Ma Desheng

Stars and Stones

by Michèle Vicat

Ma Desheng photographed in his Paris studio by Michèle Vicat © 2011

Visitors to Ma Desheng’s studio in Paris are often surprised at the contradiction between the physical fragility of the artist who zips down the streets of his neighborhood in a wheelchair, and the impressive large format canvases stacked along the walls. It only takes a moment for Ma Desheng to propel us into his own expansive universe.

« La vie est toujours là » (life is always here), Ma Desheng wrote in the preface to his latest catalogue. The words are particularly significant when we look at Ma Desheng’s life.

His eyes, dark, penetrating, constantly moving, stand out in sharp contrast to the very pale complexion of his angular face. His long silver hair is tousled and falls down to his shoulders in fine undulations. He makes me think of a seagull, tossing shells on a rock in an effort to extract the substance that will enable him to survive, flying over the ocean while taunting the waves. In the same way, Ma Desheng soars above the currents of passing fashion.

The intellectual and revolutionary fervor is just as strong today as it was thirty years ago when he started the group called XingXing (The Stars) in Beijing. We are in 1979, three years after Mao Zedong’s death ended the Cultural Revolution. Ma Desheng’s generation, born in the early 1950’s, was deprived of its adolescence. It is a generation that suffered deep humiliation and also experienced the humiliation of its elders. In the late 1970’s, this generation finally had access to college education – they were between 25 and 30 years old. But, the competition was hard and places were limited. Many were excluded from the competition. Ma Desheng was one of them and suffered an even greater humiliation. He was rejected from art school because he was disabled by childhood polio, and needed wooden crutches to walk.

Ma Desheng's Solidarité, Wood Block Print, 17x13.5 cm, 1979
photograph by Nicolas Pfeiffer

Ma Desheng’s generation had to work in factories during the day, but they met at night in crowded rooms whose atmosphere was thick with cigarette smoke and expressed their longing for democracy and freedom of expression. A new culture was taking shape by word of mouth among painters, writers, sculptors, photographers and poets. There was no public place for artists and intellectuals to meet. A market for art did not exist. In China, art had rarely been an individual affair. People met in groups to play music, to write poems, to do calligraphy. Art required symbiosis between creative people. Except that this time, young artists were not meeting in a superb retreat on a mountain or in an exquisite garden for inspiration. The hutongs (traditional houses in alleyways in Beijing) became the preferred meeting place for youth without money. Ten years later, Wu Wenguang’s documentary Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers (Liulang Beijing – Zuihou de Mengxiangzhe)
described the squalid conditions that many artists still lived in.

The film, considered to be the first significant independent documentary in China, shows how artists felt lost, alone, completely abandoned especially in the aftermath of June 1989. It was another generation of artists who also had to take the road of exile.

During the day, Ma Desheng worked as a draftsman in a factory. At night, he carved woodblocks to make prints. He did not have the money to buy proper wood, so he carved them from plywood. His studio was the six square meter room where he lived. He explains that it is by chance that he became an artist. “Nobody in my family influenced me. As a child, I never thought of becoming an artist. When I was 7, a friend and I wrote a letter to Zhou Enlai because we had an idea for a multi function car with wings to fly and with an amphibious motor to go in the sea. An official came to my parents’ house and was astounded to see that I was so young! That is what I like to do: invent things and draw them. With Mao Zedong, my dream to go to school vanished. It was impossible with my physical disability. But, I liked to copy landscapes and portraits. That was what I was doing at night after my work in the factory, which I did for 10 years.”

