Vessel of Skin
Bio & Info



點評 Reviews
Gao Minglu The Ten Thousand Things Come into Being; I Have Watched Them Return
Yin Shuangxi Internal/External
Kong Changan Vessel of Skin and
the Vessel-less Void
Huang Du Tang Qingnian
- Known and Understood
Jonathan Goodman Qingnian Tang
訪談 Interview
Zhou Yan The New “Grand Narrative” in the Contemporary Era
自述 Personal Statement
Tang Qingnian Life; the Replenishment of the “Vessel”


點評 Reviews
高名潞 “萬物並作,吾以觀復”
殷雙喜 身內身外
孔長安 “皮囊” 和 “無囊之穴”
黃 篤 我所認識和理解的唐慶年


訪談 Interview
周 彥 當代的新“宏大敍事”
自述 Personal Statement
唐慶年 生命,如“器”之填充

Life; The Replenishment Of The “Vessel”

Qingnian Tang


Thirty spokes will converge in the hub of a wheel;
but the use of the cart will depend on the part of the hub that is void.

With a wall all around a clay bowl is molded;
but the use of the bowl will depend on the part of the bowl that is void.

Cut out windows and doors in the house as you build;
but the use of the house will depend on the space in the walls that is void.

So advantage is had from whatever is there;
but usefulness rises from whatever is not.

Laozi, Chapter 11


On October 5, 2005, Mother’s Day, I receive a phone call from my younger brother in Beijing. My mother has taken a serious fall at home. There is blood leakage within the brain. An operation has been performed. She is in hospital and the situation remains critical. From the opposite side of the globe I hurriedly return to Beijing. This act has not resulted in the occurrence of any miracle; she has not yet awakened from the depths of her coma. The doctor tells me that although the operation was successful, her heart is not well; it is necessary to rely on injections of dopamine to increase blood pressure and sustain the beating of heart, but this inevitably affects the function of the kidneys and makes it difficult for the brain to rapidly absorb and expel fluid. She can not breath on her own; she is on a respirator. In short, her life at present is something wholly dependant on medication and machinery for support; the brain is already dead.

My brother and I wait in the hospital ward for quite a number of days, our mother resting serenely. She no longer opens her eyes; her laughter no longer rings out; that contempt-filled gaze at the things or people she detests no longer crosses her face; she no longer drinks with me; nor does she sit in front of the TV, dragging at a cigarette, whiling away the years of a life which she had long since grown weary of living. Her life is the steadily controlled breath of a respirator, the drop after invasive drop of chemical agent, the catheter and plastic bag that grows full every few hours, the electric ripples fluctuating on screen and the ever-changing numerals beneath. All of these gifts of modern science are bestowing upon us a demonstration of her life, yet she herself is deep in sleep.

Life; is this life?

One of her eye sockets begins to darken, soon followed by the other; blood leakage below the skin, spreading daily. She was beautiful when young; throughout her life she would never leave home looking unkempt. Were she to awaken now, she would find her appearance deplorable; were she to awaken, she would angrily reprimand us for allowing her to live in such an undignified state. The respirator continues to serve, the heart to beat, the blood to circulate; yet the continuing dopamine causes blood to pool in the tiniest capillaries, wreaking daily havoc on my mother’s appearance.

Life; can this be life?

This; this is the fundamental impulse behind my creation of this series of works.


Four patients lay in my mother’s room. The neighboring bed holds a bewildered old man; the other two patients are in a persistent vegetative state. They neither eat nor drink; what sustains their lives? Medication. Though they appear lucid, a complexity of chemical fluid drips steadily through threadlike tubes and into their veins, sustaining their lives. These fluids coursing through their bodies affect a host of chemical reactions before exiting the body as urine. The body has become merely a “vessel made of skin” (Buddhist term) for the distribution and filtration of these fluids.
Laozi said, “With a wall all around, a clay bowl is molded; but the use of the bowl will depend on the part of the bowl that is void.”

A person is an empty vessel; life arises from continuous replenishment and depletion of the vessel. When the replenishment stops, life stops.

What replenishes life?

For illness in hospital, medication is utilized; lives there are replenished via complex chemical preparations described by ingredients and names that are difficult to understand. But we so-called “normal” people utilize food; our lives are replenished by those genetically and chemically modified, processed products that are efficiently manufactured, packaged and brought to market through a complex series of procedures. What is the intrinsic difference between the two?
A life, aside from occupying a physical place in space, occupies a moment in time. What does one use to replenish this moment of life? Hence the inquiry into life expands from a physiological level to a spiritual level; to the level of the soul.

We live in a time of daily technological development, an unprecedented abundance of material goods, and commerce by any means necessary; a time of rampant money worship, hedonism and consumerism; a time when kitsch, superficiality, frivolity, impulsiveness and instant gratification are all the rage.

What replenishes the soul?


A myriad diversity of work has adorned the journey of modern art since the time of Cezanne more than a century ago. This block of tofu that is modern art has already been sliced up countless times, and the artists of today are no longer able to find a spot in which to insert their knives. But if we look at this block of tofu from the perspective of art history dating back several millennia, it becomes easier to realize that twentieth century tofu cutters guided their knives more or less in the same direction; the direction of “form.” Prior to these twentieth century artists, there had never before been those so crazily exploring the language of new artistic forms, racking their brains to create something novel. But this is certainly not the only direction to be found when considering the entirety of art history.

So for an artist in the twenty-first century, is it not possible to change the direction of the knife; to make a transverse cut across this block of tofu?

There are those who refer to twentieth century art as art for analysis; every element of form from the midst of artistic tradition has been carried to an extreme, developed and intensified to the point of becoming a “school” or some artist’s individual “logo.” Having arrived at the twenty-first century, is it now possible to better integrate the precious legacy of twentieth century modern art from a new angle?


