From Transexperience in Chinese Art

From Transexperience in Chinese Art

Over the past few weeks, I have been reading more about Chinese art. More specifically the Chinese diaspora and how transexperience effects intent and the resulting product of an artwork. This led to further investigation into creative practices.

During the eighties and nineties, many Chinese artists migrated to the west (USA, Australia, UK, Germany, France, etc). Artists Xu Bing and Wenda Gu particularly stand out to me. Their presentation of language in their art is what has motivated me to explore the concept of language in my own work. By utilising another medium to communicate (somewhat through language) a personal change opens a world of interpretations of the sense of community, what language is, and how we creatively manipulate paint, pencil and ink.

Melissa Chiu states that:

The modification of Chinese signifiers includes the adaption of Chinese writing, evident in Xu Bing and Wenda Gu’s invention of hybrid forms of Chinese characters. Xu’s “New English Calligraphy,” for example, construction a new script from English that resembles a form of Chinese calligraphy, while Gu’s “United Nations” series of installations combines Chinese with other languages, sometimes creating an entirely fictitious and unreadable language altogether.

Chiu, Melissa, Breakout Chinese Art, Charta, 2006.

This is just one of three ways in which Chiu categorises how Chinese artists of diaspora explore the past and present in their work. The categories she created are recovery, juxtaposition, and modification. She believes that Wenda Gu and Xu Bing are modifying and recovering their homeland (and new homeland) through literary lens via a painterly medium. They create a visual hybrid-language based on cultural models of which they are a part of, in order to present a culturally fluid identity.

So, my question is: where do we draw the line of mark-making and language? Is there really a difference? Although ‘language’ and ‘image’ can individually exist at a point in time, the effect of distinguishing one from the other blurs the lines of communication and interpretation. Does this investigation inevitably conclude with the interaction of language and image ultimately creating a liminal space, or is it something more to do with human nature?

For many Chinese artists:
“[p]ainting, together with calligraphy, poetry and music, constitutes one of the four key traditional art of China and is an extension of the art of calligraphy. It is therefore, like calligraphy, linked to the sacred prestige of the written word. One’s first encounter with a Chinese painting will immediately betray its literary nature. Unlike a western painting that hangs on a wall, the Chinese work is mounted in the form of a scroll, which by its nature is related to the world of books. It belongs to the realm of the written world.

A further distinction that has made it difficult for western art lovers to fully appreciate Chinese painting is that the Chinese are simply not interested in transcribing or depicting reality. His objective is rather to ‘write the meaning of things’ … to express the idea.”

Goedhuis, Michael The Ink Art of China, 2015.

Language, as we all understand it, is used for verbal communication, and art (or mark-making) is used for visual communication. Communication, then, is at the heart of both of these mediums. We all gain the ability to create a dictionary of our own language; how we pronounce words; idiolect (unique works/phrases to oneself); sociolect (P. Trudgill: phrases and words unique to a group of people, shared and explored in a small social community) – so much of this is so applicable to art. We are influenced by our own interests, external factors such as fellow artists, climate and societal context.

Like all of us. artists have a distinct style. For example, it is seemingly impossible to be unable to distinguish artist like Monet from Van Gogh – like handwriting, creating art is a practice we engage in with our hands, so those small movements, inflections, marks and lines we make become a part of our dictionary of mark-making: our art-language. And we use all of this to “‘write the meaning of things’ … to express [an] idea” (Goedhuis)

Despite this, I feel that there is more to artistic and written communication than we can, at present, begin to comprehend. In Breakout Chinese Art, Melissa Chiu notes Chen Zhen’s summary of transexperience and how it inevitably influenced his art:

“…a mode of thinking and a method of artistic creation that is capable of connecting the preceding with the following, adapting itself to changing circumstances, accumulating year-in-year-out experiences, and being triggered at any instant. Furthermore, this type of experiential concept relates to an extremely important matter, that is to immerse oneself in life, to blend and identify oneself with others” (1998).

Chen Zhen, from: Chiu, Melissa, Breakout Chinese Art, Charta, 2006.

Often, as Melissa Chiu presents in her book Breakout Chinese Art, transexperience creates a space that suspends us (mentally) in-between past and present, or retrospectively on our homeland and “new homeland.” As humans, we are bound by the dimension of time, but we can link “past” and “present” memories/experiences, we can reflect upon them, we can compare and contrast them or let one influence another. For many Chinese artists, transexperience occurs during migration (diaspora):

“Diaspora is different from travel (though it works through travel practices) in that it is not temporary. It involves dwelling, maintaining communities, having collective homes away from home […] Diaspora discourse articulates, or bends together, both roots and routes to construct…forms of community consciousness and solidarity that maintain identifications outside the national time/space in order to live inside with a difference” (1997)

Clifford, from: Chiu, Melissa, Breakout Chinese Art, Charta, 2006.

Like diaspora, being an artist or writer (or other self-reflective creative) blends together conventions of communication, transcending time and experience. In this case – the homeland and the new homeland – is similar to the retrospective reflection upon a piece of art/culture one had created in “the past”. Although “it” is still in the past – “it” is still a part of you – and it is still in “the present”. Like works of art, we carry our memories with us, and they communicate more information about our past and future than we can comprehend in the present moment.


Chiu, Melissa, Breakout Chinese Art, Charta, 2006.

Goedhuis, Michael The Ink Art of China, 2015.


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