JY's "Journey to Freedom" Beyond Transcultural Narratives|Essay by PAI Shih-Ming



JY is an artist who holds a Ph.D. in statistical physics and has been conducting research in the Koji Kinutani Laboratory at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. His work has received high praise, making him a leading figure in Asian contemporary art. His solo exhibition, "Carefree Excursion" at Whitestone Gallery Taipei begins on 4 March and until 15 April. In the show, Professor and Department Head PAI Shih-Ming of the Department of Fine Arts at National Taiwan Normal University discusses JY's journey as an artist and the highlights of this exhibition.

The exhibition view

The “Institutional Change,” Diaspora, and Getaway of Transcultural Narratives –On JY’s 2023 “Carefree Excursion”

PAI Shih-Ming
Professor & Chair, Department of Fine Arts, NTNU
PhD in History of Art, Kyoto University

Upon the end of the World War II when the flames of war rested temporarily, the planet sunk into the so-called Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. On the frontier of the geopolitical wrestle between the two worlds, the East Asia remained in the status of confrontation in vigilance as the political orders across countries were in dire need of reconstruction. The power that explored the path to recovery amidst the ashes of battles and bound the countries was either the ever-intensive nationalism or the constantly accentuated hostile ideologies. The theories of anti-imperialism, anti-hegemony, and decolonization raged on, becoming the ideological arsenals to revive the countries, mobilize their nationals, or purge the dissidents. Nevertheless, the modern advancement of civilizations in the East Asia for the past century as we know was born from the violent collisions between the powers of the East and the West. Facing the predicament of broken homeland, the pursuit of “institutional change” became an inevitable option to evade the plight of the times.

The most iconic figure in the modern China that advocated “institutional change” was no doubt KANG Youwei (1858-1927), the statesman and thinker active in the late Qing Dynasty and the dawn of the Republican Period. Kang was convinced that the route to redeem the corrupted, failing China could not be merely “learning the strength of barbarians to counter barbarians.” It had to start from the root, sorting out the issues in terms of culture, institution, education, customs, and so forth. It should establish a democratic system, promote industries, and develop technologies so as to elevate its people’s wisdom. Meanwhile, the constitution should serve as the foundation of the country. The venomous legacy of feudalism ought to be cleansed. Hence, the country would be enriched, and the citizenry empowered. In other words, Kang’s political theory was a policy agenda that contemplated over the mean for a country to be swiftly “modernized.” Based on the prior history, After the First Sino-Japanese War, the theory of “adopting the western technologies with the Chinese legacy at the core” proposed by the westernization faction was proved unable to rid the Chinese society from the identity of hypo-colony, let alone the implementation of a true modernization. The only means were “reform” and “institutional change.”

For a society of feudalism and autocracy, to design or realize a whole new society to meet the need of modernization requires a drastic reform, while pervasive dangers and upheavals came along. However, as the country was divided and united repeatedly through a century, notwithstanding Kang Youwei’s ambition was unfulfilled, the political ideas and reform plans from his “archetype of an ideal society” can be now seen as a vivid embodiment of the progressive view of history. Kang’s idea of “institutional change” was applied not just to politics but also to diverse facets like academics, art, and education with profound influences. On the calligraphy reform, Kang Youwei proposed “Now that changes emerged in the world, and the people incline to change as change is prevalent, so those who change shall prevail, while those remain unchanged fail. And calligraphy is one of them as well.” (Guang Yi Zhou Shuang Ji) The book was written in the styles of the Clerical Script and the Tablet Script of Wei, fused with the form of the Running Script, ushering in the calligraphic fashion of rustic power with dynamic might. Opposed to the mimicry of the ancients, Kang advocated for innovation, giving birth to the “Kang Script” as we know. Eminent figures in the modern times like XU Beihong and LIU Haisu were all students of Kang.

