Lang Xiao interviews Shan Shui artist Wu Ke ahead of London exhibition

LONDON — Wu Ke (b.1969), an established painter from China will present his unconventional creations of traditional Chinese landscape paintings to a British audience for the first time, at his forthcoming solo exhibition Another Shan Shui at Cookhouse Gallery Chelsea College of Arts this September (21st-26th).

By Lang Xiao –  ARTouch Consulting (艺触咨询)

Lang Xiao: In the UK, Chinese Shan Shui (or landscape) paintings are collected by a few very important museums, such as the British Museum, V&A and Ashmolean Museum. In the British Museum’s collection, the Shan Shui works range from classic paintings by ancient Chinese masters such as Shen Zhou (1427-1509), Dong Yuan (?-962), and Wang Hui (1632-1717), to contemporary Shan Shui photographs by Yang Yongliang (born 1980). So how would your upcoming exhibition “Another Shan Shui” present your interpretation of Shan Shui?

Wu Ke: Chinese Shan Shui painting has developed and changed continuously over the past thousands of years. Various genres and styles led the trend at different stages. Chinese painting is inseparable from the ink and brush, colour and the composition. So it’s very difficult to claim one’s Shan Shui painting as “another Shan Shui”. The so-called ‘Another Shan Shui’ is no more than adding my individual understanding and interpretation of landscape painting on top of the historic landscape painting tradition. My own views on the natural scenery, inner will and emotions help to create a Shan Shui painting of another artistic atmosphere. The blending of ink, water and colour can inspire the imagination of the viewers, and more importantly, because of viewers’ different personal experiences, understanding and cognition, the painting can trigger recreation and resublimation, resulting in different artistic effects.

Lang Xiao: How do you understand the relationship between human beings and Shan Shui (landscape) ?

Wu Ke: Shan Shui (mountain-water literally) of the nature gives us life and fundamental conditions for the survival of mankind. However, as the children of nature, we all too often ignore, and even trample and ravage the generous gifts of Shan Shui because of our greedy desires. At the same time, we human beings grow up and develop through the process of understanding and transforming Shan Shui constantly. Shan Shui not only nourishes us, in turn, threatens us via various natural disasters. According to traditional Chinese culture, the relationship between Shan Shui or nature and human beings is harmonious and consistent. Shan Shui has become a place where ancient Chinese scholars hid themselves to avoid the secular world and a place for leisure. Therefore, people praise and extol the beauty and elegance of Shan Shui.

Lang Xiao: In ancient times, the identity of Shan Shui painters was often combined with literati. As a contemporary Shan Shui artist, does the identity still co-exist with literati?

Wu Ke: Regardless of the ancient or the moment, I don’t think Chinese Shan Shui painters could leave out the literati identity. It is because Chinese Shan Shui artists are deeply influenced by Chinese classical philosophy and literature. In addition to artistically reproducing the natural beauty of mountains and rivers, the literati also manifest their various emotions and expressions via Shan Shui paintings. Without the aspects of humanities, Shan Shui painting loses its meaning and soul. In other words, Shan Shui painting serves as the oases or the utopia of this secular world for generations of artists and scholars. To this extent, Shan Shui painting is very different from Western landscape painting, in that Shan Shui painting does not pursue the physical likeness of the real landscape; instead it focuses on the inner heart of the artist. As a Shan Shui painter today, one must understand traditional Chinese culture, at least keep characteristics of literati.

Lang Xiao: It is widely agreed that Shan Shui painting is the highest form of traditional Chinese paintings. How do you understand Shan Shui paintings? Which artist(s)’ Shan Shui works have a deep influence on you?

Wu Ke: Indeed, Shan Shui painting has a highly important position in traditional Chinese paintings. No matter the sizes or years of the paintings, Shan Shui paintings are full of the ethereal, subtle and grand beauty as well as poetic atmosphere. In my opinion, the essence of Shan Shui painting is the artistic conception, which is the reproduction of landscape through artist’s emotions and understanding. Among the painters of the past, Ni Yunlin (or Ni Zan, 1301-1374), Dong Qichang (1555-1636), Shi Tao (1642-1707), Huang Binhong (1865-1955) and so on, especially Huang Binhong, have a deep influence on my artistic creation.

Lang Xiao: Does the mountain-water in your Shan Shui paintings exist in real life or only in your imagination?

Wu Ke:Actually almost all of Chinese Shan Shui paintings are freehand. Unlike western landscape paintings, Chinese landscape painting or Shan Shui painting is more about artist’s own reflection and perception of the real mountains and waters – an integration of emotions and scenery. All the Shan Shui in my paintings only exists in my mind.

