BACKAuthenticity and Imitation On He Sen’s Original Facsimile | Feng Boyi

In my opinion, artists and scholars are alike, only some attributes of their status and the work they
do have some differences. This relates to my understanding of the concept and definition of a scholar.
In my opinion, a scholar should keep a certain distance from social trends; in a certain sense, to be a
scholar is to stand independently on the margins of this noisy society and engage from the margins
in constant re-evaluation, questioning and criticism of social change, the cultural environment and
personal experience. This is the historical destiny and social responsibility a scholar carries with him.
However, to live as an artist is to express discoveries, judgments and views through an artist’s identity
and vision. The main characteristic of avant-garde art is its experimentation and criticism. This
experimentation refers to an experimentation in aesthetic concepts, media and discursive models of
the current artistic system, it is not to become stagnant at the level of technique; its criticism includes
social and self criticism – uncovering, questioning and refuting various issues that are present in
society. Therefore, the meaning of “avant-garde” is the pursuit of what has yet to be defined. Such a
pursuit bestows on avant-garde art a kind of majestic temperament that is dissatisfied with current
concept, order and pattern. If we look at He Sen’s works of the past few years from this perspective, it
is evident that they are relatively representative of this.

Prior to this, the subject matter of He Sen’s creative work was based on the everyday appearances
of a series of beautiful young girls. Even though these figures were executed with a relative degree
of objectivity and typicality, when supplemented by He Sen’s compositional strength, the works
revealed spectacularly the girls’ shapes and poses against a somewhat simple though beautiful
background. They not only revealed the psychological intricacy of desire and the contradictions that
emerged with its release, but also portrayed their constantly alienated aspirations and desires and
highlighted the liveliness, boredom and absurdity of their world. Such an effect had relatively direct
symbolic meanings: that is, taking the current reality of inflated consumption and introducing it into
the beauty and oddity of these girls, then adding traces of dust to create a sense of symbolism and
realism; thus the visual images made the transition from a fabricated surface to reality. In this way,
He expressed his deep concern for the changes taking place in contemporary society. However, a few
days ago, when I went to He Sen’s studio to interview him for this essay, I realized He Sen’s creativity
has shown significant changes. As I asked him about the thinking behind his current creative works,
we came to a certain understanding.

Speaking of the relationship between art and reality, from the perspective of Chinese modern and
contemporary art there are two tendencies worth notice: one is that many artists are still adhering
to a notion of art as the direct projection and reflection of “reality”, believing modernity is able to
perceive the truth in life and the essence of reality, thus the role of the artist becomes to reveal and
express this historical tendency; secondly, there is a close adherence to presenting the progress of a
majestic historical process, adhering to the study of social phenomenon and revolutionary fervor
under pressing national and class struggle. Both of these are closely knit into the fabric of China’s
modern history, especially the sense of national disgrace and social urgency.

Since the economic reforms, the complexity and richness created by social transformation has
provided contemporary Chinese art with a profusion of useful resources, and the scenes of the
bizarre rooted in the Chinese reality have also contributed to the unique attractiveness of avant-
garde contemporary Chinese art. When their personal experiences of growing up and memories of
the past are placed alongside contemporary culture, artists have created a clear cultural focus. This
was the most obvious characteristic of contemporary Chinese art in the 1990s, it is also one of the
reasons that contemporary Chinese art is favored by the international art community. However, the
inclinations also have led to some worrisome problems.

The pervasiveness of these problems derives from the fact that even though some artists are
experimenting with different medium of material—for instance, installation, photography,
performance and other new fields—in terms of concepts and methodology, they continue in the same
tradition of realist thought and attitudes. This is a contradiction that has appeared during China’s
social transition, the unusual abundance of entangled confusion and anxiety has caused Chinese
avant-garde art to be lively and rich in variation. Such one on one abstraction lacks artistic variation
and transcendence; it flows into an inferior ‘incarnation of modernity’, or sinks into a vulgar
sociological representation. This leads to many artists representing actual subjects inundated with
visuality. In fact, the spectacle of reality often surpasses the visual tension of the artworks. And the
artists seem to have lost the ability to present the experience of anything that transcends reality. My
understanding perhaps originates in thinking about and evaluating contemporary Chinese art itself;
this has also led to the changes in He Sen’s new concepts and language.

