Wrestling in the Darkness

by Benoit Vermander

The biblical story of Jacob has been increasingly resonating within me. Jacob, a grandson of Abraham and son of Issac, had a twin brother Esau. As Esau was the firstborn, he was naturally bestowed with the birthright. Yet Jacob conspired with his mother inrobbing Esau’s blessings by taking advantage of his brother’s clumsiness and his father’s blindness. Jacob then ran away in fear of Esau’s fury. During the first night of his runaway, Jacob stopped at a place for rest. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There was a voice speaking to him, telling him that the land on which he was lying would be the Promised Land in the future.

The voice said, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.” When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he exclaimed,“Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He set up a stone altar in the place where God had spoken to him. During the fourteen years of exile, Jacob endured great suffering, and took a pair of sisters as his wives who bore him twelvesons – the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel. Later, Jacob was determined to go back to meet Esau in his homeland and to return to the Promised Land. Then came the second night, when Jacob sent over his wives and sons, along with all his possessions, across the ford of the Jabbok at the border of Esau’s land. Left alone in the ford, Jacob was stopped by someone who wrestled with him till the break of dawn.

In dust, Jacob and his rival fought from night to dawn. Jacob held tight to his dreams and his mortal flesh. He strove tooth and nail to this struggle, hoping to end it so he could start over again – to receive a blessing that would not just be stolen or dreamed of. In the deepest dark of night, he wanted to win back his blessing. This was a turning point.Finally, the blessing fell on him like the first rays of dawn.

For me, my studio has become my ford of the Jabbok. But this was not always the case. Oftentimes I had no idea that it would transform into a perilous place with rocks, dust, and murky waters. When I first started learning Chinese brush painting, I was rejoiced. The desk where I was painting on Chinese xuan paper had served as, like a dinner table, a bond of union with the friends I was greeting there.Even when I am by myself painting at the desk, I am fondly reminded of the time I have spent with my friends everywhere. “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” So, my studio became a garden. And, whenever I was feeling stressed, either by outside or inside forces, the garden would become cloister, andthe painting produced then have a tinge of freshness resembling that of dawn or twilight.

The twilight turned into deep night. I stand at the table,wrestling with my inner self in darkness. My brush moves, pauses, and rotates,like a wrestler making maneuvers to knock down the opponent. I find joy in the fight. When Jacob was wrestling, he managed to make nimble maneuvers to tackle the heavier attacks by his rival. The fight challenged his willpower, twisting and stretching his body to the breaking point. Likewise,painting has pushed me into an unknown territory, like a battlefield which I wanted to step into with hesitation. The moment when I saw a dim ray of light at the entrance, I jumped into an abyss. Chinese painting has thus become my battlefields in varied forms, andI keep stumbling forward.

To know how challenging it is does not mean to stopto fight, or to lose persistence. Instead, it has made me a tougher fighter.The wool desk pad tinted with black ink has become something like my wrestlingarena or altar. Even if clasped by someone around the waist at the ford, I am not ready to easily give up, or to miss a single chance to listen to the words that make me stand up, even at the risk of being crippled.

In 1987, I visited China for the first time, and the brief stay offered me an unforgettable experience. In 1992, I left France and started learning Chinese calligraphy in Taiwan, while working on my studies of Chinese Classics at the same time. Lateron, I travelled a lot in Sichuan for my study purpose, during which I enjoyed the generous friendship from many people I met there by chance. I hold dearly what this fertile land had to offer me, which has become a fruitful source of happiness.

I have also made friends with many painters and calligraphers, some of whom are dedicated practitioners of Taoist or Buddhist traditions. They are outstanding and open-minded men and women, whose cultivation is deeply rooted in the heritage and enlightenment of their own culture, art, and schools of painting.Thanks to them, I came to understand how I could do my best to learn from them while holding on to my own cultural roots. Therefore, I was able to experience in my learning process a double fidelity, manifested through a continuous production of paintings.

My spiritual journey while living in France was very much like that of Jacob’s two nights of wrestling. I saw in a dream the opening heaven, from which I was bestowed with a new Promised Land. I heard the calling between heaven and earth, and saw a dim path of exile glittering with the glow of hope. In the following years of my journey in a foreign land, I have experienced hardships and enjoyed the joy and excitement of adventure, during which my illusions have faded, though kindness was bestowed upon me, and I have learned to live in a foreign land asin my hometown. I find it the same case with Chinese painting, which has impressed me with its unique soul and techniques, so much that it has become my favorite way of expressing my feelings, and has provided a space where I can freely and integrally explore and interact, making use of my memories and cultural roots. As I mentioned earlier, my studio desk has become the table where to share the fruits of life.

