Connecting People, Places, and Times

By Sarival Sosič (Museum adviser, The City Museum of Ljubljana) : The visual and spatial codes the painter Wang Huiqin brought with her to Slovenia more than twenty-seven years ago were based on the traditional Chinese understanding of art. By leaving her native environment with its overwhelming presence of tradition for another space of different artistic and cultural codes, she was forced to reconsider her artistic approaches, switching to diversity triggered by a new-found penchant for exploration. A playful creative curiosity has guided her through worlds of art composed of painting, printmaking, illustration, calligraphy, video, computer art, installation, dance, performance, and environmental installations. When creatively tackling environment art and investigating various possible combinations, Wang has on occasion worked together with some notable Slovenian artists, such as Živko Marušič, Zora Stančič, Tomaž Lunder, and Miljenko Licul, and cultural institutions, among others Kibla in Maribor. Her open-minded acceptance and dynamic and powerful connecting and intertwining of artistic differences have made the artist an ambassador of cultural mediation between Slovenia and China. The two cultures are now united and recognizable in her work, viewpoint, and lifestyle.1 Traditional Chinese and Western cultures have come together to form a chain of artistic information, an uninterrupted flow of artistic symbiosis, a fabric of originally divergent views on art, which have in Wang’s art grown into an organically logical system of images, clearly understandable to people in the East and the West.

The new milieu spurred the artist to develop her forms of expression and themes on many levels, stimulating, multiplying, and broadening her scope of artistic output. Wang’s artistic idiom expanded under the influence of new cultural incentives, giving wider range to her artistic interpretations and bringing her elements of expression together in a symbiosis of purified Western and Eastern aesthetic values. More than merely organisms connecting the two cultures and aesthetics, her artworks became elements of intercultural dialogue, some sort of material and spiritual artifacts, brimming with creative reflection and a positive reaction to the blending of cultural values. These represent a link beyond space and time, constantly encouraging tolerance, respect, acceptance, examination, and analysis of human and artistic-cultural relations. Being caught between two worlds, Slovenian and Chinese, also gives scope for various states of dramatic tension. Around the central image, which is often divided or split, visual spaces evolve with a predominant powerful, energetic stroke or a forceful, even uncontrolled gesture, always subordinate to the basic theme: undisguised nature. The landscapes seem like echoes of images from childhood, in which time has stood still and the landscape has frozen in stillness, in a longing for the ideal landscapes of the innermost experience.

Since 1994 Wang has on occasion worked together with other artists, a practice that gives her an opportunity to complement or develop some of her artistic principles. Thus, in 2003 she began working with photographer Tomaž Lunder on a series of digital prints relating in subject matter to recognizable spaces of the everyday urban environment. Their joint projects brought together urban motifs and diverse, visually ambiguous elements. These large-format works, e.g. the series 1 + 1 Does Not Equal 2. Beyond Dreams (2005)2, were collage-like montages of digital and photographic views of the city, its streets, parks, squares, and interiors, with images of dinosaurs, dolls, shadows, and lamps, all hovering above and partly obscuring the photographs. Lunder’s realistic, detached urban space was covered with Wang’s symbolic, polysemous images. As a rule, Wang uses a brush in her work, and Lunder a camera, but in this project the two artists joined forces and swapped their media of expression.

Wang’s critical interpretation transformed into cold, lifeless urban images, resembling set design. The pictures are a work-in-progress, intended to continue to represent current urban images of a given moment for a number of years. Also the next joint Lunder-Wang project, Overheating (2007) 3, was a collage of various contemporary digital media. The works called attention to the danger of ecological disasters and were a critical reaction to the unbalanced distribution of global capital, which destroys whole social systems and diminishes the role and significance of human emotions, relations, and understanding.

