“In history I am seeking not ashes I am seeking fire.”
From West to East --
What we see and what we think we know
“Le roi est mort, vive le roi!” If we believe what has come down to us in writing , this cry, with its paradoxical overtones, first resounded in France in 1422, and encompasses a whole worldview. The heraldic formula announces at once the death of the king and the continuity of the monarchy. As a person, the king is mortal, as head of state, by contrast, his role is taken over by his successor, the new king. This idea of the two bodies of the king is also closely aligned to the description of the state as a body, as found in the thinking of mediaeval Europe, for instance, with John of Salisbury. Embodied in the king, the kingly dignitas could survive the physical person of its bearer. The merging of raison d’ état and myth at the basis of this thinking, reoccurs in the Chinese history of the dynasties, where the emperor, whether he had seized power or inherited it, was regarded as the “son of heaven”, as a deity. In recent years, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987), has arguably influenced the public’s take on the “Emperor of China” most powerfully by dint of the way it shows a royal household petrified by ceremoniality in the very instant of its collapse. In doing so, the film depicts Western projections onto” Old China” and the interweaving of individual fates with the state with equal force.
From 2006 to 2009, Ouyang Chun, an artist born in Beijing in 1974, painted a cycle comprising 30 large-scale paintings and gave it the title 王(Wang/King). Deploying an amazing variety of painterly techniques, the pictures tell episodes from the life of a king, of his victories and his defeats, of love and death. History and fiction, the quest for beauty and the representation of moral failing all mix together in paintings now rich in figures and executed in minute detail, now rendered expressive through their pastose style. Some of the tableaux pictures are over six meters long, and the fascination they exercise is reinforced by the use of gold leaf and gilt bronze, by which Ouyang Chun links back to a long-established tradition in Chinese art and simultaneously distinguishes the crowned figure, whom he represents in the most varied of episodes, as a monarch.
For us, as Western observers, the choice of topic and its monumental configuration seem at first glance irreconcilable with the artist’s origins in a land, which, as People’s Republic, could scarcely be more remote from the royalist tradition. What sort of a king is all this supposed to be about? Is the artist sending us back into the past, or are we already going astray by setting out on a quest, anyway? Equally fascinated and disconcerted, we stand, however, before such painting, which, therefore, has, to all appearances, not a thing in common with what has been presented in Europe over the last few years as contemporary Chinese art; not a trace of realism or Pop made in China, no illusionistic filigree painting or crafted perfection held up for our amazement. Ouyang Chun’s King confronts us with riddles and, what is perhaps more important: it awakens our curiosity. The fascination the pictures exercise makes us need to ask questions about the artist’s own history, the social context and, not ;east, about the pictures themselves, how they are painted and the story they are telling. We can only approach them step by step; we try to get an angle on them from a distance, always aware of our own Western perspective. It is a mind game--the result of it all can be utterly contradictory readings.
In the West, the reception of Chinese art, just as much as the perception of Chinese history and the current social situation is determined by preconceived notions, which often have not just very little to do with reality but are, in addition to that irreconcilable with each other. This discrepancy results from the monumentally rapid development in today’s China and, at the same time, from the stubborn longevity of prejudices and half=formed ideas in the Western world. From this perspective, China is a coruscating mixture of fairytale real and abuse of human rights, Mao and millionaires, the Silk Route and mass produced goods, backwardness and technological innovation. The art market largely determines how the contemporary art scene is viewed, be it records constantly being broken at auction or the myriad of Chinese and foreign galleries, which, in Beijing, make not only the gallery district 798 into an attraction for art-enthusiast tourists pouring in from all over the world. International interest seems to hold out promise for many young Chinese; art academies all over the country have been confronted with an unprecedented onslaught, as many people today really are hoping for not just social renown from life as an artist but also a high income. 15 or 20 years ago, both were reserved solely for those artists, who where working in traditional styles or committed their art to the service of propaganda for the People’s Republic.
