Gazing into Deep Space from a Zen Garden

Guan Wei belongs to the generation born in China in the late 1950s and 60s whose education was disrupted or delayed by the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Those of that generation who wished to study art were unable to receive formal training until art education was re-established after 1977. In creative terms, however, that generation turned out to be one of the most fortunate groups in post-revolutionary China. As young adults they found themselves in the midst of the wave of cultural renewal that came with the relative liberalism of the post-Mao era - a time of change, idealism and experiment. When China opened her doors to the West politically and economically, new theories of Western culture, philosophy and art were embraced at the same time. In the art world of the 1980s the full range of twentieth-century Western art styles, from Post-impressionism to Pop, from Dadaism to performance art, were suddenly available. These new possibilities were taken up enthusiastically by artists who can be classified, in retrospect, as the generation of the 1980s, since most of them had started exhibiting by the end of that decade. In tandem with new Western ideas, aspects of traditional Chinese culture that Maoist ideology had scorned as feudal were also being rediscovered. More often than not, traditional Chinese elements were combined with Western artistic approaches to produce a new, contemporary kind of art. Zen Buddhist philosophy, for instance, was adopted by a number of artists in the 1980s as a force in creating conceptual art works that drew on Zen and Dada simultaneously.

Born in 1957, Guan Wei experienced both the ideologically saturated Maoist era and, from 1977, the succeeding Dengist era of economic reform, when the building of a more flexible 'socialism with Chinese characteristics' became the order of the day. Guan Wei lived through the period of cultural renewal that was at its most intense in Beijing in the late 1980s, the so-called ‘Cultural Heat', before finally leaving China for Australia in 1989-90. Arriving in the very different, more open artistic milieu of Australia, he was in a position to develop his powerful political and cultural experiences freely and flexibly, allowing his creativity to evolve in a personal way. In positioning himself in a new artistic environment, Guan Wei has avoided playing the exotic through an over-emphasis on his Chinese background, but at the same time he has not overtly de-emphasized his Chinese identity in order to appear purely as an internationalist. As it became apparent to him that cultural differences are defined in a situation of negotiation, he has used traditional Chinese references not as the touchstones of a monolithic entity but rather as dimensions of a material language that can form a bridge across which dialogue between different cultures can take place.

One way the cultural negotiation takes place in Guan Wei's work is through the creation of a mysterious and metaphysical realm. Works tell stories that unfold across a series of separate panels. The story in one panel may suddenly break off at the edge, only to resume in the next panel. The gaps between panels function as obstacles, interrupting our patterns of rational thought and encouraging us to reconstruct the story in our own imagination. In the same way Guan Wei attempts to make cool scientific signs, such as arrows, dots and lines, come alive. He is reacting against the way that imagination has been restricted in the contemporary world, or even paralysed, as the artist sees it, by the proliferation of computer-type images. He likes things that appear funny, using humour and puzzles (mi) to challenge a rationalistic mindset. The optical riddles that occur throughout Guan Wei's work encourage viewers to make free use of their own aesthetic imagination.

Guan Wei's current exhibition consists of two new series. One is called Gazing into Deep Space which includes six individual works, each comprising three panels. The other series, entitled Zen Garden, consists of fifteen pieces. Both series adapt the form of the traditional Chinese hanging scroll. In Gazing into Deep Space the topic is cosmology, indicated by the use of lines, dots and circles that suggest orbital motion and orbital planes. In addition these cosmic diagrams include naked flying human figures, male and female. For instance, in Gazing into Deep Space No. 3, three panels from left to right are marked with the names of the constellations: 'Puppis', 'Auriga' and 'C. Major' (Canis Major). In each panel, circles, lines and dots indicate the different orbital planes, while naked human bodies suggest the cosmic explorations that humankind undertakes.

