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Being Competent in the Power of Joy

Being Competent in the Power of Joy

Zhai Yongming


  A friend of mine once wrote in a poem: "Poetry ought to teach us to be competent in joy."


  Joy is a kind of Power, and being competent in Joy is a kind of Strength.


  We already find ourselves unable to differentiate true and false in our happiness, to discern which would better cure our chronic fin-de-siecle hysteria.  As the development of our mounting difficulties escalates: and we are faced with the problems of atomic weapons, sex and drugs; the heightened stimulus only serves to render us incompetent with joy.  How can we who helplessly play at living go about transforming the truth of life into dreams, and our dreams into the eternal truth of life?


  And so, unbearable happiness becomes the newest edition of the Sisyphus myth.  We reach the threshold of happiness on the demands of idealism, and in that split second when happiness approaches we stumble back into touch with ever-present and cruel reality.  Loss of happiness is the punishment for becoming a mature adult, therefore our nostalgia for the joy of childhood and even our very undertaking of happiness and our fear of growing up have all become important themes for the artist.


  At the extreme, we find the character Oskar in the novel "The Tin Drum" (Die Blechtrommel, 1959) by German author Günter Wilhelm Grass; refusing to join the world of grown-ups: he longed to return to the umbilical cord, but finding it had already been cut he could only turn to a form of "self-harm", to literally prevent his growing up. 


  The poet W. B. Yeats in his early works wrote a poem called "The Stolen Child" in which we see clearly the theme of escaping from reality; between the interwoven threads of fantasy and reality a child is led away from this world "With a faery, hand in hand".  In this poem Yeats repeats the line "For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand", for this reason the child follows the faery off to another world: a world whose delights Yeats describes as follows:


  "There we've hid our faery vats,


  Full of berries

  And of reddest stolen cherries."


  Because "this world's more full of weeping than you can understand"; being competent in misery has become the sickness of our times.  The feeling of bearing one's own sins, hysteria and mental abnormality has already turned the world into a rubbish heap into which humanity pours their inexhaustible fear, the passing and reappearance of desire, the proximity of death and the feeling of helplessness which accompanies it.  Excessive misery becomes a bottomless pit.  Happiness is an experience, a highly sensitive spiritual cipher, it is something that must be experienced carefully after turning away from the worldly clamour to quiet contemplation, as if it were a piece of spiritual music that will only reveal itself to the ears of one in a state of isolation.

  Therefore, in my own personal opinion, only three kinds of people hold that golden key to happiness: the minority of adults who remain "young at heart", those ancient people who lived through the simple year’s of humanity's childhood and those who are, in reality, still children.

  In Guo Jin’s canvasses I see the evergreen faery world that Yeats described in his poetry, an imaginary place complete with choirs of angels singing; in that place Guo Jin’s children live, children who are joyful yet ponderous, who appear all the more ancient because they can never grow up.  They are eternal children, a symbol of the joy we experience at having successfully cast a spell over ourselves.
Based in “the search for artistic idealism”, Guo Jin’s works allow us into his inner soul and show us that there is sufficient power in the happiness there to combat modern society – returning to the original state of mankind in the chronological sense and condensing time in the experiential sense; he uses children as an aesthetic symbol and the magic mirror of man’s childhood together with wild joy to build up his own creative language.  Of course, the memories that childhood brings are not only of the time of the wooden rocking horse, nor merely the time of swings and dinosaurs, but the time of all that which has faded away, indistinct and otherworldly, of always asking “why?” yet being unaware of the universal facts, a time still full of appealing mystery; as this time fades away from us it is recaptured and built up anew, in the rebuilding that follows the destruction of age.  This is the feeling, the joy that slowly wells up in me as I look at Guo Jin’s paintings.


  In Guo Jin’s paintings one after another of these “Stolen Children” (Yeats) are revealed, they are at the same time incomparably aged children, they are carefree, caught in the wild joy of play beyond the limits of time.  The unknown power of refusal and weakness to destroy beauty and corrupt youth brings us closer to a pure experience of life.  As for the artist’s rituals of joy, be they rocking horses, swings or dance, a journey into the mystery of outer space or a fascination with prehistoric creatures; they remain like the settled state of our subconscious that does not age with time, but casts a great shadow over any part of time we choose to revisit, and in all things we encounter.