The new orientation in Chinese politics undertaken by the reform policies since 1979, together with the progressive opening up of inner structures as well as the stance towards the outside world that the reforms initiated, might have favored the artists, but at first it only improved their real living conditions slightly. What was new and decisive for the development of a dynamic situation in the arts was that the socialist realism prescribed by the Communist Party up to that time was no longer the binding norm and that artists occupying buildings standing empty in Beijing -- to get any sort of space to work at all -- was tolerated, at least now and then. The state authorities not only consistently suppressed further protests, but the excesses also had profound psychological results; replacing the previous hopes for the future paralysis set in among the many progressive activists.
The increasing appreciation of artists in Chinese society over the last 10 years cannot be separated form the economic expansion, with a coterie of national collectors connected with it and with the international demand. This development is positively regarded in economic terms by official Chinese circles, but it is simultaneously discussed as dubious in terms of its content. In this process, fears about an “excessive alienation of art” by Western influences goes hand in hand with worries about the selling-off of native creativity in the arts by a clientele of wealthy foreign collectors. The grounds for this discussion -- only sketchily visible to the outside world -- seem many and various. In conversations, the new national pride inspiring the country since the staging of the Olympic Games in 2008 is repeatedly stressed. This self-confidence transcends all levels of society and seems linked to the “rediscovery” of the native tradition of arts as much as as with the -- from the western perspective in the present situation surprising -- idea that, precisely in the current phase of radical social and political change, art can and should make a contribution to creating identity.
Ouyang Chun belongs to the generation of artists born after 1970, whose youthful years are, unlike those of their direct predecessors, not extensively marked by the Cultural Revolution and who profit from China’s rapid development in the last 25 years. Nevertheless, the rigid politics of Mao Zedong’s last years also left its traces in his biography as his father was sent from Beijing to Xi’an, the old imperial city in the province of Sha’anxi, where the family lived in a settlement for specialists, who were sent into the far reaches of the countryside. Ouyang Chun is a willful and rebellious child, who already revolts in his early years against rules enforced from outside. After leaving school early and moving to live with his uncle in the country, he discovers his interest in animals and in astronomy, and he begins to paint – without any tutelage, without any models and also certainly without considering a future as an artist. He enjoys playing around with colors, and his pictures become a refuge for him, in order to develop his own view of the world independently of outside influences. The psycho-social dimension of painting gains additional significance by the death of his mother, as this actually opens up a possibility to express his fears and hopes in pictures. However exalted his claims may have been for it – the portrait of the artist as a young man dose not show a sensitive aesthete but a loner and a “bad boy”.
If you put a question to Ouyang Chun today about his training at the Academy of Art in Xi’an, he just waves it away. It was a disaster. His desire to be enrolled in the painting class came to grief over his marks, and in retrospect he himself admits that the pictures he could present were more than inadequate too. In a certain sense, it is characteristic of Ouyang Chun, the man, that he did not let himself be deflected one iota from his goal, and, despite being enrolled in art education, used his time at the academy almost exclusively for painting. Be it stubbornness, the wish to show the world what he is capable of ,or, in actual fact, the feeling of being called to be a painter, wants to gain mastery over painting by painting. Today, he still dose not believe in the possibility of learning to paint; you might be indeed able to learn the craft, but far more important would be your own experience, your own way.
In 1995, after finishing his studies, he is, like many other artists, confronted by the question of what he is lo live from. Accounts of the successes of Chinese artists in the West do penetrate even as far as Xi’an, and the social status of artists in their own country begins slowly changing, but Ouyang Chun has no idea how you find a gallery or how the art market functions, and he dose not feel he’s ready yet. But luck smiles on him, and on New Year’s Day 1996, he wins a handsome sum, “a lot of money”, as he says, without telling how much. By 1999, the money is all used up – simply gone, for food and drink, for presents to friends, a car, a television == the good life and the promises of the consumer society just then starting to blossom in China. But Ouyang Chun uses the independence meant by not having to earn his living to paint, to take the time to develop his own pictorial language. He wants to become a “professional artist”, and as the money starts to run out, he is very well aware that he has to up the pace towards his goal and that means he has to be successful in Beijing. In an interview with Fang Fang, he says: “A painter living in contemporary society first has to commercialize before he can become spiritualized.” He dose not want to belong to the artists who wait in vain for success all their lives; he wants to do something about it. “I knew long ago that I would come to Beijing -- it was a question of when the time was right.”
