The Bird-People Make a Mockery, written by Yin Yan

Approaching Hei Yang’s “bird-people” paintings, the atmosphere that pervades them leaves one feeling somewhat desolate. The likely source of this feeling is the impossibility of the viewer establishing any sort of connection with the freakish figures in the paintings; the self-absorption of the bird-people and utter indifference to their surroundings leaves the viewer feeling rebuffed at the very moment an attempt is made to establish a dialog with the work. In these paintings, parrots – more commonly associated with a happy-go-lucky nature, inquisitive and chattering – have been repositioned as bird-people who appear sullen, introverted and unwilling to speak.

Moving from a previous painting style using red in an individualistic and expressionistic fashion to choosing to employ symbolic figures like these bird-people as his artistic language, the artist’s creative work has shifted from having a palpable purpose to leaving much un-enacted; from an emphasis on realizing an individual subjective consciousness to using these methods of self-mockery as a way to record his perception of living in society.

In the early 1980s in Chongqing, Hei Yang was involved in establishing the Silent Jasmine Village study group and “China Association for Anonymous Painting”. In common with his painter contemporaries, in the artistic new wave around 1985, Hei Yang sought a philosophical position on the margins and to establish an identity as an independent intellectual operating outside of formal social structures, presenting a challenge to the artistic mainstream and pursuing a liberation and freedom in both ideas and aesthetics. We have seen contemporary art in China emerge from the underground to blossom in a booming art market. It seems the hard struggles of yesteryear are being quietly carted off to the dustbin of history and the passion of the past is steadily ebbing away. These rapid changes brought a clarity to Hei Yang’s thinking and he came to the realization that assaults on the artistic order are effective only at particular historical junctures and any transformation they achieve can always be recouped. It seems we are fated to cycles of repetition; the old emperor is overthrown only for a new emperor to rise in his place.

Over-nourishment and over-stimulation are bound to produce mutations in form, hence the emergence in Hei Yang’s paintings of the odd mix of human and beast that is the bird-person, a kind of freakish child of these times and a representation through which the artist can give release to his thoughts and feelings. The bird-people stand to attention in their military caps and Mao suits, lacking any sense of being themselves tainted by filth, for all the world like gentleman-scholars confidently occupying the space created by the painting.

To begin with, the bird-people in Hei Yang’s paintings had their eyes wide open, exposing an emptiness behind their stare, but later the artist chose to simply paint them with their eyes shut, an expression of Hei Yang’s stance regarding present reality: when one finds one is unable to do anything for the world or change it in any way, choosing to close one’s eyes to it is not the worst option available. There is always a silent majority, unheard behind the empty clamor of public discourse. Although day after day spiritual bombshells descend on us, it seems we have been afforded no place to comment. Keeping silence is a form of self-mockery but also in one sense a kind of quiet resistance, yet this apparent refusal to become involved is often the source of still greater tension. Within a given culture there will often be particular methods of exchanging information or even a unique language; the silent majority appears more modest, more straight-forward, not so falsely proper and altogether more healthy and complete in their humanity. Their values are simple: speech is silver but silence is golden. But if we are neither willing to explode out of this silence nor to die quietly under it, the self-critique of an artist can become a way of enduring, carrying on towards an understanding that can nurture hope.