"Les Visages de la Route de la Soie", exposition de Wang Lei, à découvrir à partir du 26 M




"We live surrounded by slogans and intellectual shortcuts. Our world oscillates between dry abstraction and emotional virtuality that are perhaps our attempt at distancing ourselves from it. Some artistic discourses, on the other hand, hold the power to bring us back to the sensitive and singular realities hidden behind concepts. What is a face? A gaze? Why bother painting portraits at allin the age of selfies? Precisely to articulate the power of a presence throughthe illustration of the voyage of the eyes that we call «a gaze ».



Wang Lei’s portraits in the former Franco-Chinese university


Two dynamics converge under the ancient beams of the former Franco-Chinese university: that of the gaze and of the voyage. And this is not due to chance. Today we tend toforget that the « silk roads » were, and still are, above all the convergence of gazes initiated by singular journeys. The Silk Roads are roads of the gaze, spaces in which human beings come close, speak to one another and feel their alterity. The wager is to embark on a voyage, to walk towards the other, to look in order to better invent. In a way, and within its own historical context, the former Franco-Chinese university symbolizes the starting point of many journeys: intellectual, artistic, political and human, that may all remindus of the silk roads. This is why Wang Lei’s work fits naturally within this architectural space where young Chinese eager to engage in a conversation with France were trained and first encountered a new culture.

The many faces shown in this exhibition should not be approached as a« series » of portraits but as the iconic symbols of different worlds that connect and become energized with a new life thanks to the unique quality of the exchanges enabled by a voyage. These images become landmarks that lead the gaze to the topographic and climatic backgrounds that punctuate the silkroads from Datong to Istanbul. These paintings set us in motion, make us feel to what extent a being, a face, a landscape, are mysterious wholes within which memory plays a fundamental part. But they also hold another form of power over us : they invite us to stop. These images connect us not to faces but to« gazes » compelling us to carry, just as one carries a child, anintimate presence that demands greater awareness and intimacy. We have to allow ourselves to be gazed upon.

A nomadic painter searching for his own culture


Wang Lei travels, and what he shows in his paintings is what he first saw with « his own eyes »; he was seduced by the dazzling lights of singular reliefs, by dust, by the world, by calm and by mayhem. He has entered the perils of travel that always leave a mark. Whereas so many artists use images from the Internet, rework them virtually on screens, Wang Lei has chosen to go against the flow to go back to the source of direct sensation.

This choice is reminiscent of the Western tradition of the traveling painters who would not hesitate to go to Rome or to do the « Grand Tour » in order to « experience » the world, broaden their perceptions and enrich their culture. During the 18th century, the voyage of initiation « the GrandTour » was a decisive landmark in the education of young Britons. In France, the tradition of the trip to Rome was deeply engrained in society and artistic institutions thanks in part to the École des Beaux-Arts’ Prix de Rome. In the 19th century, artists such as Delacroix, inspired by the new European infatuation for the Orient, added a more remote and perilous dimension to traveling by going to North Africa or the Middle East, where they searched for new subject matter. William Turner, the icon of British romanticism, was also a keen traveler.

Wang Lei, a graduate of China’s Fine Arts Academy, followed the advice of Chen Danqing, his master at the Central Academyof Fine Arts, and did the « Italy trip ». While in the cradle of European Renaissance, Wang Lei took time to probe deeply into the roots of European humanism: its emphasis on the individual, its contemplative and spiritual background, and the developments in science and commerce exemplified by the architecture and the portraits of the Italian Renaissance. The artist’s use of ultramarine for the atmospheric backgrounds of many of his paintings demonstrates his familiarity with the works of Giotto, Fra Angelico and even Titian.


Yet Wang Lei’s voyage differs from that of western painters: he travels to rediscover his own culture’s roots. « His Silk Road » has been a long time developing. After becoming passionate about Chinese mythology, he incorporated Shangui (山鬼), Hebo (河伯), Donghuangtaiyi (东皇太一) in his works, appropriating the issue of the five elements (metal, wood, water, fire and earth) as his own to reappraise his own culture. In 2005 he chose to live in Xinjiang for three months to share the life of its inhabitants in a desire – that has deepened further with time – to give shape to his project: to paint not the Silk Road but the faces, atmospheres, and the impressions that are the true realities of the silk road. To go back to the geographic, climatic and human origins of Chinese culture.


His project really started in Datong, the ancient capital of the Northern Wei (386-534), the cradle of Buddhist culture and an important hub for intellectual and commercial exchanges. In most of Wang Lei’s portraits, ears are given unusual prominence. One of the explanations for this can probably be found in the Yungang Grottoes of Datong. The young girl from Datong painted in 2015 and whose left ear issubtly enhanced by a thin lace is akin to the descendant of the Roman legion soldier painted in Gansu (2015) and also to the Tehran Persian (2016) or to the Young Man of Persepolis(2016). They all seem to come straight from the Datong Buddhist sculptures. Their solemn silence imposes a spiritual presence. And, as in Chinese philosophy, terms are inseparable from their origins, we can say that the memory of the Datong Yungang Grottoes never ceases to haunt the portraits of the men and women of Wang Lei’s road.


