In 1999, when Huang Yan began a series of paintings-photographs entitled Chinese Landscapes – landscapes painted on the skin of a human body – his work was immediately noticed by curators of the highest regard, including Feng Boyi and Ai Weiwei, who selected several prints for their pivotal and explosive exhibition Fuck Off in Shanghai in 2000. Very few artists, in expressing the encounter between Chinese traditional culture and the contemporary world, have succeeded in simultaneously capturing the fusion and the paradox that this encounter generates. Huang Yan’s work makes reference to a Chinese cultural heritage that is innate to every Chinese person. Since the earliest paintings of the Han dynasty and the apotheosis of the theorization of landscape painting during the Song dynasty, landscape paintings have become the quintessence of Chinese art. Yet the artist breaks this heritage at the same time as giving it a new direction, by transposing it onto the human body, the human body that was very rarely used in the ancient culture of painting, but that has played a very important role in the development of contemporary art in China since the end of the 1970s.
The skin becomes a piece of paper as Huang Yan paints his subject, leading us to question whether the subject of his work is the body or the painting. Is it a painted body, or a landscape? Is it a face, or the branch of a plum tree? As the body moves, the painted subject takes another shape or meaning. As the forearm folds across the chest, the branch of a willow tree moves into the landscape’s foreground. The face just has to open or close his eyes for us to be absorbed by the landscape, or on the contrary, by the human aspect of the subject. Huang Yan then multiplies the possibilities of the landscape transposition by painting onto the bones of a skeleton or on a leg of ham, again making reference to flesh and the body. Then, he throws himself into creating scenes, where the landscape tattooed body becomes part of a backdrop worthy of a theatre or photography studio.
The artist shows his commitment to the same ideals of the literati of the past by saying: “landscape is a way of expressing myself…It’s a stance of tranquility and a place to store my body. It’s my resistance against worldly conflicts and a way of releasing my Chan ideas.” But when he uses the body as the site of creation, Huang Yan claims such a contemporary artistic approach, that one cannot help making the connection with performance art (xingwei yishu) whose prime medium is the body and which marked the beginnings of contemporary art in China. Even though he has never been a performer, it is not surprising that Huang Yan keeps close ties with the performance art scene. In China, for cultural as well as political reasons, the body remains taboo. It is a medium, ostensibly disturbing, that carries a dangerous potential which the society tries to control and that contemporary artists never cease to hijack. As a direct medium and site of inner expression that can lead to extravagance and personal affirmation, the body has become one of the main sources of inspiration for creators, performers and visual artists who have formed the foundation of contemporary art in China.