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LIN XUE, Untitled (2018-4) from Pines series, 2018, ink on paper, 35.5 × 73.5 cm. All images courtesy Gallery Exit, Hong Kong.

Lin Xue: A Wandering Life

Hong Kong Arts Centre
Hong Kong China

There seemed to be few contemporary artists in Hong Kong as enigmatic as the late Lin Xue, who shunned publicity and lived reclusively throughout his 30-year career. His ink drawings, inspired by traditional literati painting, possess an equally unique character. All created using hand-sharpened bamboo stalks, the ink works render intricate pictorial worlds that meld natural motifs and imaginary ecosystems. Lin’s posthumous retrospective at the Hong Kong Art Centre’s Pao Galleries showcased a selection of these drawings from the last three decades of his life, with some unpublished works on display for the first time.

LIN XUE, Untitled (2018-5) from Pines series, 2018, ink on paper, 35.5 × 73.5 cm.

The first section of exhibition housed Lin’s recent Pine series, including seven untitled pieces created in 2015–18. Meticulous, consistent strokes of ink on paper portray the texture of pine trees, with inset sectional studies on the side of the page. Observing closely, one discovers a secret microscopic world hidden in the scenery. Much like traditional literati gongbi paintings, the works feature a large amount of blank space signifying the sky. However, in this seemingly empty expanse, Lin hides tiny creatures that fly freely, pointing to the independent narratives to be told about their lives. The series was inspired by the Ming dynasty painter Wen Zhengming, who, like Lin, had a close relationship with nature and produced a number of paintings dedicated to pine trees, an Eastern literati symbol for eternity. In Lin’s Pine series, each drawing is inscribed with a “poem,” another reference to literati painting traditions, although Lin’s texts are not meant to be understood; their characters differ significantly from modern Chinese, and are more like a set of esoteric symbols that code his ruminations on the symbolic meaning of pine trees.

LIN XUE, Seed IX from Seeds series, 2011–14, ink on paper, 78 × 48 cm.
LIN XUE, Seed IX from Seeds series, 2011–14, ink on paper, 78 × 48 cm.
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A large proportion of the exhibition was dedicated to tracing the development of Lin’s practice throughout the years. Moving slowly through the gallery, one may notice slight changes in scale, subject matter, and the level of detail that belie the seemingly consistent visual style in the 16 sets of drawings lined up in chronical order across the walls. Upon close inspection, ostensibly uniform, realistic landscapes each reveal fantastical, peculiar little details that form imaginary ecosystems. Flying fish, double-headed birds, and five-tailed crawlers among other micro-creatures reside between strange, unidentifiable plants and rocky clumps. Together, the numerable paintings in the space present landscapes of innumerable details and quirks. In a 2013 e-mail interview, Lin once mentioned about his practice: “I just transfer what I’ve seen in the mountains onto a piece of paper.” Indeed, wandering inside Lin’s fantastical worlds of ink and paper is much like strolling in nature: with every step, one discovers a new part of the scenery.

Occupying a long corridor between the gallery’s two floors was Seeds (2011–14), a suite of 12 drawings inspired by a peach pit the artist once discovered during one of his mountain excursions. At the center of each drawing is a floating landscape in the shape of the fruit, composed of layered peaks and terraces populated by various living creatures. The series was installed behind a fence, creating distance between the drawings and the viewers. One had to use the accompanying circular magnifying glasses to decode small portions of the compositions at a time, leaping between micro and macro views.

Amid a viral pandemic, one could not help but to reflect upon humanity’s relationship with microscopic elements of nature, which may seem so irrelevant and insignificant yet are capable of affecting our lives so much. In a way, by forcing viewers to focus on the minuscule, Lin’s works shed light on non-anthropocentric perspectives that illuminate the human-nature relationship, prompting us to rethink and re-evaluate the collective life we live with other beings.

Cassie Liu is ArtAsiaPacific’s editorial assistant.

Lin Xue: A Retrospective” is on view at the Pao Galleries, Hong Kong Arts Centre until May 22, 2021.

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