TSUNSHAN 進珊 is a Swiss-Chinese artist who was born and raised in Hong Kong in 1956. He studied art and design in Hong Kong from 1974 to 1978 and then moved to London, where he graduated in 1981. During this time, he earned his living as a street portrait artist. He was awarded the Anna K. Meredith Scholarship and continued his education in painting and sculpture in Florence in 1981/1982. Then he moved to Milan where he worked as an artist and designer. Since 1988 he has lived and worked as a graphic designer and artist in Switzerland.
In my paintings I navigate both the expected and the unexpected. I often have no idea what the next gesture will bring, and somehow I have to clear my mind before I begin to paint. Water, oil, colour, sand, pigment... sometimes I try to control how they move, like dancing with a familiar partner, but I’m not always able to do so and must allow them go the way they want to —— even when it’s not the way I expected! It is a principle of nature.
I approach my work with an open mind, with no predetermined message, and trust that the meaning will emerge through the intuitive process. The image is a result of the feelings that arise in me and in the viewer. Many times I’ve been asked to explain the meaning of my paintings, and each time my reply has been evident at the bottom of the work: “Untitled”.
For me the content of my paintings is intensely mobile and ever-changing. I am continually surprised to discover new and unexpected images in my work, and hope that my audience is afforded the same experience.
Giacinto Di Pietrantonio, 1987 Italy
Tsunshan once said to me: my art isn't premeditated, because when I'm working I never know what the next gesture will bring. This could obviously be taken as the underlying poetic of his work, though it could also be a clever way of withholding information from the critic. It could even be interpreted as a reluctance to "reveal all", relying on others to give their own interpretations, well aware that it is the work's capacity to constantly produce meaning that keeps it alive. There is, therefore, room for freedom in Tsunshan's work and this allows us to subject it to our own reflections and emotional response, bringing into play the inevitable communion of meaning that each encounter inspires. In so doing, something begins to transpire from Tsunshan's art, an indication of how it stands apart, setting itself up as one of the targets of our mobile attempt to attain the aesthetic experience. The quest is for a path rather than for a route leading to a certain destination, because this aesthetic experience can never be considered complete insofar as only constant requestioning can add to our knowledge. This is a view that alters interpretations from one painting to another and even within the same work —— prolonged scrutiny diversifies meanings, placing the interpretation on an intermediate level which is neither too deep, nor too superficial, but in between, on the borderline where cultures meet, where there is no sense of attachment.
Tsunshan's artistic experience lies in this wandering evolution of interpretative possibilities. His works are impregnated with an energy of instability, which, in the transition from one work to the next, both contradicts and unifies any stylistic certainty. All this occurs because the various poles of existence —— life, death, high and low, liquid and solid, heavy and light, meet and come into conflict with one another. In his work, death is always represented by fragments of paper, or by entire scraps burnt in China (his native country) during funeral ceremonies. Tsunshan assimilates these fragments into the work, performing an artistic ceremony which becomes an icon-relic intended as a centre of stability and permanence compared with the surrounding area coloured with life and movement.
So there are both times of immobility and mobility in his work, a time past and a time beginning. One leads us to the past, to the gods, the other vibrates with us, annihilating them. This transition is also perceptible in the sequence of the works; the early paintings reveal a predilection for dark, dense colours, whereas the later works have a dematerialized quality and the substance of the painting becomes water and light. One deduces that there is a relationship between the physicality of the material and its slow mutations, and the speed of change in the liquid, luminous dimension, so that the former always shows us the same side of the moon, whereas the latter speeds away to visit the remotest corners of the evolving universe. This is what Tsunshan's art is about: the cosmos and the energy of creation. And as in the East, where more importance is attributed to shadows than to bodies, lightness expresses the sense of things, the inner essence of existence.
Francesca Alfano Miglietti, 1987 Italy
"What can a planet, any planet, offer to somebody who has travelled throughout the stars?
The need for boundless spaces was by now in his blood". (Star Wars)
New imagination draws on the infinite conceptions of space, and new painting becomes a gradual aggregation of essential, primary elements. Colour is the main structure of the pictorial language and its combinations form a visual field of numerous cross-references. From the enigma of sight, which organizes and destroys, from the pull of thought, Tsunshan sets out to question the image, tracing the progressive evolution of the perception involved in creating. His works represent vestiges of an uninterrupted whole and they animate a form of painting which creates an incessant rhythm in the fibres of pure subjectivity.
