Introduction (1996)

An invitation to guest-lecture at the Department of Architecture, University of Hong Kong, in 1995 led to a reunion with Mr. Sun-chang Lo whom I had not seen for years. It was a heart-warming occasion. Our acquaintance dates back to the days when Sun-chang joined the staff of Tunghai University, Taiwan, and later as colleagues on a number of architectural projects. To the extent that I was familiar with his work then, whether in architectural design or drawing, Sun-chang struck me as an artist, gifted yet eccentric. Unfortunately, it is exceedingly difficult for an architect of strong individuality who speaks his own mind to be tolerated in a Chinese society. It most likely triggered Sun-chang’s decision to return to New York, which I thought was a proper move. It was hoped that on his own familiar soil, he would find sympathetic reception as well as room for personal development.

During a visit to Sun-chang’s apartment the following day, I saw work done since his arrival here, including drawings of Hong Kong, and was profoundly moved. Intuitively, I sensed that Sun-chang had infused his life with those intricately penned and exquisitely executed drawings. When asked to write an introductory article, I accepted without any hesitation. I realized this would not be an easy task since it amounted to analyzing the inner struggle of a modern Chinese under multi-cultured influences. So my original intent was to limit the discussion to the drawings of Sun-chang, while introducing his work to the Taiwan audience.

A few days later, most unexpectedly, my wife was stricken by a sudden brain hemorrhage and passed away. Sun-chang and his wife comforted me through this emotional trauma by extending helpful hands and attentive care. Sun-chang revealed another facet of his character heretofore unknown to me. When we met again half a year later, Sun-chang expressed his wish to have an analysis of him included in the article in order to make his work more comprehensible. Armed with only a superficial understanding of him, whether I can accomplish this goal remains questionable. 

Confluence of Cultures

Looking at Sun-chang’s delicate and dense line works, the first question that popped up: What kind of drawings are these? To put the question in a more relevant perspective: Are these Western or Chinese drawings? Confronting the onslaught of Western culture and burdened by a tradition of several thousand years, the Chinese today, whether intellectuals appreciating or artists creating works of art, cannot avoid being puzzled by such question. This is the predicament of modern Chinese.

No one can answer this question without hesitation.

Sun-chang’s intellectual disposition is typical of a modern Chinese influenced by multi-cultured forces. Strictly speaking, he did not receive a comprehensive formal Chinese education. In Taiwan, he reached only as far as the eighth grade and was barely exposed to Chinese studies. Postwar (WWII) Taiwan was herself a cultural hodgepodge. Fifty years of Japanese occupation left a legacy of values, at the time still regarded by many as moral guidelines of character, although at grass-root level and in life in general the Chinese tradition prevailed. Local folk-custom, while saturated with Taoist superstition and mysticism, upheld the Confucian concepts of ethics. Meanwhile, orthodox Chinese culture and values sanctioned by the Nationalist government had begun to be implemented through formal education in schools. These elements from different cultures were never properly blended. Instead, they seemed to have been hand-molded together in a chop suey fashion, hence the pluralistic qualities of the Chinese growing up in the postwar Taiwan. Their thoughts and temperament were characterized by a medley of Taiwanese, Japanese and Chinese influences, the last being the least pronounced.

After finishing the eighth grade, Sun-chang, accompanied by his mother and two sisters, emigrated to the United States to be reunited with his father. Settled in New York City, he enrolled in a local high school and later obtained an architectural degree from the Cooper Union. Educated in a typically formal Western manner and ever encouraged to seek out his true potentials, Sun-chang developed into a first rate designer capable of mind-hand coordinated draftsmanship with an acute visual sense. Rigorous discipline also resulted in methodical work ethics. 

By eighth grade, Sun-chang was already a fourteen year-old teenager. The childhood spent in Taiwan had already taken root in him. He was a Chinese boy in his bones and, with gradual awakening of his Chinese heritage, was yearning to be a Chinese youth. Sun-chang’s grandfather had been a prominent figure in the Nationalist government until he was unjustly ousted from the center of power during political turmoil. In Sun-chang’s budding heart, these stories, as related by elders, probably had a subtle but lasting impact on him, in the process helping to forge a character that is meditative and reflective, with unparalleled perseverance. For Sun-chang, as well as for many a contemporary Chinese youth, the notion of family, country and ethnic have become paradoxical concepts ever since.

