Years ago I resigned my job as a teacher and came to Shanghai to pursue my dream of being an “artist”. It’s been nearly four years since I quitted and started to immerse myself in reading and art creation. During these four years, besides the bitterness and happiness brought by the process of creation, I also felt a kind of anxiety, absent-mindedness and upset. And as I got older, such feelings became even stronger, which affected my learning and creation processes. I become aware that I must take a break, to figure out the problems that bother me and gain more insight into myself.
Besides self-reflection, I am expecting more participants who will join the discussion about these questions, from different aspects, with different methods. Maybe, this kind of communication will bring me, hopefully not only me, out of the dilemma.
李牧 Li Mu 2010.8
我什么时候才能参加卡塞尔文献展？ When can I participate in Kassel Documenta?
要，还是不要孩子？ Should I have a child or not?
会有画廊和我签约吗？ Will a gallery sign the contract with me?
对于父母来说，我真的很自私吗？ Am I really selfish to my parents?
我是个没有才气的艺术家吗？ Am I not a talented artist?
我会出家吗？ Will I become a monk?
该项目作为比利安娜策划的“迁徙、异化和相互干扰的身份”展览的特邀项目，展示在上海非盈利艺术空间东大名创库的沿街长廊里。 The project along the street on the glass facade of the ddm warehouse, non for profit art space in Shanghai.It is a special project in “moved, mutated and disturbed identities”that curated by Biljana Ciric and Bernardini Fabienne.
展览期间，每天2:00pm-6:00pm我都会待在展览空间里，和不同的人以及观众就这些问题展开交流和讨论。 I hope that through this project I will have opportunity to discuss my questions with people. Every day from 14:00---18:00 artist will be present in gallery.
在拉布寺和索南丹叶师父的对话 录像 25分钟 2010 An Interview with Suonan Danye in Labu Temple video 25min 2010
Li Mu: I resigned my work 2 years ago and came to Shanghai to be a freelance artist. I told myself: It doesn’t matter if my work can earn me fame or fortune. But since I chose it as a career, I looked forward to participate in great exhibitions. Kassel Documenta is a prestigious international art exhibition. The invitation from Documenta means you’re recognized as a great artist. I told myself: Don’t worry about that. Just focus on the work. Don’t be too obsessed with fame or fortune. However, there’s always a voice lingering deep in my mind: When can I participate in Kassel Documenta?
Monk: Your dream is quite interesting. Superstitiously speaking, it depends on your fate. Rationally speaking, it depends on your capacity. I think good results will be achieved if you bring the plateau’s characteristic art of Tibetan Buddhism to be exhibited. I guess such work is rarely displayed, right? Also, the landscape here is a great subject.
Li Mu: What does the master think?
Monk: Master agrees with what I just said. Good results will be seen if you bring Tibetan Buddhism and plateau’s characteristic art to the exhibitions.
Li Mu: After resignation, I have no income. My work barely sells. I want to create work helpful to others instead of merely pleasing the market. But that’ll lead to a hard life. I am often caught in dilemma. Should I make something which can be easily sold? Or should I stick to my dream and focus on work more constructive and experimental? When will there be a gallery to represent my work? If so, I no longer need to worry about financial issues. I feel confused. On the one hand, I don’t think this should be a problem. Being poor is not a very big deal. But on the other hand, I also feel it would be good if my work sells well.
Monk: Master said you have to truly concentrate to overcome difficulties. You should bring the landscape and lifestyle of Tibet to Shanghai, no matter how you do it. Despite all the difficulties, just move on. Good results will be achieved. Whatever you do, you’ll encounter difficulties every now and then. Nothing is simple. You need to hold on.
Li Mu: I’m 36-year-old and have been married for 6 years. Due to lack of money, time and energy, we don’t have child. Now my wife and I are considering if we should have one now. My parents hope we could have one soon, but my wife is not that into the idea. I like children. But my financial status…is not good. And I don’t have much time taking care of children. I wonder: should I or should I not have a child?
Monk: Master said: you should have a child. In this world, all animal can afford to feed its offspring. You way of thinking is wrong. You Han people also emphasize on the importance of posterity.