With veils of paint, explosions of colour, pictorial arrangements, and rapid brushstrokes, Tsunshan succeeds in giving a structure to his understanding of a vision which emphasizes the pure element in painting. In organizing his images, he aspires to an aesthetic idea of gradual elimination, without violent images, wild gestures or appeals to primitivism. From time to time, the signs diminish and the emerging matter retains a sense of remoteness and of inventiveness in the structuring of space. In his painting, the basic elements of being —— air, fire and earth —— exist in a fluid atmosphere, the essence of man and the essence of painting become one, and in this unity we are revealed a glimpse of the cosmic vision. Tsunshan knows that it is the idea that supports the image, the idea of the fragment of a whole which has never been seen but always desired, expands and merges with another detail to form a complete painting that overwhelms and transforms the meaning of life.
His paintings range from floating masses of coloured transparencies, diaphanous as air and water, to compact forms of dense colour. Both aspects coexist in the same space, on the surface of the painting which becomes the inner threshold of the image, a sensitivity that incorporates the signs of Western knowledge and a synthesis, an Oriental essence.
The vibrations of an existential condition emerge within his works —— there is no need to emphasize the torment of the exhausted spaces of existence: the emotional content of colour floods a structure in which forms, colour, weight, space, dimensions and intuitions respond to a dynamic, to a relentless movement which eludes the laws of gravity. There is a perceptible urge to incorporate all the elements of the painting, constantly transforming and repeating them in a dynamic process which engulfs and recreates pictorial spaces.
The horizon of painting is currently undergoing vast modifications related to how we use our visual capacity, emotions and knowledge, but Tsunshan closes his eyes and listens. "Silent painting speaks on the wall" says Grégoire de Nysse, and the ability to listen to silent painting is similar to the eye which penetrates beyond the constant flow of images. Tsunshan allows us to catch sight of the vibrations that take possession of the structure, the canvas, the paper, becoming the symbols of what is immediately extreme and mythical, despite the lack of either mythical events or characters. He proceeds to the outermost limits of spiritual and aesthetic regions, where the solitary process of "subtraction" leads to the extremes of vision, stripping it of all details, of any vague, material effects. His colours overflow with a deep-seated emotion, but the effect is seductive and incalculable. Tsunshan's reds, yellows and blues are steeped in a knowledge and a sensitivity visible only to those who wish to see the work in its totality.
There is no room for compromise in his painting; a refined, imposing unity prevails, so possible in itself that it creates its structure by bringing in both the tonal regions of the painting, and the various thicknesses of canvas and paper. The sense of calm is only superficial; there is in fact a restless dynamism in the work. Tsunshan succeeds in capturing the spectacular of images without using special effects or devices borrowed from other languages. The colour succeeds in scratching the surfaces, the atmosphere is created, the enigma of painting continues to astonish, and his inner amazement is transmitted to eyes accustomed to recognizing the secret signs of a painting that has rediscovered its most magical essences, a multitude of encounters-light with matter, images with supports, forms with signs. The works are characterized by an imagination that has ignored the aesthetic of. immediate, sensational effects, of inner and outer space, image and abstraction, severity and suggestiveness.
Tsunshan knows that only he who is lost can be found, and his images lead us into a captivating universe where one can live in the magical places of his structured aesthetic spaces.
Giulio Ciavoliello, 1985 Italy
What is most striking about Tsunshan is his ability to carry on an isolated form of painting, different from and impervious to the prevailing trends of the international art market. This is not due to a form of mental refusal, but to an undeniable resoluteness and vast inner resources, despite his characteristically mild, conciliatory nature. The autonomy of his work has something marmoreal about it. It is unfortunate that we have to resort to the criteria of Western criticism to discuss his work. To borrow a French term, we could speak of tachisme, or the American action painting; what in Italian would be called sign-based or gestural informal arts. But all this is unnecessary labelling which could, on the whole, be misleading. The artist's historical-anthropological identity reveals a lot more —— his painting cannot fail to express Oriental cultural characteristics. In a wholly contemporary context, in fact, we find many typical elements of the Chinese painting tradition.
First of all, he thwarts the marked distinction between figure and background —— a capacity which has often eluded even our most abstract painters. Indeed, an important element of Tsunshan's painting is the continuity between fullness and void, light and shade, and the vital force is created by an alternation of these "opposing" entities. The void, instead of being considered as absence, is a decisive factor in the work's visual rhythm. This can also be linked to a conception of man and the world as unique, as a dynamic "continuum". It is artificial to divide man from the cosmos, considering he is an integral part of it. And, in fact, the extreme concentration that Tsunshan builds up before starting work on a canvas, produces an instinctive, automatic outpouring of expression. The coherence of the resulting work is relative, as it has something very "undefined" about it —— it is always a mere moment, a fleeting glimpse of man and the universe as they flow by.
