Life is right in any casel
Enthused over Rilke's 'Letters to a young poet', which Meng Huang and I have often discussed, I would love to imitate them and use the epistolary form to speak to and about Meng Huang. I hope that the poet's teachings will help me express some thing less superficial than what is often written – what I, myself, have written – on contemporary art.
It is a personal need that drives me to put down in black and white what Meng Huang – his persona, his painting, his life, and our meetings – means to me. Now the opportunity has come and who knows whether I am truly ready to do it justice. At first I thought I would simply carry out the work for four hands, the artist's and my own: we would discuss our vision of art and of life, we would cite our favourite authors, we would, in short, try not to talk about 'some thing' but to conjure up, however hopelessly, the 'unspeakable'. But time has gone by and our laziness, our lightness as travellers and as companionable talkers, rather than as scholars, has left only the memory of journeys together, of the many hours sipping at our coffee, of walks in the breathtaking scenery of the Chinese countryside. Our sudden telephone calls, often late at night when everything around is quiet and you can better concentrate, share unexpected ideas, newly born projects – how am I to communicate them?
Along with the memories, there are the hours of recordings, carried out a here and a little bit there – in Henan, where Meng Huang grew up – in Zhejiang, where his mother comes from – at his place in the countryside around Beijing…. Playing them helps me get close to the artist again, now that I am not in China. And then the photographs too help me to remember and reveal feelings of which I am often not conscious.
Meeting of minds
A turnaround to recollect when we first met: for me it is a vague, insubstantial memory of a conversation with some young artists, after a conference at the Academy of Calligraphy and Painting of Zhengzhou, in Henan. He was introduced to me by Han Lei, a mutual friend and photographer, who, pointing out a dark-skinned, slim boy with a quite un-Chinese thick beard, said: 'This is the best painter I have ever met.' Always suspicious of such offhand display of enthusiasm and being naturally allergic to 'absolute superlatives', I left it at that. Pity!
Sometimes later, during one of my regular visits to the art gallery of Hans van Dijk's, whose tastes I share almost entirely, the brave Dutchman introduced me to Meng Huang's paintings. I was impressed at once. The artist was not there himself but remembers that later on Hans told him: 'Monica was here, she liked your works.' Given his utterly marginal and unknown position within Chinese contemporary art back then, such appreciation was gratifying and reassuring.
In 2001, when I struggled to prepare the huge space for the Chengdu Biennial, I tried to display his work in a nice spot to ensure optimum visual effect on the appreciating viewers. And on that occasion we exchanged a few words. Always ready to laugh, he was dressed in a simple, spontaneous, casual way with baggy jumpers and big spectacles, with a round, heavy frame.
The first appointment came later, in a café near Qinghua University in Beijing, where Meng Huang, still tormented by financial problems, could have a meal for free as he had drawn illustrations for the local owner. I remember he kept me the whole afternoon nailed down to a table, sunk in a flood of excited words; then two friends took us to his place, in the farthest outskirts – or more accurately, in the country. We had dinner and, numb with the December cold and dazed by the talk, I was glad to go back to the town at the dead of the night.
Since then our acquaintance has deepened. Yet, he was too deferential to me at the time and I had yet to work to shatter that aura of 'notoriety' he enveloped me with.
Then, in October 2003, we shared a wonderful adventure in one of the least visited areas of China, the Xihaigu (Ningxia), together with the Welsh photographer Rhodri Jones and our friendship became for me one of the most profound, though marked by long periods of silence and later by regular daily exchanges.
On the road
I found out very soon that we shared a great passion for travelling, for wandering aimlessly, prey to coincidences, yielding to sudden inspirations and sudden decisions. Our journeys together, though limited by other commitments and the need to earn a living, have been characterized by great light-heartedness.
