I had been much in China once, but not since 1987, when the tallest building in Shanghai was still the Park Hotel, all the men still wore round-collared suits with military pockets, and the pen he carried there - gold, silver, brass or dull alloy - let you know how important a man was. The gray back streets went on for miles, and people moved through them no faster than the end-of-May breeze. They knew where they were going, because there was nowhere to go, just the same crumbling mansions and shanties, the same boulevards of old plane trees, the same impoverished shops and coal smoke, the same squat bamboo chairs and chamber pots, the same gray walls.
A few months ago I went back for the first time in twelve years. Everyone in Shanghai knows how fantastically the city has changed, of course, so there is no need for me to repeat it, but I would like to mention one old Chinese friend of mine, who drove me to Hongqiao for my flight home. He was complaining hard in the car about the gambling there was now, and of how there was too much freedom now, especially where high school girls like his young daughter were concerned. Then, for some reason, I asked him "you know, when I was here before there was never any such thing as a red lantern hanging, there were no dragons, and not much gold, except maybe on a banner with some slogan about the triumph of Production: but now there are red lanterns in front of all the restaurants; and there is a big dragon with long whiskers on that old department store on Nanjing Road; what do you think of these things, now that you see them again? What do you think of all those red lanterns?" Without hesitating, he said "oh well of course, I think they are beautiful!"
One of the most interesting things about the jump for the future that China has made in the last few years is that it has allowed the door to the past to be pried open, a door that was at one time nailed shut. One sees this in simple manifestations - a new building may have a tiled, horn-finialed roof again now, not just a dead, flat, concrete roof; a beautiful girl may wear a shiny qipao again and tea may again be served from a long-spouted Sichuanese pot, by a waiter who delights in shooting boiling water into one's teacup without hitting one's lap. One sees it also in many that are not so simple, including the paintings of Wu Yiming.
His pictures are full of ancient characters, and they have the distressed appearance of stained old scrolls that have for generations been traded out of hidden chests and locked closets, yet they are anything but nostalgic redrafts of old myth. Yes, there are old princes and generals and courtiers and ladies here, but their faces are blank. No eyes, noses, mouths, no anger, no flirtation, no leers or smiles, no grief. The antique world is entirely present, yet entirely mysterious. It is as beautiful as kingly orange and watery purple, so we know that it may even have been full of glory, but it is also full of omen. Charming heroes and elegant old customs are not the point of these pictures. They have no love for the quaint.
The blank faces are what we come back to again and again in this work, as Mr. Wu himself does, as if he was trying again and again, on the way through the day, to recover a lost image from a dream he had the night before. You could say that he is guessing, probing for some key that the past will not give up. Perhaps the key was in a word that was said, or in an object one person seemed to pass to another, but we cannot hear any words or see the face of the speaker, nor can we tell who was handing what to whom. Perhaps if he tries two courtiers who look as if they are bowing, he will find out what the key was; perhaps if he tries a rank of five generals; perhaps the secret is in a club, so he will try a man with a club; perhaps it is in a lute; very likely some important piece of the answer is carried in the shapes of old hats, so he must try hats again and again, many kinds of hats.
It is this trying to read the world, trying to tell what is going on, or what was going on once, that these pictures are about. The sense of them is as of a blind girl feeling the face of a man she cannot see, trying through her fingers to tell who he is. The blankness of the faces in Mr. Wu's pictures describes the artist's own blindness, as he looks back at old China and tries to see what its enormous past could possibly mean. His questions are innumerable because China is a country that has, not just in the recent, bad years of what one Chinese friend called 'savagism', but at many times, believed that it must throw its past away. It has done this so often, in fact, that there is by now an old tradition of throwing the old away, and when we look at any moment that Chinese people say is new, it is far from clear that what is really asserting itself is not the old.
All of Mr. Wu's characters are in a sense ghosts, potent ghosts with a great deal of influence on the present. How much is the China of now animated by them? How much may it use them? How do they distort it, pervert it? To what degree do they make it beautiful? Are they the worst or the best of it? No art can answer such questions, it can only state them, as Mr. Wu's pictures do, placing themselves at the center of the mystery of the ratio of then to now. In his 1999 ink painting, "Man in a Suit", a man of now, in a boxy Western jacket and a necktie treats with a man of then, who wears elegant old robes and oiled hair. The man of now stands and the man of then sits on the ground, in an empty zone of no time, and it is characteristic of the Mr. Wu's subtlety that we cannot say which man is superior. Perhaps now stands because he is the dominant man, and has the right to loom over then. But perhaps the real master is the man of then, and perhaps then sits because he will not deign to rise. Perhaps, indeed, then will not allow now to sit in his presence.
Leo Rubinfien, 1999
Leo Rubinfien, an American photographer and writer, is the author of A Map of the East and 10 Takeoffs 5 Landings. He has written extensively on modern art.