Ink Asia是國際第一個以水墨畫為主題的藝術博覽會，每年年底在香港會議展覽中心舉行，今年突破傳統水墨畫的定義，將富有水墨精神的作品納入，媒材不拘一格，特別邀請薛松舉行個展。
 明代文學家屠隆《考槃餘事》墨箋一節曰: 「余嘗謂松煙墨深重而不姿媚，油煙墨姿媚而不深重。」
Pine, Smoke, Ink – the Art of Xue Song
Pine smoke ink, famous throughout China, is a type of precious inkstick made from pine soot, or the deposition of smoke particles from burning pinewood. Xue Song, who is named after the great pines (song in Chinese) of Yellow Mountain, begins his collages by burning printed images, in which the ashes are collected and mixed into his paint; this artistic practice and synthetic medium can be regarded as a new Pine, Smoke, Ink.
Since the late 1990s, Xue Song has made extensive use of traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting, either as ready-made images for his burnt collage, or as classical themes to be reinvented in a contemporary context. Although his practice is derived from Pop Art, it carries a profound sense of Chinese culture and the spirit of ink painting. The artistic practice of Pine, Smoke, Ink opens a new chapter in genre of Modern Ink.
The Chinese revere the pine tree. The pine’s weathered bark and twisting trunk has captured the imagination of painters and poets for ages. In terms of symbolism and aesthetic, the pine has formed a classic genre. The pine trees of Yellow Mountain are famous throughout China, particularly the Welcoming Pine. Bore out of a rock and perched on a cliffside, the tree is not only a landmark of the local province of Anhui, but also a favorite subject for generations of painters.
In 1965, Xue Song was born in the northernmost county in Anhui Province, Dangshan. Known for its cultivation of pears, a tradition tracing back two millennia, the county has been crowned the “Pear Capital of China.” Although Xue Song was born in the prosperous Pearl Capital, his birth was during a turbulent time, for both his country and his family. His father Xue Huanzhou named him Song, meaning “Pine” in Chinese, after the Marshal Chen Yi’s (1901 – 1972) poem, Green Pine:
Snow weighs heavy on the green pine,
The green pine stands stiff and straight.
To know the pine’s height and purity,
Wait until the snow melts.
Chen Yi wrote Green Pine during a great snowstorm in the winter of 1961, a time in which the country was mounting with internal strive and foreign pressure. Borrowing the imagery of the snowstorm, Chen wrote of a pine tree standing in defiance against the harshness of the winter snow, as an allusion or reminder to himself to be brave in face of adversity. At the time of Xue Song’ birth, his family was also faced with hardship. His father was originally the music teacher of Dangshan First Junior High School, where his mother was the principle. But caught in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976), his mother was met with repeated political persecution. When Xue Song reached the age of three, due to the constant torment and suppression, her spirit finally collapsed, and she died of gastric cancer. Xue Song’s father was also regularly persecuted, and frequently jailed in a cow pen. After his mother passed away, Xue Song’s father could no longer support him and his four siblings, so his father was forced to send the childern away to their relatives. Xue Song’s two sisters and second elder brother was sent to the countryside with their grandparents, while he and his eldest brother was sent elsewhere in the countryside with an uncle.
Xue Song’s childhood experience was as harsh as a snowstorm, and his mother’s early death has always been an unceasing pain in his life. Even so, Xue Song’s personality became what his fathered had hoped for, “stiff and straight.” What his strict father did not expect, however; was the optimistic and cheerful side of his personality. Although life in the countryside was difficult, there Xue Song felt free and happy. Everyday was spent playing outside with other children. He rarely studied and knew only how to fish and catch shrimp. By the second grade, he did not even know pinyin (Chinese alphabet), and so his father brought him back to the county.
Xue Song was not only “stiff and straight” from an early age, but also stubborn and unyielding. His father wished for him to learn music, but he was only interested in painting. For this, his father beat him on more than one occasion, but Xue Song’s mind was already set. Since elementary school, he spent all of his time drawing, and in junior high school, he often cut class to draw. For two whole years, he spent in his elder brother’s friend’s spare room at the local university, drawing away furiously.
“Everyday was painting. The winter was very cold, and the windows were all broken, which let the cold air in. After I was finished drawing, I would burn the paper to keep warm. …My foundation in sketching was laid during those two years.”
