BACKBorn in 1989 — An Introspective Look at He Sen’s Artistic Exploration in the 1990s  |  Huang Liaoyuan

March 3rd, 1989: Eight workers at the Beijing Central Plant of Micro-Electronics lose their jobs. This is
the first case of unemployment in a state owned enterprise.

April 15th, 1989: Hu Yaobang passes away

May 25th, 1989: The head of state of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, visits China. This exchange
is considered a breakthrough after 30 years of Sino-Soviet political antagonism.

June 4th, 1989: the ‘Tiananmen incident’ takes place.

Early 1989: Cui Jian releases his influential album, ‘Rock and Roll on the Road of the New Long March’,
opening the first page of Chinese rock music history. The ‘red star’ shines over China once more.

1989: The film ‘Window Village’ premieres. This film is categorized as being ‘ inappropriate for children’.
Chinese interest in sexuality begins to surface from the underground.

February 5th to 19th, 1989: The Chinese Contemporary Art Exhibition is held at the China Art Gallery,
making the glorious end of the ’85 New Wave’.

June 1989: He Sen graduates from the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts.

I have found only two of He Sen’s art works from 1989 – two photographs of paintings he produced
for his graduation. Both of these works are tinged with violence. On the surface, they convey a sense
of calmness, but underneath, there is a foreboding of imminent rain and stormy winds. Even the deco
is imbued with a sense of agitated expectancy.

January 10th, 1990: Martial law, which had been imposed on certain areas of Beijing, is lifted by
Premier Li Peng.

July 31st, 1990: The era of the eight fen (Chinese cent, equivalent to approximately 1 U.S. cent) stamp
comes to an end. The price of stamps is raised to 20 fen, and the cost of keeping in touch with friends and
relatives living in other regions of China more than doubles. Still, this does not inhibit Chinese people
from communicating with each other.

September 22nd, 1990: The Asian Games opening ceremony is held in Beijing and serves as an
opportunity for foreigners to visit China on an unprecedented scale.

Between June and July, 1991: Many South eastern provinces are struck by serious floods and landslides,
prompting the entire country to come together to relieve victims of the afflicted areas. Pop singers from the
Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan participated in benefit concerts throughout China in the
first joint effort on the part of the entertainment industry to serve a humanitarian cause.

1991: Reports from Xinhua News and the Chinese News Agency set foot on Taiwan for the first time since
the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. This event opens a new historical page in the relationships
between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland.

1990: The television series ‘Hope’, which follows the lives of commoners in contemporary China, airs for
the first time. After years of broadcasting classical cultural programs on television in the1980s, ‘Hope’
makes television history by appealing to popular cultural sentiments.

1990: ‘Who Will Feed China’ is released and well received in both the copyrighted and the pirated book
markets. Intellectuals see themselves as playing a crucial role in the ‘age of commoners’. This may be
related to the increasing financial rewards of publishing one’s writing, as the compensation for publishing
one thousand characters increases from 6 to 20 yuan in 1984 to 10 to 30 yuan. Furthermore, it is now
acceptable for writers to negotiate with their publisher on a per-assignment basis.

February 17th and 18th, 1990: the ‘First Chinese Rock and Roll Festival – Concert of Contemporary
Music of the 1990’ opens at Beijing Capital Stadium. Bands including Tang Dynasty, Breathing,
Precious Brothers, Cobra, 1989, and ADO take canter stage. In spite of their fame, these groups have
little lasting influence on the development of Chinese rock. Such an outcome seems typical of the many
inconsistencies that characterize the development of Chinese culture.

January 4th, 1991: The famous Taiwanese woman writer, San Mao, commits suicide, leaving the first
generation of ‘Chinese petty bourgeoisie’ in shock and grief.

July 1st, 1991 The Chinese Communist Party celebrates the forty-second birthday of the People’s
Republic. On the very same day, a state-owned nightclub, the Golden Throat Karaoke, officially opens on
Auspicious Street in Guangzhou. The Chinese nightlife scene takes off.