It contradicts Western conventions of reception when an artist confesses to such a deliberate goal-orientation in an interview. That lies, not least, in the way European thinking worships genius, which is not distracted by the desire for recognition or the profit-motive and produces art following nothing more than an inner necessity. That this idea has long been questioned (and particularly by artists themselves!), all that remains often unnoticed. But even if you do detach yourself from this hackneyed image of artists, then the mixture of pragmatism, feeling for reality and inner conviction, which characterizes Ouyang Chun’s attitude, is indeed remarkable. When I ask him about it, he explains that, in his opinion, globalization means there is nothing that is not marketed anymore. For an artist, that means “riches and suffering” at one and the same time. 和writes: “But I think that artists today cannot, at the very least, simply avoid commercialization, or can’t deny commercialism. But this is all a pretext, you must be faithful to your own spirit, if your interest is merely in producing an image for consumption, then I think people with talent would choose another career.” Being an “Artist” is for Ouyang Chun an occupation like any other. That means, on the one hand, that any exaltation of the artist existence, the cult of artist-as-star and “socializing”, as the art scene like to put on, are completely foreign to him. On the other hand, it would, however, be completely wrong to deduce from his explanations that another profession would ever have been an option for him. Rather, his biography shows that he, as down-to-earth as he may be, committed his total will power to translate his inner conviction about being an artist into reality. Painting is something which he dose from the heat and which challenges him every day – and that’s also another reason why his pictures are authentic.
In 1999, the time has come and Ouyang Chun makes his first attempt to gain a foothold in the Beijing art world. It is the time when Political Pop and Cynical Realism “made in China” are exciting increasing interest in the West. So it is no wonder that this artist finds little interest among Beijing galleries, which have just found a “product” characterized by being so easy to recognize every time. This is probably the first time that it becomes clear to Ouyang Chun how distant his art is from the “mainstream”. His return to Xi’an comes with the resolve to prepare the next shot rather better. “I still needed a strategy to turn my paintings into money”. Whatever this strategy might have amounted to, when he put his plan into practice in 2003 and shifted to Beijing, already aged 29, in fact, his woks are unmistakable and their variety scarcely displays any parallels to what is just experiencing a boom as contemporary Chinese art in Europe and the United States.
Among the earliest works Ouyang Chun includes in his first monograph are the Diagrams from 2002, large monochrome canvases, on which fastidiously executed signs similar to pictogrammes have been set out in dense array.(Spirits)These works are similar to writing in their cumulative principle, but do not follow any logical structure in their sequence. They connect archaic signs with miniaturized elements from his own artistic vocabulary and draw from the pool of pictures in comics and graffiti as a matter of course in the same way as they make use of figures from Keith Haring’s world. To our eyes, conditioned by Western culture, these paintings seem like huge – and for that reason paradoxical – puzzle-pictures, or they stimulate associations with “text pictures” by
“Art brut artists”, in which inventing a private language is often to be found just as much as “filling out” of the format. In contrast to this often manic production of pictures, Ouyang Chun does indeed use an equally hermetic “language”, but the signs remain self-referential, as their sequence dose not “narrate” any story for the artist either. If there are indeed very varied pictorial signs in the paintings, they are all current “transnationally”, and that makes them seem a contemporary hieroglyphic text, yet lacking any reference and so devoid of any meaning.
The Soldiers, which came about at around the same time, are just as much related to Art brut, but here it is the renouncing of any illusionism at all, which arouses such associations. The figures in Banquet on Nipple Hill are reduced to simple forms; there is no definite perspective, indeed not even a compositional principle. The table laden with dishes, around which the soldiers are sitting, seems to have shifted too far upwards, so that the chairman has to duck under the picture’s edge, and, with the copulating pair of soldiers, the body of the standing figure is bent far back towards the hindermost edge so that it can still fit onto the canvas. All these formal and moral “affronts” to an academic pictorial principle, just as much as the refusal to parade craft competence, with which Ouyang Chun presents himself as a “professional Art brut artist”, separate his pictures from the works of Chinese art, which have set records at auction in previous years. From the very beginning, he has ruled out any sort of realism, every form of style and so any predictability – which characterizes many of these positions – as far as he is concerned.
