Sunday, September 18, 2005

Gao Xingjian in Singapore

No, the Chinese Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian will not come to Singapore but an exhibition of his paintings will be held here between Nov 17 to Feb 7 (Singapore Art Museum).

The Straits Times (Clara Chow, Life!, Sept. 17, 2005) has published an interview with this recluse who, like Milan Kundera, has been living in Paris pursuing his creativity for about two decades now. He says, "Your experiences are constantly shaped by the choices you make. My choice was freedom and creation, for which I chose Paris. And I have no regrets."

Gao has been very unwell since 2002 when he was diagnosed with a major disease causing hardening of his arteries. He has undergone two operations to survive this life-threatening condition. Ever since, he does not travel greatly. He even avoids giving interviews.

Gao has this interesting perspective on living this dual life of a painter and a writer. In the ST interview, he says: "Painting is structure and image, whereas writing is mainly language. I don't use paintings to explain my literary notions. Painting begins only when language fails."

The only other Nobel laureate, as far as I know, adept at both writing and painting was India's Rabindranath Tagore. He was even a great musician.

A little peek into Gao's life so far is instructive.

Gao was born in 1940 in China and was influenced by his parents' liberal ethos. At 10, he wrote his first novel, something on the lines of Robinson Crusoe's adventures. In 1951, he began training in oil painting under a renowned master. But on his mother's insistence, he began to learn French at the Beijing School of Foreign Languages in 1957 instead of going to the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. His mother had feared that if Gao became a painter he would end up doing the propaganda posters for the government.

A la Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, he was sent to a re-education camp during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). There he had to burn a suitcase full of his manuscripts. What a great loss to the world literature!

In the 1980s, his plays were branded anti-social and he fled to the Chinese countryside to escape political oppression. During this time, he travelled through the length and breadth of China and the result was his novel, Soul Mountain.

In 1987, he migrated to France and is now settled there as a citizen. He lives with Chinese writer Xi Ling, his partner of 15 years. During the day, he paints in his studio at home. He sleeps at least 11 hours every day. As his illness has affected his eyesight, he can't read for more than an hour at a strech, and hence, he is not able to write novels any more.

However, he has completed a verse-drama (Night's New Song) in French and a film (Silhuettes and Profiles) which he is editing now. The film has been in the making for the last 3 years.

Is he optimistic about life? No, he says. But he also beautifully sums up his approach towards life: "Intellect lies in the ability of a person to calculate how he makes the most of his limited life. And making art is the best way to survive." I love that!

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