Lang Xiao: In contemporary art practice, the artistic media have become more and more plural and diverse. Why do you choose ink and brush? Is there an inevitable connection between Shan Shui painting and ink?

Wu Ke: I began to learn traditional Chinese paintings in 1986. So long as I chose traditional Chinese paintings, I have to paint with ink and brush inevitably. Traditional Chinese painting is very special, not only because of its thousands of years of history, but also because of its inseparable connection with rice paper, water and ink. But I think it is its unique medium (ink) makes traditional Chinese paintings vivid and charming.

Lang Xiao: Not only the subject matter of Shan Shui painting (or landscape painting), but also the visual representation is relatively homogeneous. How could an artist avoid the aesthetic fatigue of Shan Shui painting?

Wu Ke: Chinese Shan Shui painting has already developed its independent aesthetic values. With over a thousand years of continuous evolution, a complete ecosystem of Shan Shui painting has formed with its unique genres, style and taste, which are difficult to break through. Due the limited subject matter, I always try to make changes in colouring and the brush stokes on top of the traditions. Borrowing the tone of Western impressionism and colours with big contrast, I apply those bold colours rarely used by my predecessors, in order to challenge viewers with a specific aesthetic orientation of Shan Shui paintings.

Lang Xiao: How did you become a Shan Shui painter? Why do you choose Shan Shui paintings?

Wu Ke: I started studying traditional Chinese paintings in 1986. Influenced by a senior schoolmate, I begun with copying relatively simple paintings and painted whatever I liked. Later I studied under a young but very talented artist Master Shi Chan through the introduction of my art teacher. Master Shi Chan was then only 27 years old. We were teacher and student, as well as friends. Thanks to his accurate and profound understanding of traditional Chinese paintings, I did not take much detour in the journey of learning. I also learnt under Master Huang Azhong from the Fine Art Department of Shanghai University. He specialised in oil painting; therefore, he broke the barriers between the western painting and Chinese painting. He taught me the composition and colours of western paintings as well as the water and ink combination of Chinese paintings, which uplifted my understanding of Chinese paintings onto a new stage. All I can say is I’m very lucky to have them as my teachers. The reason why I chose Shan Shui painting is its power to express one’s grandiose and profound mindset and to create the poetic artistic conception.

Lang Xiao: Can you tell us more about your own living environment? In the rapid developing process of industrialisation and urbanisation in today’s China, the living environment (air, water, etc.) of both Chinese urban and rural residents are faced with great challenges. How does your real living environment impact or inspire your creation of your “Shan Shui”?

Wu Ke: I was born in Shanghai and currently live and work in Zhujiajiao, an ancient water town of thousands of history on the outskirts of Shanghai and the junction of Jiangsu Province and Zhejiang Province. Located by Dianshan Lake, the beautiful scenery, fresh air and water make it one of the most livable cities in China. I feel very lucky indeed to live in such a nice environment. The side effect of urbanisation and industrialisation does make our life more and more challenging every day. It is the reality of our living environment that makes me feel responsible and willing to make it a better place. “Shan Shui” painting serves as a carrier to express such desire of a “walkable”, “seeable”, “enjoyable” and “livable” ideal living environment.

Lang Xiao: What is a typical creation process?

Wu Ke: The creation process of my Shan Shui paintings begins with an idea inspired by an object or a scenery. The main consideration at this stage is the composition and tone. Once the idea is ready, I paint at one go, with some adjustments and revision later. I understand the creation of landscape painting relies on the resonation between an object or a scenery and the painter. Such resonation can set the tone of the artistic conception of a painting, which is the idealistic imagery pursued by the painter. After the initial creation, I usually hang the painting on the wall for a few days or even months before my second-time creation, during which I make revisions and adjustments, and even add new elements to best reflect my inner heart.

Lang Xiao: How was the work “Leisures by the Waters” created?

Wu Ke: I started to create the work just on my return from my trip in the Southern Anhui Province in China. I was overwhelmed with a rebellious desire to subvert my Shan Shui painting techniques, compositions, and colouring skills developed in the past decades. I decided to use my own way to express my affiliation with the nature rather than the conventional Shan Shui painting skills. As a result, I combined elements from graphic design and bold colours in this painting to present the contradiction in my heart.

 Lang Xiao: What messages do you wish the audience of “Another Shan Shui” exhibition in London to take?

Wu Ke: I wish my exhibition could offer the British audience an opportunity to see another Shan Shui, which is different from the Shan Shui painting collection in British museums, as well as to understand more about the artistic value of Shan Shui painting and its long history. I’d be very delighted if they could recognise the diversity of traditional Chinese paintings, and a cross-cultural dialogue is also desirable.

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