Hao Liang’s 2011 work Quiet Calls is a collection of cultural references and refinement. By applying his superior gongbi technique (a naturalistic depiction style driven by artisanal aesthetics) with coloured ink, Hao Liang captures the image of an ethereal creature that shimmers in the dark. This imagery alludes to a myriad of musings that are concerned with spirituality, nature, and time itself in both Eastern and Western cultures.
In both Eastern and Western cultures, the deer embodies a sense of holiness in nature, and its symbolic meaning is richly layered. In Chinese classical art, the deer is considered an auspicious being. Such symbolism can be seen in the painting Herd of Deer in an Autumnal Grove from the collection of the National Palace Museum in Taiwan by an anonymous artist from the Five Dynasty period. In Western art throughout the ages until the contemporary period, the subject matter of the deer is often used in religious works as an allegory. The docile deer was widely used as a symbol for Saint Hubertus in Europe during the Middle Ages, and its image frequently appeared in illuminated manuscripts, sculptures, stained-glass windows in cathedrals, and other Christian art forms.
In Quiet Calls , the deer assumes the form of an apparition. This treatment evokes a multitude of associations across the different disciplines of literature, visual art, religion, and history. At the centre of this network of ideas where disciplines and symbols intersect is a realm of absolute purity. In the middle of a tender night, a ghostly deer stands in the middle of a flowering shrub. At the feet of the deer are rocks and deadwood — they are symbols of passage of time as well as eternity. Behind the rock formation is the calm surface of a lake that seems to extend infinitely into the horizon where it meets the sky. Hao Liang utilised a unique blend of silver-coloured mineral to highlight every fine hair on the deer so that its ghostly presence shimmers. The deer gazes at the clouds — the artist is implying that it is pondering the world beyond. Through the representation of the deer, the artist is contemplating on the nature of time, life, and the sense of self.
Examining Hao Liang’s works across his oeuvre , the motif of the deer is a reoccurring element that can be found in the details in many of his other works. In Quiet Calls , the deer becomes the protagonist. It can be considered as Hao Liang’s most meticulous rendering of the deer to date — it is the artist’s re-examination, consolidation, and elevation of this particular symbol. In Cloud Chronicle, the artist used a long horizontal scroll format to present a landscape painting as a scientific experiment which ultimately questions the validity of modern science. In the same vein, Quiet Calls presents viewers with a seemingly absurd ceremony that leads them to a proposition structured with symbolic logic and the law of causality. The imagery of this work is a microcosm of the laws of nature. It is an analogy of the conflict between nature and human rationality. Similarly, in his work The Rise and Fall of the Four Seasons, the deer’s carcass turns into a skeleton with the changing of the seasons. Ultimately, it sheds the physical form and becomes a drifting spirit.
The deer in Quiet Calls has no actual contour lines. Its form is rendered by countless lines of fine hair brushwork. This translucent appearance enhances the sense of formlessness — the deer has extricated itself from the physical biology of the body and become an intangible symbol of life itself. This ambiguous association between the deer, life, and nature is reminiscent of the Great Forest Spirit in Miyazaki Hayao’s animated film Princess Mononoke. The Great Forest Spirit bestows all things in nature with life and death, and it subsequently turned into a vengeful Demon God after being shot by a bullet which symbolises industrialisation. The personification in this painting differs from Miyazaki’s, as Hao did not give the deer a clear allegorical position. As a reoccurring motif, it provides viewers with a vast repository of meanings that evoke profound contemplations.
The vehicle of Hao Liang’s artistic expression is the Chinese ink painting discipline, and his style often considered as Neo Classicism in spirit. Yet, if we shed the stricture of stylistic categorisation, conceptually, Hao Liang is genuinely an international creator: we can find traces of Japanese anime, Persian miniature paintings, and other cultural influences from the present and the past in his works. Hao Liang does not merely appropriate or quote these influences. He subsumes them into his own artistic vocabulary and utilises them as hieroglyphics. The net result is that these visual elements become motifs that retain their original meaning, and they are enriched with ambiguity and sophistication. The deer in Quiet Calls transcends the cycle of life and death of the seasons. The way in which it majestically stands seems to paradoxical convey both feelings of eternity and ephemerality. Confronted by this distilled force of nature, every viewer can unmistakably experience how the power and the fragility of time, history, and nature silently permeate all things.