From “The Mustard Seed Garden” to Personal “Fiction” – Bi Rongrong’s Writing about “Truth”

text by Jiang Jun, translated by Wu Chenyun






Exhibition link: Fiction Landscape,



Fiction Landscape, Bi Rongrong’s solo exhibition, was unveiled at A Thousand Plateaus Art Space on December 17, 2016. Featuring an array of different media, Fiction Landscape comprised three major parts: weaving, painting and installation. Why would the artist call it “fiction”? Jiang Jun, guest contributor of art.ifeng who is also a young artist and critic, led us to explore further into the exhibition from the perspectives of module and the narrative of “truth”.


20161217日下午3点,毕蓉蓉个展小说景观” 在千高原艺术空间揭幕。小说景观”是由不同媒介相互关联组成的整体,主要由编织,绘画,以及装置三部分构成。为什么艺术家把它称为小说呢?“凤凰艺术”特约撰稿人,青年艺术家及艺术评论家姜俊将为大家从模块和“真理”叙述的角度谈谈这个展览。


Installation view of “Fiction Landscape”


A Thousand Plateaus Art Space, 2016.12.17-2017.02.28


千高原艺术空间,2016, 12, 172017, 02, 28



Bi Rongrong was the first artist I ever wrote about and during the years I’ve witnessed her development from delving into the language of form to the in-depth exploration and question into modules and meaning. Her work could be seen as a mirror of her inner self, radiating genuinely personal narrative. To put it in other words, it could be seen as her autobiographical novel. 


I interviewed her during her last exhibition Absolute and we talked about the Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden, which is a printed manual of Chinese painting compiled during early-Qing Dynasty. The five-volume manual gives extensive description of the various painting principles and techniques of Chinese painting, including the landscape painting, painting of trees, hills, stones, plum blossoms, orchids, bamboos, chrysanthemums, birds, people and houses. The title derives from Li Yu’s (under whose support that the manual was published) villa in Nanjing which was known as the Mustard Seed Garden. During the past three centuries, the manual has always been hailed as a classic textbook for traditional Chinese painting. It not only deals with general principles and specific paintings skills, but also comprises selected works of great landscape painters, offering a holistic approach for those who want to learn Chinese painting. Lothar Ledderose, German art historian specialized in East Asian arts, described such patterns as modules in Chinese art.


As a trained Chinese painter who then chose to resort to contemporary art, Bi Rongrong’s take on contemporary art is somewhat different and unique compared with her peers. In the Manual of Mustard Seed Garden, a variety of patterns that could be imitated, duplicated and assembled were provided. Similarly, Bi Rongrong comes up with a highly individualized module system during her painting practice. If the Manual of Mustard Seed Garden is a classic standard manual based on the orthodox narrative of literati painting, the modules invented by Bi Rongrong are highly personal and intimate, slowly but continuously generating an interwoven and interconnected allusion system behind the paintings. Each pattern derives from an intimate experience of hers and hence is an imprint of memory. And each work comprises various modules of this kind. 


What the Manual of Mustard Seed Garden demonstrates is orthodoxy and authority. It embodies the collective wisdom and experience of painters of different generations. It is a metaphor that has been fixated and a convenient treasure chest for beginners. The correct way to imitate and duplicate is to take today’s context into consideration and then revisit each module. In other words, we need to follow the principles and leave the restrictions behind. It’s of course easier said than done. Most painters, mediocre painters, blindly follow and repeat the fixated patterns, making painting a game of assemblage that is highly abstract and detached from the reality.


Bi Rongrong has a particular liking for painters of the Northern Song Dynasty. Different from painters of the Qing Dynasty, they didn’t have so-called orthodox and universal principles to follow. It is said that Fan Kuan, a Chinese landscape painter of the Northern Song Dynasty, led a hermit life in the untraversed regions in Mount Zhongnan and Mount Taihua. He spent his whole life living within the forests, immersing himself fully in the wind, snow, rain and fog; or in other words, he truly integrated himself with the nature. As a result, his landscape painting brimmed with the flavor of the nature, making viewers feel as if they were surrounded by forests and mountains. According to Fan Kuan, “It’s better to learn from the genuine things than from the patterns set by painters of previous generations. And for me, I would rather follow my heart than the things.” Those great painters traveled around the mountains and rivers to feel the charisma essence of nature with their full heart. And while they delineated the world intuitively, they managed to imbue their own individuality into the images, making the paintings glitter with the charm and wisdom of “truth”. 


