Due to my brother’s wedding to a Chinese-American bride, I had the opportunity to travel through China with my two boys. In Hong Kong, we visited my painting, Golden Pine an enormous commission of 1999-2000 at the Oxford House in Tai Koo Place, the home of CNN/Time Warner. We then traveled to Shenzhen, Kunming (a beautiful south western province) and then to Beijing.
I was relieved to find the “Golden Pine” painting to have done well in the public setting; the minerals have settled well, and the layers of gold and silver have taken on the transparency that I desired. The silver, on the bottom, was exposed intentionally to allow it to tarnish, creating a new sense of movement. The azurite now has a glowing quality, and refracted quietly in the humid Hong Kong air.
Then, as a first time visitor to mainland China, I was stirred by the enormous flux of culture, the tension between the old and the new. After the cultural revolution, and the sociological impact from their “ground zero” of Tiananmen Square in 1989, Chinese cities now have become a capitalistic adventure more like Hong Kong. And yet, the sad result is that this remarkable feat of creating new techno-savvy airports and city infrastructures, highways and fancy malls is causing rapid inflation, and a growing schism between the rich and the poor. Many contemporary Chinese artists, like Hai Bo (exhibited at Max Protetch Gallery in Chelsea recently) are expressing from this divide, often subverting technology to reveal the inner tension of progress, and expressing a longing to understand their community and family roots in a new China.
What happens, then, in a country where pre-modern culture is thrust beyond modernism, and brought into the avant-garde of the 21st century? China has always been identified with her culture built on ideological unity. Two of Beijing’s symbols, the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, now capture not only the past glory but the present tension. Communism worked, in a sense, like the Great Wall, insulating her citizens from the outside. But now, it attracts tourist worldwide, inviting people, rather than keeping them at a distance.
The Forbidden City, the enormous golden Imperial city in Beijing, is now surrounded and dwarfed by new buildings of 21st Century progress. China is still a Forbidden City, and she flirts with visitors, inviting and distancing them away at the same time. The tension is clear, the identity and the stronghold of communism dominates her past like the thick walls around the Forbidden City, and yet the sense of new nationalism grows ever more powerfully in the faces of Chinese. Even as the past is boxed in, as the enormous walls desperately protect a museum of the past glory, the future grows ever more ominous as Beijing prepare to host the next Olympics.
When I was finishing the Golden Pine in my studio in New York, one of the designers of the building came in to observe. She noted that the bottom of the painting is exposed paper, and that there is a subtle allusion to the roots of the pine trees. The silver that is on the right bottom, tarnishing now a little, was also intended to create a separate space. The pine, a symbol of longevity of culture, breathes in the golden air (a symbol of the City of God for me), but the bottom is of a different nature. She alluded to this and wondered out loud if the root was not to be seen, as in many Chinese paintings of pine trees, and giving dual significance of the painting.
Working intuitively as usual, I had not intended for any symbolic weight of the divide between the bottom and top spaces. It was simply a visual decision based on many years of visual language I had been developing. But now, having seen Beijing, I, too, wondered about invisible reality of a soil underneath.
When Jesus relates the parable about a farmer sowing in the Bible (Matthew 13:18-23), he tells us of the significance of roots. After my visit to China, I began to read this passage as a passage about cultural renewal. The farmer sows seeds (the “message of the kingdom”) and the seeds fall on three different types of soil. One type of soil receives the seeds gladly, but “since he has no root, he lasts only a short time.” I now read this and think of Beijing. This “root” is directly linked to cultural conditions, cultural soil. What Jesus implores through the parable is to pay attention to the roots growing underneath the ground, in places where we cannot see or observe. Thus cultivating and nurturing seeds requires attention beyond superficialities. Just as it takes years for a pine tree to mature, the sower’s job is more than just sowing, but discerning the soil.
China, for sure, is of rich soil. But the question that haunts me now is of the dual nature of the soil. On one hand, we have a country of enormous resources and curiosity: on the other is a country that is so willing to systematically wipe out spiritual interest, imprisoning missionaries and spiritual leaders, and thereby “cut” the roots growing underneath. Just like my painting, China has a dual reality. Just like what the designer noted, the question is about the invisible reality of the roots underneath. Just like in the painting, the answer to this question is not revealed but hidden beneath her layers. Breathing in the open air as my Kumohada paper is, the soil is rich to those who are willing to consider China as a parable of the 21st Century.