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Artist’s triumph of will is on display

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NEW YORK — Like countless other intellectuals and artists during China's 1965-76 Cultural Revolution, Mu Xin was persecuted for his "counterrevolutionary" thoughts and was condemned to solitary confinement in an underground air raid shelter filled with dirty water.

"The hopelessness in animals is a biological and instinctive feeling of the end, but the hopelessness of humans is a final judgment based on reason and conscious thought," he wrote in "Prison Notes," a work he composed by gaslight during his 18 months of imprisonment.

"Prison Notes" is on view at the Asia Society in "Landscape of Memory: The Art of Mu Xin," an exhibition that gives many American viewers their first look at the modern artist-writer's creations.

The show, on view through Sept. 7, consists of a series of 33 ink-and-gouache landscape paintings and the exquisite "Prison Notes," 66 tissue-thin sheets of paper covered on both sides with a tangle of tiny characters. The far-ranging notes contain childhood memories, ruminations on great Western artists and philosophical observations.

The paper on which Mu Xin wrote was provided so that he could confess to his crimes of thinking and creative expression. He hid the notes in his padded prison uniform and managed to take them with him when he was released. They are the only known Cultural Revolution prison writings in existence, according to Alexandra Munroe, director of the Japan Society Gallery and, with Wu Hung, co-curator of the exhibit.

Only a few selections, chosen by the author, have been translated into English; it is doubtful whether more will be. Mu Xin remains ambivalent about reproducing "Prison Notes" in a more accessible format, viewing it as immature writing and not wanting it to be linked to any ideological positions. Created under incredibly difficult circumstances, the work is a triumph of mind transcending matter. Even without translation, the writings are eloquent examples of the will to create and imagine conquering the will to give in to despair.

Like his notes, Mu Xin's landscape paintings, though often titled after real places, do not remain faithful to reality. This is hardly surprising, given that the paintings were done in secrecy, in the dead of night, while the artist was under house arrest from 1977 to 1978.

Hovering between abstraction and realism, the hazy, luminous landscapes reward close inspection, as tiny houses and delicate depictions of trees emerge from layers of washes and thickets of dense markings.

In the slim, vertical "Reciting a Tang Poem on the Road to Shu," a line of steps snakes through overlapping blues and reddish-browns, textured like bark or shale. Nestled in crevasses are tiny houses, while outlines of bare trees float throughout the wintry mountainscape.

In the luminous, almost playful "Twin Pagodas in Plum Rain," deep brownish-red hills extend to the horizon, trees and the impression of a fence dotting the ridges. In the distance stand the two towers, temples or prisons, made insignificant by their natural surroundings.

When Mu Xin left China in 1982 to move to New York, where he still lives, he took with him the small paintings and "Prison Notes." These works are virtually all that remain of the hundreds of paintings and numerous manuscripts he produced in China.