Going Outside at NanHai Art: The Solitary Landscapes of He Kunlin and Tong Yi Xin

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Going Outside at NanHai Art: The Solitary Landscapes of He Kunlin and Tong Yi Xin

By Christopher Frank Blackmore October 2, 2018

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


In advertising and parochial images, monumental landscapes of the countryside offer pastoral retreats, idylls for the woes of civilized life. But upon advancing closer to such images, one can find evidence of dissent. The partisans always take to the hills, after all.  

Going Outside at NanHai Art, curated by Betti-Sue Hertz, features the work of the China-born, US-based multidisciplinary artists He Kunlin and Tong Yi Xin, who find common ground in shared preoccupations of landscape, social critique, and a measured embrace of contemporary transnational, digitized culture. The white-box exhibition venue is unassumingly located among the low rises and strip malls of Millbrae, equidistant from San Francisco and Silicon Valley, which might offer an auspicious analogy for the way the two artists of Going Outside live and work: close to the action but at sufficient remove to remain outsiders. 

He Kunlin. Trauma Landscape, 2018; video with sound; 14’05”. Courtesy of NanHai Art. Photo: He Kunlin.

At heart, the exhibition works to propose a starting point, however tentative, for a rethinking of masculinity through the representation of landscape. Many of He Kunlin and Tong Yi Xin’s pieces contemplate Eastern masculinity within North American natural environments typically seen through the West’s sovereign gaze, one characteristically gridded by a rational, three-point perspective. They impose upon these spaces a classical Chinese pictorial approach that allows the viewer to enter and wander. He Kunlin’s acrylic-and-ink paintings, No.1 and No.2 California Wildfire 2017 (2018), offer a series of intimate firefighting vignettes across an infinite blank background. Tong’s video, Fisherman’s Words - Who Cares (2018), uses down-pitched speech, choppy minimalist images, and monochromatic treatments to impressionistically depict the solitary ritual of fishing. Both artists’ representational strategies embrace the allure of individuated myth-making, the transformative possibilities of exile, and the re-negotiation of one’s civilizational roots. 

For Westerners, this line of thought may call to mind early nineteenth-century American transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. However, the direct philosophical reference point in Going Outside is the Xiaoxiang art and literature produced by exiled Chinese government officials for over a thousand years, from at least the third century BCE through the Song Dynasty (960–1279). Also important for the artists of Going Outside are the literati landscape paintings of the Song, Yuan (1279–1368), and Ming (1368–1644) dynasties, with their sense of educated, moral self-expression and spirituality.

He Kunlin. No.1 California Wildfire 2017, 2018; acrylic and ink drawing on three layers (muslin, mylar, and acrylic sheet); 30 x 72 in. Courtesy of NanHai Art. Photo: Paul Hsu.

Channeling this tradition within a radically different milieu, He’s contributions to Going Outside explore the landscape of the Bay Area and the national parks of his new home. In his video Trauma Landscape (2017), a drone flies over the devastation wrought by the 2017 California wildfires, shooting weapons at random targets. The bizarre, hyper-contemporary spectacle offers not only an assertion of masculinity through the violence of gaming but also a vision of a proximate landscape that feels like a distant world. Another video piece, Ghost Face Cun (2015), imparts a similar sense of the uncannyMeditating on a chain-sawed tree in San Francisco, He gives the stumpy remnants a range of poetic spirit-names according to grain and shape, overlaying a typical nature scene with Chinese cosmology.

Elsewhere, He’s two-channel video Chinese Masculinity (2018)—which draws on Kam Louie’s historical survey of male archetypes in Theorising Chinese Masculinity—examines his own character vis-à-vis the classic Confucian dichotomy of male identity: wen (文, gentleman-scholar qualities) and wu (武, martial prowess and valor). In a series of fluidly cinematic vignettes, the artist portrays himself as a lonely, pampered MacBook obsessive in a slim tailored suit. One scene shows a close-up of the book jacket of The Silent Traveller in San Francisco by the China-born, self-exiled poet, artist, and travel writer Chiang YeeIllustrated with Chiang’s literati-style ink-wash painting of the Golden Gate Bridge, the cover art anticipates another scene in which Tong Yi Xin, making a cameo as a philosopher-fisherman evoking both wen and wu, gazes from the Marin Headlands onto the iconic bridge in a landscape shrouded in fog.

Tong Yi Xin. Animalistic Punk - Fish, 2018; jacquard tapestry, galvanized metal tube, steel eye bolts; 54 x 108 x 3 in. Courtesy of NanHai Art. Photo: Paul Hsu.

Tong’s guest appearance in He’s piece is a nod to the former’s embrace of the Daoist notion of yu yin, which romanticizes the stoic, solitary fisherman lifestyle. Yu yin is a persistent leitmotif across Tong’s self-authored works, such as Water Is in Front of the Bushes (2016), which presents a real-time video record of him jogging briskly to his Brooklyn fishing post, without a soul to be found en route. A warped voiceover breathlessly catalogues his excited thoughts on the overgrown nature around him and then rattles off an exhaustive list of fish species he might be able to catch. Working within a more formally restrained mode, Tong’s two jacquard tapestries of formidable size, Animalistic Punk - Skate (2018) and Animalistic Punk - Fish (2018), blend fishing-trip photographs, technical illustrations, junk, and landscape to create an out-of-time tableau that evokes anachronistic pseudo-scientific illustration and computer-generated composite image. Tong’s ritual of city fishing and hyper-specific, accumulated knowledge associated with craft organizes its own makeshift system for being in the world—a limited but nonetheless complete means of organizing one’s time and thoughts.

Tong Yi Xin. NYC Fishing Trip - Water Is in Front of the Bushes - Calvert Vaux Park, 2016; video with sound; 4’39”. Courtesy of NanHai Art. Photo: Yi Xin Tong.

In introducing the breadth of themes encompassing contemporary Chinese male identity, and the identity politics and macro-political dimensions of landscape, the exhibition succeeds. In retrieving historical concepts of aesthetics and political economy, and re-inscribing them within a contemporary, diasporic, and transnational context, Tong and He offer a test pilot for a way of seeing the world that is both site-specific and diffuse. One can also imagine Going Outside as having been mounted as a more comprehensive group show, insofar as the exhibition points to the broader changing preoccupations of Chinese contemporary artists working transnationally, artists for whom new emphases on geography and presence become an antidote to technological displacement and cultural disembodiment. 

An imaginative, pluralistic use of history challenges the strange but abiding assumptions of nationalisms presiding over cultures, for cultures are, of course, in and of themselves portable and transformable. Going Outside is at its most compelling when the Chinese philosophical and aesthetic concepts are discreetly embedded within contemporary images and technologies, challenging expectations of witnessing cultural otherness and intimating instead the possibility of a more dynamic realization of digital technology’s putative claims to cultural universalism. In doing so, both artists anticipate a future that seems more likely than most: one in which humanity exists as a variegated crossroads of other histories and ways of being, in discordance and in concert. 

Going Outside is on view at NanHai Art in Millbrae through October 13, 2018.

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