Ma Desheng's Six Pieds Carrés, Wood Block Print,
23 x 22 cm, 1979, photograph by Nicolas Pfeiffer

From December 1978 to the end of 1979, the authorities, in keeping with their agenda of liberalization, authorized people to put posters on what became known as the Wall of Democracy, a long brick wall located on Xidan Street, west of Tian’anmen Square. Many dissidents believed the new line of the Communist Party, which exhorted people to “Seek the Truth from Facts.” The diazibao, or large-character posters, called for political reforms and even encouraged human rights. Ma Desheng describes that wall as “the wall of ideas created for political reasons by Deng Xiaoping.” Ma Desheng continues, “We, artists, we thought of creating another wall, a wall for art. It was a good idea for young Chinese artists who had no place to exhibit and to show something different.” That is what people really needed at that time in China. Something different. For thirty years, they lived under the same banner of uniformity: one leader, one ideology, one costume, one book, one color. Ma Desheng recalls this period: “We met several times to find a name for our group. Under Mao, the sun was taken as the symbol for unification. We thought that the stars could become an emblem of our individuality. Everyone needs an identity. We did not need one sun for everyone any more.”

Ma Desheng and another artist, Huang Rui, are considered as the founders of the XingXing (The Stars), a group more than a movement, many of whose 28 members are still very active in the art world today. Although most art critics today do not classify The Stars as an avant-garde movement (it did not follow a specific style), there is no question that the group opened the path for artistic and intellectual exploration beyond the limits imposed by government authorities. The cultural environment that preceded them was orchestrated by the canons of Soviet Socialist Realism devoted to the exclusive service of propaganda for the three social branches allowed at that time: the soldiers, the peasants and the workers. With the new ideology promoted by Deng Xiaoping, young people enthusiastically integrated Post-Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism into their art. They broke with established conventions because they felt free, they wanted to express free ideas and more importantly they wanted to share these ideas with a larger public.

Ma Desheng's Une Pensée Surréaliste, 120 x 120 cm, 1981 photograph by NIcolas Pfeifffer

The Stars received the authorization to hang their work on the outside railings of the Meishuguan, the National Art Gallery in Beijing (now called the National Art Museum of China). More than 20 young artists participated in the Stars Art Exhibition that opened on September 27, 1979. Besides Ma Desheng and Huang Rui’s work, the exhibition included art work by Ai Weiwei, Wang Keping, Li Shuang, Qu Leilei, Shao Fei and others. Two days later, the exhibition was closed by the police for security reasons. The themes developed by the artists were quite unusual for a general public. There were many representations of female nudes and some abstract work. Ma Desheng showed his woodblock prints. Woodblock is a traditional technique in China and Ma Desheng found his own style by putting large amounts of black in the prints. Black was a deliberate choice against the red of the Cultural Revolution. “It was not a question of technique,” Ma Desheng tells us. “I never really liked technique as such. For me, the most important thing was to project the fire that I had inside me. We, as artists, we had to be against something. I was young at that time and I felt that I had to do something against communism and against the way people were used to expressing themselves.”

Ma Desheng's Vision, Wood Block Print, 35.5 x 44 cm, 1980
photograph by Nicolas Pfeiffer

Vision juxtaposes silence and explosion. The dark, sad, anguished faces of people are imprisoned in a world that has no detail and in which shouts are suppressed. A new world explodes frenetically from a central point – the sun – to form an array of possibilities. The stars become vessels for hope although they do not seem to penetrate the darkness of the somber citadel…not yet…we are in 1980.

Sharing the work and ideas with the public was an important part of the dialogue that The Stars wanted to develop. The world around them was unstable. Politicians continued to use the old propaganda terms while the younger generation was verbalizing its dreams in terms that were not grounded in the socialist culture of the past. But, the vibrancy was there, present, irresistible when the group organized a public protest against the closure of their first exhibition. The date was intentionally selected: October 1st, 1979, the day of the 30th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Ma Desheng took the lead by addressing the public. Destiny put a photographer in the path of this protest giving to the world the memory of a quasi-revolutionary moment when artists brandished banners pleading “Demand Political Democracy. Demand Artistic Freedom.” Liu Heung Shing, the first Time Magazine photojournalist based in Beijing, recorded Ma Desheng giving his speech as well as Mang Ke, another artist from The Stars, carrying a banner. (See these photos at the bottom of the artists' archive page of Beijing's Three Shadows Photography Art Center --scroll to the bottom to see the photographs).

