A wanderer between the worlds

According to Hermann Hesse “some books cannot be read. Parts of the Bible are among these unreadable books, as well as the Tao-te-king. One sentence fromthese books is enough to keep anyone occupied for quite some time, pondering its contents.

The same can be said for paintings, as the Berlin artist Sebastian Heiner demonstrates in his Shanghai Series. Colours and shapes swirl, sweep and surge into one another, creating abstract landscapes of a dream world. To lose oneself in these landscapes means finding oneself, redefining oneself.

Heiner’s paintings originated at places of upheaval, at twisting points in history.The colour blue does not depict blue sky but the overpasses that cross the sky above Shanghai. In “Shanghai Obsession” it seems as if a blue coral has been caught up in the city’s hazardous traffic. The strong and fast brushstrokes give evidence of violence, looking like skidmarks of breaking and overtaking cars. Shanghai’s history is being eradicated, as are the flowers of the art nouveau wallpaper that serves as canvas. In the process of a capitalistic modernisation nature and history become estranged ornamental artefacts, acting merely as decorative elements or, as in “Bang”, dispersing in a colourful Big Bang. The same can be said of the painting “Yang Shu Pu Lu” which bears the street name in its title and can be viewed as a continuation of the “Shanghai Obsession”. Here the lines have already changed into spaces flattening nature/history. The colour blue has been driven out of the centre to the outskirts, making room for a bizarre fight between a twisting and turning dragon and a dissolving skull. The observer views the latter as a baroque symbol of memento mori (remember you must die) reminding him of man’s mortality and world’s end.

In the West the dragon is considered an enemy of God and Man and symbolises chaos. In the East, however, it brings luck, rain and fertility. Sebastian Heiner’s art begins at this point where the two cultures differ and he paints from both culture’s point of view. The abstract motif can therefore be viewed as either apocalyptic or as redemption, both or nothing, depending on one’s point of view.

Sebastian Heiner’s art is more a way than a work. A way of (not) seeing and (not) realising as well as (not) existing in the sense of the Chinese Dao. The daoistic principle bears the polarity Yin and Yang from which the “Tenthousand Things” derive.The expressive form and colourplay of Heiner’s oeuvre generate change, movement and mutual permeation, creating Tenthousand Things (associations) in the observer’s mind. The daoistic potential of all shapes which come into being in an observable act of creation resides at this point in the heineriste abstraction. Exisitng and Nonexisiting are both a part of the Dào. Intellectual terms cannot define the Dào. The same can be said of abstract Expressionism, in which tradition Sebastian Heiner’s Paintings stand.

It is tempting to interpret Heiner’s painting “The Exterminating Angel” on the surreal basis of Luis Buñuel’s film of the same title from 1962. The red vibes that pull the observer into the painting could be viewed as intricate wing beats of the psyche. “Dancing Queen” bears traces of the female body swayed by dance moves. All these attempts at defining the paintings by virtual detours go astray. They lead into the absurd and maybe even further, reaching the limits of human apprehension, where only a reference to an impression of art is possible. In this impression lies the secret of Dào and Heiner’s paintings. In regarding the paintings passively and unintentionally, the viewer will experience inner change and will see his own Dao, his own way.

At this meditative and almost mystical point Sebastian Heiner’s art advances on an expressionistic path to Chinese landscape painting. Chinese landscape painting is also meditative but refrains from the use of colour. At the same time some of his paintings have something naïve and fairy tale like (“Lily in wonderland”) and something magical. This is not only due to the titles “Witches Spring” or “Chinese Ghost” but rather because the paintings exude a special aura (“Sunny afternoon”, “Vanilla Sex”) and a positive vibe which rejoices the spirit. These paintings have a life of their own (Qi?/?) thus embodying the tradition of Chinese ink painting. Their spaciousness penetrates the subconscious, triggering a longing and connecting with the western tradition of romanticism. The artist. who was born in Berlin in 1964 and was a master student of Klaus Fußmann builds a bridge with his artwork between east and west. As a wanderer between the worlds he transforms western and eastern impressions into colours flowing energetically through his paintings. The originating visual power centres maintain traditions in their own way and overcome deviations by creating something new.

During his performances Sebastian Heiner often paints with music in the background. His paintings can be read as scores; every line resembles a note and every curve a melody, resulting in painted games of lust and passion that obey a higher law. Heiner’s unconventional painting props such as besoms, fly flaps and strainers could be the instruments of a modern shaman. To create his oracular imagery the shaman will rise to a special state of consciousness while painting. It is not coincidental that Heiner’s paintings, which are strewn with notches and lines, look like a turtle’s shell that exploded in the heat. Turtle shells were an instrument of fortune telling in China a long time ago. Thus Heiner’s paintings can be seen as the modern version of “The Book of Changes” (I-Ging/Tao-te-king). One look at the Berlin artist’s wondrous works is enough to satisfy us for a long time and maybe even transform us. A little magic can be found within the paintings, making us happy and helping us live our lives.

Thomas Willems
Shanghai, 11.11.2010
(Translation: Jessica Hodgkiss)