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					Trends and Techniques in Contemporary Asian Art:

Dennis Coleman

According to Maggie Fletcher, Director of „Art Space‟ Gallery,Adelaide, “there

has been an upsurge in interest in Chinese art in recent times”. North East

Asian art, often seen by the West as somewhat formulaic and steeped in

particular genre is now adopting a more contemporary look, becoming more

playful at the edges, perhaps experiencing greater dialogue with Western art

forms. Traditional materials – ink, xuan paper,silk - along with centuries old

techniques may still underpin Chinese art but it appears to be becoming more

liberated in form, perhaps reflecting the winds of democratization fanning

across much of Asia.

From a broad perspective it would appear that Asian artists focus more on the

elements of nature than artists of the European school. Casacading

waterfalls, rugged mountains and rivers-both tranquil and turbulent, are often

conveyors of a moral behind the canvas. A creature often featured in Chinese

art is the carp, reviled in Australia but not so in China and Japan where the

carp is seen as one of the aristocrats of the piscene realm: intelligent,

assertive and aspirational-yet harmonious, tender in romance and whimsical;

characteristics all seen through the brush-strokes of award winning Chinese

artist, Professor Zhao Qiu Ping.

Zhao, who has exhibited at Chinese and international art exhibitions in

Beijing, Paris and Brunei, recently exhibited „A Brush with Poetry‟, in

collaboration with Wendy Ella Wright, poet and artist of Japanese genre, at

Adelaide‟s Festival Centre‟s „Art Space‟, with Calligraphy by her son Zhang

Yun, a celebrated artist in his own right. The exhibition, straddling the Chinese
New Year period, from 25th January to 24th February, displayed some of her

finest works. Wright‟s more abstract images of Tokyo and the historical

cultural links between China and Japan offer a richness of layering and are a

refreshing contrast with the intrinsically harmonious but more stylized art of


While the artist also paints aspects of the natural environment it is clear that

her enduring passion lies with the carp, manifest in a range of situational

emotions. Not all critics would concur that this depiction of various layers of

emotion exists, however, with some branding the works as formulaic and

lacking the multi-dimensional intensity of Wright‟s works or the „Ode to Art‟

exhibitors discussed below.

The Chinese reverence for the carp is apparently because they are seen as a

fish of fortune, a totem of success in business and wealth acquisition. This is

in part because the Chinese word for carp is similar phonetically to

„advantage‟ and with „abundance‟ being the character for fish, the duo makes

it a particularly auspicious fish while in a Western sense, reinforcing its

stereotype as an aggressive, carnivorous creature to be reviled.

Carp worshippers also point to its behavioural patterns in being able to leap

over the rapids of China‟s „Yellow River‟, leaving other fish far behind –thus

further attributing it the qualities of endurance, perserverance and fortitude,

auguring well for those who see it as a role model for success in competitive
business or academic pursuit, again with the flip side of ruthlessness and


The carp which manage to overcome all obstacles and reach the somewhat

„other-earthly‟ age of 100 years are said to evolve into dragons which of

course can fly and soar into the heavens. This aspect is perhaps best

represented in one of her 2002 paintings aptly titled „Flying Beyond the

Highest Heavens‟. “My mother had a dream one night about this” Yun relates

to me, “and she set to work from the next morning onwards to recreate the

image in the dream.” In her book,( Irresistible Carp in Artwork” Zhao Qiuping)

her earlier dream unfolds on page 19. Three free flowing carp, almost in

flight, transcend the foaming rapids which then merge almost dreamily into

what appear to be layer upon layer of whispy clouds. On the one hand the

journey appears seamless and yet one‟s eyes can‟t help but be drawn to the

right side of the painting where the clouds take on a mountainous form,

almost as a reminder that the aspirational journey has involved great fortitude,

yet the blissful facial expressions belie great challenges which have been

faced in this tumultuous journey.

Perhaps the most frenzied, energized – and political of Zhao‟s works is her

1997 “Toward the Sun”. Here the carp totally lose any semblance of

individuality they portray in other depictions with 56 fish flying over the waves

in a crescendo towards a tangerine glowing sun. This monumental work was

commissioned for the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China in June

1997, and with shades of the „Great Leap Forward‟, the carp represent the 56

„nationalities‟ in China, apparently united in glorious harmony.
From a technical stance the artist uses a combination of styles; for example,

in „Listening to the Rain‟ she employs „Gongbi‟: traditional Chinese realistic

painting characterised by fine brushwork and attention to detail with the carp

while the foliage is characterized by Xieyi, or freehand, broader brushwork.

