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Yahon Chang – Body experience as spirituality

ARTIST YAHON CHANG WAS BORN IN 1948 IN NANTOU, TAIWAN, AND STARTED PRACTICING CALLIGRAPHY AT THE AGE OF 7.

He stu­di­ed art and cal­li­gra­phy at the Natio­nal Tai­wan Art Col­le­ge, and prac­ti­ced his skills on archi­tec­tu­ral and land­s­cape design drawings as well as expe­ri­men­ting with various medi­ums which inclu­ded texts, colours, brushes, rice paper and much more. Thanks to cura­tor John­son Chang, who first invi­ted him in 1996 to a group exhi­bi­ti­on at the Han­art TZ Gal­le­ry in Tai­pei, his work was first shown in such a pro­mi­nent set­ting. A seri­es of group exhi­bi­ti­ons soon fol­lo­wed, making way to indi­vi­du­al exhi­bi­ti­ons from the year 2000 in muse­ums across Shang­hai, Tai­pei, Tokyo, Bei­jing, Han­no­ver, Ham­burg, Bar­ce­lo­na, Veni­ce and Rome.

Chang doesn’t have only one influ­ence, rather many under­ground sources of inspi­ra­ti­on. Chi­ne­se cal­li­gra­phy, for examp­le that of Wang XiZhi, who lived during the Jin dynas­ty (ca. 265–420), and the ‘mogu’ tech­ni­que of Shi Tao and Bado Shan­nen, can all be found in his work. Sin­ce his child­hood, Yahon Chang has been invol­ved with the art and histo­ry of Chi­na and rela­tes his explo­si­ve drawings and pain­tings to the Zen pain­tings of the Qing dynas­ty. The wes­tern art of the 20th cen­tu­ry has also taught a lot to Chang: take the pain­tings of Picas­so, Matis­se, de Koo­ning and Ame­ri­can abs­tract expres­sio­nists such as Franz Kli­ne and Jack­son Pollock.

Swiss sculp­tor Alber­to Gia­co­met­ti repre­sen­ted a torn and indi­vi­du­al depi­ti­on of the human body and soul with his elon­ga­ted sculp­tures. The exis­tence of man­kind, its pain and sor­row, its rela­ti­on with life and death are all exis­ten­ti­al topics reflec­ted in wes­tern and eas­tern art sin­ce the start of histo­ry of art.“ In 2015, Chang crea­ted a huge, exten­si­ve room instal­la­ti­on tit­led The Ques­ti­on of Bein­gs for the Bien­na­le of Veni­ce, a work typi­fy­ing his pro­duc­tion and his thoughts on art. The instal­la­ti­on fea­tured shapes and faces that had a gloo­my, asce­tic and est­ran­ging effect on the view­ers. Chang recent­ly told me during an inter­view that, ‘It’s even more dif­fi­cult to paint an ugly pain­ting, that it is to crea­te a beau­ti­ful one. Extre­me ugli­ness is the begin­ning of beauty.’

The artist also says the fol­lowing about his tech­ni­que, which most­ly sees him working on the floor on a lar­ge rice paper sur­face, ‚ ‘I am good at using odd brushes. The way I wie­ld, use and con­trol my brush has never been seen befo­re.’  Now and again, work remi­nis­cent of Ame­ri­can artist Jack­son Pol­lock crops up. He used to pro­du­ce his pain­tings with big, expres­si­ve move­ments, by fli­cking paint on the ground and allowing abs­tract forms to melt into one ano­t­her. Pol­lock crea­ted a new, expres­si­ve form of pain­ting with his Action Pain­ting from 1946 onwards by shaking and thro­wing streaks and splas­hes of colour across the can­vas pla­ced on the ground using the moti­on of his body. This grand, phy­si­cal, ges­tu­ral expe­ri­ence is simi­lar to that of Chang’s; howe­ver, he wie­l­ds his lar­ger than life tailo­red brush in his hands to trans­po­se the rhythm of his body onto the paper with the same grand and gre­at movements.

Reli­gi­on and spi­ri­tua­li­ty are important the­mes for Yahon Chang. As a Bud­dhist, he stu­di­ed, among others, Zen Bud­dhism and tantric Bud­dhism. His seri­es of well-known mon­ks pain­ted on rice paper, which inclu­de Jian­zehn and Kukai, pass on the tea­chings of Bud­dha, while Mas­ter Chan Yin, who con­vin­ced the artist about Bud­dhism, gave him spi­ri­tu­al enligh­ten­ment and know­ledge under­pin­ning his work. When spea­king about Chris­tia­ni­ty, Chang says, ‘I trust in God, not in my own abi­li­ties. Jesus shares my bur­dens and relie­ves me of my stress.’  In Chang’s Faces, view­ers will glim­pse all kinds of faces. From pai­ned­w­re­cked peop­le to evil gri­maces, the dark and white play of light frees their fears, emo­ti­ons, and inse­cu­ri­ties. Often, their eyes come across as empty or dead, out of reach for the view­ers, mys­ti­cal and limi­t­ing. Even the colour­ful groups of faces are an impres­si­ve unity. The com­po­si­ti­ons thi­c­ken thanks to the colours used, the specks of abs­tract bot­ches of colour con­ce­al the facial expres­si­ons and turn them into a near­ly unre­co­gnis­able mass.

Often gou­ache colours mix with black ink and the colour tex­tures over­lap. A tur­bu­lent mix of parts of faces, pudd­les of colour and abs­tract forms emer­ge. ‘For the Veni­ce Bien­na­le exhi­bi­ti­on, the four walls along with the cei­ling and the floo­rs are all black and white, while the pil­lars are colour­ful I con­ti­nued to paint for over 14 days. That sum­mer in Veni­ce was incredi­ble humid, my pain­ting was soa­ked in mois­tu­re and fai­led to dry pro­per­ly. My last resort was to trans­fer the can­vas to a Hotel room, whe­re I blas­ted the hea­ting fan to dry the pain­ting; only then was I able to com­ple­te this grand pro­ject in time.’  Yahon Chang ’s new pro­jects will take him to sou­thern Ita­ly whe­re he will paint in cur­si­ve cal­li­gra­phy. His inspi­ra­ti­on ori­gi­na­tes most­ly from Asi­an art which is dif­fe­rent from the wes­tern art of abs­tract expres­sio­nism due to its medi­ta­ti­ve com­po­nent. ‘The focus of my crea­ti­on will be to reflect the spi­ri­tu­al eupho­ria and emo­ti­ons, using bold strokes and vivid splas­hes of ink to cap­tu­re the dyna­mic of joy wit­hin.

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She lived in New York and Los Angeles from 1988 to 2003, where she was curator at the Eli Broad Art Foundation in Santa Monica, one of the largest private collections of contemporary art in the USA. At the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, Steffen initiated, among other things, the Hugo Boss Art Sponsorship Prize. She founded the International Director's Council (IDC), which, together with a group of international art collectors, financed the purchase of contemporary art. Steffen curated the following exhibitions in Europe: "Francis Bacon und die Bildtradition", Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna; "Visions of America", Sammlung Essl, Klosterneuburg; "Vienna 1900 - Klimt, Schiele und ihre Zeit", Fondation Beyeler, Basel; "Gerhard Richter - Aquarelle und Zeichnungen", Albertina, Vienna.

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