At the Threshold of Tao (2002)

During a cultural exchange visit to Beijing this past May, I was surprised to come across Sun-chang, whom I had not seen in over a year. At a lakeside teahouse by Shishaqianhai, he showed me his soon-to-be published photographic works. While I was deeply absorbed by his images, Sun-chang inquired as to whether I would be interested in writing another preface. I agreed with an offhanded acknowledgment.

Later, when Sun-chang’s color proofs arrived after I returned to Taipei, I regretted my earlier decision. I fancy Sun-chang’s photography very much and feel rather puzzled by the fact that his work still has not yet caught the attention of the art world. Since Sun-chang’s photography basically revolved around similar themes, and I had already written introductory essays for two of his three prior photographic publications, what else could I come up with? When Sun-chang saw me nodding my head approvingly, he had apparently assumed that I had found something new again. The fact of the matter is that I was not reading into the photographs too deeply at that moment, but was delighted to see his latest work and intuitively felt that new interpretations were definitely possible.

Subtlety and Obscurity

Despite Sun-chang’s stylistic consistency, the artistic content of his photography holds inexhaustible possibilities awaiting endless explorations. With each scrutiny, one is always able to discover previously undetected profundities. These hidden messages may not have been obvious to Sun-chang, but without a doubt, they are rooted in his subconsciousness.

Compared with his earlier work, Sun-chang’s recent photographs project more subtlety and obscurity, with poignancy less pronounced. He has indeed matured a great deal. In Metropolis: A Prime Vision, his presentation was predominantly prime colors with brilliant contrast, sharp boundaries and distinct polarities. It was a vision of youthfulness. By way of a camera, he proclaimed his ideals, aspirations and the heavy responsibilities to life and society. This time around, the contrast is diminished, edges are blurred and definitions have become vague. Although Sun-chang’s demeanor has not changed, nor his passion slackened, somehow, without any signs of foretelling, the fiery temper in his work has vanished and has been replaced by a gentle mellowness with Chinese disposition.

Non-Architectural Micro Vision

On the surface, Sun-chang relies on a camera to capture details of buildings and uses abstract compositions and colors to express his inner feelings. However, the lens is directed by the eyes and, in turn, the eyes are dictated by the mind. When temperament changes, the subject matter of photography undergoes transformations. Nothing in the process seems to have altered, but the outcome takes a quantum leap.

With the exception of a few ingeniously conceived architectural compositions, the majority of Sun-chang’s photographs falls into the category of non-architectural micro vision. Only when Sun-chang relinquishes recognizable icons of architecture does he emerge a hunter with penetrating vision, subconsciously able to reach the innermost niches of hidden emotions.

Elemental and Neutral Harmony

As revealed in his photography several years ago, Sun-chang’s tormented reaction to the reality of the world exhibited the shapes of knives and swords, and the air of confrontation and indignation. Upon viewing his work, one is to be reminded of Sun-chang frowning while suppressing his anger. At the time, the principle that characterized his photographic approach seemed to be a strong sense of destruction. It is difficult to understand the cause of such violence. Still, among bits and pieces in the depicted images, one can sense the cruel aspect of man. Ignoring his composition and aesthetics for the moment, one can even recognize vestigial traces of the raging outburst. It is as if only from fragments of dilapidation can one uncover mankind’s suffering, and the reality behind it. The way Sun-chang expressed the wretchedness facing humanity was through protest.

The most touching images from Pilgrimage: A Naked Vision were all virtual records of protest. Traces of cuts and scratches, remnants of wear and tear, and sprayed paints and graffiti all bore witness to such vented outrage. A combative aura is inadvertently captured in Sun-chang’s images. However, this challenging aggressiveness has disappeared in his new works. By the way Sun-chang approaches his subject matters, I had assumed that such vandalized defacements could not be avoided. Now I am convinced that the mind dictates the outcome, and the lens merely registers the visions of his mindscape.

Among the images in this book, residues of ravage still appear, but in a more obscured manner. They take on an accidental look. Natural decomposition replaces manmade destruction. The color intensity becomes muted and subdued, resulting in an elemental and neutral harmony. Feverish sentiment subsides, calmness and peacefulness prevail, and there is room for reflection and meditation. Consequently, a pulsating vitality emerges from the shades of hazy gray and murky darkness.

Prime and Ink Colors

It is interesting to note that prime and ink colors existed side by side throughout the Chinese cultural tradition. The Chinese have always shown an inclination for strong contrasting colors. As early as the T’ang dynasty (618-906), prime colors were essential components of the life of Chinese aristocrats. Prime colors represented certain social status and were regarded as symbols of power. Yellow was reserved for the exclusive use of the emperors, while purple and red belonged to the ruling class. The ordinary citizens were only allowed to use the monochromatic gray and black. Architecturally, color could be applied to the buildings of the official ranks, whereas the houses of the common folk had to settle for gray bricks and tiles, black paint and white plaster. During later dynasties, the general public was given permission to wear colorful costumes and a bit of red only on special occasions such as weddings and new year celebrations. This long tradition came to an abrupt halt during the Republican era when the cravings for prime colors paved the way for the blossom in folk arts, highlighting an array of vibrant colors. This is the source of Sun-chang’s prime colors.

Aside from the prime color culture of the elite, an ink color culture evolved among the grass roots literati simultaneously. It was the world of the pastoral poets. They were intellectuals in self-imposed exiles, retired officials, or just ordinary citizens. Their eyes could not tolerate the dazzles of prime colors; instead, they embraced the neutral tints of nature. Even when they amused themselves with calligraphy and painting, ink colors were the unanimous choice. Their perception of reality was a world constantly sculpted and molded by the forces of nature enduring the test of time, like rocks in river beds. These rocks are perpetually ground and polished by currents and friction, finally turning into smooth and soothing pebbles, exuberating mellowness and luminosity when handled. Their colors and textures are so subtle that only poets who possess refined sensitivity are able to discern the nuances. Such is the universe in which the Chinese literati observed and explored for nearly two thousand years.

Impalpable and Incommensurable

At heart, I am a Chinese scholar in the traditional sense. For this reason, even though I am very much attracted to Sun-chang’s photographic art, I could not wholeheartedly appreciate his earlier images which were dominated by acuity. This time, however, I was extremely pleased to find that the overwhelming majority of his images captivated my heart, which made me ponder the hidden yet unfathomable nuances, as I do when I hold a pebble in my palm. Laotze once wrote, “Shapeless shapes and formless forms are called vague semblances.” Vague semblance is the phenomenon of the impalpable and the incommensurable,
and is an incarnation of “Tao.” Sun-chang’s latest work is at the threshold of “Tao.”

I hope this time the art world will respond to his photography with some enthusiastic applause.

Pao-teh Han
Museum of World Religions