To answer a further question: what have I gained from my understanding of and practice in traditional Chinese art? The first thing it has given me, I think,is the courage of creating. Fromold, I had an urge to express my inner world through painting, but this urge was oftentimes incompatible with the rules and techniques of Western arts – probably because I had come from a cultural environment where the rules and norms of art are determined and judged from an early age, and these rules and norms had made my endeavor stiflingly hard. However, as a foreign practitioner of Chinese painting, I could meet with aesthetic judgments in relaxation, from which I have regained an internal freedom, and as a beginner,a novice, and a foreigner, I seem to have been treated with an exceptional tolerance by my Chinese friends, which has proved true time and again.

Then,I knew from the very beginning that internal freedom is at the core of the artistic value and aesthetic judgment of Chinese painting, and that such internal freedom as a source of artistic creation is nurtured through practice. This I have increasingly believed true despite the fact that many Chinese primarily value training and cultivation in techniques of various schools of Chinese painting (The most outstanding works of Chinese painting, I must clarify here, are usually not created by artists who never departed from tradition). However,unlike in the Western art, the commonly accepted techniques are not the predominant standards to determine the artistic levels of Chinese painting works. Chinese painting techniques are very much like a catalyst, or something to support a balance beam walker,abandoned in the end to give way to freedom. In other words, the art of Chinese painting is given spiritual value only when it plays the role of inspiring and cultivating inner freedom.

The essence of Chinese painting is closely related with the Chinese view of the universe.Chinese painters know that spirituality is embodied in forms, and that forms convey spirituality, and also that at the intersection between spirituality and forms flows the movement of the universe and human history.The human race lives in this movement, while being at its focal point. Chinese philosophers, mystics, or yet physicians of traditional Chinese medicine share this awareness. It is very interesting to know that Chinese art is not restricted to rules or techniques, but seeks to explore the “transformability of forms.” Images are represented in a flowing manner, and spirituality is embodied in visible forms, such as rocks, woods, floating clouds, beasts, andbrooks, all represented in the painting composition. Is there anything more enlightening than this? In my opinion, the inspiration of Chinese painting should not be constrained in subjects or techniques, and there should be newways of expression for Chinese paintings other than traditional subjects, styles, andschools of art. The magical encounter of images and spirituality finds its embodiment both in tangible forms and beyond the painting itself, and the two exist in an integrated harmony and constant conflicts. It is from this encounter that freedom is born and grows – this is where you find all possibilities, and where you make choices and decisions. From this perspective,nurturing such an energy center is critical in making the power of Chinese painting everlasting and constantly renewed.

My experience in Liangshan Prefecture has become a critical part of the progress of my inner development. Located in the southwest of Sichuan Province, this mountain area is largely inhabited by the Nuosu people, a branch of the minority ethnic Yi people. I went there for the picturesque sceneries, but unexpectedly met fascinating people from a fascinating ethnic group. Idid my research and made work plans together with my Nuosu friends, who showed remarkable support and understanding. My interaction and cooperation with these friends are still going on now, and in the process I keep reflecting on my own identity and expression. What I saw was not only the recognition that we were –they and me - located “at the frontiers”, a type of identity necessarily to be constantly redefined and challenged.I also saw (and found both meaningful and intriguing) that such identity was taking shape through this very process of constant change. Besides, Liangshan and the Nuosu people have become subjects of my paintings and they have brought about a very profound transformation in my painting creation, which became closely related to my experience in a new environment and with an extraordinary group of people, rather than being simply a way of expressing personal feelings. Artistic creation has a historical dimension anda biographical timeline, and the profundity of a painting work comes also from the depth of its subject matter. This is the experience I have gained from encountering my Nuosu friends, an experience that seems so hard to describe in words – as if I were “participating in” their experience through painting, andit is this participation that has established the style and tonality of my work.

After a while, I decided to name a series of paintings I had finished Night in Liangshan,a title that came across my mind all of a sudden. Now when I look at these paintings again, I feel as if I were stepping into the night of wrestling at the ford of Jabbok, such as described in the beginning of this article. This is not a wrestle between individuals, but in a way my fight together with a whole ethnic group against the hardships in a remote mountain area and a “marginalized” social environment. These paintings were the warning signs of things still to come.