1991: Chen Kaige films ‘Life on a String’; Zhang Yimou directs ‘Raise the Red Lantern’; Yu Hua
publishes his first novel, ‘Crying and the Fine Rain’; and Yu Xinjiao declares his ‘contemporary
renaissance’ with a compilation of poems called ‘Soul Awakening’.

July 9th, 1991: The ‘New Generation Art Exhibition’ opens at the Chinese History Museum. Fang Lijun
and Liu Wei are both categorized as ‘unemployed’ and identified as mangliu – wandering migrants –
and hence lose their rights to participate in exhibitions.

1990 – 1991: He Sen’s First Phase of Artistic Production – from Picasso’s ‘rose’ to He Sen’s ‘grey’.
During this period, He Sen’s work elaborated upon the styles that he employed in producing his
graduation works. In particular, he paid close attention to capturing the energy of the objects he
represented. By borrowing from expressionism’s coarse yet liberal brushwork and bold, eye-catching,
colors, he allowed his figures and objects to reveal their essential characteristics.

Personally, I enjoy He Sen’s still-life paintings from this period. While these paintings appear bold
and daring, their minute details are also very much apparent. Even though there are no obvious
physical traces of individual human spirit; human actions leave their traces in the materiality of the
images. Just as we shift positions when we sleep, nothing really changes, yet our original position
mysteriously disappears. I believe that He Sen was also searching for his own position in the midst of
apparent tranquillity.

It is easy to sense He Sen’s confusion and discontent. Rather than sitting straight and still, these stilllife
portraits are shapeless and skewed. If you consider this characteristic of his paintings, with the
often obscene images that he depicts in the background, He Sen’s strong sense of internal conflict is
obvious. This conflict is cruel-it might even be called a revolt. It is competition between desire and
reality, and between the existent and the imagined.

After graduation, He Sen was appointed to teach art at a high school in Chongqing. He earned
a monthly salary of 60 yuan during his first year, which was an acceptable income at the time.
However, an artist is never content to stay on the ‘bottom rung’ because there is a sense of one’s own
‘superiority’. This tension is both a cause of suffering and a source of artistic creativity. It underlies
that conviction that an artist has the need to make the world a better place, and to dream of an
alternative realities of life. As long as these dreams remain unrealized, an artist can only struggle in
the mire; this is a path of struggle that almost all artists have to travel. He Sen was no exception. It
is through his still life paintings that He Sen expressed his dissatisfaction with the injustices of the

He Sen’s works from this period are hesitant and wandering – one can say almost lacking in a
characteristic style. What are worth paying attention to are the backgrounds of his work, which
appear variously obscene, stagnant, dense, tangled. These elements emerge in this stage of his artistic
progression, as his work strengthens in terms of the consolidation of style. These flowing traces are
comparable to the works of French legendary abstract artist Eugene Leroy, which are unconstrained,
bold, simple, sturdy, and embody a sense of transformative power.

January – February, 1992: Deng Xiaoping embarks on his ‘Southern Tour’. China’s economic reform
takes off full steam.

October 1992: The Fourteenth Meeting of the National People’s Congress confirms the path of market
economy within a communist political structure. The developments of this year are hailed with great
enthusiasm. Companies open in unprecedented numbers, the ‘three irons’ are abolished, the stock market
skyrockets, commodity prices are no longer fixed, sales are rewarded, and Shanghai’s Pudong district
begins to be developed.

1992: China’s soccer team invites its first foreign coach, Klaus Schlappner, to train it soccer players.
While he is only an amateur, and is not able to lead Chinese soccer into the international arena, Chinese
fans are pleased with his selection and are filled with a sense of hope.

1993: Beijing abolishes rations coupons. The command economy is left behind for good, and the
population is able to travel about freely.

