Written by Bin Han
Photo by Ye Cheng
Ye Cheng is a Chinese-American artist currently based in New York. Ye Cheng graduated with a Master’s degree in Fine Art at the New School, New York. She exhibited in M50 in Shanghai, China, Tree Art Gallery in Beijing, TAG gallery in Los Angeles and Palazzo Jules Maidoff in Florence, Italy.
After being separated from home country in early years, her life seemed to be calm and quiet, but there was always a hole waiting to be filled. She watched Beijing opera, read ancient books, studied theory, enjoyed the landscape, and exhausted all her learning before finally realizing that she had been living with an unspeakable sense of absence. She walks in the memory map created by herself, enjoys herself, and stumbles into a space she could never enter, that is the desired place for her retreat.
Even though the old things are always criticized repeatedly, Ye Cheng is still obsessed with the "old things".
At some point, the good people have taken the mission of innovation. They never forgot to express the discontent of settling in the old customs in the rapidly changing days, but often forgot the strong force of the 5,000-year-old Chinese civilization for moving ahead. Young people lack the courage because they never look back.
The "old things" that have been tested by time always hide the light under a bushel without any intention to show themselves. The "old things" is like an elegant old man spending time in nature with great inner wisdom and shaking a palmetto fan beneath the tree in the sunlight that filtered through the leaves with shining charm like the sea. As a member of this civilization society, Ye Cheng is also proud of it.
Oriental Dreams, canvas oil painting, 2014
Cheng also likes Beijing opera like Farewell My Concubine. Yu Ji dances with a sword and sings Yu's song. A single line from the Peking Opera stage is worth the millions of sentiments that she murmurs on a regular basis. Whenever she returned to China, she would go to Beijing to listen to the opera, and at the end of the trip, she did not forget to join the old people at the entrance of the opera house to talk about male role, female role, painted face, clown. After her trip, she bought Beijing opera costumes and brought them back to the U.S., and joyfully invited her friends to dress up. She used her brush for work Oriental Dreams with lustrous and eye-catching dragon patterns as well as the exquisite and delicate python robes. However, this passion did not get the positive response, "realistic art is really not too attractive over here, in terms of artistic approach, they find the picture is too tight, and on the other hand, they are always proud of the abstract art.
In 2009, Ye Cheng moved to the United States with her family. As a young girl, she was not sure what a natural feeling for motherland was until she got it, and she became increasingly aware that she was unique. "I'm from China and my heart is in my homeland," she says in a lilting tone like the "pounding waves" of Sanxian in Shen Yinmo's work.
The Picture for Entertainment of Twelve Beauties, the collage of Chinese paper cutting, 2017
When she enrolled at the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2012 to study painting, she was often overwhelmed by the conflicting atmosphere in her Contemporary Chinese Art classes. "I was angry, I thought they were wrong. I don't think that's true! But I don't know what it exactly is. She was convinced that the essence of Chinese culture is so worth for passing on and as deep as her favorite Peking Opera, and couldn’t be described simply by a few sentences of English in a classroom. However, she found herself far away from home before she had a chance to read it in detail, and it was clear that she could not make sense of it all to her teachers and classmates with only common sense and discontent.
In her long reading and exploration, she has been trying to tell the real oriental culture to the westerners and to break the stereotypical oriental image. After Oriental Dreams, she made compromise for some time, and abandoned figurative painting for installation art - but she remains committed to oriental craftsmanship, like poetry, literature as well as old things. She remembers the beautiful dream in The Peony Pavilion and the joyful Tune: “Like A Dream”, and paper-cutting with touching story in poetry and literature. The Night Revels is a pun for The Night Revels of Han Xizai, and The Picture for Entertainment of Twelve Beauties is an unconcealed regret and lamentation under the contrast of ancient and modern times.
"I never thought I'd have to read Lao Zi in English one day," she laughed with a vague satisfaction for seeing the hope.
The Peony Pavilion, paper-cut installation, 2016
The Nature Love for the Nature
In 2016, she began to paint landscapes. It has been six years until now.