For me, the action of painting means something rigorous; it is endowed with a “nature”ora “basis’ that is the result of gradually recognizing the integration of spiritual pursuit and artistic exploration. In other words, the act of painting is not only an escape from my inner burden or outside pressure; it is not only a way to express my feelings, or a superficial expression of one’s spiritual emotions. Even though their observation may rectify spiritual practice, emotions are the waves in the ocean of such life. The nature of spiritual life is rhythmic ebb and flow; and painting is a reverse stroke in the depth of the unpredictable ups and downs that have gradually shaped and structured my inner world. That is why I dare to say that it is not me that is painting; it is God that is painting inside me. I paint what has transformed me from within, and I am transformed into what I paint.

In the dust, Jacob attacks and retreats,and his “rival” defends himself and attacks back, accordingly. Wrestling is like dancing, and the dancers move in concert; the action of painting is like a battle, where the work is produced in a dynamic form, from hence God is born within me. The birth of God within me is expressed through the birth of the painting workoutside me. Through exploration and struggles, paintings come to the light of the day; the dark night is dispersed at the ford. Expelled from the dark night, I come to God. God is alive within me, and I am alive within God, anda double birth thus takes place. In the dark night, the rustling sound of the universe is heard. God is descending into it, leading it towards the daylight. When the Spirit lives in the flesh, and flesh dwells in the Spirit,in solitude the artwork is born, testifying to the Mystery continuously begetting itself.

It is on the basis of such intuition that the “language of painting” as I have already approached it can be understood more deeply. The language of painting expresses itself throughout motion and stillness, colors and whitespaces, fullness and emptiness, wet ink and dry ink, simplicity and richness,and expansiveness and cohesion. Such language does not only serve as an intermediary agent, nor simply a channel of communication with the outside world. Generated from the very vitality of the struggle, the language of painting is developed and shaped through expression of ideas or emotions. Without the fight for survival, or some stories of the one who fights to survive, the language of anartwork is reduced to something boring and vapid. The language of my paintingcomes from the Word begotten in me, aprocess through which the truth of my existence comes into being.

Among the artists whom I have made friends with, some practice art based on Taoist traditions, while others – to a lesser extent – on Buddhist traditions. From the time I read Laozi’s scriptures, and started to write them down in calligraphy, my art practice has become for me an interreligious experience, which was also a kind of “untamed” experience, as it had not undergone any debating or deliberative process and I had not regularly talked with acknowledged masters of spiritual practice. Speaking of “masters”,I always take them with a grain of salt. What I am sure about, though, is that such interreligious spiritual practice has transformed my spiritual landscape, and I think that the transformation of my inner landscape has also led to the transformation of my artist friends’ inner views.

When I try to express the fundamental truth of spiritual practice, the magic power of the Chinese language comes into play, because Chinese is rich in metaphors and verbal inventions, which have provided me with constant inspirations for painting and for formalizing my experience. As Laozi says in Chapter Five of Daodejing, “the space between heaven and earth is like the bellows, it appears empty yet it gives a supply that never fails”; in Chapter One of the Zhuangzi, the fish named Kun changes into a bird with the name of Peng; and Chapter Fourteen of the Diamond Sutra contains the saying that “one should beget one’s mind by not dwelling in anything.” All these ideas have resonated with me and motivated me to achieve further progress in my aesthetic pursuit. The essence of the universe, the moving fins of the fish Kun, or the flapping wings of the bird Peng all point to the genesis of spiritual practice – the wasteland, or the land of “nothingness”. When we try to find out the location where the three wise men visited Jesus, similarly it seems to be in a land of “nothingness.”Likewise, what I want people to see in my paintings is the process of how they are created, rather than a result, an “achievement.” I want people to ponder upon the search,hardships, and hope that are experienced throughout the creative process, to ponder over a place of incompleteness in the midst of our selves. The aesthetics of painting should include the expression of incompleteness. Chinese painters all know that the art of leaving blank space throughout the painting brings about serenity and ingenuity, and that is an irrefutable truth.

The dialogue pursued by men and women from different cultural backgrounds is a wrestle between the forces of night and the urge to give birth. All interlocutors need to know that everyone is looking for one’s way through darkness. They also have to recognize that the darkness of night makes the path ahead invisible, and they may well stumble over a rock, or slip and fall into the ford of a river. No one can hasten the footstep of birth, and the marks of “pain” and “incompleteness” give evidence that the experience is real and true. The incompleteness of my painting works, inspired by the source of Chinese religious traditions, provides a sign that the dialogue has yet to be completed.

Using Format