Wang has produced quite a few series of collages on a light box as the source of light. Between 2002 and 2005 she thus produced series entitled Dreams, Idols, and My Generation: in them she subjectively critically analyzes social issues of the past and the present, focusing on the tragic of society at large or the suffering of individuals. The common theme of the Dreams series derives from the last Balkan war. The artist establishes a critical distance by softening the focus on reality with visual elements from the world of dreams, transposing the mixture of social realities and subjective interpretations of them into a mutual acceptance of the differences of coexistence. Images of mythological beings, dreamlike pictures of angels and tigers hover in undefined spaces, settings of a fictional story full of allusions to the reality of human existence. The Idols series consists of eight light boxes featuring various (religious and traditional) symbols of Chinese and European cultures all entwined in semantic and visual correlations. Discernible in these (slightly humorous) works is, again, the artist’s critical reaction to the current social state. The series My Generation likewise paints a critical picture of an overpopulated world. The images depict repressive state organs controlling generations of children from the period of Maoist China. Still hopeful, the children accept collective happiness based on their shared ideals of communism; a view of these same people thirty years later, however, indicates change: collective happiness is gone, replaced by greed for money, a lust for riches. Wang unites the two types of images into a documentary, thematically coherent, and visually complex narrative in which the collective and the individual intertwine in their yearning for contentment and happiness, even though they too, like everything else, are part of an illusory and deceptive state of mind and society. In these images people have transformed into unrecognizable, impersonal matter.

Wang’s most ambitious and best-known project so far has been Hallerstein4; its origins date back to 2003. Who is Liu Songling, who is Hallerstein? Although Slovenians could well be proud of him, and he was highly regarded in China in his time, most Slovenians and most Chinese have in all likelihood never heard of him; few people even know that the two names denote the same person. In the mid-18th century, baron Ferdinand August Haller von Hallerstein (also known as Liu Songling in Chinese) (1703-1774) spent forty years in China as a Jesuit missionary and court astronomer. Hallerstein5 was an open-minded, enlightened person of broad spirit and great intellectual curiosity. Thanks to his vast knowledge of mathematics, geography, botany, and astronomy, the Chinese Emperor Qian Long gave him the title of mandarin of the third class.

A closer look at the work processes reveals that Wang combined drawing with neon for its light effects.6 She outlined the image of a monk in neon tubing and produced a light drawing, an illuminated contour of a man without a clearly defined face, but wearing a blue hat symbolizing his status as a mandarin. The line of light is essentially illuminated calligraphy, a Chinese character forming the monk’s imaginary portrait. Wang spent several years adding to and expanding this project, all the while exploring the image of this extraordinary monk. She also made three pop-art, almost pointillist-like portraits with computer graphics on an unusual support – corrugated rubber. Her pictures bring together the two worlds in which the monk lived and worked; what stands out again is the painter’s characteristic relaxed stroke in executing ideograms – images of words and at the same time visual symbols of thoughts. The monk becomes a European in Chinese dress in the characteristic pose of a writer, and a mandarin, emanating inner spiritual strength. He is painted in an environment reminiscent of Slovenia, but the stars on the dark sky resemble Chinese characters. The background becomes a space of yearning, a distant memory of the homeland, combined with typical Chinese elements, such as imperial gardens and lions guarding the emperor.

Just as the monk7 successfully linked the West and the East, Wang does her utmost as an artist and a person to build up intercultural dialogue. In images ranging from visually concrete to abstract, she has created a palette of feelings and inner moods. Her open spirit and joy, her ebullience and energy foster understanding, acceptance, and connections between the two nations that seem so different at first glance, although they are in reality quite similar. Connections between the nations were also at the focus of the artistic performance Living Calligraphy/Melting (2007) at the Maribor gallery Kibla. The multimedia presentation included dancing, video, singing, and painting. Conceived by Wang, the project was based on the softness and subtleness of calligraphy, coupled with computer technology which allowed her to transfer the motions, lines, and strokes onto visual supports in the background. In this project, calligraphy was also related to the dancing body of the Japanese Butoh dancer Daisuke Sakaki. Painted white and against a black background, the dancer’s body formed shapes reminiscent of ideograms – like body calligraphy. When the dancer came to rest, the artist, clad in black, appeared in the background and with slow, soft motions painted ideograms in empty space with a light stick. The performance progressed from symbolic motions to concrete black calligraphic writing on the dancer’s back. By uniting diverse expressive media, the project produced a harmony of motion, visual elements, and the spiritual power of man, image, and idea. Heavily symbolic, it conveyed the message that cooperation, love, and peace should rule the world.

