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Martin Derbyshire / Ma Teng Fei  

painting, drawing, installation, P.R. China

Martin Derbyshire, 2004
Photo: Sonja van Kerkhoff

My work is influenced by the Bahá´í Faith, which offers an organic vision of life as being governed by principles of dynamism and interaction. In terms of a social model, this implies a unity in diversity, in which the infinite varieties of cultural and individual expression are developed within a framework of reciprocity.

I believe my role as an artist is to elicit an intuitive response to this new paradigm's underlying and creative spiritual energies. My work does not purport to offer objective representations of a static ideal or condition, but rather embodies a dynamic and personalized attempt to realize and articulate the intrinsic and unifying spiritual forces that inspire its creation. The series of works entitled Veils and Filters is centred on a sense of the physical environment as metaphor and revealer of humanity's evolving spiritual consciousness.

This theme is explored through an enquiry into systems of thought that shape visual perception, and inform our interpretations of it. Art is both a process and product of philosophical or meditative activity, through which the opportunity to become conscious of the undivided reality in which its participants (makers, viewers and objects) play complementary roles, is made evident.

I have lived in China since 1995, and consider my life and work here to be expressions of the same creative process. Each day presents incidents, images and ideas that relate to the principles and concepts I am addressing in my work.

At the heart of China's well-documented attempts at social transformation exist dialogues between tradition and (post) modernity, national characteristics and global identity. Through a series of discussions with people from various social backgrounds, I have realized that a common perception of contemporary life is that of a dialectical tension between the various intellectual constructs by which it is interpreted and evaluated.

Such insights reflect the global attempt at self-redefinition currently being demonstrated by diverse individuals, groups and cultures around the world.

Process, mixed media, 2001, 50 x 30 cm.

I believe that the greatest challenge facing us at the beginning of the third millennium is to transcend the fragmentation that informs contemporary thought and acknowledge the originating and unifying factors that underlie its multi-faceted appearance.

Interview with Wendy van Overmeeren, The Netherlands / China.

I use hair in my work for a number of reasons. One of them is that, for me, it suggests organic processes and impermanent states. It is a loaded and emotive substance, which evokes divergent and even contradictory attitudes and associations. I am not interested in taking sides or in expressing an opinion. I am interested in presenting an object with paradoxical associations, in order to enable us to question our reference points and enter into a dialogue about the ideas elicited through contact with it. In all cultures, hair is by degree considered as either fetish or conversely taboo, suggesting and invoking both desire and repulsion, thus it is either styled, covered or removed- becoming aligned with rituals of purification, sacrifice and renunciation in the name of both spiritual and secular ideals. In mystical Islamic poetry, hair is often used as a metaphor for the beloved-human and divine-and the union of the two. It is a symbol of desiring and desirability; the glimpsed trace that inspires a search for the seemingly unattainable whole.

In various writings, Baha'u'llah has extended the metaphor to establish a visual connection between the hair of the Beloved and the letters that move across the page; the calligraphy inspired by the lover's longing for reunion. The linking of two actions, the growth of hair and the formation of letters is employed to evoke the divine presence that unifies and animates all material forms. The use of hair in my work has been partially influenced by this metaphorical device. After having combined it in a piece with materials used by calligraphers, I discovered that Chinese calligraphers in ancient times would sometimes write characters with their hair, dipping their bianzi (braids) in the ink, thus literally combining hair and the act of writing.

Producing a piece of work that triggers associations with both traditions creates an opportunity to transcend the various conceptual barriers we have been taught to view them through.

Resonance, mixed media, 2001, 100 x 50 cm.

WvM: Are you not afraid that people will associate it with something gross, like hair you find in the shower?

MD: They might do, but hair is just hair. Who decided it was gross? Our associations reveal as much about our own mindset as what we're looking at. When it is on the head of someone you love, it becomes very special. The Bahá´í archives contain locks of hair from the Central Figures of the Faith. Keeping a loved one's lock of hair is an old tradition common to many cultures. People may associate hair with something gross, but that does not bother me. Part of what I am doing is provoking people's sense of beauty and acceptability. I want to challenge conventional definitions of beauty and, because I question the authority and motivations of their exponents. They are exclusive and commodified by market interests. When Baha'u'llah and Abdu'l-Baha describe humanity as being the flowers of one garden, they seem to be saying that beauty and perfection are intrinsic to the relationships that evolve between different created elements. The realization of individual elements' innate qualities is conditional upon their interaction with others'. When you encounter an organic material that comes from the body, next to a manufactured inflexible one, both their individual and universal properties are made more apparent by the shared context they are presented in.

Voice, mixed media, 1999-2001, 120 x 80 cm.

In one of my works, I have enclosed a lock of hair within the interior of an iron- a theme which is further explored in a series of works on paper in which the iron assumes a protective, womb, heart-or locket like presence. Such configurations are seldom contrived; rather they are arrived at during the intuitive process of resolving a piece.

