Eternity in an Hour

Eternity in an Hour

“A Tragedy in China”(By Yuan Li, Oil on Canvas - 46 in x 36 in – 2004) A wife weeps beside her husband, who has been tortured to death at a brainwashing center. He holds in his hand a document that torturers unsuccessfully attempted to force him to sign, a pledge that defames Falun Gong. (courtesy of falunart.org)
High-resolution image (640 x 500 px, 100 dpi)

Standing in front of the painting “A Tragedy in China,” you can’t help being struck by the powerful image. You fall silent when entering the intense moment in the painting, a moment of strong contrast, a moment of life and death.

It portrays a sad story of a married couple who practice Falun Gong in China. A paper lies in the hand darkened by blood gathered at the lower corner. This is the key to the story. The torn and crumpled paper shows that the husband refused to sign a pledge to renounce and defame Falun Gong. Follow the arm to the upturned face then across the chest—even in death he radiates splendor, with a golden light coming from beneath his hand covering the blood. Perhaps it reveals a golden heart of truth. The unsigned paper in fact asked him to choose between life and death. If he signed to renounce Falun Gong, he would be released from the brainwashing center. If he refused to do so, he would face torture and probably death. He made his choice.

Against the stark coldness of the background, stained with blood, he looks pure and bright. The red cloth covering his eyes indicates that the persecutor is the Chinese Communist Party. The heavy shackles on his feet, snake-like rope and electric baton on the ground indicate an evil, cruel and wicked torture that had taken place there. A candle lying on the ground indicates that brightness is covered by darkness. The artist use details to enrich the painting, details that are concise, expressive and symbolic, each adding an important element to the story.

In contrast to the cold dead body, a beautiful young woman is sitting in the warm light. The wedding ring on her finger indicates she is the wife. The watch, the style of the blouse and jeans indicate that this is happening in a modern age, today. The artist has emphasized the uprightness about her, in the lines in her pants and the lay of her hair and also the light on her arm, making her seem like a pillar of light in this dark place.

Tears in her eyes and on her face express the sadness and suffering. Reddish lips and cheeks show youth. Crossed arms and firmly closed hands are from the shock of the death, and the determination not to be crushed. There is a small Falun pin on her necklace, half hidden in her clothes. In the darkest moment in her life, when death is closest to her, she firmly holds her belief in Falun Gong. The expression in her eyes is extremely touching—saddened, shocked, but firm. No hatred, no revenge and staying true to her faith. The intensity in her gaze shows her determination.

The white sheet provides a backdrop for the horror, and connects his physical suffering with her mental suffering. It also shifts the overall color tone of the scene. It adds the coldness to the darkness. It makes the wife look small and fragile. With this backdrop, the warm light on her looks more precious and uplifting. In the seemly infinite darkness, brightness prevails. In the midst of the seemly overwhelming evil persecution, compassion prevails.

The main concept and design of this work is very simple. The couple form two straight lines, one horizontal and one vertical, like a cross. It makes the image focused and stable overall. The sharp contrast of the light and the dark, the warm and the cold, the life and the death, the persecution and the courage, the evil and the compassion form an intense moment, a moment that marks history, a moment frozen in eternity. The painting is both a physical description of one act of persecution, and a metaphor for the whole persecution campaign of the Chinese Communist Party against thousands and millions of Falun Gong practitioners.

The Artist

This powerful masterpiece was painted by Yuan Li, a Chinese artist based in Japan. When asked what made him paint this subject, he stops and searches for words. It is hard for him to articulate. Like a genuine artist, he comprehends and expresses himself best not through words, but through his art.

Imbued with Art from an Early Age

Yuan was lucky to be born into a family of artists. Many family members on his mother’s side enjoy painting and paint very well. His youngest uncle was a distinguished professor of oil painting in the School of Fine Art of Shandong University. A quiet boy, Yuan was drawn to his uncle, and watched him painting. Every weekend, many students came to his uncle’s studio to present their work and ask for guidance. He learned a lot from being around them.

When he was nine, he thought long and hard, then made the decision to learn art seriously. He asked his uncle to teach him systematically. His uncle prepared a sketchbook for his first class and wrote one word on the first page: “Persistence.”

He took art seriously. But learning art was not easy. There were times when he wanted to give up painting completely. It was that single word “persistence” that encouraged him to keep going despite all the hardship. These years with his uncle laid a good technical foundation for him, which is crucial for an artist. He completed thorough academic training. He learned to paint with discipline. He gained the skill of traditional art

When he was 20, he began to spread his wings. He entered art exhibitions and made many friends in artists’ circles. They formed a kind of salon life. Young people gathered together to read, and to discuss about music, art, literature and philosophy. He absorbed much knowledge on all subjects, which enriched his art works and fueled his passion for art.

Sometimes, he worked non-stop. He would lock himself in the studio for a few months and come out with a roomful of paintings.

However, his art was only a language and a tool, a means to an end. He was more interested in exploring the mysteries of life and the universe, the relationship between humans and nature, and how human beings should live. He used his art to pose questions of life and search for answers to those fundamental questions. When asked about his life in his 20s, he responded, “I was looking for something eternal.” This one sentence sums up his youth.