The painter Pan Tianshou (1897 – 1971) once said, “As an artist one must “be audacious and attentive, and plan for the long-term; the problem is the lack of perseverance.” Having embarked on the path of painting, Xue Song must indeed have audacity and an attentive nature, but more importantly, an unyielding perseverance. Xue Song often imitated paintings from albums of past masters, and so he passed the entry examinations for fine arts with ease. But the humanities requirements always held him back. Only after three years since his high school graduation was he finally enrolled in the stage design department at the Shanghai Theatre Academy; he was already twenty years old.
Having read the Adventures of Sanmao comics as a child, and filled with imagination about Shanghai, Xue Song’s move to the modern metropolis was like a duck takes to the water. Comparable to Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2001), Xue’s courage, imagination, and creativity, as well as the free, easygoing, and adventurous side of his personality was finally allowed to roam free in the new city, and what he detested about the social stigmas of the past were completely left behind. Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s was the forefront of Modern Art in China, and since the economic reforms of the 1980s, the city has been began to surpass its former glory. Arriving in Shanghai in 1985, Xue Song ushered in the new era. At the Shanghai Theatre Academy, his instructor Chen Junde said to him, “Facing the canvas, you are your own God.” For Xue Song, this was awakening and enlightening, and gave him a strong sense of self-confidence to find his place in the world of art.
Intentionally or otherwise, pine trees often appear in Xue Song’s works. This is partially due to the predominance of the pine tree as a genre in traditional Chinese painting. But it may also be due to Xue Song’s subconscious identification with his namesake tree. As early as 1996, he painted Welcoming Pine, and twenty years later, Yellow Mountain Pine was painted. Both works feature a large pine tree lodged on a Yellow Mountain peak, and both break the conventional composition of traditional Chinese painting, by placing the subject directly in the center. Yellow Mountain Pine of 2016 even places the background mountains at the bottom of the composition, thereby elevating the presence of the tree in a striking manner. The imagery is reminiscent of the first verse of Li Shangyin’s (c. 813 – 858) poem, Lofty Pine:
The lofty pine rises above the woods,
Accompanying me toward the horizon.
Although Xue Song left home in his youth to pursue contemporary art, now in middle age, he retraces his steps time and time again.
Smoke and Xue Song share an unbreakable bond. He has a cigarette in hand all day long, and the most prominent feature of his art is the burning of printed images, in which the burnt fragments are pasted onto the canvas as collage. Considering the amount of burnt images required to fill a canvas, his studio is usually ridden with smoke.
This year in 2017, Sweden’s leading air purifier company Blueair is entering the Chinese market, and has invited Xue Song to act as spokesperson and decorate the front panels of three air purifiers for a promotional video. In the video, Xue Song kept with the script and said that because he burned paper regularly, he is afraid of inhaling excessive fumes and is in particular need of air purifiers. When I was watching the video with him, upon hearing this line, I could not help myself but to say to him, “You are not afraid!”
Being afraid just is not Xue Song!
I wonder when Blueair chose Xue Song as their spokesperson, if they understood his relationship with smoke. Xue Song does indeed need air purifiers, but in terms of improving his health, quitting smoking might be a higher priority! As his friends all know, he not only has a taste for drinking, but also for cigarettes. Regardless of his addictions, the burning of printed images is at the very core of Xue Song’s art, something he cannot easily abandon.
In the careers of artists, it is not uncommon to find dramatic turning points, often known to the world as celebrated stories. The more exciting, unusual, or tragic, the more memorable it becomes. For example, Pablo Picasso’s surges of creativity often parallels the coming and going of women in his life. Vincent van Gogh’s self-mutilation of his ear is forever immortalized in his self-portrait. Liu Kuo-sung (b. 1932), the father of Modern Ink Painting, climbed Mount Everest in 2000, and upon his descend, due to the sudden change in air pressure, became deaf in one ear. But from the loss of hearing, Liu gained the inspiration for a new series, the renowned Tibetan Suites. Finally, what Xue Song is known for is how he found inspiration in the fiery ashes of his art.
Fires broke out in Xue Song’s studio twice; once at the end of 1990 and once more roughly six months later. The fires were devastating, especially the second one, which thoroughly destroyed what had survived from the first. But from the ashes lying on his studio floor, Xue Song was to build a new world.