1993: The ‘Ma Team’ shakes the world of track-and-field. Chinese women athletes once again prove
stronger than their male counterparts and from this point forward continue to defend their lead. In July,
the Chinese Women’s Association strongly opposes the idea of beauty pageants. They adhere to the principle
of women’s liberation. The notion of ‘ iron women’ will likely be a lasting concept in defining Chinese
women’s competition against Chinese men.

September 1993: China fails in its first bid to hold the Olympic Games. A large group of hot-blooded
patriots take this as an attack against their nation.

1992: Chen Kaige directs ‘Farewell my Concubine’, Tian Zhuangzhuang films ‘Blue Kite’, and Zhang
Yimou makes ‘The Story of Qiu Ju’.

1992: Ticket prices for pop music concerts become a hot topic on the streets. People being the express their
fears of instability and voice their complaints as the strength and the rapid development of the market
economy become apparent.

1992: Guangzhou holds the first Chinese Biennale of 1990s. This is a great boon for many of China’s
avant-garde artists.

1992: ‘China Fire 1’ is released. Rock and Roll awaits its spring.

1993: Meng Jinghui’s ‘Pondering the Mundane’ and ‘Balcony’ makes their first appearances.
Experimental drama becomes a centre of focus of attention in the art world.

1993: Gu Cheng kills his wife, then commits suicide in New Zealand. The fairy tale poet exposes his vile
persona. The Chinese literary circle is shocked.

1993: Jia Pingao publishes ‘Waste City’. Sexual references in the book are censored and replaced by blank
squares, and he removal of ‘xxx-words’ becomes a topic of discussion.

1993: The first Beijing International Jazz Festival is held. Western instruments become popular among
Chinese ‘street youth’.

1993: This is also the ‘Year of Rock’ in the Chinese popular music world, and many rock music related
events are held. The outlook on the new music scene is bright, but few would have known that the end of
this short and seemingly prosperous spring, Chinese rock would enter into a long, frigid winter.

1993: The Rodin Art Exhibition is held at the China Art Gallery, attracting a large number of Chinese

1993: The most representative artist of German New Expressionism, Jorg Immendorff, holds a solo
exhibition at the Beijing International Art Gallery. While he is relatively unknown among Chinese
viewers, young Chinese artists are eager to curate the exhibit.

June 1993: Chinese artists participate in the world renowned Venice Biennale. This becomes an
aspiration for future generation of young artist.

1992-1993 The Second Period.

By the end of 1991, He Sen resigned form his job of almost two years, seeing his work as a ‘distraction
and waste of time’. He knew early on that he would eventually be leaving his position since he had
initially taken it on just for the sake of experience. This year also coincided with the trend of ‘entering
the sea’ of capitalism. In 1992, He Sen officially become a professional artist.

In 1992, He Sen began to include his friends, his teachers, and himself as the subject matters of his
paintings. He continued to apply the techniques of expressionism, while at the same time adopting
an attitude of realism and surrealism to depict the people and events around him.

During this period, He Sen’s depiction of people’s faces and exposed body parts become increasingly
elaborate and penetrating. Even though his color scheme remained heavy and grey, certain portions
of his paintings become more meticulous and expressive than before, and the use of colour in
highlighted areas was given greater attention. The ratio between the figure and empty space also
reached an unprecedented scale.

The works that He Sen produced in 1992 can be characterised by simple and monotonous scenery
that is basically a reiteration of reality, with some imaginative references. The facial expressions of
his figures are generally simple and reticent, ordinary, and even boring. By the same token, they are
also calm and stern, and as such, serve as a reaction to current social circumstances. Looking at these
works, there is a sense that they were painted in a remote and isolated underground, where sunlight
was a precious commodity.

After one year of hard work, He Sen was contacted by Li Xianting and Zhang Songren in the
preparation for the ‘Post 89’ exhibit. Afterwards, He Sen sold his first series of paintings.

