Saturday, October 19, 2013

Janet McAlister: Balance, harmony and breathing space

By Janet McAllister 10:50 AM Saturday Oct 19, 2013 Thanks to Art Week I had a crash course in appreciating Chinese-style scroll painting, trotting along to Parnell's Artreal Gallery for a painting demonstration by Wei Lun Ha. I was already intrigued by Ha's kauri forests, shown at Lopdell House - it's not every day that Aotearoa is represented in a non-Maori, non-European artform. (Ha says the most nightmarish thing about switching landscapes was working out how to paint the ponga, fern tendril by fern tendril.) Nor is it every day that overt politics are shown in traditional Chinese art. But for this year's Wallace Awards, Ha painted a startling blood-red protest against shark-fin soup. Sea fauna are a current concern: in another work the traditional art subject of koi carp become snapper, as a comment on the quota debate, while a steep, stylised Rangitoto rises from fierce waves (a parody/homage of Japanese painter Hokusai's 1832 masterpiece, The Great Wave, showing Mt Fuji). Ha turns out to be a smiling, sociable 25-year-old, an art teacher happy to explain. Unlike many in New Zealand's small traditional Chinese art community he's young and not from mainland China, instead identifying firmly as Kiwi, as he has been here since he was 2. The family's ancestral roots are in China but his parents are from Cambodia and Vietnam. Ha's work is inspired by the Lingnan school, which he says uses broader brushstrokes and brighter colours than most Chinese art. Ha is happy to chat while he's working. "I'm used to kids breathing down my neck," he says cheerfully, having sketched quickfire requests at the Lantern Festival. "They shout out whatever: shipwreck, tree, Pokemon." But today Ha is interested in creating balance, harmony and movement in a depiction, about 3m long, of the Milford Sound. "Clouds and trees work with wind to create the landscape," he says, the direction of the leaves and branches being very important. A mountain sits slightly "off to the side" as the focal point. Symmetry is not the same as balance, he says. Instead, the aim is to guide the viewer's eyes smoothly through the work in a figure-eight, yin-yang movement, "like qi that never dissipates". The long scrolls - Ha's record thus far is 100m - are used because "a square space is hard to move around". Leaving white "breathing" space is important, too. Below the mountain is a vast absence of paint - a lake. It doesn't contain any reflections because he's trying to give "the feeling of something being full rather than trying to fill it up". Less is more - and more mysterious. Most of his art students are young Pakeha. Ha says that "New Zealand Chinese think they don't need to have anything to do with China." He disagrees. "China is going to be big; I see the future moving that way. If we don't learn this, how are we going to communicate?" He's not necessarily talking about learning painting itself, but the ethos that underlies many Chinese expression forms, including tai chi: balance, harmony and movement. By Janet McAllister Email Janet

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