“Ascesis of the immediate, of the lightning bolt.” --Henri Michaux, Ideograms in China (New York: New Directions, 2002).
——Gary Michael Dault
a writer, artist and art critic in Toronto，Canada
Cicadas Zen series 006,Mixed Media, 15.7''X15.7'',2016
In the North America I grew up in, the sound of the cicada—its illimitable chant all through the quiet nights of summer—was the sound that heralded all greater silences.
If, as a writer, you wish to craft prose that will embody a deep silence on your page, you can simply evoke a nearby cicada, invisible in a tree, and its utterances will plunge the rest of your scene into a profound, almost palpable stillness. Here, for example, is Sylvia Plath, in her 1963 novel, The Bell Jar: “As my mother and I approached the summer heat bore down on us, and a cicada started up, like an aerial lawnmower, in the heart of a copper beech at the back. The sound of the cicada only served to underline the enormous silence” (London: Faber and Faber, 2005, p.135). What a paradoxical creature the cicada is! Its sound first deepens and then amplifies the silence that surrounds it!
It works the same way in film. Many a dark, silent, filmic night has announced that silence by adding the cicada’s rhythmically insistent—some would say relentlessly insistent—chirp to its soundtrack. Just for fun, I queried Wikipedia as to how a cicada’s utterance might best be described. Wikipedia dodged the question in a charming way, going on about decibels rather than poetry or music. “…each species has its own distinctive song,” Wikipedia points out. Then it notes that “Some cicadas produce sounds up to 120 dB (SPL) ‘at close range,’ among the loudest of all insect-produced sounds. This is especially notable as their song is technically loud enough to cause permanent hearing loss in humans, should the cicada sing just outside the listener's ear (unlikely). Conversely, some small species have songs so high in pitch that the noise is inaudible to humans.”
So we’re thrown back, as always, upon subjectivity. Most people think a cicada “chirps.” Or “clicks.” Or “sings.” Or “trills” or “shrills.” One Japanese poet has even referred to the cicada’s song as the sound of “perpetual boiling.” The 19th century American scholar of Japanese language and culture, Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), quotes another Japanese poet to the effect that “The voice of the semi is bigger [thicker] than the tree on which it sings.” Nobody but Sylvia Plath, luckily, ever likened its song to the noise of a lawnmower, aerial or otherwise.
The Cicada is most widely seen, then, as a sonic entity. For qionghui zou, however, the cicada is, by an act of invigorating, generative expansion—a shape, an informing visual symbol and, ultimately, an almost mythic presence. As a visual glyph, the cicada quickens, animates, expands and deepens the artist’s visual work. The cicada is the genie in the lamp of her production.
Sometimes I think of the cicada in qionghui zou’s art as a whistle around her neck; she can make a noise with it that is satisfyingly shrill whenever she needs to assert herself. and furnish herself with tiny, potent cicada-anchors that slow and inform the miasmic drift of her painterly unconscious. Qionghui Zou’s sensibility is deep and wide (she sometimes admits to its also being “ambitious”) and given to epic outwashes of untrammelled expressiveness. The cicada monitors, enriches and allows her simply to hold tight while negotiating the high seas of her vigorous and lyrical painting practice.
During the last few years, within the trajectory of her art, Qionghui Zou has accessed the cicada, listened to it, looked at it, researched it, engaged it, elevated it, displaced it, transformed it and, in the end, given it another kind of light. She has engaged in a double act: she has kept the creature’s insect- ness while, at the same time, subjecting it to a cultural metamorphosis that lends it dimensions too metamorphic, too allegorical, to be confined within any limiting, end-stopped exegesis.
French writer and painter Henri Michaux (1899-1964) had a stimulating way of describing any desperate, ecstatic grasping after form and meaning. A man described by American, francophile poet John Ashbery both as “a conscience,” and as “the most sensitive substance yet discovered for registering the fluctuating anguish of day-to-day, minute-by-minute living,” Michaux clearly possessed a deep and intense understanding of the epic task of aligning oneself with both the immanence and ineffability of other living creatures (immanence, being the realm where the spiritual permeates the mundane, and ineffability evoking that terrain where language always lies beyond the realms of the utterable).
In his posthumously published book, Stoke by Stroke (Brooklyn, New York: Archipelago Books, 2000), Michaux poses a very Qionghui Zou-like question: “As for living creatures and things,” he writes, “who has not wished to get a fuller, better, different grasp on them, not with words, not with phonemes or onomatopoeias, but with graphic signs?’