1993: He Sen continued to employ expressionistic techniques in his work but there emerged in
the creative process a few ‘abnormal elements’. For instance, the use of social scenery, conceptual
subject matters, and symbolic objects (large birds) became more prominent. I personally think it
was an important period in the process of artistic maturation. The symbolism of lcarus in particular,
originates from Western culture. Its mythological nature is purely Western, and represents a dialogue
between humanism and spiritualism. The Chinese never set up this binary, but rather emphasized
such ideas as gu (bone) and qi (energy), kongling (emptiness) and piaoyi (floating). The penetration of
Western culture into his art gave He Sen an opportunity to extricate himself from the endless turmoil
of real life, and enter into a larger ‘space of leaning and academics’. Not everything Western is good,
but the path between East and West is always worth pursuing.

Icarus is like the bound Prometheus. In his ‘Big Bird’ series, He Sen pushed the elements of
expressionism to an extreme. Therese elements are subjective, transforming, ancient, nervous, violent
and fierce, and challenge the twentieth-century’s solemn notions of idealism and heroism. The ‘Big
Bird’ is helpless and has no options; it embodies the traditional expression of disjuncture - ‘tigers
living on the plains, and dragons swimming in shallow water’. It also reveals the new expressionist
artist’s reconsideration of war, and the desires and doubts that surround the rebuilding of the nation
in the aftermath of war. It is an adaptation of fairy tales and alludes to a glorious past, but at the
same time, it is imbued with an ambience of tragedy. The bird in traditional Chinese painting
is an auspicious symbol and an animal that embodies a leisurely mood, while the ‘Startled Bird’
captures a bird’s delicate and weak nature. In traditional Western culture and paintings, birds are
often associated with the spirit and are hence the symbols of inauspicious, bad luck, and instability.
He Sen’s birds follow Western tradition, enormous in size and perverse. He Sen’s wandering on the
crossroads of the West and the Orient is also a wandering on the crossroads of his life.

1994: The State Council declares a working week of 44 hours so that workers have more days off and
hence leisure time to enjoy themselves. The entertainment business’s prospects look increasingly bright.
1994: Sino-American negotiations on intellectual property rights break down. China continues down the
road of ‘ independence and self-reliance’.

1994: The Central government hires civil servants for the first time.

1994: The entire country studies from the model cadre Kong Fansen.

1995: The Fourth International Women’s Conference is held in Beijing. The Chinese recognize that
women from other parts of the world embrace value systems rather different from their won, but also
increasingly come to recognize that women are capable of playing a legitimate role in politics.

1995: Wang Hai becomes famous for attacking piracy.

1994: Huang Jianxin films ‘Back to Back, Face to Face’; Zhang Yimou directs ‘To Live’; Jiang Wen films
‘In the heat of the Sun’. The stories of the past are reinterpreted and return to our field of vision.

1994: Mo Sen plays in ‘About AIDS’. Meng Jinghui appears in ‘I Love XXX’.

December 17th, 1994: Music artists Dou Wei, Zhang Chu, He Yong and the band ‘Tang Dynasty’ make
a name for themselves at Hong Sen Stadium in Hong Kong.

1994: Zhengjiang Academy of Fine Arts changes its name to the Chinese Academy of Art, a sign of its
intent to compete with the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

1995: Wang Shuo’s film ‘I Am Your Father’ is aborted before completion.

1995: Ge Fei authors ‘The Banners of Desire’. Although this author’s works do not resonate closely with
everyday topics, his plots, structure, and use of language show him to be a highly accomplished writer.

1995: Deng Lijun, the famous Taiwanese singer, and the bass player from Tang Dynasty both pass away.
Deng Lijun’s music is famous for expressing the unrealized dream of repairing Taiwanese and mainland
ties. Zhang Ju’s death catalyzes and reunites the rock music community. Long Live Den Lijun, Long Live
Zhang Ju!

1995: Joan Miro’s solo exhibition, ‘The Oriental Spirit’, is held at the China Art Gallery.

1994-1995: During He Sen’s third cycle of artistic production, his creative mythology and reference
to expressionism remained for the most part unchanged; however, in terms of content, his work
experienced dramatic transformations. His social and political activities broaden the scope of his
artistic interests.

