Speaking of painting, Kong Lingnan said, "[I chose to be a painter] because I'm not in favor of uncontrollable things. I have studied painting since a young age and have developed this interest all the way from the arts academy affiliated high school to the Academy of Fine Arts to the Central Academy of Fine Arts. So painting is something I am very familiar with and can complete independently." Obsessed with painting though, Kong had suddenly disappeared from the public view for a while after holding several solo exhibitions in art museums and galleries. In the past few years, she started bringing her works back into the limelight. She still works on painting, but unlike her previous large-scale works with vibrant fluorescent colors, the smaller paintings she created in the past two years feature tranquil palettes and delicate details, which are in line with her current mentality and attitude - taking a step backward and accomplishing self-transcendence through painting is a "gentle" response to the present world.
In February, Kong Lingnan's solo exhibition "Shepherding Fish" was presented at Capsule Shanghai, which is undoubtedly the most intuitive depiction of her current attitude. At the exhibition, more than twenty small and delicate paintings were displayed in the gallery, featuring themes of starry skies, islands, mountains, and a series of works entitled "Calcination", "Dissolution" and "Chaos", which can be viewed as an in-depth dialogue between the artist and her inner self.
Alchemy is the main source of her inspiration to create the exhibits. It is a spiritual symbol of self-realization and self-transcendence, as Swiss psychologist Carl Jung also borrowed the process of alchemy to correspond to his psychological theory of "the Ego and the Self". Taking "Shepherding Fish" as the starting point, we interviewed Kong Linnan and started a conversation about her story with painting.
When it comes to the motivation for why she went to the High School Affiliated to the Academy of Fine Arts and choose a career as an artist, Kong Lingnan said she had a passion for painting from a young age. Although she wasn't sure what art was as a child, she made up her mind to be an artist in the future.
In junior high school, she learned that there were specialized art schools like the High School Affiliated to the Academy of Fine Arts, so she tried to convince her parents to support her study there. Despite his father's objection at the beginning, her family eventually supported her decision.
After graduating from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 2007 with a degree in Graphic Design, Kong took on a design job, but not long after, she turned to painting, the creative medium that had fascinated her since childhood. In her early series such as "Four Seasons" and "Beach", against the dark background of the canvas are colorful and luminous outlines depicting undulating mountains, isolated islands, and miniature human figures in various postures.
These images often take an overlooking perspective, blurring human traces in the natural environment. It also matches Kong's worldview to observe the world from a distance and question human civilization and the meaning itself as a spectator.
From 2011 to 2017, Kong Lingnan's artistic career seemed very smooth to onlookers. Almost every year, she had a solo exhibition in an art museum or gallery. She also appeared in programs at UCCA and Art Basel Hong Kong … Looking back at this experience, Kong said, "Lots of things happened fast in a time. Everything was so smooth in all aspects. So now when I look back, I'm a little confused."
After years of regular creation and exhibitions, Kong realized that she was stuck in a creative bottleneck, unable to find the right way to express herself and her experiments were always unsuccessful. Embattled by this, she decided to study for an MA in Fine Art at Chelsea College of Arts in the UK, after the conclusion of a solo exhibition at Gallery Yang in Beijing in 2017. She spent her days in the UK attending school classes, seeing exhibitions, and going to various concerts with friends. One of her frequently visited venues is the Southbank Centre in London, not far from where she lived. Beyond those, she concentrated on creating.
She still misses those times, especially when she was able to work independently and make her tables and frames for display after mastering skills like carpentry and casting.
However, after experimenting with sculpture, video, and other forms, her dilemma with painting persisted. "It was not until 2020 that I gradually found the current direction and a 'right sense'," she told us in the interview, "I think it is a slow process of transformation that requires time and patience. It is necessary to accumulate both nutrition and various failed attempts."
An Exhibition Close to Heart
The "transformation" Kong refers to is a gradual shift from a spectator perspective to a value that one has established and believed to be meaningful, and one will practice in depth. She regained the creative impetus of painting in 2020, and this "transformation" became evident in the exhibition "Shepherding Fish".
"This exhibition is a very important process that is very close to my heart. These paintings are like a strong spiritual comfort to me." explained Kong Lingnan when talking about the exhibition.
According to Carl Jung's theory, everyone is born with a blueprint, and the most important purpose of one's life is to become what he or she is meant to be. Specifically, it is to realize oneself and find the Self. Therefore, he was concerned with men's spiritual growth and compared this process to alchemy.
Therefore, this series of works by Kong Lingnan also revolves around various phases of alchemy and its representations.
She explained that the greatness of alchemy lies in the process of creating transmutations of matter in fire. The three main phases are black, white, and red, corresponding to the states of "chaos", "sublimation" and "philosopher's stone" respectively.
In Chaos, the main color is black, referring to the untouched and uncultivated "Self" in chaos. But bright dots and some obscure lines (veins) can be identified, indicating the starting point for one's spiritual growth.
The next phase is the "calcination" process. The images of both homonymous paintings have a flame-like appearance but are interspersed with a few brown lines.
In the artist's eyes, the lines devoured by the flame refer to men's rational spirit. The process of calcination also epitomizes one's independence from the material world, freedom from a material-based value judgment, and care for one's own heart. To truly have a free mind, men need to constantly reflect and liberate themselves from established or authoritative control.