“Who has not wished at some point,” he continues, “to create an abecedarium, a bestiary, or even an entire vocabulary, from which the verbal world would be entirely excluded?”
Such a desire, I feel certain, lies somewhere near the heart of Qionghui Zou’s ecstatic practice. In a section of Stroke by Stroke that reprints a work called Grasp, Michaux admits to
Lacking the basics
to grasp haphazardly,
exaggeratedly To grasp at straws
He then resolves to commit himself to whatever reformation is required to effect his experiential “grasp” (to “seize on things”):
To make myself insect to get a better grasp
with hooked legs, to get a better grasp
insect, arachnid, myriapod, acarid
if necessary, to get a better grasp
Eventually, he decides that “grasping,” having as its contrary
“contemplation, disinclination, an attitude of reserve,” does not come naturally to him. He finds, as he puts it, that “In the end. GRASPING was nothing more than a dynamic, an abstract kind of grasp, or tending toward that.” For me, Qionghui Zou’s art is fuelled by a modality of that kind of “dynamic, abstract kind of grasp.” It is a grasp, powered by the para-mythic presence of the cicada, that stretches and bends her art from earth to infinity, from the fecund past of story and legend to the furious present of the contemporary art world, in all its roaring, competitive, shifting, dangerous, joyful rolling towards some endlessly elusive closure.
Cicadas Zen series 001,Mixed Media, 23.6''X23.6'',2016
Qionghui Zou’s “grasp” of the cicada, her persuasive employment of it in her art, her embrace of both the cicada’s archetypally shaped life-cycle and her acquisition of the insect’s properties, behaviours and history, have given her a cunning and, at the same time, reverent way of tethering her expressiveness to her immediate aesthetic needs which, without the anchoring of the cicada and its cultural carapace, could have spun out into the free-fall of painterly facture and pigmented excitement for their own sake. Qionghui Zou’s “grasp” of the cicada is a grasp of both insect and idea, a simultaneous claiming of both natural history and its superstructure of myth and meaning. Qionghui Zou is the Lady with the Lamp, and the lamp is the cicada.
My own experience of Qionghui Zou’s work is admittedly not wide, historically exacting or impeccably scholarly, but it is deep and redolent, in its limited, bounded way, of the state of Michaux’s “ascesis of the immediate, of the lightning bolt.” I was dumbfounded by the first painting I saw.
The fact is, I was privileged to explore a small selection of the artist’s work at an art gallery called Index G in Toronto, Canada, on the Saturday afternoon of August 6, 2016. It was an exhibition of short duration (August 4-7), set up essentially as a kind of soiree or seminar—more an occasion than an exhibition. There was to be a panel discussion, to which my wife and I were invited to participate. We did so, or at least we attempted to do so, with the kind assistance of two patient translators. Our different languages were arguably an obstacle—albeit a colourful, highly-textured obstacle—but not an impediment. We talked enthusiastically for hours, as if we were speaking some third language that we all knew perfectly well.
For me, the language barrier was continually breached by the sheer, lightning-bolt excitement of the paintings all around us.
I remember first being transfixed (something that doesn’t happen to me very often) by a quite small (40cm x 30cm), vertical painting on the gallery wall near the entrance. It was a seething little maelstrom of reds, yellows, golds, pinks and sparingly deployed blues, all thronging together, colours close-packed and violently contingent to one another. I now think, upon looking back through the paintings reproduced in Qionghui Zou’s books and catalogues, that I was looking that afternoon at one of the Cicadas-Zen Series works, painted in 2016: I believe it was the work reproduced on p.53 of The Eastern Grace.
What was so exhilarating about this tiny, furnace-like painting was how clean and bright and alive each dab, stroke, smear and coagulation of pigment remained while contributing to the whole tumultuous work —how discreetly it maintained itself in such passionate juxtaposition to the pigmented incidents all around it. Nothing had gone muddy or slack. If there were procedural anomalies, they had clearly been useful and had worked out for the best. Freshness reigned everywhere within what suddenly seemed like the vastness of a very small painting.
It was then I felt I wanted to know everything I could about Qionghui Zou’s work.