As the other side of the coin to “the theory of institutional change,” there is “the theory of decline.” The rise of “the theory of decline” reflected Kang’s severe criticism against the languid landscape of the Chinese painting for centuries. He believed that it was necessary to emulate the forte of the West in realism in order to reform. “The Chinese paintings in the modern times are of decline! It is all due to the absurdity in the painting theories… As long as the absurd painting theories for 5 hundred years are corrected, the Chinese painting may still be curable and able to make progress.” (Wanmu Caotang Canghua Mu) Regarding the Chinese painting’s reform, XU Beihong (1895-1953) made an important claim: “If we are to revive the art of China, we shall re-advocate the classicism in the art of our country. For instance, we can uphold the delicacy and equality preferred by the people of the Song Dynasty, who were not fixated with landscape only. To remedy the malady today, we must employ the realism of Europe.” (“Anatomy of Beauty - Speech at Kailo Enterprise in Shanghai,” published in Times, Shanghai, 1926)

What Xu claimed was in fact aligned with his teacher’s idea of “institutional change.” Has the excitement stirred up by the woe of “the Chinese Painting Reformation” for a century since the dawn of the Republic Period gone with the wind today? T. S. Chen echoed with Xu’s claim “it requires realism in creation.” (The Approach to Chinese Painting Reformation, 1918) Meanwhile, he was convinced that “to reform the Chinese painting, we ought to reform the paintings of Wangs” (Art Revolution –Response to Lu Cheng, 1918), demanding an utter removal of the venomous legacy of ancient mimicry proposed by the “orthodox school” of the Four Wangs in the early Qing Dynasty. Also, he upheld Kang’s theory “belittle the Four Wangs; uphold the principle of Song” (Autobiography of Xu Beihong, 1918). Kang’s “institutional change” for art was in part coming from his concern and vigilance for the extinction of the Chinese painting, beside the advice on catching up the boom in the painting scenes of Europe, America, and Japan, advocating the creation of the ideal “combining the Chinese and the West to giver rise to the new epoch of painting.”

In the academic terms nowadays, Kang’s theory of eclecticism between the Chinese and the West may be considered as the manifestation of a “transcultural” thinking rich in inclusivity and modernity. Xu echoed it with the comment: “ For the better part of the ancientry, preserve it; for the endangered part, sustain it; for the worse part, revise it; for the short part, extend it; for the part in the western painting that can be adopted, integrate it.” (Chinese Painting Reformation, 1920), which is precisely the extension and definition of the theory. Even though the debates over the modern reform of the Chinese painting since the dawn of the Republic Period appear to be fossils in the past, as the various arguments have become texts of thinking or specimens of history. Such “transcultural” discussion carries on after the war and even to date, nevertheless. In parallel with various migrations and movements, it goes on still like shadow in various forms of integration, becoming the contemporary culture across domains with its boundary constantly blurred, expanded, and overlapped.

Regardless of geological borders or cultural horizons, the contemporary society, which is rapidly evolving, explores and reconstructs amidst the movement and mixing of various plates into a postcolonial multiculturalism with a greater level of inclusion that is taking its form. “The hybridity of postcolonialism turns out to be the presentation of diaspora in agony and depression; it is a self-production of hard work through various cultural traces, collaging these traces into a list of self-content, whereas the subject is not stable nor unified,” said Shu-mei SHIH (1997). Distinct from the postmodern hybridity, it may be contradictory, divided, or displaced, perhaps. Such phenomenon with multiple subjects juxtaposed, although not being stable or unified or even ambiguous in terms of focus, turns out to present symbolic meanings beyond cultural borders. In the mechanism of ceaseless search for dialogue, collage, and conjugation of possibilities, it makes the fundamental model for “transcultural representation.”

