A Song of Water and Fire
Liu Kuo-sung’s Water-Rubbing
Xue Song’s Burnt Collage
by Elaine Suyu Liu
Painting with water and fire, in both historical and modern times, is a challenge in media. The founder of the Fifth’s Moon Painting Group, Liu Kuo-sung, who advocated “revolution against the brush,” began experimenting with the technique of “Water-Rubbing” since the 1970s. Liu’s pioneered technique involves dripping ink into water, then adding turpentine to manipulate the flow of the ink in the water, and finally placing paper onto the water’s surface to capture a “rubbing” of the ink’s pattern.
Liu Kuo-sung said: “I am most pleased with the Water-Rubbing series. In terms of ratio, it is more spontaneous, and less artificial.” Liu believes that too much artifice will lead to rigidness, and only spontaneity will allow for true liveliness.
Water-Rubbing essentially captures and records the endless possibilities of how ink flows through and mixes with water, and therefore provides Liu with endless inspiration. While Liu Kuo-sung’s Space series requires a planned general composition prior to execution, the Water-Rubbing series truly illustrates his belief of simply going with the flow, or painting with total spontaneity. High Tide of Qiantang River of 1974 is a great early example of the series, where the entirety of the background was created with “Water-Rubbing,” and only adored with additional collage pieces such as the moon and mountains. In Flowing Mountain Peaks of 1976, the naturally rising and sloping lines of “Water-Rubbing” alone comprise the peaks of valleys of the formal composition. In Water and Cloud Share the Same Source of 1977, the natural and delicate lines of “Water-Rubbing” surpasses any depiction done by the brush. In White Snow is White of 1982, the effects of “Water-Rubbing” brilliantly mimics the clarity and radiance of fresh snow, and is given depth with light washes of fine ink. Mountain Light Blown Into Winkles of 1985 utilizes “Water-Rubbing” to create the grain patterns of the mountain, with further layers of ink added on that natural foundation. With the “Water-Rubbing” technique, Liu Kuo-sung abandoned the conventional use of the brush and earned the title of “The Father of Modern Ink Painting” in both Taiwan and Mainland China.
The practice of painting with fire in China can be traced back to the Qin and Han Dynasties, and is still prevalent today in the region around the ancient capital of Xi’an. In the Western tradition, Modernist such as Yves Klein, have experimented with the element, and have achieved an unique visuality far beyond any likeness of the brush. Chinese Contemporary artists have also emerged on the international spotlight by playing with fire, such as Cai Guoqiang with his explosives and fireworks, and Xue Song with his collages of brunt and charred images.
The origin of Xue Song’s brunt collage is quite dramatic. Having had two fires break out in his studio in the 90s, a distressed Xue found inspiration from ashes left by the destruction. The nature of fire is to consume and destroy, fueling both fear and a strange satisfaction. Xue’s burnt images are branded with a new visuality, and also given new meaning through rearrangement as collages pieces on the canvas. In turn, the process of destruction and reconstruction, and symbolic death and rebirth, creates a new artistic vocabulary.
Another major feature of Xue Song’s art is his integration of traditional Chinese painting motifs, especially his fondness and knowledge of calligraphy and landscape paintings. Whether his composition adopts the appearance of a Classical Chinese landscape or canonical calligraphy, or features brunt images of the genre within the artwork, Xue Song’s art is filled with the spirit of traditional ink painting, in which innovation is derived from tradition, and new media of born out of conventional ready-made materials.