How do artists make sense of the world?


Under the Influence at Art Basel
Image: Under the Influence at Art Basel, 2017.

This past March, Asia Art Archive presented Under the Influence: A Travelling Library of Books that Inspire Artists at Art Basel in Hong Kong.

For the project, we invited artists from around the world to choose a book that inspires their artistic practice. Each contributor shared personal stories related to their selection, thereby providing singular perspectives on these one hundred foundational texts from across genres and disciplines.

Since then, Under the Influence has been touring to schools around Hong Kong.

In this seventh installment of a seven-part series on Ideas, we share the books from the project alongside writing from the artists. We wondered, how do artists make sense of the world? To which psychological, art historical, and theoretical frameworks do they refer? Note that the thematic groupings reflect AAA's interpretations of these texts.

Part I: A Search for Truth

Part II: Activate/Agitate

Part III: Artist to Artist

Part IV: Ecologies

Part V: On Form

Part VI: Space and Time Travel


Cheong Kah Kit on The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares

Image: Cover of <i>The Invention of Morel</i> by Adolfo Bioy Casares.
Image: Cover of The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares.


And someday there will be a more complete machine. One's thoughts and feelings during life—or while the machine is recording—will be like an alphabet with which the image will continue to comprehend all experience (as we can form all the words in our language with the letters of the alphabet). Then life will be a repository for death. But even then the image will not be alive; objects that are essentially new will not exist for it. It will know only what it has already thought or felt, or the possible transpositions of those thoughts and feelings.

The fact that we cannot understand anything outside of time and space may perhaps suggest that our life is not appreciably different from the survival to be obtained by this machine.


Elva Lai on The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa by Michael Kimmelman

Image: Cover of <i>The Accidental Masterpiece</i> by Michael Kimmelman.
Image: Cover of The Accidental Masterpiece by Michael Kimmelman.

This is a book by the New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman. His columns were combined into this book, and each chapter begins with "The Art of . . ." It is a little book with lots of anecdotes about artists and their muses in contemporary art.

Kimmelman believes art helps open our eyes to look closer at our personal environment. It is a refreshing read by a positive author who believes in the power of art and how your personal interpretation adds to a work. He describes artists and artworks with a non-judgmental tone, which delightfully leaves you space to think. Many types of art are represented and respected. I agree with the author that there are various forms of art in the world, and the reason is because there are various types of souls.

It is a surprise for me to receive inspiration about life, rather than about art, from this book.

Experiencing a change of residence from Hong Kong to Germany was impactful in ways I am still digesting. I have been living and studying alone in Leipzig, the very "hard and raw" East Germany, for more than a year. There is a distance between the inspiration brought on by daily life and the inspira-tion of creating an artwork. There is always a delay. Reading serves an important role for helping me remain positive.


Feng Yuan on Oppressed Aesthetics: Visual Representation of Cultural Criticism by Feng Yuan

Image: Cover of <i>Oppressed Aesthetics: Visual Representation of Cultural Criticism</i> by Feng Yuan.
Image: Cover of Oppressed Aesthetics: Visual Representation of Cultural Criticism by Feng Yuan.

This book compiles recent major articles by the famous cultural critic Feng Yuan, touching on myriad cultural fields from architectural production, image analysis, to contemporary avant-gardes. The author looks at visual landscapes and architectural designs with his sharp academic eye and explores the meaning, pattern, and symbolic structure behind them. His insightful analysis and outspoken criticism reflect his rational and acute mindset.


Gulammohammed Sheikh on Ways of Seeing by John Berger

Image: Cover of <i>Ways of Seeing</i> by John Berger.
Image: Cover of Ways of Seeing by John Berger.

Many books have left their indelible impressions on my mind, but few books have taken me by storm on a first reading as did Ways of Seeing by John  Berger. Its radical contents and explosive ideas altered my perception of Renaissance paintings and their aftermath. I then began to "read" images as you would read between the lines of texts. What distinguished Berger from other writers on art was his view of history, in the way he uses art to unlock hidden historical dimensions to interpret it afresh. Looking at history through art changes views of the world: the thinking eye places events and situations in a perspective not hitherto encountered.


Heri Dono on A Source Book of Gestalt Psychology by Willis D. Ellis

Image: Cover of <i>A Source Book of Gestalt Psychology</i> by Willis D. Ellis.
Image: Cover of A Source Book of Gestalt Psychology by Willis D. Ellis.