'I like trains, I like rails and roads and I always hope something will carry me away,' Meng Huang told me one day while sitting on a coach that was driving us from Zhengzhou to Kaifeng, places where he spent his childhood and youth. He told me that when he was a child he lived for some time near the railway and he would often get on the train that took people to work from end to end of Zhengzhou, China's most important railway junction. He led me to the fenced area of the freight station, a huge place, quite isolated from the rest of the world, a very peculiar and fascinating reality for its rundown look and the colourful humanity of its urban proletariat. Meng Huang would laugh while describing to me the flowery Henan dialect of the ordinary people in that place.
For Meng Huang ordinary commuter trains, like the one from the outskirts to the city, hide the wealth of open horizons, in motion, following one another. After spending a couple of days at home in the countryside north of Beijing, amidst ponds shadowed by weeping willows, he is eager to leave again for the city, with a small backpack, to stay for the night at his hospitable friends'. During his days at home his journeys become mental ones, stimulated by books and reflections by the scenery nearby and the imagined/remembered scenery of far away.
Meng Huang is fond of trees and in the courtyard of his one-storey house he has seven – some planted ahead of his arrival, some by himself. He observes them and describes them very precisely: most of them are fruit trees, but he does not busy himself with the crop; he prefers just to look at them, following the trajectories of the birds lining up to peck at the persimmons and the jujubes. One poplar is very high and has grown right up against his house, outside: Meng Huang opened a window in the roof of the kitchen in order to be able to look at it while sitting comfortably inside, to 'possess' it with his glance.
There is a country road, leaving from Hebei cun, the village where Meng Huang dwells, bound northwards, flanked by a row of very high poplars. In autumn 2004 Meng Huang had a five-metre-high scaffolding built to hold a huge canvas and worked en plein air for about a week, painting the carriage road and the trees almost life-size. He slept just a few metres from his work, in a makeshift shelter obtained from a swimming pool in an unauthorized villa which had been shut down by the government and was awaiting demolition. After a day or two he met the former owner of the villa, an elderly man driven insane by pain, who hosted Meng Huang in a small room next to the painting, with a makeshift bed.
It was a very enriching experience, more than just painting a picture. Meng Huang's presence on that road, traversed only by tractors and bikes, turned into a new lifestyle and involved, in addition to the man who hosted him, the drivers of the agricultural machinery, who slowed down as they drew near, to avoid creating dust and dirtying the painting. His decision not to go home, to sleep in the open next to his work, to feed himself with mantou (steamed bread rolls) for a week, belongs to his deep necessity to constantly prove himself, to deny bourgeois standards and remain true to the artistic way of living. Meng Huang identifies with this feeling, this inner need; for him it is more than a practice or a technique. Thus his position is very different from that of many painters of today, whose research ends in an acceptable formula, a style that allows them to be recognizable and as such, saleable.
Meng Huang's point of view is very rare in today's society, whether Chinese or western, where everything is merely aimed at a financial reward. This is the biggest thing we have in common, Meng Huang and myself: we are both sick of an exaggerated idealism, which neither of us is ready to compromise.
Many artists are confirmed in their practice by commercial success. Meng Huang is not one of them. Even though his financial standing has lately improved, I believe he is capable of turning everything upside down to start all over again, if he finds it necessary for his artistic vision.
Since that experience of the 'landscape' canvas en plein air, surely one of the biggest-ever painted, the artist longs to embark in a truck on a long journey, carrying everything necessary to paint. Every single place could thus become the subject of the paintings, ideally 'his', even if the artist plans then to leave the works to the locals. The experience of landscapes, rain, sun, loneliness, and encounters, of hardships and prolonged interruptions, would build up an authentic story of life, in Meng Huang's case of 'art'.
The vicissitudes of his life may either prevent him from fulfilling this dream, or delaying it, or he may take a farther step already suggested through his statements: that 'art', too, is just a way of living … and in any real thing we are closer to it than in the true semi-artistic professions, which while pretending to be close to art, practically deny it and prove its existence wrong.' (R M Rilke)
Rilke, too, proclaims the sovereignty of life, devoted himself body and soul to literature, a practice that risks being far away from art only when not supported by the need to create, by the deep knowledge of oneself and the acceptance of one's solitude.