Li Mu: Since I have no job, I cannot give my parents much financial support. Both my parents are in their 60s. Each time I call them, they would complain and blame me. They think I’ve chosen a wrong route of life. They think I should earn more money to perform my filial duty instead of focusing solely on my art. They even said: “You are selfish.” It makes feel sad. I think the art I make is very meaningful, but it cannot benefit my parents in any way. I asked myself: Am I really selfish?
Monk: Master said: you are not selfish. As your parents grow old, they belong to the old era. But you belong to the new era. It’s natural that your parents are worried for you. Different generations think differently. You’re obliged to help and support your parents. You should establish your career first and then help your parents.
Li Mu: Master, when I make art, sometimes I create something brilliant, and I feel myself talented. But sometimes I just can’t create anything good, and I feel depressed. I often ask myself: Am I an artist with no talent?
Monk: Master said: it’s just a beginning. Hold on! Overcome all difficulties. Afterwards, you’ll become more and more brilliant. If you surrender in the face of difficulties, that’ll be a wrong decision.
Li Mu: I like Buddhism and read some books about Zen. I admire Zen masters, Rinpoche’s wisdom and their inner peace. The growing knowledge of these subjects caused huge changes in my art. I even asked myself: will I become a monk?
Monk: Will you become a monk? What will happen to your wife then?
Li Mu: That’s a question. My parents will feel heartbroken. So will my wife. I can give up a lot of worldly thinks, probably…but not so soon. Nevertheless, I do look forward to such a spiritual state.
Monk: What master means is if you choose to become a Buddhist, you’ll have a way to overcome the upcoming difficulties and sufferings. Such capacity is gained by the fate of your previous life rather than pure luck. It is a result of a special cause. If you choose to become a monk, you have to consider the feelings of your wife and cannot abandon her at will. If you do, it is a sin that you commit and will bring about bad consequence. You need to consider and decide from the perspective of Buddhism.
According to the Buddhist doctrine: Set your mind at ease. Take you time and take it easy. As long as you set your mind at ease, you won’t be bothered by worldliness. Buddhism places an emphasis on fate. You cannot abandon your wife for marriage means you both share the belief that you are the one to each other. It is fate that bring you together. I guess you’re well educated, right?
Li Mu: Kind of.
Monk: You used to be…?
Li Mu: A college teacher.
Monk: There’re many books on Buddhism. You can choose some to read to get a general idea of Buddhism. If you think it through and intend to practice Buddhism, when you get the feeling you can convert to Buddhism. Han Chinese Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism are by nature the same. When you become a Buddhist, you’ll be empowered to tackle any upcoming dreadful ordeal.
LM: I believe you will talk about these questions from your point of view since you have so many experiences.
For example, you told me yesterday that you had a student who likes religion and became a monk in the end. He still makes works. But they changed, to a bad direction.
XT: In 2004, when I was walking along a Berlin street, two women with the same uniform stopped me politely and asked, “Do you believe in religion, sir?” I answered, “No, I am an artist.” They then said nothing and walked away. This gave me an impression: art, is a “sub-religion”.
I don’t think art is religion, but it is similar to religion in some aspects. Even religionists believe: being an artist means you already belong to a religion, and therefore, we won’t disturb you anymore. I don’t think art is religion, since believing in a religion, such as Buddhism or Christianity, is the first of everything, without any bargaining. After you believe in it, then you consider other aspects. Art is not the case.
LM: In Recent years, I read some Buddhist books, as well as Christian ones, but my real interest still lies in Buddhism. What I read is not sutras, but some books introducing Buddhist thoughts and Chinese Zen, from which I noticed some Zen and Buddhist masters’ views on the world. They live a simple life, but reach a high level in wisdom. I am yearning toward it……
When making art, I often compare it with religion. Sometimes, I doubt whom on earth I make art for, what on earth these things can change and what on earth it means. In fact, the universality in religion is wider. Those things attract me most, but I am still far away from them. Maybe I can never reach them. What the secular brings me is with more pains, like a stone dragging your leg. Being a monk is a direct way through which I can throw everything behind and focus on cultivating myself according to Buddhist doctrine. So I asked, “Will I be a monk?”
XT: Some people like Buddhism because they are interested in its philosophy. As to you, being a monk is not a joke, but a possibility, right?
