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Huang Yan
Face Series

Huang Yan
Face Series

Chrysanthemum, 2006 Photograph, No. 7/15, 150 x 120 cm Courtesy of: Chinese Contemporary © Huang Yan

Huang Yan produced his Face Tattoo series images in 2005, following his Tattoo Landscape series of 1999, the project that first made his work known in China and abroad. In Face Tattoo, Huang created a sequence of eight images of the four seasons, painted in traditional ink painting style directly onto facial skin. He dedicated two images per season — one with the eyes closed, the other with the eyes open.

Huang’s series challenges commonly agreed dichotomies between subject and background, surface and interface, skin and makeup, inside and outside, permanent and temporal, and painting and photography. His images are a complex web of netted relationships, in which all aspects of the process are included: the person, the body, the skin, the painting, the wall and the photograph.

As a psychoanalytical writer, Didier Anzieu describes, in Western cultures, the skin serves as a shield, an envelope or an interface of communication. In contrast, Kuriyama Shigehisa describes in his book The Expressiveness of the Body the concept of the wind skin of the Chinese medical tradition. According to this tradition, the skin is a perforated, mediating layer, enabling the free-flowing contact of qi (energy) in and out of the body, keeping it forever linked to and part of the world never separated or shielded from it. This is the first key to Huang’s images — these are images of bodies being absorbed into the world and becoming part of it.

On the second level of exploration, the relationship between painting and photography is at stake: what is the status of the painting here? Is the painted face a performed piece of painting, later documented in photography, or is the photograph the actual object of inquiry? A closer view reveals the images obeying the rigid rules of Chinese ink-painting. In blurring the edge between the tradition of painting and photography in this manner, Huang places Chinese ink-painting within the contemporary arena, calling the attention of Western eyes to this mostly overlooked tradition, one that thrives in China but which Westerners have very little access to.

Ink-painting of the style used here is the art of linear drawing, of applying a series of brush strokes to create bony black lines which are later filled with colours of flesh texture. There is a significant difference between Western landscape-painting traditions and the Chinese ones: while in the West human representation dominates a landscape that serves only as a background (at least until the Dutch landscapes of the seventeenth-century), in Chinese painting it is the presence of a small man in great landscape which is the dominant convention. In some of Huang’s paintings, a small person in a boat can be seen, painted on the person’s lower right jaw: the landscape dominates the tiny figure, appropriating it to become part of the world.

Unlike other artists whose work is directly executed onto the skin, such as Zhang Huan or Liu Zheng, Huang applies a layer of white powder onto the face before executing the painting. This layer activates two separate concepts: on the one hand, it is reminiscent of the makeup worn by Beijing Opera actors, and on the other it corresponds to the traditional use of white powder (like mica) during the painting process, to help in rendering the paper’s surface opaque. In Huang’s images, the white layer functions as a second skin that links the reality of the body back to the environment. The landscapes float on the skin, deconstructing the presence of a subject or an individual, turning the individual into a vehicle for a transformed reality between in and out, while the thick white layer is placed as a visual différence between the reality of the body and the world, now both merged one into the other.

This blend of surface and background, and the elimination of the body as a full, independent presence, presents a parallel to the work of the painter of a hollow porcelain vase. The substance of the body is eliminated and only the envelope is presented. This is particularly true of the eyes closed version, when the image becomes a complete, uninterrupted layer, transformed by the absence of the gaze being projected from the porcelain face.

The body’s disappearance into the landscape recalls the military’s use of camouflage patterns. Instead of going for what Roger Caillois describes as teleplasty — the notion that camouflage in the natural world is a kind of three-dimensional photography — Huang applies Chinese-style painting, one originally derived from the Chinese writing system, rather than from mimetic traditions of representation. Therefore, it contains the elimination of the world into a sign system, constituting a relationship within the arche-writing system of traces, signs and images as part of its inherent logic. This specific point exposes the nature of ink-painting to the process of photography in a parallel that sees the indexicality of light and the ink-traces of the brush as the source of the prints seen on the surface.

The collapse of the dichotomies between ink-painting and photography, landscape and skin, temporary and permanent is what put Huang Yan’s work on a fascinating cultural crossroads between tradition and modernity, China and the West.

But there was an era when the body represented something quite different from the entity that we imagine now — a discrete given, an independent and isolated object. Once upon a time, all reflection on what we call the body was inseparable from inquiry into places and directions, seasons and winds. Once upon a time, human being was being embedded in the world. — Shigehisa Kuriyama, The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese medicine, 1999, 262

Clay is moulded into a vessel, but the usefulness of the vessel depends on the space where nothing exists. — Lao Zi, Dao De Jing, 11

Artist: Huang Yan is a Chinese painter, sculptor, photographer and performance artist based in Beijing.

Writer: Ayelet Zohar is an artist, curator and cultural researcher, specialising in the visual culture of contemporary East Asian art. Currently working as a post-doctoral fellow of Japanese Studies, Stanford University, California. Zohar has a PhD in Fine Art from the Slade School of Fine Art (UCL) in London (2007). In 2005, Zohar curated an exhibition of contemporary Japanese photography and video-art titled ‘PostGender: Gender, Sexuality and Performativity in Contemporary Japanese Art’ for the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art in Haifa (Israel). Zohar took her graduate studies in the ink-painting dept., Central Academy of Fine Art, Beijing (1996). Zohar is an active artist and has shown her own paintings, video and photographic work in Israel, China, UK and the US.