If there are no links to be found, in either the form or content on his works, to the heroes of the Chinese art-scene, like Zeng Fanzhi, Wang Guangyi, Zhang Xiaogang or Yue mMinjun, then that has certainly to do with the fact that Ouyang Chun belongs to the younger generation, whose life has not been marked by the bitter experiences of the cultural revolution and who could already profit in their early years from the opening up of China under Deng Xiaoping step-by-step from 1979 on. It would, in fact, take another 20 years until the social situation of artists – who previously had no infrastructure equivalent to the Western contemporary art system to support them – changed, but everyday life in the cities, access to information and with that art also altered with the increase in international contacts. The “Post 70s”, as this generation is called, had not only more and different possibilities to learn something about historical and contemporary Western art, but the deluge of imagery reaching the Middle Kingdom was increasingly accompanied by advertising, comics and every sort of picture trash. These worlds of imagery have left the most varied traces in Ouyang Chun’s painting. What is interesting in all this is how he combines “high and low”: it is not the fact that he depicts smurfs, but that he devotes monumental portraits to these comic figures – which first saw the light of day as “schtrompfs” in 1958 in Belgium. Whilst, for example Chen Ke, born in 1978 in Sichuan, choose the imagery of comics only as a point of departure to permit the dream and nightmare worlds she devises to evolve on canvas in a delicate painting style, or Li Chaoxiong, born in 1978 in Guangdong, shuttles between a subversive switching of roles with a free-flowing script from his brush and with adaptations of animé aesthetics , Ouyang Chun contracts quotations from the world of comics with an expressive, painterly gesture schooled on the “American Masters” in his smurf pictures(Smurfette) but also in works like Pearl(see p.23).In this process, it is precisely the pointed unsuitability of banal content paired with heroic form, which endows the pictures with their tension and by which it is made clear that such characteristics, apparently indebted to a naïve concept of imagery, actually express deliberate decisions.
Ouyang Chun loves art. If you ask him about artists, whose works he esteems, then his list runs from Van Gogh via Munch, Picasso, de Kooning and Guston to Basquiat. But the names of contemporary Chinese artists are something you will, by contrast, wait for in vain. If you ask him, then he will explain that the specific artistic quality of China manifests itself for him in historical art. Most of what has been produced in the last decades does not seem to him really independent but more testimony of a process of development than a result, or it is primarily aimed at the market-place. He says:”When culture becomes an industry, it loses its power.” His links to Western art and his distance from the current Chinese becomes most obvious if you look at the heterogeneity of Ouyang Chun’s work. For him, each picture is a new challenge he takes on with his paintbrush in his hand. He dose not believe that an artist’s goal is supposed to be developing a style and sticking with it. On the contrary, a good artist for him is one who can use various methods and forms of expression in order to understand his own language in exactly that way and to develop it further. It is not a post-modern arbitrariness, which, therefore, forms the background here but his own continual questioning of what he is doing and his quest for a formulation adequate to himself.
In the book, Luminescence, Ouyang Chun’s pictures are respectively grouped under main headings, which does not, however, mean that he always works – as in the Tale of Whaling or in King – in series, but rather more that he mostly varies certain topics or techniques in quite a few works and harks back to individual subjects years later too. This approach combined with untiring industry and a great pleasure in painting, has led to the creation of a private cosmos of pictures. The installation, Luminescence, an entire wall full of small format images produced between 1998 and 2006, conveys an idea of that. Not only paper, cardboard or other conventional picture mediums served the artist here as the ground for his painting, but also napkins, old packaging or pieces of foam plastic. Assembled into an ensemble, they impress as merging everyday life and art. This wish to remain close to his own present circumstances without unduly exalting them or robbing them of their multifariousness by a one-dimensional interpretation also marked the beginnings of the Infinity Column, for which Ouyang Chun in 2006 “strung up” the most varied of objects and practical commodities, from a pig’s head to a Buddha figure, from a birdcage via a motor bike helmet to a violin, on an 18 meter high steel pipe. This variety and the underlying wish to make what is there in everyday life “visible” through art separate the Chinese variant from Brâncuși’s Endless Column from 1937, which is doubtless a godparent to the work. It is only consistent that Ouyang Chun does not show his “endless column” as a solitary monolith in an artistic context, but “chopped up into pieces” over several stories of a house as well as in the public domain.
