BACKThis Time That Moment: When? He Sen’s New Paintings  | Huang Liaoyuan

Right now I’m reading a book titled, But is it Art?, published in 2001 by Cynthia Freeland, professor
of philosophy at Houston University. When this book was translated and published in Taiwan
its titled was changed to Quit Fooling Around, Is This Art? I think that some, after viewing this
exhibition by He Sen, would also pose this question.

In fact, those who are familiar with post-modern art all know the term “appropriation” – this
is where the essence of post-modernist art resides. Modernism brought forth the beautiful and
imaginative concept of “originality”, but post-modernism, on the contrary, uses the lowly and barren
term “appropriation”, a subversion of all that is beautiful. Is this good? Or is it evil? So, what is He
Sen showing us this time?

In 2004, He Sen began to paint “detailed realist” portraitures of young female consumers against
a gray background; there were many details, but they lacked a plot. Choosing large expanses of
gray as a background, He Sen’s “bad intentions” are perfectly clear, and these “three not” girls –
not interested, not caring, and not motivated, reflected the negative side of Chinese society in a
transitional period.

He Sen’s gray portraitures quickly became well known, and he’s now gained fame and fortune.
Then He Sen wanted to change. Those who are familiar with He Sen’s artistic development will be
able to easily understand—He Sen is an artist who moves away from himself with great speed, the
differences between his works of various periods are huge, they can hardly even be talked about in
the same language. He Sen is constantly sensitive to the “danger of habitual work”. He believes that
in order to produce interesting works, one must “proceed” irregularly. I think that this is directly
related to He Sen’s essential character, he is in fact rather melancholic, dispirited and sometimes even

At the end of 2004, He Sen began to paint using works of Li Chan and Xu Wei as “sketches”. The
difference “at first sight” in He Sen’s appropriation of earlier artworks is that He Sen isn’t borrowing
the composition or content of his predecessors, nor is he changing them into his own concepts,
adding other conspicuous motifs, or changing their narrative perspective. He Sen is basically drawing
in accord with their original forms, taking the “images of those before him” as photographs on which
to base his own creative work, just as he would paint with models. On the surface, “the painting is
still that painting”. However, the “original pieces” that He Sen has chosen aren’t necessarily famous
works – for example, I have seen numerous “new versions” of The Last Supper from all countries and
in all mediums, and I am sure there are more that I haven’t seen. He Sen explains, “Li Chan wasn’t
a great master, and his personal style wasn’t really unique, but his works are like a textbook on ink
paintings, and I’d rather use this type of artist as my blueprint.”

There’s a place in Shenzhen called “Dafen Village” that is famous for its art. It’s a gathering place for
commercial oil paintings, you can find many imitations of works by famous artists.
So, how is He Sen different?

In fact, this should not be an issue. The issue only arises because there are people posing this type of
question. For instance, there will be people asking questions like: “photographs can be reprinted, why
would the artist’s photographs sell for such a high price?” Or questions like, “such simple paintings,
I can paint too.” Or, “why aren’t our ideas art, but the ideas of the artists are art? What is the
difference?” Such questions might not exist in the art field, but they are question of our time. Our
critiques often magnify socio-political issues into matters of major principle, but “minor issues” are
disregarded, treated dismissively, or even entirely neglected. Is this an attitude we should have?
The artist’s attitude and starting point are decisive in determining the nature of the artwork; the
artist’s way of changing the world is through thinking and projecting these thoughts into his creation.
In fact, since ancient times, there has never been an artist who became an artist by precisely restoring
reality. The life of the artist is in his creativity.

He Sen claims to have absolutely no comprehension of the so-called muse in traditional Chinese
painting; he can only see the effects of what has been printed. He feels that he is in a time tunnel, and
what he is painting may be totally irrelevant to the original intentions of the ancient painters. This is
He Sen! He Sen likes to do things that seem to be meaningless on the surface but in reality require
great effort; his senses of passivity and abandonment have been gradually unveiled in his previous
paintings. And he thinks that painting has always been a ways of escaping from reality, because
reality can’t be manipulated; but the act of painting is very personal, and personal behavior can enter
into or approximate reality through art. Therefore, He Sen is willing to choose material “outside of
reality”. There are some traditional paintings that, even in print, never seem to grow old; He Sen has
begun to search for some kind of possibility in these “undefined” original works. Sometimes, being
passive is being active, and to give up is to persevere, passivity and abandon are types of ability, types
of intelligence.

