Du Jie | The Never Ending Line ( de | cn )

Galerie Urs Meile Beijing - Lucerne, 2008-01-26 - 2008-03-29

“The fine tip of the brush is immersed in paint. I move the brush in effortless arcs, let it glide over the canvas, without any haste nor hesitation.” (Du Jie)

In a circuitous labyrinth, the line networks of Du Jie (born in Xiangfang, Hubei province, in 1968, now living in Beijing) trace themselves across the canvas. Looking more closely, we make out the brush mark, follow the paint lines starting out in saturation, getting thinner, until a new stroke begins, and so on. Without any visible effort, the color flows back to the origin of the painting process. And the undulation goes on endlessly.

Like diary sequences, Du Jie’s titles testify to the time span of their creation. Sometimes it takes the artist three weeks, sometimes four, to produce convolution by convolution of her 25 x 25 cm formats, which she has done since 2003. Whether black on white, or in a lighter and a darker blue, earthy hues or tones of springtime exhilaration, there is always an extreme precision of the brush stroke that has the new sweep flowing along the previous line in wafer-thin distance.

Du Jie’s decision to change, after her first few paintings (2002), from oil to water-soluble acrylics was a consequential one in more than one respect: from the point of view of her working technique, the reason was primarily the more liquid consistency which allows the paintbrush to glide with greater ease. It was even more important to Du Jie, however, that this change combined the material with the subject of her work, for the gently curving line is indeed an obvious visualization of the ripples and waves of water. And it is not least the metaphorical density of the watery element, which plays a central role in Chinese tradition, that the artist alludes to in her paintings: water is gentle and yielding but also powerful and indispensable to life, and when given an undulating motion, it reaches an almost musical dimension.

Under heaven nothing is more soft
and yielding than water.
Yet for attacking the solid and strong,
nothing is better;
It has no equal. 1

From Brush Strokes in Indian Ink to the Never Ending Line

In the beginning of Chinese art, there was painting: the flowing Indian ink and the brush moving in masterly arcs. The fine art of calligraphy in its function as mediator of meaning as well as landscape painting with its contemplative intent left the artist plenty of leeway for individual expression, in serene grandeur or with expressive gesture. Du Jie obviously strays from these beaten tracks, turning to abstract painting. Also from the point of view of material esthetics, the reference to reality could not be pointed out more clearly. Indian ink is replaced by oils and later by acrylics, and the traditional base materials such as silk or the meters-long scrolls made of absorbent rice paper are pushed aside in favor of a small square ground canvas. A wide palette of quite fashionably garish hues does not suggest much of the black-and-white dominance in more classical pieces.

The creation process of Du Jie’s paintings has unmistakably ritual features to it. Day by day, the practice of painting for many hours provides her with a freedom that is just as productively draining as it is rewarding. While this description of the artist’s basic mental attitude could also apply to calligraphy, Du Jie emphasizes the clear-cut difference between these techniques. When painting Chinese characters the dynamic and abrupt brush stroke is a primary constituent, but she opted for a working technique that requires contemplation and continuity in unremitting transformation. She nonetheless abides by the traditional Chinese basic premise that calls for the identity of one’s art and one’s art of living.

“My father used to work in a bookstore that also sold cartoon magazines. And even as a child I started to retrace the black outer contours of the cartoon characters. My first wavy line appeared decades later, an absentminded doodling on a piece of paper that happened to be there. I felt really great at that time. The line mirrored a deep feeling of harmony and freedom inside of me, a desire for tranquillity and concentration, but also for perfection. In retrospect, that was a turning point in my life.”

Du Jie’s works are intended for close viewing, with regard to the small formats she chooses and also to the esthetics of her paintings. The reason is that when seen from a distance, the blank spaces in the painting tend to blur, i.e., the still visible canvas ground and the line formations applied to it melt into a seemingly monochrome surface. So here art decelerates the heart rate, practically commanding our look at it to slow down.

