BACKContradictory Wandering | HenSen

On the 10th and 11th of November, 2011, I sat in the Concert Hall of the National Theatre, allowing
my soul to drift away. Conductor Simon Rattle brought the Berlin Philharmonic to Beijing to
perform Bruckner Symphony No.9 and Mahler Symphony No. 9. Other than going to the opera, it’s
rare I would go to a concert because I am easily bored which makes me drowsy. It is only the richness
of the opera (symphony orchestra, solo, harmony, dance, lighting and stage art etc) that is enough
to consistently capture my attention. I admit, this sounds slightly kitsch. Although I love listening
to sophisticated music, but what can be heard on the HI-FI at home may not be achieved otherwise.
This concert was an exception, especially since I booked the tickets months in advance. Because…

These two musicians and their two pieces have unique meaning to me. First of all, they were the
last ones I became enamored with after years of listening to classical music. Although they both
belong to the German-Austro heritage that were influenced by the Wagner tradition; both works are
unbearably lengthy and complex. Bruckner’s piece is less so perhaps due to his prior musician role at
a church that highlighted his overlapping internal logic. Mahler on the other hand, like artist Klimt,
closely tied to Freudian’s psychoanalysis, seems rather schizophrenic, giving the impression of the
work being quite void, displaced and fragile. Until one day, a certain nerve twitch opened my mind
on these pieces… In fact, my initial interest came from certain details in these pieces that expanded
to propel my patience to listen to the entire work. Moreover, both works were numbered the ninth
sympathy, whose epilogue softens to ideas of paradise, epiphany and death (even though the scherzo,
rondo were rather grand and resounding. Both involve extensive orchestral variation, the various
accompanying instrumental groups linger, contradicting and struggle were precisely characters of
these two epilogues knocked down the barriers of these two pieces to allow me in.

…at the end of the concert on the evening of the 10th, I held a breath in my chest, and the scent
of blood in my nasal cavity as I rushed out of the hall, the epilogue of the concert hovered over my
mind. I began to tear as I sat in the car… then the phone rang. A friend asked a random question. I
forced myself to conceal my feelings while thinking, “Gee, couldn’t you find a better time to call!” -
it was a noise that completely shattered my momentary “perfection”.

Mahler’s piece on the 11th, unfolded like the previous day. Every movement was applauded that
interrupted the entirety of the work. The adagio epilogue Ending like Death should have begun in
a silence of the wilderness, however, there was a woman who screamed, “Amazing” at the end of the
previous movement that rushed conductor Rattle into the epilogue… like the exacerbating central
theme gathered forces through 23 variations, in the drifting notes of string musical instruments,
time disappeared… and my own remaining vague conscience of the body also fully vanished…
Simon Rattle, an experienced conductor, stayed paused without putting down his arms even
long after the last note completely quieted, allowing the rare occasion for the resounding spirit to
disperse throughout the hall. No matter how touched I am by these moments, the applause after
each movement and the annoying bravo doomed these two performances to eternal imperfection.
Especially, the performers and the audience consist of the inseparable components of a full “scene”.
Watching Abbado direct Mahler’s 9th Symphony online, as the last note silenced, the ghostly
slim Abbado stood for more than two minutes of stillness, as my attention was full drawn into the

On the following day, critiques complained about the noises and applauds that disrupted the overall
performance, someone wrote, “People’s personalities vary, some yearns for impeccable perfection,
others are tolerant enough to put up with everything, the same applies to orders at a musical
concert.” He was right, yet which context are we in to abide to such structural order? Professionals
follow a “comprehensive” standards, amateur audience follow the concept of “individual pieces” and
yells bravo for stage performance. Western art is synonymous to building houses and architectures,
whereas we are occupying a “place”.

