Overlapping Worlds
by Chen Danqing

When Mallarme asserted that the whole world was in books, the French literature represented by A-Dumas Pere and H-Balzac was at the final stage, when the narrative tradition of novel was to express everything in the world. As a pioneer of the modern literature, Mallame did not take the description of the world as the purpose of novel. Instead, he simply pointed out that the ambition of the traditional novel was to construct the world with written language.

Painting, on the other hand, with scenography and a whole set of painting techniques developed in the Renaissance, declared a few centuries ago that a painting is like a window through which we can view the whole world. In the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries, European painters invented the viewfinder frame, which supplied in advance a precise and accurate image. Photography was then refined, emerging in the nineteenth century. At that time European artists firmly believed that there would be no neglected view in the world with the viewfinder frame.

By the twentieth century, the western watching tradition had evolved from photography to film, then from film to television, as the result of a series of scientific discoveries. Television has since embraced a wide spectrum of views and has won over the whole world, relying on its new visual culture. Nowadays when a worldwide audience watches television at home and views global current affairs, is there anyone of them who still thinks of the viewfinder frame and remembers the clever yet outdated metaphor that a painting is like a window? People’s eyes are fixing on television screen and are indulging in continuously viewing any image appearing on television. Look: wars in Vietnam; famine in Somalia; astronauts landing on the moon; the disintegration of Soviet Union; dense smoke on 911 in New York;…….

Our viewing in front of television is interrupted from time to time by laughs and chats with family members, by telephone calls, or by the sound of cooking in the kitchen. According to the European, every modern television viewer is an idiot and television itself is called Lantern of Idiocy. Casually turning off the lantern, we leave the world shown on television in the twinkling of an eye and go back to our everyday life: dining, talking, turning off the light and going to bed. Or while watching television, we go on with our lives. American artist Eric Fischl showed us a scene: a couple is making love, a hand reaches out for the television to change channels. Who would ponder a while when he turns on or off the television at that time? And who would seriously gaze at the television cabinet and its surroundings?

Television is furniture that means life. We are shocked by catastrophes reported on television shows, which take place thousands of miles away. Yet television reminds us that we are in our own sitting room where we are safe. The terrorists, for example, schemed so that on September 11, 2001 the different explosion times of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center would allow the mass media to spread images of explosion all over the world. Millions of eyes watched those images on television screen. A television screen is like a window too, isn’t it?

Now oil paintings, Images and Scenes Series by Chinese artist Weng Yunpeng unexpectedly come into our view. Those paintings slightly draw away our attention from television, as if a flying moth were passing in front of our eyes. And then we see television and its surroundings.

There had been painting within a painting in both Chinese and Western painting history when painting itself had highly matured. There is an exquisite landscape painting on the screen behind Ni Zan in the Chinese classic painting The Portrait of Ni Zan with Colophon by Zhang Yu in the 14th century. In the painting Whiling Away the Summer by Liu Guandao in Yuan Dynasty, there is an ancient Chinese man of letters lying leisurely on a couch with a screen behind him. On that screen, an ancient Chinese man of letters is lying leisurely on a couch too. The contents of that painting were merely to show that the tradition of the Chinese literati handed down from generation to generation with the men in that painting and painting within a painting. The painting accidentally involves the relationship between painting and itself. On the other hand, painting within a painting in Europe in the seventeenth century aimed at revealing the relationship between painting and viewing. There had been a series of works describing the magnificent interior views of royal galleries. In those paintings, piles of European masterpieces were on wall, from floor to ceiling. The significance of those works lies not in the exquisite painting techniques, but in hinting about and demonstrating the existence of the owners and viewers of those great pictures who were absent from the tableaux.

The world presented by painting within a painting consists of a number of smaller ones. Each painting within a painting is a window within a window. The definition of window actually is square. The so-called pictures of the world, either paintings in the past or photos, movies and television shows at present, are set, bounded and cut by the four frames, presenting a corner of the world. Sitting respectively opposite at millions of corners in the world, the televiewers in their own wishful thinking see and share the pictures of the world. Only after turning off the television can we temporarily say goodbye to the world shown on television and can we return to our own corner. Paintings cannot be turned off unless we divert our foci while paintings are looking at us all the time. Every television in Weng Yunpeng’s paintings is turned on, drawing our attention to them. When we see those pictures, we would confront double worlds and would find ourselves faced by double questions: Are we viewing television or seeing pictures?

—— By a waste roadside in the suburbs of Beijing, the former chairman of Committee of Olympic Games is to declare which city will be the host city of the next Olympic Games; In a simple and crude cabin on a river, the World Trade Center in New York is exploded; Or by the red brick wall, women soldiers in their splendid attire are advancing with big strides in unison during the national celebration. We had watched, or in other words, had known all of them on television. They are public images that have been stored in our memories. They are not pieces of news. Therefore those images are not the main part of those paintings. Instead, they are those invisible characters who play the leading role. They are both absent and present. They are simply us who are looking at those paintings. The artist arranges that we meet those public images again on purpose, making us realize ourselves and recognize the world around us from those familiar images. However, there is no need for the artist to paint any of the audience. When looking at those pictures, we are audience. Therefore what the artist painted is not television but that we are viewing television. He even did not paint a picture but paint that we are looking at picture.