But Bi Rongrong’s approach is different from painters of the Song Dynasty. Instead of following the principles of the nature, she directly makes use of and appropriates daily life. To some extent, she is like a complier of an encyclopedia of the eighteenth century. But in her case, the “encyclopedia” she complies is all about herself. She once said: “When looking at my work, people may feel they are abstract. Actually that’s not the case. In fact, the way I think of and observe things is under the influence of my training of Chinese painting. In my view, each stroke in Chinese painting represents a slice of things that are figurative. This exhibition could be seen as a continuation of my last solo exhibition in March. Street graffiti, posters and tapestries that I came across during my trips to other cities and countries were my sources of inspiration. I took pictures of them to make them into some kind of archive. Then I detached them from their original context, took some fragments out and enlarge them. The previous exhibitions would give me inspiration for my future work. And as life goes on and as I keep traveling, my practice extends and grows steadily and continuously.” Her work, in essence, is the edited records of the trajectory of her life. It is in this sense that she becomes the writer of her autobiographical novel. 



At the moment Bi Rongrong is, quite ambitiously, working on a manual of modules of her own, or say, a private version of the “manual of mustard seed garden”. Each module will be connected with a story or a piece of private memory/experience. For instance, she came across module A during a visit to Pergamon Museum; Module B from the pattern of the stone flooring at the Museum Island in Berlin; Module C, a poster on the street of Manchester; Module D, a poster in Berlin; Module E, slates collected in the Tianyi Pavilion in her hometown Ningbo; and Module F, the brick walls near her studio in Songjiang District… Each of them embodies the moment that she is touched and impressed. More than what they originally stand for, the modules also epitomize the chemistry between the artist and the objects when she first encountered them. Through constant repetition, collaging, rearrangement and overlapping, the new narrative that hereby emerges comprises the somewhat unconscious superposition of memories, and becomes an autobiographical novel. 


According to Bi Rongrong: “My practice, in a way, is to create a landscape that I feel and perceive. I try to capture different moments. The process is full of uncertainties, but also contains inevitability.”


Nowadays the so-called universal truth is under serious question, making “truth” an obscure concept. On the one hand, we do not recognize the Manual of Mustard Seed Garden as the sole orthodoxy (a grand narrative of the tradition of painting); and on the other hand, we sniff at various styles of modernism imported from abroad. Basically we live in the post-modernity that advocates the legitimacy of diversity and individuality. Danish philosopher, Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, also known as the “father of existentialism”, proposed two types of “truth” (wahr) in mid-19th century: objective truth and subjective truth, which has given profound inspiration to post-modern philosophers and thinkers. If we suspend the subjectivity of the living people within objective “truth”, it is based on mathematics and science. On the contrary, if objectivity is suspended by subjective “truth”, it is the feelings and perception of the subject that are emphasized. “Truth” doesn’t lie in calculation; and in the context of existentialism, it refers to the interrelation and interplay between the individuals and the world. In the 20th century, Heidegger understood truth as the happening of event (Geschehen). It breaks open fixated concepts and removes concealments, enabling the things that are intricately related to embrace clearing, to achieve the state of “being-in-the-world” (In-der-Welt-Sein). Following the philosophy of Heidegger, Derrida thinks of an open future in which truth symbolizes the possibility to lead the unknown to the future. It comes on the stage one after another, becoming the “truth”, but is under constant re-interpretation and narrative. It is highly personal and private, offering us a landscape of a diverse future



Artists born in the 80s and 90s, different from their predecessors who were obsessed with grand narrative, are keen on their own stories. Bi Rongrong is one of them. For her, what she attaches more importance to is the subjective “truth” of herself. By meticulously and ingeniously compiling the fragments of memory and feeling together and then visualizing them, she manages to edit them into a novel and landscape of her own. Then she re-opens them with like-minded people, looking forward to a future image brimming with diversities and individualities during the revisit










