Though, it is his first time to visit China, Richard Whitlock is not unfamiliar with Chinese art.
An Englishman by birth, Whitlock is on the list of Greek artists participating in the seventh Beijing Biennial of Contemporary Art, which opened Sunday.
“I’m very interested in Chinese art, particularly classical Chinese art of the Tang and Song dynasties,” Whitlock told Xinhua in a recent interview.
Whitlock has brought an installation named “Light/Buoyant Puzzle Sphere” to Beijing. It is a large hollow sphere made by putting together many smaller spheres of varied sizes. The spheres are cut into shape from a large piece of white polystyrene. The material is light and fragile. The cutting must be done with precision to ensure that the many spheres stick seamlessly to form a coherent big sphere. It is difficult work.
Polystyrene is commonly used in packaging rather than for the artist’s purpose. The sphere is a huge 250 cm in diameter. Hanging from the ceiling and a few inches above the floor in one corner of the Greek pavilion that accommodates 34 pieces of art, the buoyant sphere is eye-catching and mysterious. The work attracted many viewers on the first day, children in particular, whose curious eyes look up to the ball, which seems to be floating in the air.
He said there is no special meaning for this work. It is about making things with new materials. His use of the word puzzle is, well, puzzling. He attempts to explain.
“For us, the Greek and Briton, the idea of the puzzle is connected with China,” he said.
Whitlock can only speak a few words in Chinese. Yet he knew at an early age the Chinese characters for North, South, East and West. A great aunt of his had lived in Malaya. She brought a Mahjong set back to Liverpool, England, where the Whitlocks lived. The family loved it and played often.
When Whitlock was 10, he obtained an English edition of the Chinese classic “Tao De Ching” as a gift. He was fascinated by the beautiful Chinese-style paintings in the book and wondered at the effort it took to produce such brilliant work.
Entering Oxford University to study history and languages, he had access to more books on Chinese art, becoming acquainted with Chinese names such as Lao Zhu, Shen Kuo, Shi Tao and Zhang Zeduan. After graduation, Whitlock began traveling and tried many trades.
He later went back to school to study art in Sussex, England, where he met Sophia, a beautiful visiting student from Greece. They got married two years later and settled down in the Greek port city of Thessaloniki.
In Greece, Whitlock became fascinated by the country’s tradition of classical sculpture. However, he knew the art had been pushed to such a height by the ancient Greeks that modern people had little chance of making further progress. He wanted to do something new.
He was not satisfied with the influence of modern photography on art. He believes art that has a simple, single perspective and always has a vanishing point at the center, like one produced by a camera, is boring. “Viewers look at such a work and quickly turn their eyes away for another one,” he said.
Since 2002 Whitlock has tried a non-perspectival approach. He produced a number of works, including still pictures, moving pictures and installations. His works have been exhibited on many occasions in Europe and the United States, receiving acclaim from audience and critics.
One of his works is called “The Street.”
The moving picture shows a street scene: buildings are still; cars on the road move away without getting smaller in size; on the balconies, hanging clothes are waving, several women are dusting, cleaning, or flapping mats; the blue sky and white clouds change stealthily; the picture loops every 12 minutes.
“At first glance, viewers will find such a picture queer. There is something wrong. If they look longer, they’ll see more and get the rich information contained in the picture. The multi-perspective picture allows the viewer to see at various angles. It’s like an unfolding story. But you don’t have to wait for the story to end,” Whitlock said.
To some extent, this is what his artistic forerunner Picasso tried in his later years with cubist painting. But, unlike Whitlock, those predecessors didn’t have digital image-making techniques at their disposal.
Whitlock has no formal IT background, but helped by friends and his own efforts, he has mastered digital skills.
Whitlock calls his works “expanded view photography.” He is confident this represents a new trend.
“It is clear to me this is one direction in which art will go in the future. People nowadays don’t have patience. They want to make things moving. Moving pictures are important for this time of humanity. It is a development of the old. And it will go into the future,” he said.
Whitlock thinks Chinese art doesn’t have a strong tradition of perspective.
“It’s not that they didn’t know it. They rejected it,” he said. “The great Chinese scholar Shen Kuo invented the camera obscura about a thousand years ago. But he criticised perspective as being too restrictive on the eye.”
Whitlock has a new moving picture work named “Mount Olympus,” which he thought of bringing to Beijing. The work drew inspiration from Shi Tao, a Chinese painter in the early Qing Dynasty.
“I used the same structure of Shi Tao’s water colour painting, ‘Lu Shan.’ I changed the mountain for a city scene,” Whitlock said. “Shi Tao is my favorite Chinese artist. He fought all the time for a fresh approach. He didn’t repeat himself. ‘Lu Shan'” is extraordinary, almost ugly, a very rough composition, rough scenes, and he brought this into harmony.”
Whitlock is impressed on his first visit to China.
“What was abstract before becomes real and everything looks so big,” he said. “Looking down from the aircraft, I saw buildings in Beijing looking like characters on a map. It seems to me a way of thinking special to China.” Enditem