The fact that Sun-chang can write fluent Chinese despite his eighth grade level Chinese education very much amazes me. This requires extraordinary efforts on top of a learned family tradition. Relying on his Chinese skills, Sun-chang spent much time acquiring knowledge of ancient China. Similarly, his proficiency of Chinese architecture is entirely self-taught. A thick notebook he kept contains, from cover to cover, densely packed writing with each character the size of a fly’s head. In it, he jotted down extracts of books on Chinese architecture which he had read systematically. This notebook is a testimony of Sun-chang’s dedication in the pursuit of the essence of Chinese culture.

Let us ponder for a moment: How would a determined Chinese youth trained in the West, on his journey to re-embrace the East, go about his search? Would he find his traditional motherland? This is nearly impossible for the values of the West are diametrically different from those of the Chinese culture. He would only suffer from endless doubt and irreconcilable loss.

Since the realities of Chinese culture are too difficult to digest, he would be more likely to be drawn to the theories of metaphysics. The ancient Chinese classics provide ample charismatic doctrines, especially those of I-Ching and concepts of Taoists and Zen masters. Immersed in these, one might attain emotional uplift and spiritual fulfillment, while confirming the not-so-materialistic aspects of Chinese culture. 

Sooner or later, however, he would realize not only that these profound theories cannot touch life and therefore cannot solve real problems, but that they are also out of synchrony with modern art and architecture. To speculate too much ultimately would amount to self-deception. This would not be Sun-chang’s problem alone; many a contemporary Chinese architect with aspirations also has experienced the same dilemma. 

For a less committed youth, the dilemma would probably wither away with age, succumbing to the realities of life and work. But Sun-chang, a resolute youth, would not give up but courageously continued the quest. Coincidentally, traces of Japanese culture that had been part of his childhood in Taiwan fermented. The cultural relationship between Japan and China can only be described as extremely subtle. Even today, many Chinese still assume Japanese culture to be an offshoot of the Chinese while some Chinese are convinced that Japan is a manifestation of the values of ancient China, even though they bear deep hatred against the Japanese for their constant aggression toward China. An irrefutable fact remains: Japan is the only Eastern nation to have undergone modernization in which they have successfully blended Oriental and Occidental traditions. This is a worthwhile lesson for all Orientals. Japan, in the eyes of a destiny-conscious Chinese youth, can be more Chinese than the Chinese. 

Without a doubt, Japan historically inherited Chinese culture and preserved certain values of the times of Lao Tzu, Confucius and Mencius (Spring and Autumn Period, 770-476 BC and the Warring Period, 475-221 BC). Kept alive in particular was the conviction that spiritualism triumphs over materialism, which coincided with the essence of Christianity of the West. On the surface, Japan may seem very different from the West, but underneath, similarities abound. 

Therefore, it is quite natural for the youthful Sun-chang, who had gone from Taiwan to the United States and then headed back East in search of China, to have found Japan and felt completely at ease. In 1974, Sun-chang left New York for Japan on a Japanese government scholarship and began his studies with a Japanese professor/architect. “Like fish finding water” perfectly described his situation. Similar experiences have been encountered by numerous aspiring Chinese youths since the late Chíng period (1644-1911). While lamenting aloud “Rites forgotten at court can be found in far off lands,” they hope to revive the classical traditions of China by learning from Japan.

Inner Mind and Inner Eye

This then is a portrait of the young architect, Sun-chang Lo, who in 1977 wrote to me, a total stranger, inquiring about the possibility of work in Taiwan. He impressed me as one with a Japanese mind and a Chinese sentiment. It was then that I first saw his drawings. 

Sun-chang is one of those who always carries a sketch book and is ready to use it. His village sketches done during his stay in Japan revealed exceptionally sensitive observations. His drawings went beyond realism. He employed exaggeration and distortion as well as simple color schemes to transform ordinary subjects into emotion-latent creations with a touch of surrealism. Furthermore, he did not just draw what presented themselves, but would eliminate most of the background and painstakingly rearrange the bits and pieces of his observations in order to negotiate a composition. What turned out were most refreshing and animated.