It is easy to spot the influence of Political Pop art in He Sen’s paintings from this period. Red flags,
merit certificates, red youth scarves, and other ideological features are prominently on display, and
socialist symbols are distinct. Unlike other Political Pop artists, He Sen depicted what he wanted to
express directly on the red stage, also known as the revolutionary stage or the historical stage. This
is the stage of proletarian and capitalist antagonism, where communism and capitalism compete.

This stage is filled with dramas and spectacles to be watched. However, on He Sen’s stage, China’s
agriculture revolution and the industrial revolutions of the West are not life-or-death events filled
with bloodshed, but, on the contrary, two entities that can exists in a harmonious and peaceful
fashion. Was this his metaphor for the post-Cold War international structure, and of China’s position
within this structure? The facets of Western lifestyles (electronic gadgets, disco, fashion, and dancing)
and cultural products (ballets, symphony, pop music) stand in contrast with the purity of expression
of the Chinese with their inhabited smiles. These gigantic poles provide a rather pleasing contrast –
they are contradictory yet harmonious. He Sen chose to set his stage in vast space of Nature, which
will always steadfastly stand her ground, no matter how international trends may sway. Under the
vast and endless heaven, all fighting and disputes make up a drop in the ocean, and the universe
returns to itself. What makes these works even more unusual is that they were produced under the
supervision of the camera, presented from the perspective and produced using the techniques of
news production. In reaction to the coercive nature of news broadcasts, He Sen in turn converted
the news into a formless means of violence. People are treated as equals before the news, and there is
nothing that can be hidden from the watchful eye of the camera. The media’s endless dissemination
of stories embodies both truth and fabrication. In this era of media domination, how can one possibly
distinguish what is real from what is fake? By splitting the surface of his paintings in this series, He
Sen multiplied the amount of information that can be transmitted on a single canvas. In addition,
he gradually opened up the focal point in order to sharpen the field of vision. The concept of time
crowds our space, thus rendering these moments eternal.

He Sen’s other works from this period began to address the contemporary Chinese social situation,
something rarely seen in his earlier series. His paintings depict executions and flood of relief activities,
and situate apprehensive lovers in public spaces. People no longer hide in their homes, but are brought
out into public life.

Among the most eye-catching works are two paintings produced in 1994 based on the theme of
kissing. These are unusual among He Sen’s works during this period. A sense of doubt, instability,
anxiety, violence, and cruelty is spread across both canvases. I once asked him about these two works,
to which, surprisingly, he responded that at the time his life was calm and stable, and that he actually
did not anticipate the final outcome. Perhaps what he was describing is the subconscious at work
behind expressive techniques, in which what one feels simply emerges without one’s notice through
the help of the brush. This also happened to be the same year that Shanghai held it’s debut women’s
lingerie exhibit. The concept of sex had entered into the mainstream Chinese popular consciousness.
In 1995 He Sen’s creative resources seem to have rebounded into the realm of the personal and
private. After his thematic shift during the previous year, however, such a turnaround was difficult
to achieve, causing him to drift once more. His work in 1995 ended up hesitant, ambiguous, and
neutral, and often located somewhere between expressionism and realism.

January 1st 1996: China Central Television moves from pre-recorded to live news formats. This change
not only improves production efficiency but also signals a diffusion of power.

March 1996: China holds missile tests and large-scale live ammunition military practices on the Eastern
and Southern Seas.

1996: ‘China Can Also Say No’, a book exploring the Sino-US trade negotiations, stirs nationalistic
sentiments. Once again, it seems that Chinese sentiments are easily provoked and national self-esteem
easily damaged.

1996: The price of television drops, and brands such as ‘Rainbow’ and ‘Konka’ competed vigorously for
market share. Television sets cease to be luxury items as people’s livelihoods rapidly improve.

February 17th, 1996: The legendary political leader Deng Xiaoping passes away.

July 1st, 1996: Hong Kong returns to the Chinese mainland.

