The ten “China Combines” for SPAR – Silk Peace Art Road

June 5, 2020, with updates


My wish was that the Silk Peace Art Road (SPAR) Installation should travel along the New Silk Roads – the Belt And Road Initiative, BRI, countries – to China after it had been shown over 6 months – May to end of November – at Palazzo Mora in Venice as part of the Venice Biennale 2019.

Then came the Corona pandemic. It could not be shown, as planned, in Tehran. And whether or not it would get to China was – well, up in the air.

By 2023, it seems that it will go first to and around China and then move slowly back towards Europe.

To spend the time productively, I began to work on an extension of the SPAR Installation in two ways. First, I made the images in the installation individual prints on fine art papers. Second, I created some new smaller works that I call China Combines – somewhat inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s use of that term – in my case, combines of art photos with acrylic paint.

The four large panels in the SPAR Installation were my first attempt to combine photos with paint and artefacts. The new works in this portfolio build on that idea.

In summary, the SPAR project now has three main components: 1) the original Installation, 2) the photos in it shown as individual prints and for sale and 3) the ten 2020 ‘China Combines’ in this portfolio.

It is also possible to – 4) – include in certain shows a few of my 1983 China works.

Before the pandemic, the plan was that SPAR would be hosted by the prestigious Linggang Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s situated in the new industrial zone south of Shanghai.

This portfolio contains these Combines for you to watch. Since that arrangement had to be cancelled, I’ve shown them in my studio. But in 2023, it looks like SPAR – with these China Combines – are going to go to China.

Please remember that colours will always vary a little depending on the computer or smartphone on which you see them, the calibration of the screen and the light around you.

And oh! – Remember that you can see the details of each image when moving your cursor over it.

SPAR Combines # 1

This is the face and head gear of a Muslim woman in Xian, printed on canvas. I got very fascinated with the old capital in general and its large Muslim quarters, streets of selling delicious stuff, bazaars and mosques.

If there is a political message in this work, it is two-fold. First, Westerners should focus on the great diversity of peoples, ethnicities and religions in China and not only – and negatively – on Tibet and the Turkic Uyghur ethnic minority in Xinjiang.

Secondly, inserted in the lower right is an iconic image from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq where American soldiers violated human rights in a particularly sadistic manner – as in many other places around the world. My comment is that the US has no right and no moral capital to teach anyone, also not China, about how to respect human rights.

Top left, a page from a book with film stars – old enough to be in black-and-white. A child has drawn lines and given this film star very red lips.

In the lower-left and upper-right side, pages from old calligraphy books have been painted into the surface. I have no idea what types of text they are; they sit there just for the aesthetics of it.

Click to enlarge details:

SPAR Combines # 2

The inspiration for this is the short news article headlined ‘Woman swallowed toothbrush’ in a Chinese English-language daily that I have inserted in the lower orange part. When shown this work will have a used real toothbrush attached to its surface in the upper left corner.

The bottom was created by brushes with thinned acrylic colour, layer upon layer; then painted over with thin white and lines drawn by graphite pen.

Click to enlarge details:

SPAR Combines # 3

This is simply an abstract painting with four pieces torn out of an old book of calligraphy I bought in Chengdu and one of my photos showing a pile of various objects, including some red boxes and a fan, printed on Chinese calligraphy paper.

Click to enlarge details:

SPAR Combines # 4

The image in the middle is from 1983 when I visited China for the first time. Citizens were reading the daily news on walls of cupboards with glass fronts. On top, three transparent pieces of calligraphy from old books. The colourful lower piece is the front page of what I assume to be a catalogue from an old factory that produced coloured cloth – for which reason I have inserted the small red and the yellow pieces of cloth that sat in that catalogue.

Click to enlarge a few details:

SPAR Combines # 5

This work is about spaces and time. Time – or development – is illustrated by Buddha, Mao and Xi Jinping (all my photos) but also in the difference between the old black and white images of a young girl and the two young girls of today playing with their Huawei smartphone (my photo).

The rest of the squares or fields, marked by graphite pen, are mini-paintings either done with a brush, a palette knife or with my fingers.

SPAR Combines # 6

Combines # 6 is also related to the impressive development China has gone through in just 3-4 decades. The long vertical newspaper strip is an article headlined ‘Belt and Rod Initiative to benefit all’ – which I believe is true. The grey clipping with white patterns is about meals being served school children and how they celebrate Confucius – it says Happy Birthday, Confucius!

Then there is a decorative calligraphy from an old book plus my own image from a square in Xian with a MacDonalds restaurant – all embedded in abstract brush colours and some touches of bronze.

Click to enlarge details:

SPAR Combines # 7

This blue one has some similarity with # 5, one bottom colour and fields drawn by graphite pen. The mini-paintings follow the same idea and there are the old black-and-white photos held in place by golden corners. The four white papers are from a school notebook that seems to also have served as a free space for the imagination and sketches of its owner – way back in time.

