The Art of Mu Xin
Michelle Lim is a transient passerby in Mu Xin's world
By Michelle Lim
I first encountered The Art of Mu Xin when I was working at the Asia Society in New York last year. An unusually large, bitter chocolate colored, coffee table book with a small square “window” cut out from the center of its front cover. Through this small (3” by 3”) frame, a delicately shaded riverscape scratched onto fine paper surface could be seen – detail from a larger painting “Pure Bamboo by a Cool Stream”.
This unusual catalog was commissioned to accompany a seminal exhibition of works by a practically anonymous Chinese artist “Mu Xin” (born in 1927, China) at the prestigious Asia Society Museum in New York. The Museum was the last of four venues for the exhibition. The works, 33 paintings and some papers covered in a dense pattern of almost indecipherable handwriting, are remarkable objects from a remarkable time. Mu Xin has referred to this collection as the Tower within a Tower paintings and the papers as the Prison Notes.
The Prison Notes were produced during his incarceration during China’s Cultural Revolution years (1967 -1977), a time so painfully recent that the comfort of distant memory still eludes those who lived through it. Mu Xin endured solitary confinement in a “people’s prison”, a Red Guard cell converted from an abandoned air raid shelter in Shanghai. Squirreling away paper from the supply given to him for his “self-criticisms”, he secretly produced sixty-six pages in tiny script. These sheets were then folded into small squares and eventually smuggled out in the cotton padding of his prison clothes.
In Prison Notes, from which a few select pages have been translated, Mu Xin carries on imaginary conversations with great philosophers, from Leonardo da Vinci, Aristotle, Leo Tolstoy, and Robert Wagner to Wang Wei (701-61). The Prison Notes are thoughtful, abstract, and there are even the occasional moments of humor. Mu Xin writes, for example, about the pleasures of matchstick entertainment: “All I had to do was plant the stick gently in the ashes of the ashtray and watch it burn from top to bottom. For several months I have been directing the same drama: the ashtray resembles a circular stage on which the matchstick, like a legendary diva, sings her swan song before she slowly falls on the ground and dies.”
From these Prison Notes, the Tower within a Tower paintings were later “extracted”. These paintings were produced during Mu Xin’s subsequent house arrest which followed a sentence of hard labor in a Shanghai factory. He had originally intended to do 50 paintings in celebration of his own 50th birthday but judged the series complete at 33. The reticent Mu Xin has uncharacteristically elaborated on his choice of title as “An Ivory Tower inside London Tower”. With this explanation, Mu Xin also references famous Chinese philosopher Lu Xun’s comment that “ivory towers (need to) exist in the real world where political oppression is unavoidable.”
In the cover’s “Pure Bamboo by a Cool Stream”, the bamboo forest on the opposite bank has a dark allure that draws us into Mu Xin’s self-contained world. Gracefully inked bamboo tubes arch up from mysteriously dense bushes. Following the line of sight upwards, we enter hollowed pockets of air carved out by parallel bamboo bars, before meeting delicately arrowed leaves weaving together in a loose feather canopy. A breeze sweeps the stream towards a vanishing horizon of brightness. And the light! It seeps insistently through the latticed brushwork on this tiny scrap of duo-toned paper, capturing the ephemeral flicker between sunset and twilight.
It goes without saying that immense mental fortitude would have been necessary to survive the tragedy of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution. But to create a canon of master works under these circumstances speaks of surpassing grace under pressure - or a supranatural courage beyond common sense. In a dialogue with his good friend and translator Professor Liu Jun, Mu Xin remarked: “I was rejected by the absurd world at the time, so I built a more reasonable but magic world in which I sincerely lived... I never abandoned my own judgment or my own selection of what is right and wrong or good and evil in the world, never abandoned my will, or the endless manifestations of my will.”
The Tower within a Tower paintings are small, measuring about 13” by 7” each. They are executed in easily accessible materials during that time – gouache and Chinese ink on Western watercolor paper. But the techniques used are mysterious, and the content of the paintings dense and complex in their layering of meaning across space and time. Mu Xin himself has been evasive in discussing his techniques and even the best art historians are hard pressed to confirm their guesses.
There is Chinese painting brushwork - but there’s much more, from both Chinese and Western traditions. One unusual process detected in his work is decalcomania – a Surrealist technique in which gouache is spread thinly on a surface such as paper or glass, and then pressed onto another surface such as paper or canvas. This is a process of random chance, like finding meaningful shapes from floating cloud formations. Mu Xin also appears to have experimented with burnishing, achieving in some of his works a silvery graphite -like surface sheen reminiscent of photogravure which was a common reproduction method in early art books.
The titles of his paintings and many of the symbolic visual images in them are the result of Mu Xin’s ongoing dialogues with China’s past. “Lofty Residence of Wei and Jin”, for example, immediately evokes memories of the ancient Wei and Jin dynasties (220-419). One possible interpretation would thus be that here, Mu Xin is lamenting the disappearance of a glorious age, a time when ancient Chinese poet/artist-sages like calligrapher Li Yu (937-978), Wang Xizhi (303-379) and painter Gu Kaizhi (345-406) contributed generously to the founding of Chinese humanistic traditions, while expressing his loss of faith that such glory awaits in the future. Other titles, such as “Reciting a Tang Poem on the Road to Shu”, make direct reference to famous early paintings and periods of historic upheaval; in this case, the near destruction of the Tang dynasty which resulted from an emperor’s infatuation with his concubine, the legendary beauty Yang Guifei. The execution of his beloved Yang in order to placate his enraged troops caused the emperor to abdicate his throne and retreat to mourn in “Everlasting Regret”.