She says she loves landscapes for no reason at all. Perhaps it is because of her nature, as the ancient saying goes, " a true man loves the mountains. A wise man loves the sea ". the Chinese people have the pursuit of the joyful landscapes and elegant feeling for long term. She has also copied the landscapes of the Song Dynasty, and tried to find a connection with motherland. But in the end, it was borrowed from the ancient civilization, and the new things seemed to only have a form but not a spirit. The deeper she looked into it, the more powerless she felt.
It was not until the summer of 2021 that she read Gaston Bachelard's "The Poetics of Space". In the book, it is written that "the boundless world ...... is the original epithet of the image of the forest" and "the forest is a state of the soul". As if awakening from a dream, she seems to perceive "the inner call of expansiveness", and she knows that landscape does not exist only in nature, but also in the heart.
The Place of retreat I, Mixed Media｜Polyester, 2020
In the past two years, the world changed a lot with a flood of news, individual critics, regular confusion and disorder. She doesn't know how to face these things, “The same news is posted differently from China and America. Art and aesthetics are the same, it is differentiated from the East and the West. There are two of everything. It's all a conflict of perceptions imposed by the outside world for me, and I don't want to fight these things”. She wanted to find a safe place for herself with no concern of the conflict at present or how to tell outsiders who she really is.
It is not accurate to say that it is the action of sweeping the snow in front of the door for oneself. The so-called bittersweet, all in those "irrelevant things". Eileen Chang wrote about the war in Hong Kong during her school days: even though the streets were full of "green and purple corpses", she still looked forward to having a bite of ice cream and turnip cake; even though the tram was full of "primitive desolation", there were still female students who cared about the dress code as refugees. The beauty of the story lies in the fact that it exposes the conflict while comforting the human heart. "We only see our own faces, pale and small", but nowadays, even breathing fresh air has become a limitation, so who is not pale and small?
For Ye Cheng, having experienced the complexity and evil on both sides, it is rare to be left alone, "A clear and resolute view of the universe on whether political or philosophical, is always annoying." One can't manage the decay of the present world, but can always manage the peace of mind for own.
The Place of retreat IV, Mixed Media｜Polyester, 2020
She drew the space in her heart with a pencil on the subway, and the grainy sound of the pencil tip rubbing against the paper disappearing in the noisy carriage. The Western subway hides the landscape of the East, just as the Western words and actions hide the Eastern state of mind. When the subway arrived, she looked up and saw the English world again, this is the life she had long been accustomed to.
That summer she painted hundreds of abandoned manuscripts, and only five were finalized. “I always felt that this space was wrong, that the outdoors should be infinite, but I didn't know how to expand this perspective.” The mountain in her mind was like a ghost heavily suspended, "but the mountain I painted was too lifeless. Then one day, she stared at the mountain that was about to be finished, and hesitated but decided to wash it off. The white paint undulating and flowing during this process. "This is what I want.”
At this point, Cheng has also detached herself from previous figurative works and opened up the new abstract creation. This abstraction is not just a matter of wandering through the dots and lines at will, but of the secrecy and ambiguity of the landscape. This is the education of the oriental poet and the unique romance of the oriental people. "Although so many beauties are here, no one in my mind" is the thought in The Book of poetry; " It's a long way away, I don’t know where my lover is" is the nostalgia of poet in Song Dynasty Yan Shu in late autumn; as well as Lu You and Tang Wan for “the evil east wind” and "the cold sound of bugle”. Even if the word love is not mentioned, the Shen garden is still filled with the sadness of love and hate. As Junichiro Tanizaki said in his review of love literature, Li Bai's "I can't meet you even missing you" seems to refer to the moon, but I always feel that there is a lover. Ye Cheng likes this connotation.
The Place of retreat V, Mixed Media｜Polyester, 2020
It goes without saying that she did create brightly colored sheltered spaces with landscapes, and titled it "The Place of retreat". The series was well received by galleries and collectors, and all were sold within short time. But very few people know that during the creation phase, Ye Cheng had frequent nightmares. She once confessed to her mentor that the series is the painting for her anxiety. The full translation of "Angoisse La Redousse" should be "the anxiety of the universe and the place of retreat".
