Snail pace, old crafts produce classics

In a modern-day version of the hare and the tortoise, it's the one in the slow lane that wins the race. Meet an artist who uses ancient methods to turn out timeless artworks.

In an era when people like to flaunt their mastery of a “fast-paced” lifestyle or their savvy in cutting-edge technology, Tang Bohua does things at a snail’s pace in an old-fashioned way.

The 32-year-old painter and his team spent two years making an animation film that lasted only 17 minutes and involved more than 10,000 plasterboards, each bearing a frame of the film.

The boards weighed in at 20 tons.

“It might be the world’s heaviest film,” Tang says jokingly.

The film, entitled “The Country of Summer Insects,” was inspired by a story from Zhuangzi, who compiled ancient anecdotes and fables from the 4th century BC, which became a pillar of Taoist philosophy.

People in his “country of summer insects” live only three seasons. They are born in spring and die in autumn. They never know about winter or ice.

The storyline follows the adventure of a general, a sage and a giant who endure hardships and hazards looking for ice. Moved by the trio’s tenacity, the gods finally relent and cover the whole country with snow.

A scene from "The Country of Summer Insects"

“The Country of Summer Insects” comprises 20 tons of platerboards.

“The story tells us we should be aware of our limits, but even so, we should keep pushing ourselves to those limits,” says Tang. “Never give up trying. People need a faith to live on.”

It might be a philosophy applied to his own life.

Born in the small town of Liuyang in Hunan Province, the young Tang loved to indulge himself in visiting old temples, enchanted by various god statues, ancient frescoes and religious rituals, as well as their backstories of myths and ghosts.

Immortals, dragons, magic white cranes and many other traditional Chinese images took root deep in his mind. After graduation from the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, Tang decided to make an animation film utilizing all his fantasies.

After trying different computer technologies, he chose to employ the traditional art form of frescoes painted on plasterboard.

Renowned for the brilliant wordplay and use of parables to convey messages, philosopher Zhuangzi created an imaginative fable world with legendary animals, such as the kunpeng (an enormous bird transformed from a gigantic fish) and fuyou (a short-lived insect somewhat like a mayfly).

Tang Bohua, a lover of tradition

Tang Bohua (left) and a team member paint on plasterboards.

“In my mind, only frescoes can best express Zhuangzi’s grand world outlook and pristine philosophical view because this art form stands for ancient China with an unaffected quality,” Tang says.

Coarse and rustic, frescoes were once popular in all social strata, from royal courts and religious shrines to grassroots architecture.

“To some extent, they have no social class but belong to every class,” the director says.

Tang selected plasterboard as his medium after testing wooden boards, stone slabs, bronze sheets, paper and silk. The plasterboard was neither too hard nor too soft.

“I found plasterboard could perfectly bring out the coarse and unpolished texture of fresco art,” he says. “Plus, it is a cheap material.”

Tang and his team traveled to the famed Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Gansu Province, to inspect the ancient fresco art and to the Yongle Palace in Shanxi Province to learn from its detailed murals.

Since the size and density of each plasterboard needed by the team varied, plaster powder was used to make all the boards by hand.

It took Tang several days to finish a painting on one board before it was scanned into a computer. Five seconds of sea waves, for example, required almost 70 paintings.

Occasionally, the completed boards cracked, and the cracks showed up in the scanned versions of a picture.

“I found that cool because it retained the feeling of something handmade,” Tang says.

The filmmaking took two years. One week was devoted to editing and the rest of time was spent on painting.

“I like to do things slowly at my own pace,” he says. “I like the gain after the pain.”

His hometown Liuyang was famous for fireworks, and the young Tang was fascinated by the long process of turning soil, bamboo and paper into splendid firecrackers that boomed in the night sky.

He is also a man of enlightenment.

Weeks of hard work lead to seconds of magnificence, turning the ordinary into something magical,” Tang says. “It’s part of the wisdom of the ancient Chinese and their concept of time.”

“The Country of Summer Insects,” considered an art-house work, wasn’t shown on silver screens in China because it was too short, but it received accolades at the 60th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, the 24th Zagreb World Festival of Animated Films and the 68th Edinburgh International Film Festival.

After the success, Tang embarked on a second animated film called “Mogao Sunglow.”

This time he stayed in Dunhuang for nine months, where he painted 2,000 clay boards to tell the story of the journey of monk Xuanzang (AD 602-664) to India to study Buddhist scriptures. The film lasted seven minutes.

The clay and sand used were the same as the medium used by ancient Chinese to draw the cave’s murals 1,000 years ago.

Tang’s team followed the ancient recipe to make the boards: three parts sand, six parts clay and one part dust.

“From form to content, this film is closer to the essence of Dunhuang frescoes,” Tang says.

When other people are taking full advantage of 3D technology, Tang is creating by hand. When other people are chasing commercial rewards, he is telling philosophical stories. In some ways, the director is just the three men looking for ice or the monk traveling alone to the West seeking faith.

Tang, obviously, is no fan of technology.

“Art’s kernel hasn’t much to do with technology, which is the reason we still marvel at artworks done hundreds of years ago,” he says. “Of course, there are quicker, easier ways, but they will soon be forgotten.”

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