These two objects are commonly perceived as being very different - in mass, form, and function. However, long, straight hair is valued in some cultures and some women actually iron their hair to straighten it out. The iron is viewed as a domestic emblem, and traditionally associated with women, therefore connected to concepts of gender and equality.

Since, within a Bahá´í perspective social and metaphysical issues are perceived as being inter-related, it is possible to speak of both without being exclusive about either one. Thus, the theme of search, invoked through the use of hair, is approached in a different way through images that relate to the iron.

Even though the actual iron is absent, traces of it and its use are found in many pieces, leading the mind to re-affirm its presence by recalling the general concept of "iron". In this way, the iron-print functions as a device to induce a process of remembrance and abstraction: thus serving as a bridge between material and intellectual reality.

It signifies a permanence, which is traditionally related within the world's religions to concepts of the soul.

This image reveals a relationship between two objects brought about through a prism of associations, which though limited, enable us to transcend the exclusive notions of context we might conventionally use to define them. If the iron-print can be read as a metaphor for permanence and the hair as something indicating transience or organic potential- then to connect these two states is to suggest that they represent two aspects of a unified reality. The image/object is the vehicle through which this new understanding is arrived at, during the processes of creating, contemplating and discussing a piece of work.

I don't consciously sit down and think: Okay, I'm going to make a piece about this… Rather, the work is a personal reflection on our search for meaning, which I believe, is understood when we interact with it. If you take an object and say: Okay, I know what this is- but then discover it in a different- even cultural- context- your certainty is shaken. It becomes something else.

The iron for example becomes a printing medium, or as a friend once described it; an iron chop (zhan). A 'chop' is a seal, which is still used to validate documents and sign artworks in China. It represents something irrevocable: an authentication, validation or condemnation.
This lead me to think about the Islamic concept of the Seal and how it relates to the historic and prophetic cycle Bahá´ís believe came to an end with the appearance of the Bab. In 1844, the Bab claimed to be the recipient of a new revelation and annulled certain aspects of Islamic law and custom. He introduced new laws, including the command to destroy non-religious books, which was later abrogated by Baha'u'llah-another activity synonymous with the reign of Qin Shi Huang- during which the Emperor persecuted Confucian scholars.

Recipent, mixed media, 1999-2001, 120 x 80 cm.

In the piece, Table, an iron has been similarly combined with silk, scroll and brushes, as if to suggest a scholar/calligrapher's table. As a result of his claims, the Bab suffered persecution and eventual martyrdom in 1850. I then realized that in one of my works, the seal/print was juxtaposed with a green silk garment-like form, which was inspired by a shirt worn by the Bab, that I had seen in the Bahá´í World Centre in Haifa. Since the wearing of silk was forbidden in Iran at the time, such a seemingly minor act, thus became a visual statement of divine authority (later confirmed by Baha'u'llah in His book of laws).

The installation I'm currently working on features silk-covered books that fold out. They are often used in China as autograph books. I like the idea of images being signatures-the physical world the revealer of names and attributes of the divine. Presenting them in this manner also suggests that they be read. Silk, used in tandem with hair in this context evokes the same ambiguity and historically problematic junction of humanity's relationship to the erotic and the divine: desire and attraction being the common element in both.

I started using the iron when I was working mainly on paper and I would stick thin paper on to card. The only way I could get it to really stick and remain flat would be to iron it. Sometimes the paper would get burned, and once I accidentally burnt the carpet. As a result, I started to think about the iron not just as a tool, but as something that can make a mark in the same way that a brush or printing surface might. I began using the iron to make marks, to burn areas of the painting or as a template. I became interested in the concepts of heat and fusion and in several pieces iron-burns are placed next to sheets of lead. I've also used images of the iron that have been sealed with wax that was melted by the iron. Similar to a seal, a scar-the result of branding-also suggests permanence. It is a visual reminder of a traumatic event related to issues of oppression, transformation and justice.

A Chinese friend commented that for many Chinese people, an iron-burn carries loaded associations with punitive acts carried out against intellectuals during the Qin Dynasty and against the general population during the Second World War. The process of working with and sharing reflections on such imagery becomes a means of interweaving two historical processes- one local, specific and human and the other (of which it is a reflection), divine and universal. Creating art within a world-view that emphasizes unity, makes it possible to intuitively unearth different experiences of history, without consciously setting out to do so.

The iron-form reappears in two more pieces, juxtaposed with frottages taken from manhole covers. I noticed these covers during my walks around the city. They struck me as iconic and ancient, and as doors to a secret city underneath the neon façade. At that time I was reading Don DeLillo's Underworld and very much influenced by the parallels he draws between the unconscious and the underground. One night I made a sketch and recalled a quote of Oscar Wilde's about "being in the gutter and looking up at the stars" (the covers also feature a stars motif). A few nights later I made rubbings of the manhole covers. This attracted a lot of attention, even though it was dark. People stood around and watched, but no-one asked me what I was doing, possibly either because they assumed I didn't speak Chinese or because they were afraid of what the answer might be. The images looked like the kind of rubbings that were made in ancient China, to record stone-carved calligraphy. Here I am in modern Beijing trying to speak of something that is ignored and timeless (a scar) in a sense, and I end up using a technique indigenous to the culture.