Transported by the thickly pigmented beauty of her painting, it took me a little time to come to the cicadas themselves. The insects, as it turns out, informed the paintings deeply—organically, metaphorically, anthropologically, mythologically, anagogically—serving neither as merely image, illustration or compositional cue (or texture or décor), though of course they do provide all of that as well, along the way. The artist is more centrally absorbed by and fiercely attentive to (as she puts it in an artist’s statement) the “continuity and rebirth of [the cicada’s] lifecycle,” and employs its “miraculous ecdysis” [the process of shedding the old skin (in reptiles) or casting off the outer cuticle (in insects and other arthropods)] as the engine that drives the “life narrative symbol system” within her production, providing her with both an extended mythic structure that thrusts like an armature through her work and also a “visual vocabulary” that quickens her paintings into a rush of epic expressiveness.
It is fascinating to examine what the cicadas actually do in Zou Qiongui’s paintings; that is to say, how do they work within each picture. Clearly the insects, by which I mean the insect-forms, are strongly present in all of the recent cicada-series works (the Cicada’s Sentiment series, Cicadas- Language series, for example, and the Cicada-Zen series), but present not in some easily appended way (as with simple surface-collage for example) but in fact are quite deeply interfused into the paintings. “Some of the cicadas, “writes Qionghui Zou, “are hidden in the dark [that is, “in the paint”], while others are obvious on the surface. Some of them are concentrated, the others are scattered....”
In an email to this writer on December 16, 2016, Qionghui Zou expanded somewhat upon “the cicada-shaped form” that populates her paintings. The form is there, she says, “according to the work’s need. She tells me she cuts up “different papers, newspapers or pieces of canvas into all forms of different size cicadas.” And then, she continues, she usually pastes these cicadas into the oil pigments on the canvas. “But sometimes,” she adds, “I also first brush shaping cream [modelling paste?] and pigments onto the oil canvas, and then carve some cicada shapes from them. Moreover,” she notes, “I also directly paste some real cicadas into the oil canvas.” This last statement reminds me of poet Marianne Moore’s 1967 poem, “Poetry” wherein she compares making poetry to making “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”
Qionghui Zou’s cicada-images populate her canvases, tincture them, lend them the aura of an inescapable articulation. One of the most remarkable aspects of their presence in her work, however, is that they don’t get lost in it. Not really. The cicadas are manifested as shadows, emplacements,embeddings, impressions (like footprints in the sand, like tracks in the snow), traces, strands, recollections, exertions of memory, acts of quickening contemplation. Even if you don’t always see them readily in the paintings (they are often as elusive as articles of faith), you come to admit of their presence, acknowledge it, abide by it, depend upon it.. The fact is, the cicada’s frequent occlusion in the maelstroms of the artist’s work bespeaks its own vitality.
The cicada’s shell (husk, slough) is what is left behind of the insect’s musical, tree-bound life, shucked off when the creature dies and heads for regeneration.. The shell is a “saved remnant.” It is what remains behind (“all passion spent”). Like a miniaturization of any persuasive religious mystic, the cicada must lose its life (it must “shuffle off this mortal coil,” to quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet) in order to gain transcendence. Like all deities, major and minor, the cicada dies in order to be reborn. Qionghui Zou harvests the insects’shells and folds them, imagistically speaking, into her paintings where, now reiterated (as if the cicada were in the actual earth, waiting to reappear), still smouldering with life and meaning, the shell is reformulated into art in the same way every artist ultimately leaves behind his/her own eloquence and inspiration to the judgements of history and time. Art is the trace. Art is what is left behind.
Qionghui Zou is a very prolific artist, and, given the physical and emotional intensity consumed in the making of her canvases, her continued strength—including her sheer physical strength—is something to be wondered at. The making of a painting—especially a large one—is a seriously athletic act. I am aghast simply at her mastery of the material world itself (ignoring, for a moment, her more ethereal interests and desires). Just in raw, studio terms, Zou Gionghui is a prodigious maker.
