The  Taste  of  Blue:
Interpreting Yang Shaobin`s Blue Room

Yan Zheng
Art Department Director,Ullens Center for Contemporary Art

In literature, the rhetorical device known as synesthesia refers to a state in which the five human senses-sight, sound, touch, taste and smell-become linked, so that there are no longer any boundaries between them. In synesthesia, it is possible for sound to manifest visually, temperature to possess weight, and colors to feel hot or cold. The words renao(“lively/bustling”) and lengjing(“calm”) are classic examples of synesthesia because they contain both tactile and aural elements: renao=“hot”+“noisy” and lengjing =“cold”+“quiet”. Another way for us to understand synesthesia is to see it as a unique psychological mechanism that human beings evolved to better understand the external world. In this sense, the title of this essay is apropos.
Sometimes when interpreting a work of art, it is helpful to take a synesthetic perspective, particularly if the work is a whole series based on a single hue. In such a case, one cannot view hue in simple terms, as color for color`s sake.
At an early stage in his career, Pablo Picasso went through a very important and formative“blue period.”In Self-Portrait with Cloak and La Vie, two paintings produced between 1901 and 1904, the years that mark his blue period, Picasso used intense shades of blue to represent a low ebb in his own life, as well as the suffering of the poor, the old and the lonely.Yang Shaobin`s Blue Room at UCCA is a series of paintings that form a single cohesive work based on the color blue. As for how audiences will experience Blue Room, I believe that the only way to describe it clearly is through the cross-sensory language of synesthesia.
We know from the artist himself that after producing a few sporadic“blue paintings”on the theme of international politics, Yang Shaobin had hoped to use the color blue as an artistic direction and make it into a series, but he had trouble coming up with a theme that suited the blue he envisioned. When the UN Climate Change Conference opened in Copenhagen in 2009, he found his inspiration. This was“an international topic related to blue…there are a lot of connections between blue and climate change.”For Yang Shaobin, blue is“the profoundest, most intense form of melancholy,”a melancholy that reflects the anxiety and concern brought about by global climate change.
Compared to his contemporaries, Yang Shaobin is an artist whose work deals in extremes. His depictions of the extremes of individual experience are an implicit commentary on the extremes of human nature. His red series, for example, speaks of struggle, pain, despair, and the cruelty that we inflict on one another as individuals. But when Yang Shaobin explores the extremes of group behavior, the dynamic of conflict and harmony that exists within the collective, he is alluding to humanity in the extreme and to the cruelty of the human mob.
Blue Room depicts the cruelty of man and nature in a way that is melancholy, sensitive, and tremendously powerful. At a time when climate change is altering our way of life, do we also reflect on how cruelly we have treated nature? Perhaps this is exactly what Yang Shaobin wishes us to speculate on when we experience his Blue Room, with its synesthetic mingling of color, temperature, mood and human reason.
Yang Shaobin seems to view the human subjects in the Blue Room paintings as discrete parts of a larger natural landscape. Although they have conflicting views on environmental protection and climate change, when they are wrapped up in the same parcel, the same uniform shade of blue, we see how different people present the same attitude when confronted by environmental problems. As individuals sharing the same patch of blue, we must abandon our economic, political and military differences and prejudices; stop disputing, passing the buck and evading the issue; and work together to address the cruel reality of global climate change.
In this technologically and scientifically advanced age, we inhabit a“global village”in which problems facing all humankind occupy center stage. More than evet before, today`s artists are engaging with these universal human questions on a deeper level, exploring our common dilemmas in a way that transcends geography, ethnicity or nationality. Over two thousand years ago, the poet Qu Ynan lamented:“The day was long, and wrapped in gloom did seem/As I urged onto seek my vanished dream.” This sentiment and spirit of exploration is still evident in today`s art world, and it has undoubtedly contributed to a deeper and more complex relationship between contemporary art and real world issues.Yang Shaobin`s Blue Room is an attempt to weigh the possibilities and strike a balance between the two.
Pablo Picasso`s Blue Period was followed by his equally-impressive Rose Period. In much the same way, we can expect that Yang Shaobin, having gone through his own Blue Period, will continue producing outstanding works of art in a variety styles and hues.