Image: Qu Leilei Between Sky and Earth
QU LEILEI AND Caroline Deane are as unlikely a couple as you could meet. She’s a blonde English rose; he looks like a Tibetan monk. I’ve known them for a long time. They collaborate, critique each other’s work and share ideas. ‘We talk the whole time,’ Caroline says, ‘at meals, in the car, whenever we’re together we can’t stop talking,’ and, to begin with, they shared a studio in their converted loft.
I have known Caroline and Leilei for years, and I talked to them in their terraced house in Wimbledon. I begin by asking why each of them had felt they’d needed to paint in the first place. ‘I can’t imagine doing anything else,’ Caroline says simply. ‘I was always drawing when I should have been doing other things. It’s what I am.’ Leilei tells me it is what he does: ‘I don’t know where it comes from. When I was small, when other children were running around the playground, I always carried a sketchbook.’
Caroline’s father was an army officer stationed abroad and her mother went with him. From an early age she was sent to boarding school, where her love and talent for art went unnoticed. In fact, nobody had any expectations for her. But after leaving private school at fifteen she reclaimed her life. She went to the local comprehensive school, where she retook her GCSEs and went on to take an A-level in art. From then on there was no holding her back. After taking a degree in art, she won a scholarship to study in Rome and another for a postgraduate degree in London, winning the Windsor and Newton prize for oil painting along the way. ‘But I was always drawn to the east,’ she says. So, having learned basic Mandarin, she applied for a year’s scholarship to study in Beijing Central Academy of Art.
Leilei’s journey couldn’t have been more different. Where Caroline had to defy her parents’ and school’s expectations to become a painter, Leilei was, on the surface, handed it on a plate. Both his parents were creative. His father was a well-known writer, his mother a doctor with a deep interest in art. They were part of the revolution, members of the intellectual elite in Beijing and officers in the Communist Party. Leilei grew up under the aegis of Chairman Mao, and when he showed talent he was sent to a master to learn his craft, just as a young boy would have been in Renaissance Italy. The Cultural Revolution, however, was to change everything. As ‘intellectuals’, Leilei’s parents fell out of favour with the regime, were detained and interrogated, and put into prison for being ‘capitalist roaders’ – trying to lead the people into the capitalist way.
Growing up in Mao Zedong’s Communist Party, Leilei was tormented by the contradictions between what he was being taught and what he was seeing. At one moment he was praised, and the next he was vilified for the same thing. As a punishment for being an ‘intellectual’ he was sent, at the age of seventeen, to Manchuria as a medically untrained ‘barefoot doctor’. After that he was automatically drafted into the army. During most of this time he still had no idea what he was going to do with his life. ‘There were not many choices in Mao’s China and I was in a turbulence of uncertainty – and I ask myself do I still want to paint?’ Then, in 1970 he went to visit a friend of his parents. He describes it as his first ‘awakening’.
The friend had been educated abroad and, being a good Communist, had come back to China in 1955 as the deputy principal of Beijing University. After the Cultural Revolution, however, he, like Leilei’s parents, was accused of being a ‘capitalist roader’. He not only lost his job, he was beaten and tortured so badly that he had a stroke and ended up paralysed. He was then sent home a broken man. He was lying on a camp bed in a room, bare but for a huge bookcase, when Leilei visited him. In spite of the fact that there had been a spate of book burning, his library had miraculously survived. It was while they were talking that the old man pointed to the shelves and said, ‘I know you’re interested in art. You should look at those.’
‘They were covered in dust,’ Leilei says. ‘I took a book down from the shelf and opened it, and when I saw the picture my eye just illuminated. I had never seen art like this before.’ The book had opened on a reproduction of an impressionist painting. For Leilei it was a eureka moment. Up till then the only art he’d seen was Chinese and Russian revolutionary art, with the odd classic like Michelangelo thrown in. This was something miraculously new.
Leilei’s newfound revelations on getting his first glimpse of Western art were augmented by the fact that, after leaving the army, he got a job making TV documentaries for the Chinese State Television. He travelled around the country making films and came into contact with all sorts of different people: factory workers and peasants, the ‘ordinary’ people. He realised that they had been brainwashed by the regime, or the ‘empire’, as he calls it. ‘Mao tells people what they must say, what they must think, even what they must dream. They think they are good people if they think this way.’