In yesterday’s seminar, many people were sniggering after your speech. I guess the reason why they sniggered is because they didn’t believe you will really do this. Nowadays, many artists always say some cool words, which is actually a posture, like spoof or sarcasm. This society is full of such works. No one speaks with ordinary words. It seems not art anymore if you use ordinary words. But obviously, you are not unserious.
I used to keep contact with a lay Buddhist for a period. He is quite different from other Buddhists. He doubted about the Buddhism at the very beginning. He has taken DV, made documentary and attended many Buddhist activities. He is a Buddhist with modern thinking. To me, Buddhism is a classic system. Throughout the history, it must have been entangled with many concrete situations in different ages and renewed many times, which is why there are so many schools now. The lay Buddhist is reinterpreting the definition of Buddhist Nature in a modern spirit. Many people believe that the established Buddhist doctrine is classic and must be obeyed by all believers. This lay Buddhist believes in Zen while other Buddhists believe in Esoteric Buddhism. The Esoteric Buddhists often look down upon Zen.
He said he doesn’t believe Buddhist circle and I said neither do I believe artistic circle. I believe art, but not artistic circle, college of fine arts, artistic association or MOMA, because people in artistic circle are like me, working for this thing. What they represent is artistic rights, not art. We are always too easy to believe certain institutes or things, treating them as art itself, which will cause many problems. For example, how come do they consider some bad artworks as good ones? Things like that. Later, I knew that art must be separated from artistic circle and artists. You can worship art, but at the same time, must keep a cautious attitude towards any other things. Buddhism also faces the problem of modernization. Nowadays, many people need religion. Then what is the modern Buddhist nature? There must be a modern explanation to existential philosophy. Since ancient times, it has always been the philosophic part of Buddhism that most intellectuals like.
LM: Buddhists should have a very peaceful mind. I believe such peace can never be reached in the secular world, unless you believe in Buddhism. And I always yearn for the height of that wisdom.
XT: I have a question for you: why you think these two share the same importance.
LM: This is the fundamental condition for happiness. Human life is quite short, just several decades. How could we exist with the best quality and under best condition?
XT: I have an American friend who is a post-doctoral in anthropology and believes in Buddhism. She said her life is to pursue happiness. Joy and happiness are big issues. You also consider happiness very important. What is the relationship between the joy you think and true happiness?
LM: ……I had tried to obtain it from the worldly possessions, such as fame and wealth, but soon I realized those things are not what I want and that they will only make my lust grow, dragging me to a bottomless abyss. I suddenly felt that spirit is very important. But sometimes I doubt whether it is also a lust to get self-fulfillment through continuously attending exhibitions and making new works, since my joy can only come from such continuous work. Perhaps even this is not what I really pursue.
I went to Tibet recently and saw a Living Buddha in Labu Temple. On my way back to the hotel, I was crying in darkness all the time because I felt that he was glowing, lightening me and melting the coldness in my heart. I really want to be like him. Good art can not be made only by people with high intelligence. Those praised contemporary artworks were chosen by art history. They more reflect the status quo of the society – conflict and contradiction. Buddhism chooses a backward way – saving self first, and then saving and lightening other people.
XT: The joy and happiness you mentioned are based on self-liberation and self- extrication. Buddhism calls this “understanding”. After this, you can lighten others. This is a Buddhist way. What I want to say is not the case. Perhaps I got some bad influence from the West. I was a college student in 80s, so I believe my joy and happiness should be connected with the society I live in. The real important thing is what you are doing, not individual success. What consequence will such thought bring about? Now I basically know.
I agree with the relationship between Se (form) and Kong (emptiness) in Buddhism. I used to think about what are Se and Kong for a period of time. To me, all the physical things and existence are Se; in other words, the physical world I see is Se while the other side of it is Kong. I consider physical existence as Se. To put it simply, existence is Se. On the other hand, superficially, the inner world of human beings, compared with the physical world, can be counted as Kong, since we refer it as spiritual world. But this spiritual world and its activities really exist. For example, when you are suffering pain, you will find pain is real and hard to eliminate as you want. Due to the reality of human spirit and conscious activities, I believe in a certain aspect, human spirit and conscious activities are not only Kong but also Se. As an artist, if I can make contribution to the Se within the scope of spirit and consciousness and do something I feel interesting, I will be quite happy.
