Snapshots from the Archive

Tang Nannan: casting waves into mountains

The White Rabbit Collection holds four of Tang Nannan’s artworks: Billennium Waves (2015, video, 4’3’’), The Sea in the Sea 60, 61 (both 2015, ink on paper, 124 x 246 cm) and Phonixalis Bird of Wonder (2013, colour video, 5’11’’). Billennium Waves, a mesmerising, slow motion video of waves shot at dusk before a thunderstorm, is currently being exhibited at the National Gallery of Victoria as part of A Fairy Tale in Red Times: Works from the White Rabbit Collection. It was previously also exhibited in The Dark Matters (2017) at the White Rabbit Gallery alongside two of Tang’s ink wash paintings The Sea in the Sea 60 and 61. In 2018, Tang Nannan donated a smaller ink wash painting to the White Rabbit Collection Archive, a work related to both Billennium Waves and The Sea in the Sea 60 and 61. Completed around 2013 at Mountain-facing Hall (dui shan tang), this work demonstrates Tang’s contemporary approach to the tradition of shui mo (ink wash painting), highlighting his understanding of the essence of shan shui (“mountain-water”) painting with a focus on the shui (water), a subject thoroughly explored across the aforementioned three works in the collection.

 

Growing up by the sea in Xiamen, Tang is sensitive to the vast body of water and remains intrigued by its powerful presence and mysterious character. While he trained as an oil painter at the Art College of Xiamen University, his love for Chinese classic poems and daily practice of calligraphy inspired him to explore the world that traditional ink paintings depicted simply. Making the transition to ink wash painting was surprisingly easy, as Tang focused less so on replicating shui mo’s elaborate techniques, and more so on the spiritual essence, attitudes and philosophies that grounded the painting tradition. Turning to the Chinese landscape painting style of shan shui, he noticed that water (shui) was always supplementary to the mountains (shan), which had “hundreds of techniques for painting… but few for lakes and streams and almost none for the ocean.” Struggling to find many resources on the vast sea as the subject of ink wash paintings, Tang experimented alone to develop a unique technique and style that would capture the spirit of the ocean. In the process as he embraced the old masters’ ethos, Tang realised that he was painting waves as if they were mountains. In further observing the rise and fall of waves along the coast of Taiwan, he saw that the movements echoed the shifting of tectonic plates, a process by which mountains are formed. This discovery draws a deep interrelation between mountains and oceans, between the literal shan and the shui in Chinese shan shui paintings.

 

The ink wash painting donated by Tang to the White Rabbit Collection Archive clearly explore the intimate relation between the two natural forms. While the subject may be highlighting mountains (being painted at a Mountain-facing Hall), its relation to Tang’s Billennium Waves and The Sea in the Sea 60 and 61 in the Collection is undeniable with its zigzagged composition in a dynamic, flowing rhythm; one that is fluid and irregular like the ocean.  

Tang Nannan ink wash painting (2013) donated to the White Rabbit Collection Archive.

Ink wash painting completed around 2013 by Tang Nannan to the White Rabbit Collection Archive.

The influence of Tang’s painting practice and unique observations between the ocean and mountain is clear in Billennium Waves (2015). Even from its Chinese title zhu lang wei shan, meaning ‘casting waves into mountains’, Tang is constantly thinking about the interrelationship of the two forms, describing the mountain as “the wave of the earth”, and the ocean waves as a “mountain of the sea.” The work’s subtitle is Faith Mountain, and highlights a concept of transcending time in large-scale processes with its reference to the Chinese fable The Foolish Old Man Who moved the Mountains (yu gong yi shan), a story about perseverance and willpower. The slow, stunning detailed shots of the video closely follow every movement and rupture. It is a new kind of shan shui. In its large-scale installation, Billennium Waves is monumental, and at times it is easy to confuse the tides with the movement of tectonic plates.

Tang Nannan 'Billenium Waves' (2015)

Tang Nannan 'Billenium Waves' (2015)

Billennium Waves (2015)

The Sea in the Sea 60 and The Sea in the Sea 61 (2014) are part of a large ink wash painting series that began in 2014. One can see how Tang’s earlier experiments in the 2013 ink wash painting has evolved to a more resolved serial work that still uses traditional brush and ink to depict the ocean’s mysterious essence. Uniquely covering the entire paper with delicate strokes and different tones of ink that mostly run down vertically, the work is poetic and immersive. When asked about why he continues to only paint in black ink and stick to his strict colour palette, Tang comes back to the desire and Chinese tradition of depicting complex topics simply and directly.

Tang Nannan 'The Sea in the Sea 60' (2014)

The Sea in the Sea 60 (2014)

Tang Nannan 'The Sea in the Sea 61' (2014)

The Sea in the Sea 61 (2014)

The Tang Nannan Artist File was compiled by the White Rabbit Collection Research Team in 2019. The file includes materials donated by Tang Nannan and material produced and collected by the White Rabbit Collection. Find out more about Tang Nannan and his works in the White Rabbit Collection here.

By Annette An-Jen Liu, intern for the White Rabbit Collection Archive and Research team. 

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