If you have not yet visited the unprecedented retrospective of Chinese artist Lalan at the Asia Society Hong Kong, it is definitely a must. And we are in luck as the exhibition Extended Figure: The Art and Inspiration of Lalan, as part of ASHK’s 20th Century Chinese Female Artist Series, is extended until 29 October 2021.
Xie Jing-lan, nicknamed Lalan, would be 100 years old this year. It is not a detail when you see how pioneer is the corpus of works from a girl born in Eastern China in the early 20th century and trained in dance and composition. After graduating, she traveled to France with her then-husband, painter Zao Wou-ki, where they eventually settled. In Paris, they met with the most important and experiential artists of the time, being neighbours with sculptor Alberto Giacometti. Lalan further studied composition at the French National Conservatory of Music in Paris, she was exposed to early electronic music by the father of the genre, Edgar Varèse, and she learned Martha Graham’s dance technique at Le Centre Américain. This, without doubt, trained the eye and the heart of Lalan, while she was the muse of soon-to-become-famous Zao.
It is after her divorce in 1957, and with the encouragement of her second husband, the musician and sculptor Marcel Van Thienen, that Lalan picked up the brushes and started to paint. It is then that the unique style of Lalan exploded in soft yet strong colours, rythms and meanings. Although her work is generally abstract, the Chinese technique of calligraphy, the landscapes, literati and Daoist philosophy of her culture surface in all her paintings, combining her skills as a dancer, a composer, and a painter. Some of the paintings exhibited, such as At Full Moon (1984), definitely depict a Chinese-inspired landscape of mountains in the mist under a glowing moon. While the mountains seem to be dancing like veils in the wind, the background and colours are abstract. In the “accent and void” Daoist idea, Lalan depicts the full moon, one of the essential part of the painting, by leaving a “blank” space in the canvas, thus having the void being the shape.
Lalan, At Full Moon, 1984
In this painting like in many in the exhibition, we can see the art of Lalan merging the different disciplines, trying to create an art form of her own, always in movement. One of the breathtaking moments in the exhibition is watching 74-year old Lalan gracefully dancing the Qigong, a traditional Chinese form of dance, meditation and breathing, surrounded by canvas she specifically created for the performance. The video looks like the exact synthesis of her art, where her body becomes the instrument, the brush which conveys it’s vital energy to the colours, the shapes, putting them into vibration and into movement. Two of the paintings in the last room, To Edgard Varese (1985) and Remember Henri Michaux (1984) seem to the spectator as if they were moving, like the wind blowing in the desert in the former, the waves gently moving back and forth in the latter.
Lalan, To Edgar Varèse, 1985
Lalan, Remember Henri Michaux, 1984
With over thirty paintings and significant archives videos, the exhibition embarks us into the artistic journey of Lalan, where all art forms converge in one, where breathing, dancing, meditating is part of the creative process as much as the colours left on the canvases. It is a rewarding journey for the spectator as well, who gets to breath and move at Lalan’s poetic and almost enchanting rhythm during the time of the visit. Combined with a walk in the greenery of the Asia Society, it is a very worthy time.