But later, I found such thought is secular and will bring about many inner problems. You just talked about the choice of art history. Perhaps your works are better than Van Gogh’s, but art history chose Van Gogh. Would that mean you are a failure? Aren’t you quite disappointed in the situation that too many bad artworks are prevailing? This is the consequence of my former thought. Although it’s not for my own sake, but I still feel lost. Such lost derives from human nature. Theoretically I can explain – I think we are in the age of consortium-culture. We can see more and more clearly that many galleries and institutes, big or small, are controlled by their consortiums behind. They seem to be in charge of artistic interest and development with an increasing power. From my personal point of view, such interest may sometimes be quite stupid.
Nowadays, academic research is more and more fragile. Some people said that independent critics have no longer existed. “Independent” has become “Freelance”. For instance, doctors are not in the hospital anymore. I can understand this situation. But even under such circumstance, I never think of quitting from the problem you just mentioned. It is quite important for me to do something I myself feel interesting. And if you want to do something, you have to find balance and encourage yourself. I will keep doing this. To me, it is a “quasi-religion”.
When I was in college, some of my friends said that there are only two types of people in the world, one keeping climbing up, the other drawing back, indifferent. My opinion is there is a third type of people who try to do something, neither climbing up nor drawing back. I think I probably want to be the third type. Even since I had such thought, I have always suffered all kinds of trouble. I know clearly I can eliminate these troubles temporarily. But temporary elimination doesn’t mean there is no problem anymore. Such trouble will keep occurring and being eliminated. Some Buddhist friends said that I should give up immediately. But I said there is no time for me to do things like Buddhism say. …… Because at least up to now, I don’t put priority to self-extrication – in other words, peace and happiness like you said. This is my attitude. I know clearly the consequence resulted from such attitude and I choose to accept it. Trouble will be with me along all my life.
LM: Let’s follow my questions.
Another question is when I can attend Documenta Kassel. Formerly I always believed that as long as I made good works, I could definitely attend good exhibitions like Venice Biennale. Gradually I had this measurement in my mind. But one day, I realized that this actually is to pursue fame. Maybe I should forget Documenta Kassel and Venice Biennale and just focus on what I am doing, which is best.
Occasionally, I am still a little bit anxious for not being able to attend good exhibitions. As you said, I am a professional artist, quitting my job and focusing on this. Job is different from hobby. At my age, you probably had the similar experience. I especially want to know how you faced this problem.
XT: We have to go back to the two problems we talked about before. How old are you?
XT: You are still young. I just touched contemporary art at this age and hadn’t attended any contemporary art exhibition.
LM: How old were you when you joined Big Tail Elephant Group?
XT: 37. About this problem, I’d like to make an example. Which temple in China is the best? Isn’t Nanhua Temple in Guangdong great since Huineng ever lived there? Like I just said, I believe art but not institutes, nor exhibitions.
Many of my friends, such as Lin Yilin, Zheng Guogu, attended last Documenta Kassel. Exhibitions are made by human and anything made by human will have tons of possibilities. Another Documenta Kassel is coming soon. If I don’t get the invitation, how will I be? Uncomfortable? But that’s it. Because even if I have such uncomfort, it won’t effect my overall direction.
LM: Yeah, emotion comes, emotion goes.
XT: It’s just like you are a human being and you will get cold. When you have cold, you will still go to work. You won’t stop everything just because of having cold. This is like what Buddhism says: Never be too persistent in anything; things come and go all the time. And I gradually understand (most people will say this): the more you want to do creative things, the more possibly you will be ignored. Then what kind of things is understandable?
Some time ago I wrote an article to express such an opinion: up to now, with the development of art or contemporary art, most artists or creation are inside what I call “aesthetic stream”. I mean there are one “aesthetic stream” or another, such as conceptual art, perceptual art, which is like the highway, just several roads to come to Beijing.
LM: Do you mean that only when you are in those several highways, can you come to Beijing?
XT: After you succeeded in driving on the highways, you will find the chances of creativity have become fewer. The real interesting work is to create your own highway in places where there is no highway, but it is very hard. How hard could it be? Perhaps no one will take notice of you for twenty or thirty years. But excellent art (not artists) derives from that. Or let’s change to a smaller subject. I am walking along the highway, and I doubt whether this will lead to the place I want to go. Maybe there is no exit, so I have to find a place to go out, which I call “overflowing”. If you have a wish, you will overflow. But “overflowing” will always face challenges. If you want to be successful, you’d better stay on the highway. But such art or artists won’t be that interesting even if they are very good.