I have been influenced by Gestalt theory since 1986. I read a book about Gestalt psychology from my friend who studied at Gadjah Mada University. In many systems of knowledge there are divisions for each branch of science, while Gestalt sees that everything affects everything else. In Gestalt theory, there is the psychology of form, line, and space. I think this concept suits formulas about art installations, and the atmosphere of spaces. It is not only about shape, texture, and composition, as in sculpture. It is not only about  taste,  but  also  about  logic  and  scientific  bases. Artists do not create works emotionally, but they have the moral responsibility to explain it scientifically. I am also influenced by the concept of the mandala from Borobudur Temple, and the concept of the object and the subject, because I think knowledge should be tested and should not be categorised.


Kan Xuan on Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye by Rudolf Arnheim

Image: Cover of <i>Art and Visual Perception</i> by Rudolf Arnheim.
Image: Cover of Art and Visual Perception by Rudolf Arnheim.

After graduating from a normal school, I worked at a secondary school in Anhui as an art teacher between 1990 and 1992. At the rebellious age of nineteen, I couldn't fit in. I struggled and turned on a silent mode.

One day, I received an abridged edition of Art and Visual Perception from a friend. I was so fascinated by it that my friend lent me the unabridged edition. I was totally absorbed in the book for two years. I read it three times and had six notebooks full of ideas. I still remember the noise of the lamp, and the gecko that fell onto my neck from the roof. After the book, I became quiet! Two years later, my parents agreed to send me to Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts for further studies because they thought I behaved well and loved books. I grabbed my brushes and painted! I was free!


Liu Jian Hua on L'Art by Auguste Rodin

Image: Cover of <i>L'Art</i> by Auguste Rodin.
Image: Cover of L'Art by Auguste Rodin.

I remember the day in early spring of 1978, when my uncle brought me L'Art from the bookstore. The cover is pale yellow with the sculpture The Thinker on it. I just turned fifteen years old and was entering Jingdezhen's porcelain factory at that time, and I was really excited about that being the first time to read a Western book. It gave me an understanding of the relationship between an artist and life, how art penetrates an artist's life, as well as a better understanding of the space, the form, and the method of shaping clay and sculpture. It influenced my sculpture studies during university, and also my attitude towards the arts. It opened the door of my imagination and my understanding of art.


Mak Ying Tung on Why Art Cannot Be Taught: A Handbook for Art Students by James Elkins

Image: Cover of <i>Why Art Cannot by Taught</i> by James Elkins.
Image: Cover of Why Art Cannot by Taught by James Elkins.


This scenario raises the interesting question of whether or not an artist can work to displease the inner spectator. When artists work to alienate a particular public, often enough they mean to be even more pleasing than they could be by creating something beautiful or pleasureful. Creating unpleasant work is sometimes a strategy for winning more praise.


Nazgol Ansarinia on The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard

Image: Cover of <i>The Poetics of Space</i> by Gaston Bachelard.
Image: Cover of The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard.


[T]he house we were born in has engraved within us the hierarchy of the various functions of inhibiting. We are the diagram of the functions of inhabiting that particular house, and all the other houses are but variations of the fundamental theme.


Pablo Helguera on The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares

This work, widely considered Bioy's most important novel and one of the most influential works of Latin American fiction of the twentieth century, narrates the story of a fugitive who arrives on an island and follows, from a distance, the lives of a group of guests who are seemingly attending a party. The fugitive starts realising that the party guests, always dressed in the same clothes, have the same conversations every week in the same locations, and thinks he is going insane. After a while, he realises that the various scenes he is witnessing are film projections—part of a scheme of a host named Morel, who at some point in the past brought all the guests to the island and filmed their stay for a week so that their experiences in that time and place could be replayed forever. The projections emerge from a building described as "the museum," repeating in an endless cycle through an ingenious system devised by Morel himself.

The novel is a reflection on immortality and the role that mechanical reproduction (and perhaps art making) plays in evoking it. The role of the architectural structure (the museum) in projecting those images could be interpreted as a metaphor on how museums become, to an extent, a machine that endlessly repeats a particular story that comes to life for an outside visitor who is at the same time unable to directly engage with the interactions unfolding in front of him/her.

This work, which I read as a young artist, has always been a constant inspiration and obsession in regard to the role that art, as a living memory, plays in our lives.


