The Ullens Collection - The Nascence of Avant Garde China


Yang Jiechang
Executed in 1987
ink on paper
191.2 by 178.7 cm.; 75 1/4 by 70 3/8 IN.
參閱狀況報告 參閱狀況報告


Tokyo Gallery+BTAP, Tokyo and Beijing


China, Beijing, National Art Gallery, China/ Avant-Garde, 5-19 February, 1989
China, Beijing, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, '85 New Wave. The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art, 2007-2008, p. 131



Yang Jiechang's three ink works, Untitled (Lot 853), 100 Layers of Ink: Cut the Fingernails from My Body (Lot 855), and the five hanging scroll set Scroll of Secret Merits (Lot 854), span much of the artist's long exploratory relationship with ink. Over the span of decades he has proven to be a consistently innovative ink artist, both conceptually and in terms of technique. Early on he mastered the fine points of brushwork not as an end in itself, but as a point of departure, subject even to iconoclastic repudiation in the service of new expressions.

Yang Jiechang's formal training in ink painting and calligraphy began in the traditional manner when, as a young teen, he was apprenticed to a prominent local calligrapher. Against the background of the Cultural Revolution, Yang prepared tea and ground ink for the master, and practiced copying ancient calligraphy models. He subsequently enrolled at the Folk Art Institute in his hometown of Foshan (now part of Guangzhou), where he studied calligraphy and traditional Chinese painting. Finally he earned a degree from the Chinese Painting Department of the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in 1982, and remained there until 1988, teaching painting in the meticulous fine line (gongbi) style. Thus, his educational experiences with ink afforded him a view of its many possible social roles, first as part of a traditional intellectual milieu, then as a craft considered permissible under Cultural Revolution precepts to the extent to which it was accessible to society as a whole, and finally as an elite art to be cultivated in a structured, government-controlled environment. He not only received a particularly thorough training as an ink painter; he also learned that circumstances of place and time are vital to predicting a work of art's interpretation and impact.

From 1984 to 1986, Yang Jiechang studied Daoism at Mount Luofu, and Chan (or Zen) Buddhism at the Guangxiao Temple, both in Guangzhou. These experiences left a deep impression on the artist, and led directly to his decision to strive for simplicity in his approach to art. This is demonstrated in Untitled of 1987, an abstract painting composed of two black shapes, one roughly rectangular and one curved, occupying a lighter black ground. Not only is the composition pared down to a minimum; Yang has hidden from view all signs of the artist's hand. Long considered of preeminent importance in judging the quality of ink-based art, the brushstroke is all but invisible in Untitled. Although traditionally the literati artist is supposed to avoid showy brushwork, disguising his superlative technique by confining himself to a "bland" display, it is nevertheless extraordinary for an artist who has spent two decades mastering brush technique, as had Yang Jiechang, to then completely eschew the brushstroke. Untitled was considered so important as an exemplar of Yang's innovative practice that in 1989 it was included in the first major exhibition of contemporary Chinese avant-garde art to be held at the National Art Gallery in Beijing, "China/Avant-Garde." Untitled is a precursor to Yang's major series, 100 Layers of Ink, which includes 100 Layers of Ink: Cut the Fingernails from My Body. Like other works in the series, the work displays a heightened black-on-black effect. The reflective sheen of the abstract shapes is achieved through repeated applications of ink, which when layered to a sufficient thickness dries with a coruscated surface. To enhance the latter effect, in some 100 Layers of Ink works Yang added herbs to the ink or applied it over a layer of gauze. When light reflects off the surface, the shiny black may suddenly appear white, thus embodying the opposing dualities of Daoism. A particular duality of interest to Yang in the early 1990s was the notion of death as the other side of life: while living in Heidelberg he had picked up on the local historical romance with death. Beyond such references to death and Daoist thought, the 100 Layers of Ink series summons diverse possible interpretations. Mortality is suggested not only by the annihilation of theartist through the absence of the readable brushstroke, but also through the titles chosen, ranging from Guillotine (1992-1995), Ladder of Knives (1994), and Ladder to Heaven (1994), to the more personal Operation 1969 (1996) and 100 Layers of Ink: Cut the Fingernails from My Body. The manner in which the works are interpreted has proven to be heavily dependent upon the viewer's background: in 1998 the artist noted that "In mainland China, [the 100 Layers of Ink series] was criticized as 'darkening socialism.' In France, people think it is 'Oriental Black' representing Nothingness and Nihilism. While in Japan, some critics judge this kind of painting as 'very romantic.' Where my work was showing in the Kunstverein of Heidelberg, Germany, it was attacked as 'full of Fascist violence'!"1

Through his art Yang Jiechang expresses a multivalent fascination with the human condition, from an existentialist philosophical annihilation (seen in the stark blackness of 100 Layers of Ink), to his personal mortality (suggested in some self-portraits), and extending to the violence inflicted by humans upon the earth (for example, in glorious paintings of atomic bomb explosions) and upon one another. Since 1989, he has created works every five years in commemoration of Tiananmen event. Human bones are the dominant motif of these works. Although bones' forms are strictly limited, their artistic possibilities are endless: limits can act as a spur to creativity, as is also the case with the variations to be found in Chinese calligraphy, an art similarly predicated on a finite group of forms. In 2004 Yang conceived of the Scroll of Secret Merits, which he produced in two media, silk embroidery, and ink on paper. A set of five hanging scrolls with this title depicts human bones of all kinds rendered in ink on paper, flying through the air as they are sucked into final oblivion within a vacuum cleaner. Reminiscent of early Chinese woodcut illustrations, where dreams are shown encircled by a bubble leading to the dreamer, the bones float in a bubble that finishes with a swirl as it disappears into the machine. Somehow, even the mortal remains are made to disappear. This work expresses the despair inherent in the knowledge of one's mortality, but turns that desperate knowledge into a thing of beauty. The rough quality of the brushstrokes and awkward rendering of the flying skulls, ribs, feet, hips, and so on assert the truth of the image in a way that photorealist perfection could not: we are all fallible humans, whether we be the artist, the viewers, or those felled before their time. In truth there is beauty

[1] Artist statement, Art Beatus website, November 1998.

The Ullens Collection - The Nascence of Avant Garde China