Qi Lan was just twenty years old when I went back to teach at the Southwest Normal University twenty years ago and got to know him in 1993. He showed little interest in fashion, and preferred the old to the new, manifesting a sense of maturity in spite of his young age. Gifted with an extraordinary retentive memory, he could recite whatever after a cursory glance. Ancient classical poetry books, such as Shijing and Chuci, were what he had kept reading and were often seen in his hands. If you cannot memorize the wonderful passages about childhood life in the article “From Hundred-plant Garden to Three-flavor Study” by Lu Xun, he would recite them to you without any mistakes. If you inquire a certain sentence in Lisao, he would chant the whole poem to you. In regard to age, we built our friendship between generations because he was younger than me by decades. In regard to conduct, he was like the scholars living in my father’s period. So there was a tinge of surrealism in our friendship. I returned to America before his graduation, and we heard very little from each other in the following ten-odd years. In recent years of my having been back in China, Qi Lan, living far away in Shanghai, has now and again come to see me in Chengdu. Of course the more important reason behind is that he often passes around Chengdu when he is on the way back to his old home in Anyue County, a place which his parents are living in and toward which he has unseverable deep feelings. What he mentions most frequently in his talks with me is his father and the yard of his old home.
In the past, I thought that Qi Lan had grown up in an alternative classical context which was self-constructed, imaginary and even fantastic. However, I now believe that it is his father’s traditional education that makes him least susceptible to times’ influence by taking the manners of “the survivors of the past age”. It is difficult to keep an enduring interest in Chinese traditional culture owing to China’s particular environment. After all, Chinese people’s intimacy with tradition has been greatly weakened due to the various Enlightenment Movements in the past one hundred years. In the meantime, the blending of foreign radicalism and native political power has castrated the cultural coherence, and has resulted in a spiritual void in which Chinese people find neither vertical reference of their own culture nor horizontal reference of other cultures. The Intellectuals, who take on the responsibility of preserving the traditional culture, have to live in the crevices of history, like those alienated solitary minsters in the old times, moaning the already vanishing bygones in the survivor’s lyrics.
Nevertheless, an individual’s experience often sparkles with miracles, and it is true with Qi Lan. As a person born in the 1970s and a scholar, he has penetrating insights into the modern and contemporary society and its culture. Fostered in the remaining climate of local gentries, he has been enlightened to take the classical approach to knowledge instead of the programmed post-modern approach. At some moments, I can almost sense in him an inborn pride and superiority usually found in the believers of social caste. Such pride comes from the fact that he has forged a spiritual way back to his mental hometown, which has exerted a significant effect on the forming of his disposition. Of course the modern and contemporary thoughts help him get familiar with western scholarship, but it does not pose any threat to his spiritual depth in Chinese classic culture. In Qi Lan’s understanding, the artist’s characters which are expressed in the art works are of great importance. Even though he sometimes works as an art critic, he never dwells on the so-called necessary logic of artistic history. He maintains that artists should ignore and even transcend the theoretical network. Hence, he is an absolute artist rather than a critic and scholar.
Qi Lan’s works reflect the duality and conflict in his disposition. He was once a pure traditionalist, and I witnessed the progress of his thinking and practice—for more than ten years he has been immersed in the genteel Chinese literati tradition and accompanied by Ni Yunlin, Xu Wei, Dong Qichang and Ba Da Shan Ren. But Qi Lan is a contradiction with deep-concealing wild temperament, and he is never an easily tamed person by nature. Exposed to the contemporary cultural context of sudden transformations and disintegrations, he fights against and contradicts himself. His pure artistic pursuit and strong self-consciousness intensifies his denials to the extent that he would rather be squeezed to the margin and bear the dual pressure from history and reality. However, I think it is fortunate for him. For a post-1970s artist, perhaps such condition itself is an achievement of cultural quality.
The early traditional Chinese paintings by Qi Lan resemble the brushstroke of Ba Da Shan Ren and Shi Tao. Whereas his oil paintings feed more or less on the techniques of modern artists, such as that of Giacometti, which places deconstruction over construction in dealing with images. What he depicts most is the pastoral landscape in traditional Chinese paintings. Therefore the juxtaposition of modern techniques and classical objects brings about the tension between deconstruction and anti-deconstruction. Qi Lan, however, seems to enjoy very much this turbulent process of creation. Although he cannot be called a deconstructionist in a strict sense, he is more radical compared with the tradition-worshipping literati painters. Neither Ni Zan’s paradigm to release the inner unbuttoned grace, nor Ba Da Shan Ren and Zhang Ren’s disguised craziness and bitter simplification in painting can exert a dominant influence on Qi Lan’s thinking and painting. On the contrary, the enlightenment from German new expressionist artists ( such as Kiefer) is more distinctively exemplified in his series of “grassland” and “wilderness” with mixed media. What expressionist painters use to cope with the historical darkness is used by Qi Lan to cope with traditional cultural symbols. Although Qi Lan’s manner is not radical (sometimes a negotiable attitude), it has explicitly unveiled Qi Lan’s attempt for a new possibility in the collision between form and content. However, because of the ambiguous essence of his subjects and his unrealistic tendency in regard to his creation purpose, his art works refuse any textual interpretation, and fend off the logical rhetoric by creating ambiguities, seeking great spiritual elevation from the blanks of logical cracks.
Qi Lan’s works bring the audience into the vast wilderness. If you find nothing in them, it means you are not supposed to be here.
He Gong, in California
(He Gong, artist, professor and doctoral tutor in Arts College of Sichuan University)