Most of all, the lifestyle and deliberate (a)political posturing of Mu Xin calls to mind an affiliation with the “yimin” (literally: leftover people) intellectuals. The change of each dynasty usually presented a period of chaotic uncertainty and violence. At such historic junctures, there would be some noted literati artists and intellectuals who would make a deliberate move to withdraw from public life. Yuan eccentric artist Ni Zan (1301-1374) and Qing monk-painter Shitao (1642-1707) present such case studies. Their subsequent works would often hold subtle allusions to political meaning and contain personal elegies to a past that was somehow always more glorious and full of happiness.
Mu Xin’s own seclusion bears the legacy of their self-imposed exile as a noble form of silent protest. He had previously hesitated to show these works, insisting, “I do not want the manuscript (Prison Notes) to be identified with any kind of ideology. It is my wish that the manuscript, in its original form, would establish its independent existence in the nameless, constant realm of the conceptual.” Yet, he has allowed his work to be exhibited at the Asia Society (and subsequently presented in catalog form to delegates at the World Economic Forum in Beijing, 2004). This deliberateness of Mu Xin turning his back on political ideology might thus qualify him as yimin from the watershed years of Sun Yat-Sen’s hopeful national building, between the end of the Qing dynasty and the subsequent establishment of People’s Republic of China.
The historical references are aplenty, but who exactly is “Mu Xin”? Many puzzles remain unsolved in this maze of abstract ideas. Despite the beautiful images and surfeit of information in the catalog - surfeit because the information offered by the excellent essays also shields a direct reading/perception of the actual works - one is left as puzzled as ever on the man behind the art and the writing. One strives to find clues to both man and art to no avail. In Chinese, “Mu” means wood, and “Xin”, heart. But the “heart” of a tree can only be revealed when it is chopped down... The wide-ranging essays provides a fascinating glimpse into the mysteriously layered world of Chinese art history, but it is like a book of teasers, enticing one to embark on future quests that seem unlikely to lead to the heart of the artist. “Reading the stories makes one wonder how much of his life as he tells it is fiction,” one of the curators emails me.
I do however, uncover from the depths of scholarly essays Mu Xin’s preference for a more poetically apt metaphor that translates his pseudonym into “spirit of trees”. I also find out that the artist known as “Mu Xin” is only the latest pseudonym in a series of identities taken on by this mysterious Chinese intellectual. Mu Xin first took the Taiwanese public by storm in the early 1980s with a series of brilliant essays and short stories published in Taiwanese literary journals and newspapers. But a brief flirtation with the fame ended shortly after as his insistent retreat into philosopher mode. He coolly responded to media questions with cryptic quotes instead of ‘sensible’ answers, with gems like Flaubert’s “Reveal the art, conceal the artist.”
Prof Jonathan Hay from The Institute of Fine Arts, in his catalog essay “Mu Xin and Twentieth-Century Chinese Painting”, makes a fine distinction between artists who write and writers who paint. He further notes that the latter group “constitute(s) a rare and fascinating group in the history of Chinese painting, notable for their cosmopolitan sophistication.” Mu Xin writes, and he paints, but is he writer or painter? I’m beginning to conclude that he is neither. I view him to be fundamentally a philosopher who has chosen to argue his ideas interchangeably through art and literature, being one of those rare geniuses who have managed to harness skill sets from both genres to his service.
Looking at Mu Xin’s paintings, we may be floating on a boat, or perhaps we are strolling by the streams of Hangzhou, around the places where he grew up. It hardly seems to matter. Moving from painting to painting in the catalog, one becomes aware of being a transient passerby in someone else’s world. An almost Tao-ist realization comes with the territory, that there have been worlds already passed through and many more worlds to come before this life comes to an end.
This ambiguity of half-worlds is a particular characteristic of Mu Xin’s work. He once asked a friend rhetorically, “ Did you ever find that there is room between the two opposing rules of a paradox?” before replying himself, “The space between two almost opposite rules is the ground where I play and write.”
In the published dialogue with Prof Liu Jun, Mu Xin shies away from categorizing himself as dissident-in-exile. He simply says: “I came to the United States because I was taking a walk and unawares, went too far.” More words are unnecessary, it will never be fully possible to express (nor for us on the other side of the fence - to understand) the frustrated longings for freedom, and the uncertainty felt by the cosmopolitan intellectuals who were left behind (yimin indeed!) when the doors of China shut in 1949 and only reopened again in the 1980s.
Mu Xin’s literary canon includes an essay “Kundera and His Brothers” where he introduces two metaphors on the subject of diaspora: “daigen liulang” (wanderers carrying their roots) and “xianshi lunhui” (reincarnations in this life) which are meant to express a happiness known to those who experience and appreciate amor fati (love of fate). Referencing Nietzche on the theme of “eternal recurrence”, Mu Xin ends his essay on an almost wry note, “Kundera is not lonely. Wanderers carrying their roots or travelers in the spiritual realm will encounter their kindred spirits either before them or after them. One globe is indeed enough.”
Although he lives in New York now, Mu Xin’s reclusion makes him as inaccessible today as during his previous incarnations in China and Taiwan. He once quoted a Chinese proverb, “Put a someone in a place of death so that there can be a rebirth of life”, pointing then to “dandelions scattered in smoking debris after a war, which proves that, like plants, culture and the arts will strategically prevail.” Indeed, Mu Xin’s art and writing has generated its own life-force, and the more important task at hand is to let his art renew our own belief in the power of the human spirit to rise above tragedy.
The Art of Mu Xin exhibition toured the following venues: