24 hrs in London (Pt III) – Hong Ling: A Retrospective at Brunei Gallery, SOAS

Part three of my series of blog posts on 24 hours in London last month (lately, I’m constantly playing catch up on my blog). The day before my non-visit to Victoria Miro (a must-read blog post for an apparently must-see show) and successful visit to ‘The Space Between’ by Rana Begum at Parasol Unit, I went to see ‘Hong Ling: A Retrospective’ at Brunei Gallery, SOAS, curated by Professor Shane McCausland. The exhibition opening was accompanied by a prelude – an introductory lecture on the reasoning behind the retrospective, it’s curation and the artistic practice of Hong Ling. Here are my notes and thoughts from the lecture and show…all images are by me!


Entitled ‘Hong Ling: A Retrospective – The Time and Place of Looking Back’, the lecture began by introducing the display of over 50 works including drawings, watercolours, paintings and photographs, where ‘a retrospective requires a chronological sequence in display’ and ‘the ability to look back with hindsight – “retrospection” – not easy and an anticipatory task’.

Hong Ling stated ‘Of all my exhibitions, it is the one I have looked forward to the most’. The exhibition is curated in the ‘standard modern setting of the Brunei Gallery…albeit a setting with an oriental twist with the arched ceilings’. Place and space are central themes to Hong Ling’s work referenced through ‘lyrical depictions…examinations of ecology and environment and alternative histories of Chinese painting’ – Confucian, Buddhist and Daoist.

Shane asked three sets of questions to position his practice within the historical contexts:

  1. From the stance of looking back – exhibition as context
  2. Time – what modernist, temporal links and anchors are within his work?
  3. How – meaning and signification

Hong Ling was raised in a family of bi-ethnicity in Yunnan and was eleven years old when the Cultural Revolution began. 1989 clearly influenced his work, yet he did not link his art to ‘any search for justice to the 1989 Tiananmen tragedy’. It had wider academic value through examinations of ‘landscape…the thinking man’s genre’ through appropriations rather than influences as this states choice. As such, the exhibition acts as an exemplary lens allowing us to take a look at the extraordinary social, political and economic changes that have taken place since the end of the Cultural Revolution.

Shane’s visits to Huangshan, in southern China’s Anhui Province, gave real world context to the exhibition and how to imagine the paintings as “a final product”. It was important to experience the situation of the moment…the memories, mental and physical, feelings and emotions. Hong Ling is at one with his Huangshan surroundings, connected to his surrounding through experience – “consciously subconscious”. This human experience is echoed through the artist’s lyrical art practice with ‘a touch of epic’ where ‘somatic experience matter’ to Hong Ling. It is about the ‘discovery of a new home from home and to travel to places of extremes…rustication, self-preservation and exile’ where the ‘landscape became mainstream’. Shane stated, ‘after the millennium, the possibilities of landscape are exhausted and bear no relevance to contemporary Chinese art. The job of a retrospective is to trace these steps to today by looking back and feeling awkward about past works, acknowledging how drastically and unexpectedly one’s art can change in twenty years.’

Furthermore, the exhibition is biographical and autobiographical, summative and formative, questioning ‘what can curatorship add in terms of the use of space to spatial recreate these biography, autobiography and somatic experiences? Time is not linear or universal…it provides a unique definition of time that is “hechronicus”.’

Shane coined the artist as ‘a latter day modernist’ who has ‘access to a plurality of painting histories’. He creates ‘conceptual landscapes…figurative and poetic content of the landscape sitting in the modernist understanding’. His works are seen as ‘affective signs’ to discuss ‘how the visual comes to be legible and sensible, and the landscape as signs and systems of signs’. How do they have meaning and affect upon us? Is it based on intrinsic and instrumental value?

“Landscape is another lover in the China embrace…the tree as a source of specificity and knowledge.”

The visual semantic systems in which Hong Ling’s practice operate – in relation to China’s long-standing relationship to patterns in language – ‘portray graphic signifiers’ and ‘iconic and non-iconic readers’. This is something that I am incredibly interested in, in terms of visual intercultural communication systems. How does this shape the way the artist conceives fundamentally or philosophical the forms he is creating? As he moves away from cross-cultural framework, the artist begins to examine ‘neuro-aesthetics…intrinsic characteristics in an anthropomorphic sense…highly acculturated in place and the moment’, bringing a new ‘ecological context’ and ‘interplay with contingent motifs’.

Viewed as ‘transitional and transformational moments…changes in state’ and ‘changes in the local’, their ‘visual invariance’ implies a new state of what Shane states as “post-culturalism” (I want to know more about this, note to self – follow this up with Shane). I saw the painterly intricacies of the paintings as slices in planetary topographical time as if aerial views of other worlds in a different time and space – unearthly yet so natural in representation.

I am always drawn to visceral and abstracted qualities of paint on canvas where Hong Ling’s dynamic synergies between surface and material, to me, represent his moments of somatic experience….moments of discovery…moments of possibilities through his spatial visions. Although the exhibition is curated through a traditional chronological retrospective format, it visually reads more like a staccato diary, singling out travels and experiences, as such Hong Ling is “writing” a subconscious lyricism through landscape.

Funnily enough, when I attended the talk and exhibition opening, I bumped into a fellow class of 2007 MA Museums Studies/Art Museum and Gallery Studies student Dr. Mary Redfurn. Great to see you and I look forward to seeing how the Hong Ling project unfolds and translates in Dublin! Small world as always…and as ever, globally interconnected.

‘Hong Ling: A Retrospective’ is on show until 24 September 2016.

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