Rakhi Peswani on The Craftsman by Richard Sennett

Image: Cover of <i>The Craftsman</i> by Richard Sennett.
Image: Cover of The Craftsman by Richard Sennett.

A leisurely foraging and chance encounter at a secondhand bookstore led me to this book. The cover has an unmistakably modern, yet classical, old world nostalgia. A cursory browse through its contents, notes, and index held curiosity and promise. For an artist invested in the discourse of craft, The Craftsman creates empathy and offers a diagnosis to understand the shifting facets of rapidly evolving contemporary societies, their social histories, and the evolution of material culture and technologies. Richard Sennett traces a distinct silhouette of the figure of the craftsman, across events varying in their historic and cultural milieu. His lucid and sharp interweaving between vastly differing events like the guilt and dilemma of Robert Oppenheimer, the shifting standards of Britain’s National Health Service, Japan's command economy and resilient reformation after the Second World War, Linux chat rooms, and Antonio Stradivari's violin-making workshops, all create a vast palimpsest within which he provides this silhouette's emerging and waning form.

In its approach, it provided room for an artist to step in, critically address, intervene, and shape a social problematic. The book has helped me in understanding some very basic problems which have turned the social order against the very society it tries to incorporate.


Ricky Yeung on Ready-Made Art by Zhang Nian

Image: Cover of <i>Ready-Made Art</i> by Zhang Nian.
Image: Cover of Ready-Made Art by Zhang Nian.

Marcel Duchamp created Fountain in 1917, and this year is the 100th anniversary. This controversial work is like opening Pandora's box, since the ever-changing artistic creation reversed the develop-ment of arts history. This ready-made object also overturned the traditional form of Western art, subverting its thousands of years of aesthetic standards. During World War I, the significance of this work includes anti-war, anti-order, anti-aesthetics, anti-social, anti-establishment, anti-rational, anti-middle class, anti-authority, and anti-moral sentiments. It created Dada—emphasising the uncon-scious, advocating nihilism, and denying any meaning. It is innovative and experimental, advocating spiritual emancipation, and emphasising the concept of reflection. Since then, art has become a means of thinking and exploration. Dada's critical spirit is still very influential and needs to be further developed.


Seher Shah on Gardner's Art Through the Ages by Fred S. Kleiner

Image: Cover of <i>Gardner's Art Through the Ages</i> by Fred S. Kleiner.
Image: Cover of Gardner's Art Through the Ages by Fred S. Kleiner.

As a student of the arts in New York City in the early nineties, my first textbook on the history of art was Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. At the age of fifteen this book initiated my academic introduction to how the world of art and architecture is examined and categorised. As a practicing artist at the start of the twenty-first century, it is clear how this way of seeing the world is institutionalised and has affected the language in which artists choose to discuss their work.

By the time I was fifteen, I had lived in several cities and was exposed to different attitudes, aesthetics, and languages. There was no hierarchy for me personally as to how aesthetics informed one another. Yet, one of the more glaring separations of the Gardner book—based on subject emphasis alone—is between the European Renaissance and the chapters dedicated to the "non-European" world, which includes the vast cultures of India, China, and Japan, and the "native arts" of the Americas, Africa, and the South Pacific.

The European Renaissance has 245 pages dedicated to the spread of ideas of this time period and its manifestations. The aesthetic cultures of India, China, and Japan total 71 pages; and the focus on the continent of Africa, and the native arts of the Americas and the South Pacific total 35 pages. This effort  highlights European history, Christianity, and Western interests and philosophies as the core from which to branch out our understanding of the full "history" of art.

As a female artist of color, these separations are experienced in my own practice and are contemporary anxieties to be dismantled. They should have no place in the twenty-first century, and what remains to be seen is how parallel and engaged histories from regional specificities rewrite and revolutionise the way we view cultures, independent attitudes, and aesthetics from across the world.


Sopheap Pich on The Grid Book by Hannah B. Higgins

Image: Cover of <i>The Grid Book</i> by Hannah B. Higgins.
Image: Cover of The Grid Book by Hannah B. Higgins.

It's a brilliantly researched and beautifully written book on the concept and origin of the system and function of the grid, and how our society understands and uses them in our history.

