The Japan Times (Quest for Huangshan of the heart)

July   8, 2000

Quest for Huangshan of the heart


Staff writer

         To the south of the Yangtze River in China's Anhui Province, near the medieval city of Whhu, rise the. Huangshan mountains: a series of jagged peaks and crags, not very high as mountains go, but intensely dramatic. The clouds and mist that swirl around their pine-crested heights, the mysterious grottoes and strangely shaped rocks, the waterfalls and hot springs that lurk in the deep- shadowed hollows have lured mystics, sightseers and painters since the Middle Ages. When one thinks of Chinese landscape painting it is the scenery of Huangshan that generally comes to mind.

         During the 1960s a troubled teenager from Wuhu named Wang Wusheng climbed the highest peak of Huangshan, and there, where the earth reached the sky, he heard the mountains calling him.

         The country was about to fall into the self-destructive frenzy of the Cultural Revolution, and Wang, a self-described "stubbom man," was one of its first targets at Anhui University. Nonetheless he weathered the storm, and in the early '7Os, as a photographer for an Anhui newspaper, he began a series of working trips into Huangshan. The series stretched out over more than 20 years, and his show, "Celestial Mountains," at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography in Ebisu until July 16, presents some of the results.

         The medium is photography, but the spirit and sensibility are Chinese to the core.

         At a casual glance one would assume they were ink paintings; the impression is reinforced by the size of the prints, some of which are mounted as Japanese folding screens. The pictures express Wang's direct experience of the mountains: here, now, but far off and timeless.

        "Discarding all colors," he says in the catalog notes, "I just use black and white."

         In 1981 Wang came to Japan, continuing a search, he says, for self-identity. In Japan too he suffered adversities r but his stubbornness served him. He won grants, studied at Geidai, exhibited. He spent 1990 in New York, and in the '90s his career blossomed at last. The current show has arrived from Vienna, where he was both the first Asian and the first photographer to have a one-man show at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Wang's major at university was not art, but physics. As a student he read all the books he could find, not only Chinese literature but Russian and Western as well. He studied art and philosophy. In Japan he made friends with haiku poets and Zen aesthetes.

        "The fusion of all these with my Oriental roots permeates my work," he notes. "Whoever sees my photography knows it is Oriental and it is Chinese photography.

         The logical thinking he learned in the physics department was important to the development of his art, Wang says, but "I am not trying to find out what kind of rock Huangshan is composed of, I am trying to understand the Huangshan in my heart.? For this goal I have spent 20 years.

         When he began to work as an artist he felt inhibited by his lack of artistic training, but later he came to see it as a strength.

        "The essence of art is a manifestation of individual character," he notes. "Art is creating a new artistic language that has never existed in the world before. . . . I like [Ansel] Adams' work very much, but if I followed in his footsteps, nobody would know that the work was Wang Wusheng's; they would say that it was Adams' work."

         Nonetheless, Wang rejects the "morbid mentality" of? "extreme freedom" as well. "The extremity of excessive democracy will also lead to the destruction of culture and art," he says.

        "What is art?" Wang asks. "We should not make it too complicated; otherwise the significance will be lost. In my opinion, art is to cultivate truthfulness, kindness and beauty in people. When we expose ugliness, the ultimate purpose is to demonstrate people's aspiration and pursuit of truthfulness, kindness and beauty."

         Wang sees the national in his art as international. "The more international a work of art is, the more national it is," he says.

        "Everybody says Huangshan is beautiful and looks up to it. Paintings and photographs of the mountain exist in hundreds of thousands, but at one glance you see the differences . . . beauty created by the artist contains the beauty of the individual character. An era or a nation may have its common beauty, but the realm of concept has a beauty that transcends time and space.

        "The pursuit of such beauty is the lifelong mission of the artist."

        "Celestial *Mountains: Wang Wusheng Exhibition." until July 16 at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography 3rd floor gallery, at Ebisu Garden Place. Admission Y800, students 640