Guan Wei is presenting us with another puzzle, relating this time to ancient Chinese legend. The couple flying through the sky in the left panel of Gazing into Deep Space No. 3 evokes the ancient tale of The Cowherd and the Weaving Girl in which a young weaver, who was a goddess and the seventh daughter of the Heavenly Emperor Yu Di, secretly descended to earth to marry a kindhearted cowherd. After the Heavenly Emperor, opposing their union, forced them to separate, the couple meet every year on the seventh of July on the Magpie Bridge over the Milky Way. Marked on their bodies, a red line linking seven dots represents the Big Dipper. It may also suggest a key concept in ancient Chinese philosophy - Tian Ren He Yi, or ‘Humanity forms one body with Heaven'. Using this concept, ancient Chinese culture developed the theory of acupuncture. Indeed, the lines and points marked on the bodies in Gazing into Deep Space look very much like the points and meridians in an acupuncture diagram.

In comparison with Gazing into Deep Space, Zen Garden seems more lyrical. Three images - lotus, tadpole and Buddha's hand - dominate the composition of the paintings. Each hand gesture signifies a different Buddhist meaning, such as meditation, wheel of law, compassion and so on. The lotus is a symbol of purity and perfection because it grows out of mud but is not defiled, just as Buddha is born into the world but lives above the world. The fruit of the lotus is said to be ripe when the flower blooms, just as the truth preached by Buddha bears immediately the fruit of enlightenment. In the painting, however, the lotus is turned towards Buddha's disciple who responds to Buddha's instructions. The dialogue between the Buddha, using hand gestures, and the lotus (as well as leaves, tadpole and cloud) is dramatized in the language of mime.

The dialogue resembles an interesting Zen Buddhist koan. In ancient China, the koan (Chinese: gongan) was an official document that handed down an important judgment, a final determination of truth and falsehood. Adapting and subverting this notion, Zen (Chinese: Chan) Masters to this day make use of all sorts of stories, problems and situations, the more shocking the better, in order to cultivate their students' awareness. The method usually consists of a question and an enigmatic answer. It is believed that such answers arise from the mysterious, irrational or paradoxical nature of truth. Only an apparently illogical answer can reveal it. Once, for example, when a pupil asked what the Buddha was, the Master answered, 'Three pounds of flax'. The response is not as foolish as it sounds: on reflection the student is made to realize that no conceptualization can encapsulate the true nature of the Buddha: ‘three pounds of flax' is as good as any other form of words. In order to perceive the truth, the student must seek the answer within, awaiting a flash of spontaneous insight. In the situation presented by Guan Wei's series, Zen Garden, the answer to where the Buddha can be found comes back as 'tadpoles' or 'leaves' - anywhere and nowhere.

Guan Wei is also influenced by the philosophy of traditional Taoism. The human figures in his paintings always have one eye. Guan Wei's one eye theory may be traced back to the Taoist conception of the dualism of being. Lao Zi, the originating sage of Taoism, said, 'Let there always be non-being so we may see its subtlety; and let there always be being so we may see its outcome. The two are the same, but after they are produced, they have different names'. Therefore, Guan Wei's one-eyed man closes one eye to see what does not exist and opens one eye to see what does exist, or vice versa. Eventually, the realms of being and non-being can be switched as eyes open and close. The central strategy of devising optical puzzles (mi) is a way of balancing pictorial elements and conceptual approaches in Guan Wei's work. It is a faux-naÏf approach. The balancing of the visual and conceptual derives ultimately from traditional Chinese aesthetics, which discourage extremes of any kind in artistic practice. Yet a focus on the deep traditional roots that can be traced in Guan Wei's art should not become unbalanced either, overshadowing the other major influences he has drawn on, including many forms of contemporary art and the affinities he has found within Australian culture. Rather, it is the heightened awareness of cross-cultural possibilities within contemporary art at present that has both forced and allowed Guan Wei to rethink his artistic origins. In his most recent work he has reached that remarkable point where he is at once acting across cultures and at the same time presenting his origins and his subsequent journeys performatively within a cultural mainstream.

Gao Minglu