The group exhibited again from November 23 through December 2, 1979. This time the show was in Hua Fang Pavilion inside Beihai Park in Beijing. It attracted 40,000 visitors! Today, Ma Desheng has a cynical view of the reasons for the official approval of the exhibition: “Why did we get this authorization? Deng Xiaoping was taking the reins of the government. At the beginning, his position was not very well established. He used everything and everybody to settle his agenda. He used us in order to show a face for opening. But, when his position stabilized later on, he got rid of us. He needed us, the artists, for his own purpose. He was very clever. He manipulated us. He manipulated our youth. He created his own passage in the wall of his dreams, thanks to us.”

The group evolved, attracting new artists like Wang Jianzhong. An artistic language took shape. Artists explored the path to abstraction. In August 1980, The Stars made their great entrance into the National Art Gallery. The show reportedly attracted 80,000 people (some people even mentioned 200,000 visitors) despite nearly non-existent media coverage. For The Stars it was finally a consecration that was more political than artistic. “Either the regime changes, or we all finish in jail,” harangued Ma Desheng in 1980. The success of the exhibition was a problem for the authorities. Too much excitement. Too many ideas about individualism, free speech. Artists were under the scrutiny of the government and some were already leaving the country. Ai Weiwei would be among the first to take the road of exile in 1981. He went to New York.

In 1983, Ma Desheng, Wang Keping and Huang Rui tried to revitalize the spirit of The Stars. On August 14, they opened a small exhibition showing their work at the Zixin Lu Primary School, in the Xuanwu quarter of Beijing. The exhibition was closed five days later for disturbing social order. Ma Desheng summarizes the closure of the exhibition philosophically, “The officials did not understand. They were not happy. They thought the work was not nice.” After that, the only choice for many of the artists was to leave China. The group disbanded voluntarily in the same year. Their work was strongly criticized by the officials. Huang Rui went to Japan (1984); Wang Keping to Paris (1984); Ma Desheng received a visa of six months from the Swiss (1985). After that, he received a succession of visas to stay in France. Today, he is still in Paris.

Ma Desheng's Pierre Rouge et ses Intimes, 180 x o600 cm, 2009, photograph by Nicolas Pfeiffer

Ma Desheng is an important historical figure. In going against the mainstream, his courage set an example for future generations of artists in China. But, he does not stop there. For Ma Desheng, art counts more than nationality. “First I am a painter,” he says. “Then, I am Chinese. Finally, I live in Paris.” There is an equilibrium between these three notions. The young Ma Desheng is the Ma Desheng of today despite the vicissitudes of life. “For me, nothing has changed. My attitude toward art has not changed either. When you have something in your heart, nothing changes. The sky is always there. Of course, there are wind, snow, clouds, but, the sky and the sun are still there. Between China and here, the language changes; may be the color of the dream has changed; the food changes. But, the roots of and for life are always the same. If you take the war, for example, it was always there and the conditions for war are the same. The only thing that has changed is the passage from stones to planes. But, fundamentally, it is a man who kills a man.”

The woodblocks gave him the taste to enter into the material, to work it, to carve it. It was an act of penetration and integration. The technique made him understand the strength, the subtleness, the rigor and the limitation of the material as well as of his own body and mind. From wood, he could go on to other materials. In 1982, he started to produce ink wash paintings. The feminine body became one of his main subjects. Ma Desheng was still in China and he knew that he was touching a sensitive area. Beyond the visual representation, he wanted to explore a new aesthetics through a traditional technique, an aesthetics carrying the energy of the soul of a new China, opening up to new ideas and developing new expressions.

Ma Desheng's Etirer, Ink Wash Painting, 60.5 x 79 cm, 1982,
photograph by Nicolas Pfeiffer

It is haunting to watch Ma Desheng writing the words “la vie est toujours là” in my catalogue. Every two to three words, he has to readjust the pen between his fingers with his teeth. The pen constantly slips. The strength is not there. The muscles are weak, but the will is tenacious. In 1992, a car accident in Miami, Florida, forced Ma Desheng to spend two years in hospitals and undergoing physical reeducation. Today, his wheelchair is covered with layers of paint: a living testimony to his obstinacy and indomitable spirit. “After the car accident, my hands lost their strength. My gestures are no longer very precise. Before the accident, I was doing ink wash paintings on paper. It is a very sensitive technique. The least drop that falls and it is over. You cannot retouch. Now, I use acrylics. If something goes wrong, I can scrape and redo the painting. With acrylics, I choose to paint stones.”

