Striking the Mountain to Shake the Tiger:
A letter to young artists from a gallerist
To young people with dreams of becoming artists.
As a gallerist, I see many young people wholeheartedly throwing themselves into art. This passion is commendable, but there is also a lot of blind optimism and the naïve belief that artistic creation is a relaxed and romantic affair. Some people approach it with a playboy attitude. I think that perhaps there is a need to ‘strike the mountain to shake the tiger’, to give some honest advice and sound a warning from the gallery’s perspective.
These times have given people an illusion, that art is an enviable, star-studded profession: fancy cars, beautiful women, raucous parties, elite status, staking out the front lines of fashion. But this is all an illusion. Artists take a risky gamble by subjecting themselves to bitter struggles for the first half of their lives. The majority of famous artists spent their youths honing their artistic skills under Dickensian conditions, only reaching a turning point in middle age. Qi Baishi, who only fully matured in his later years, spent the first fifty years of his life languishing in his hometown. When De Kooning immigrated to America, he made his living as a house painter, carpenter and mural painter, and didn’t get his first opportunity to take part in a gallery exhibition until the age of thirty eight. The life of the artist is also often accompanied by inordinate suffering: when Joseph Bueys was 22, his plane was shot down over the Soviet Union and he barely escaped with his life. Chinese performance artist Datong Dazhang still isn’t very well known today. He lived in a trash-covered makeshift hut and committed suicide in 2000 as his last work of performance art. For an artist to make a truly original creation requires persistent toil and effort. We live in an era of hedonist pursuits, and even intellectuals are faced with worldly temptations. In his book One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse writes, “when the working class yearns for the luxuries of the bourgeoisie, they no longer have the will to dig the grave of capitalism.” You can stand the luxuries of your contemporaries, but can you face profound ideas in the grips of suffering?
We see a lot of work by young artists, and we often discover the same weaknesses: shallow, clichéd themes, affected sentiments and imitative styles. I’d advise young artists to consider the following two points. First, contemporaneity and timelessness; think about how you’ll view your own art work in ten years time. When the fashionable images recede like the tides, will they expose weak and naïve thinking? The hearts of brilliant artists are full of a sense of history; their works powerfully grasp the passions of the moment while resisting the corrosive effects of time. Song dynasty painter Fan Kuan’s Traveling Amid Streams and Mountains still has the power to move us today. The second point is individuality and commonality; aside from expressing spiritual individuality, does your work bring any hope of salvation to the cultural matrix? Good artists use deep individual marks to express universal spiritual sentiments, touching on the pains of their era, just as Francis Bacon’s paintings touched directly on the disintegration of faith after World War II and a Europe disillusioned with civilization, and Xu Bing’s dissection and rearrangement of Chinese words implied doubts about cultural traditions.
Many young artists want to know the standards we use in selecting young artists to work with: extraordinary ideas built upon a foundation of a unique spiritual world, tenacity driven by an overpowering curiosity about the unknown realms of the soul. As a gallery we must be responsible to the collectors. If only a few years after an artwork is collected, the artist gives up on creating, the gallery loses the trust of its clients. For this reason, we will observe a young artist’s creative abilities and attitudes over time. Many artists collapse of their own accord before the observation period is complete.
Describing the powerful creative spirit that drives the artist, Wu Guanzhong drew an analogy with grass, which “continues to grow, even when you water it with boiling water.” If your passion for art refuses to be extinguished in the face of cruel reality, please continue your adventure. ‘Striking the mountain to shake the tiger’ will only scare off the opportunistic little monkeys and the jumpy mountain goats. The real tigers will roar in the end. My suggestion is to find a job that allows you to meet your needs and freely control your time, set a long-term creative plan and prepare for a lasting battle fraught with setbacks. We will passionately and wisely support you. Not only is the future in your hands; the honor and dignity of the gallery depends on you as well.
