“Beauty is the only thing that time cannot harm”
― Oscar Wilde
Xie Dongming is a professor of paintings in the Central Academy of Fine Arts – Beijing, an academy regarded as one of the pillars of fine arts higher education in China; he is also the leader of the influential group in Chinese contemporary art, ‘The Third Studio’–whose other members also teach at the very same institution. Xie Dongming became one of the pioneers of the progressive Chinese (Realist) paintings through the group’s voyages and studies to the various corners of the vast and rich local cultures of China. Dongming’s tendency to produce portraits of individuals and people from the more remote sites also signify dynamics of discussion in the discursive changes around the global issue of identity. One who provides commentary on Dongming’s works, Song Xiaoxia, situated the issue faced by Dongming by explicating, “[r]egionalism, localism, and even the socialist ideology which had been much feared and vilified in 1980s has become an effective resource, a strategy and a linguistic identity. More and more people came to realise that the resource in local Chinese culture can be organised into a strength to be used dialogue with other cultures, to become a discourse which transcends individual history. Such aspect can be seen as another act of reconstitution on the relativity of disursive authority between the East and West.”
The subject of a portrait painting—whether it depicts a widely known individual or not–had often been regarded as limited because mainly people only consider the aspect of resemblance between the model and the resulting painting. Many consider the apt subject for a portrait painting is on the result of imitation which has its grounds in the understanding of ‘mimesis’ taught by the Greek classical philosopher: Plato. Actually, the definition of mimesis does not exactly contain a meaning as simple as a result of imitating–which is assessed through the degree of likeness in form. In more complex studies such as Hermeneutics, a more complete and deeper understanding of it is held. The researcher Hans-Georg Gadamer, for instance, thinks that translating ‘mimesis’ only as ‘imitation’ is problematically narrow as a definition. For Gadamer, the definition of ‘mimesis’ instead is rather vast, because mimesis “has the sense of ‘making the absent present’”(1. Mimesis, as such, is defined as manifestation of ‘materialising’ the ‘nonexistent’ to be ‘existent’, so the Platonic meaning of mimesis is subject of the way to ‘manifest the world of idea’, which materialises the world of concept into something physically sensible. It is in such vast framework where we can comprehend the portrait paintings–about the figures in various rimlands of China–Dongming works upon. Through his paintings Dongming not only record of ‘what exists’ but instead materialise an idea of a constantly moving life and culture of China, consistent with assessment by critic Xiaoxia, that “Chinese painter[s] should have their own quality as a Chinese painter, their own ideas, perspective, and expressive method of life.”
Dongming’s portrait works are indeed not entirely realistic, but expressive with dissimilar ways of approaching medium use and particular painting idioms (whether in watercolour or oil). The power of expression in Dongming’s paintings lie simultaneously between the idea of form and image (identity) which he delivered intensely through the technique and colouring material he works with. The ‘distorted’ form subsequent of his expressive way of painting not only makes his works feel so close and warm as if addressing a dimension of our feelings as observers; but also sums upon an experience of life interactions with an embedded intent on reflection, and values. A phenomenological investigation would give that, “colours, patterns, and textures of sensory experience, before they are the qualities of objects, are the thick interaction which manifest the disclosive, intentional structure of experience”(2. The image of a portrait Dongming works upon would of course be related in narrative with an actual someone posing as his model in possession of his or her own particular time and space, but it is also important to augment that the painting itself is about the quality of experience on values (comprehension) gained through expressions of emotions and sympathy. Dongming’s works are not entire explanatory acts (about ‘who’ or ‘what’) on its particular circumstances; yet what matters most is ‘how’ the information on depicting one’s self identity is felt upon and being recognised in depth. An emphasis I could express here is a phrase by researcher Nelson Goodman, that “in the arts, emotions function cognitively”(3.
The title ‘Selfscape’, or on the levels of ‘self-landscape’ was chosen to illuminate an expansive mean in understanding the self which Xie Dongming exerts by reaching to the intent of “profound experience” on other people expressively, in which emotional values are contained. Dongming’s resulting paintings are of course different with photographic documentations of someone, because the paintings themselves are precisely executed to reach the deepest layers of experience about someone (other than ourselves). Those paintings would of course not be entirely ‘true’ in facing realities presented by each of the models he had selected. The outcome Dongming had set upon was not on the value of ‘precision’ of certain circumstances or phenomenon, but was rather on achieving experential values of beauty matched with a vision in creating he has lived with. A painting done by Dongming depicting someone is not entirely about the person, but also about a voyage to achieve a manifestation of beauty. However, our appreciation to the value of beauty does not simply end in the experience of knowing and absorbing the visual data nor the whole physical state, but instead it permeates through to the infinite space of imaginative experience. In an optimum way of sensing, it was even said that every [potency of] work of art will basically transcend everything that is real. “Beauty,” Sartre said, “is a value which applies only to the imaginary and which entails a negation of the world”(4.
“Selfscape” will exhibit the sophisticated paintings of Xie Dongming, displaying his explorations at various (cultural) sites in mainland China and also outside China–including Indonesia, whence he had the opportunity to visit and observe residents living around Yogyakarta. Xie Dongming’s consistency in working with themes of figures and portraits bears explanatory value significant in expanding one’s experience of knowing him or herself, intensifying oneself all along. The meaning of profoundness and maturity in identifying ‘the landscape of the self’ (selfscape) is an existential anchor essential in every man’s life. Philosopher Anthony Savile explained the valuable experience of artistic expression on one’s knowledge about oneself in an inspirative way. He said: “(t)he role of the arts in helping to prevent ossification in our assumptions about the world and our affective response to other. The arts help us to feel our way into the situations of other in all their subtlety”(5.
Bandung, September 2016
Rizki A. Zaelani | Curator