Through Western-trained drawings and Japanese-trained abstractions, Sun-chang excelled in expressing Oriental poetics often identified with Japanese architecture. He impressed me as a youth with depth, which was the reason I associated with him. It was also for the very same reason that he became disillusioned with his Taiwan sojourn.

Sun-chang failed to understand that in China, the mass-oriented culture had become the mainstream. Consequently, it is an environment where artists with individuality, especially architects, cannot survive. The majority of Western-educated architects, upon returning to China, were quick to adapt to Chinese taste and thereby merged with Chinese society. After a period of observation, I realized that he would not last in Chinese architectural circles. He was much too westernized and much too Japanized. His talent could hardly survive beyond the academic world. His repatriation to the United States was a correct move. It was hoped that his thoughtful and elegant designs would be appreciated there. It was probably beyond Sun-chang’s comprehension that he could not be accepted by the Chinese in Chinese society.

Professor Kazuo Shinohara, Sun-chang’s teacher in Japan, produces works of profound Zen aesthetics. Zen, though originating in China, has become the representative cultural spirit of Japan. It is a very abstract state of mind full of aristocratic nuances which pervades life. It expresses the utterly ordinary through highly creative and spontaneous imagination. His conceptual architecture, despite its rather unremarkable exteriors, reaches exalted heights in poetic expressiveness. Very few people can truly appreciate its simple aesthetics. Even if that is possible, one cannot quite explain in words, spoken or written, the hidden messages. The ancients put it wisely: “It can only be inferred, but not conveyed.” 

Sun-chang’s assimilation of such artistic tendencies were often reflected in his presentation of ideas. He invariably resorted to pure speculation of the abstraction and the intangibles; for example, a visually non-existent axis or a perplexed symbolism, ideas not readily apparent to the general viewers. 

Sun-chang, operating from his inner mind, believed strongly the existence of such phenomena. Hence, in his dealings with a society unwilling or unable to appreciate such aesthetic and spiritual qualities, he inevitably became somewhat cynical and misanthropic. He must have been quite lonely and unhappy to say the least. Over the years, he turned even more introspective and contentedly led a spiritual life. Meanwhile, in an effort to make himself more productive, Sun-chang channeled his energies to the close scrutiny and intimate understanding of the environment. His drawings reveal to us that his unique inner vision has been the driving force.

When he is not sketching, another tool Sun-chang does not leave home without is his camera. He is an amateur photographer with professional discipline. His camera responds to his inner eye and records his unique observations, observations with a unique vision. His photographic work finds sympathetic resonances among many viewers.

This uniqueness of observation was already visible in Sun-chang’s early sketches. His drawings are neither visual documentation nor literal renderings. One cannot easily identify the location of his photographs or drawings. Combining investigations by the inner mind with observations by the inner eye, the result is never the direct reflection on the retina but the metamorphosis of an inner vision.

Vitality of Lines

Three years ago, chance encounters brought Sun-chang to the staff of the Department of Architecture, University of Hong Kong. For three years, he has been spared the constant toil that befell him up until now and has been able to devote most of his leisure to photography and drawing. Whenever a break presents itself, he is on his way, either to photograph or sketch.

Drawing and photography are professional tools for architects. They use sketches and cameras to record impressions and images for future reference. In order to release his pent-up creative urge for architectural design, Sun-chang has developed two distinct means of expression: the dynamic and the static. Photography demands ceaseless movement to swiftly capture instantly conceived compositions. Drawing requires stationary presence while allowing the eyes to scan and register impressions. Methodologies may differ, but the end products are always the results of the highly integrated coordination of the mind and the eye. What sets him apart from other architects is that his chosen subjects are some distance away from architecture. 

To sketch, he heads out to selected villages on Hong Kong Island. Lifestyles of the villagers have changed little over time. The architecture and the environment, remnants of the transitional period, comprised of aged bungalows, tiny terraces for drying and airing clothes, rooftop television aerials, high tension power poles, tangled wires and old trees of various heights, seen yet unnoticed by most, or else viewed as an environmental mess, attract Sun-chang’s attention and furnish justification for his frequent trips out there. 

As I understand it, he is seeking life for the lines. The same thought hit me when I first saw those drawings in his living room in Hong Kong late last year.