Tsunshan also reveals a Chinese attitude in his brushstrokes —— the variety is such that different effects are created in each new painting. The paint, diluted or in concentrated form, is spattered or dripped, producing overlapping blots or a mass of dots. In some cases, the signs are almost graphic, linear and elegantly sinuous. His work seems far removed from current trends, and from the more widespread manifestations of the art world. But it is however very closely linked to the contemporary world in its basic essence. Tsunshan doesn't conform to the contemporary world by imitation, but takes part in it by "soiling" the paint. One of his objectives is not to leave the colour pure, but to make it torpid and tainted. In doing this, he is aware of the spurious, composite nature of today's culture and of its plurality. Indeed, what is culture today if not a complex blend of nature and artificiality, of East and West, local and global? Tsunshan's painting expresses something of the paradox of Hong Kong, where ancient traditions exist side by side with electronics and high technology.
Claudia Ricci, 1986 Italy
"As far as the study of painting is concerned, some prefer complexity, others prefer simplicity. Complexity is wrong and so is simplicity. Some prefer ease, others prefer difficulty. Difficulty is wrong and so is ease. Some believe it is noble to have method, others think it noble not to have it. It is wrong not to have method. First of all, one has to observe a strict rule, and then comprehend each transformation with intelligence. Aspiring to possess a method implies the absence of method." (Kie tseu yuan Houa Tchouan)
Tsunshan's art belongs to the Oriental painting tradition, even though there is a strong element of eclecticism in his aesthetic which makes it possible for such different sources as that of East and West to coexist.
His painting, in fact, reveals various influences, from the informal to a certain kind of abstract expressionism, but it also reveals a particular understanding of the harmonic possibilities of the brushstroke, which has enormous importance in the Chinese artistic tradition. Sometimes Tsunshan organizes the painting as if it were a polyptych, as if the intention were to dissect it, to find a new communicative and linguistic method to narrate different situations and states of mind, or to reach, through analysis and synthesis, a new point of encounter between the rational and the sensitive. However, the artist is not interested in the result, in the product in sé, but the action whereby his mental philosophy attains a concrete dimension in production. It is a precise code of symbolical elements which will become codes of artistic language.
Painting is, for Tsunshan, an existential condition, a source of vital energy; it signifies the need to move away from reality, transcending and "rediscovering" it; the need to take an active part in creative expression in order to feel free. The paintings are flooded with colours, and the flowing brushstrokes resemble calligraphy, forming a link with the Buddhist concept of "prajna", in which thought and action find their most elevated point of synthesis. There is no framework in the classical sense of the word, nor any precise construction, because it is a kind of painting that disintegrates in space. Once again, it is the brushstroke, intimately linked to tradition in the way it is used, that constructs and structures the forms before disintegrating at the edges like thousands of tiny bubbles of water.
Tsunshan's paintings have a particular kind of appeal, revealing not only a delicate inner world, but a consciousness that reveals the degree of its own impotence and therefore of its own history. References to nature, especially species of flora and oneiric images, are not lacking —— as in the 1983 works where a kind of totem emerges from the "colour-night" and lights up as it ascends, like a yearning for heaven, the essential, the absolute. Pictorial expression is conveyed in all its intrinsic, poetic value by the density of colour —— a density which is never centralized, but which can be identified in the point emphasized by the geometrical insert —— the golden square, the symbolism of death, the oxymoron "clou" of all Tsunshan's work.
Another characteristic trait of his painting is the "illusionistic'' tendency, the search (not merely symbolical) for pairs of opposites, accentuated by meditation on the real occurence of life and death, leading to the discovery that the positive value of this life is nothing other than its opposite. The symbolic content, however, apart from its aesthetic significance, also tends to express precise cultural concepts and values. The freedom expressed in the movement and rich colours is matched by the golden, symbolic element, just as the technique of diluting water with oil metaphorically reasserts the artist's aesthetic and existential choice.
The pictorial image is thus revealed in all its complexity swathed in an inner logic dictated by a consciousness that controls everything; the image is a kind of indicative synthesis of the innermost nature of all things, creating a network of relations which always start from opposing principles: life-death, male-female, day-night… and these are reflected in the organization of space and in the main elements of material and colour. The more recent works from '85, preserve the subtle tonal atmosphere created by the fusion of forms through the graduating harmony of colours, but there is also a change in the arrangement of spatial decoration in the sense that there is greater fluidity and movement in the forms. The image is more immediate, as if an effort is made to ensure the effectiveness and transparency of the gesture through one's own thought. The result is an art characterized by a distinctive economy of brushstrokes and by the swiftness of execution which leads to an expressive distortion intending to convey inner sentiments with greater immediacy.
This process triggers off a reverse type of mechanism in that the artist and not the work becomes the origin of order, the Tao of Chinese thought, which, in the words of Granet "is at the same time technical order, real order, and the logical order which controls the production of sensitive aspects and the manipulation of the emblematic categories which indicate and bring out reality". Creativity is thus transformed without real modifications, without concessions, external chaos or upheavals.