LM: Because you are driving along the established highways.
LM: Within the scope of guard bars.
XT: But Chinese artistic education is just teaching people how to drive on the highways, not to create. Teachers often say, “This student’s painting is not bad, meaning something.” What is this “something”? It is driving on the highways, about to enter a certain “aesthetic stream”. Probably it will be chosen and become successful one day. If you look down upon this, there will be severe consequence. How severe? No one will ever take notice of you anymore. Perhaps you will be somebody, but perhaps you are just nobody. The risk I said is how you will face the result that you are nothing. It is not just the problem whether you are accepted by the society. “Nothing” is the real nihility, the fear to “existence”.
I don’t need to say – actually many great philosophers have said similar things and I just believe and repeat it – that there is a fine line between the genius and the madman. This is about the criteria to identify social people. If you are only accepted by a tiny group of people, then possibly you will be an idiot forever. I am not willing to drive on the established highways, so I have to take the consequences. Some of my colleagues said, “Your former works were ok, but why are the present ones so hard to understand?” I said, “if you understood them, I would be on the highways.” Because people can only understand those which have been established in the “aesthetic stream”.
I believe making contemporary art is a secular job. In Germany, some scholars talked to me that they didn’t think there are many famous artists in the West nowadays. People like Damien Hirst and Matthew Barney are contemporary artists. They believe that the real contemporary art is actually something about the construction of modern society and culture. Such construction shares similarity with philosophy (linguistic turn) and social science. It is developing and being constructed within the world and society we live in, so real contemporary artists have to be much involved. Of course, this is only the opinion of some European intellectuals, a minority opinion. What most people prefer are still the cultural products demanded by the market and the society. The works of some artists are sold tens or hundreds of millions RMB, but I don’t think their fundamental creative ways are contemporary. I believe contemporary art should be brand new, connected with social existence, containing both artistic quality and social necessity. With such thought, I certainly want myself to work in this way.
There is no doubt that art should provide the society with cultural consumption goods. But at the same time, it is also necessary to promote and create cultures. The latter work is done by fewer people, with more adventure. But I think it is fine. Even if there is “the real nihility”, it is just my own business – everyone have different reaction to “nihility”. Even if I have such thought, it doesn’t mean that I can live a happy life everyday, because we are all sensitive people and will be uncomfortable for something happened around us. How do I deal with such uncomfort? I can only say that it will disturb me a little but won’t cause bad consequence. It’s like getting cold. As long as you are alive, there is possibility to get cold.
LM: I am often worried about things such as I attend too few exhibitions this year or I haven’t attended any exhibition recently. Sometimes I will ask myself: if I don’t attend any exhibition for three years, what should I do? Will I still make art?
XT: I have the same worry just as you.
LM: You do have had such thought?
XT: But I won’t hesitate about whether I should do art or not. I will just feel depressed, only for a period of time.
LM: Will you express your depression to others?
XT: Sometimes I will lock it up, but I won’t make myself too depressed. The fact is I haven’t been under such unsmooth condition. During the twenty years of my artistic work. I just had this one year not attending any international exhibition. So now, I feel I am still in good condition. Once I am engaged in my work, I will forget many things.
I also find another problem – China is a society with collect consciousness. As an individual, a Chinese person has stronger reaction to different ideas than westerners. In our original cognitive structure, we are quite open to our neighbors. Yesterday, I talked about “sub-belief”. To some independent westerners, unfavorable or problematic information is just like small wind. You won’t get cold by that. But in China, if you want to be independent, you have to be resistant, with quite a lot of energy, which is an individual matter.
LM: Consuming quite a lot of energy.
XT: Yes. I believe it is caused by our collective cognition. When I was in the crowd, I should have absorbed nutrition, but in fact the nutrition I absorbed was far less than the disturbance I suffered. So I don’t go to Beijing now. There is no exhibition, so I stop going there.
LM: You feel that the nutrition you absorbed is less than the disturbance you suffered, do you?
XT: Yes. I am resisting it everyday. One of the reasons is I stay in Shenzhen. In such a collective society, I, as a Chinese, am more fragile than westerners. I have to struggle for keeping my independence, so I can only get my nutrition by other ways.
