Ladies and Gentlemen, Dignitaries of the local party, I am very honored to have this opportunity to exhibit my work in China. I would like to thank Mr. Lai Man and Mr. Kung for their enormous generosity in bringing me here and providing me with this beautiful space in which to exhibit my work, and also the many people who have helped to realize the show behind the scenes, from the carpenters who have built the walls and made the frames for my drawings, to Ms. Winnie Ng and Tommy Chen in particular who have handled the administration and smoothed out all the bumps along the way, making this visit so enjoyable for my partner, Sheela, and I.
This is my first visit to China, and it’s difficult to express how impressed I am by my experience of this great country. I feel like I have experienced enough in one week for many months of reflection. What has impressed me is the beauty, power, and scale of your country; the goodness, kindness and generosity of your people, the high level of civic order, and a sense of virtue and good faith that permeates everything. Like many in the West I have heard so much of China and wondered about the reality of life here. I have heard much of its prodigious creativity, its enormous growth and global political influence–but I have known nothing.
Now I have had a chance to immerse myself in its beautiful nature, to visit some of its secret towns and temples, to hear its birds and murmuring brooks–in short, it has spoken to me.
I’m so glad that Sheela and I have had this chance to journey from the great city of Shanghai, with its international flavor, into the interior of the country, where we have experienced this smaller city of Taining, which is purely and essentially Chinese. As I have moved through the streets I have seen good cheer everywhere, laughter, optimism; this is truly a city on fire with life and hope, and it is so exciting to come here and share the energy.
When Mr. Lai and Mr. Kung gave me this wonderful opportunity, I wanted to make a selection from my work that would reflect the Chinese sensibility. Much guess work was involved, as I had not yet visited. But now I’m happy to say that I do feel some affinity between the works on display and the Chinese spirit. As you walk around the exhibition, you will see many of my abstract works. In these I am concerned with symmetry and order, while at the same time expressing a vibrant inner life. In each work I seek to find a different way to express harmony between emotion and intellect, sensuality and order–energies which are often in conflict. While this is difficult enough to achieve in one painting, how much more difficult and miraculous is it to achieve in an entire country! For I do feel that there is an ancient intuition in China for a harmony between opposites, a genius for achieving calm without the loss of vital energy.
As a painter working in the abstract medium, I am also continually impressed by the beauty of the Chinese language. Perhaps it is because I don’t understand the meaning of the characters that I can contemplate them on a purely visual level. Each character is a beautiful abstract form in itself, and within each is a density of invention and finesse that I find breathtaking. I would like to think that my Abstract works, with their dense textures and symmetries, their compulsion to combine chaos and order in search of a harmonic unity, in some way approach the sophistication of Chinese calligraphy, or at least pay it due homage!
It is also impossible to contemplate Chinese art and culture without being impressed by the powerful symbolic meaning of the Dragon. This wonderful creature is celebrated everywhere in China as an incarnation of Chi and the optimistic life force. How different is its symbolic role in the West, where the dragon is demonized and feared! Perhaps we are blinded there by a flaw in our ethical thinking that sees everything in black and white, while the Chinese response to ferocious and unbridled passion is not to try and dominate and control it, but to coordinate it to greater effect. Genius!
I think I was wrestling with this problem in western thought and behavior when I created my sequence of works, St George and The Dragon. My culture was telling me to dominate and control the dragon, while my instinct was telling me that I needed him–that I had to merge with him and identify with him to find myself as a creative artist. I think you will see in my selection of these works a remnant of that conflict, for I was not yet fully aware, as I am now, that the dragon is my ally.
Dear friends, I believe that art is the greatest communicator, that the artist has a vital role in any society, to voice the spirit of the people and to finally articulate what they can often only strain towards in their dreams. Art is a force of virtue, it is a way of thinking that is inclusive, unitary–that combines opposites to greater effect. The Scientist will tell us that the rising sun is made of hydrogen and helium in a state of nuclear fission, but the Poet will tell us WHY it is beautiful, why it moves us so deeply with intimations of completion and divinity. In short, Science will tell us the ‘What’ of things; Art will supply the ‘Why’.
In the final section of my exhibition you will find works that express a completeness, an intimation of enlightenment, which for me, is most powerfully realized in the Buddhist religion. The Buddha’s imperturbable ability to accept things as they are, and to improve them not by fighting them, but by finding common cause with them, is a profound lesson we can always learn anew. I hope my presence here today in some small way contributes to that cause.