To kneel in the street and touch the ground and the grids is to adopt a posture of humility, just as one does during prayer. I was precisely in this posture thirteen years ago, making a pavement drawing, when I first encountered the Bahá´í Faith in Brighton in 1989. The experience also made me think of the Sufi poet Nizami's story in which Majnun is berated for seeking his beloved Layli in the dust- and his response that he would search everywhere for her. The three grid-pieces thus became for me an emblem of humility, spiritual receptivity, search and re-union.

There is a trend at the moment in China towards the bright neon colors of consumer culture, that are associated with concepts of "choice", "development" and material wealth. I find myself pulled in the opposite direction, since I am interested in focusing on and presenting objects in their primary condition. The colours and materials I have encountered in the rural northwest and desert regions, where common objects appear without guile, revealing both natural processes and connections between the natural and built environment evoke the kind of contemplative state I wish to explore through my work. The more empty and silent a moment or space is, the greater the opportunity to observe, question and evaluate the thoughts and feelings we're tempted to fill it with. Thus my work over the past few years has developed largely through a process of detachment, in which all but its essential relationships have been gradually filtered out.

It has also become fashionable to work with technology. Some Chinese artists have gone digital. That's fine, I totally embrace it as a viable medium for artists. But some believe that the medium itself makes for interesting art. In fact it doesn't- it's what you say with it. Technology at the moment is really still the property of the few. I think a person with limited means has just as much chance of reflecting profound truth as a person who lives in a state of material prosperity. It is the depth of reflection one brings to one's interactions, rather than an abundance of information that leads to true understanding. I try to express a spirit of working with what you have and what is around you by reflecting the insights you can potentially gain from your immediate environment.

WvM: The materials you use, you find in the environment around your home?

MD: Sometimes I do and sometimes I buy things from hardware stores and markets. Other things I have made or found and altered myself, trying to bring out something inside that material. For example, by scratching paper or folding it or tearing it, you realize more about its nature than by completely covering it and changing it into something else.

WvM: When did you come to China and what brought you here?

MD: I came to China in 1995 because for a long time I was interested in Chinese philosophy and Buddhism and through it became interested in Chinese art. In Los Angeles, I had the chance to meet visiting scholars and students and through them I became more interested in China and decided to come over. I did not want to come as a tourist and be given a sanitized version. I really wanted to understand the country. So I came for a year as a teacher and have been here ever since. At the moment, I'm employed as a lecturer by a UK university, that is developing joint art and design programmes with Chinese academies, where many Chinese artists work after they have graduated from university. I feel that within Chinese society, besides a fundamental respect for art and artists, there is a growing receptivity to new art and ideas, which is transforming the arts scene and creating a lot more opportunities for artists to produce and exhibit new kinds of work. I had a show in Shanghai in 1999 and am working on another one in Beijing.

A Chinese teacher gave me the name, Ma Teng Fei. It means Galloping Horse. It's an atypical Chinese name, but it carries an association with the west of China, where I first lived. I alternate between the two names (English and Chinese) and tend to use it to deflect attention from myself (i.e. foreign artist) towards the work. Anonymity or uncertainty about the identity of its author is something I'm interested in because it delays the satisfaction people feel when they've got you in a bag.

WvM: When did you start?

MD: When I was a kid. I began my degree at art school when I was sixteen in 1988, and graduated from the Fine Art department of the University of Central Lancashire in 1992. I have been producing art ever since. My work used to be very gestural, with lots of expressions of character: much more calligraphic. But now it is concepts of space and emptiness that I am interested in.

There are several environments in my life that have strongly influenced my work and my relationship with materials and objects. Besides China, the Bahá´í World Centre in Haifa, and especially the Archives building has been very inspirational. The objects there have a power and carry a resonance that is incredibly moving.

Another is Auschwitz. Totally opposite when we think of what they represent, but there are connections that go beyond the superficial museum context. The objects there are poignant embodiments of tragedy and suffering. In Haifa, things are placed with great reverence, whilst in Auschwitz things appeared to have been casually thrown into the corner of a room or abandoned, suggesting violence and desperation. After both these experiences, an object was never just an object again. It became an element of consciousness, with the power to influence and convey meaning.

The protagonists whose dramatic lives defined not only each environment, but also the different concepts of humanity they embody are no longer physically present; but the common everyday objects associated with them cannot be separated from the knowledge we have of their existence. The objects become the channels through which we are drawn closer to their experience and to a heightened awareness of self. If this is true of all three environments, in which the unremarkable becomes transformed through the associations it creates, then it must be so for every area of the undivided reality to which they belong. This concept is central to my work: that the physical world is both a metaphor through which we engage with the process of being and the projection of our attempts to interpret and understand it.

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