He Sen’s new works have grown out of copying, transplanting, appropriating and altering traditional
scholarly paintings. The works he has copied or reproduced can be generally put into two major
categories in terms of their adoption of visual resources: one is the direct copying of a particular
traditional painting with oil painting, such a mechanical reproduction diminishes the characteristics
of oil painting, and tries hard to imitate the original, even including the colophons and seals.
Examples of this type include Li Shan’s Orchids, Safety and Prosperity, Bamboo in the Wind,
Xu Wei’s Various Flowers Scroll, Ink Flowers Scroll, Peony, Flowers in Ink. Interestingly, he has
slightly altered the color of the originals, subjectively adding on his imaginative colors – this makes
for a somewhat fashionable appearance. Looking at them from a distance, apart from the enlarged
dimensions, they have a close resemblance to an ink-jet printed advertisement. This is his intentional
attempt to create an effect of illusion; he is not only the one who describes, but is also the “I” in the
artwork. This is also an allusion to his understanding of both the classics and social reality. Of course,
he is not undertaking what we usually think of as copying, he clearly shows that he has relied on the
relationships between himself, the paintings, and the classical tradition to express the uncertainty
and multiple meanings of tradition, modernity and the future. Furthermore, in this way he has
preserved the depth and attractiveness of visual images. The second is to divide his copies into two
parts: one part is the imitation of the original, and the other is a revelation of the traces of the brush
in oil painting. Examples of this include Li Shan’s Miscellaneous, Ma Yuan’s Twelve Images of Water
– Clouds Above the Sea, Twelve Images of Water – Shrouded Clouds, Surging Waves, Twelve Images
of the Water – Yellow River Surging Back. The images reveal the linguistic differences that emerge
out of a juxtaposition of traditional painting and oil painting, these resemble closely the sketches in
his copybook. We can see that appropriation and fabrication, the poetics of history and the morass
of reality that are meshed together in Chinese scholar paintings – an effect of the collage of hyper-
imitation. Manipulating the classic within the classic allows for a destruction of the power that still
remains in the classic, this changes the former direction of the function of classical artworks.
Through an unveiling of the limitations of recognized visual models, and the posing of a challenge
toward the authority of the single narrative, the standards provided by these familiar works are
revealed as temporary and undependable; thereby, from which among the humor that is unbearable
to keep a straight face. In other words, through his application of classical visual resources, he has
not provided value judgments for an already established art history, rather he has adopted a rather
objective visual attitude, to transform what he has felt visually of the classics in terms of the meaning
in art, humility of history, traces of time, into his own images, allowing the viewer to attain the 
relationship between the truth and the non-particular in these art historical images, and search
for a new type of evaluation and explanation within this space. A juxtaposition of the real and
the fabricated in classical Chinese art is He Sen’s experiment on art; it is also an expression of his
sentiment toward traditional classic within passing time, showing how the process of imitation is
saturated by time. Allowing viewers to realize as they began to look at these works that the version
in front of them is no longer the classical work as understood by traditional art history, rather, they
are He Sen’s “new” historical visual images that have been created through a process of enlarging and
imitation, these visual versions are deeply engraved with his personal creativity. Perhaps in his view,
the model we have created for densely complex human experience extremely feeble; thus people need
to constantly change their perspectives, explore new metaphors and create new models in order to
continuously prevent stagnation and chaos, and to allow other narratives and memories that had been
long oppressed by the historical narrative to be released. Therefore, instead of claiming that He Sen
is transcribing and reproducing classic works, it is better to claim that he is organizing his past visual
memories and experience. From the image to manipulating the image, artwork formed by a subjective
imitation of the classics is not only a dismantling of the aesthetic taste and form of the classics in
different periods, but also an experiment in collage and construction. The concept supporting his
experimentation, in addition to his unwillingness to continue with an already-formed style, is in
fact directly inherited from his reflection on and love for art. Or, we could say that his creation is
a methodological application of postmodernism, an attempt to get rid of the binary relationships
between authenticity and imitation, surface and depth, real and fabrication. The depth of his works
of two-dimensional imitation, have brought about comfort from dissipation and emptiness. Part of
his goal is to provide multiple concepts through which to re-consider art history; this demonstrates
his nostalgia for the once prominent classical art, as well as anxiety over the gradual dismantling of
its cultural logic; the other part implies a safe-keeping of the “spiritual negative” that has influenced
him – a safe-keeping of the traditional essence of classical culture that has been hit with a wave of
destruction in the twentieth century. There is also his expectation that there will be an inception of
new meaning out of this act of safekeeping.