Wang’s view of human relations, the modern development of the world, and the history of humankind, is quite critical. Many of her projects have historical points of departure, with the artist exploring new possible interpretations, artistic approaches, and visual effects. Also the project-in-progress entitled Rewriting History with History (2009-2010) derives from the idea of incorporating a historical object in a contemporary story, visually upgrading it with a modern view of artifacts and the space of visualization. It began when the painter received a 2000-year old brick from the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) as a gift from a friend. Decorated with impressed patterns, the brick symbolically carries within it several periods of Chinese history, having been handled by so many people in the past. The old brick made Wang think of the incessant change from existence to nonexistence and back. This symbolic rhythm or circulation is the principle of the entire cosmos, the secret of living and dead nature. The artist intends to add texts from relevant historical documents and books on history, the natural sciences, religion, and culture to the material and visual story of the brick. She is going to print them in white on one side of the brick, and in black or in color on the other, transforming the brick into a support for multilayered prints of historical texts, so many-layered that the writings will turn into an unrecognizable and undecipherable mass. This visual intervention on the old brick will constitute the artist’s dialogue with the present and the past, where reality, recognizability, and clarity will entwine with the unreal, the unrecognizable, and the obscure. And that is in essence what history is, being constantly rewritten to accommodate the time and the place, the culture and the society.

Wang is a sincere and sensitive visual recorder of images, both imaginary and real images of society, culture, and life. She sees art as an energy of communication, capable of subtly drawing people’s attention, sensitizing society, and fostering communication. Moreover, she sees herself as on a mission of beauty, actively uniting images from the Chinese and Slovenian environments. Her life between the two worlds is her endless artistic journey.

By Sarival Sosič ( Museum adviser, The City Museum of Ljubljana )

  1. Wang also cooperates with some Slovenian companies (Fori, Velenje) which sponsor her work by donating materials. Wang’s works consequently indirectly promote their products in China.
  2. 1+1 ni 2. Izza sanj (Ljubljana: Galerija Equrna, 2005). Exhibition catalogue.
  3. Wang Huiqin, Tomaž Lunder, Pregrevanja (Vienna: Slovenski kulturni center Korotan, 2007). Exhibition catalogue.
  4. In 2003 the Mengeš Museum staged a celebration of the 300th anniversary of Hallerstein’s birth. The initiator of the event, Janez Škrlep, asked Wang Huiqin to produce a calligraphic inscription for the memorial plate on the monk’s house. This is how the artist learned about the Jesuit and his remarkable fate which had led him to China.
  5. Hallerstein was also depicted on telephone cards issued by Telekom Slovenije. Wang made nine different motifs related to the monk. She also designed a postal stamp with Hallerstein’s likeness; the printrun was 305.
  6. The monk lived in China from 1739 to 1774. He did missionary work, observed the stars, worked on calendars, and headed work on the construction of an astronomical instrument for observing stars. His primary interest was the movement of stars. He finished the instrument in 1754; it was the largest telescope for observing stars at the old Peking observatory. (Ifigenija Simonović, “Odkrivanje fosila”, Zaznambe (May 2008), p. 70.)
  7. Wang added to her artistic interpretation of Hallerstein with an intermedia project entitled Science and Art, which united dance, music, and visual elements. The project was produced by Kibla (Maribor) in cooperation with European and Chinese partners and shown in Austria (Slovenian Cultural Society Korotan), the Czech Republic (International Center for Art and New Technologies CIANT), Portugal (University of Minho and the Instituto Politecnico de Tomar), and China (University for Languages and Culture in Beijing). (Nataša Vampelj Suhadolnik, Znanost in umetnost. 11. 11. 2009.)