Mystery of the Orient

The Mystery of Empty SpaceAshmolean Museumuntil 16 OctoberThe twentieth century has not been kind to traditional Chinese painting. Its place usurped by the revolutionary ideals of the Communist government, as well as the massive influence of western art, Chinese traditional art has had to transform itself to survive. While few of the great traditionalists themselves survived the brutal cultural revolution, the practice continued and is in the throes of painful resurrection. The Ashmolean’s decision to host this exhibition is not just a tribute to the resilience of the art form, but a demonstration of the open door policy, the thawing of Communist Chinese ironhandedness. Choosing to display the concept of empty space prevalent in Chinese art (and alien in western art) seemed at first a risky undertaking. Some may well view the notion of space as an entity to itself as ridiculous and, as one visitor was heard to mutter, proof of a lack eithe of skill or of imagination. To the casual observer this may well ring true, but such a person fails to understand the fundamental principles of emptiness in Chinese art: like silences during music, space is at its most powerful when a void. When the viewer is asked to reach into the space and define it for himself, that is the point when a piece stops becoming art and takes on the divine. It should be of little surprise that Chinese painting is so fused with Daoism, and the belief that space is the beginning of all things and, as such, more important than the solid forms around it. If one takes these principles into consideration, the exhibition shifts from an examination of artistic technique to something far more profound.The ultimate question remains whether you feel you will be able to overcome inherent western preconceptions of space and form, and be able to appreciate the difficulty of conveying information through nothingness. It would be profitable to look around the exhibition at least twice and draw yourself into the emptiness of the pieces. What makes Chinese art so exciting is that it requires interaction to fully appreciate its nuances. Those unwilling to make this effort should probably steer themselves into the familiar territory of the European art on the first floor.The Ashmolean Museum has once again shown its determination in presenting something little known and, in this instance, underappreciated. Unfortunately, traditional Chinese painting is something that will be a source of either enjoyment or irritation. Be prepared to totally embrace the emptiness or simply walk away.ARCHIVE: 1st week MT 2005