He sees Chinese history as his material – the more he steps away from it the more itgets closer and becomes his means to question his identity. Chinese history is his, something he delineates as much as feels, like a calligrapher, along each step of « his » road. What counts in this story is to bring back tolight a dynamic obscured and enshrouded by historical simplifications (learnedin school) and the burden of fusions. This dynamic expresses how a culture is always the product of multiple influences and interactions that eventually merge into one single narrative. This is to say that Chinese culture is the result of the various silk roads that made it possible for men and women to converse, to meet each other, to exchange stories. Mythologies andevents converge, tales and images superimpose, commerce and ideas coalesce, and after going through a sedimentation process, produce a particular way to see the world that is called culture. Wang Lei likes to point out that « the Eurasian civilization was born from multiple human exchanges and that the Silk Road is first and foremost a very concrete cultural experience ».

Feeling the world’s pulse



“ I felt the urge to follow the Silk Road to reach China’s furthest boundaries. The first year, I traveled in China, from Shanxi to Xinjiang via Xi’an, Datong, Lanzhou, Dunhuang and then Tulufan, Wulumuqi, Hetian…”




The artist takes technical risks by painting quickly. Whereas the preparation time involves getting settled in a new place, getting familiarized with it and finding new bearings, staying open to the chance of new encounters and new viewpoints, the execution time itself is very swift. Just as for a calligrapher, the artist « prepares » himself mentally for an encounter; his choice of a face, of a time of day, of the life that shows through a face’s wrinkles and expressions cannot be made without a certain gravity. The artist does not search for « models » but looks for the men and women who will eventually create providential encounters for him. These portraits have nothing to do with mimesis or with a compulsion for realism. The brush’s urgency can be read on the canvas and it is easy to feel that what guides its movement has nothing to do with a desire to convey the detailed reality of a person, but instead to express a presence through a gaze. Quickly, the brush must capture a singular presence, revealing within it the geographic background that roots it to a unique place. These faces are no more abstract than realistic, and illustrate the irreducible link between the gaze and the subjectof its focus Wang Lei’s paintings reveal landscapes that despite being only afaint suggestion on the canvas are all the more present. The backdrop of our cultures and our ways of thinking – this is what is decisive and often blurred by globalization. These elusive landscapes are key elements of the adventure. The « Girl from Yazd » (2016) would not convey such a heartrending melancholy if we could not feel within it a diluted atmosphere, a vanishing world that keeps on existing in the same fragile manner as the locks of herhair. The girl from Yazd also leads us to question the essential nature of ourworlds and the strength of our culture. Wang Lei brings to bear an exacting technique to make visible this invisible pain that we more than often keep hidden behind our social masks.




Such are the demands of the process: to leave, to wander through a strange and sometimeseven foreign world, to take the time to live, a time that is often forgotten today. This time spent living with the local peoples, breathing in the singularity of a climate is not wasted time, but on the contrary is essential to laying the ground for an encounter and for the work that it will generate. In 1863 Claude Monet decided to get out of his enclosed and cozy studio to setup his easel in the brand new Gare St Lazare so that he could record the sensations brought about by modernity, a decision, so much against the flow ofthe institutions and academic discourses of the times, that must keep on challenging us.

Where do we have to go to feel the pulse of the new world? Wang Lei’s answer is only one among many but it has the merit of initiating an exacting process: to start the journey. To paint the faces of the men and women of Tehran, Persepolis, Takhte Soleyman, Esfahan, Yazd, Tashkent, Bukhara, Nukus... brings to mind the favorite notion of anothertraveler, Victor Segalen: « the sensation of diversity ». This sensation is also an action of the thought given to what Segalen calls the« exot ». It is only by opening himself to the« out-side », by freeing himself of all prejudices and by embracing another culture that the exot can reach a more acute self-awareness. This openness is the exact opposite of the bulimic gaze of the hurried« tourist » who consumes peoples and landscapes, always rushing onfor fear of missing something. The exot, having taken the risk of facing diversity and alterity, refuses mindless acceptance and instead faces himself, welcoming the necessary inner journey. This implies that neither a person nor a thing may be completely assimilated with another. The assimilation or the convergence of cultures can only work to a point; this point is precisely the one that can be deciphered on faces. A face is by itsessence irreducible, a guarantee of diversity and radical otherness.



Wang Lei’s worried road can be seen through each of his portraits and we simply have to follow their gazes to participate in the journey. Each work is both unique and linked to the others; we should not look for the anecdotes or the stories that generated these works, and instead face them with humility and silence. This road of faces is aninvitation to search our temporal identity in ourselves, so that we can hear the « silent call » mentioned by Jean Christophe Bailly in his essay on the portraits of the Fayum. In the end, let us meditate on this thought ofthe sculptor Giacometti: « The adventure, the great adventure, is to notice something new, each day, in the same face. This is worth all the voyages in the world ».


Christine Cayol

Founder of YISHU 8, philosopher, writer

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