It was 1976 when he realised that all the information the people were being given was false. This was the second turning point of his life. ‘You came out of a chaos of contradictions,’ Caroline says. His first glimpse of an Impressionist painting had made him realise that it was possible to say things he would never have dreamed of being able to articulate by using Chinese painting alone. It was only through Western art that he could start to explore not only his own deeply ambivalent feelings, but the equally troubling contradictions in the regime he was living under. ‘I love’ it,’ he says of his newfound ‘awakening’. ‘I know I have to find a way of expressing myself, but I know I have a long, long way to go. But I know I can learn. I can win. I spend all my time sketching, experimenting in black and white, colour, whatever I can find. I know there is something I am looking for to express my understanding and feelings. I am not a writer or a performer, but as a painter I know there must be a way. But I don’t know how until 1976. Then, I suddenly realise there is a way I can talk in art from my heart.’
1976 was, significantly, the Chinese Year of the Dragon, and in 1979 there was what Leilei calls ‘a weakening of the Cultural Revolution.’ He got together with other self-taught dissident artists, poets and musicians who called themselves the Stars Group. ‘We wanted to show our work. It was a kind of democracy war,’ he says. And, for a brief moment, they were able to do so. They had an exhibition in the National Museum which was promptly taken down by the Red Army. In defiance the artists hung their pictures on the railings outside the museum. As this attracted a lot of attention from the general public it, too, was taken down. Forbidden to show their work, they organised a protest march in October 1979. This was ten years before the massacre in Tiananmen Square. Because of his anti-government activities, Leilei was forced to flee. In 1985 he arrived in London and was given asylum in the United Kingdom.
‘In Chinese art they talk about four gentlemen,’ he says. ‘There is the plum blossom. It blooms in the snow and ice and has to be tough. It tells us that spring is coming and then it modestly disappears. Secondly, there is the orchid. It does not contend. It stays quietly and modestly confident and produces an elegant fragrance. And then there is the bamboo. It is strong. It can stand up to the wind and storms. And last the chrysanthemum. It keeps its flowers after all the others have died; even after the frost. It is as strong as iron but in a different way.’ ‘Calligraphy equips you with an artistic vocabulary,’ Caroline adds. ‘Chinese art is more mystical.’
While Leilei was discovering the possibilities of Western art, Caroline, who is a lot younger than her husband, went in the opposite direction. She wanted to learn the Chinese form and in 1989 she took up her scholarship and went out to Beijing. But, when she got there and presented herself at the Beijing Academy of Creative Arts, she was told by one of the teachers that she should have studied calligraphy for a year before being admitted. Feeling miserable she went to a private teacher and slaved day and night to acquire the basics. When she went back to the university three months later, she was accepted back into the Academy. Although, at the time, she’d felt resentful at being discriminated against, she realised the teacher was right about the vital importance of calligraphy. ‘At the Art Academy I learned respect; respect for my art and respect for my time; respect for the ink, the paper I painted on and, above all, respect for the brush. I remember a teacher going mad and saying, “You can’t paint figures on this paper. This is tree paper.” He was trembling with rage. “Your lines,” he said on another occasion. “There is no love in your lines.” You have to have a conversation between the paper and the medium, and you really have to treasure every mark. When you use the brush, it is an extension of your heart and your soul. It starts in your arm and flows down into your fingers and then into your brush. When I was told that I had no love for the brush, I was so upset I cried. There is a whole science of the brush. You need to know just how much water to use with your ink and how to use the wrist and the arm to express yourself. We had to look at the model, and think about it for forty minutes before starting to paint. You have to have modesty and reverence for what you’re doing.’
This is exactly what Leilei does. ‘Everything in Chinese art comes from calligraphy,’ he says. ‘You don’t talk about painting a picture, you talk about writing a picture. It is about an idea. The marks on the paper are the language of the painting. It is not what you see, it is what you think. That is the difference between Chinese and Western art. Western art is scientific. You look at the light and the shadow. You try to show distance. Like the camera obscura you paint what you see. In Chinese art you are not concerned with those things. It is what you think; what you feel. That is important. It is more spiritual than Western art.’
He goes on to tell me that the different brush strokes are related to the human character; that they stand for something more than the image. ‘In Chinese art they talk about four gentlemen,’ he says. ‘There is the plum blossom. It blooms in the snow and ice and has to be tough. It tells us that spring is coming and then it modestly disappears. Secondly, there is the orchid. It does not contend. It stays quietly and modestly confident and produces an elegant fragrance. And then there is the bamboo. It is strong. It can stand up to the wind and storms. And last the chrysanthemum. It keeps its flowers after all the others have died; even after the frost. It is as strong as iron but in a different way.’ ‘Calligraphy equips you with an artistic vocabulary,’ Caroline adds. ‘Chinese art is more mystical.’
On the surface both Leilei’s and Caroline’s simple nudes look quite similar. In fact, her paintings have been mistaken for his. They both use Chinese calligraphy and both emphasise the vital necessity of trying to master the technique. ‘You can’t articulate your spirituality until you have the technique,’ Caroline says. ‘A lot of modern painting in the West is about letting it all hang out. I know it’s an unfashionable thing to say but in Western art you just throw the paint at the canvas. To me that’s an insult. You don’t tell a musician to just bang the keys of a piano. He has to spend years learning how to play.’
