The Pavilion of Three Mirrors
“Alexander judges between the Greek and Chinese painters”
Painting from a Khamsa of Nizami
ca. 1455-60, Turkmen
Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul
Shown at the first Diriyah Biennale in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in late 2021, The Pavilion of Three Mirrors reflects a unique feature of this exhibition -- the conversation between China and Islam, one of the focuses of my persistent exploration of transcultural dialogues in art. This new body of work is inspired by the famous story of the "Competition Between Two Painters" told in Khamsa by the 12th-century Persian poet Niẓāmī Ganjavi.
The story goes that Alexander the Great, hearing that both the Romans and the Chinese were famous for their painting, wanted to see who was the best in the world. He summoned a Roman and a Chinese painter, who were then told to paint on two opposing walls in the king's hall. A curtain in the middle of the room prevented the two painters from seeing each other while working. At the end of the competition, Alexander lowered the curtain and was surprised to see two identical paintings. The Roman painter’s work was splendid in its incredible realism and deceptively lifelike quality. However, the Chinese painter did not paint but had polished the entire wall into a mirror within which anything in the world could be reflected, including the Roman painting across the hall.
The installation is an abstract and poetic representation of the story as it enacts a site of cultural memory: the audience traverses the mirror vaults as if going between reality and illusion, history and mythology, while the paintings unfold like a manuscript, chapter by chapter, page by page, interweaving motifs, iconography and literary tropes across various ancient cultures.
Installation view of The Pavilion of Three Mirrors, Diriyah Biennale, 2021, Saudi Arabia © Han Mengyun
Fortress of Passion, 2021, oil and acrylics on canvas, 3 panels, each 210x140cm, total 210x420cm
Dews from Another Sky，2021，oil and acrylics on canvas，210x150cm
A Broken Verse, 2021, oil and acrylics on canvas,210x140cm
Lovers, 2021, oil and acrylics on canvas, 2 panels, each 210x140cm
The Story of Language, 2021, oil and acrylics on canvas 2 panels, each 210x150cm
Whence things have their beginning, 2021, oil and acrylics on canvas 2 panels, each 210x150cm
Her, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 210x150cm
There are multiple versions of the story. I chose the version retold by Nizami, where the Chinese painter is the mirror polisher. The story itself contains many, many layers of meaning and possibility for interpretation; such is the nature of literature and poetry. While the story reveals the obvious layer of cultural communication in history, it also aims to unravel Sufi ideas of comparing the mirror to the mind. The polishing of the mirror is an act of purifying the mind, which reflects God without distortion. Not only does the story contain references to Greek philosophy, it also has origins in Buddhist stories which made their way to Persia and went through phases of adaptation.
The more I research the story, the more extensive the influences become, and the “truth” about any individual culture becomes less clear as reality and imagination, history and mythology merge. In other words, there is no single original author of the story. It is ultimately a making of collective wisdom, cultures, philosophies, ideas, facilitated by various peoples in different times. It continued to expand and procure new and different meanings by way of people’s retelling. One can also argue that no individual culture retains meaning and definition without the presence and influence of the other or others, and the reality of existence lies in those particular connections exemplified by this story.
What intrigues me most about the story is exactly this high level of multiculturalism, so rarely seen in today’s cultural discourses. For complex reasons, predominantly colonial impact, Modern and Contemporary Chinese (actually any non-Western) art has only spoken to and looked at, the West, a preoccupation to modernize and “advance” itself fueled by an inferiority complex. At the same time, since the 19th century, we non-Westerns have only attempted to understand ourselves through the eyes of the West, suffering from the malaise of Orientalism. But what about the rest of the world? Is there a possibility to look elsewhere, and for the East to speak to the East, the South, the North, in all directions, and between all of us? How were we thinking about and making art in a past that could hardly fit into the framework of Art History, an 18th century German invention? This is something I have been questioning since college and my realization of my lack of knowledge led me to study further and embark on a different and difficult path. This really helped me gain a deeper understanding of the underlying hybrid components of the Nizami story.
So the first significance of using the story for my work is rooted in my attempt to find alternative ways of perceiving art and culture that are not confined by the East-West two way paradigm. It is really refreshing to see China and Chinese art through the prism of Islam and historical multiculturalism. In Persian and Arabic literary sources, China is always associated with great art and artists and as a paradise with the most beautiful pictures. This China is the China of the Islamic tradition. Despite of the fact that China did present excellence in making art and craft, these literary accounts cannot really be taken for historical reality due to their mythical and poetic nature but the imagination at work here is very interesting. China is a synonym for the unknown, the far, the mysterious, the utopia containing wisdom and producing wonder. The word can and does mean everything and/or nothing. It can become what it is not. It can be what I wish it to be. That emptiness and futility of definition and language freed me.
Now, to answer many people’s question regarding the Chinese stratagem to win the competition: there is actually no winning or losing for any party in the story as Alexander the Great announced in the end that the Rum (Greek) painters are marvelous at painting while the Chinese are superior in polishing. It is the difference of multiple cultural perceptions and their equal excellence that the story is aiming at. What my work is trying to achieve is therefore the wholeness of the world and our interconnections, which are to be reflected by the mirrors of my mind, or painting.
But this is still not the final layer of the work and story for me. The deepest and most personal meaning of the story is sadness—the sadness of conflict between cultures, often reflected in disparate methods of painting. Such conflict is what the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk explores in his book My Name is Red, in which the clash between perceptions and painting traditions (the Ottoman miniature and European oil) led to a case of murder. The violence induced by difference is the reality that we experience as human beings and that violence is within us.
Visual fragmentation and compartmentalized perceptual sensibilities define my experience as a painter today with multicultural experience as I work with and through various traditions of painting, such as the Chinese ink, the Western oil, as well as the Indian and Persian miniature. There is a great sense of impossibility to reconcile different ways of painting and seeing the world (at times through God’s eyes), and the eternal tension between tradition and change, on the canvas. It is no easy endeavor to deal with these tensions as it concerns the reconfiguration of space and time, the fundamental elements of human existence, with a deeply hermeneutical basis. It is about dealing with conflicts, impossibility, contradictions and paradoxes inherent in difference of being in this world: the flatness of the Eastern painting traditions vs the three-dimensionality of the Western oil painting; the use of one point perspective in Western painting vs the isometric perspective in Chinese landscape vs the Bird’s or God’s perspective in Indian and Persian painting; varying understandings of art’s role in relation to divinity; reality and illusion; spirituality and secularism.
It is out of my own madness and sadness that I want to bring all of them together in cohesion and harmony at the risk of murdering one of them, or all of them. And in my mind that violence and murder equates with the impossibility of translation proclaimed by Gayatri Spivak. Despite, and precisely because of such impossibility, we continue to translate so as to get closer to each other, without ever becoming the same by force. Translation is a necessity to allow difference to coexist, to mend a broken world, to find and build harmony within my schizophrenic self.
The Pavilion of Three Mirrors marks a breakthrough of containing multiplicity by negotiating their coexistence, allocating roles to each tradition so that they work together, connecting friends and fiends, imbuing spirituality to mundane objects, creating a vocabulary that speaks to a universal mind, giving old forms a new voice. History has always taught us about war and conflicts but this story has taught us hope and it represents people’s hope for a world of harmonious multiplicity as it was told and retold over centuries. With this hope, I am telling it again.