“In my painting, I am dealing with certain contradictions — contradictions between past and present, China and the West, national character and the world.”
D o we see here a rabbit turning into a man, or a man metamorphosing into a rabbit? Hao Liang’s Theology and Evolution poses this paradoxical riddle to the viewer. Created in 2011, this monumental triptych stands as a pivot to Hao Liang’s reinterpretation of classical Chinese ink painting in terms of contemporary art and is a point of origin for his articulation of an ink-based worldview. In the earlier Treatise on Bamboo Skeleton Painting series and in Anatomy from the same year, Hao employs traditional Chinese aesthetic models to confront Western anatomy. In Theology and the Theory of Evolution, he plays up the narrative realism and uses the concrete forms of the rabbit, the man, and the zoomorphic figure to evoke the formless and the endless vicissitudes of life and death. From this point onwards, the zoomorph becomes an essential motif in his work, anticipating the half-skeletal Buddhists and monks who repeatedly appear in the masterful Poison Buddha 2, The Hunter and Transformations of Hell, and An Anecdote from the Grove. Reconciling ancient and contemporary thoughts, Chinese and Western mythologies, Theology and Evolution is a virtuosic expression of Hao Liang’s profound, Zen Buddhism-inspired inquiry into the ultimate meaning of life.
Born in 1983, Hao Liang was featured in the central thematic exhibition of the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017. Then aged 36, he was already among the most prominent Chinese ink painters. In the same year, his work was included in the group exhibition Streams and Mountains Without End: Landscape Traditions in China at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Musée en oeuvre(s) at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, cementing his status as a global star. The allure of Hao Liang’s paintings lies in his seamless fusion of the classical Chinese gongbi tradition of meticulous polychrome painting and the perspective, anatomy, and observational rationalism of Western painting. In doing so, he has brought classical Chinese ink painting into the 21st century and given it a brand-new visual vocabulary. Although Hao is ever immersed in classical painting subjects and techniques, the contemporaneity of his art originates in his engagement with Western literary modernism, including the works of Kafka, Calvino, and Camus. These have inspired Hao’s celebrated half-human, half-skeletal figures and his ongoing explorations of the metaphysics of human existence in the terms of “bone, flesh, form, and spirit.”
The three panels in Theology and Evolution in variable dimensions depict an ethereal wild rabbit, a half-rabbit half-man zoomorph in translucent gauze robes, and a similarly clothed barefoot recluse with a halo respectively. All three figures are situated in the wilderness amidst roughly identical grass and flowers, suggesting (as does the artwork’s title) that they cohere as a narrative of evolution from one panel to the next. Yet the triptych also poses a riddle about the direction of this narrative: from rabbit to man, or from man to rabbit? With this riddle, Hao raises painting into an embodiment of his “metaphysical” thinking. Hao Liang explains, “In my painting, I deal with certain contradictions — contradictions between past and present, China and the West, national character and the world.” In the present work, he deals with the tensions between “spirit” and “form”, between spirituality and science.
“While the scientific revolution gradually opened the gate to the modern age, we were also losing the ability to perceive the world with our body…Luckily, I have ink and wash painting, a non-scientific medium, to express my emotions. It brings me closer to the ancients, and it tempers my mortal body.”
Science is a crucial impetus in Hao Liang’s artistic practice. Consider Anatomy as an example, a painting also completed in 2011. This series of 28 paintings depict human anatomy in ambiguous, translucent images resembling X-ray photography. Undergirded by a Western scientific worldview, the series conducts, as Leonardo da Vinci did, a simultaneous dissection with medical and pictorial means. Having grown up in a family of devout Buddhists, Hao Liang further overlays Buddhist ethics on his rationalist visual investigations, suggesting the connections between the deconstructed human body and the myriad things of nature. In so doing he seeks out the common ground between the metaphysical foundations of Western scientific and Buddhist worldviews. This common ground can also be expressed in Daoist terms according to the notion of the union of Heaven and humanity: humans cannot escape ultimate death, and in shedding bodily form and returning to earth, they perpetuate the cycles of life and death.