Meng Huang, like Rilke, is concerned about the hypocrisy of the position assumed by many artists and writers.
Tales and coffee
Some artists are capable of examining their works thoroughly, of explaining their origins, the evolution, and their historical and psychological references. Others can only manage to express themselves through visual language and for them every verbal expression is not only useless, but difficult. Experience has taught me that generally the latter accomplish the truest, the most intense visual expression.
Meng Huang belongs to neither one. When he describes his pictorial practice he says that each brushstroke is like a question mark, a doubt he puts there, unable to solve it. He claims that he knows the colour 'black' thoroughly, it is the colour he loves most: he used up to seventeen different versions of it in the same canvas. While painting a tree, he says, he sees his arms turning into branches. But then, at once, his mind wanders, shifts subject, moves away, and begins to tell…
Because Meng Huang is a great talker, he is capable of attracting people's attention with odd, often grotesque tales, which are sometimes hilarious and autobiographical. His life seems so rich in unpredictable, amusing events as to build up a supply of endless stories. The Chinese language becomes sparkling and flowery, often with inserts of the Henan dialect, full-bodied and well-grounded, and it is a pity foreigners cannot enjoy it. Meng Huang remembers that as a child with his inseparable twin brother Meng Hui, more commonly called Da Long (Elder Dragon, while he himself is Er Long, Second Dragon), he was forced by friends to entertain them with long sessions of 'tales'. The two boys had learnt the art of story-telling from their maternal foster grandmother, who had led a romanticized life and had met the outstanding figures of China of the thirties and forties. With the unmistakable class of an aristocrat she fascinated the twins and their younger brother with never-ending stories, mixing autobiography and fiction.
Indeed, one of the funniest anecdotes concerns the nickname of the twins, brought to life forty years ago in Beijing, in the year of the Horse, in a typical Chinese house with a courtyard (siheyuan). In that same yard, over a period of six years, three pairs of twins were born, all of whom were males. The first pair, Da Hu and Er Hu (Elder Tiger and Second Tiger), were followed after two years by the small dragons (Da Long and Er Long), who died very early. The third pair, Meng Hui and his brother Meng Huang, although born in the year of the Horse (in Chinese, ma), were named after the two babies who had passed away, as a homage to their memory. The 'tiger cubs' visited the future mother of the unlucky small dragons during her pregnancy, it seems, and peed on her bed. She gave birth to the twins, who two years later at Er Long's parents' house left the same souvenir on the bed of the expectant mother: she then delivered herself two boys. Following this a relative enthusiastically invited the small horses to wee on the bed of the pregnant wife. After a few months she happily gave birth to a girl.
Er Long peppers his tales with loud laughter, gesture and appropriate sounds. Once, leaning on a seat of the bus where we were sitting, he was moved to tears while telling me a very sad story about the death of a young woman who tried to bring her small kids to safety during the Cultural Revolution.
Meng Huang loves people, situations, and works of art and literature that move him and strike him. He is always romantically yearning for strong emotions that make him feel 'alive'. He is excited by sensations that spring up from admiring a sunset or a bird flying, as long as they express an intrinsic truth. The events he likes most are the collective ones that stand out like a choral fresco and recollect the story of all the people or a group. The history of China for the last hundred years has been an unquenchable source for this.
On the other side, he is always careful to avoid 'narcissistic' attitudes; the morbid attention towards a specific detail gets on his nerves as well as indulgence in too peculiar moods and situations. Like his contemporaries of the 60's, he is at ease when in the social dimension of sharing ideals and responsibilities. He is thus very different from artists born ten or fifteen years later.