“What made me choose this small format was the Beijing exhibition Prayer Beads and Brush Strokes in 2003, where I took part in. I wanted the people to walk up closely to my works, so that the moving line would also move something in them. What’s more, my artistic activity is part of my daily life. I paint at home, not in a separate studio. Meanwhile, the technique is so familiar to me that it hardly takes any effort any more. I can let my thoughts ramble freely. Painting always puts me into a lighter mood. When a piece is finished, when the starting and ending points of the painted line get joined at last, it also means a leave-taking. I then intuitively decide for a new constellation of colors and take on the next painting.”

Line of Life—Line of Beauty

If one were to represent the concept of movement with a single brush stroke, a curved line would be the perfect visualization. In the Chinese symbol for yin and yang as well, it is the swung line bulging to both sides that divides the circle halves and at the same time shows that there is a constant circulation between both poles. “Yang, as the active force, and yin, as receptive softness, govern the multiple vital breaths by their interaction” 2 —this is how thinker and calligrapher François Cheng, who lives in France, puts into words a basic element of Chinese philosophy.1 Everything moves and is supposed to remain in movement, and in this sense any form of ossification or unidimensional commitment can only be regarded as a loss. This dynamic view of the world is already introduced by the Chinese myth of cosmic creation by virtue of a metaphysical breath. Du Jie’s never-endingly curving line thus turns into an associative and at the same time most appropriate implementation of eternal becoming, into that breath coalesced to a line. Apart from the obvious water metaphors there are also the bends and turns of Du Jie’s line crowding each other in an almost amoeba-like scramble, all of which makes you think of a look through a microscope. Any attempt to follow the course of these gyrations invariably causes the background and the lines to flicker and merge. The paintings become the images of the potentially possible, of a life the actual manifestation of which has not yet been decided on.

While in the Chinese perception it is an ethereal breath that is at the beginning of all things, penetrating heaven, earth and also mankind in the same way, the Christian act of creation looks more like the rather burdensome chore of an almighty and personalized God. This is the origin of thinking in causalities and dualisms (God versus man) by which not least Western esthetics are characterized in their quest for unequivocal categories and universal statements. In the dispute about good taste that erupted in the 18th century in Europe, the curved line was used as an example par excellence for the position that beauty could indeed be a definable entity. British satirical painter and engraver William Hogarth’s treatise The Analysis of Beauty (1753), the title page of which is graced by a serpentine line—quite similar to the one in the yin-yang symbol—stirred a heated discussion also among German classicists and romanticists about the question if there existed a canon of beauty that was beyond specific epochs and cultures, and what it might consist in. The arguments offered in favor of the serpentine, or doubly arched, line were somewhat lacking in originality: the German art historian and archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann reverts to the ocean metaphor, familiar across many cultures; Goethe and Schiller emphasize the concepts of regularity and symmetry and therefore settle for a particular shape of the line; while Hogarth himself is chiefly interested in putting the accent on changeability and the gradual modification of shapes.

In a number of his writings, whether they were fictional texts, essays on mental health or literary treatises, German psychologist, esthetician and writer Karl Philipp Moritz reexamines the almost inexhaustible dimensions of meaning of the serpentine line, going as far as attaching cosmological significance to it. In this dynamic view that interconnects all spheres of human being, he comes close to the Chinese philosopher Laotse (3rd‑4th century BC). What Moritz writes in one of his main essays on the subject under the title The Metaphysical Line of Beauty (1793) on the relationship between man and creation, the artist and his art, art and the beholder, is in so many words the same attitude that was also phrased in art theory texts written in classical China. Thus Moritz holds in his essay that for the true artist, the creation that he wants to bring forth must first have matured in his soul, as it were. And Su Dongpo (1036-1101), one of the most famous writers and poets of the Song dynasty, is said to have stated, “Before painting a bamboo, the bamboo must first grow in your innermost self.” 3.

That Moritz’s “line of beauty”, when visualized, would naturally be one that is endless and not predetermined in shape is a matter of course.

