BACKBeyond Appearances: Melancholy and Unease |  Dirk Steimann

The Chinese painter He Sen was born in Yunnan province in 1968, that is at the beginning of the
Cultural Revolution. Twenty years later he began his artistic training at the Sichuan Academy of
Fine Arts, in 1989, the year the democratic movement in China was put down. He Sen’s career has
therefore been – whether consciously or unconsciously – permeated by transformations which have
shaped Chinese society until the present, and ultimately coincided with the ongoing phase of rapid
urban and economic growth. During these years He Sen has developed a visual language in his
painting which, even though it does not take such an obvious stand as that of the representatives of
China’s Cynical Realism and Political Pop movements in the early Nineties, it is hardly less focused
on life in a continuously changing China.

Hints of melancholy and sensuality emanate from the artist’s most recent paintings. The poster-
sized oil paintings have an allure of cool sleekness displaying a complete lack of emotion. This is
additionally emphasized by the obvious artificiality of these pictorial creations. The motifs are
inscribed with an erotic as much as a melancholic atmosphere and convey an underlying feeling
of loss and loneliness. He Sen’s gaze is male and voyeuristic, the style of depiction being forceful
evidence of this. He Sen is, however, not interested in these particular women in themselves.
Since 1998 the painter has been (almost) exclusively interested in the portrayal of girls and women,
pictures which are distinguished by their exact finishing as much as their detailed depiction. By
2000 this precision had achieved such perfection that any further development was hardly possible.
He Sen’s paintings show anonymous young women alone with no further description, always placed
against an undifferentiated and monochrome background. A few props such as an armchair, table,
sofa or bed as well as accessories such as a single bottle of whiskey, a glass, a packet of cigarettes,
a mobile telephone or occasionally a cuddly toy suffice the painter to depict his models within a
space which at most only hints at a room, embellished only by vague shadows or occasionally visible
cigarette smoke.

He Sen depicts these young and attractive women as being unequivocally sensual. Additionally,
expression, gaze and posture allow no doubt that what they are projecting is absolutely self-conscious.
This is emphasised through the use of the colour red, which functions here not only as a warning or
signalling colour but also has erotic connotations. Sometimes it is a red blouse or dress, at other times
a cover, but always it is the strong bright red of the women’s lips that contrasts with the otherwise
muted and largely grey tones of the oil paintings.

The women are always depicted alone in rooms with no discernable boundaries. Their postures appear
as a latently aggressive mixture of calm and tension; rarely caught in movement, they are always either
crouching, sitting, squatting or sprawling whilst drinking or smoking. The viewer senses, however,
that these moments of peace and relaxation will quickly pass. Even though the models mostly take up
poses facing the viewer and their gaze appears to be directed towards the viewer, on the whole they
seem to be interested more in themselves. It is this bored and sad, sometimes laconic and aloof, but
always impersonal gaze that obviously contradicts the occasional appearance of a tired smile. This
observation is reflected in the women’s postures. In fact their poses which initially appear casual and
composed, have stiffened to become inhibited and deeply insecure.

At first these young women seem to conform to the stereotype which has become a cliché as much
in the East as the West, that of the post-feminist, meaning a self-confident as well as an attractive
and successful, woman. Given a society which hardly offers any support and is subject to continuous
change and alienation, their reaction is one of being remote and disillusioned. However, it is only at 
first glance that the women He Sen shows are tough and self-confident; in fact they have no illusions
and are sceptical and insecure in an unsupportive and directionless present. Even though the
cropping of the picture appears to make the women approachable, no further bond is really possible
beyond a vague eye contact. He Sen’s women are unapproachable and remote, they remain insulated.
Although their gaze, which superficially is directed towards the viewer, in fact passes through him
and into the void. The seemingly provocative and self-confident attitude is merely camouflage and
proves to be both directionless and insecure. In view of this, the grabbing of a cigarette and a glass of
whiskey is rather more a helpless search for stability.

The narrative potential of these paintings probably works especially on the imagination of male
viewers, which certainly is largely due to the subject matter and He Sen’s interpretation of it, because
the artist, who is aware that even contemporary painting remains a medium mostly shaped by an
explicitly male point of view, returns in his paintings to traditional and popular roles of femininity,
as reinforced by the mass media. Furthermore, these motifs are well suited as screens of projection for
the viewer’s longing and desire, even though his yearning will remain unfulfilled.

He Sen’s depictions of women are based upon a knowledge of old academic traditions of
craftsmanship as well as an awareness of recent social discourses within the arts. At first glance his
paintings suggest no particular conclusions concerning an imaginable narrative lying beyond that
which is depicted, and so from a certain point onwards his pictures abandon the viewer to their own
thoughts. Any approach to content that lies beyond that which is portrayed, can only be tentative
and cautious. In his portrayals of women He Sen neither criticises nor denounces. Instead he has
decided upon depictions of anonymous individuals in order to illustrate his observations of young
people’s lives in contemporary Chinese society. In a subtle way, by means of his portrayals of women
he visualises the individual’s changing self-image and self-esteem in a society subjected to enormous
transformations. He thereby provides an up-to-date inventory of contemporary life and highlights
the huge insecurities arising from an aggressive, almost limitless market economy and excessive
consumer culture. These consequences of the new economic freedom and the dwindling support
provided by society are accompanied by a growing awareness of the threat to and the insecurity of
independent existence. It appears as if He Sen’s women have come to terms with their loneliness and
dislocation in a disillusioning present. Even more so his works are evidence of an unfulfilled desire
for a happy life, a desire to achieve an existence which has to offer more than merely disillusionment
and unease.