Once someone asked me, “What do you think about the unbearable art classes for kids, sketching
before painting that shatters the mysteriousness and surprise of the image?” My answer was, “Simply
speaking, it’s a conflict between technical training and personality, on another level, it’s a cultural
difference between western ‘structure’ with Chinese dispersion. When I was studying at the Sichuan
Art Academy, I’ve already heard how the ingenious He Duoling paints by expanding his image from
a detail, and the child prodigy Yang Qian’s sketch always begin with the eyes without a general
image. We are all aware of the idiom Yu the number filler, that Nan Guo could fool emperor Xuan of
Qi in a three hundred men orchestra, whereas emperor Min of Qi enjoyed solo performances, under
the premise of individual conscience of the “artist”, Nan Guo could no longer pretend. In Chinese
culture, “orchestra” make up for the scene, like “Cantonese music” is categorically lewd, used as
background, accompaniment, ambient to the mood, yet lacks class. Qin, Xiao, Di, Zheng and other
solo instruments on the other hand have outstanding literati significances. The Berlin Philharmonic is
renowned by conductors such as, Furtwangler, von Karajan, Abbadio, and Simon Rattle, we mention
them with the Berlin Philharmonic because the greatness of the group prides on the greatness of these

When I look at an artwork, either the original or in print, the initial impression comes from the
overall effect of the work: the overall composition, forms and colors. We’ve all heard of Rodin’s story
of making the portrait of Balzac, that the perfection of the hands propelled Rodin to cut it off in
order to maintain the aura of the overall work. Therefore, I am skeptical on whether details are truly
less significant than the entirety of the work?

Imagine how the Chinese forefathers accepted and viewed a work of art: …handing over a scroll,
slowly rolling it out…with limited exposed portion of the image…would immediately judge whether
the art is “amazing”! (In fact it’s a moment that resembles applauding to a movement in musical
performance) rolling it up again… taking it home… and laying it out on a table to reopen it slowly
again…due to the limitation of the desk, for every part rolled out, the previous part seen got rolled
up again… so the focus of the vision moved on. It’s not only what we understood as “aesthetics as a
spatial art”, but it has almost become an art of time like music. It constantly expands from details,
where each detail exists relatively completely and independently. Disregarding the entirety, in other
words, if details are the only channel to enter the entirety, or the detail is an entirety. The inadequacy
on details make the viewers uninterested on seeing the entirety, just like a man’s interest on part of
the woman can develop into an interest on that person, and vice versa.

In fact, in my opinion, the initial clamoring in Bruckner and Mahler’s pieces are preparations for the
final adagio. Comparable to the German film, Das Leben der Anderen set out on uneventful, or even
boring prelude to gather inner force for the nonchalant verse “This book is for me.” In the contrary,
the infamous Chinese idiom, “Clearly state the purpose from the beginning”. Among many artworks
we had experienced, Cao Cao’s “Lament on life as one drinks and sings”, Li Bai’s “The gentleman
do not see the Yellow River falling from the sky…” and Su Shi’s “When the moon will light up to
raise the glass to ask the heavens”, Yue Fei’s “Hair stood with anger, I lean against a rail as heavy rain
breaks…” and the examples goes on… the first phrase points to the central structure of a text that
offers hints to its content.

In the Louvre, standing before “Freedom Leads the People” the Medousa, and everyone who has had
an education on western art history understands the golden dissection, the solid composition and
scientific basis of the pyramid, however, how to explain the perfection of In Clear View of Streams
and Mountains, Along the River During the Qingming Festival, Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains?
Critic Hang Chunxiao commented on the viewing of traditional Chinese visual art: Look once, close
one’s eyes, open them again, then close them… a sense would consolidate in one’s mind, the details
coming together with the entirety, it can only be sensed, but not verbally expressed.”

The current Chinese reception of art education are unaware of the impact on itself from western
art history education system, what is “beauty”, what is not? Zhang Xiaogang visited the Van Gogh
Museum and was shocked that, Van Gogh was a Caucasian? The global characteristic of art presents
many specific issues, for instance, the Chinese do not share the anatomic structure we have learned in
sketching, because our faces are flatter. Such details applied by the dilettantes in art when practicing
portraitures, they subconsciously enforce such anatomic structures, forehead, cheekbones, nose ridge,
brow bones, orbicular muscles and chewing muscles… or even we could see the shoulder blades on
Mao Zedong’s back under his thick coat among many of his landmark statues in many city centers,
because they are “scientific”, “dimensional” and “beautiful”.