October 1st 1997: New laws on corporal punishment are issued. The crime of ‘counter-revolution’ is
abolished, which effectively signals the end of mass struggles.

1997: The word on the street is ‘ lay-off’ as more than 1.1 million people lose their jobs in this year.
1997: The political slogan, ‘Reduce the Military’, captures Jiang Zemin’s bold proposal to reduce the
number of military personnel by half a million.

1998: In a year of heavy flooding in China, the public is told to ‘guard with high vigilance’.

1998: The State Council ends the allocation of housing as a welfare allowance. Real estate and property
rights gradually become privatized.

October 5th, 1998: China agrees to the United Nations ‘International Conventional of Human Rights
and Political Rights’. China can no longer avoid the topic of human rights.

1996: This is a relatively calm year for China in terms of cultural activities.

1996: The ‘Ten Year Retrospective of Chinese Popular Music’ is held in Beijing Capital Stadium.

1996: The Shanghai Biennale debuts. It is the first government-sponsored biennale.

1997: Meng Jianghui films ‘Love Ants’.

1997: A new generation of Chinese rock music gradually comes of age. Numerous concerts take place.
December 13th, 1997: Zhang Xiaogang’s solo exhibition titled, ‘Bloodlines: Big Family’ is shown in the
art exhibition hall of Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. This exhibition has a powerful influence
in south-western China. He Sen, one of Zhang’s students, is no exception.

1998: Feng Xianggang directs ‘The Dream Factory’, which pushes forward the Chinese market’s demand
for holiday entertainment films. Furthermore, popular culture proves to be more powerful than elite

1998: Meng Jianghui films ‘The Accidental Death of an Anarchist’.

1998: This is prolific year for the Beijing underground rock world.

November 12th, 1998. Leng Lin curates the exhibition ‘It’s Me’. The exhibition is terminated on a
stormy day at the Beijing Worker’s Cultural Hall.

In 1996 He Sen began his fourth phase of artistic creation. It was also in this year that he entered
into era of maturation, demonstrating an increasingly intense personal style.

The collection of He Sen’s works from 1996 through the end of 1998 is titled ‘Accumulation’. He has
mockingly commented, ‘Southerners have something sticky in our character, which I possess myself;
we are not like the northerners who are much more bold. I always feel I am inferior next to them.
Therefore I would like to exorcise this thing and do something with it, this thing that is so stifling,
indistinguishable, and accumulates like garbage’. He Sen borrowed concepts from stone sculpture –
though it appears to me that he was also referring to traditional Chinese mountain sculptures – and
inserted them into his two dimensional canvases. Stones are lifeless objects. They are like puppets,
strong on the outside yet empty on the inside. These portraits are absurd and strange looking, and
maybe even a little proud. This is a series of solid works, rigorously put together, but the details also
demonstrate a concern with applying fine techniques. His uses of color, light and contrasts have
seemingly been inspired by legendary artists. Of course, most importantly, this series of works shows
that He Sen had rid himself of the emotional baggage of deep suffering and hatred. These figures
are now relaxed, ridiculous, or grimacing. It can also be said that he was liberated from the demand
that contemporary techniques be used to paint traditional models. This series of paintings was the
outcome of a long period of deep mental reflection, as well as a derivative from previous techniques.
He Sen did not abandon the expressionist method which he loved deeply – discontinuous lines,
crookedly posed figures, vibrant colors, clumsy and mischievous brushwork, were all supported by a
framework of expressionism and post-expressionism. The dense and rich brushwork that he employs
is comparable to Max Beckmann’s simple yet solid woodblock prints, as well as George Baselitz and
Markus Lupertz’s wood sculpture.