When you talk to Ouyang Chun or even just watch him, as he explains one of his pictures, the n you get a sense of what a major undertaking his art is for him, but also of how much fun it means for him. It is his medium for expressing himself or for telling his own story. For that reason, it is not surprising either that he has brought a few of his works together under the short and pithy title, Me. Here is – alongside snowmen, a comic book warrior (with shackles!) and other alter egos – the picture, Practical Joke (see p.25), which initially faces viewers with a riddle. Under a dramatic sky, you can see the artist here on an open field as he is clearly using his paints – two tubes labeled “oil colour” and “acrylic colour” are lying next to him – to “decorate” beetles and then let them crawl away again. When asked about the very particular symbolism in the picture, Ouyang Chun readily explains that the representation does not have any sort of hidden message at all, but is much rather a story from his own life. In the Xi’an years, he often painted landscapes en plein air. If he had any paint left, then he would paint beetles with it and favored green shield bugs, which were always flying around everywhere. “Sometimes”, as he writes, “I would wrap them in thick paint (even though that dose sound terrible today), in those days it was fun.” In literature, such “bad boys’ tricks” have a much longer tradition than in the arts; you only need to think of Wolhelm Busch’s Max und Moritz or, a more recent example: the Chinese family-saga, Brothers [Xiongdi] by Yu Hua from 2005/2006, which, as a German reviewer put it, is “an epoch-making novel” and simultaneously “a deliberate attack on good morals and good taste”.
Whilst Ouyang Chun was still depicting himself in 2007 as an Unknown Artist, where the painter, as the “black man”, was reduced to his tools, he presented himself in 2008 as A Productive Painter, painting with nine hands simultaneously. He is, at least in artists’ circles, no longer an unknown, as is shown, not least, by his pictures, which you come across not uncommonly when doing the rounds of Beijing and in Seoul, he has, however, also attracted the attention of a wider public. The showing also became a magnet for visitors because the artist had a huge, real ship constructed in the gallery space, which visitors could go abroad. Pictures were hanging in the ship’s hold just as on the gallery walls and both actually at normal eye-level and at a height of several meters, so that you had to climb onto the ship’s deck, and, indeed, in one case even peer through a telescope, in order to see them. If you disregard the Herculean labor involved in convincing the gallery of the need for such an intervention and the manpower needed to realize the idea, then what is at least as impressive is the fact that the presentation did not become a spectacle, but Ouyang Chun succeeded in giving expression to his artistic concept by his way of presenting his paintings chosen. As is characteristic for the way he engages with his material, his depictions are not limited to one aspect, but track the motif of whales on various levels: from comic book whales with fountains via the whalers, a strange gallery of brigands and adventurers, up to the “paradise picture”, in which humans have not yet destroyed the unity of animal and nature.
Ouyang Chun combines matters personal and general, his view of reality with a fantasy world. In all this, the linking factor, that determines the relation of the various areas, can only rarely be defined unequivocally by viewers – particularly when they come from another cultural context. Accordingly, a title like We Armed Ourselves With the Flames if Endurance and Arrived in the City of Glory at Dawn, which he gave to his exhibition in the Beijing Yan Huang Art Museum in 2004, does not display any direct relation to the pictures shown there, but stands, precisely with its heroic flourish, rather more for the artist’s inner drive, the reality of whose life comes across as quite different. In his text for the exhibition catalogue, Wu Penhui describes Ouyang Chun’s flat, where there is , apart from innumerable piles of pictures, only a narrow bed, a telephone and a cell phone. “In the humiliated and damaged artist village of Song, we can only imagine the countless days and nights spent in front of his canvas”. Perhaps it was just this situation, which makes it understandable why Ouyang Chun depicts glittering diamonds, twinkling stars or resplendent crowns time and time again in his pictures. These pictures, which find their continuation and provisional zenith in the King series, do not, however, stand for an imagined counter-world, but also show that the artist does know very well how to differentiate between his own visual fascination and social value, be it in terms of money or power. Painting like When Ugly Souls Spy a Brilliant Diamond No.1 or Flaming Diamond Flower (see p.28) where the sparkling, cut precious stones are painted over an ornamental flower pattern, display both poles.