Both their paintings are earthed in the philosophy of Taoism, or Daoism as it’s pronounced in China. ‘Taoism goes straight to what you want to say and not saying anything unnecessary,’ Caroline says. ‘You don’t aim at a target: you shoot an arrow into a tree and then paint a circle round where the arrow hits. It’s about an uncluttered vision.’ ‘In Taoism nothing is what it seems,’ Leilei adds. ‘It makes you question everything. There are no answers. It is about finding a harmony. There can be no day without night. The yin and the yang.’
In spite of their belief in the virtue of the technique, however, they both agree that Chinese painting, for all its subtlety, is essentially formulaic and ultimately stultifying. Most of the time studying at art school is spent copying objects and in the way they were painted by the old masters. Having shared the compulsion from a very young age to catch what they saw on paper, and studying the discipline of calligraphy, Caroline and Leilei have gone in very different directions. Both of them have adapted what they have learned for their own ends. Caroline practises Chinese technique for her nudes, using the initial wash to explore her emotional response to her model and her intellect to paint the defining line at the last minute. But, having been employed as artist-in-residence for the English National Ballet, she uses an essentially Western pastels technique to capture her dancers in their exuberance of movement. Her exquisite still lifes are painted in oils. ‘I drive Leilei mad!’ she says. ‘I have several paintbrushes on the go the whole time and mix all my paints on a palette. I’m a messy painter, while he is exact and precise’. Needless to say, they no longer share a studio.
For Caroline it is an emotional truth she’s after. She is exploring humanity through herself. When she is painting, she never knows exactly what she’s going to say. ‘For me it’s about grabbing reality and processing it; telling how it is. When you’re painting well, you go into a sort of trance. You see the beauty of reality even if it’s ugly.’ She sometimes destroys the whole painting because it’s gone off in the wrong direction. It is an emotional journey of discovery; a quest. She doesn’t play music or anything that distracts her. With each layer she gets a deeper understanding of her subject, and through that her truth.
‘Technically Leilei is more skilled than I am,’ she says. ‘Caroline is very modest,’ Leilei retorts. ‘She is more of a true artist than me. When we look at Monet and Cezanne, they are true artists. She tries to find humanity. She honestly tries to find the soul.’ He, on the other hand, needs to analyse what he thinks before he starts painting. ‘For me I love to do landscapes and still lifes, but my life is so much related to humanity and to politics that I must paint those.’ In contrast to his wife, Leilei needs to unravel problems and resolve his inner conflicts before putting brush to paper. He knows beforehand exactly what he is going to depict and what the final image will look like. ‘Before I start to paint a picture,’ he says, ‘I ask myself three questions: why, what and how? Why do I want to do this painting, what do I want to say, and how do I do it? How do I think about it, and how do the people understand it.’ ‘He’s phenomenally intelligent,’ Caroline says. ‘There are so many layers to his painting. He’s not only thinking about the arrangement, he’s thinking about the spaces between and how the message relates to the arrangement of the figures as well as the concept. He can hold everything in his mind at the same time. He knows what he wants to say and he can see the finished painting.’
Leilei uses mainly the Chinese brush and ink for his painting. I think of the ravishing nudes I saw in a recent exhibition. They are ‘drawn’ on a large piece of paper. They’re not only huge, they’re meticulously painted. Every shade of grey says something and the highlights are left untouched on the plain white paper. He can’t afford to make a single mistake or he could lose weeks of work.
His paintings are a synthesis of Chinese technique and Western concept, using Chinese brush and ink and Western surrealism. He’s obsessed with trying to come to terms with the country which nurtured and formed him, understanding the Chinese ‘empire’ and how it operates. In several of his paintings he uses the image of the terracotta warrior. ‘Nothing has changed since the first Emperor Qin in 221 BC,’ he tells me. It was Qin who commissioned the terracotta army to see him safely into the underworld. He conquered seven separate nations and he had to keep all the people thinking the same in order to retain power. It is essentially the same with the Communist regime. Chairman Mao needed to destroy individuality in order to keep himself in power. He did this first of all by keeping them ignorant, so that they think they’re stupid. He also kept them poor and worked them hard so that they were exhausted. Most importantly, he made them think that they were not worth anything. ‘That is how you control people,’ Leilei says. ‘In my paintings I want to analyse this. To show how necessary it is for people to change.’ To illustrate this, he holds up a painting of an iconic Chinese warrior in his armour-plating giving birth to the prototype of a modern Chinese man. It is surreal. The figure is both ancient and contemporary at the same time. ‘You have to look back at history to see what is happening now,’ he says. ‘You must go backwards in order to go forwards.’