Stones are part of nature – a habitat that transcends the notion of a physical envelope. “The earth is like a baby,” Ma Desheng says. “At the beginning, there are sand and stones. Then come the wind and water. Stone is very ancient and very lively. Today, people ‘discover’ nature. They want to eat bio! I agree with that, but you also need to have a bio heart and mind. People have to go back to nature because they build too many theories. There is too much literature that speaks about the same thing: politics, philosophy, trade, and artists. Life is always there, it is a cycle, it is a repetition. This is the reason why life does not change, never. Clothes have changed, not the soul.”

Going back to producing art, Ma Desheng wanted to express his ideas about the essence of life. As humans, we have anaesthetized our feelings and our sensorial acuity. For the artist, it is a question of balance between equilibrium and disequilibrium. Neither of these two poles needs to win; they are equal. They exist in nature and we have to extract values and nuances from them. This is the reason why, in Ma Desheng’s stones, the contour of the stone is hard and definite to encapsulate the motion inside. His stones are solid and fleeting. The communication with the stones is timeless and universal.

Ma Desheng's Monologue, Acrylic on Canvas, 200 x 180 cm, 2008,
photograph by Nicolas Pfeiffer

When looking closely at the core of the stone, we can feel flesh and blood. We can recompose a human landscape with breasts, hips and buttocks. The stone shelters “the fire of the volcano,” as Ma Desheng likes to describe it. He makes us travel to the source of the energy. He makes us re-discover the traditional Chinese landscape in which the body is often represented as a mountain. He makes us reflect on the notion of the body in a Taoist way, beyond the material envelope, but included as part of the whole human personality. In the foreword of the catalogue of the exhibition on Ma Desheng that was held in 2006 at The University Museum and Art Gallery at The University of Hong Kong, the curator, Catherine Kwai, summarizes what has to be seen inside each stone: “ Having lived a life of homelessness and misery, Ma has let go his pertinacity and has become more easy-going. With a Daoist mind, Ma has contemplated and gained a fuller understanding of the nature of hidden things.”

Solid and bulky, these stones can fly and travel in the infinite. This is the paradoxe that Ma Desheng wants to confront us with. When we look at a stone in nature, it is static. It needs an external force or accident to move it. “What is inside depends upon each stone,” says Ma Desheng. “It depends upon movement, the universal movement. It could be a human or something else. Women, men, an abstraction.”

These words took on a particular significance for me after I attented a workshop on teas in Paris. We had to determine the connections between the nuances in the tastes of various teas. One of these nuances is named “silex”! How can a stone have a taste? Suddenly, that question brought me into a personal journey through the layers of my memories, but also into a deeper subconscious memory linked to the beginning of humanity.

Ma Desheng's Réflexion Sereine, Acrylic on Canvas,
150 x 200 cm, 2007. Photographed by Nicolas Pfeiffer.

The shapes represented by Ma Desheng take on a lightness, a life of their own. It is as if the stones have the ability to move around and to bounce like the small figures in video games for children. They float and it is up to us to recuperate them, to miss them or to go to another level. It is a question of passage between movement and inertia. It is an obligatory rite of passage to find the taste and the aroma of inertia as well as the tranquil fluidity of the movement. Ma Desheng begins a conversation, a conversation about the whole and the unique. The forces inside become part of our reveries. They form their own fantasy. We can almost imagine the stones acquiring a lightness and flying towards other worlds of whose existence we are just beginning to be aware. These stones are the metaphysical reflection of the stars with which we are finally able to unite.

Ma Desheng is also a poet...

Ma Desheng performs in his studio for ThePointerAdventure

(Click on the photo, or go to:
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Ma Desheng's Voguer (detail), Acrylic on Canvas, 150 x 200 cm, 2008. photograph by Nicolas Pfeiffer




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