Like the pine trees of Yellow Mountain, fire only fueled Xue Song’s transformation, as he discovered the visual impact, symbolism, and also gestural significance of the burnt images. For Xue, the fire was an accident, but it was not accidental. Had he not already experimented tirelessly with the medium of collage, or had he not sought to express themes of discontent and destruction, the fire could have broken out ten times more, and it would have been inconsequential to his art.
Opportunity comes to those who are prepared!
Following 1992, Xue Song began countless experiments with fire. At first, the experiments were more of a chaotic frenzy, and gradually they became more controlled and productive, as Xue shifted his attention and energy from the sensation of burning itself, to what he was burning and how. In his own words; he painted the target first, before he shot the arrow. Having set a target in mind, then begins the cutting, burning, and pasting of the printed images he collects.
Since the dawn of mankind, human beings have always had a loving and fearful complex with fire. The invention of fire sparked the human civilization, and fire has since been a symbol of power. In Greek Mythology, the titan Prometheus stole fire to give to mankind and thereby angered the god Zeus, who condemned him to eternal torment by bounding him to a rock and having an eagle feed on his liver, which would grow back only to be eaten again the next day. The first Emperor of China, Shihuangdi (c. 259 – 210 BCE) is infamous for burning heterodox books in his efforts to consolidate central power and unify thought. Fire is greatly destructive, but in its destruction, it allows for new life. By burning and partially destroying ready-made images, and reassembling the burnt fragments on the canvas in a different context, Xue Song’s artistic practice embodies destruction and rebirth and also deconstruction and reconstruction. Xue acknowledges, “When the paper is being burned, there is a special kind of satisfaction and excitement.”
Xu Gang once described Xue Song as “a man of few words, …cool and calm, not easily startled or surprised, [and] unwilling to chase after fame or wealth.” After becoming well-acquainted with Xue Song, I found Xu Gang’s description quite on point, especially when he pointed out that Xue Song’s birthplace of Dangshan is also the region the Daoist philosophers Laozi (c. 604 – 531 BCE) and Zhuangzi (c.369 – 286) are believed to have originated, and so his personality carries “the legacy of Laozi and Zhuangzi’s birthplace.” Although Xue Song does not deny such claims, he maintains that “being born in China proper is actually very suffocating; there are many traditional frameworks limiting you. He also lamented that, during his participation in the first Inner Mongolia Biennale this October, he felt the people beyond the Great Wall were frank and easygoing, just like the other Chinese ethnic minorities he has met, who have all been warm and high-spirited.
In his youth, Xue Song was a man of even fewer words, and in a crowd of people, he just kept to himself. Only after three rounds of drinks, does he begin to lighten up. Aside from drinking, smoking cigarettes is also an outlet for him. Perhaps the smoke from burning the images for his collage achieves the same effect.
The black ink on Xue Song’s canvases is not ordinary paint or Chinese ink, but is something his own creation – the ashes of incinerated images mixed together with acrylic paint, otherwise known as Pine, Smoke, Ink.
When Xue Song was attending the Shanghai Theatre Academy, the traditional Chinese painter instructor, Zhang Peizhu, believed he was skilled in drawing and the lines of sketches were lively. Zhang often gave him Chinese rice paper for him to try traditional ink painting, and so Xue Song’s relationship with ink painting began. However, at that time Xue Song was infatuated with Western and Modernist Art, and strongly detested all things conservative or traditional. Remarkably enough, he has kept with ink painting ever since. What is even more remarkable is his growing appreciation for traditional arts and culture as he grows older. As for this reversal, Xue Song was not aware of it at first, and only later realized this was his own culture coming forward.
In comparison with many other contemporary Chinese artists of the same generation, Xue Song has a deeper appreciation for traditional Chinese culture, and has drawn inspiration from it earlier. When he began his burnt collages in 1992, Xue chose many images of written calligraphy and calligraphy from stone rubbings, as seen in Metamorphosis and Hearts Together, in which the fusion of ancient characters with strange shapes strengthened the depth of the work. In 1996, he created his first landscape painting, simply titled Landscape. A hill is placed in the foreground and is surrounded by burnt fragments of calligraphy in the sky behind. The mountain in the mid-ground is composed of images of ancient Chinese paintings, while the central image is flanked on both sides by two long red banners with abstract lines representing calligraphy. In terms of formal composition, the central image is the centerpiece in traditional Chinese painting, and the flanking banners are the accompanying couplets of calligraphy.