Seen in the above light, Theology and Evolution manifests the mutual reflection and interconnectedness between the metaphysical (theology) and the material (the science of evolution). The viewer may interpret the barely visible, almost formless rabbit in the left panel as a symbol of the metaphysical, the flesh-and-blood half-rabbit in the middle as a symbol of the material, and the hermit on the right, with a halo reminiscent of Christian saints, as a symbol of human thought approaching the metaphysical realm. According to Hao Liang, “Reality is sometimes illusory. The invisible (God) is eternal.” Corporeal existence in the human world can vary infinitely. When the viewer seeks to uncover the direction of evolution, they also reflect on the metaphysical origins of life and complete the subjective-objective scenography in the artist’s metaphysical inquiry into human existence. In creating Theology and the Theory of Evolution, Hao plays a role akin to Kakfa’s in his novel Metamorphosis. Through his story, Kafka inquires into who or what has been trapped inside the insect’s body and reflects self-consciously on selfhood. Similarly, Hao points to the spiritual origin and destination of human existence through the three figures in his triptych.
The wild rabbit as a symbol deserves further explication, given its long career and profound significance in the histories of religion, culture, and art. The rabbit is fourth in the periodic sequence of the twelve Chinese zodiac signs, corresponding to the hours between 5 am to 7 am and thus associated with dawn and vitality. Moreover, because the rabbit is a prolific breeder, it symbolises fertility and abundance. In the West, it symbolises rebirth and the cycle of life, particularly the miraculous resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus, the rabbit is an apt vehicle for Hao Liang’s inquiry into the themes of reality, illusion, and life and death.
The ethereal appearance of the rabbit in the left panel introduces another layer of cultural and religious significance. In one of the Jatakas—stories of the past lives of the Buddha—a rabbit sacrifices its own body to feed a starving elder, who turns out to be a god and honours the rabbit’s compassion by elevating it as a guardian of the moon, hence the rabbit becomes a lunar avatar. This story again suggests that even when spirit and form separate, the body may perish, but it is the spirit that ultimately remains even as it turns into an ephemeral and untraceable shadow. The beauty of existence lies precisely in its incessant vicissitudes. Perhaps in recognition of this, the zoomorph in the middle panel holds a flower and smiles as if responding to the viewer’s questions and reflections, likened to Mahakasyapa in the founding mythology of Zen Buddhism, who smiled upon enlightenment after seeing the Buddha held up a flower to his disciples. As viewers ponder the meaning of this triptych, they perhaps have been brought one step closer to their own awakening.
The Sad Zither, Hao Liang’s first solo show in the United Kingdom, currently on view in Gagosian’s Grosvenor Hill Gallery in London, celebrates the enduring themes that animate his art. In his fusion of Renaissance and Song academic painting styles, eerie and alienated landscapes, and signature half-human, half-skeletal figures alike, we sense the painter’s profound meditations on the relationship between the mundane world and the cycles of life and death fully. In 2021, Hao Liang’s work was featured in M+’s inaugural exhibition, The Dream of a Museum. In addition, his new works were included in The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, organised by Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art. In addition, Hao’s works are in the collections of major institutions around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Kadist Art Foundation, San Francisco and Paris; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Bonnefanten Museum, Maastricht; Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane; and M+, Hong Kong.
若將以上思維套用在本作裡，《神學與進化論》便體現了形而上（神學）與形而下（科學進化論）意義的相互映照和密不可分。觀者可把左幅透視得難以辨識、象徵「無形」的野兔解讀為生命虛無的「形而上」，對比之下中幅的半人獸則象徵「形而下」的血肉之軀，而右幅頭冠酷似西方宗教藝術裡聖人光圈的蒙面隱士便可比擬為人類思維更貼近精神層面上的「形而上」。郝量曾道：「現實有時是虛幻的，看不見的（神）才是恆定的。」塵世間所謂的肉身軀殼千變萬化，若觀者意圖追究畫中進化論的人兔順序，正是折射了對「形而上」那生命的「根本」– 那個無可替代的靈神 – 的關注與重視，也正是藝術家著重挖掘形而上式的「人的存在感」的主客觀情景。創作《神學與進化論》的郝量，就像撰寫《變形記》的卡夫卡。卡夫卡透過文字提問到底是誰或什麼困在蟲子的身體裡，思考著自身，擁有著意識；同樣，郝量透過兔、半獸及人提問那個精神根本的源頭和歸宿。