Since the 1990s, China’s progress toward globalization and a market economy, as well as its rapid
economic growth have demonstrated a modern background and social formation that are totally
different from that of the May Fourth period. If we still apply the framework used in the May Fourth
movement to “explain China”, I am afraid it will fail to correspond with the actual changes in China,
the notion of “for human life” isn’t an adequate response to human life in the midst of globalization
and marketization. Art seems to begin leaning toward “purity”, becoming an exploration of “art for
the sake of art”. This is precisely a phenomenon of the “culture of the new millennium”. The heavy
mission expected of “art for human life” has been naturally dissolved, and pure art seems to have
gained the objective foundation for expanding its independence; art has begun to gradually make a
return to “it”. This is, of course not to say art has a “self ” that is independent of the world, but rather
that our imagination and expectation of art has changed, and this change is precisely the new form
of art that has emerged as the era progresses, art is gradually becoming a human clamoring from the
margins, a marginal humanist discourse of worldly gratitude and resentment. Because, one’s sharp
precision and thoughtfulness toward contemporary culture will ultimately lead to a reconstruction
of pre-existing artistic concepts and methodologies. Perhaps we can begin to see from He Sen’s
new experiments and explorations his enjoyment of artistic language and meaning itself. The art
he pursues is one that gains an unprecedented independent imagination without the limits of an
 external social reality. Delicate, moderate, permanent without darkness and miscellaneous colors,
the artist’s own integrity can be seen through another aspect of this era and its reality. Compared
to those works of intensity, these appear to be moderate and harmonious, and even more segregated
from the “nostalgia of pain” type of art. His new works don’t seem to have any traces of the current
discourse; their origins are all in the “art for art’s sake” tradition and the art itself of the May Fourth
period. Even though this discourse is an odd type, it appears to cleanse one’s heart and shake one’s
rationalism. Fashionable trends all seem to become tasteless when faced with his works. Perhaps this
can be seen as a return, but it isn’t a simple search for the utopian peach blossom world, it is a lowly
display of modernity due to an escape from reality’s utter chaos, rather to provide a thinking source
in a calm observation of the spirit, constantly providing various possible thoughts and judgments.
Because being “overly involved with this world” could immerge into this reality and lose the self,
whereas to begin with one’s personal experience and “leave the world”, who is loyal to one’s own
feelings, could discover the existence of the true self.

Compare to his work, trendy colors seems to be tame and tasteless. Perhaps this is a return, but it
isn’t a blind pursuit of the utterly world of peach blossom, rather, that is an incarnation of an inferior
modernity for the sake of escaping the overly noisy reality. Instead, he provides a resource of thoughts
in a quiet observation in spirit - constantly offering various possibilities in thoughts and judgments. If
one is overly “involved with the world”, perhaps one becomes saturated in reality thus losing the self,
whereas to “distance oneself from the world”, which begins with personal experience - who is honest
with one’s own feelings, could consequently find the existence of the true self.