LM: Talking about resistance, I have deep feeling. Several years ago, I quitted my job as a college professor, which was hard for my parents to understand. You quitted such a good job. What did that mean? No income. My mother was so anxious that she called me and said, “You have to go back to the school immediately. I did a fortune telling yesterday and the fortune teller said it was wrong to quit the job. You have to go back to the school.” What hurt me mostly is the following experience. One of my former classmates established a business to sell decorative material, and made a fortune, owning several cars. One day, my mother suddenly called me and said, “I am so ashamed to meet other people.” I asked why, and she answered, “The whole village said you did a good job in your college but failed in the society. You see, how successful your former buddy is! Although he didn’t go to college, he can get whatever he wants.” I could only comfort my mom by saying, “You son is trying to pursue something positive and great.” When I hanged up the phone, I felt vacant for at least a couple of days before I returned to normal.
XT: Two days, quite short to me.
LM: The problem was after I had returned to normal and started working for only two weeks, my mom called again, accusing me, anxiously. She even said, “After graduating from college, others will all give their family much money, help family members and find jobs for their relatives. But you, are such a selfish person! You never consider about your family. You only care about your own dream.” For a couple days after that, I was gloomy. My elder sister also called me and said, “How could you only consider about yourself? How could you never consider about your mom and your family?”
I am always resisting this. During my resistance, I couldn’t help feeling sorry. I really haven’t brought anything my family wants to it. So I asked myself: am I very selfish?
XT: such resistance…… I think as long as you don’t believe in Buddhism, it will haunt you forever. I faced the similar situation after I was fired by Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. My parents are professors of Hubei Academy of Find Arts and my father is the former classmate of many teachers in Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts……
LM: You are from Hubei province, are you?
XT: Because Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts was in Hubei before and my father graduated from Mid-West Arts College (now named Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts). When I was in Guangzhou Academy, he usually went there and visited his friends. Once after I was fired, he never went there anymore. I guess he felt ashamed. I feel very sorry whenever I think about these.
My mom is quite worried about my current condition. She said, “What can you do when you are old?” She is 80 now. She said, “When I am sick, I can go to hospital and enjoy public medical services. But how about you?” I also blamed myself, because I still cannot free my parents from worrying me. But later I realized that this is the situation in China. In the West, parents never interfere with children’s business. Your life depends on your own choice.
Our collective society expresses such information of collective consciousness: you (Li Mu) entered college, and then everyone in your family gained face, which is a social concept. Another social concept is after you graduate from college, you should bring honor to your ancestors or at least make your family live a rich life. I think many of these values are inside this system. If you are inside the system, it can hurt you. But what will happen if you are not inside it? Perhaps those independent westerners (not all of them) aren’t limited by this system. So I don’t think you are selfish if you want to experience some really interesting jobs over the course of your life. It’s not for your own sake. But if you ignore your parents to pursue the fame and fortune, then you are selfish. It is the same as you show off in your hometown after you make money by doing business.
LM: Like buying a toilet worth several thousands RMB.
XT: To me, the important thing is you really did something. If so, how could it be called selfish? About this question, I will say without hesitation that this is not selfish. How long have you left the college?
LM: More than three years.
XT: I was expelled by Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts when I was 40.
LM: As a teacher?
XT: Yes. Maybe because I was working on contemporary art.
LM: Didn’t you spend much time on school?
XT: They were just picky. It’s fine for those who did business outside and never spent time on school. But in 1997, contemporary art is a bad thing in China.
LM: Did you give up without any struggle?
XT: I wrote the self-criticism.
At that time, my superior said, “You made a big mistake.” I didn’t think I made any mistake. I asked for leave to the dean before I went to Germany, but he denied this later. The dean said, “I have no right to approve your going abroad, you have to ask the president for admission.” But at that time, no one knew this rule. If the superior wanted to give you a hard time, then your going abroad without the president’s admission just violated the rule! I wrote the self-criticism, telling the true story. I wrote, “I didn’t consider the discipline serious enough. I relaxed.” The superior responded through a document, writing, “You avoided the important and dwelled on the trivial.” I considered seriously and realized there was no way to get through this, so I talked to my superior, “How about I quit?” After having a meeting, they answered, “We cannot let you quit. We will fire you.”
