2004-08-22 | Culture – Impulse of creation

German Artist Sebastian Heiner finds his energy in Beijing
Lin Shuiuan

In the spring of 2004, German artist Sebastian Heiner set in his home in Berlin´s Mitte district. Laid out on a table were books given to him by friends about China ´Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress`, ´Home of the Dragon`, and so on. The covers of these books were invariably decorated with dragon motifs or pictures of girls with long braids and narrow eyes. With these impressions embedded in his mind, Sebastian set off on his journey to this new land.

China and Beijing were completely deifferent to what he had imagined. During his four months of stay in Beijing, he worked in a studio borrowed from a local Chinese artist in Xiaotangshan, in the northern outskirt of Beijing. With every shock and revelation he felt walking through the city or visiting friends, he released the energy of these experiences through painting. Thus, „The Journey to The East“ is born. This collection of paintings produced during Heiner´s stay in Beijing are now on display at the Art Seasons Gallery in Dashanzi Art District. The DAD is an architectural and cultural complex of several Industrial Bauhaus Factory buildings built in 1954 by East German architects. It is now a unique site of contemporary creation in China with 10 art galleries, nearly 35 artists studios, 20 designers and publishers, several stores within a quarter of a mile.

DAD has been attracting a growing number of local and international visitors who come to witness the evolution of Chinese contemporary art. However, this is the first time contemporary artworks produced by a foreign artist of his stay in China have been exhibited, unlike previous exhibits from and about an artist´s homeland. The idea for this exhibition arose after the successful Sino-German presentation of contemporaryart. „Left Hand, Right Hand“, last September at DAD.

There were plans for a German-funded art base in the area, offering the chance for German artists to work in China. But they have been postponed due to the limited space available in the area. Heiner is one foreign artist lucky enough to have received a private sponsorship for the journey.

„Artists are often inspired by a change of environment“, said Nie Mu, curator of the exhibition, „when everything is suddenly new, unknown and feels like an adventure.“

A painter herself, Nie has got to know Heiner since his arrival in April. She observed that Heiner is like any sensitive people who absorbs everything, whether they want to or not. „The cultural context of Beijing has helped him give birth to new ideas“, Nie said. Heiner´s earlier work in Germany, art critics have said that Heiner „has established an intermediary zone between concrete and abstraction, and crossed the borders of revelry.“

The works he produced in Beijing have pushed beyond the boundaries of this intermediary zone, according to Nie. „The conflict between his cultural background and his present environment forced his works to show more anxiety, more restlessness, more resilience and defiance. These works can be seen as the soliloquy of an estranger´s oscillation between conflict and resolution.“ For Heiner himself, the word that best summarizes his inspiration for the paintings is ´energy`.

He speaks with great immense intensity, eyes behind half-brimmes glasses squeezing to two fists in front of his chest ready to fight. It is an impulse brought by contradictions and conflicts that accompany any social and cultural change. Born in west Berlin in 1964, Heiner left in 1989 after the fall of Berlin Wall, he settled in East Berlin as an aspiring abstract and representational painter. „Everything was so different when I first moved to east Berlin: the social ideology, the buildings, even the city lights were different. The nights were brighter in West Berlin than those in the east“.

During such exciting and unoredictable times, Heiner felt a burst of inspiration. However, as things began to stabilize in east Berlin, his „energy“ cooled down, until being reignited with his visit to Beijing. „I find social changes and experiences here are similar to those in East Berlin 10 years ago,“ Heiner says. He admits the cultural conflict is still quite a shock to him. „ I was prepared when I moved to East Berlin. Although the Berlin Wall was torn down, it still serves as an invisible border. When you cross it, you expected differences. „In Beijing, however, the differences co-exist every minute. There is no way to escape. At first glance, Beijing is just like other big cities with sky-scrapers, cars and wide streets. But with a closer look at its corners, you will see what really makes Beijing so special. „A casual stroll along the houhai lake is filled with encounters full of contradictions: rich and poor, new and old, ancient and modern, tranquility and noise. They co-exist. But you can feel the conflicts, the energy.“

When the energy builds to an impulse, Heiner paints. His Chinese assistant, Zhu Di used a Chinese painting brush to write the odes of Su Dongpo, a poet in the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279) on canvas, reciting aloud as she wrote. Though the German artist could not understand the spoken words or the written characters, their unfamiliarity helped bring out his inner cultural conflicts. Using bright, vivid oil colours, he painted over the Chinese characters, mixing and applying paint with his hands, elbows, brushes, a broom, clothes, anything that came to hand. With forceful, spontaneous movements he obliterated the Chinese characters sometimes leaving solitary ones alone, sometimes destroying the characters completely. He also draws. In those small drwaings, weightless human figures emerge with delicate pencil strokes, wandering in an indefinable space, like ancient ancestors appearing in dreams.