After being separated from home country in early years, her life seemed to be calm and quiet, but there was always a hole waiting to be filled. She watched Beijing opera, read ancient books, studied theory, enjoyed the landscape, and exhausted all her learning before finally realizing that she had been living with an unspeakable sense of absence. Later, she spent a lot of effort to find a place of retreat for herself, but found that it is the desired unknown place, so she could not help to be helpless. Like a man who has been living in the court for a long time, he has moved around to find a place to escape from the world, but the result is the bitterness and anxiety of "one could never getting back".
"I dwell in the quiet of the leaves with the growth of summer."
She paces the forest within her mind, and the summer of 2021 comes to an end.
Ye Ching and her work The Place of retreat
Fish in the Pond would Yearn for Flowing Rills
“The migrant bird longs for the old wood; and the fish in the tank thinks of its native pool.” It is the verse about the miss but not shackle.
As we all know, Chinese food is the answer to nostalgia. Ye Cheng once patronized a Sichuan restaurant in New York, and the dazzling menu was packed with Chinese delicacies, including famous Sichuan dishes such as mabo tofu, koushui chicken, and even Peking duck and Steamed Sea Bass. She used tongue-in-cheek humor to reveal the fact that "the menu is in English in front of Chinese in the back, so the restaurant is probably not authentic.” She ordered a plate of mabo tofu and the waiter beside her spoke a very recognizable Cantonese Mandarin.
She said the waiter had probably never been to Chengdu, and the Westerners in the restaurant had probably never been to China. It was as if everyone was living in a virtual imaginary land. General Tso’s Chicken chicken does not belong in China and Ma Po Tofu does not belong in New York, just as California rolls do not come from California and Mexican food does not come from the United States, but all of these things belong to New Yorkers' memories. When memory is entrenched in objective reality, it is hard to tell what is authentic and what is not.
The Night Revels, virtual collage, 2018
She recalls another gathering with three or two close friends. All the people at the table except her had lived in Beijing. It was as if they had bridged parallel time and space; they had visited the same stores, passed the same trees, and walked through the same intersections. She listened quietly to what was happening in front of her like a play on the theme of "how to build a common home through memory". She became more and more convinced that memories can build connections between people, and that although these memories are not the same, the feelings lurking within them are common.
Thus, the unrequited desire of summer is sublimated into the memory of winter, and "The Memory Map" is a silent expanse beyond "The Place of Retreat".
She held the clear glass and patiently explained, "The shape of a glass is not important, what is important is the meaning of the water it holds. The first thing I had to do was to eliminate the unimportant things so that I could see the essence of it more clearly." In the infinite space of "The Memory Map", the small boxes are staggered, and it is not very important where the box represents, what matters is the memories inside the box, especially the almost forgotten, misplaced memories.
The Memory Map - I fell asleep with staring at the dead bugs in the chandelier，Mixed media｜Polyester, 2022
My childhood memories are of uncongealed tofu in front of my grandmother's house. The food truck selling it would arrive every morning as scheduled with flags flying on the truck, and grandma would wait at the curb with a metal lunch box. The uncongealed tofu is pearly white embellished with emerald green and golden brown like crystal. Now, the food truck has become a vestigial memory of the old days, the warmth of the fragrance has faded along with the years, and the original flavor was lost. No one knows what words were written on the flag. Even so, Ye Cheng left a place in heart for this bowl of uncongealed tofu. In gently conversation, it is mentioned with the same long aftertaste.
Fourteen-year-old memory is the backyard of Grandma's mother's house with wisteria, grapes, rockery and fences. After the death of grandmother's mother, grandmother drew a circle at the crossroads in the backyard with water, and the people there shouted the name of those who have died - "Sun Jieqing!” Ye Cheng also cried out in the crowd, injecting the heartbreaking pain to three subdued words "Sun Jieqing". It turns out that the word "broad" can also evolve into "audible power of speech".
