Shi Zhiying

Essay: Colm Tóibín


There is no need any more for description since we can photograph at will, and since we can share the photograph widely then it will be seen by infinite numbers of people for all eternity, or until the technology changes, whichever comes first.


Thus, if you work with words, there is something strange and solitary about attempting to set a scene, to create an atmosphere, to say where the door was, for example, or what sort of light came from the window, or what was in the room. Even writing the simple, imagined words ‘the full moon was luminous with a fierce, radiant whiteness’ seems oddly strange, like a quotation from something that someone needed to write in the past, a past before you could photograph or film the full moon and send it, freshly packaged, around the world.


And even experience itself seems to belong to a time that has transformed. Imagine if you wrote: ‘They both sat reading, not speaking or moving, for some hours.’ The reader would have a right to feel that this non-event took place in some strange part of the past, and that the people in question were old, or middle-aged, and that it must have been before television and the internet and the smartphone and the I-pad, a time before people began to get up constantly from what they were doing to do something else, and that these two silent, bookish immobile readers must be long-dead and long-forgotten, if they ever really existed.


In his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936), Walter Benjamin quotes Paul Valéry: ‘For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.’


In his essay, Benjamin wrote: ‘Around 1900 technical reproduction had reached a standard that not only permitted it to reproduce all transmitted works of art and thus to cause the most profound change in their impact upon the public; it also had captured a place of its own among the artistic processes.’


This meant that the idea of pure loneliness in the making and sending out into the world of a single work of art came to an end, or at least could be questioned and undermined. And also the idea of a painting taking its power from the work’s solitary status, its aura of unique presence, was doomed.


And also the notion that the viewer looking at a painting is involved in a communion that is haloed, quite spiritual, is something that has lost full confidence in itself.


Yet this experience of looking urgently and voraciously, as though you might never see the object again, is often missed, sometimes desperately longed for. Some people still need to feel that the work of art they are looking at arose from an inspired moment in a radiant soul with a special talent, even if others view that feeling as quite inauthentic, almost ridiculous, to be undermined as much as possible by the very way in which art is made and photographed and written about and bought and sold.


Sometimes, a sentence occurs to me, a sentence with its own buried rhythm, and I write it down. Often, I don’t know where it comes from, or why it has appeared in that shape. All I know is that is I need to be alone so that I can work. I need time and silence. As I add other sentences, making erasures and revisions, I realize that I am in close touch with some region of myself that I manage normally to keep at bay. But also, I am using knowledge, irony, experience, choice and will. I am not in a trance.


What I am making can be printed and re-printed, but it came from one mysterious source, a source available to no one else. Thus the work – the novel, the story, the play, the poem – maintains its mystery and its autonomy and its purity. I was the only one who was there when it was being made. It must be filled with traces and clues and links from that time, from the time when it was almost unmade, when it was half-made, when it came into being. The finished work must be illuminated, animated, by its original time in loneliness, by its early resistance to noise.


There are some painters who specialize in making work which combines a sense of stillness with a minimum of means, emphasizing the idea that the painting or drawing or watercolor was made in time in silence and had best be contemplated in time and in silence.


There is a strange sense of loneliness and scarce light in the work, say, of Giorgio Morandi or William Scott or Agnes Martin. And each one of them seemed unworried about repeating an image, or coming again and again to the same set of contours, colors and shapes. They worked much in the very spirit of how each day works: days begin with dawn and end with twilight as the sun seems to rise and go down. There are, of course, always variations, such as seasons and clouds, but the spirit of lovely monotony is essentially there.


And there are also some contemporary painters who work with repetition not in order to perfect anything but because of a purity in their own way of imagining and seeing. Watch how stillness, emptiness, silence seem to pervade their work like a powerful minimalist music! It is interesting that Vija Celmins, in the United States, for example, works with the sea and the sky, as Maria Simonds-Gooding, in Ireland, works with sea and costal light, and both of them find color almost unnecessary in most of their work. And how color and line in the work of Callum Innes, in Scotland, is so pure and carefully chosen, as though making these lines and working with color were an exacting and sacred calling.


In the work of Shi Zhiying, there also is a great purity and sense of stillness. There is a feeling that the eye of the artist has been involved not merely in seeing but in distilling and then dissolving and remaking as much as is tactfully possible. The idea of line and light in her work is hard-won. She is deeply concerned with element and spirit, with the loneliness of working slowly, calmly, to create a single object, the very making of which suggests isolation, distance, guarded feeing.


In her paintings of the sea, with all their reticence and clarity, much that is powerful is withheld, much that is fragile and liminal is implied. She manages to suggest the very ‘seaness’ of the sea, as much as depict the water or make an exact image of it.


Since the hand, when it works at creating the images, must repeat, hold back, and repeat again as the eye supervises, then things that do not come singly interest Zhiying – beads, stones, waves, repetitive carvings, shapes in crystal. This does not mean that she is interested in pattern. It is the singleness of things that fascinates her, just as she is seriously engaged with the singleness of each brushstroke, the singleness of each line and mark, the singleness of each layer of paint. There is nothing in the world she works with that does not stand alone and require close attention.


Her work is engaged with the conflict between what is open and almost broken, chipped away at or in permanent movement, and the idea of the pictorial space as fully solid and sure and confined. Thus both sunlight, in all its darting softness, and stone, in all its solidity and shapeliness, fascinate her, as much as the liquidity of water and the power to make waves and force them to gather. So too, the gap or the connection between the materials she works with and the ground, the surface, she creates.


Her work is as alert to photography as any novelist, say, is alert to how a story can be told or a character shown or an atmosphere created on film. Film and photography are part of the weather of any artist’s inner world. But in that moment of hushed making when you are building a scene with sentences or trying to show the texture of surfaces that are bathed in light or held in shadow, almost nothing else matters except what you imagine and then see and then let others see, as though no one had ever seen them before, unwashed in the waters of art history, as pure as they can be, and shiveringly still, open to the play and movement of light, and solid, open always to the altering eye of the viewer.




by 科尔姆·托宾

























有些画家——比如乔治·莫兰迪(Giorgio Morandi)、威廉·斯科特(William Scott)和艾格尼丝·马丁(Agnes Martin)——的作品有种奇特的孤独感与罕见的光感。他们似乎都不介意反复描绘同一种意象,或者反复使用同一组线条、色彩和形状。他们的作画犹如每日常态:日出日落,天亮天黑。当然也有变化,比如季节和云的变化,但这种可爱的单调感总是存在。


也有些当代画家,他们重复作画并非为了追求完美,而是因为他们所思所见的方式是如此纯粹。观赏他们作品所散发的静止、空白与沉默,犹如倾听一支有力的极简乐曲。有趣的是有些画家,如美国的维哈·塞尔敏(Vija Celmins)画海与天空,如爱尔兰的玛丽安·西蒙德-古丁(Maria Simonds-Gooding)画海与海岸的光线,在他们大多数作品中色彩几乎都是不必要的。在苏格兰画家卡勒姆·因内斯(Callum Innes)的作品中,色彩与线条经过精心遴选,极为纯净,仿佛创作这些线条,使用这些色彩,是一项精准的天职。