Zong Baihua once said, 'Art is the introduction of spiritual life into the material realm, so that something non-living expresses life, and something without spirit expresses the spirit.' From his earliest Nativist Series to his world-famous Taichi Series and finally his Living World Series, the internationally renowned master sculptor Ju Ming remains steadfast in his pursuit of the art as an exploration of both the spirit and the material realm.
Ju Ming's Taichi Series, inspired by the movements of Taichi-chuan, involves a simplification of sculptural forms in which the chiseling of materials follows not forms but ideas. Ju Ming attempts in his Taichi figures to grasp a kind of evolving dynamic, a concept that seems to parallel the paintings of opera figures created by Lin Fengmian during the middle and late periods of his career (Fig. 1). Lin was concerned with how to incorporate Cubism into his work to express the continuity of the changing movements of his figures in both time and space. By contrast, Ju Ming's Taichi figures embody movement within stillness, and though he captures just one frozen moment of a particular movement, his figures are charged with the sense of energy about to be released, an energy that carries the given pose through to completion. Viewed from various angles, as each angle reveals an entirely different perspective, provides a series of surprises and offers a perfect sense of ongoing shifts in time and space. In its ability to reveal ever changing forms from different viewing points, Ju Ming's sculptures resemble the bronze works of Italian futurist Umberto Boccioni (Fig. 2), though in their overall kinetic sense and solitary presence they also recall the stone sculptures of Constantin Brancusi.
Ju Ming's Taichi: Single Whip (Lot x), dated from 1991, is unique and valuable in being a rare hard-to-find lifesize-scale work in the series. Single Whip is shaped in a simple, rough-hewn manner. The figure’s left arm stretches sharply in a downward motion, and its right arm extends slowly backward; whereas its left leg 'releases energy like an arrow', and its right leg 'stores energy like a bow.' Its imposing energy possesses a monolithic stability like the famous Mount Tai, yet seems to convey movements as light as a feather, unfolding with the fluidity of clouds and water and the naturalness of wild goose in flight. Taichi: Single Whip perfectly embodies the spirit of Taichi, 'All movements end in stillness, and emptiness embraces all things.'
This Taichi figure (Lot x) is considered a classic, large-scale masterpiece among Ju Ming's sculptures in wood, and presents a rare opportunity as this marks one of its rare appearances at sale during the last decade or so. Considering his sculptural material, it is in the first place extremely difficult to obtain such a large block of natural wood, and shaping the wood further requires that any cuts are dictated by the direction of the grain appearing in different parts of the block. A Ju Ming work such as this also hints at the Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic: no attempt is made to smooth or polish the wood's surface, and any slight indents, protrusions, or clefts are embraced as part of the work's form. The result is sculptures emphasizing gesture, energy, and surging strength. The artist holds to the principle of finishing each work in a single sweep, allowing himself full freedom to shape the work at will to achieve an unforced and totally unselfconscious effect. For Ju Ming, breathing life into any artistic seed of course requires some study of technique, but ultimately depends on the artist's years of experience, through which his hands acquire their own wisdom and the mind sifts what it knows. Having acquired this deep well of understanding, the sculptor can then make instantaneous cuts with speed and intuition to complete the work in a single intense session. As Shi Tao once said, 'One who paints must do so from the heart.' If in ancient China, sculpture was seen as a form of craftsmanship only, Ju Ming has nevertheless raised it to the same level as the freestyle painting and calligraphy of the literati, to inherit the secrets of their artistic and cultural history.
In 1977-78 Ju Ming held an exhibition at the Tokyo Central Art Museum, and one work shown there, his approximately 150cm-high Single Whip bronze sculpture, was acquired by Japan's Hakone Open-Air Museum (Fig. 3). In the collection of this outdoor museum, which includes works by Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, Arnaldo Pomodoro, and Niki de Saint Phalle, Ju Ming's Taichi figure is capable of standing side-by-side in a dialogue of equals. In the West, Alberto Giacometti (Fig. 4) expressed his feelings about the post-war era in a series of thin, elongated miniatures of men and women in walking or standing positions, employing an artistic vocabulary through which he explored the then popular existentialist philosophy. His sculpted figures, stretched to unnatural proportions, represented the artist's overall impression of his subjects as seen from a distance, an artistic view of the individual human as isolated and helpless yet strongly spiritual. By contrast, Ju Ming's Taichi figures have solidity and layering, and overflow with a feeling of physical presence and close-range interaction, while likewise also highlighting the sense of their spirit and energy. Along with only a very few other notable Chinese sculptors in the 20th century—Hua Tianyou, Pan Yuliang, and YuYu Yang—Ju Ming, in his Taichi figures, melds traditional art with Western abstraction. He exemplifies the principle of 'art as spiritual practice' and strives to communicate the idea, in the thought of Eastern cultures, of the unity of man and nature and the harmony between mind, spirit, and matter.