毕蓉蓉更多欣赏北宋时期的画家,因为他们并没有如同清代画家一样有直接可以挪用的一套宣称正统和普世的法则,相传北宋画家范宽隐居至人烟罕至的终南山与太华山,终生以山林为伴,沉浸于风雪雨雾之中,把自我与大自然融为一体,因此他的山水画往往令人仿佛置身于山林中的感觉。范宽认为:师古人,末若师诸物也,吾与其师诸物,末若师诸心。” 这些大画家们在山川中游历,观察自然,用自己的直观去描绘所见的世界,从而使得个体性融入其中,从内而外展现最为闪闪发光的“真实”。





毕蓉蓉正在野心勃勃地制作一本属于自己的模块手册,一本私人秘藏的芥子园画谱”,每一个模块都配上了相应的故事和一段私人感受的回忆。比如她在一次佩加蒙博物馆(Pergamon Museum)的参观中获得了模块A、柏林美术馆岛的石板地的序列中提取了模块B、在曼切斯特街头海报中抽象出的模块C、从柏林街头的海报生成了模块D、从她的故乡宁波天一阁的石板收藏中导出了模块E、她松江工作室区附近的砖墙模块F…… 它们凝结了一次次的感动和沉思,每个模块不只是有其原来的出处,还有着艺术家和它们邂逅那一刻的化学反应。它们被不断重复、拼贴,再重组、叠加,然后从无意识中涌现出记忆叠加后的新叙述,它们便是每一个自传体小说。





今天传统的单一真理观受到严重的质疑,真理变得模糊不清,我们既不承认《芥子园画谱》为唯一的正统(一套绘画传统上的大叙述),也对于现代主义国际风格嗤之以鼻,我们生活在一个彰显多元个体合法性的后现代中。丹麦存在主义哲学家索伦·奥贝·克尔凯郭尔(Søren Aabye Kierkegaard)在19世纪中期就提出了两种对于“真”(wahr)的范畴,即客观的真理和主观的真理,这深刻的启发着后现代的思想家们。在客观的“真”中,我们把在世间存在之人的主观性悬置,它基于数学和科学;相反主观的“真”把客观悬置,强调存在者之主体的感受。“真”不在于计算性,对于存在主义来说,它是个体的人和世界的关联和互动。之后20世纪的海德格尔认为真理是一种事件的发生(Geschehen),它打开了固化的概念,破除了一切的遮蔽,使得互相链接的万物走向澄明,并在世界中存在(In-der-Welt-Sein)。德里达继承了海德格尔的思路,思考一种开放性的未来,真理就是一种未知的走向未来的可能性,它在不断的重复中出场,成为了“真”,但又不断的被重新诠释和叙述。它非常个体和私人,并提供了我们一种多元未来的图景。













佩加蒙博物馆Pergamon Museum展示的古石墙

Ancient stone walls on display at the Pergamon Museum


 Patterns extracted from the pots 纹样的提取 


                                                                                                                                            Work |作品

Fiction Landscape – Contour 2 小说景观-轮廓二

Material: cotton thread材料:棉线




Screenshot of the video Fiction Landscape|小说风景 视频截屏






Floor of Museum Island in BerlinClay pots of ancient Greece (750-720BC)




Patterns extracted from the pots 纹样的提取 



Works |作品 


                                                                                                               Posters on streets in Manchester|曼城街头的海报

                                                                                                                                             Work |作品

Screenshot of the video Fiction Landscape视频截屏 小说风景

03:12, 2016



Street paintings and prints in Berlin and Manchester. (I made use of some of the elements in my “Manchester CMYK” series in 2004. This time I continued to draw inspiration from “Manchester CMYK”. During the process of painting, how I choose and extract the elements is purely random and natural.) 

柏林和曼彻斯特的街头绘画和印刷品 (它们中的有些元素在我2014年的Manchester CMYK系列中,开始尝试使用。在这次的创作中,我继续从Manchester CMYK作品中提取元素。在绘画过程中,我对元素的提取是很随机和自然的。) 



Patterns being extracted



Antique slates collected in Tianyi Paviliion in Ningbo , brick walls near Bi Rongrong’s studio in Songjiang District, Shanghai