Breathtaking is the first impression of viewing Life's Crossroad, a
forty six-piece sculpture series made not of marble, brass nor
fiberglass, but of the blackened trunks of cedar trees, left
lifeless by a scorching fire. Silent and motionless, these dead
trees come once again to life as moving artworks with a powerful
message. They are the work of Gong Yuebin, who would bring their
message to the rest of us.
There is a Chinese saying, "To understand the present, we
must know the past". Let's learn more about the artist and his story
to understand his artwork better.
The inspiration for Life's Crossroad rose from Gong Yuebin's
childhood dream for life with dignity and respect. During the 1960s
and 1970s, Gong and his family were forced to leave city life and
live in exile in a rural village in Northern China. They endured
hunger, physical hardship, emotional pain and political persecution.
Life devoid of love and compassion drove Gong to bond with nature.
Behind his house, a small dirt hill eroding from rain became his
friend. And sixteen peach trees, his playmates, consoled his
loneliness. When the political movement was over, Gong grew into
adulthood and returned to city life. In the early 1980s, after
graduating from an art college, he moved to Southern China, where
rapid economic growth brought more freedom and personal choice in
life. Gong transformed himself from an academic into an accomplished
commercial art designer and a successful businessman. In 2002, after
recovering from a serious illness, he resolved to retire and to move
to America to rediscover himself and his art.
In California, Gong slowly began a new life free of
superfluity, busyness and self-seeking. In tranquility, he searched
for the true essence
of life. Over six months, Gong visited major art museums and
galleries in the US. After 20 years away, He determined that it was,
at last, time to fulfill his childhood dream through art. But he
sought new modes of expression. He did not touch any of the rice
paper brought from China. The Chinese style ink painting on paper
featuring natural scenes and human characters goes back more than a
thousand years. But Gong felt it inadequate to express the
sentiments and thoughts of the 21st century. His departure from this
traditional art form does not mean a farewell to his Chinese roots,
because his childhood dreams inspired him to express his respect for
life in his own way. Gong looked for more natural and pure media for
art creation that can touch people's hearts and transcend any
limitation of culture, form, and ideology.
Gong thought about using vines. They appear soft and feeble
but are very resilient and strong survivor, a perfect metaphor of
human life. But he would not destroy life to create art. Then, one
day, when he stood in front of sixteen thousand acres of forest in
the aftermath of a wild fire on the Sierra Mountains, Gong was
astonished by the sight. The mass collection of black dead trees
moved Gong's heart. He saw the struggle of life at the moment of
death. If those trees could talk, what they would tell us of life
and death; or of the wild fire that had slain them, leaving only
ruined, black clad trunks? In their presence, he heard an echo of
their painful moaning and screaming before death. Or, was it a cry
for life from their souls. For a month and half, Gong visited the
mountain every day. With cane in hand, he walked every foot of the
blackened forest and conversed with every tree trunk still standing.
Under the changing lights of the Sun and the Moon, Gong listened to
the motionless and lifeless trees. In the cold silvery moonlight,
every charcoaled tree trunk seemed a dead soul returned to tell its
story and charging Gong to bear witness to humanity. The dead trees
seemed to be sending a message about life and death for humanity and
for nature and offered their own scorched remains as a medium for
communication. Upon returning to his studio in Sacramento, Gong
checked statistics of death tolls from wars. It seemed obvious to
him that if the fallen soldiers and casualties of wars in the last
thousand years came back to life, they would tell the same stories
as those trees, stories about fear and desperation in the face of
death, about hope and desire for life. Gong had found his mission
--- to use his art to carry nature's message to human beings.
It took Gong Yuebin three years to complete Life's Crossroad,
from identifying the art media to creating the exhibition. During
the whole process of collecting material and creating art, Gong kept
the sculptures as natural as he had found them, avoiding artificial,
manual, and subjective factors as much as possible. The tree trunks
with all their burnt marks were arranged in their natural postures.
Yet, the finished sculptures are Gong's art work, his creation with
a gift from nature.
The Life's Crossroad exhibition is divided into five
sections, each focusing on one aspect of life. The Body is composed
of sixteen pieces. Every piece holds its posture, representing
different forms of life and illustrating the kind and the evil, the
beautiful and the ugly in life.
The Spirit is embodied in a shape of human brain. It reminds us to
go beyond the usual boundaries of constraint, to listen attentively
and think profoundly.
The Resource consists of eight pieces with a well in the
middle, made from a hollowed tree trunk. The well represents vital
resources, such as water and oil and the obligations of those who
use them. There is a Chinese saying, when you drink the water,
remember him who dug the well. The seven pieces surrounding the well
represent the seven continents on our planet. The fact is, every
human war has originated from fighting over control and access to
resources. Gong put a mirror on the bottom of the well. When viewers
lean over the well, they will see their own images in the mirror and
become part of the art work. Would this trigger a new thinking of
each individual's role in consuming natural resources?
The Lifeline starts from a piece with a large burnt hole. It
symbolizes the womb that gives birth to life. This piece of work is
followed by seven other pieces illustrating different stages of
life, from newborn to adulthood, from completely natural, to marked
by social influence and lost uniqueness of an individual. If enough
space for exhibition is available, this section can stretch over
The Freedom can be interpreted as a continuation of the
Lifeline. The section depicts the reality that a human life has a
brief natural period followed by a long period of confinement in
society especially after adulthood.
Gong has used two different lights for his sculptures. Under
natural light, his works reveal their natural colors and texture.
There is a sense of loss, a past that may be remembered but never
recovered. However, a different lighting reveals a much more ominous
message and portents of a dark, terrifying future. Under a black
light specially designed for this sculpture series, the red acrylic
and paint stand out from the black body with iridescent light as if
lava pouring out of a volcano in the dark night or shimmering fire
in cinder ashes. Freely poured red acrylic flows down along the
groves on the tree trunk strongly contracting the burnt lifeless
black. Red and black, they represent life and death in the same
space and time, carrying on the conversation between life and death
and warnings from death to life.
Gentle and soft spoken Gong Yuebin says that he has no
intention to send any religious message or show any anti-war
sentiments. He simply wishes to express his affection and love for
life. As an artist, he does not want to impose any ideology on his
audience. He would just like his art works to provide a key to your
own heart. Once you have the key, you are able to open a window of
life of your own.
After a twenty-year separation, Gong Yuebin has returned and
fully embraced art. He is determined never to leave. His subject
will forever be life, its understanding and interpretation. No
matter which media or material he will use, he vows never to end a
life for the sake of his art. He is determined to live for an
on-going dialogue between life and death through the voice of art.