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Portrait of Gao Xinjiang

Painting the Soul of Gao Xinjiang


A Nobel Laureate surprises for one of his least recognized achievement: paintings.

Gao Xinjiang is world-renowned as the author of Soul Mountain, a novel for which he earned the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2000. Ranked by Sergio Pitol as “one of the most extraordinary literary experiences of our time,” a novel of novels, it’s a voracious literary machine in which converge the literary traditions of East and West, from the Peking Opera to Proust, Joyce, or Cervantes.

Liberated from a lung cancer diagnosis when an X-ray uncovered an error, the protagonist of the book decides to travel China’s endless geography looking for Lingshan (“the Soul Mountain”), and in flight from the persecution of the Communist Party. Sometimes referring to himself as “I” and at others as “he” or even as “you,” a traditional narrative is displaced to focus on an inner space, and on a concentric time which unfolds through multiple discourses. It’s a novel without plot, but which seems to be built of transparent architectures in which the present and the past are confused, and in which the very narrative delinquency invites a pleasant state of contemplation.

To see the paintings of Gao Xing Jiang then, all made with traditional Chinese ink, one has the sensation of being witness to the pensive character crossing the forests of Sichuan to follow the foothills to the Yangtze River and an uncertain fate. It’s hard not to think of Gao himself, exiled to Paris in 1987, due to censorship by the Chinese state.

Seemingly endless trails and planes provide indeterminate spaces traversed by solitary stooped figures wrapped in dark cloaks. Their absurd exodus seems entirely pointless. Gao is concerned with the reality of our own time: isolated from one another, we walk in search of something that we can’t quite determine.

The speed at which the world turns keeps us in perpetual movement, oscillating like flattened silhouettes. It’s “a crisis of thought,” in the author’s own words. It’s a crisis which must be answered with art, slowly, and with poetry. And thus, perhaps, his figures don’t walk so much in vain. In truth, there is a Soul Mountain, real or imagined, and towards which we can direct our journeys and thus find inner peace and freedom.

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