Sun-chang sees certain aesthetic potential in lines and is passionately attached to them. So much so that he bestows each line with a logic for its own existence. Lines may be the contours of objects but should be given more latitude. Lines are architects’ basic tools. Architects rely on lines to express schematic ideas as well as final working drawings. A competent grasp of lines is a necessary professional skill. However, from using lines to liking lines to endowing lines with expressive vitality is a feat few can accomplish.

In his drawing, cables suspended between power poles are straight lines under tension though with a gentle sag. They have beginnings and ends and they span across the sky. A single television aerial is a microcosm with orderly spikes defined by countless short strokes. Sun-chang’s eyes ceaselessly scan the field of vision in search of ubiquitous lines. What he sees are not real objects, but the squirming of living lines.

Last November, when Sun-chang accompanied my late wife and me on a stroll to a seaside village, I noticed a familiar scene: a gigantic power pole next to a dilapidated house. In the real world, these objects have weight and substance. Under bright sunlight, however, only the houses, the terraces and the power poles stand out, but not the electrical wires. I even failed to notice, or was oblivious to the ever present television aerials. Comparing these impressions with his drawings, it is unavoidable to equate his world of lines to a world of illusions.

Ever since the end of the 19th century, artists have relied on their inner eyes to visualize the world. Cézanne (1839-1906) conceived the world as fragments of color lumps; Seurat (1859-91) perceived the world as heaps of colorful dots; Van Gogh (1853-90) interpreted the world as swirls of invigorating lines. Their work moved us not because of the scenery, but because of the other-worldliness of their unique vision.

In Chinese art history, we find a similar exploration of nature began during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). The Yuan artists, inheriting a tradition originated by Tung Yüan (active ca. 950) and Chü Jan (active ca. 960-980) of the Five dynasties (907-960), considered lines the most ideal means for expressing the undulation of the mountains, and ta pí ma tsún or brushstrokes like long loose hemp fibers emerged as the most orthodox of all textural techniques. The difference is that in the West every artist of the modern era necessarily possesses a pair of unique eyes while the traditional Chinese require a tradition of several hundred years to affirm an original interpretation. The orthodox Chinese painting emphasizes the word hsieh, to write, rather than hua, to paint. The underlying principle is that nature is viewed as an assemblage of line work.

Strictly speaking, all artists paint nothing but illusory worlds which for us are only seemingly familiar impressions. If what we see, through the interpretation of the artist, touches our soul, we will be affected, if not, we tend to ignore the work or even feel repelled.

Sun-chang’s fervor for lines extends to all things composed of complicated lines: metal pipe rails, lattice doors and windows, chain-link fences; objects other artists may find difficult to incorporate into their designs, he heartily embraces. First, he reduces real objects into outline contours. Then he weaves them into a dense network of lines, eliminating all quantifiable notions. 

Bundles of cables, loops of ropes, and parcels of sticks emerge as the main motif in his drawings, in a dramatic presentation that highlights 20th century technology as the agent which has brought chaos to the human environment. Here too, he assembles numerous television aerials, as if they are the flowers of the 20th century in full blossom atop a jungle of jumbled racks and wires. Neither cynical nor eulogistical, it is an unadulterated representation of the backyard of the people living at the periphery of modern Hong Kong.

A Chaotic World

When the physical world fades out, transformed into a myriad of lines, chaos inevitably reigns. Although chaos is order of a high degree, to the untrained it is a visually indistinguishable entity. 

This is the reason that the more Sun-chang adds to his drawings, the more they exhibit the sense of chaos, until architectonic entities are completely overwhelmed. His drawings nullify one’s grasp of the inherent order and blur the visual focus. The viewing of each drawing becomes a formidable challenge: Is it a drawing or is it a pile of rubbish? 

As soon as the notion of rubbish surfaces, his lines stir up even more confusion. Bundled cables tied to the top of power poles, for no apparent reason, are enmeshed with wildly tangled wire loops. The artist’s hand, driven by feeling, causes the ropes to be knotted beyond redemption and beyond logic. Moreover, the main task of these lines seemed to be filling up all possible crevices, thereby giving the impression of utter chaos. Gazing at his drawings made me realize what a horrendously and suffocatingly explosive era we live in.