The exhibition view

The paintings of JY as well as himself is like what have been represented in his life stories filled with experiences of diaspora, which can be recognized as the presence and self-production that reflects such transcultural phenomena and multi-subjectivity. What the fact or experience of diaspora rendered includes the ambiguity and loss of “the sense of place.” Or, it is replaced by the idea of “non-place,” creating the wandering state of placelessness. A “non-place” refers to a site marked momentarily, temporarily, and transitorily. The “in-between” among different sites becomes an eclectic, wherein identity and consciousness gradually disappear or dissolve. Flowing or moving to a different place is entering a new place, as individual becomes one of the components of “the existing hybridity.” The seeking of a place for psychological belonging is considered the cure to alleviate the trauma of alienation. (L. Lippard, The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicultural Society, 1997)

Non-place, placelessness, or the geological content psychologically become the necessary topics to probe into the transcultural subjectivity. In the creative statement of this exhibition, JY adduces the freedom unveiled in Carefree Excursion by Zhuangzi:

From the exhibition view, 《Space》2022, Ink on canvas, 168.0 x 348.0 cm

One must go with the way of the universe, become one with nature that unifies all things. Enjoy a carefree life without worries or impediments, and experience a free and happy mind.

In this fictional world of mythology, the idea of universe that employs the mythical beasts like the Kun (a giant fish) and the Peng (a giant bird) as allegories to denote the biological order and natural wonder beyond the “theory of evolution” is like the fantastic space only made possible in the contemporary Sci-Fi films. Hence, in the creative blueprint named “Carefree Excursion,” the artist aims to construct an identity and narrative, above and beyond reality and place as well as free from form like a dreamland of travelers that is truthful yet fictional. In such world, with the existing cultural frameworks and ethnical marks removed, let us be an illogical yet logical “leopard,” striding and dashing far and wide as a legend.


The “Carefree Excursion” series is essentially a modern legend rich in the hue of autobiography, which is a visual text that fosters the fusion and juxtaposition of reality and folklore. It is not just a transcultural self-production constructed by JY in response to the environmental vicissitude to reflect the inclusive co-existence of multiple subjects, but also a mental solution in the state of diaspora that enables liberal movement, traversing betwixt nodes of places. Through the interpretation of different chapters and images, it is as if we were browsing the pages of Zhuangzi’s works. Filled with plots of wonder and narrative structures of venture, it actively lures visitors into the cosmos wilderness as well as the chaotic abstrusity that goes into oblivion in terms of direction, time, weight, volume, etc., freely explore an unimaginable world together with the fantastic creature. In this instant, the leopard embodies the primitive “savagery” dwelling deep within humanity, whereas the infinitely immense universe is the “civilization” yet to come beyond our reach. From “savagery” to “civilization,” our adaptability to environmental vicissitude is not just evolution in biological form, but also the need for extraordinary imagination that defies physical order, realizing an alternative “institutional change.”

《Brave Figure》2022, Ink on canvas, 73.0 x 94.0 cm

This exhibition at the invitation of Whitestone Gallery is over 30 years away from JY’s first exhibition in Taiwan in 1993. We shall discuss the reason behind the exhibition title “Carefree Excursion” in a nutshell later, which may encompass cultural connotations of multiple layers. Yet, regarding the work selection and topic definition, this exhibition is divided into (1) Leopard’s Spatial Excursion in Ink; (2) Fractal Dimension of Grand Splash Ink; and (3) Calligraphy Presentation, displaying traces of JY’s creative evolution from 2006 to 2023. In terms of the temporal sequence of work creation, (2) Fractal Dimension of Grand Splash Ink is developed the earliest. As its name suggests, the series begins with the majestic cosmos phenomenon and natural wonder like the dawn of the world in chaos, serving as the experimental model that visualizes the “fractal dimension” theory. It is complicated to define fractal. Simply put, it is certain geometrical form resembling the whole that already exists in nature, which forms a pattern or mathematical structure of “self-similarity” via constant repetition or combination. It can also be applied to the disciplines of medicine, seismology, or arts for discussion.