Her works are painted on Xuan Zi handmade paper and are mounted on silk.

Some critics point out, however, that while the ink work is particularly delicate

with its „nine shades of black‟, the fact that water colour rather than acrylic is

employed, impairs its resonance with a broader international market.

In some of Zhao‟s paintings eddies and crests of waves are painted while in

others the water as such is not actually painted at all – nonetheless the

appearance of the fish swimming is maintained –there is a feeling of

movement in the picture. An Adelaide artist and teacher, Stephanie Blanchard

explains the phenomenon with „A Harvest Season‟( 1995) as an example.

“Look at the colour of the „water‟- it‟s actually graded in texture. The

background colour is actually darker at the bottom of the scene and then

becomes gradually lighter”, she points out.

“and she has framed the scene - there is a natural curve in the fish‟s bodies

which draws your eyes along the swishing tail, following the upward thrust of

movement. From there your eyes are drawn to the overhanging plants, then

across to the melons which dangle in the water, in turn drawing your line of

vision downward to the swirling fish tail.” This circular pattern, in alliance with

the colour grading of what appears at first glance to be almost neutral, creates

the illusion of swimming on this apparent wave-less „blank canvas‟.
This concept of illusion of movement is a genre employed by various Asian

artists, some of which I viewed in late January at the „Ode to Art‟ Gallery in

Raffles City, Singapore. The exhibition which featured Vietnamese,

Malaysian, Chinese and Singaporean artists, was a visual riot, with red being

the signature colour of sculpture and paintings.

While Ren Si Hong‟s bold blood red series of sculptures satirizing Chairman

Mao in the „Cultural Revolution‟ period dominate and cannot escape comment

here, it is the paintings which invite comparison with some aspects of the

works of Zhao.

Perhaps one of the most stirring of these illusory works of motion is a painting

by Chinese artist, Ma Dong Min. The untitled work depicts an ecstatic figure

almost at one in texture, form and empathy with the clouds. The gallery

newsletter outlines how the Ancient Chinese expressed making love as „rain

cloud‟, symbolic of the lyrical interaction between rain and cloud. In

elaborating on the pure bliss which exudes from this work, the brochure

continues: „he captures the dizzying instance when people are liberated from

their heavy bodies and transcend the physical into an inner joy.‟ This

juxtaposition of erotic love with natural landscapes is an enduring theme in Ma

Dong Min‟s works „reflecting that man is an integral part of nature.‟

Another exhibitor, Tung Yue Nang paints the lotus flower so realistically that

one is tempted to grasp it. The characters representing the teachings of Lao

Tze are painted to appear, from different angles as being old parchment with

shadowed print in places as happens with old documents, equally
representing reflections of the characters on the water surface from whence

the Lotus flower springs. It is classic Tromp l‟oeil in one sense but more

significantly, enters discourse with the audience in its poetic idiom of

reflection, layers of time and space and linking of spirituality with nature.

In „Yellow Flowers‟,Jean Francois Debognie employs Chinese ink to

orchestrate his dancing flowers on numerous layers of acrylic. As with Zhou,

the multi layered background shadings, the richness of texture and the curves

of the black flower stems gives rise to a fluidity of movement „.Whispering

Winds‟ by Choy Moo Keong uses a similar technique but with a more

introspective interpretation creating an almost uncanny stillness as the grain

heads rattle in the whispering wind.

In one of Singaporean artist, Tan Kay Yuan‟s works, a great feeling of

gathering and festivity of the cranes is exuded. The Ode to Art review

elaborates, “ Tan‟s bold strokes of jewel green undertones serve like the

percussion in an orchestra; or the rhythm underlying a musical score, while

the birds are akin to the notes in a musical piece that form the soaring

melody.” Upon analysis, perhaps this is a reflection of much of contemporary

Asian art with the „ underlying rhythm‟ being the centuries of cultural/technical

underpinning, the „soaring melody‟ being this refreshing new dialogue in

artist‟s attempts to further explore and explain the ever changing cultural

landscape of today.