In the works that follow, the palette lightens, and the images are shifting from fire to water. In Dissolution, the spiritual meaning of water is directed to dreams and the subconscious mind, as opposed to the ability of fire to transform matter.
Therefore, in Dissolution, Kong used soft colors such as blue, yellow, and white to render a scenery as gentle and calm as rippling water, referring to how a person learns to embrace subconsciousness after experiencing trials and tribulations, and how to approach the self after reflection and struggle. Of course, the interspersed lines in the painting are also a reflection of one's consciousness at the moment.
After "dissolution", the next phase of alchemy is separation, which means one has to remove some "impurities" based on value judgment and reconstruct a new inner world. On top of this new world, the human spirit enters into the phase of "fermentation" and continues with self-realization.
In this painting, Kong applied a variety of colors to construct a circle like a galaxy in the universe. "This phase is called 'peacock's tail' in alchemy as matter takes on many different colors" she explained.
This series symbolizes spiritual growth, similar to our upbringing in real life, which is not accomplished in one go but goes through a back-and-forth process. After several refinements, the material obtained through alchemy is sublimated and solidified into the Philosopher's Stone, which begins to emerge gradually in a way the "Self" of "self-realization" appears from subconsciousness, allowing people to get a clearer idea of the "Self."
Speaking about the exhibition title "Shepherding Fish," Kong Lingnan explained that it comes from The Book of Lamspring, a book of alchemy. The author used 15 allegorical drawings to depict the journey of substantial alchemy and "inner alchemy". The first drawing depicts two fish swimming toward each other near the center of the image, with the city on the right and the forest on the left. The fish symbolizes the subconscious mind and the potential self, while the forest and the city in the distance symbolize the "uncultivated" subconscious mind and the "planned" consciousness. Therefore, the verb "shepherd" in the title represents the cultivation of men's potential self.
From A Spectator to A Constructor of the Inner World
In the interview, Kong Lingnan shared with us a book that she recently read, Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky. She has a great resonance with one of the descriptions of spirituality: "From a broad perspective, the spiritual refers to the transcendence of men's general experience… Men's transcendence, in a universal sense, requires an attempt to negate the self that is subjected to the conventions of the world and history… Furthermore, out of this negation, the power of egoless and extensive love will be released… The key is to understand that 'spiritual transcendence' does not simply point to an exalted God, but the transcendence of the self; the goal of spiritual transcendence lies in man himself."
This inner freedom from authority (whether it be man or God) is what Kong has always pursued. The accumulation over the past few years is also her active choice to go through this transformation.
She also considered the difference between her previous works and current ones. "For those who know about my work, they can find the coherence: the relationship between men and the world. In my previous works, I was more like a spectator, questioning the world and the meaning itself, from the outside." Kong says, "But what I'm doing is establishing a value that I'm convinced is meaningful, and study it in depth and put it into practice."
Many works in the solo exhibition can be seen as a community of elements that are closest to the artist's heart and real life, including alchemical images that symbolize spiritual growth, and some portraits of her close friends. The abstract geometric images and specific colors illustrate the distinct personalities of her friends who are either confident and straightforward or erratic like the wind.
The identity of the creator is more important than being an artist
An essay written by curator and critic Shen Boliang, in conjunction with the exhibition "Shepherding Fish" has completely departed from the traditional exhibition press release. It depicts each of Kong's paintings in a delicate and refined language as if the writing was another creation in parallel with Kong's art.
"On the layer of color that dries, another layer is applied, to make it solid as a hard frame, and a smooth as soft grease…" Shen gives such a vivid description of the colors in Kong's paintings. The textures of the image bounce on the paper with exquisite and accurate details.
As the medium Kong is most familiar with, painting is a retreat where she can express her thoughts and emotions, and her elaborated paintings present a kind of craftsman's spirit.
"Now I think that paintings or my favorite things should stand up to scrutiny and careful observation. Good artwork is not necessarily visually strong and eye-catching. Instead, it can be composed and quiet and can create a subtle resonance with emotions." She said.
Similarly, as an artist, Kong Lingnan seems to value the identity of the "creator" more. Whether you are a painter, a writer, or a dancer, as long as you create, you are constructing your own kingdom of freedom.
In a world where everyone is mired in uncertainty and the constant pursuit of excitement and consumption, Kong Lingnan treats painting as a coping mechanism for her. Despite the different views on art, she believes that art is ultimately spiritual sustenance for men and can exist beyond times.
When creating, she usually unfolds two or three canvases at the same time and spends quite a long time completing them. When talking about her current state of life and work, she said she was a very indoor person, "When facing a difficult situation, everyone has their solution, and each way is necessary and has a reason to exist.
She reveals that the paintings she is working on are related to one of her favorite poets, Robert Lax. The American poet has lived on a small island in Greek near Turkey for more than two decades and led a simple monastic life. She has visited Patmos, the very island where the poet spent more than a decade, to see the environment where this hermit, who has shed spiritual burdens, once lived.
Such a state of mind is what she read in Kandinsky's book, "The spiritual transcendence in Kandinsky's art, described by Freud as an 'Oceanic Experience,' provides the individual with a healthy escape, self-indulgence, temporarily isolation from the reality around while being integrated with the larger reality… allowing one to keep the innocent self…"
Editor: Elaine Tan
Executive Editor: Deng Kailei
English Translator: Rachel Xu