Er Long is very sociable. He adores the company of interesting and curious people, but is not keen on the ordinary or conventional world of bourgeois artists. He would rather talk with a farmer on how to uproot weed than start a formal and dull conversation. Accordingly, he carefully avoids the fashionable social life of Beijing contemporary art: for him openings are a real bugbear.
Chatting is usually done while sipping a good coffee. Coffee in beans, of first quality, which he grinds as you wait and then prepares with meticulous attention to the process. But he shifts easily from these heights of the palate to unrestrained and greedy consumption in fast–food restaurants where you can refill your glass as many times as you like. With a crooked wit refined during his impoverished childhood, he confesses to drinking up to 18 cups of coffee in a McDonald's and filling a thermos flask brought especially for the purpose.
Looking inside oneself
Though coming from a not very individualistic society like the Chinese one of the last century, Meng Huang is deeply affected by Rilke's comment in his letters that 'we are alone… above all in the deepest and most poignant things, unspeakably alone', and that loneliness is greatness, it is difficult but 'we are to cling to the difficulty'.
Meng Huang perceives his loneliness more in the incommunicability of what he feels, in the unspeakable than in his way of living: he has many friends with whom he enjoys intense relationships but not regular meetings. The 'compulsion to be' is for him unbearable as it extinguishes the truest yearnings, the most spontaneous impulses: he prefers to 'play it by ear' than to plan any thing in advance.
Impetuous sensations sometimes seize him and drive him to phone his closest friends in the perpetual hope of finding empathy: sensations bound by their own nature to remain only his. When he manages to find short, sporadic true exchanges, he is really ecstatic.
Ripening like a tree
'At times' – he told me once – 'I paint because there is a question within myself that I feel the urge to solve, though I realize I cannot…. Maybe I turn to painting because I'm used to it, and because any way I'm always eager to try again. I wonder what else I can do. Painting is what I can do best. But this has nothing to do with art. The true happiness is thinking aimlessly, freely, you get where you get. I happen to think about something that makes me cheerful, excited and I cannot sleep for a whole night. That moment is more important than seizing a brush and starting to paint.'
Meng Huang often wanders in his home with a book in his hands. At intervals he reads it. Then he tidies up, cooks, does some gardening, looks up at the sky. Painting is not a daily practice for him; it is something he faces when he feels that with that tool, the brush and the colours, he can express himself better than with other means. It must be, according to him, a quest for truth.
It is enlightening, incidentally, to look at the exhortations of Rilke whose writing he keeps handy at all times: 'Leave to your judgments their quiet, undisturbed development… that, like every progress, must come from the bottom and it cannot be rushed. With patience awaiting the time of the birth of a new clarity: only this is living as an artist; in the understanding as well as in the creation.'
Some years ago, in a short essay entitled 'Landscape' published in the United States in a Chinese literary review, Meng Huang stated that 'he wanted to live and think beyond the role of the artist.'
I know I have written about many things but little of painting in this article, I also know that others will fill this lack.
And I am, moreover, aware of the fact that 'works of art are of an infinite solitude and nothing can reach them less than criticism.' I believe Meng Huang, his existence and his thoughts, his decisions, his paintings, like the journeys and the photographs, his stories and talks, the coffees and steamed bread rolls are part of an authentic striving towards a life that is careful and aware, which does not calculate or count but exists 'as if eternity was ahead'.
The artist has made doubt the cornerstone of his existence, not out of fear of getting 'involved' but, on the contrary, to grant himself the possibility to feel astonishment and joy each time he finds something that thrills him and touches him.
One day, after a long walk on the tablelands and the gorges of Xihaigu, we got to an area of high ground from which to enjoy a magnificent view. Meng Huang asked me to take a picture of him right there, from the back like the wanderer of the famous, beloved painting by Caspar David Friedrich.
Translated by SILVANA DEMATTÉ
MONICA DEMATTÉ is an art writer and curator based in Italy. This article was specially commissioned for Depart and was written during her stay in Vigolo Vattaro, December 18, 2010.