Mother and Child: Body, Time, and Traces




 Mother and Child: Body, Time, and Traces



                                                   From life
The vocabulary of survival
Please sit with it once again
For awhile

 ——Samuel Beckett



        Mother and child: anyone facing these words inevitably feels a subtle palpitation of the heart. We are all deeply aware of the inexpressible feelings that lie within these words, those moments of untrammeled emotion within our personal histories – we humans are led by these words back to our origins. No matter who we are now, we were all once a naked infant, borne forth into this world.

        Mother and child: our heritage, our destiny. When an artist attempts to depict such aspects of human experience, they usually express an extraordinarily complex relationship with their subject material. The more universal the theme, the more the artist may seek to explore its role in their own life, and their personal stories become the medium in which the artwork is born. But beyond hinting at the basic relationships of human life, Wang Yin’s paintings reveal no further story; they only portray human figures “nestled” into each other, giving uncanny shape to the most fundamental and familiar of human feelings.



        The origin stories of the figures in these paintings remain untold (just as the final chapters of our lives remain obscure to us). The lines and colors that compose them give us no clues about their lives and times. Their bright, pale, and neutral colors evoke a certain modern, optimistic atmosphere. Their postures remind us of youthful innocence, the germs of wisdom and self-awareness, the familiar and slightly embarrassing memories of quotidian intimacy. In the first moments of encountering Wang Yin’s paintings, the canvases seem to transform into vessels of emotions and memories: one shape produces another; one brushstroke leads to another; one swatch of color overlaps with another; one action summons the next.

        This leads me to examine the marks made by each of Wang Yin’s brushstrokes, how they play together in space to resonantly express human feelings and implications of growth. I ponder the bend of an arm, the angle of a gaze, the drape of a garment, the fluctuations of light and shadow on skin, the intersection of adjacent bodies, and it is as if I’m waiting for a moment of epiphany: transcending the joys and sorrows of literature, escaping the perpetual reenactment of the “mother and child” motif[1] throughout art history, we finally emerge from the perceptual inertia of the mother-child relationship, once and for all. The life experiences condensed in Wang Yin’s paintings gradually permeate the relationship between the figures in the painting and the space-time in which I view them. In such a moment, I become able to directly face and comprehend long-dormant feelings that may be less familiar and certain than I once thought.



        In this context of an abstract space-time, removed from reality, the colors of the artist’s brush form a void-like space. The figures in the painting emerge within this space to create a contrast of substance and void, offering the viewer a palpable mood that quietly expresses authentic emotion. The undulating colors, shapes, and lines evoke the ebb and flow of life itself. It seems that the artist is exploring not some finite aspect of human life, but rather, the hidden elements of the mutually engendering relationships between substance and void, life and time: in other words, the “source of all we see.”[2]

        Based from this premise, the artist must adopt the principles of life as his principles for painting: all essential elements of painting are presented in a seemingly equal relation. In this way, conflicting or contrasting elements somehow seem to complement one another. For example, the lines and colors in this painting have separate shapes and boundaries, overlapping and bleeding into one another just as blood runs through the flesh of the body. The visual space of the canvases is devoid of perspectives lent by distance and light sources, thereby presenting all images in an equal plane: an inclusive acceptance of life’s conflicting and contradictory values. It takes time to grasp just how radical Wang Yin’s painting method truly is, because his rhetorical strategy[3] is addition by subtraction. By removing elements of context and perspective from his forms, he imbues them with richer emotional content, creating an effect that is both poignant and concise.

        The “Mother and Child” series does not express a dramatic narrative, but the different combinations and overlappings of bodies in these paintings provoke our imaginations about diverse human relationships, just as the various components of Chinese characters combine to create associations of meaning and significance. Ultimately, these are images that belong to life’s various phases, and when I look at these paintings, I am reminded of stirring images conjured by certain simple poetic verses: “as she sewed his clothes before his departure, the mother feared her son wouldn’t soon return.” Motherly love is expressed in the sewing of clothes; the son’s body and the sewed clothes merge into one like a synecdoche, embodying parental longing. One intriguing aspect of the “Mother and Child” paintings is that the actions of the figures and the furrows of their overlapping garments also correspond, creating a layered space of internal and external images.



        Sometimes, when I look at these paintings, my mind wanders to a moment like this: locking eyes with a face in a portrait by Zhuang Xueben, or the three youths in August Sander’s seminal photograph looking back at me.[4] I am also reminded of  the Polish theater director Jerzy Grotowski’s “Poor Theatre” movement of the 1960s, as well as Merce Cunningham’s groundbreaking choreography rooted in body movements as an independent functions. Though today’s culture is greatly changed, looking back still offers immediate significance: what can we learn from how this kind of subtraction and reduction did not ultimately lead theater and dance to complete abstraction in terms of concept and form, but rather helped these arts return to a more original and primeval vitality.

        Perhaps it is no accident that I am reminded of these pioneering developments in photography, theater, and dance, because they dramatically expanded the capacity of painting to reflect human circumstances. To this day, these works still lead us to ponder: what about a person’s posture, gaze, and surroundings can transcend the specifics of time, place, and medium, and express the most profound aspects of human existence?

