A song of sand
By Yuan Yuan  ·  2023-08-18  ·   Source: NO.34 AUGUST 24, 2023
Fourteen-year-old sand painter Gong Mingxuan performs at the first-ever Sand Painting Festival in Luliang County, Yunnan Province, on August 13 (YUAN YUAN)

The story unfolds with sand grains trickling onto canvas…

A small figure wearing a wide-brimmed bamboo hat, with a sword firmly strapped to his hip, stands in a vast expanse. The image morphs into the figure's larger-than-life face covering most of the screen as the rhythm of the background music increases. A formidable glow shimmers from the sword he now holds up in front of him.

This is the sand painting artwork of 14-year-old Gong Mingxuan at the first sand painting festival in Luliang, a county blessed with naturally formed colored sands in Yunnan Province, southwest China. At the festival, artists used sand to create pictures on a light box in front of them, with the image of their ever-evolving works of art projected onto a large screen so spectators did not miss a beat.

Having studied the art for four years, he is now a minor star in this niche circle and a frequent presence at related events, including a sand art performance at the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games.

This particular work of art expressed his dream of becoming a chivalrous hero and won him a gold medal at the Youth Sand Painting Competition, which was part of the festival. Before and after the performance, he donned the costume of an ancient swordsman and gave the audience a fist and palm salute on stage.

"He is always happy to have a little sand under his nails," his mother, who accompanied him to the festival, told Beijing Review.

A fine feel 

Sand painting is also called "art on the fingertips." Out of pure interest, Gong took up the practice in 2019; it was a "love at first sight" kind of encounter. His tutor, a friend of his father's, said he had a feel for the art. He only takes a two-hour class every week and has already pocketed a handful of gold medals on the competition "circuit."

The teenager traveled to Luliang together with a team of young sand painters from his hometown of Yiwu in Zhejiang Province, east China. "There are many children studying sand painting in Yiwu now," his mother said. "We travel to competitions all over China in groups—and the number of those competitions has been on the rapid rise in recent years."

The thriving of this art today was all part of the vision of Han Kuaikuai, one of China's senior sand painting artists. When she became active on the stage in 2009, the country had very few professional sand painters, who by no means could meet budding market demand. "In the early 2010s, I had to turn down many performance invitations and even then I was still performing more than 25 days a month," she told Beijing Review.

In 2010, together with her teacher Gao Zanmin, she initiated the first class for adult sand painting artists in Beijing, and in 2014 set up another one for children.

"At that time, more than half of the adult students chose to study sand painting because of its promising market, rather than because they were really interested in it," she said. Convenient access gave the art form an advantage in attracting followers—all you need is some colored sand. The early trainees were making good money by both performing and creating their own classes in different places in China.

The reasons for children to take up this art form are rather simple. "The colored sand has a natural appeal for children," Cao Xiaojing, another mother at the competition, said. "The performers have to wear costumes that match the story they tell with the painting. This is another attraction for my daughter—she loves to wear pretty costumes."

Wang Yi, a former dancer, decided to embark on a career in sand painting after seeing a children's performance at a competition at Tsinghua University in Beijing in 2015.

He was 23 and it was the first time he'd ever caught a live sand painting performance. The skills and visual effects simply captivated him. "Every spin could bring a new surprise," he said, adding, "The small surface creates unlimited possibilities for creation."

In April 2018, Wang co-founded the Beijing Sand Painting Association. Today, he is actively involved in organizing sand painting events all over China.

"Unlike many other art forms where the audience can only see the finished work, sand painting allows the audience to see every detail of the process as well as the finished work," Wang Tingxin, Director of the Institute of Art at the Communication University of China in Beijing, said at a forum on sand painting in Luliang on August 12. "This transparency allows viewers to appreciate the meticulousness and precision involved in each stroke and movement."

Another characteristic of sand painting is its transient nature, Wang concluded. In most cases, the finished work is soon wiped away,adding to the uniqueness of this art form. 


Teng Aimin, an accomplished dancer and Director of the Beijing City Modern Dance Troupe, sees more possibilities for the art form. "Every sand painting performance is an opportunity to engage in a multidimensional dialogue," he said at the forum on August 12.

He believes that sand painting can become an integral part of the larger stage. The Soul of the Yellow River, a performance staged by the Beijing City Modern Dance Troupe in 2021, set out to accomplish just that. To create a mesmerizing visual experience, the entire stage was transformed into one giant sand painting. The flowing sand and the grandeur of the stage transported the audience into the world of the Yellow River.

Ai Hai, co-founder of the Guangzhou Contemporary Art Fair in Guangdong Province, south China, has seen first-hand how sand has become a new favorite with the art and fashion industries in recent years.

He gave the example of the artistic holiday resort Aranya Gold Coast, a resort town in Qinhuangdao—a two-hour train ride from Beijing. The beach resort has become a new vibrant place for art and fashion aficionados. In September 2022, French luxury brand Louis Vuitton even staged its Men's Spring/Summer 2023 runway show there. In an announcement in the lead-up to the show, the brand said the setting "expands on the idea of a magnified playground, where a vast sandbox becomes an invitation for childlike constructs of the imagination."

Liu Yuejun, an associate professor at the Animation School under the Beijing Film Academy, looks at the development of sand painting from the perspective of technology. As an expert in creating visual effects by using augmented reality and virtual reality, he envisions a giant sand painting decorating the skies over a desert area.

"The fast-evolving artificial intelligence will also bring many possibilities for the art form's development in the near future," he said at the forum on August 12.

(Reporting from Luliang, Yunnan Province)

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

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