LM: Oh my god.
XT: The only effort I made is to write the self-criticism.
LM: When you are talking about this now, it seems like you are telling me a joke. But at that time, I guess it was not funny.
XT: At that time, I was a rebel, so I left for Foshan City. But my wife and kid were still at the college. I was quite worried about their having a hard time. But everything was ok. Later when I went back to the Academy, I felt bad. The superior always hided from me, while friends caring about me always comforted me by saying, “Don’t take it seriously. We all understand you.”; “The college is so ridiculous!” I said I don’t need any comfort. Such caring made me more unwilling to go back there.
LM: There is sympathy in these voices.
XT: Very sympathetic. Both my teachers and my classmates were.
LM: I could say you are the one being sacrificed and hurt.
XT: It’s ok to me. But the influence on my parents, kid and wife was probably quite big. Perhaps they had to be tolerant and had no face to see other people. I have got through this period, but I think you may still blame yourself in the future, quite often. But if you believe in Buddhism or become a monk, things may change. If not, probably……
LM：I will blame myself all my life.
XT: Not definitely. Perhaps one day you achieve success and bring glory to your ancestors, and then your family won’t be depressed anymore. But who knows.
LM: The so-called bringing glory to the ancestors is for others to see.
When I went to Yushu County and saw the living condition there this time, I suddenly realized that even if I made a fortune, I cannot bring true happiness to my parents. Money may change their material life, but can never fulfill their emptiness in the heart.
XT: Yes. Actually parents’ concern and worry about their children is a lifelong thing. Even if they think you are successful, they will still worry about you. So every time I go back to my hometown, I will talk with my parents as much as possible. To make their relieved, I will exaggerate my success on purpose. Exactly speaking, when facing my mom, I will tell her, “I am a successful artist now, earning good money, and will be better and better.” Then she smiled. About their inner problems…… I haven’t consider about that. You’ve got a point here.
LM: But a person’s inner world is formed by the environment he or she grows. So I - maybe all of us – am not able to solve the problems inside my parents’ heart. What we can do is to free them from financial burden and company them as much as possible.
XT: But if the parents have nothing to do, they will be worried about their kids. I can only tell my mom, “I am living an excellent life now.”
In 1993, in this increasingly commercialized and globalized Guangzhou, a famous German media worker was invited to Guangdong TV station to instruct some projects. He was a wise man. When we just knew each other, he was so curious about the fact that China has its contemporary art that he invited us “Big Tail Elephant Group” to have dinner, talking with us about artistic situation, artistic ideal and our opinions on future art. I was 36 years old then. After dinner, he went back to Guangdong TV station. Later, a friend in the TV station told us, “He said that these artists are quite cute, because they are naïve. In a situation like China, they dare to expect making good art without any disturbance from the ideology in the environment. They are too naïve, but really cute.”
During that dinner, he asked me, “Why not making ideological art in Guangdong such as Political Pop?” I said, “We don’t care about that. We believe the Communist ideology and its activities have been over. We are more focusing on our current and future life.” He said, “ Can you get rid of your ideology?” I said, “Yes, we can. The important thing is you don’t look us with such eyes.” At that time, when we made exhibitions on the street, police would come. He must have thought how you could have nothing to do with such ideology. Now I am “mature” and I admit that I was naïve and cute at that time, but this could not change me.
For over ten years from then on, I had never considered about problems like art market or living difficulties, until before I joined Vitamin Creative Space.
LM: When did you start your cooperation with them?
XT: From 2005.
LM: before that, isn’t there any gallery cooperating with you?
LM: Like me now?
XT: Yes. The cooperation with the gallery started after I attended 50th Venice Biennale in 2003. In 2005, I started the cooperation with Vitamin Creative Space. I put much emphasis on the so-called “academic” perspective. I am quite satisfied with the artistic cooperation with Vitamin Space. Anyway, after the cooperation, other aspects also improved.
LM: I watched the documentary made by AAA carefully. I had a deep feeling on Double Infinity exhibition where I worked for. In Guangzhou at that time, there were such a group of people who made art with a pure heart, considering nothing beneficial.
XT: I can totally understand you. The pressure from the real life caused the problems around you.