Spiritual Crisis and Discovery

In 1993, Yuan moved to Japan with his wife. He was quite successful there. His works were featured in numerous art exhibitions and he received commissions from art dealers. But in 1996, he experienced a spiritual crisis. He felt mankind is going toward a dead end if it continues in the current direction. The world seemed to be in danger, and life seemed so meaningless. He started to paint less and read more.

He asked, Is there a way out? Is there a way to elevate ourselves and reach eternity? These questions were so real and pressing that he could not sleep soundly. Then, he decided to look for answers back in China. He bought all the books he could find on Buddhism and qigong and brought boxes of them back to Japan.

He started to read the books one by one, hoping to find the answers to his questions. After reading through half the books, he came to “Zhuan Falun.” He was shocked after reading it. It answered all the questions he had, all the questions about the meaning of life, where the universe originated, and what is eternal. He immediately flew back to China again to learn the Falun Gong exercises and meditation.

Artist Yuan Li (The Epoch Times)

Within a few weeks after he started to practice Falun Gong, his health improved. His stomachache, wrist pain, insomnia of many years were gone forever. More importantly, he had a total new perspective on the world. He understood that “Truth, Compassion and Tolerance” is the eternal spirit of the universe. Time and Space, Science and Art, Culture and Religion—every subject seemed clear to him now through learning Falun Gong. It also gave him a new understanding of art.

He says, “Before I started my cultivation practice, I regarded traditional classical painting as one of the many schools of painting. I thought it had passed its peak in history. Now I have a newfound respect for classical painting. I think it is the way we should paint. Gods created mankind and all other creatures in the universe. The modern painters portray human beings in dissected forms and follow their own deviated notions in their paintings. It is disrespectful to do so because gods have created human beings according their own images. The most fundamental principle of painting is to be truthful.”

If China were not persecuting Falun Gong practitioners, he would be painting to portray gods as they are in paintings from the Renaissance period. Those paintings show details of gods and scenes of the heavens. However, because Falun Gong practitioners in China have been suffering so much, he thinks it’s important to make the persecution known to the world. He wants to make it known at a more profound level, through the language of art. That’s when he started painting “A Tragedy in China”.

He says that practicing Falun Gong has given him wisdom in his art work. Through the Falun Gong meditation and teachings, he has gained a more profound understanding of the principles of life and the universe. For example, in the Falun Gong teachings, it says that the finer the things are, the more microscopic they get, and the closer they are to the truth. He understands that if he puts more details into a painting and keeps polishing it, it would be even more real than a photograph. It will surpass a photograph, and you will feel the painting to be more vivid, more real and more touching. He feels he has grasped the essence of classical painting.

This is the process of his work on “A Tragedy in China.” He kept polishing it over and over again. It takes great determination and discipline, and a true commitment to a high standard of art. In the end, a true life radiates out of the painting. It is so real, as if there is a life in it.

Through the process of this painting, Yuan realized that, as an artist keeps refining his mind at the same time he is refining his art, both artist and artwork will be transformed. He has reached new heights in life and new heights in art this way. More connected to God than ever, he is painting with an awakened soul. He now understands why classic art is the most truthful art form. Why did the Renaissance present the highest level of human art? In the future, humanity will return to righteous ways. With his own work, he is touching the coming new renaissance.

“A Tragedy in China” Tours the World

The painting immediately became a huge success. It is the signature piece among 40 other paintings in the exhibition “Uncompromising Courage,” which started to tour around the world in 2004. It is featured on posters and brochures all over the world. From a Congressional office building in Washington, D.C, to the National Arts Club in Manhattan, to San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston, to Canada, South Korea, Indonesia, Taiwan, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Brussels, London, Germany, Sweden, and Turkey—there is an exhibition almost every week somewhere around the world.

Audiences responded strongly. In the guestbook, people wrote: “Very special and uplifting;” “The depth of the exhibit will stimulate change and human improvements;” “A moving and inspiring art show. It gives you courage to be a better person;” “You have shown courage and hope for the future;” “Thank you for the much needed insight. It was like I was attending church, much needed spiritual input.”

Great Artist, Great Moment

What makes a great artist? “High morality and excellent technique,” Yuan answers. This is the summary of his own path. An artist has responsibility to society. Righteous art can lift people up and guide them to brightness. True art can give people hope and heal souls. True art can teach people what true beauty is in the world.

He now understands clearly the direction of righteous art: to display what's beautiful, what's upright, what's pure, what's good, and what's bright and positive.

What makes great art? A great artist at a great moment in history. The persistent and peaceful response to the persecution of Falun Gong is a great subject during this great moment in history. The courage of Falun Gong practitioners holding to faith in the darkest hour will become a legend in the future. It is history in the making. Yuan is trying to reflect this great moment. The artist steps up to fill the void when political and economic considerations have rendered the world’s governments and media mute. Just like the art portraying the early years of Christianity, art in response to a dramatic moment will become an ever-lasting beacon for mankind.

True art is a vehicle of truth and a voice of eternal beauty. Eternity captured in one great moment: As William Blake says in the poem “Auguries of Innocence”

To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.

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