My initial drafts were drawn realistically, but there is no way that realistic scenes can express my ideas. Life is specific, but it must also be abstract, succinct, and conceptual; it must harbor the potential for expansion. Therefore I require a “symbol.” This mentality of creation is drawn from the teachings of traditional Chinese literati painting.

In Chinese painting theory there is an important four character phrase: shu ha tong yuan, literally “calligraphy – painting – common – source.” The meaning of this phrase is that calligraphy and painting arise from the same source. In fact, this phrase in Chinese painting theory should not only be viewed from a linguistic point of view; it can also be said that it possesses the essential core concepts of both li “principle” and fa, “method.”

For several centuries, each generation of painters has been charged with the diligent practice of calligraphy. Calligraphy has been considered a basic and essential skill, the aforementioned phrase being the basis for this theory.

It can be further observed that the basic practice of Chinese painting is the same as that of calligraphy; specifically, copying. And a significant portion of the content to be copied is similar to that of calligraphy, in particular the following of several basic formulas. The beginning student of painting must first be fully familiar with certain formulas – mountains, rivers, trees, stones; plum blossoms, orchids, bamboo, chrysanthemums; birds and flowers; even composition and layout – before striving to create something new. Similarly, the student of calligraphy is taught that the copying of the work of the great masters of calligraphy – Yan, Liu, Ou, Chu; Su, Mi, Huang, Cai – eventually leads to the emergence of a unified personal style. “The copying of classic masterpieces,” one of the six tenets of traditional Chinese painting, is thus equally applicable to calligraphy.

Going a step further, the Chinese painter must also create one’s own formula. Ba Da Shan Ren’s paintings of the lotus, Qi Baishi’s paintings of shrimp, Pan Tianshou’s paintings of the condor; all are examples of stylizations. With merely a few simple strokes of the brush, the stylization of a physical object – or the stylization of a text – can give birth to a symbol; this is what makes xieyi, “free expression,” possible. Is this not precisely where Chinese art tradition differs from that of the West?

Calligraphy occupies a lofty position in the domain of traditional Chinese art. The reason for this is that one’s skill, individuality, taste, and cultivation can all be discerned from one’s writing; located within are realms and artistic conceptions that are not only difficult for others to imitate, but difficult for the artist as well to repeat. On this level, the Chinese painting tradition – the literati painting tradition in particular – is identical to that of calligraphy. Painstaking authentic depictions of the characteristics of a specific object are not the most important goals; what the artist strives for is succinct brush method that “writes” forth stylized symbols of particular objects, while at the same time conveying a distinct vitality and refinement. It is precisely this key link of the “symbol” that allows for calligraphy and painting to not only share a common origin, but a common destination as well.

I have borrowed one of the core concepts of traditional Chinese painting. Deep within, the stylized symbol of an object bears the weight of concentrated intensions of the spirit; this is what I have attained from my life-long immersion in Chinese art. In my opinion, this is something with which those practices of superficially piecing together a few Chinese elements cannot compete.


In Chinese art tradition, the word “object” in such phrases as “to express one’s spirit via objects” and “to express one’s philosophy by making metaphors through objects” mainly refers to physical objects in nature that act as cultural signifiers. As an example of large objects, mountains and rivers signify “benevolence” and “wisdom;” as an example of objects of a more humble size, the plants of the four seasons – plums, orchids, bamboo and chrysanthemums – signify “nobility;” small objects, such as birds, fish and vegetables, can also be labeled with certain “concepts.”
This tradition presents us with another important revelation: it has tremendous potential for development within the context of contemporary art. We do not need to be limited to objects in nature; any object in the world at large can be utilized. So called “mixed media” often refers to existent objects that are used as materials for art. The usage of such existent objects is certainly not only a renovation of art form; more importantly, presentation of them in various combinations serves as an exploration into the concepts they carry. They are like the vocabulary within a sentence: once it is removed from its usual function or context, the linguistic meaning changes. I use existent objects in my work in hopes of shifting the focus of the viewer away from the technical craft of an artwork and on to the concepts and intrigue found in the “construction of linguistic meaning.” Concurrently, existent objects may trigger multiple interpretations and ambiguous readings, therefore enhancing the aesthetic pleasure of the work.

The “concrete” objects in my works, whether collected, copied, or painted (realistically or abstractly), combined with symbols of everyday life, merge to form the meaning of the work. Selection is based on the essence of the objects themselves (as well as the potential for rhetorical observations) as opposed to specific technique or technical style.


The vessel as a symbol of life is the “vessel” of which Laozi speaks: “advantage is had from whatever is there, usefulness rises from whatever is not;” in the midst of the “emptiness” of the vessel and the “fullness” of replenishment, in the midst of the vessel and the context, in the midst of “what seems to be, is not” and “what seems not to be, is,” a grand space for creativity is formed. If my works from 2006 and 2007 (already exhibited in the U.S.) can be said to emphasize the replenishment of life, the new works in this exhibition emphasize the “molding” of the “vessel” of life, hence the name “vessel of skin.” One exhibition addresses the internal; the other, the external; one addresses “advantage,” the other “usefulness;” different tunes rendered with equal skill; different roads leading to the same destination. The replenishment of life reveals life’s emptiness; the revelation of emptiness points the way to the search for life’s meaning.

Form and significance, imagination and logic, materials and method, choice and abandonment, deliberation and creation; the pleasures derived from all of these are replenishing my life.

I hope that these pleasures will also be brought to those who find themselves standing before my work.

(Translated by Michael Cherney)