  The artist explains it in his own words as follows, “the changes in the world around us mean that idealism is not to be found in the future that we plan, but in our nostalgic yearnings for the past, because we put idealism in the past, we can only approach it with an aesthetic attitude, this is like a waking dream, the interweaving of reality and dreams.  This becomes our own myth that calls to long-lost feeling of joy at being alive, even if it is only the ephemeral imaginings of a moment we must to do our best to retrieve that sense of idealistic beauty that we once held in our hands without even being aware of it. "

  Fifty happy little portraits express fully the period of romantic innocence in Guo Jin’s heart and his hopes and expectations of life.  The imaginings that grew during his early years are something that he shares with his contemporaries, they will give a knowing smile before these paintings, looking through the photo albums of our early years as if they had returned to the heroic cradle of youth, “on the wings of imagination” we realize the hero worship that extends from the ancient past to the present day, whether it be Mulan or Pan Dongzi, Maliang with his magic brush or a pilot, the Monkey King or the revolutionary soldier; the resource of heroes to whom he refers is vast.  He seeks to include both connotations of a child’s vague hopes and dreams of the future, whilst at the same time he highlights the heroic ideals of childhood.


  In the reality of the present day, at the end of heroism when anti-heroism takes to the stage, Guo Jin’s little portraits take us back to reflect anew upon the entire process of success and failure, this is the way that adults revisit the period of heroism that has passed away never to return, at the same time Guo Jin is an artist who acts with great respect to the dreams of childhood, who deliberately exhibits his endless hopes.  In a certain sense, that is what the artist refers to as “the beauty of idealism that we once held in our hands without even being aware of it.”

  To put it another way, the artist that creates such an eerie atmosphere possesses a pair of Oskar’s eyes that look at the world from an immature perspective, the world is suspended in an “unrealistic space” (Guo Jin’s words), “where we hide ourselves” because “the world’s too full of weeping for you to understand” (Yeat’s words).  Therefore, the joy of these earthly children that has not yet been stolen is captured forever in an eternal and extraordinary environment.  However, at the same time, the artist maintains an adult perspective, he is aware of the secret action of time.  The children in his paintings, rusted and spotted with age are ancient like terracotta soldiers or excavated relics, covered by the physical damage of age, the build-up of time, history, even of change itself, the accumulation of life’s sorrows; in the end this becomes the artist’s symbol of having passed through recollections of the vicissitudes of this life, a reflection and contemplation on the garden of our childish nature.


  The artist produces these children for us, or you could say that each adult that wishes to halt time is one of these children: they are only three, at the same time they are three hundred or three thousand years old.  They are lively children, who at the same time are elderly children.  In this minute space they show to us their true image, ancient, yet ever youthful.  Oskar, in the novel, could break glass with the pitch of his screams; Guo Jin uses a patina of age to raise the question: What is time? Without loss, nothing could come to be, just as without experiencing childhood we cannot become grown-ups; nothing is eternal, there is only the momentary.  Therefore, in Guo Jin’s paintings there is a touch of cruelty mingled in with the joy, a surreptitious smirk amongst the beautiful and, as a result, a certain passivity in the child-like imaginings.  Just as if at the very beginning of his life whilst he is still unaware of the world, this dotted and decrepit child was sighing and saying “Oh, that’s life for you!” when all of a sudden this life brings with it its playthings, its joy and imagination and descends upon us, establishing our happiness, and so we go on our way with our rocking horses, swings, UFOs and the feeling of flying.  In the end this life is just like a boomerang, that transforms the beginning into the end, bringing us back to our starting point.


  Without question, Guo Jin is an artist who understands thoroughly the traces of time, he is a man who can control time and bring us back to the beginning; whether you believe this or not you can at least see in the paintings that his own faith and beliefs do not prevent his creations from possessing a certain beauty as works of art.  Like the attitude with which he approaches art, in the current economic market, in an atmosphere of counter-flow of experience and conviction, it is not enough to identify Guo Jin’s works as merely of the avant-garde; his bravery and the strength of his competency in joy, the depth of his consideration of and care for humanity and civilization, the sorrow and joy of his temperament all originate from his concern for the true meaning of art, as a result in an age that does not consider beliefs, only he is saying, “I believe in the responsibility and honesty of art, because I still hold on to my imagination.”


  So, we could produce a modernised, happy, spiritual version of Oskar, perhaps the events of his own life are there, in his paintings: a child born at the beginning of the revolution, at seven he stopped his play, picked up his paints, caught whooping cough, observed ants, decided to grow up, put down his brush, mended car bodies, smelt the rot of rust, received his pay, listened to classical music, entered an arts academy, and then returned to the swings of childhood, smiling on the upward swing, before long he will celebrate his thirty-sixth birthday, from beginning to last he has an inexplicable love for aircraft, dinosaurs and the patterns of rust.

  Translated to English by Callisto Searle 2006




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