This year in 2017, Xue Song is invited for a solo exhibition at the third annual Ink Asia art fair in Hong Kong. For the exhibition, Xue Song paired several landscape paintings with corresponding couplets in the manner of 1996’s Landscape. In terms of both form and style, the landscapes bare a closer resemblance to traditional Chinese painting, and because the couplets were created separately, they allow for a reinterpretation of the centerpieces, with the style of calligraphy, the additional colors, and the contents of the collage fragments. Xue Song’s latest works, Landscape and Ink, are even more ingenious; he uses the reproductions of paintings by the Ming Dynasty master, Wen Zhengming (1470 – 1559) from the National Palace Museum in Taipei, in which he cuts out silhouettes of the Chinese characters for “landscape” and “ink” (shanshui and shuimo), pastes them elsewhere on the painting, and then fills cutouts with images of calligraphy, thereby playing with the traditional notion of solid and void in Chinese painting. The lower right corner of the collages are impressed with his personal seal, bearing the words: “Made by Xue Song.” From traditional Chinese painting, Xue Song draws inspiration in the formats of framing and mounting, as well as the manner in which they are hung and presented. For a painting from 2016, Sailing Amongst Mountains, the characters “Out with the Old, In with the New” were added on top, strengthening the sense of tradition in the style of the Chinese literati, and also adding a form of self-commentary to his own artistic practice.
Calligraphy is a reoccurring motif in Xue Song’s art; not only as images in his collage, but also as its own series of paintings, the Calligraphy Imagery series. For large-scale exhibitions at the National Art Museum of China and the Xi’an Art Museum, he pieced together individual square canvases of 60 centimeters, each containing a single character, with the largest polyptych up to forty-eight squares. The series attracted a great deal of attention at the exhibitions and forty pieces were collected by the National Art Museum. Calligraphy Imagery demonstrates Xue Song’s understanding of the traditional aesthetics of calligraphy, in terms of the proportion in composition, the flow and direction of lines, and the speed and strength of execution. For each character, Xue selects only a portion of the character in order to remove meaning from the word, and to highlight the abstract beauty in Chinese calligraphy. What is also interesting is his use of vibrant colors in contrast to the conventional black in rendering calligraphy. The background colors are also equally diverse, both in compliment or in contrast with the character’s colors and contours. While the image is traditional, the use of colors is not, and is instead a feature of Pop Art. This series is strong in terms of visual impact, and a classic example of the blending of tradition and modernity, as well as and of Western and Eastern cultures.
Xue Song said, “The Landscape series is a kind of emotional compensation for my youth, or for something I lost in the past.” The meaning behind his Symbolic Landscape series is worthy of attention. In the earliest example from the series, X Landscape, the “X” was painted in black ink, and later on in the series, the color was changed to red, becoming even more visually striking. During the Cultural Revolution, the names of political target were written on so-called “Big Character Posters,” and crossed-out with a large “X.” By crossing-out the image of a traditional Chinese landscape, Xue Song hints at the rejection of traditional arts and culture. However, similar to many of the victims of the Cultural Revolution, who were in fact innocent intellectuals, traditional Chinese landscape painting was never without merit. In his rejection of the traditional genre during his youth, how complete or severe was Xue Song’s rejection? With a growing appreciation for the genre in middle age, Xue Song marks the landscape with a giant red “X” as a symbol of a broken age and as a scar of the past, with a sense of regret and remorse.
The 2005 triptych Symboled Landscape features not only a “X,” but also several stark red arrows, in which the symbolism becomes even richer. The arrows mark the general structural composition of traditional landscapes, as well as suggest the presence and intrusion of Western culture, or specifically Western art, in Chinese painting.
Chinese ink reserves a prominent position in Xue Song’s art. Unlike the traditional notion of “Five Shades of Ink,” Xue’s ink is solely black, which he finds most expressive. He has repeatedly borrowed images of the monk Hongren’s (1610 – 1663) landscape paintings, on one hand as a tribute to the master, but also because his landscapes are minimal in composition and his brushstrokes are simple and defined, which are well-suited for representation with Xue Song’s synthetic medium of ash and acrylic paint. However, the synthetic ink is less effective for representing the fluidity of conventional Chinese ink, because it is much denser and heavier. Xue Song actually prefers the heavy nature of his synthetic ink, because it creates a bold texture, which traditional ink cannot produce. The source of inspiration can be found in all of his works, and in terms of his landscapes, the inspiration is generally derived from famous paintings or styles of past masters, which are rearranged according to the needs of the given composition. He retains the outlines of the formal composition, but the areas interior and exterior of the outlines are filled with burnt fragments of other images, some of which are interrelating, while others are conflicting. The fragments are its own medium in addition to ink or paint, and relationship between the fragments and the overall image can be more effective in expression in comparison to conventional painting.
