of a historical turning-point, or the contours of their faces and bodies meet the painter's specific need for formal beauty. They seem to be a carefully crafted piece of masonry in the graceful style of the Han, piled up like a giant screen that has an overwhelming size 210*480. Such facial and bodily shapes also appear in an earlier work Our Days (1999). With less content, this painting is done in a simpler way, in purer form and a simpler style. This, however, cannot satisfy Shi Dawei's appetite, who is persistent about capacity. We might even doubt whether he did not deliberately choose such a large size to force himself to come up with subjects of great weight.
In the appendix of his 2001 collection of paintings there is a short essay which contains this statement: "it is my recent endeavor to transform objects into signs.""Pictorial signs that are extracted from outward appearances,"he further explains, "an convey in a more powerful way my ideas of pictorial art to the viewer."Painters' words are not always reliable. It is not because they are not honest, but because they are not conversant with the language they use; neither are they fully aware of the subtleties and intricacies of language. It is after all not their language. They find themselves stuck in a situation in which they use a language that is not their own, and yet a language in which their ideas are expressed. Accordingly, they might well say that which is not what they really want to say. Here, nonetheless, with his notion of semiotic representation, he is not in the wrong. 1914.1.14 Wannan Incident and The Long March 1936 Ganzi are exemplary of his semiotic strategy. Pictorial art, as it hardly serves a narrative purpose, has to describe a process by means of representative details so that the latter can be brought plainly into view. But is Shi Dawei ever aware that now the weight of the entire event falls on the details that are singled out as signs? Consequently, two questions arise: namely which details are qualified to be signs and the capacity of the details to serve as signs. There is certainly no need to be too fastidious about language. Either the subject matter or Shi Dawei's early training in realism has a deciding influence on his painting style. The signs he singles out are often too true to life and therefore a bit clumsy. Do the characters involved in these historical events appear as signs? If so, they are too concrete, and this concreteness has put a constraint on the roles they can play. Unable to signify anything else, they can be nothing but themselves. As for clothing, weaponry, and daily objects, resources are not rich and can signify no more than times, identity, and part of the environment. Concrete details are only limited signs, what about imagined ones? If they are unrecognizable, how can we pin down their meaning? In fact the pictorial details that serve as signs are predicated upon common sense and generally recognized ideas, that is to say, they must be known and recognized beforehand. Signs, therefore, are actually taken from common sense. The question is how to use, not how to create them. I am essentially suspicious of signs. Granted that they serve a purpose of induction, what about the signs themselves? Do they have aesthetic values? In other words, apart from the duty to convey ideas, can they claim the right to be viewed as an aesthetic object? Whether or not this is granted, the semiotic theory can hardly make ends meet. Hard-pressed by the task of narration, one has to steer a new path.
I have also noticed, however, that almost at the same time his semiotic theory was put forward, Shi Dawei produced Creation of the Universe (2000). There are not many obvious signs in this picture. This is probably due to its subject. In primeval times the world was a chaos in which nothing was named. It is not certain if signs, when given, can signify anything. Genesis is merely a rhetorical concept. One has complete freedom as far as the presentation of the scene is concerned. The entire picture is filled with powerful scenes of cracking and crumbling. Fleshly bodies are exposed on stone walls, like egg shells breaking up. There is a circle of light both in the upper left and upper right corners of the painting. In the two circles are a toad and a crow that may well represent the moon and the sun respectively to echo the theme of genesis. They are, as it were, semiotic ashes, whose existence is not necessary, for the whole scene is dependent upon something else. Painters?words, I thereby say, are not completely reliable.