Needless to say, Sun-chang strikes one as a person long suppressed and downright gloomy. In reality, he is blessed with a happy family, a charming wife, and lovely children. But, as is the case with every pensive modern man, he is not cheerful at heart and knows not what happiness is. His soul apparently endured too much constraint and his prospects drifted into helpless disarray. Again, to a greater or lesser degree, it is a common fate shared by most today. It is possible that Sun-chang found some relief when he indulged in winding and looping the tangled ropes, not unlike portraying a wild beast, writhing madly and struggling frantically, taking the center stage of his drawings.

In one drawing, he depicts a barbed wire chain-link fence, the inside of which is a power pole, draped all over by bundled cables, in the company of “rubbish” done in profusely drawn lines. Outside the fence, miscellaneous potted plants lie scattered around. I do not know the meaning of all this. Could it be a reflection of his unconsciously dividing the beautiful world of the past from the chaotic world of today? Everyone’s mind neatly conceals a pile of rubbish.

In a modern society, density is synonymous with chaos. What the modern world lacks is space and tranquility. Ironically, one who is accustomed to tranquility will sometimes miss the atmosphere of anarchy and festivity. This is probably why Sun-chang, who lives comfortably in the spacious and serene staff quarters of Hong Kong University, felt compelled to escape to the shanty villages in search of disorder. He was fighting his sense of disorientation with deliberate disorientation. This probably accounts for Professor Shinohara’s unexplainable phenomena!

For Sun-chang, even the tidy monotony of skyscrapers are nothing but anarchy. He superimposes the labyrinthine urban traffic with cityscapes to frame a panoramic junkyard. At first viewing, the drawing may seem an absurd exaggeration. But for those who have been deeply affected by urban living, such discordance is quite real. This is an image conceived through the inner eye.

His Hong Kong experience plays a very important role. In another drawing of an urban scene, he reconstructed the sensation of walking up a mountain path. The ladder step-inspired spirals, occupying the entire pictorial surface, are interwoven with images gathered along the way, such as buildings and other architectural components, to form a familiar yet increasingly incomprehensible impression. A topsy-turvy image is surrealism of another kind.

Do density and chaos exist in nature? On the days when Sun-chang does not venture out, he instead observes potted plants at home or trees around his neighborhood and comes up with hundreds of drawings. Quite interestingly, his drawings of plants, either densely foliated or ones with density deliberately added, retain the order of nature. The natural world is governed by a unifying logic. Density needs not mean chaos. The chaotic world is caused by mankind. This could be the reason that mankind ceaselessly craves to return to nature!

In nature, density denotes vegetative thrive and an uninhibited display of vitality. To Sun-chang, boughs, limbs, twigs and sprigs of trees all meant lines; all signified expressions of life’s forces. He therefore prompted the lines to fan out like flowing tributaries, as if he had grasped the secrets of plant life.

His bamboo drawings best illustrate this phenomenon. The potted bamboo may have been of dwarf garden variety with well-defined stalks and leaves. Through his interpretation, however, they resembled the resilient bamboo groves found in the countryside of Taiwan, often planted as windbreak in front of farmhouses for their tenacity and immutability. Could this be childhood memories recalled?

Intentional Meaninglessness

This is an orderly chaos. This is also chaos that can be thoroughly accounted for when the details of the drawings are scrutinized. Sun-chang very painstakingly describes the makeup of every object, a feat only highly disciplined architects are able to deliver.

Among various fields of visual arts, painters explore a host of conceptual images composed of forms and colors. Architects, on the other hand, show particular interest in structure. They visualize the ways by which things are put together and, as a result, habitually focus on minute details. 

Sun-chang earnestly surveys his surroundings in an effort to find objects of interesting construction, whether an abandoned chair or a broken window; as long as they fall in the category of fabrication, he enthusiastically reconstitutes them using his lines. When he renders a corrugated roof panel, he does not leave out the washers and screws. He also pays great attention to the details with which cables are fastened to power poles. When he finishes the first round of sketching, he moves on to other locations for additional rounds, drawing with the same intensity and precision until a satisfactory pageantry of disjointed forms is created. The result is often a drawing filled to the limits.

At this juncture, viewers may raise a question of concern in response to Sun-chang’s drawings: Where is his Chinese sentiment? 