In 1997, He Sen’s work began to reveal an increasingly minimalist aesthetic. He felt that his previous
works were over crowded, too forceful, and often misconstructed. He consciously deleted empty
spaces in his paintings and at the same time worked on improving his techniques. For instance, in
previous paintings, foreground images were complex and eye-catching, whereas background spaces
lacked dimensionality. The relationship between the two was thus disjointed. Now however, he was
interested in brining parts together in a more organic manner. One of the things He Sen did was
to alter his use of light. The use of dimmer lighting to smooth the transitions from foreground to
background ultimately allowed the background space to become even more vacuous. Furthermore, it
cut down on the amount of work that went into creating an image. As a result, the background came
to resemble a photo booth backdrop (perhaps this was the inspirational precedent to the later ‘flashlight
technique’), and the foreground figures and subjects appear passive, like beings set up in front of a
camera. Personally, I think this adaptation weakened the presence of the figures because they could
no longer rely on a background. They came out looking pretentious, bored, and almost ridiculous.

However, what mattered most to He Sen during this period was to experiment with elements of dim
lighting and flashlights.

He Sen’s discovery and further exploration of momentary lighting proved to be a stroke of inspiration.
These flashes of light do not only blur certain parts of an object or a figure, but also blur the viewer’s
vision, and effectively obscures the boundary between reality and imagination. In everyday life,
the glimmer of a flashlight has the capacity to arouse our curiosity, attention, and sympathy. The
‘flashlight’ thus became the hallmark of He Sen’s artistic achievement, and for the next period of
his career, all his creations were in some way related to the source of light. He Sen carefully studied
the effects of light on objects and people, and also closely examined the way that their shadows
are created under a direct light. He consummately and unblushingly adapted these hidden tools of
photographic technique into his own images, and furthermore, incorporated these features into a
signature of his compositional style. When we view He Sen’s work, we realize that each of us will
inevitably carry our own shadow, and that the light will only shine from one side. We are confronted
with a rather pessimistic aesthetic, but it is also an inevitable reality of existence.

Entering into 1998, traces of knife work in He Sen’s paintings began to disappear. In his ‘Stone
Sculpture’ series, his images appear softer, and the knife marks leave behind smoother imprints. He
Sen discovered that these softer techniques were mostly effectively used in the portrayal of women.
By the end of 1998, he made the drastic decision to alter his technique, putting down the knife and
picking up a brush.

May 8th 1999: NATO’s bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade enrages the Chinese public.
October 1st, 1999: The fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China is

November 15th, 1999: China signs the WTO Agreement in America.

December 20th, 1999: Macao is handed over to China.

1999: The Internet becomes a hot topic of conversation.

1999: China decides to admit a higher number of students into its universities.

December 31st, 1999: The world celebrates the end of a victorious yet turbulent century.

The end of the millennium is an emotionally unstable time. In the cultural realm, there is a sense of
lawlessness and bitterness. Ke Yulun’s reputation is discredited over his book ‘Discovering the Internal
Classics of the Emperor’; Wang Shuo criticizes Jin Yong; Yu Qiuyu is called into question; there are
doubts about whether ‘It Seems Beautiful’ really is truly beautiful; and nobody understands why
‘Traditional Chinese Painting’ becomes hot commodity. Over twenty authors pass away, including Ye
Junjian, Lu Li, Xiao Qian, Zhao Ruihong, Bing Xin, Yao Xuegen, Jiang Kongyang, and Gao Xiaosheng.

1999: Zhang Yimou releases two low budget films, ‘Not One Less’ and ‘My Road Home’. Feng Xiaogang
directs the holiday release tragic-comedy film, ‘Be There, Be Square’.

1999: The underground world of rock explodes with new voices.

1999: Yang Shaobin, Yue Minjun, Lu Hao, Zhuang Hui and Ma Liuming show their works at the
Venice Biennale. Overseas Chinese artist Cai Guoqiang is granted the award of the century.

By the end of 1998, He Sen had begun conceptualizing the ‘Eyeless Girls’ series, and by 1999, the
direction he would be taking was solidified.

