Insomniac, the soul of what lies beneath
——Appreciating Chen Xiaoqi’s Insomniac series
Web Editor:Peng Daiying
There is a story in Zhuangzi•Tian Zifang:“When Song Yuanjun ordered the map of his State to be drawn, painters from all over were called to do so. They stood up after being formally greeted, ready with their brushes and ink. The hall was so crowded that half the painters had to stand outside. At this moment, the last painter came. He walked inside unhurried and refused to stand when being greeted. He then left for his home. Song Yuanjun sent an official to go after the painter; he found the painter back in his home already changed out of his clothes, sitting cross-legged, his sleeves rolled up, with a brush in his hand. Song Yuanjun sighed: ‘This is the true painter we are looking for!’”Coming across Insomniac reminded me of this story. “Changing clothes and sitting cross-legged” is a sentence frequently mentioned by Teacher Xiaoqi, but then it is also an insight that he has reached unconsciously. This is something that cannot be restrained by external things, distracting thoughts or fetters, real or imagined. Xiaoqi created Insomniac with a powerful insight just so, as though a gust of strong wind had rushed into his head, opening up the eyes of his soul. If you were to look at him, you’d have been shocked. It’s indescribable. He looked much like an old man with a pained, distorted face, a rough forehead, and sharp eyes – like the imaginary ghoul who would exchange cold glances in the still night.But have you ever considered this? Insomnia may well be the most level-headed state of life. The world moves too fast to be controlled, and time is crushed like a wad of paper trying to balance the legs of a desk. If it is torn or is dirty, it is thrown away without a second thought, and is just like a gust of wind that can be felt but not touched. People busy socializing or making new connections try to have it all, but it is all an illusion. They run like crazy in this mad world of ours, trying to pretend there is a semblance of dignity and freshness in their lives, chatting to each other, wasting their time and tranquility. And when things start to go downhill, they fight just as badly with each other, all dignity lost. The existential philosophy of “winner takes all” is a warning to each of us, that existence then becomes just that, mere existence with no meaning or value. Under the guise of living, many people merely exist. In this act of merely existing, it feels as though many people are sleep walking through their lives.Compared with people who are sleepwalking through their lives, or are in deep slumber and yet, somehow disturbed at a sub-conscious level, an insomniac might appear foolish. When he should be sleeping, his eyes are wide open, and if you look carefully, you might be able to discern a light tendril of smoke swirling up from his forehead. In the world of black and white, where everything is solemn and quiet, just like Saint Peters' Church, the insomniac is on the cross, thin and stubborn. All bizarre questions of choice, whether about true or false, gain or loss, love or hate, willingness or unwillingness, worthy or unworthy, become inconsequential at this moment, without the least bit of hesitation. The place where the brush leaves its stroke, brings a sense of obstinacy and firmness, and does not belong entirely to the insomniac. Instead, it represents what lies beneath a soul. In his painting on insomnia, Xiaoqi wants to depict the human soul. I personally feel this is why he persists in depicting such themes, even after being a painter for so many years. Xiaoqi's forte lies in depicting the perfect expressions of Chinese people in his paintings. Even the most spontaneous picture will have a spontaneous but profound expression. When it comes to the art of depicting people in ink wash paintings, he has found his own symbols, which look human, but actually are not. Essentially, it is a modern style which is rooted in tradition, and yet, different from the traditional form. Being rooted in tradition originates from his understanding and heritage of Chinese ink paintings. Xiaoqi once said that the art of ink wash painting was an artistic representation of nobility. As explained in sayings like "enjoying the landscape and feeling with a pure and tranquil mood", Chinese scholars like to express their aesthetic emotion, humanistic feeling, view of life and the universe, and convey the distinctive interests and charms of ink wash paintings by the unique language of ink wash techniques. Insomniac is full of feelings and disposition, wherein Xiaoqi's depiction of figures has unquestionably reached a rigorous, precise and accurate level in terms of modeling, but goes far beyond the human body and its representation. With sincerity, unsophisticated sympathy and care, he is deeply concerned about human beings' spirit and emotions. Insomniac is important not just because of its distinctively rich and colorful brush movements, but also for its unpredictable lines, and the grand and magnificent Han and Tang styles in terms of personality and spirit with which they are infused. Brush movements can be delicate and light, like etchings on gold and gemstones, or solid and heavy, like the indelicate plough that runs through a field. Whether it is through its lines or colors, the work demonstrates a freshness and sense of peace, as well as dignity and sternness. Therefore, the old man in the painting is more than what meets the eye. There is certainly a noble temperament that rises from his soul. Insomniac is different in many ways. It has broken the traditional style of depicting figures in Chinese ink paintings, creating a kind of contemporary pattern featuring individuality and significance. Insomniac has figures that have blurred the lines between race and class: they walk at the edge of rural and urban areas and surpass the status of people in terms of social attributes. Xiaoqi has abandoned all aspersions to class and social attributes of people, to directly depict the appetite and greed of human beings, while touching upon the desolation and distress that lies deep within their hearts. In creating Insomniac, Xiaoqi has employed expressionism and non-realism, breaking the language barrier and the conceptual domain of Chinese ink paintings. By using abstract, deformed, exaggerated and distorted figures, the work has revealed the spiritual crisis within human beings, especially those who bear huge pressure and are at a loss when faced with the dramatic changes happening in the world. Compared to traditional Chinese ink paintings, Insomniac has created a unique avant-garde ink wash painting pattern using expressionism that features a pioneering and distinctive attitude. It depicts boldness and straightforwardness, a certain sharpness and inflexibility which delves into the depths of humanity, adhering to understatement and yet, a form of freedom, mystery and romance, as well as inherent tension. It converts the three dimensions into two-dimensions, creating a kind of unique modern Chinese ink painting, featuring an intense internal structure. Patterns erupt in white space, lines are intense and yet they breathe completeness and incompleteness in composing the picture. There is collision and interchanging of points, lines and surface, as well as black, white and gray. The work reminds one of a knight riding his horse with the cold wind brushing his face; it reminds one of the rhythm and beat of Beethoven's Symphony No.5 The Symphony of Destiny.The most unforgettable aspect is the blue brush stroke on the head of the insomniac, undoubtedly reminding us of the iconic Buendia Family who suffered from insomnia in the renowned One Hundred Years of Solitude. It emphasizes the astounding eyes and lonely expression. Art is a meaningful form. Insomniac has fundamentally upturned the narrative expression form that is frequently seen in paintings in terms of literary significance. Through depiction and expression of figures in the form of symbols, especially emptiness, helplessness, perplexity, panic, melancholy, exhaustion and distress, the work directly reaches out to the hearts of people, giving us a glimpse of their souls. This type of unique symbolic interpretation not only expresses the realistic insomnia an individual suffers, but also reveals much more about the entire mankind's insomnia, especially the spiritual significance of a generation that wants to sleep but can't. How many people have completely immersed themselves in art? If we are frivolous about the future, in the pursuit of tradition in a worldly and proud manner, we will be trapped inside the prison of a luxurious and dissipated life. In the palace of art, Xiaoqi is surely an insomniac whose quiet and lonely demeanor shows his back to the prosperous world. He is like a tranquil and profound river, acquiring loyalty and fervor for art, which is as real as any religion to him. At night, he stubbornly looks up at the bright Big Dipper to gauge a sense of himself. But in fact, the Big Dipper is his inner soul, the soul of an insomniac, the soul of art!With a soul, the insomniac will become immortal.