Now when a 400×430 empty surface is presented before view, what to put in? Chen Cun, a fiction writer from Shanghai, once wrote in his essay that he could hardly ignore page numbers as he wrote. He always felt hard-pressed by empty pages. The nature of the work is the same, i.e. to fill up an empty space. For us writers it is time; for them a two-dimensional space. In Tristes Tropiques, a book by twentieth-century French anthropologist Levi-Strauss, I have read about the Caduveo Indians in Brazil. The women of the tribe have preserved ancient techniques to paint their faces and bodies. Their painting technique is described thus, “these skillful compositions, which are asymmetrical yet balanced, are begun at any one corner and completed without hesitation or correction.” The naturalness of their painting is a possession of primitive people only. That is a life in which there is no division of labor, in which mind and matter, nature and human originality, are one. Wherever is the heart there is the painting brush and vice versa. We have long been tamed by civilization and evolved into conscious animals, but still “God laughs whenever Man thinks.” Humanity, however, can never unlearn the ability to think. At this time, perhaps another instinct, a craftsman’s instinct, is of help to Shi Dawei. I think Shi is somewhat like a craftsman. No matter how incisively he thinks, thoughts always give way to concrete work when he starts to paint. This is their natural advantage which is determined by their profession. Painting is manual work to a greater extent than literature, which makes it seem to have a blood relationship with European Renaissance. The Renaissance is a golden age for human progress in which senses are released from utter darkness. Things in the world rise above chaos and are separated from each other, but have harmonious boundaries in between. Sense and sensibility, the brain and the hand, art and living, are in harmony. American author Will Durant wrote in his Renaissance: A History of Civilization in Italy, “Half of Venetian craftsmen are artists.” I do not think there was anyone bearing the name of artist at that time. Craftsmen were craftsmen, and were only evaluated by their work, either good or not so good. Leonardo da Vinci is a craftsman. In the same book, Durant copied Leonardo’s self-recommendation letter to Ludovico, regent of Milan—“most illustrious Lord, having now sufficiently seen and considered the proofs of all those who count themselves master and inventors of instruments of war, and finding that their invention and use of the said instruments does not differ in any respect from those in common practice...”—in which Leonardo enumerated his plans for bridges, for making cannon and armored cars, for the construction of buildings both public and private and the conducting of water from one place to another, and for executing sculpture in marble, bronze, or clay, etc. From this it is clear that art is of the same standing as all the other skills. In the letter Durant copied in his book to the governor of Venice and the Council of Ten, Titian made the request that he be allowed to paint for the Senate, as if he was competing for a decoration project. I have seen a TV program made by NHK featuring contemporary Japanese painter Koji Kinutani in Venice where he studied fresco painting thirty years ago. In his old studio, he stretched his hand and took out from behind the fireplace a handful of sand, which is his own, probably also Titian’s or even Giorgione’s. Nowadays no one is trained as a master of this Renaissance fresco technique. The use of sand gives fresco painting a touch of civil engineering. Like the poor children from the country in the early part of the last century, who were sent to Shanghai, then a new port, as young apprentices in metallurgy and abacus accounting, Michelangelo was sent to Florence to be trained as a painter. It is a characteristic of the Renaissance that art is not high up in the shrine, but rather a lowly thing in the street, in the hustle and bustle of the market. From the blacksmith’s came the metallic sounds of bowls and plates that went under the hammer for the decoration of their edges; colored water streamed from a dyer’s shop onto the street; the coppersmith was making bullet heads and shells on a sparkling furnace; at the timber’s bier boards were put under the saw, and F-holes were heard cut into the top plates of violins. What a fascinating age! Renaissance has of course affected literature, but I still think it is primarily a movement of the hand. It has developed to the utmost the potential of the hand endowed by the Creator. It is probably the desire to use one’s hand, I think, that allows Shi Dawei to break through as large an empty space as 400×430.
Here characters are divested of any evidence of their identity. Only their bodies remain as the basic pictorial component and nothing else. Sharp angles are formed by tensely stretched bodies, which are attenuated by the presence of soft touches as evidenced by the baby figure in the lower left, the curve of the violin in the upper right, and the half contour of a female body in the lower right. These soft touches, weak as they are, create elasticity, helping to strengthen connections between hard lines and spaces. They also give the solid, tightened structure a relieving breath of air. Nonetheless, remains of signs, such as rifles and bayonets, can still be found. By the way, Shi Dawei has a childish love for simple arms. Nonetheless, they do not have to be interpreted as signs, for they actually serve an important structural function. They divide the surface into half-separated areas that are independent and at the same time interconnected units. A progressive movement exists among the varying elements with their accumulated power. The paper cranes seem to symbolize prayers Cfor peace, but I rather think they help brighten the picture. Unruly lines and surfaces are temporarily restrained and stabilized and their energies stored. Catharsis and control are exerted alternately. Fierce conflicts fill the entire pictorial surface and are captured by the eye. Has Shi Dawei abandoned the narrative mode, or is he consciously compressing temporality into a two-dimensional surface?
The title of this essay is taken out of “Stone City”, the first poem in the sequence Remembrances of the Ancient Past of Nanjing by Zheng Banqiao. The first line of the poem goes,“Hanging rocks of a thousand feet in height, by the sweeping strokes of axe and knife, transformed into an outer city wall.”
This “city wall” constructed with paper and ink is dedicated to the memory of the 300 000 ghosts who have suffered shameful injustices in their life and died with painful regret.