A gathering. The word conjures up an assemblage of people or an informal grouping of things. For the Chinese literatus, the word "gathering" is rich in historical allusions and evokes a lofty party of painters or poets, following the much celebrated Orchid Pavilion gathering (353 AD) where forty-two literati engaged in a drinking and poetry contest. The present sale freely explores these various connotations. Here, we have a fraternity of like-minded aesthetes, whether artists, collectors or dealers who are parting with some much cherished paintings and objects. The sale also pertains to the quasi-fetishistic relationship many of these aesthetes entertain with the objects that surround them, light years away from the cynicism and speculative frenzy that engulfs many parts of the art world today.

The painters gathered in this sale require no introduction and rank among the most acclaimed in the field of contemporary ink painting. For many of them, there are no boundaries between their art and lifestyle. Enter the rarefied homes of painters like Liu Dan, Zeng Xiaojun and Hugh Moss, the aesthetic experience is nothing short of life-enhancing. One is immediately challenged by highly ambiguous, esoteric objects that reverberate in their paintings: deranged rocks or grotesque roots, all treading an unchartered territory well beyond the traditional confines of beauty and ugliness. On a large pierced taihu rock, positive and negative spaces coalesce, a Rorschach test of sorts. Further away, a most endearing miniature bamboo-root carving of a finger-citron could easily be mistaken for an arthritic hand, preciously mummified. The clean, dignified lines of a huanghuali table help the mind find its bearings again. High on a shelf, a Buddha peers down compassionately towards an archaic, who knows perhaps futuristic, bronze beast – part feline, part elephant. The brush is wet and tired and rests on a jade rock furiously perforated. The inkcake, half-ground, lies on billowing clouds of bamboo. We sit down on stiff wooden armchairs and boil water for tea. 

The natural world, and by extension the rock as a microcosm of it, is to Chinese tradition what the human body is to the West: a subject that has for centuries enthralled artists and the raw material for their metaphysical and existential quests. Whereas the body epitomises an ideal of symmetry, harmony and perfection, which has for long defined beauty in the West, the rock on the other hand conveys chaos, irregularity and movement. This flow of energy, the Tao, is the seed of life and indeed Taoist philosophy focuses on the cyclical continuity of the natural world. This tenet informs the long-standing appreciation for rocks among scholars and aesthetes in China, particularly since the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD), when rocks made their way into the intimate setting of the scholar's studio. The poet, calligrapher, statesman and rock amateur Su Shi (1037-1101 AD) wrote “The stone is patterned and ugly (‘chou’). From this one word ‘ugly’ comes a thousand shapes and ten thousand forms”. Much later, the Qing dynasty scholar Liu Xizai (1813-1881 AD) commented “in the world of scholar’s rocks, the ugly is beautiful. Ugliness in the extreme is beautiful in the extreme”. The word ‘chou’ translates literally as ‘ugly’, but also taps into ideas of weirdness and clumsiness.  This appreciation of ‘ugliness’ in the realm of rocks denotes a quest to capture in a particular specimen the essential unpredictability and chaos found in nature. Organic, one could say excessively organic, wooden sculptures such as tree roots came to be sought after later, during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), much for the same reasons. Many of the objects in this sale – little nuggets of the cosmos such as ancient rocks, root sculptures or bonsai trees - manifest this aesthetic penchant for the grotesque. 

A majority, if not all the contemporary ink paintings here testify to the need for Chinese artists today to continue to pursue this metaphysical quest by making sense of the natural world. Although there exists a direct lineage between these artists and their predecessors harking all the way back to the Song dynasty, ink painters today are pushing the boundaries of the medium, both technically and semantically. We have selected works by the foremost painters in this field today, from early proponents of this new wave like Liu Dan, Li Huayi, Xu Lei and Zeng Xiaojun to new rising stars such as Cai Xiaosong, Peng Wei and Tai Xiangzhou. A couple of artists here, such as Teng Pu-Chun and Peng Kang-long, will be unknown to most, sheltered as they have been until now from the dynamics of the art market. 

A most endearing miniature bamboo-root carving of a finger-citron could easily be mistaken for an arthritic hand, preciously mummified.

Unlike rocks, roots and other scholarly paraphernalia, ancient Buddhist sculptures did not make their way into the traditional repertoire of collectible objects until the 20th century. In fact, Chinese connoisseurs never took an interest in them and the appreciation of Buddhist sculpture has a greater kinship with that of Western antiquities. Arguably, much like rocks and roots, Buddhist fragments are somewhat deracinated and to be appreciated on the basis of their formal quality. The hermetical beauty and harmony that they exude come as a fitting counterpoint to the potent visual stimuli that dominate this sale. A small number of Song ceramics, much admired for their abstraction and understated refinement, are also presented here. The Song connoisseurs call for spontaneity and naturalness informed all the arts, whether painting, ceramics or indeed the appreciation of rocks.

The 21st century is by definition the age of the environmental consciousness. The imperative to preserve our planet for future generations and to reposition humankind within the natural world order is more pressing than ever and Taoism, with its emphasis on the harmony between man and nature, may be the only ancient thought system fit for our times. So may be the aesthetics that find their roots within it.

Contemporary Literati – A Gathering

7 APRIL 2014 | HONG KONG