Western and Asian Art
Hi! My name is Joanne Wong, Singaporean Chinese. I studied arts in Singapore. Then I dived straight in to get a Mass Communications degree in Liverpool and now came back to my art practice. I Joined Very Private Gallery’s artist residency program. The final days are consisting in meeting Yan Bei, an artist renowned in China but ignored where he lives and works now: Lisbon. That’s how I found the subject of my interest:
Chinese contemporary art marrying the Eastern art of calligraphy with Western ideologies.
Journey to the West with Yan Bei
Yan Bei’s Art
Over the past two days, I started to learn about a Chinese artist famous and known in China. His name is Yan Bei, and he is a Chinese contemporary artist marrying the Eastern Art of calligraphy with Western ideologies. Some of his key artworks include fingerprints as a form of identity with brush strokes to distinguish between the sturdiness and outline of a tree with a balance of exaggerated ink splatters for the flora’s shape and contour.
Chinese concepts of Art
It has been interesting talking to him and getting into his workspace to understand more of him himself. I also find that he has a sunny disposition, down-to-earth and family-oriented. I also connected with him on different levels when it comes to death and losing our loved ones.
Loss and Death in Asian Art
One after another, Yan Bei lost his parents within one year when he was 17. I lost my mother when I was 17. We shared similar experiences of having the initial shock and being in a dream-like phase when it happened to us. We had different coping mechanisms and timings. Yan Bei took around six months to absorb the shock and finally process the situation around him.
Oppression and repression
I saw many oppressive and repressive icons with hidden meanings within his works. Yan Bei captures most moments in his mind as a thought process and portrays them in an intuitive abstract manner.
Yan Bei’s artworks are intense with the Chinese cultural identity relating better with the Chinese audience. And others adapted to the Western ideologies as a juxtaposition.
Chinese paintings with Western techniques
He incorporates colors as a decisive expression element and has different gradients with contrast from Western techniques to merge his pieces. He explores Art as a state of mind that is momentous and fleeting. There are many rules and conformation within the Chinese culture and Chinese calligraphy techniques. He breaks free and modifies the style with hidden interpretations within his works.
Chinese artists residing in Western Europe
The more I spoke to him, the more I realized that there were some roadblocks in his way as a Chinese artist residing in Europe. But at the same time, it is a remarkable feat that he was able to balance his style of work, his mind, and take on influences from a completely foreign country as being a part of the Chinese diaspora in Europe.
Priorities for a Diaspora artist
When he first reached Lisbon, Portugal, in 2014, his main goal was to stabilize his family and ensure that finances were sufficient for them. He had never forgotten about Art, but instead, there was a shift in priorities. During this period, he never stopped doing his artworks, but he also did not have time to think about the mediums used to reach his target audience.
Language and culture gap
Imagine a renowned artist uprooting his life and coming into foreign territory. The language and culture gap is noticeable, but it is a challenge too. There is also a mismatch in the preferences and interests of both communities. It is also a fascinating intermixed blend of understanding and exposure to our modern world. In the current day and age of the fast-moving technology spaces, we are supposed to feel more connected. These disjointed aspects are the intangible experiences we see and hurdles we need to track through.
I identify with this in our world of melting pots and cultures. As a Singaporean, my ancestors came from China. Other than knowing that they belong to a dialect group of Cantonese people from Wen Chang in Hainan, I genuinely know nothing much about China and her political warfare/history. Other Chinese people have questioned me, and they have lamented that Singaporeans are lost when it comes to identity.
A mixture of Western and Asian cultures
We are not. We have such a firm mixture of Western and Asian cultures, so indirectly, we take on both the contrast between Western and Asian values. We love talking to new people, and we share our experiences. For heaven’s sake, we have our blend of English called Singlish and a much-loved culture of our hawker food. Singapore is a young nation filled with descendants from China, but we have gone through several generations that we do not recognize or identify as someone from China.
Asian Art versus Western Art
Here is my take on Yan Bei as this bridge and communicator: He knows his audience well. He has already started exploring and expanding his mind about the art styles contrasting Asian Art versus Western Art. He needs “Reach” and baseline awareness with his audience.
Tips for an Asian artist in the West
1. Find a writer
A writer can help illustrate and tie in the artist’s ideas as a communicative piece. It brings more context and framing than just the visual piece of work.
Yan Bei does not know the local language of the new country where he lives. To reach out to the local target audience, he will need to find a writer knowledgeable for translations with a flair that captures the audience’s attention.
2. Find someone passionate about your artwork
Having someone fully aware of his works, history, and cultural background can also help pull in with finesse. With the common interest and awareness, gathering the stories about his artwork is crucial to help shed the relevancy you need.
3. Find someone technical
This person can be an art critic or has a specific literacy in writing to help put him and his works into the spotlight. Branching off the credibility and skillset of the influence in their field, they can be the bridge to propel him and get him attention and following.
4. Link the artwork with the artist’s personal story
Yan Bei has an elusiveness behind him when it comes to his artworks. One mentioned part was that he focused on fingerprints and identity. Fingerprinting in China also speaks about having the significance and agreement to release necessary paperwork, but people were illiterate back in the day. It also meant that the officials could also be corrupted and forcibly hold onto a poor man to mark his signature in ink to release his house deed or essential assets.
The connection between an artist and their artwork is like two peas in a pod. Separate entities, but it narrates and melds in perfectly if you as the audience are interested and wish to listen.
5. Searchable content
In the current day of technology and New Media – it is useless to venture into the online space without the connection of the content and viability to be found. SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) is vital to connecting the words and your artworks.
6. Own your content
The importance of curating your content would also mean that you will need to have your own website, with social media platforms, and relevant hashtags. It creates an eco-system of feeding and cycling through the different media for various information and reaching out to a broader audience base.
7. Relate to references
When we see Yan Bei’s works, first and foremost, the call out is “calligraphy Art”, “Chinese Art” and “Asian Art”. But he also has a lot of abstract ideas and fits in well with some of the Western artists that we do know. For example, his abstract water/oil colors are very close to Monet’s water lilies, and his experimenting with the paint fits in well with Jackson Pollock’s dripping.
Also here is the reference I would use for Fingerprinting in Chinese Culture: “Fingerprinting, Policing, and the Limits of Professionalization in 1920s Beijing”
We made a video about this subject if you want to know more. Here on YouTube.
Western environment and adaptation
All in all, to reach in deep to gain clarity of his situation. It is vital to see that stories and background are essential, but change needs to happen if you feel unseen and unheard of in your space. It is either you change your environment or the methods of doing it. I give Yan Bei credit for creating that change to suit the target audience. Still, he can benefit from advertising in relevant, modern ways to get the awareness he deserves for the amount of effort he puts in.
Benevolence versus Difference
We seek to understand more often than not, but we also need empathy and benevolence to appreciate the person behind the works done by great artists. But without a writer and a proper communication medium, no one knows.
Which brings me to a rather philosophical question – “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Think about it.