Time is a key. An ancient moon and modern people, has the moon changed? Or like Luo Dayou
sings, “Have we changed the world, or has the world changed us?” Time is like running water,
it will not rot, but the rest? The catalogue in our hands, the images in the catalogue, how much
“truth” is there? Is it proper to not pay too much attention to the artist, but only to the quality of his
work, or the quality of the printing, or even just look at its color? History is really without mercy.
Therefore, the original works He Sen uses are mostly just “hand copies” – the original works should
be understood as referential photographs widely used by contemporary artists. Of course these
photographs have some kind of characteristic, some character of the past, some character of ancient
Chinese scholars. Time flows incessantly, the source of culture is distant and its flow is long.

He Sen believes that his escapist attitude is the same as that of ancient Chinese scholars. And he also
believes that ancient scholars were not necessarily seeing life as only vanity, but that they were also
troubled with anxiety and contradiction, just like him. I think He Sen is referring to the recluse, and
their way of thinking. In fact, the so-called recluse, in my understanding, is like what we think of as
“above ground” and “underground”, those who are established are above ground, and those who are
not yet known are underground. And those in the underground are searching for opportunities to
emerge. Time explains everything, and it gradually becomes history. Thus, they are “underground”
because they are helpless and “forced”, and the same applies for the recluse – only those who had
completely given up could become true recluses. Therefore, being a recluse was a matter of face,
and below this face there is indeed contradiction and anxiety. Therefore the mountains, waters, and
vegetation in Chinese paintings are all reflective of reality, and are even cruel screams, just as Lu
Xun saw in all the classic texts the word “cannibalism”. He Sen considers Chinese painting to have
been rather “realistic” from the ancient to the present, and to have always had a conspicuous social
target; that which is essential to the painting can be easily ignored, and even takes the rather extreme
position that Chinese art lacks any artistic trend. Such a theory makes comparisons with Western
art inevitable; works that are considered outstanding in Western art are indeed those with unique
creativity either in aesthetic or artistic regards – there is always a degree of formalism. Chinese art is
indeed lacking in creative forms. 

He Sen’s escape is in fact a step back in order to step forward, he genuinely hopes to explore and
achieve a breakthrough in terms of form rather than content. In his academic studies, he learned
from the Western artistic system that art should be objective and dimensional; but what he has seen
and felt in traditional Chinese paintings is subjectivity and two-dimensionality. He is trying to find a
path that connects or moves beyond them. Therefore, He Sen overtly magnifies images of the ancient
in order to attain an effect of exponential magnification of their sentimental elements. The Chinese
attitude toward artworks is that of “intimate enjoyment”, thus what is shown on an image is always
an effect of the “condensed essence of life”. Even though it is a representation of a turbulent scene,
the painting method is one of condensation: for instance, On the Qingming River; the mass once
magnified reveals a sort of extreme expression, the energy and power of life surges out. Therefore,
size in He Sen’s creativity is also quite important, dimension is also time. He Sen chose to paint
water, Ma Yuan’s water. He pointed out that Ma Yuan did not begin with the river, but Ma Yuan’s
water and heaven share a sort of sentiment. He Sen’s Ma Yuan has three sections, one of surging and
falling waves, one tense and raging, one a wave of three ripples. The expressive brushworks are rich
in performative talent, they clap and dance. Time is turning backwards, as the ocean waves surge

I was at Madrid this spring, the weather was cold but not freezing, sunny, and the air smelled of
stimulants. Even with a busy schedule, I managed to get up early one morning to visit the Prado
Museum and see what I had always wanted to see – the “dark paintings” by Goya. Standing in
a room filled with these “dark paintings”, I was very excited. Even if Goya had not painted these
“dark paintings” he would still be a master, but the “dark paintings” were the last and most truthful
experience of his life, as well as the climax of his formalism, he created a new art, and exponentially
extended his artistic life.

I don’t know what He Sen would think.

The American installation artist Jude once said, “this world is producing new artistic rubbish
everyday”; thereafter, he stopped painting. He Sen seems to have descended onto the creativity of past
art, and seems to have invented a new form, saving a debt-ridden space for content.
I don’t know if He Sen would agree with this.

Creating a new artistic form requires time, and He Sen’s creativity is precisely an experiment on time.
What does this mean? When I was naming this exhibition, I felt a breeze and suddenly recalled a
film I had seen, This Time, That Moment. This time, that moment, this series by He Sen is precisely
a mutual correspondence of past and present. There’s also time, He Sen’s time, what time?