The Map of Memory - Fireworks and blood have the same sacredness of sacrifice, Sun Jieqing! The words written in water disappear on the ground" Mixed media｜Polyester, 2022
In the film, a decade or two passes by soon, but real life still has to be experienced slowly, day after day. Experience enriches memory and years accumulate the past. Over the years, Ye Cheng lost things along the way, felt the beauty of empty simplicity in the lack, in the "shadowy ripples, light and darkness" that she loves. Since then, "the details fade, the scenery loses its color, the clock no longer strikes, and the space expands endlessly." She walks in the map of memory she created, plays in the mountains and enjoying herself, and stumbles upon a space she cannot enter anyway, a place she cannot retreat to.
Sometimes, living elsewhere is more worth to imagine than living in the present, and the past is more powerful than this moment. The memory falls onto the paper between the clear and precious with the peace.
The night light is mild, and behind her is a new map of memory. On the "wide canvas of memory", she hopes to obtain a "wide and quiet view" to realize the incessant sympathy like rippling water waves.
"The Memory Map - California Secret Garden" Mixed media｜Polyester, 2022
There is Leisure in the Quiet Places
Ye Cheng grew up in the company of old people and is still attracted by the slow and leisurely life until now.
She always feels that "modern culture does not respect the culture of the old times," and what should be passed on is not, but what should not be forgotten is forgotten. "In the past, when a rainstorm poured down, we looked at the trees outside the window and naturally felt fear and awe. Today's apartments do cater to the needs of living and working, but through the window you can only see another apartment building."
As Yansong Ma tells his idea of landscape cities, he says that modern architecture is not built for human emotions, and people are lost in the jungle of steel and cities like matchbox with no sense of belonging. Young people once only had an total sincerity, but they didn't expect to struggle for half a day and still have to work hard in the cubicle with endlessly overdraft for living a life.
I do not know if it is a good thing to penetrate the fate with peace at the thirty years of age. The people pretend to carry the mission of development, and secretly carry a heart to return to nature, they hope to have money and leisure to retire early, so as to go to the fields and mountains to enjoy the stars and the moon. They are not ignoring development, but today's development should really exist with more concern of the inner state.
The Memory Map - The stairs like ruins after the war is the base for playing with the neighborhood kids before dinner" Mixed media｜Polyester, 2022
Two hours had passed, and she had only told a few stories about her experiences abroad. "I can't accept that one is bigger than the other, I've accepted the American mindset for many years and it's just too big, so I've been trying to find a balance between the two.
Since middle school, she has shattered the homogeneity of her life goals. Families are worried about high school volunteer applications, while she just wants to travel back in time to save Van Gogh and find another guy like Mozart to marry. You will never be able to guess the romantic mind of an adolescent girl.
At that time, she studied painting by a professional artist. she recalls, "She was in her twenties with pretty hand and Buddhist prayer beads on her wrist. When was painting, she stood far away from the canvas with thinking firstly, then her hand waved and suddenly put down her brush, with a clattering sound of Buddhist prayer beads. I found it very charming. From that time on, I also wanted to become an artist."
The Memory Map - A Thousand Miles of Rivers and Waves in Dreams came with Pelicans at Six in the Morning, Mixed media｜Polyester, 2022
Life in Los Angeles was relatively comfortable, and she supported herself by painting and teaching. Since she learned that she could support herself, she has let go of the anxiety of surviving in the world.
Leaving her comfort zone and returning to school, she continues to draw on a steady stream of nutrients, "New York is a city of miracles, where you can see the best and the worst of yourself. This year she met a gallery that she is interested in working with, "This gallery is small, but I admire them. They are bringing together Chinese artists who want to stay here, and I think this is a good thing they are doing, and I would like to grow with them.”
She doesn't rejoice over outstanding sales, but is more curious about why people buy her paintings; she wants to know if they actually read them; after all, for her, "the concept of success is that others believe what I believe.
From Oriental Dreams to the Memory Map, what she pursues is nothing but the purity distilled from leisure and elegance.
After ten years of creating a dream, she returns to nature. This is her return to the nature just like a hermit away from the mundane with no pride, no greed.
The Place of retreat III, Mixed Media｜Polyester, 2020