Signatura Rerum

September 21, 2019-October 26, 2019

Artist / Guo Hongwei

Text / Guo Hongwei

Paracelsus, an alchemist, astrologer and physician of the 15th century, argued in his tour de force De Natura Rerum that every natural substance in the world has a secret, hidden property whereby we can recognize the object bearing this invisible signature. For instance, many herbs strikingly resemble the diseases they can cure or the human organs they can heal: basil, which has liver-shaped leaves, is beneficial to liver health; walnut, which is a dead ringer for human brain, is nothing if not helpful on relieving headache; and root crops that can heal mammary gland illness look sure enough like breast. These imprints are tantamount to signatures, or the “pictograms of Nature.” Similarity exists between each imprint and the thing bearing it. Jakob Böhme, a mystic philosopher of the 16th century, advanced this theory, claiming that formal similarities emerge as the mystical evidence of the inner connections among things. However, this mimicry-based visual system was condemned as scientifically untenable and irrational witchcraft by natural sciences that came into vogue in the Age of Enlightenment. Actually, signatura rerum can be construed as the developing bud of fractal theory. Falling in between semiology and hermeneutics, it created a visual system within natural history—a similarity-based cognitive structure, which can be seen even in Aby Warburg’s comparative study of art later. In his book Les Mots et les choses, Michel Foucault argued that “signatures” underpin this world with a dense network interlaced by similarity, sympathy, analogue and correspondence. Originating from human beings’ most intuitive sense of the natural world, these “signatures” afford us a visual genealogy ranging from cabinets of curiosities to museums of natural history, upon which our cognition of the world relies.

Driven by his predilection for such a similarity-based visual system, Hongwei Guo focuses his research back on cabinets of curiosities in terms of display and collection. Cabinets of curiosities arose from wealthy families’ collections. Apart from fulfilling their ambition to collect all curiosities of the world and satisfying their unquenchable thirst for knowledge, the owners of cabinets of curiosities also evolved a comparison-oriented practice of display so as to highlight similarities. Placing similar natural forms side by side, human beings threw the interlinked signatures of things into sharp relief, and then transmuted them into an organic system. In his painting series of the Pecora bust specimens portrayed with his sui generis glazes on the pitch-black imprimatura, Guo brilliantly captured the classical, mysterious Gothic aura of these specimens enshrined in cabinets of curiosities. Differences notwithstanding, the commonalities of the busts of these herbivores are made crystal clear by the artist. They are categorized into a certain natural order according to their similar paradigma regardless of their varied origins. Distinct from his previous approach of drawing on museum collections, Guo painted this series by reference to the specimens for sale on commercial websites. That is to say, the animal specimens depicted in this painting series will end up as part of interior decoration, a new incarnation of family-owned cabinets of curiosities. Blue Hare in Love, Guo’s another painting of copulating blue hares, gives prominence to the fluidity and rendering quality of his glazing technique, making itself a splash-ink painting look-alike. This painting also serves as a foil to the furs painted in meticulous detail in his animal bust series. In depicting lumps of rough gold and gilded angel statues carved in the baroque style, Guo employed an alternative law of correspondence and sympathy: he transformed tangible golden forms into intangible disorder in Nature. Deftly manipulating the imbricated layers of glaze and rendering, the artist forged visual connections among different forms beneath their common golden appearances. The term “signatura rerum” refers not only to the clues for the viewers to recognize the similarities among the depicted objects in this exhibition, but also to the paradigma established in his painting series. In addition to unifying the depicted objects as a homogeneous whole, the stylization of paradigma further generates symbols/marks/signs through each stroke of Guo’s brush that bears his signature. Marking by painting, the artist thus produced a one-of-a-kind signature in this exhibition. The law of correspondence and the pedigree of the depicted objects find expression in the compositions of Guo’s paintings, be they the natural forms of all stripes as mysterious as crystalline in cabinets of curiosities, or the oceans of poetic moments as picayune as eternal in people’s quotidian existence. Their undertones will be ergo deciphered, as if an ancient magic that has been lost in the mists of time was cast on them.

  • Installation View
  • Works