Reality and fantasy
Beauty of the garden inspires artist to paint
Several years ago, artist Yu Hong came across an abandoned garden in a Beijing suburb. She walked through it and saw many nearly complete concrete pavilions built in traditional Chinese style and lotus blooming in a pool.
“It was a sunny day, and the blue sky and white clouds were reflected in the water. The flourishing lotus formed a sharp contrast with the pavilions that were in bad shape. The scene looked so beautiful,” recalls the 50-year-old painter, who is also a professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts.
The beauty of the garden inspired Yu to paint A Garden of Dreams last year, an oil work on canvas in which she reproduced the scene in the garden: blue sky, a pavilion, the pool and the lotus bloom. And she juxtaposed with the scene incidents and stories from the past and present, East and West, including plane crashes, explosions, child refugees and ancient Chinese fables, through which viewers can feel a mixture of reality and fantasy.
The huge painting, almost 10 meters in width, is now the centerpiece of her exhibition of the same title.
The display at CAFA’s Art Museum includes 19 oil paintings and three glass sculptures.
The title, A Garden of Dreams, or Youyuan Jingmeng in Chinese, is borrowed from the Chinese Kunqu Opera classic The Peony Pavilion, or Mudan Ting, which is based on the work of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) playwright Tang Xianzu.
The original play is based on a romantic encounter between an official’s daughter, Du Liniang, and a young scholar, Liu Mengmei.
But what Yu communicates through her painting is unrelated to the plot.
She says the phrase “youyuan jingmeng (walking in the garden and having an interrupted dream)” is to show that when one takes a stroll, one is bound to encounter unexpected, surprising things.
In the painting, she portrays the wellknown Chinese fable “mangren moxiang”, or blind people touching an elephant.
The story is about how a group of blind people try to visualize what an elephant looks like by touching it and how they have arguments about their conclusions as their perceptions differ.
Her portrayal satirizes those who believe that they can see the whole issue in a given situation when they are aware only about a part of the issue.
Yu reinterprets the fable in a modern context, saying: “Everybody believes they are smart enough to get the whole idea. However, we really know very little about what is going on, and it is likely that we often misjudge the situation.”
In her work, she also alludes to the global refugee crisis by painting babies placed in basins in grass, and among them is a refugee child lying on his back on a beach. This is a reference to the death of Turkish refugee child Alan Kurdi, who was found on a Turkish beach last September, which brought the Syrian refugee crisis to the attention of the world.
Speaking about her work, Yu, who graduated from CAFA, says: “Living in today’s world means we usually know what is happening far away through the media. The events may not seem directly relevant to us but they affect everyone. I hope to be able to portray this.”
Since the 1990s Yu has been focusing on the mental wellbeing of young artists.
“I’ve discovered a lot of heartbreak among this group. Being sensitive, fragile, helpless and honest, they want respect and love but they are often misunderstood. These feelings become the subjects ofmy creations,” she says.
In the painting Shouzhu Daitu (Waiting for gain without pain), a youngwoman squats on the top of a cluster of traffic lights that are facing in different directions, showing how people get lost in the pursuit of gain.
But Yu softens the scene with a poetic touch: She adds several willow twigs that stroke the woman’s body.
In her other paintings, she portrays girls who strike gymnastic poses against backgrounds like sheer cliffs. Through this, she tries to show the tension and feelings of crisis that these characters face.
Zhan Jianjun, an oil painter and Yu’s mentor when she was a student at CAFA, says her work reveals her keen, delicate observations and deep concerns for society, even as her skilled, expressive brushwork delights fans.
Yu says that both the optimistic and pessimistic sides of society are reflected in her work. “The core of creation can’t be taught. It is something one is born with or learns from life.
“The world has changed fast. But if one is detached from the changes your work lacks depth,” she says.
Artist Yu Hong’s (above) ongoing exhibition at the Art Museum of the Central Academy of Fine Arts includes the show’s centerpiece, AGardenofDreams (top), paintings that portray girls who strike gymnastic poses against backgrounds of sheer cliffs, and a glass sculpture.