The artist sometimes speaks of her pursuit of a densifying of her painted surfaces (that beautiful turmoil), and of the almost alchemical techniques she brings to bear upon her paintings (polishing, scraping, burning, etc.). In an interview—rather strangely titled “The Paranoid Inquiry About Life”— conducted with the artist in her Beijing studio on April 7, 2014 by a certain Wang Dongdong, Qionghui Zou notes that “the images of the cicadas are no longer integrated [into the picture’s surfaces].” Her surfaces billow and heave (like winds, like heavy seas), bearing the cicadas with them like flotsam. She tells Wang Dongdong that her paintings often require “more than 40 layers, and some of them have even more than one hundred layers.” She speaks of “breaking” their aestheticism and imagistic integrity (“…I have to polish them and break them over and over again.”) by her recourse to what she refers to as “chemical methods” and, presumably the fortuitous use of “the accident.” Jackson Pollock once famously announced that he resolutely “denied the accident,” procedurally speaking. Qionghui Zou welcomes it. She even evinces a kind of certainty about the accidental.
Biologically, the cicada is as remote from us, morphologically speaking, as an insect from Saturn. And yet it is oddly close to us, too, as an emblem for the birth-death-regeneration-rebirth cycle we all know with a fearful, wondrous, innate, poignant hope (if not with absolute certainty), and, with the beautiful, agonizing genetic wisdom we all share.
In a manner of speaking, the cicada is a therefore a compression—a sign, a metonymic fragment—of an endless human question: are we going anywhere? Do we mean anything? When our own corporeal casing (shell, slough) is left behind, empty and beautiful, is there meaning that remains? Is life more than residue? Is art?
Perhaps outcroppings of beauty, the intricate sculpturing of the cicada’s shell, for example, offer a key (as all beauty does), to the maintenance and ultimate closure of time. Elaine Scarry, in her stimulating book, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton University Press, 2001), notes that Homer, in The Odyssey, saw beauty “as lifesaving.” St. Augustine, she also reminds us, leant an unforgettable concreteness to beauty when he saw it as “a plank amid the waves of the sea.”
That is how I see the thronging, metamorphic cicadas in Qionghui Zou’s work: as hotspots of continuity, as lozenges of certainty, consigned to the high seas of the artist’s paintings.
I’m just now gazing upon a reproduction of one of the artist’s paintings from 2014 titled Cicadas Change to Wind and Cloud (which is 180 cm. x 250 cm.)—it is reproduced on pp.122-123 of The Cicada’s Language & Zen State: The Collection of Qionghui Zou’s Art Works (Today Art Museum). This seems to me to be a quite astonishing painting—vast, heroic in feeling as well as scale, sluiced with ruddy greys and dark, weathered reds that are the colour of dried blood. It is exquisite and frightening, tortured and tumultuous—but with some kind of gigantic calm.
It clearly partakes, in its whirlwind attack on the canvas, of certain untrammelled abstract-expressionist practices of paint-handling of the sort you can find in the solemn, magnified gestures of a late Jackson Pollock, a Joan Mitchell, a Tapies, a Cy Twombly, an irreverent Gerhard Richter.
But what is so moving about Cicadas Change to Wind to Cloud is its unlooked-for intimacy. This intimacy is redolent of what the Marquis de Sade once called “the principle of delicacy.” Sade wrote that in the exploring of others’ tastes and fantasies, he came to find them respectable,he explained, “because even the strangest, properly analyzed, can always be traced back to a principle of delicacy.”
In Qionghui Zou, the ab-ex painterly violence is indisputably, bracingly there. But so is the intimacy, the delicacy, that are carried along with the grand gestures. And they are indexed, in the painting, to the tender authority of the heaving, surging, prevailing cicadas borne on the painting’s tide.
In an essay on Cy Twombly’s works on paper in The Responsibility of Forms (New York: Hill and Wang, 1985), French semiologist, Roland Barthes speaks of the dispersion of painterly incidents in Twombly’s painting as an “induced airiness.” He admires how Twombly’s paintings preserve an “absolute spaciousness.” And this spaciousness, he writes, “is not only a plastic value; it is like a subtle energy which allows one to breathe better.”
That’s what happens—for me, at any rate—when I gaze upon one of the Qionghui Zou cicada paintings. Crowded with incident, torqued with, beset with procedural explosiveness though they may be, her paintings allow me to breathe better.
French surrealist poet Paul Eluard, a poet I admire greatly, once wrote a vivid little poem called “Fish.”
Fish, swimmers, boats
Water is soft and moves Only for what touches it.
The fish proceeds
Like a finger into a glove
All you have to do to bring the poem to Qionghui Zou is to turn Eluard’s word “fish” into “cicada” and “water” into “oil.” Try it. See what happens. You end with:
The cicadas proceed
Like a finger into the painting….