Empty and Full

The mutual relativity of emptiness and abundance that has determined Chinese cosmology, philosophy, ethics, calligraphy and visual arts for thousands of years is emphatically present in Du Jie’s work. For while from the Western perspective, the category of emptiness indicates first of all a deficit, i.e., the lack of something, in the Chinese tradition of thought “emptiness” (Chinese: kong) has entirely positive connotations. Nowhere is this as evident as in Laotse’s Tao te king. The most well-known quotation on the fundamental meaning—that precedes life itself—of emptiness is Laotse’s simile of the cartwheel:

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful. 4

In this sense, emptiness holds the greatest fullness, and absence of shape the greatest potential.

Du Jie’s paintings reproduce the qualitative leap indicated by this, becoming the formal-esthetic implementation of the empty/full dynamics. For what else happens during the painting process but that the trace of the brush fills an empty face with linear shapes? This is particularly visible in her first works which were still in larger formats. Owing to the material used—then still oils—her piece 2002.6 - 2002.8, for instance, develops much more clearly contoured bright patches (blank spots) than the later works done in acrylics. It is just this alternative of positive/negative inversion (white on black) which makes us entirely comprehend the fascination that lies in this almost unpredictable formation of shapes and patterns during the creative act. Sometimes elongated for considerable stretches, then again small and almost timidly curled, the wavy lines produce two-dimensional forms that are reminiscent of Keith Haring’s contour figures, and Du Jie’s story about having retraced the outlines of cartoon characters comes to mind. Only this time the figurations that develop are left to chance, the flow of the brushstroke can take its own path. And the longer the eye is allowed to follow the line, the more one is tempted to hum a melody. The line thus becomes a visible rhythm, sometimes picking up speed, sometimes losing some, to then abide by a drawn-out tone, and so on.

“Emptiness is necessary for the harmonious functioning of the yin-yang pair; it attracts the two vital breaths and draws them into the process of reciprocal becoming. Without it, yin and yang would be in a relationship of frozen opposition. They would remain static substances and be formless.” 5

Du Jie makes life-time visible as time that one has to some make use of. The potential of life, the emptiness, mutates into concrete everyday activities. This process of “filling”, all the while leaving plenty of individual choices, is also a loss in possibilities. Each decision taken dismisses all the options left unchosen. But he who does not choose at all surrenders to manipulation by extraneous powers. In Du Jie’s paintings, emptiness is nullified to a very large extent. In an almost radical way, her lines press against those already painted, conquering the space stroke by stroke, even beyond the canvas surface. There is no place for heteronomy here, not even by a doctrine requesting modesty or even self-abandonment. The artist and her art make a plea for individual freedom that is as expansive as it is quiet, powerful but at the same time judicious. In this tightrope act of hers, Du Jie never loses sight of tradition and the inherent potential of her own culture.

Borrowed Eyes

What is art? A confrontation with Du Jie’s work invariably begs that question—not that any answers are provided, of course. In their stylistic perfection, her line labyrinths fend off the suspicion of arbitrariness quite convincingly, though evading one-dimensional interpretation. The—willing—viewer is moved without the artist giving the direction. Beyond any doubt, however, Du Jie’s paintings will take Western beholders, whose visual tradition has been shaped by minimalism, to different conclusions than Chinese ones. Therefore these works certainly have one thing to offer: they invite us to face them at least twice—once with our own eyes and a second time with those of another culture.

1 English, J., Gia-Fu Feng (1972). Tao Te Ching. New York: Vintage Books.
2 Cheng, F., (1994). Empty and Full. The Language of Chinese Painting. Boston London: Shambala.
3 Young-Hae, K., Costantini, M. (1997). For a transcultural theory of iconic creation. In: Semiotics Around the World: Synthesis in Diversity (Rauch, I., Carr, G. F., eds.). Berlin New York: Walter de Gruyter Publishers. p. 289.
4 English, Gia-Fu Feng 1972 (see note 1).
5 Cheng 1994 (see note 2).

I want to thank Du Jie for the invitation to write a text about her artwork, and Su Wei for his sensitive and dedicated efforts as a translator and adviser.

Translation: Werner Richter