Upon entering Belgium’s Royal Museums of Fine Arts, I briskly walked towards the Old Masters Museum. Anticipating David’s riveting ‘Death of Marat,’ Rubens’ reverential altarpieces, and Bruegel the Elder’s meticulous cityscapes, I nearly bypassed by Gao Xingjian’s “Awakenings of Consciousness.” Encompassing one rectangular room, six monumental works by Gao Xingjian create a quasi-spiritual environment. Bridging the oriental and occidental, Xingjian’s canvases contemplate the complex issues of modernity and individual identity. Acting as a gateway, Xingjian’s canvases absorb the spectator, instilling an eerie sense of calm. Oscillating between canvases, the spectator is confronted images that are comprehensible, but, upon second view, deeply wrought. Physical representations of the intangible life forces, Xingjian’s canvases awake the spectator’s consciousness, prompting reflection on one’s relative position in the greater cosmos.
Dwarfed in relation to the canvas, the spectator must stand at a distance to observe the entire picture plane. Each image has a photographic quality; the meticulous details and individual gestures merge to form cohesive images. The subtle gradations of black Indian ink can only be observed when the spectator approaches the canvas. A cunning optical illusion, Xingjian’s monolithic eye fools the human eye. While abstracted, Xingjian’s eye appears a more faithful image of reality than an image taken from reality. The loose gestural tear trailing off the canvas seems to capture the essence of sadness; it records the fleeting nature of human emotion for posterity. Further, the flecked cornea seems to allude to the canvas’ cognitive ability. Unblinking, such eye unflinchingly records reality, cataloguing the beautiful triumphs and follies of humanity. An image of us, the painted eye is greater than us. It is objective whereas we, the spectators, are subjective. It acknowledges the truth whereas we close our eyes to the harshness of reality. It exists for posterity, processing years of human progress whereas we have a finite timeframe. Mimicking Xingjian’s eye, we must open ourselves to the entirety of human experience.