This series was completed in 2001. In He Sen’s words, ‘When I painted the ‘Accumulation’ series,
I looked to stone sculptures as a mode of expression. And because stone sculpture lack eyes, my
paintings of girls are also eyeless’. One the one hand, these eyeless girls might be closely related
to the influence of stone sculpture, but on the other, they can also be understood as the effects of
illuminating a flashlight on someone, blurring their vision. Nineteen ninety-nine was a turbulent
year, but He Sen chose to shut his eyes to the world. Was this a coincidence? When our eyes are wide
open, our hearts are often filed with darkness and complexity, while those who cannot see exist in a
state of tranquillity. It was also this time that He Sen moved from Chongqing to Chengdu.

In the early stages of ‘Eyeless’, He Sen returned to his earlier style of broken composition. He taped
the edges of his canvases, and carelessly stripped the tape once the painting was completed, so that
the finished painting was ‘damaged’. This can be interpreted as an expression of anxiety, which
generates violence, and dame is one form of violence.

From 1999-2002, He Sen’s ‘Girls’ were characterized by well-defined bone structure and muscle
tone. Even though he had replaced the ‘knife’ style with a gentle brush technique, his ability to create
sharply delineated edges persisted. I believe that in order to counteract some of this heaviness, in
1999, he began to include stuffed animals into the scenes with the girls. These stuffed animals not
only enriched the image and smoothed his brushwork, they also reconfigured the environment for
artistic processes and conceptualization.

Girls who play with stuffed animals are often thought of as being immature or childish, as people
who lack a sense of security, or are lonely and emotionally vulnerable. Here, I am referring in
particular to girls who cling to their stuffed animals all day long, even in their sleep, and whose
stuffed animals become extensions of themselves. When talking to the animals it is as though they
are talking to themselves. They are completely submerged in their own world, or at least a world of
their imagination. Drawing from a technique used in suspense films, He Sen used these images to
create a sense of fear that stems from youth and results from a state of perplexity and uncertainty.
The girls are sensitive and melancholy, dissolute and lonely. The state of youth is seemingly beautiful
yet is ultimately a cruel experience. It appears to foster a sense of enthusiasm and promise endless
imagination, but is in fact vacuous (or impulsive), and ultimately ungrounded in reality. It is not
a time to work and produce, but a time to be wasted. This is my opinion, but it is also what I
understand from He Sen’s paintings.

In 2002, He Sen’s ‘girls’ open their eyes. The disturbed looks in their eyes and the cigarettes they
hold in their hands hint at their completed journeys through adolescence, that they have evolved into
materialistic, confident women. He Sen’s ‘girls’ have grown up together with He Sen.

In terms of technique, He Sen’s images possess various layers of thickness, through he uses primarily
a flat smearing technique.

The work form this period leaves an impression of emptiness, haziness, and bleakness. This emptiness
is defined by illusion and obscurity, and creates the ambience of the paintings; it is a ‘symptom of
the times’, as well as a ‘symptom of fashion’. None of the girls under He Sen’s brush are emotionally
stable, but rather all seem mentally deranged, weak, and ill. They remind me of something said by
one of my friends: ‘In an abnormal line, even the normal people are sickly’. Even though the basic
genre used by He Sen in depicting the appearance of girls is realistic, the reddish grey tones hint at
depression and melancholy. These tones remind us that the images are removed from real life, and
that this is the space reserved for He Sen’s imagination. He Sen comments that his work expresses ‘the
fears of growing up and the desire to run away from reality’. However, are any of his works not at the
same time expressive of a desire to be grown up and to appeal to reality?

He Sen’s paintings are sentimental expressions of endless longing for tragedy and compliance with
destiny. They reveal feelings of helplessness and depression in the face of reality. This sombre tone and
ambiguous style is still rare in contemporary Chinese art, and it is He Sen who has introduced the
concept of ‘emptiness’ to contemporary Chinese art.

This text has investigated He Sen’s artistic development over the last decade of the twentieth century.
His new works warrant further discussion at a later time. However, it should be pointed out that after
the SARS crisis in 2003, He Sen packed his bags and moved his family from Chengdu to Beijing. In
the fall of 2004, He Sen adopted a new name – He Weisen.