‘And what about your hands?’ I ask Leilei. ‘What are they saying?’ As well as his Chinese warriors, Leilei paints enormous hands which are more than life size. They are in brush and ink and are super-realistic. They tell us all about the person the hands belong to. ‘I call it facing the future,’ he says. ‘After the Tiananmen massacre I spent a few years analysing my personal history; what I experienced; how I woke up and realised the value of life and the dignity of humanity. And then, towards the end of the last century it became clear to me what kind of time we were living in and what kind of person I wanted to be. Also, what kind of art I wanted to do. And then I feel I must jump out of myself. I not only want to show that all human beings are similar. All in different ways are facing the same problems. I use hands because even if people’s skin colour and face structure are different, they have the same hands. Hands have expression. They can be happy or angry or hopeful; they express the universal truth, and they bring me a step forward. They take me beyond the Chinese experience.’
‘He had an exhibition in the Old Truman Brewery,’ Caroline says. ‘It gave the impression of a dark aeroplane hangar. All his hands were in a circle, and in the middle there were stones with their geological markings. There was the sound of the waves in the background and in the sand Leilei had written the whole of history appears in silence.’ It is pure Taoism.
‘I remember you collecting those stones on the beach when we were on holiday together,’ I say, ‘and I wondered what they were for.’ Caroline and Leilei’s little daughter had picked up a black stone with white markings which, she said, looked like the number seven. ‘They are formed millions of years in the past,’ Leilei says, ‘and they speak to the present.’
For me it’s an insight into the way Caroline and Leilei work. Those stones, picked up on a Welsh beach, had planted an idea which didn’t come to fruition for many years. The exhibition was, as so much of Leilei and Caroline’s current work is, the result of discussion and collaboration. Caroline often has conceptual ideas which are then taken up by Leilei. Recently they jointly created an installation for an exhibition at the Royal Palace, Milan, in which they hung gigantic banners painted by Leilei. It was Caroline’s idea and was called ‘A Forest of Misinformation’. It used an ancient Chinese art form to illustrate the modern concept of fake news, something she’s very troubled by. On the banners Leilei not only ‘wrote’ of myths from ancient times which were false, but also translated President Trump’s fake news into beautifully deceptive calligraphy.
‘It seems to me that all art is about saying what you want, by what you don’t say in the actual words or marks,’ I suggest. ‘In Western art, it’s the abstract where nothing is actually articulated that carries the message, and in traditional Chinese painting, I’m told, it’s often the case that the fewer lines you use the more profound the image. All art, surely, is about saying the unsayable.’
Leilei hadn’t thought about this before. Recently Caroline read 1984 aloud to him. ‘The author George Orwell was never in a labour camp,’ he says, ‘but in his book he shows it. How did he know what life is like in a communist country? How did he know when he never experienced it? But from his writing I am back in my country living that experience. It is the power of the imagination,’ he concludes. ‘It is the idea of one person’s imagination transferring onto another.’
I like the idea of a marriage of imaginations; a marriage of spirits. ‘That’s how you recognise great art,’ I suggest. ‘You feel the experience of the painter.’ ‘We recognise the truth within ourselves,’ Caroline adds. ‘As artists we are all looking for our own truth. And by looking at someone else’s truth you experience your own.’
Leilei is excited about a new form, a new way he has thought of to say the unsayable. He shows me a picture of a realistic hand with a shadow hand behind. ‘I use very thin rice paper and I paint on both sides.’ On one side you can see the hand clearly; the other hand is like a shadow. ‘It is the shadow which is speaking the truth,’ he says. ‘It is the most important part but you cannot quite see it.’ ‘Like the shadow theatre of Bali,’ I say. ‘By implying what is happening, you force the audience to use their own imagination and see the real thing.’
He shows me another painting. On the front there is a plain realistic, almost photographic, depiction of a whistle. But emerging mysteriously from the back of the paper is a head wearing the only too familiar face mask. It is Li Wenliang. He was a doctor working in Wuhan, and a would-be whistleblower. When on 30th December 2020 he tried to alert his fellow doctors, and through them the world, to the deadly danger of the Covid-19 virus, he was told by the Chinese authorities that he was making false statements. Just as in Emperor Qin’s day he, and his fellow doctors, were silenced by the monolithic regime. Ironically, he contracted the disease himself and died. ‘If Li Wenliang could have got his message out, if the Chinese government was not so repressive, maybe he could have saved the world,’ Caroline says.
It’s a fanciful idea, but as Leilei says of the people who view his work: ‘If they understand my art by looking at my pictures, they change’. It would be nice to think that if enough people did that then there could be real change.
APRIL 2022 Veronica Cecil MONK
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