The one to the left contains the – translation from Chinese – “Greetings and best wishes for a happy holiday season” and also “May happiness in countless ways decorate your holidays.”

Beyond the aesthetics, this piece is about a Chinese teenager about 40 years ago as she appears in her notebook with school work, sketches and photos. I wonder where she is today? What does she do? How has her life improved?

Click to enlarge details:

SPAR Combines # 8

This is is merely a composition. The eggshell-white basic colour was applied in a manner that creates a nubbly surface. The upper-left image is from a temple in the Anhui Province and printed on the thinnest silk paper I believe it’s possible to get through a printer – lots of breaks before I finally got it out in one piece.

The two red pieces are cut-outs from a book cover, slightly shiny surface, and the fan is printed on another very thin type of paper and then torn. The grey-blue acrylic was applied by a metal spatula and edges painted with acrylic bronze.

Click to enlarge details:

SPAR Combines # 9

The bottom of this departs from a combination of red and yellow, protruding most visibly in the lower-left corner; then various other colours were applied by a metal spatula and scraped, a bit like a squeegee.

The cutouts consist in three of my own photos – of the female film star I saw at an exhibition (printed on canvas), of a wall with some white sacks, a rake and a piece of art in a farmer’s home in the Anhu Province (canvas), the woman’s face on a box, also in Anhui (canvas) and what I call the iPhone Buddha – the larger blue piece in the middle from a staircase in Hangzhou (Hahnemühle Torchon, edges torn by me).

On top-left, a text I assume is by the famous writer, poet, politician and historian, Guo Mu-ruo, from a book, Pictures and Poems of Mount Emei’s Ten Scenaries (1980) on the backside of which is printed “Famous Mountain Of The World”.

The two orange smiling faces come from a black-and-white reproduction of a painting by Chinese artist, Yue Minjun (1962- ) that I stumbled upon in the restaurant of Hotel Argyle in Xinguyi in China’s Guiyang Province.

Below, click to enlarge details.

SPAR Combines # 10

And, finally, No 10. The bottom is creme-white with brushstrokes that created some contours also because I added some torn piece of calligraphy all over the surface, then overpainted softly with black. There are two main shapes, the round deep-red lilac in the upper part and the orange in the lower. With a calligraphy brush, I made small “signs” in black.

I took the picture of the water-carrying boy in a rice field outside Chengdu in 1983; it’s a sepia version and printed on extremely thin silk paper and torn along the edges to fit the shapes in the board. Before glueing it, I added yellow, green, blue, orange and other crayon colours very subtly to the board: hints of the landscape.

He may be over 50 today. I wonder hos his life has been and where he is today. All pictures, all art, somehow is about human and social stories…

Click on some details:

About the Combines…

They consist of a) my own photos printed on either canvas or various types of fine art papers, particularly those I bought at a paper mill in the Anhui province; b) acrylic paint, c) objects or artefacts such as newspaper clippings, pages of old books, photo albums, notebooks which I found or bought in China in 2018.

They are experimental in the sense that I explore how to ‘combine’ photos with paint and objects – how to melt them into each other. One is quite different from the next, although making up a series – there is not a through-going ‘style’.

The photos are printed on canvas or on fine art papers such as Hahnemühle and Canson but I’ve also experimented with printing on thinner, more transparent media – such as silk paper-like papers, calligraphy papers and others which are then mounted on the plywood and painted over or integrated with the paint that is already there.

They are all made on plywood – like the four large panels in the SPAR Installation. I like plywood, it is everyday-like, sturdy, available anywhere, and it is very unpretentious. I like that one can sense the grain of the wood, often beautiful patterns that may protrude depending on how thick or thin one applies the paint. Canvas is, by definition, a uniform industrial product.

Also, it would not be possible to fix artefacts and paper prints on a framed canvas. So plywood is my favourite for this kind of works.

They are all 60 x 60 cm and 4 or 6 mm thick and the edges and sides are painted. All are signed on the back, most of them – where I felt it was not disturbing the composition – also on the front, in acrylic paint.

The larger perspective

My thinking runs along these lines: If the SPAR Installation is to travel from one place to another for years – which is what I hope and work intensely to achieve – then it would be exciting if, at each place, new works are added – works that take inspiration from the local milieu.

It would be great fun to work with local artists and/or art students, designers, calligraphers or whoever creates art in the particular place – co-create something.

That would be in the spirit of peace and inter-cultural dialogue, it would resemble in a tiny way the Belt and Road Initiative, BRI, and it would be an act of peace-making.

When we come together, work together, do some win-win, we undoubtedly reduce the risks of negative attitudes, hatred, war and other violence. And we learn from each other.

That’s been a dream of mine all along since I added art photographics to my work as a peace and future researcher.

Will you join me?

Created in May-June 2020.
Last updated in August 2023.

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