For death begins with life's first breath And life begins at touch of death.
When he was 90 years old, Pablo Picasso painted four consecutive self-portraits between June 30 and July 3, 1972. Amongst them, Self Portrait Facing Death (now in the collection of Japan’s Fuji Television Gallery) is a work clearly derived from the painter’s sudden sentiments towards the subject of “death.” His friend, Pierre Daix, later pointed out that Picasso’s appearance in the painting proved that he truly was “a daring Spaniard” who hoped to scare death away with his stare. However, aside from hints of Picasso’s self-mockery and humor in the painting, viewers can also sense some of the tension and helplessness that he felt as death approached. This was not only Picasso’s last self-portrait, but the also the last time he touched upon the subject of death until his passing on April 8, 1973.
In 1998, KUO Chwen began painting images related to the subject of death. When he passed away in 2011, he left behind many paintings that could be more or less read from two angles: “death’s attention and portrayal” and ”life’s exploration and interpretation.” Works from KUO in his early thirties that revolve around life and death seemed, at the time, to come from an artist too young to fully understand his complexity. However, in hindsight, this painter might have been consciously experiencing the close stares and whispers of Death. We are now bound to renew our reading and understanding of this decade-old series of paintings from a serious, sympathetic, and comparative perspective.
In Western painting, “The Dance of Death” is the earliest example to touch upon the subject of death, using skeletons as its main characters. This theme was popular throughout various European countries at the end of the late Medieval Ages period. The works of this theme aimed to point out that regardless of how much one achieves in their life, everyone must face death in their final moments without exception. The most typical subjects for “The Dance of Death” included bishops, kings, soldiers, businessmen, farmers, and other people together in the forms of skeletons wearing different uniforms. In a cemetery, they danced the dance of death together. Early painters did not seem to convey feelings of sadness in depicting the solemn and universal nature of the subject of death. In fact, some even used a cynical approach to express death.
Internationally, the Mexican culture has probably the least qualms with subject of death, having developed skeletons into an unique artistic and cultural totem. The skeletons in KUO’s paintings are often associated with the unaffected Mexican perspective on death. As the poet, Octavio Paz (1914-1998, winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize in Literature) said, “To the people of New York, Paris, or London, ‘death’ is a word that is never pronounced because it burns the lips. The Mexican, however, frequents it, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it.” For the festivities of “Day of the Little Angels” and “Day of the Dead” every November, the Mexican people not only memorialize the dead through street celebrations, but also use skulls and epitaphs to portray living politicians and celebrities. This type of celebration has become a subject of popular entertainment, fame, and festive occasion in the news. It is evident from glancing at streets that the deathly skeleton is one of the favorite toys of Mexico, and has developed into an unique cultural and creative product of Mexico. On these holidays, the “life-like dead” and the “dead-like living” continuously play roles in an interactive drama.
KUO was very emotionally in sync with subjects relating to death, and he intentionally painted lifeless subjects. The skeletal figures he portrayed did not necessarily represent an open attitude towards life. Instead, they were subjective expressions and emotional reflections regarding concerns for his survival and his struggle against death. Escaping from a state of confusion, he converted troubling anxieties into humor and self-mockery as an integral part to his artistic practice. This was a form of physical and mental self-medication, as well as a reflection of his thoughts regarding fate.
Composed of two images, the 2006-07 work, Floating Mind Series [Flower], presents two opposing states of humanity, scenery, and objects: clean and bright versus chaotic and ambiguous. The former refers to life, order, and radiating energy, while the latter refers to death, destruction, and diminishing vitality. This can be likened to a beautiful and blooming poppy flower: it is a hybrid of both poison and medicine. Under this contrast, the artist painted himself with his toy dog as they are cast into a dark and murky corner of the world like two children abandoned for their mischief. Wearing anguished and pitiful expressions, the two have only each other for comfort and consolation. When the skeleton realizes he has been renounced by God, one can imagine him telling the toy dog, “At least, you do not have to die!”
For the work Floating Mind Series [Voyage], KUO painted himself sitting weakly and lifelessly inside a paper boat docked along a rocky coastline. In the painting, KUO wears an expression filled with dread on his face, much like a child forced to embark on a journey to a place he does not want to go. From amidst the indomitable silhouette of a human head, one can make out vague images of flowers, lizards, and moths, which allude to the life-giving energies of the Creator. Perhaps these images also collectively form a metaphor for a ferocious destroyer of life. From this, it can be said that his works are artistic satires that depict “God” as both a giver and taker of life, as well as consultative prayers. With a toy wool dog accompanying him, he pleads for the paper boat to stop. He throws paper airplanes that fly in circles around the creator (or taker) of life. We can hear him begging, “Can’t these paper planes take my place instead so that I may finish life’s journey?”
In the four consecutive works of the 2010 variation series Rock, a skeleton twirls a halo around its small body as if it were playing with a hula hoop. Floating in mid-air and performing with great effort while wearing a smile on its face, the skeleton cannot help but make us wonder. As a painting, perhaps it is there for people to view as a work of art. But, with such a “toiling” performance amongst the clouds, who is the skeleton’s true audience? Who is it really smiling for? Is it performing for the regular viewers who come and go before it? Or is it doing this for the one and only, all-knowing God? Is this set of paintings an alternate version of “He Amused His Parents With Play and Glad Clothes” and its description of old man Lai from the Confucian text, The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars? Is it acting like a pet who is trying to endear itself to its master, begging for God’s favor? Or is it conducting a final performance of self-ridicule?
Death - the last voyage, the longest, the best.
The use of intellectual logic within KUO’s works is manifested as multiple interpretations of the notion “life is like a journey,” and a variation of paintings that relate to the “mind.” For this exhibition, the ten consecutive works of the 2008 variation series, Heave, and the enlarged version of the 2009 work, Anchor, seem to be somewhat similar paintings that reiterate the same proposition at an intrinsic level. They all convey the message: life is like a ferry crossing a body of water, whose condition and journey are like a dried-out leaf drifting along with a current, a fish swimming in deep waters, a paper boat lost on sea, or even like a glimmer of light flashing across a surface of water. Whether this is called life or fate, it is merely one of many manifestations predetermined by our universe as it undergoes a continuous cycle of expansion. Superficially, this all seems very random and unpredictable much like glittering lights that reflect across the ripples of water. However, in reality, they belong to a specific context and a complete chain of events that intersect to form a transparent super-structure defined by repetitive motions and infinite expansion.
Within this world structured by a close yet faint intertwining, how many guises can life hold and what are the possibilities of its journey? These were the issues that KUO cared about and wanted to convey. For this purpose, not only did he present paper boats, airplanes, cranes, and other symbolic items throughout his works, he varied their paths and journeys, and created many different versions. The vessels fly, roll, and glide through the void of space, or they drift, float, and flow across water. Other times, they are docked next to a small island. Paper is slim, fragile, and practically weightless; planes and boats folded from it share the same characteristics. The one-time journey of a paper boat, plane, and crane is highly dangerous and even very likely to fail. When viewing these works at a first glance, they seem to emphasize that life’s journey is difficult to navigate completely, and, therefore, likely to end in tragedy. However, taking a different perspective, the space vehicles KUO paints never show any signs of damage regardless of the changes in their journey or surrounding environment! In some of the paintings, paper boats are portrayed under the guise of church-like structures, alluding to a sense of mainstay and invoking the imagery of God’s home. From this perspective, these man-made symbols actually represent a sort of religious faith, tenacity of life, optimism, and a spirit that never gives up.