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Asia Society’s Lalan Exhibition from the Eyes of the Curators

We sat down with Doris Poon and Tiffany Law the curators of Asia Society Hong Kong’s latest exhibition — Extended Figure: The Art and Inspiration of Lalan (27 April - 19 September 2021) — to discuss Lalan’s legacy.

Views of the Exhibition Extended Figure: The Art and Inspiration of Lalan at Asia Society Hong Kong Center

HONG KONG. This exhibition marks the centennial of Zie Jing-Lan the abstract Chinese artist, known beyond being the wife of Zao Wou-Ki, the show is an expression of her impact on Asia and Europe, weaving outside East-West sentimentalities and between her personal relationships.

Tiffany Law started as a practicing artist before stepping into curation, where she looks to explore artistic relationships, the ones between exhibition and society. In a true sense, the dialogues we have with art. For Doris Poon, her expertise flow between discovering the ideologies, concepts, and creative processes of artistic expression. We can see these curatorial practices intertwined throughout the exhibition as expressions of Lalan’s inner mind, psychology, and her delicate balance between music, dance and painting.

Interview by Sarah Wei.

Sarah Wei: Could you take us through your curatorial process for the ‘Extended Figure: The Art and Inspiration of Lalan’ exhibition?

Doris Poon: In the very beginning, we struggled a lot as we didn’t have much research or archival materials to pull from. Also, Lalan didn't have a lot of media interviews at that time because her ideas were new to the community. It’s the reason why we found it very difficult to understand her ideas as she didn’t talk too much about her works.

We tried to explore new perspectives to view her works — deciding to split the exhibition into different creative periods.

Tiffany Law: When we see part of her works at galleries or in storage, we analyze how environment and philosophy influence her. When we see the works in front of us, we do feel an energy behind them.

Looking through the lens of a painter, I can connect the dots and see how these theories are applied to her works, which is very amazing. Seeing the works in the gallery now, we can have a full picture of how dance and music influence her works.

Xie Jinglan, Untitled 無題 (1994), Oil on canvas 布本油彩, 195 x 130 cm

SW: You're talking a lot about connecting the dots and Lalan’s creative inspirations. Could you speak more on the exhibition themes?

DP: It is easy to present female artists who have overseas experience and join topics of West meets East, and how people transform their cultural heritage into other fields of art. At first, we also thought this would be an appropriate framework to talk about Lalan. However, when we studied more into her artistic journey, we found she kept exploring multiple disciplines and didn’t talk a lot about how to modify the Chinese art language or art mediums. Therefore, we think the framework should be about herself, choosing the title of one of her works, Extended Figure, as our curatorial theme.

At first, she wanted to express herself, so she stopped with abstract paintings and tried to use brushstrokes to expand herself. Then, she encountered social unrest, which created a desire to take the audience into an imagery place, in perfect equilibrium, so she added curative elements to her landscape paintings [to express this]. Afterward, she turned to be more objective and immersed herself into nature, capturing moments in the environment. She kept stepping out of herself, again linking to the title theme and exhibition name ’Extended Figure.’

In our curatorial process, we tried to focus on how she transformed ideas. How Lalan stepped out of herself to connect with other people, as well as connect to herself and with the universe.

Xie Jinglan, Dual of Words, Quarrel Between Light and Dark | Duel des mots, dispute de la lumière et de l’ombre 光影鬥 語字戰 (1963), Oil on canvas 布本油彩, 162 x 114 cm

Xie Jinglan, The Dancer | La danseuse 女舞者 (1970), Oil on canvas 布本油彩, 89 x 130 cm

SW: How are these themes, from nature to the environment, a reflection of LaLan’s inner psychology? In what ways, have you seen it develop over time?

TL: As a painter, there is definitely a spiritual quest. There is something you're seeking behind a pictorial space. Every stroke you paint is emotional like a landscape, which is a reflection of your mind and changes in perspectives.

As a self-taught painter, in the beginning, she was more conservative before she started to project her ideas into landscapes inviting the audience to go in. That's an elevation in practice that opens up herself a space to meditate.

To create momentum, she creates splashes of paint that are immediately shown on the canvas, which also means you can't change it. This is another level of inner psychology because it means you are embracing the moment of creation, which is not about contemplation or thinking. In this sense, she embraces her true self. Outside of the paintbrush, using music and dance. She used her body to express, not just in motion and so pushed different boundaries of expression.

Dance Performer for Extended Figure: The Art and Inspiration of Lalan

SW: This expression plays straight into her being a multidisciplinary artist. How do you think this affects her art and how have you seen it take shape?

TL: Before painting, she practiced as a vocal singer, then dance in Paris. This shaped her as a painter. As a multidisciplinary artist, she focused on rhythm.

All these elements shaped her as a painter, which also suited the time, during the post-expressionist movement. We can see on the canvas that she was focusing on the movements rather than details. Although there was surrealism too, she put her eye on post-expressionism. From here, we can see her growth as an artist.

In the early 1970s, she shifted focus to music and performance using her canvas works as a backdrop to her performances. She researched all of these elements and melded them together. But still, I would say she's a painter because at last, she chose to return to painting to express herself.

SW: Do you think her dance and vocal practice came before painting and painting was a result of her wanting to express those movements?

