By Chu Meng
Dutch pop artist Woody van Amen reinterprets Chinese characters in a colorful, Western style in a solo exhibition at C-Space gallery, Caochangdi art zone, which runs until April 10.
“Why is the Chinese script so fascinating? It consists of what we call ideograms. When you come to understand them, you’ll realize there’s a certain logic to them,” van Amen, 74, said.
Dressed in a plain brown suit, with a neatly trimmed mustache, the artist could have been mistaken for a university professor.
Christened by Western media as “the Father of Dutch Pop Art,” an Amen became fascinated with Chinese characters after he was diagnosed with cancer in 2003. The shocking news came just after the publication of Woody Van Amen: Crossing Worlds, a retrospective album of his 30 years as an artist.
“The time in the hospital altered my thinking,” he said. “I was suddenly attacted to the vertical and horizontal lines of the characters and the meaning behind them … and the first series of works I did my ‘second life’ was square-shaped Chinese characters.”
The first one that drew his attention was shuangxi or “double happiness,” two characters for “happiness” standing side by side forming one unit – often associated with weddings. Recreated using photographs and neon paint, the character takes center stage in Van Amen’s Beijing exhibition.
He reinterprets characters by combining them with a Western image, which he associates with the Chinese script. Double happiness, for instance, he juxtaposes with the Matterhorn, one of the best-known mountains in the Alps, on the border of Italy and Switzerland.
“It was my personal symbol of Western happiness,” van Amen said.
Experiences in daily life have always been the main theme of the Dutchman’s work. His subjects are ordinary, everyday objects that he fuses with symbols to give them new life and relevance. Over the decades, his style has become intense, filled with deepening layers f meaning.
It was in New York in 1961 that he became acquainted with the work of Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, pioneering figures in American Pop Art that would influence his work. But by that time, he had also already begun developing his own “experimental” style after years of working in Rotterdam.
He came to Beijing during his first Asian trip after leaving the hospital. His first stop on the tour was Singapore, where he came upon flashcards of Chinese characters in the city-state’s Chinatown. He remembers his eyes being drawn to the character for square, fang.
“I frequently use ‘square’ in my work. Chinese characters are incredibly beautiful – like a ballerina,” he said.
But it is not only written Chinese that fascinates van Amen. His two daughters both live and work in Shanghai and speak the language well. They were in C-Space for the opening of their father’s exhibition last Saturday and spoke to the audience in Chinese.
“So, what do you think of my daughters’ Chinese? Good enough?” he whispered to this report.