Jessica Zhang, Director,
Letter from the Curator to a Young Artist
I hear that you've hit another creative block. This comes as no surprise to me. Much of any professional artist's time is spent dealing with setbacks. Your predicament shows that your painting has not grown to formulaic over the past few years, and that you still face each artwork with sincerity. I am very happy to see this.
You love fishing. You once told me that the fish and the mythical dragon are very much alike -swim through waters of untold depths in complete silence. You spend much of your free time refining your fishing techniques, and working on strange problems such as how to release a fish after catching it and how to tell its age from its scales. That is why I proposed Notes on Fishing as an art project. I hoped that it would allow you to bring together your creative experiments and spiritual growth from the past few years. You painted images of a young boy alone at night in the water with a fish, coming home in the evening with a fishing pole, or sitting in a room...I see a bit of you in them. Your fishing experiences (such as your observations of the inconsistencies of fishermen by the pond, your encounter with a wild boar one night on Wild Boar Island, etc.) have imbued your paintings with fascinating and mysterious airs. I agree with your view that an artist's process of creative maturation is like a pendulum, wherein the larger the amplitude (the larger the breadth of experimentation), the more powerful it will become when it stabilizes. Notes on Fishing calls to mind the daily clashes of ideas in your artistic experiments: you in your studio with the big wooden boxes from Jingdezhen, carefully pulling the half-finished sculptures from their reed wrapping; you were wearing that robe, and at the height of discussion, tearing up your sketch; you writing the words "freedom" and "power" on the wall with an ink brush.
Fishing is such a strange activity. It is the convergence of patience-stretched wisdom and serendipity, with unpredictable results. Perhaps a lifetime of squatting will amount to nothing, or perhaps an inspiring surprise will leap from the water just as hope is fading. The goal of fishing is clear, but one can never depend on the outcome. The best fishermen, like Jiang Ziya*, that legendary fisherman of old, are profound figures. For you, fishing lies somewhere between an act of life and the practice of inaction, an allusion to the creative state: hesitation, meditation, patience. Through Notes on Fishing, I have seen your probing of the essential questions of artistic creativity through pondering the "Tao of fishing". Why does an artist paint? Why is he enamored with unreal, mysterious things? Fishing becomes a metaphor for artistic creation, even the meaning of life. In these times, when the great sages are long gone, and the keys to thought have grown covered in rust, Notes on Fishing reflects the spiritual conundrum that a young artist faces here and now.
You're never satisfied with your paintings, and you make repeated changes on the canvas in a single-minded pursuit of spiritual dignity in colors, brushstrokes and facial expressions, swinging from mood to mood. You shouldn't worry about being perplexed like that. People only have self-contradictions and hesitation when they have a lot going on in their minds, and this is necessary for spiritual growth. Only through deep immersion in them will you make surprising discoveries. The profound nature of fishing lies in the process. One does not have to come home with a bucket full of fish to be a success. Now I realize that falling into your own trap is the key to unlocking yourself. Every artist is like a fisherman. In the flow of vulgar life, he chooses to be an observer. He is never washed away in the waves, and remains in lonely self-doubt. What matters is that you persevere in your belief that in these constantly changing times, painting is a quest for those "mystical traces" that transcend thought, and that this is an irreplaceable and sacred endeavor. For this you need extreme wisdom and tenacity; you need to swallow the drudgery of fishing with a smile.
It looks like we won't be able to go to Vietnam together, though I've always wanted to go. I'm scrawling out this letter to you under the lamplight, and thinking that right now you're probably under the stars in Jingdezhen, writing, pondering wooden architectural structures of ancient times, or reading ghost stories from "Liao Zhai" (Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, Qing Dynasty), doing spiritual fishing in the midst of internal chaos. I hope you can maintain this precious vigor. Think about it, in another ten years, our sharp mental worlds might recede; I hope that your thoughts on the riverbank are always free and unrestrained.
* Jiang Ziya, also known as Jiang Shang, is said to have caught fish without the use of bait, simply hanging his straight hook in the water and exhorting the fish to grab it. (From Tales of King Wu's Punitive Expedition against Zhou.)