        When I closely examine Wang Yin’s paintings, I detect a certain emotional remoteness in the characters’ bearing, but this does nothing to diminish the artist’s efforts to respond to and document specific cultural experiences in his paintings. Rather, in these paintings, the artist’s particular life experiences are expressed as universal human circumstances. This kind of inimitable expression allows us to simultaneously experience two sides of the same coin: one being the unique character of the artist’s expression, the other being the transcendent neutrality of the artwork itself. The paintings are not subordinate to the artist’s intent, nor are they limited by moral, conceptual, or aesthetic judgments. Instead, we are profoundly drawn into them, and simultaneously unsettled by them, for we cannot ascertain where we will ultimately be led by the ineffable forces that these paintings invoke.



        In fact, the digitization of life is presently obliging people to adapt their perceptions to increasing abstraction on a systemic level. In the past century, human perceptions have been forcefully integrated with modern industrial technology: the mechanical beauty once celebrated by Futurists. Today, human beings have to learn to “resonate” with digital objects as quickly as possible. In different stages of history, we have variously given over our bodies to religion, enlightenment, revolution, and consumption. Now, as we face the prospect of symbiosis with artificial intelligence, it’s possible to see how portraiture, which once served to reflect social status, is becoming a neutral and unremarkable kind of “representational” imagery. Eventually, perhaps the medium will evolve to become the kind of alternative and mutable form expressed in works like “Self Unfinished” by the contemporary dancer Xavier Le Roy. Fortunately, all of this is an ongoing process, not a foregone conclusion. At least for now, the history of painting, as well as the experience and awareness that humankind has accumulated through the practices of art, are among the important source materials[5] for the algorithms that generate AI images, whereas humans have not yet become accustomed to being fed by computer-generated images.

        Mother and child: wherever life continues, legends must be passed down from generation to generation. The marvelous thing is that although we may never be able to trace life back to its true source, we can personally experience the authenticity of mutual connection between different living beings on this planet. Humans once thought that life’s origins were divine and that the meeting point of the divine and the mortal world was the corporeal body. This is why information about life encoded in the body always includes feelings that transcend the corporeal.

        If humankind fell into the modern era by exiting the divine family (Madonna and child), then the relations of modern life represent a process of reallocation: fragmented emotions seek further consolation within the evolution of artificial intelligence and biotechnologies. Encountering Wang Yin’s paintings at this juncture is like undergoing a contemplation of one’s life journey. The subtle and reserved content of these paintings comes from emotions that have been refined and distilled. They allow us to quietly explore the reciprocal concern between the emotional experience of life and the generation of images and forms. Perhaps we can explore even further: within the poetic image of “as she sewed his clothes before his departure, the mother feared her son wouldn’t soon return,” do Wang Yin’s “Mother and Child” paintings express a kind of departure? And are we still awaiting some return of significance to life? Meaning always arrives after form; perhaps our loyal companions on this journey are “paintingly bodies,[6] standing quietly at the boundaries of our minds, deriving no joy from the external things, nor sorrow from life’s tragedies.[7]



(Essay by Hu Fang)



[1] It is worth noting that the vast majority of [“most of the” – to avoid repetition?] major works on the theme of “mother and child” in Western art history prior to the modern age were “Madonna and child” paintings, such as Michelangelo’s Pietà and Leonardo’s The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne.

[2] “If one wishes to paint clouds, forests, mountains, and rivers well, one must first comprehend the source of all we see,” from Notes on Brushwork by the Tang artist Jing Hao. These words about the origins of forms apply to the forms of human figures as well as those of landscapes.

[3] Wang Yin is an admirer of the late Qing scholar Liu Xizai, who in Youyi Yueyan wrote, “The meaning of rhetoric (修辞) can include both increasing complexity (修饰) as well as increasing clarity (修洁). Clarity is the epitome of cultivation, whereas complexity is the thief of clarity.”

[4] August Sander’s photograph “Young Farmers,” taken in 1914, was the subject of The Suit and the Photograph, a 1979 essay by the writer and critic John Berger.

[5] “The inner logic of AI-driven image-making—far from heralding some future post-human development—appears to be actually reviving long-dormant visual strategies that dominated the arts, and art theories, of the past.” Mario Carpo, Imitation Games, Published in ARTFORUM magazine, available online at

[6]The awkward mouthful of “paintingly forms” emerges from the difficulty of finding appropriate language for certain emotions that arise from encounters with paintings. Generally speaking, this term does not represent anthropomorphic formulations (in which paintings possess bodies like humans), nor “the forms within paintings” (i.e. the subjects and content of artworks, such as landscapes and human bodies), nor the physical characteristics of the painting medium. Rather, I seek to express with this term a certain notion that is specific to painting, related to the medium’s persistence throughout the rises and falls of human history. In this sense, that which is “paintingly” draws on the “body” of that certain characteristic to ceaselessly “exist” in this world and “transmigrate” within it.

[7] Allow me to use the following quotation from Susan Sontag to once again reflect on the utility of artworks. Sontag’s words may provide a certain context for my use of the Chinese idiom 不以物喜,不以己悲 (deriving no joy from external things, nor sorrow from life’s tragedies) to describe the state of these artworks’ existence: “Losing oneself in a work of art surely brings with it the experience of self-estrangement from the world. However, the work of art itself is also an angry, magical, exemplary object, and it allows us to return to the world in richer and more open way.” Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation, Cheng Wei trans. Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 2021. p. 38.