The exhibition view

The emergence of the works in “(1) Leopard’s Spatial Excursion in Ink” signaled JY’s departure from the phase of pure abstraction or simulacrum into the beginning of a whole new challenge of semi-abstraction or abstract-figurative combination. Perhaps, visitors may be puzzled as to the reason for such huge turn or the connection between the series afore and after. The first thing we ought to pay attention to is the works under the same title “Carefree Excursion” produced in 2021. This series preserves certain technical characteristics of the series before it. For instance, the unbridled brushstrokes, ink marks, and water stains in the backgrounds denote part of the connections in the transition period. In the midst of the blurry ink, the dots on or the limbs of the leopard loom in the jungle ambiguously. Standing or crouching over branches, they ingeniously foster the connotations of “stealth” and “subtlety” necessary in the concept of carefree excursion. As such, the series carries the philosophical profundity of Zhuangzi’s attainment of “Utmost Enjoyment” and “Carefree Excursion” by means of “transformation” and “carelessness.”

Meanwhile, in this series, the said fractal components do not disappear due to the figurative presentation of flora or fauna. Instead, we can detect the integration and inter-crossing of flora and fauna with their backgrounds in the works. For example, the round dots of ink in the background like tree leaves or leopard’s pattern seemingly guided the vision of spectators into an otherworldly space of fantasy. Various physical elements are depicted betwixt reality and fictionality, with the tangible boundaries of space, time, and matter removed, shedding light on the philosophical thinking of no arbitrary distinction between species and space-time circumstances. Be that the leopard or the Kun and the Peng in the text of Carefree Excursion, it is nothing but a metaphor of life, an illusion, a code, or fractality. These fantastic creatures roam the heavens and earth, crossing desolate desserts, sneaking in the dark. They possess superpowers and natural savageness the humankind never had, unbounded by the tangible form, able to confront the harsh external environment and become a legend for good. In comparison, what the Theory of Evolution manifests is merely a confined interpretation of biological evolution on a micro level. The parables of “The Knowledge without Knowledge” (Knowledge Rambling in the North) and “The Argument without Argument” and “The Way without Trodden" (The Adjustment of Controversies) are the ones that truly free humans from their limited flesh into an utterly unhindered state of spiritual liberty.

The exhibition view

(3) Calligraphy Presentation, though different from the aforementioned categories in presentation, are ten calligraphy works in simple form of single character or multiple characters, completed all in 2022. The meanings of these characters go deep into our hearts. The appreciation of them is like the Buddhist maxim “the enlightening blow on the head” or the ethereal verses extracted from literature that refresh our mind. It is an echo on the state of mind in life, a physical act beyond writing. The characters are written smoothly all in once in the Wild Cursive Script with their forms and semantics blurred. What is left is the variation in weight, hue, speed, and moisture, which is as heavy as a mountain oras light as a feather and as dynamic as a rabbit and as placid as a virgin. In fact, it is more close to certain performance art or bodily practice in meditation. In a carefree manner, it resonates with the sublime state of “ride on the rhythm of the Cosmos and command the variation of the Six Elements” in Carefree Excursion. Through writing, the artist completed a “carefree excursion” of body and soul in the end.

The exhibition view

​As such, “institutional change” and “transcultural” become the two sides of a coin for the artist’s art life, inseparable from each other. Also, through the ongoing quest and self-exploration of the diaspora like the search for the ultimate destination in life, JY “is to find a potential consciousness and emotion in the extreme sense of physics and to achieve communication in materiality and spirituality on a higher level.” Either the so-called cultural framework or ethnical mark is just a meaningless struggle in vain. On the journey with art creation for decades, JY never held criticism or bias against the classical values or multiple identities due to identity failure. Instead, he transformed it into a broader field without obstacle. JY turns himself into the Kun and the Peng in Carefree Excursion or a fierce leopard in reality, dashing and bolting “in between” different sites. Ultimately, through fusion and interweaving of time, space, and matter, the artist goes above and beyond all boundaries, tangible and intangible alike, attaining the wisdom and transcendence described in the ancient fables of Zhuangzi, topping off the unachieved mission in the last century. (Quote from “The Eerie Carvings and Divine Strokes of JY” by LIN Qingxuan)

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