I am still reading it. I read very slowly. I do have at least one moment in a book that I can share, and it comes from the very first chapter:

In time, a brick wall will seem to breathe as the brick cells cohere in a unified field of vertical and horizontal, shifting like a tectonic plate. The much vaunted "warmth" of brick walls comes from their relationship to their makers—a human warmth that is added to the real warmth of fired bricks. In the words of one writer: "Brick and the building techniques of bricklaying . . . betray an alternative order of the flesh—not raw but purple and made of identical cells. We create everything in our own image. The brick is the elemental self-portrait of the human species."

The writer she quoted was Paul Good. I just found it so illuminating, as I have used the grid in my work since my very first sculpture.


Yang Jiechang on Guang Yizhou Shuangji by Kang Youwei

Image: Cover of <i>Guang Yizhou Shuangji</i> by Kang Youwei.
Image: Cover of Guang Yizhou Shuangji by Kang Youwei.

This book influenced my teacher and my teacher influenced me.

It argues that epigraphy had a great impact on the development of calligraphy. Kang Youwei influenced Yang Shoujing, and Yang Shoujing brought Chinese calligraphy to Japan, with the Japanese creating a new interpretation of calligraphy.

This was a revolution. Witness the success of Kang’s aesthetic revolution.


Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries on How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie 

Image: Cover of <i>How to Win Friends and Influence People</i> by Dale Carnegie.
Image: Cover of How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (30,000,000 copies sold) changed our lives. The book explains how to have new visions and ambitions, and how to win people over by being positive, pleasant, conversational, and agreeable.

Great advice—which we tried and failed to absorb. We couldn't make friends (we're, alas, introverts), convince anyone of anything (we had our own doubts), stop arguing (even between ourselves), make small talk (we prefer 4:33 of silence), or excite people with our—ahem—vision.

That's when it hit us that we had all the failings—sorry, qualities necessary for the life of the artist.


Zhang Wang on Jean-Christophe by Romain Rolland

Image: Cover of <i>Jean-Christophe</i> by Romain Rolland.
Image: Cover of Jean-Christophe by Romain Rolland.

When I was seventeen or eighteen, I read three volumes of Romain Rolland's Jean-Christophe with a classmate. We immersed ourselves in the intimate relationship between the protagonist and Olivier. We talked in their voice about the Renaissance and Western classical culture, and about women of course. We followed the example of these young intellects and told each other which parts of a woman's body we admired, and how they stirred our hearts. Honestly, we talked about calves and necks, and nothing more. We had a vague idea about homosexuality, but we knew we were not gay and we made fun of the intimacy between us. What we intended to learn from the characters are ways to discuss arts and culture, with a critical perspective and tone in particular. And we thought we were exceptionally insightful! Rollandesque idealism probably took root in us then and there, nurturing our enthusiasm for and aspirations to culture! By the way, that classmate is Kong Yongqian, one of the "fabulous weirdos" in class. He created the "I am pissed, leave me alone!" slogan T-shirts which were sold nationwide in the nineties, resulting in punitive actions from the authorities. It was indeed the dawn of political pop in China. He escaped to Australia for a while and then returned. He’s been a global nomad, and I call him "the man walking in the air."




Kahkit CHEONG, 張家傑

LAI Mingchu Elva, 賴明珠

FENG Yuan, 馮遠

Gulammohammed SHEIKH


KAN Xuan, 闞萱

LIU Jianhua, 劉建華

MAK Ying Tung, 麥影彤




YEUNG Sauchurk Ricky, 楊秀卓

Seher SHAH

Sopheap PICH

YANG Jiechang, 楊詰蒼

Younghae Chang Heavy Industries, 장영혜 중공업

ZHANG Wang, 張旺

Research Notes
Mon, 28 Aug 2017
Cite as
Kahkit CHEONG, 張家傑, LAI Mingchu Elva, 賴明珠, FENG Yuan, 馮遠, Gulammohammed SHEIKH, Heri DONO, KAN Xuan, 闞萱, LIU Jianhua, 劉建華, MAK Ying Tung, 麥影彤, Nazgol ANSARINIA, Pablo HELGUERA, Rakhi PESWANI, YEUNG Sauchurk Ricky, 楊秀卓, Seher SHAH, Sopheap PICH, YANG Jiechang, 楊詰蒼, Younghae Chang Heavy Industries, 장영혜 중공업 and ZHANG Wang, 張旺, Book Recommendations | Ways of Seeing and Being, Mon, 28 Aug 2017

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Each Monday, Asia Art Archive publishes new essays, interviews, and curated journeys through the research collections