TL: Yes, I think she found it is as the finale. Dance and music can only be presented separately. So for me, painting on canvas represents artworks where these three elements are not separated.

Xie Jinglan, Forms Come Out of the Blue and the Green| Les Formes Sortent du Bleu et du Vert 從藍綠中產生的形象 (1972), Oil on canvas 布本油彩, 195 x 260 cm, diptych 雙聯作

SW: Where do you think Lalan's drive for art and this practice comes from?

DP: Lalan studied at Hangzhou National College of Art, where she met her first husband Zao Wou-Ki at 15 years old. As a painter, she had already been exposed to art scenes for a long time. Her friends and her peers were also a group of people practice in the arts. However, she started to create her attraction scenes after her second marriage, encouraged by her then husband.

SW: Where does your motivation to create this exhibition come from?

DP: I really want people to have a better understanding of her works and her inspirations because lots of people have the impression that Lalan was the first wife of a very famous painter. We want the people to know about her different sources of inspiration.

How this amazing lady stepped out from her comfort zone and kept exploring different practices and artistic forces to develop her own visual language.

TL: For my motivations because of the cultural riches during Lalan’s time, there was no television and internet. People could only sit at home and think about what to do after the chaos of World War II. All the artists, painters, writers, poets, and sculptors tended to reach out to all kinds of art forms to seek meaning in their lives.

I feel maybe Lalan was also motivated by the phenomenal things around her, so she also urged herself to project herself in some art forms. She was more focused on herself and how she could break the boundaries. Going beyond a professionalized knowledge in music or dance, many people would just stop there but Lalan tried to break the boundaries.

She was a non-stop working painter, which is something I should remind myself of, and she did it as a female artist. She is her own legend.

Xie Jinglan, Rocks, Rocks, My Brothers, I Salute You | Rochers, Rochers, mes frères, je vous 岩石,岩石,我的兄弟 ,我向您致 (1974), Oil on canvas 布本油彩 130 x 195.5 cm

SW: How do you think she influences artists now?

DP: Lalan kept working on her art practice until the very last moments of her life. She kept learning from different people and ideas. I think it is quite important for people in today's society. Sometimes, we may feel we have already met our age and we don’t need to explore something new but stick with our own professions. Sometimes, we lose our self-confidence when we are growing up. I really appreciate that she kept exploring herself even until her 70s, developing new works and connecting with new artists. I want the people to appreciate her passion for self-exploration and keep exploring themselves.

TL: Her works were very contemporary at that time because of her music compositions and dance as well as paintings. She is even more contemporary than all the artists right now. We saw her develop different kinds of mediums and present all of them in one work. Her presence and this exhibition remind people and practicing artists to keep exploring themselves and find a form that can combine all their thoughts, which is something an artist should achieve in their life.

DP: Also, for lots of multi-disciplinary artworks, artists will adopt a collaborative approach to create the artworks. Lalan is an artist who masters different practices very well. She's more like a director behind the scenes trying to make sure that different elements construct a coherent harmony.

Xie Jinglan, At Full Moon | À la Peine Lune 月圓時 (1984), Oil on canvas 布本油彩, 114 x 195 cm

SW: It sounds Lalan was very much a creative director as well as an artist. It ties into the programming of talks and performances alongside the exhibition. What are your favorite works of the exhibition and why?

TL: My favorite work is At Full Moon because, in terms of a painting, it shows tranquil scenery. She blended the background, a normal feature of abstract art, and in front of it, she painted a mountainscape with Chinese painting techniques, although she used oil paintings.

It reflects a part of me that is trying to blend in and also bring innovative thoughts onto a canvas. It is really a coherent and peaceful scene. I particularly like that she hung a moon on the top left of the canvas and then blended in the blue and a slight yellowish pale tone color reflected from the moonlight. You can really resonate with a Chinese landscape painting.

Xie Jinglan, Go with the Wind | Va avec le vent 隨風飄逝 (1968), Oil on canvas 布本油彩, 195 x 194 cm, diptych 雙聯作

DP: My favorite one is Go with the Wind. You will see it in the first chamber. At that time, she had already developed abstract art for almost eight or nine years, but you can still see her energy from that painting. She used a lot of explosive brushstrokes to depict the work.

That work is around two meters high, so Lalan had to use her whole body to create this piece. If you know about the artist, you will know she just got divorced then. She was using the laundry room of her second husband’s parents’ house as her art studio, so it was hard conditions for art-making. However, she still made it, so you can definitely feel her energy from it.

SW: Self-exploration and emotion play big roles in her practice. You also can see it in the artworks and when you're standing in the room you can feel that energy and atmosphere. What do you hope viewers can learn from this exhibition?

TL: For viewers, I really want them to not analyze an abstract painting, but feel the energy. With 32 abstract paintings in a large format, you can feel immersed in the composition and different kinds of layered paint done by Lalan. I want them to imagine how it is painted.

DP: I want the audience to regard Lalan as an individual artist. When they talk about her works, they won't compare her works with others. People can just focus on their own artistic practice.

Xie Jinglan, Untitled 無題(1974-1976), Oil on canvas 布本油彩, 81 x 130.5 cm

Find out more about the exhibition and events at Asia Society Hong Kong website and follow them on Instagram at @asiasocietyhk.

All images courtesy of Asia Society Hong Kong Center.


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