Are we really looking at pictures? By the instinct of looking, we would pay our attention to the television screens that are the foci of those paintings. At the same time, by the instinct of looking at a picture, we would realize that televisions are only one of the props in those pictures. What are in front of us are actually scenes with televisions. In daily life, however, when we turn on the television and watch the so called world news, we have always been turning a blind eye to or paying no attention to our own world that surrounds the television screen no matter if we are in a sitting room or any other place. Maybe that lack of awareness is itself the theme that the artist is suggesting.

Some people, however, will naturally ask why the artist depends on traditional and outdated representational painting instead of photography, television, or even video which are all effective ways to represent the subject.

This view is difficult to refute. It is a profound contradiction that is inherent in oil paintings Images and Scenes Series.

We should remember that when the Europeans created a painting within a painting, photography and television had not yet come into being. People believed that the world could be contained within painting. Before the twentieth century, part of paintings function was to acquire knowledge from the outside world. This function was comparable to the one performed by the mass media today. In this multi-media world, is there any value for our viewing experience? If yes, what is the value? Maybe we can find the answer from Weng Yunpeng’s paintings. Perhaps at the same time his paintings raise more complicated and confusing questions.

The square television screen corresponds to the square frame of oil painting. The television screen has always acted as a window that spreads images all over the world. When television is painted in painting, images on television are actually painting within a painting. As I remember, American photographer Lee Friedlander had taken a large number of black-and-white photos in the sixties. Every photo showed a corner at home, in a hotel, office, or at some public place. Furthermore, there had always been a television in the center of each photo. Friedlander’s works are similar to the ones painted by Weng Yunpeng.

Different in approach and diction but perhaps equally outstanding in the overall effect? Wait a minute. In fact they use different instruments in order to achieve the same effect. The instrument used by Friedlander is not a paintbrush but a camera. Both camera and television are machines. As a result, Friedlander’s photos are examples of image within an image. The two kinds of images are created by the instruments and means, which belong to the same category. It is similar to painting within a painting in the seventeenth century, both of which are hand paintings.

Contemporary art has been trying to explore again and again the motif that viewing is highly changeable and unpredictable. Television and people watching television have repeatedly appeared in films and television shows. No matter what concepts and subjects they have, all of them are image within an image. Now Weng Yunpeng forcefully puts media images into his paintings, which can be called media image within a painting. The concepts of hand painting and media images are confused at least in visual sensation, or even imperceptibly changed. In his paintings, images on television are not true, as they are painted in oils. The effect, however, is true because we can clearly see a television in the picture. It is impossible for us to mistake it for something else. We would recognize it as a television in the same way that we recognize a face in a portrait or recognize a fruit and floral in a still life.

At this point, the famous quotation from Margaret that it is not a pipe is confirmed once more and is challenged immediately. We still believe, or exactly speaking, agree that it is a television. We tacitly approve and cooperate with the ancient fraud of painting with our own eyes as before.

Those paintings are cordial and unusual. When Weng Yunpeng brings the inharmonious media images into his paintings, the mass media seems to be depreciated. Surrounded by scenes in his paintings, television becomes one of the signs or semantemes of painting and a copy of itself. Image is just a part of paintings. On the other hand, painting does not seem to be appreciated. As Lauren Bartlet said, that the media dominates over the contemporary times in which painting is dubious to visual sensation. With television intervening, those paintings actually acknowledge the hegemony of media image. Television is still the main, or even the only, spokesman in those paintings, although it looks so small, yet prominent, and ridiculous. Those objects and scenes around television cannot share its superiority. The surroundings that are familiar and intimate to us are coarse, crude and trivial. When we look at those objects, scenes and televisions, we have to acknowledge that every corner of each scene that the artist selected is where we live. Those surroundings will never be painted without television.

The artist should express his gratitude to the media for his discovery of our living surroundings with television. These works are the landscapes of the media age. In these works the global and local, the quotidian and current affairs all exist side by side. The simultaneously negative and positive factors and contradictions bring these paintings into existence. It is we who own these scenes.

We should be grateful to painting. When the square television screen is enclosed within the rectangular frame, we have the opportunity to analyze and interpret the legends and illusions of the media. The media is merely bright lights in a room surrounded by odds and ends, or placed outdoors. We are always attracted by and unconditionally surrender to the media images, provided that the televisions are not in the paintings. Now it is we who are again masters of viewing when standing in front of the scenes.

On the one hand, painting should be grateful to the media. When the media image is in painting, there is no reason for us to think that painting has lost its effectiveness because painting can affirm its own value. Painting still can adjust or correct our viewing instincts and in this media age it keeps us from losing ourselves too much. On the other hand, the media should be thankful to painting. The media promises to show reality. Only after being depreciated in painting can the media show the real gap between different worlds, whereas the gap itself is more genuine than the reality shown on television.

In Weng Yunpeng’s landscapes distant worlds and the world before our eyes, the world represented in the media and the world painted with oils overlap. The overlapping worlds simultaneously present their respective illusions and realities, reminding us of our relationship to those worlds. We had better hold a critical view when looking at the media, so as to make us believe our eyes as before, because painting is still worth believing. The series of works also reminds us of a fact that the artist himself perhaps neglects:painting always depends on our two eyes and even the most precise lens shooting all the world’s images has still been an one-eyed instrument, at least up till now.