Painting the King
The group of works, which Ouyang Chun collected under the title King, is not a cycle in the narrower sense, but comprises 30 works, which the artist painted between 2006 and 2009. There was neither any concept for the project, nor did the artist work exclusively n these paintings in this period. Much rather, the idea developed during the work itself, where individual motifs, such as the crown, for instance, which had already belonged to the pictorial repertoire previously, served as one point of departure. The successive approach to the complex of topics, which also finds expression in the fact that there was no fixed sequence and with that, no consistent story, can be read from the pictures themselves, the differences in style, technique and application of color. Whilst most of the pictures produced in 2006, like King and Queen or Crown (see p.61,57), are still characterized by pastose color application, almost expressive brushwork and a glowing palette, with Dead End For The King (see p.120) a new orientation is already pending. The figure’s composition is much richer in detail; jewels in the crown and ornamented gold/yellow amour are clearly recognizable. What is most astounding is, however, doubtless the unsituated protagonist, seemingly floating on the line of the horizon between the profound blackness of the sky and a landscape no more than sketched out by a color scheme in green, ochre and blue tones. The sole link to this “earth” is the pool of blood configured as a bubble form out of a comic and attributed to the apparently uninjured body of the king. This breach in the picture’s narrative simultaneously allots a symbolic meaning to what it depicts.
With the triptych, Cherishing the Memory of the Tyrannical King and the Fearless Assassin (see p.134/135), created in 2007/2008, a new phase begins in the work on the series. The figures are now set in gilt bronze on a dark background, which, however, comes across as very dynamic by dint of its colorful undercoating. Ouyang Chun wields a fine brush to paint the king front-on and the other figures in profile. As in a mediaeval tableau, they stand lined up on both sides of the ruler, turned towards him but without looking at him. The actors are almost reduced to signs, in order to exaggerate what is being depicted symbolically by eschewing any sort of realism at all. The story the picture tells only unfolds for whoever is prepared not only to pay attention to the individual detail but also to interpret them. An audience with the king is depicted, to which his women – to the left in the picture and particularly emphasized by their rich clothing – are bringing a candle (enlightenment), a peach (long life) and liqueur. On the right-hand side stand two envoys from a foreign country, who have brought a full handful of precious stones and a plant as gifts. Behind them, right up against the picture’s right-hand edge, stands the King’s counselor or soothsayer, who is the only figure painted completely in white and is distinguished by the sign for yin and yang, which he is wearing like a little crown on his head. The main figures re, however, doubtless the king and his murderer, who find their place on the central panel and are additionally highlighted through colorful ornamentation. What is depicted is the moment before the deed: the king still does not sense his impending fate but is holding the blue precious stone he has just received as a gift. The murderer, disguised as a woman -- the hinted-at breasts don’t quite seem to match the bearded face – is holding a present for the king in his right hand, whilst his left clutches the dagger he has hidden behind his back.
As precisely as the sequence of events can be read from what is depicted, we learn just as little from the image about the significance of the deed, which is only designated as the murder of a tyrant by the title. This openness to interpretation is a conscious choice on the part of Ouyang Chun, for whom the act of painting also stands in the foreground with this group of works and is the medium with the aid of which he brings past and present, East and West, high and low, narration and abstraction to merge in his pictures. If that is the reason why it is not important for him to geographically or historically locate the king, around whom all the episodes depicted here revolve, then it is nonetheless interesting to ask about possible models in the story, which could have influenced the artist in the choice of this topic and its artistic formulation.