Contemporary society, a structure build on respecting science and western civilization, either its
nature or humanities are “scientific”, with structural systems. However… what if its foundation is
false? Evidently, scientific theories are not eternally true. Even Einstein and Hopkins faced crisis
of being proven wrong, let alone Newton and Darwin’s law that raised skepticisms. Where is this
industrial civilization relying on exhausting coal, crude oil and natural gas heading? The common
explanation would be, do not hold groundless fears, we would find new sources of energy before
crude oil depletes. Although, I think people often over-estimate themselves. I idolized scientists as a
child, when the whole nation was speaking about the “spring of science”, Chen Jingrun, newspapers
and magazines were constantly reporting on new innovations and discoveries, when most children’s
dreams were to become scientists made me embarrassed for wanting to become an artist. At that
time, I seriously believed that people would live eternally. The reason for death would only be lack
of money for treatment, or the technology of a certain medical institution was inadequate, or there
must be some advanced technological cure. As I grew up, I realized modern medicine has not even
figured out basic life structure; when I was little, I thought people could step on the moon and travel
in the universe, and humanity could migrate to other planet to live leisurely, as a grown-up, I realized
that spaceships are gargantuan fuel exhausting systems that cost earth’ natural resources that only
bring the very few for a trip in space, and the enormous cost was enough to deplete the economy of
the once powerful Soviet Union. Why are people so dumb?! In the film 2012, the U.S. president’s
helplessness when facing calamity made one realizes how minute and pitiful human beings are,
people will overcome the universe? Are we really that powerful?

Once Ouyang Jianghe spoke about translation and its possibilities with Western scholars, taking “tree”
as an example, in Chinese the “tree” is associated with “establishment”, “contribution”, implying that
the associations are made with the tree trunks, which is masculine; in French, one associates with
the shades of the tree, the sound the leaves make, which are feminine; in Russian, it’s associated with
fields, barley, plants, a countryside term. Thus, communication can be as superficial and unreliable,
that becomes impossible. The creator made us with differentiations, yet we try very hard to become
the same. Moreover, what is the standard? Since the May Fourth movement, we abandoned our
existing heritage, whole-heartedly thrown ourselves into building gigantic structures while being
oblivious about the decay of our former homeland. I want to be the renegades of construction sites
without knowing whether there would be a straw hut behind me to hide from the storm. Therefore, I
wander between the past and future, anxious, curious and indecisive, using an euphemism as being a
spiritual sojourner in search of one’s homeland, in truth, has become a homeless dog.
Everyone talks, does and lives in his own particulars, if this point of function is big enough it would
affect other points around it, as well as be influenced by the other points. With better fortune and
success, the point can expand into a surface. The various masters of the Italian Renaissance period
perfected their points, so westerners used them to build architectures, yet, even the most magnificent
architecture would inevitably collapse one day, yet those basic “points” would exist independently and

Italy may be considered as nation of “decay” today, and many people do not like Italians. They are
thought of as slack, coveting and lazy, gluttonous for enjoyments and largely unreliable. In fact, the
Chinese share similar characteristic with them in essence. These two nations, one being the basis of
modern civilization, the other being the representative of Eastern civilization, share glorious history
and culture, whose people are both slack and undisciplined, who does not value objects. Perhaps it
is such sensible traits that led to the glory of yesteryears, and their disinterest in the construction of
“high-rises” today; perhaps they are fully aware that regardless of our efforts, our fullest potential are
such “points”, nothing more.

In the last decade, I’ve sat by the Arno River three times, not to “look” but to “sense” the landscape.
I told myself to slow down, or just rush by, or to recall this place only by looking at the pictures
I’ve taken, I should stay around to sense the moment of this landscape. It was a city of Giotto, Da
Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo, Botticelli, Tiziano Vecellio, Raphael, Dante, it’s a city of David’s
“angelic messengers”; the city of “the birth of Venus”, the city of “spring”… warm sunshine pour
down by this river traversing the city of Florence, I breathe against the breeze, looking at the
happily playing beavers, ducks and egrets, grasping onto senses of those independently and eternally
existing insignificant “points” in this magnificent “construction”, suddenly felt the passing of time…