To anyone who is fond of traditional Chinese ink painting, Sun-chang’s drawings seem totally devoid of Chinese art overtone. Technically, he uses the extra-fine felt-tip pen instead of the Chinese brush; spatially, he omits the voids and jams the pictorial surface; compositionally, he adopts neither the hanging scroll nor the hand scroll but favors the large format drawing pad. He does not even use rice paper! Whatever happened to the Chinese tradition that Sun-chang so passionately sought?

The question should perhaps be answered by himself. 

Confronting such overwhelming chaos and then dwelling on such elegant details, I am inclined to think that all his efforts may be summed up as intentional meaninglessness. This is a manifestation of the passive living philosophy that has been upheld and passed down by the Chinese intelligentsia for the past two millennia. The intellectuals aspired to answer the call of destiny to “govern the nation and bring peace to the world,” an admirable goal beyond the reach of but a few. Consequently, the majority of Chinese scholars were condemned to shoulder the psychological pressure of unfulfilled missions. To relieve the stress, they could either immerse in the doctrines of Buddhism and Taoism or seek meaning amid meaninglessness.

From this point of view, Chinese landscape painting since the later Yuan period (1279-1368) has been  consignments of sentiment rather than graphic depictions of the beauty of nature. It evolved logically and peaked in the imaginary landscape of the pure conceptual kind of the post mid-Ming period (1368-1644). Conceptual constructions translate into full displays of creativity and are much appreciated today. One must first renounce meaning in order to delve into meaninglessness which in turn enables one to rediscover the meaning of life. This happens to be the implication of seeing the universe through a grain of sand. Sun-chang Lo’s drawings epitomize the mountain and water landscape painting of the modern man.

Even though, in essence, Sun-chang’s drawings of the power poles and electrical wires differ entirely with Chinese paintings of the post-Yuan period (1279-1368), he inherited the spirit and style of Sung (960-1279) and Yuan painters. The pre-Yuan chieh-hua or architectural paintings depicted imaginary pavilions and terraces using delicate lines the complexity and density of which rivaled Sun-chang’s drawings.

The flower and bird painters of the Sung academy, on the other hand, ingeniously rendered the plumes and petals in celebration of the beauty of nature. While Sung dynasty court painters concentrated on the flowers and the birds, Sun-chang focuses on the refuse of modern technology as manifested in everyday life. In essence, they do not differ. Both bodies of work exist for a certain logic and for fundamental reasons related to the overall scheme of things. Chinese artists have been captivated with the phenomena of life, dedicating themselves without hesitation to investigating the principles of nature. Such is the spirit of the Chinese naturalists. Sun-chang’s Chineseness defies form and classification.

To the modern spectators, Sun-chang’s roundabout way of revealing his inner content by depicting the external phenomena is itself a Chinese mode of thinking. Chinese art expresses the state of mind of man but without his vestige. When a Chinese artist renders mankind’s social sufferings and contradictions, he does not show bodily deformity or facial contortions. Instead he may very well paint a scene of grotesque rockery. He would transmit his true feelings by infusing his life with the brush tip while sustaining an elevated and soulful experience.

Sun-chang may be surprised to find that the fruits of his soul searching are being interpreted as ironies of the modern industrialized society or as visual records of the painful process of China’s modernization. In one of his drawings, Sun-chang shows discarded wrought iron window grates and terra-cotta pots of blossoming flowers placed side by side, with a Chinese millstone among a scrap heap of metal household utensils. It reflects the chaos and contradictions experienced by modern Chinese in their daily lives.

While Zen cultivation may not be a prerequisite for modern man, a sense of humor toward the visual world is definitely indispensable. As we approach the closing moments of the 20th century, whether one likes it or not, simple order has disappeared; the world has revealed its reality of helter-skelter intricacies. Outside my window, a disarray of illegal roof additions across the street; inside, on my window sill, a Bodhisattva head with a merciful countenance; they overlap. This is reality.

To appreciate Sun-chang Lo’s drawings, one needs to embrace the spirit of Bodhisattva: love of humanity and care of worldly matters, before he can comprehend the meaning contained in the intentional meaninglessness.

Pao-teh Han
Tainan National College of the Arts