Narratives in nature explore cultural exchange in Guilin
By Elsbeth van Paridon  ·  2024-04-15  ·   Source: NO.16 APRIL 18, 2024
A view of Belgian sculptor Hilde Van Sumere's Lotus artwork at Yuzi Paradise in Guilin, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (COURTESY PHOTO)

Pointed karst peaks,

surrounded by mist,

magic and mystery.

These lines did not flow from the calligraphy brush of an ancient Chinese poet but are a haiku written by former Prime Minister of Belgium Herman Van Rompuy, as he found himself a world away from the Western European country he calls home in Guilin, south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

Guilin is famous for its awe-inspiring karst landscape, characterized by towering limestone peaks, caves and hills that create a surreal and picturesque backdrop.

A haiku is a traditional form of Japanese poetry that consists of three lines with a specific pattern of syllables. Haiku poems often focus on nature, seasons, emotions, or a moment of contemplation.

In this natural haven, Van Rompuy, who is sometimes playfully called "Haiku Herman" in European political circles due to his passion for the genre, stood, transported into a realm of reflection… And so this story began to unfold.

The people 

Van Rompuy served as prime minister of Belgium from 2008 to 2009 and as the first permanent president of the European Council from 2009 to 2014.

The European Council plays a central role in shaping the direction of the European Union, promoting cooperation and consensus among the member states, and addressing key challenges facing the bloc as a whole.

However, his journey to Guilin in early April, accompanied by his wife Geertrui Windels, was not centered on politics. Far from it. Instead, it served as a tribute to the cherished memory of their close friend, the late Belgian sculptor Hilde Van Sumere (1932-2013).

Van Sumere was a celebrated artist who gained fame for her large-scale public installations, often utilizing metal and other long-lasting, industrial materials to craft intricate and dynamic pieces. Her artistic creations are distinguished by their abstract and geometric forms, embodying a fusion of modernist and minimalist influences.

Throughout her career, Van Sumere earned global acclaim for her innovative approach to sculpting. Her artworks can be found in diverse public and private collections worldwide, leaving an enduring legacy in the realm of contemporary sculpture.

Among the places touched by her artistic vision was, and continues to be, Guilin.

The author (dressed in orange), Tsao Guang-tsann (to her right) of the creative haven that is Yuzi Paradise, former Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy (to Tsao's right) and his wife Geertrui Windels together with other attendees pose for a picture following a meeting at Yuzi Paradise on April 1 (COURTESY PHOTO)

The place 

"Just look at this remarkable piece, a lotus flower, an enduring and ancient symbol of Chinese culture," remarked Van Rompuy, tracing the simple yet profound lines of a giant lotus-inspired sculpture by Van Sumere at the creative oasis that is Yuzi Paradise in Guilin. "Crafted from the enduring material that is granite, it stands the test of time and harmonizes perfectly with Mother Nature."

Some two decades ago, Van Sumere made multiple journeys from Belgium to south China to participate in an initiative that brought sculptors from all corners of the globe to this unique "paradise." Here, artists were encouraged to bring their most innovative artistic visions to life during month-long residencies.

Established in 1997 by a spirited entrepreneur named Tsao Rhy-chang, from China's Taiwan region, Yuzi Paradise hosted 11 such residencies between 1997 and 2003. These gatherings welcomed artists from 47 countries and regions, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Japan… and Belgium. Over 200 stunning artworks are now proudly on display at the park—which covers a whopping 600 hectares.

Since its grand opening to the public on April 1, 2004, Yuzi Paradise, whimsically translated into English as "Fool's Paradise" by its founder, has transformed into a playful realm of artistry and a sought-after vacation destination, captivating visitors from near and far.

With Tsao Senior's recent passing, his son, Tsao Guang-tsann, now carries forward his father's inspired vision.

"The sculpture park is closely tied to our family's main business, a rather unique industry—i.e., the cemetery business. This connection has given us a deeper perspective on life compared to the average person," Tsao shared with Beijing Review in early April.

"We sometimes think: Life is short, so what is the meaning of life, what is the purpose of life, and is there anything in this world that is eternal?" he continued.

Well, as one famous phrase attributed to the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates goes: "Art is long, life is short." It highlights the idea that while artistic creations may endure over time, life itself is fleeting. Van Sumere's Lotus work is one example here.

This sculptor's artistic vision focused on blending art with nature, aiming to spark a dialogue between the sculptures and their surroundings. Her sculptures at Yuzi Paradise are renowned for their organic forms, textured surfaces and symbolic significance that resonates with the natural beauty of the environment.

The captivating tales that Van Sumere shared from her experiences at Yuzi Paradise and Guilin would often enthrall Van Rompuy and Windels whenever the old friends would meet in Belgium.

"The stories she'd tell were fascinating. Especially because this all took place in the early 2000s, when China was still a big mystery to many outside its borders," Van Rompuy mused during a conversation with this author as they wandered around this "Fool's Paradise."

"Her works matter. They are sustainable, because they convey messages about the interconnectedness of humanity and nature, encouraging people to contemplate their relationship with the world around them," Tsao said.

And this relationship with the wider world includes cultural exchange.

The point 

Van Sumere's collaboration with Yuzi Paradise, for one, facilitated a fruitful cultural exchange between Belgium and China, nurturing dialogue and appreciation for art across diverse traditions and backgrounds.

"Art has the power to promote cultural exchange in diverse and meaningful ways, serving as a universal language that transcends borders, languages and differences," Van Rompuy elaborated.

"Art, in all its forms, has the potential to challenge stereotypes, prejudices and misconceptions by offering nuanced and multidimensional portrayals of cultures and identities," Tsao said, adding that through art, individuals can confront biases, expand their perspectives and develop a more nuanced understanding of the world.

On a higher level, then, art and cultural exchange play a vital role in international relations, serving as tools for soft power and diplomacy. Cultural initiatives, art exhibitions and artistic collaborations enhance cross-cultural relations, build trust and promote mutual respect between nations and different civilizations. This is arguably a tale as old as time.

Through artistic expression and creative collaborations, individuals can bridge differences and celebrate the abundant and fascinating fabric of human cultural heritage and creativity.

From south China to Western Europe, Van Sumere's story and the impact it had on her old friends is one good example of bridging geographical and cultural divides with artistic joy and celebrating diverse cultural wealth.

And to end this story on a poetic note—as yours truly, perhaps foolishly so, attempts to dabble in the haiku genre:

Artistic bridges span,

Cultural exchange takes flight,  

Human hearts unite.  

(Print Edition Title: Piquing the Interest) 

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

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