Xue Song also pursues the effect of commercial advertisement in his paintings, to attract attention in the most simple and direct way. He often divides his images in large solid colors, in which black ink appears even bolder, effecting outlining the image. The Adventures of Sanmao and Feng Zikai are frequently featured in Xue Song’s works. The reason behind the choice of these images is due to Xue Song’s interest in comic books as a child, and during the SARS outbreak of 2003, Xue revisited these comics and found a sense peace and comfort in the parables of traditional Chinese values. Additionally, the images of comics are simple and the outlines are concise, and its themes are familiar to modern Chinese people. All of these qualities fall in line with the elements of Pop Art, allowing Xue Song to unleash the potential of his synthetic ink.
As for Xue Song’s earlier ventures into other genres and styles of painting, the incursions were mostly by chance, and rather experimental. Only after experience and reflection did these various ventures gradually develop into specific series. In recent years, the Landscape series has become more and more expansive, with sub-series such as the classic Mustard Garden Manuel of Painting, and tributes to past masters including the Emperor Huizong of Song (1082 – 1135), the eccentric Bada Shanren (Zhu Da, c. 1626 – 1705), and the modernist Xu Beihong (1895 – 1953), in which Xue Song draws from China’s long and illustrious history of painting to fuel and reflect his own interest in the identity of the Chinese literati.
In 2013, I invited Xue Song to Taiwan for an art creation project, Eights Vies of Taiwan. This was the first time he represented real sceneries into his contemporary landscape paintings. Implementing his system of burnt collage, Xue integrated images of Taiwanese Aboriginal Peoples with Chinese settlers, and also traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting with modern skyscrapers. In a melting pot of cultures, Xue not only visually summarized three hundred years of Taiwanese history, but also accurately portrayed the island’s ethnic and cultural diversity.
The success of the Eight Views of Taiwan led to the Eight Views of Macau, and with the foundations laid on the former project, Xue Song easily found inspiration for Macau in terms of subject matter, composition, and collage material. There are many historical cathedrals in Macau from the colonial era, and after visiting Macau Xue Song traveled to Milan, Italy for a group exhibition, where he collected large volumes of books on Medieval and Renaissance religious painting, specially for the Eight Views of Macau project. Moreover, for his collage of the new MGM hotel, he used fake bank notes of different countries, as a stark allusion to what the hotel and casino is truly composed of.
Due to the fact collage requires great quantities of printed images, in his constant search for collage material, Xue Song has develop a taste for collecting vintage books and other printed materials. Since 1994, Xue has collected over five hundred artworks from the Communist Era (1949 – c. 1980s), including propaganda prints and political paintings. Also, in the last seven or eight years, he has collected over five hundred Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints. His passion for collection is growing steadily; his budget for books alone is over a hundred thousand yuans a year, and the amount spent for his art collection is incalculable. The art of collection has always been part of traditional Chinese literati culture, but for a contemporary Pop Artist, to be passionate of the ancient past, is perhaps due to the artistic practice and his synthetic medium of Pine, Smoke, Ink.
Curator Elaine Suyu Liu
 Liu Chun, Dialogue with Xue Song, Shanxi Publishing Group, 2015; pg. 17.
 The Adventures of Sanmao, created in 1935 by Zhang Leping (1910 – 1992), is a popular comic book series about an orphaned boy named Sanmao, set in Shanghai during the 1930s and 1940s with themes of war and colonization.
 Interview with Xue Song by the author at his studio on Moganshan Road, Shanghai on November 8th, 2007, in which he displayed the video that was to be officially released the following day at the Shanghai Art021 Art Exposition.
 Xu Gang, “Xue Song and the Neo-Shanghai Style” in Xue Song: Works 1988 – 2013, Singapore Museum of Contemporary Art, 2013, pg. 25.
 Xu, Ibid., pg. 25.
 Interview with Xue Song by the author at his studio on Moganshan Road, Shanghai on November 8th, 2007.
 Liu Chun, Dialogue with Xue Song, pg. 202.