You have to go a long way back in Chinese history, right back to the third century before our calendar, before you come upon a king. Ying Zheng is not, however, known as the last king, but is known under the name, Qin Sihuangdi [first divine god-emperor of Qin] as the first emperor. This highly controversial personality, who ended the time of the “Warring States” through bloody campaigns and first united China, who introduced numerous reforms and normative regulations, under whose violent rule millions of Chinese died, is well-known today thanks to his gigantic mausoleum, which negates any human proportions and is guarded by over 7,000 terracotta warriors. It may be chance that the grave site was discovered by farmers more than 2,000 years later in 1974, the year of Ouyang Chun’s birth, yet what is not to be dismissed, b contrast, is that the terracotta soldiers, standing rigidly at attention with expressionless faces do find a distant echo in the actors of the King series. It is not stylistic parallels that are decisive, however, but much more the atmosphere created by the figures, where history and myth seem inseparable. They are fundamental images for power and its misuse, as, for example, in The Coronation of the Usurper (see p.136-138), for being captured within your own identity, as in Golden Cage (see p.124), or for crossing the boundary between hubris and madness in Fate of a King or The Eternal King (see p.119, 91), who can only remain king eternally by destroying his realm – here symbolized through the burning city in the background.
But the group of works would not be typical for Ouyang Chun, if there were not also pictures, in which beauty and spend our were celebrated. Opulent Imperial Palace, Night Banquet and Heaven and Earth (see p.150/151, 130/131, 94) unveil views into halls glistening with gold, like the ones you can still admire today in the “Forbidden City” in Beijing, or they have a great ship, with innumerable figures aboard, glide past under an almost transparent moon. These paintings are fascinating not only by dint of their incredible richness of detail, but it is through their composition and execution in gilt bronze that the artist succeeds in bringing out an inner glow, which includes viewers and sends them off time-traveling into the past. Quite different in their effect are those pictures, in which Ouyang Chun has worked gold leaf or sterling silver foil, so that their completely or partially closed surfaces simultaneously attract our gaze and create distance. The Foregone Imperial Palace (see p.4-6) presents itself like a silhouette, where the outlines of the buildings in a complete palace grouping are cut out from gold leaf elements and set on a dark background only partially structured by the painter, In these pictures, Ouyang Chun uses the way gold can be beaten to extreme flatness to link, on another level, to the way he abstains from spatiality in his earlier works. In contrast to the palace interiors he painted in gilt bronze with a central perspective, he here stresses the two-dimensionality of the representation additionally buy the simple alignment of the buildings and the way they perch on the picture’s lower edge.
In Palace of Eternal Life (see p. 106-108), he goes a step further by covering the entire surface of the picture with gold leaf and uses this as the ground for his painting. In a different manner from traditional gold-grounding, as this is familiar from mediaeval painting, he does not actually seek any all-enveloping surface, but sets the individual whisper-thin leaves of gold so alongside each other, that sometimes interstices, and almost always the square individual forms, remain visible, but as regards content he definitely connects to the idea of transcending what is being represented: king and queen, both with a line of courtiers, meet in a sort of paradise garden with “dancing spirit-women” and symbolic animals like the peacock and the crane.
The triptych, A Certain Country, A Certain Monarch (see p.76-78), opens up a view into another world, the grave of the king. As if in an x-ray, we can here see the skeleton, in the eye-sockets of which – as has come down to us from the burials of rulers in early cultures – precious stones are lying and which is framed by a great quantity of grave goods. With this picture, the artist has only applied the gold leaf in one place, namely at the ends of the king’s feet, where the painted canvas is torn open and a further level becomes visible. Here it is particularly obvious how the transience of the body is opposed to the insignia of power and how – as in the entire King series – references to history, invention and links back to human existence independent of rank and status are combined. As important the narrative structure of the pictures and the symbolic content of the details are to the artist, on one hand, so he does, on the other, emphatically strive through his painting to lend the scenes he depicts an openness, which allows us to read them as metaphors for the human condition, and which can be variously interpreted according to how viewers approach them. “Wang” is, as he writes, “an infinitely large, and infinitely small concept. ‘Wang’ can stand for a mighty king or for an ant”. It is important to him that the series as a whole describes an image of life’s contradictions, the spectrum of which runs from radiant triumph to situations of deepest darkness. Gold, in its immutability, forms, on one hand, a counterpoint to eternal change, but also stresses, on the other, the divided nature of humanity. Its greed for power and riches, which makes it repress its knowledge of its own morality time and to time again. In these works by Ouyang Chun, “the king is dead, long live the king” finds a very particular echo. The king stands as a symbol for eternal recurrence if experiences of victory and defeat, of power and powerlessness. What is, however, decisive is painting: it is what lends to timelessness any existence in the present.