XT: Actually, many great artists in the West didn’t encounter a good market. For example, there was the female artist in America, the one who thrust a book into her vagina and pulled it out to read, suffering a terrible financial condition and becoming a teacher in a school later. Many artists were teachers. It was enough for them to keep their independence when being a teacher. You can do whatever you want these years. After ten, fifteen or twenty years later, you can then go back to school to be a teacher, which may also be interesting. Many artists did that. I believe with such hard work, you will be successful even if your financial condition is not good. Such success is the real achievement in art. Perhaps many people cannot understand or accept the achievement, but some people can, especially the colleges. Of course, it is quite common for you to devote yourself to art now, not considering going back to the college. But later, I think there is no need to refuse it.
LM: Let’s leave it up to the fate. When I believe I have the ability to do something and also am needed by other people, why not do it?
Another question is about the artists and their talent. Maybe just like me, you also asked yourself a question: don’t I have talent.
XT: I think you are talented, even if others don’t think so. Let me talk about my experience. More people think I am talented when I am getting old. In my twenties and thirties, other people reluctantly considered me making art. This year, a friend in Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts said, “This guy is really a talent.” I, at such an old age, just got this judgment which is supposed to give young people. This shows the judgment itself is ridiculous and trivial. I believe art is a far-ranging career. Even if you have no talent to draw a painting, it doesn’t mean you have no talent to make art. Perhaps someone is good at painting, but it is hard for him to have a concept. In other words, it is hard to say whether one person has the ability to form a conceptual consciousness. Actually, in a social aspect, whether a person is talented is very ambiguous to say. We can even say such judgment is irresponsible. There are many talented people in our life, but only a few of them can become excellent artists. If only after you make something, can you be judged as a talent, then I would say the term “talent” can be replaced by other words.
LM: I know.
XT: Perhaps in art, you are not suitable to do this, but suitable to do that.
LM: This is also a periodic problem. Perhaps you will doubt yourself when you don’t have any creative idea, but then feel yourself talented when you make a good work.
XT: Perhaps that’s because you are young. I have forgotten whether I ever doubted my talent to make art in my youth. Maybe I did. Actually it is not important.
LM: The important thing is that you like art and are making art.
XT: Yes. Like we just talked about, you have to know the true drives that propel you to make art. If such drives derives from others’ encouragement by saying that you are talented, or from your own eager to be famous, it is inconsiderable. We’d better be an intellectual and a person keeping asking such questions as what art is and what the relationship between us and the world is. Many people say Chinese don’t have strong creativity. It will become weak when they are old. I always ask why. Is it because we are strongly influenced by the surrounding environment? For a long time, we always consume great energy on keeping the so-called independence. The energy is not consumed on social relationship, but on keeping independence – the former one is unworthy of being discussed while the latter one is the real problem. In this way, you will exhaust all your energy pretty soon. Perhaps I am not an intelligent person who is sensitive in all aspects, but I am a quite dedicated one with long-lasting drives. Many people told me that when you reach forty, there is no hope to achieve anything great. I don’t believe that!
Ten years ago, a person from Documenta Kassel came to Guangzhou to see our works. One artist asked me, “How should we operate?” I said, “It is still early. I have many things to do.” He said, “You have been in your thirties and forties. Do you still consider you are like the twenties?” But I proved he was wrong in the next ten years. Such a statement is nonsense. It will only limit you.
LM: Not long ago, I went to see a teacher and showed him my work. He said, “Frankly speaking, you face big problems! You are not young anymore, and your works are hard to be accepted.”
XT: You would be in bad mood in a couple of days.
LM: For one day, I suppose. But I quickly adjusted myself.
XT: This statement is a limitation to a person. The oldest artist I have ever seen is Joan Joans, the American video artist who attended Venice Biennale last year. Even now in his seventies, he is still making solo exhibitions and new works. Actually there are many of such evergreens. Louise Bourgeois who just passed away in her 90s also experienced many changes ever since 1930s. The more you focus on something, the more talent you will use. The more you are disturbed by something – I am often disturbed, the more creativity will be influenced.
LM: Here are all the questions. Our conversation is quite detailed. At the very beginning, you asked me, “What is your next step in My Questions?” I said, “Actually I have no idea. I didn’t make such type of work before.” Do you have any good suggestion?
XT: No, I don’t, because my suggestion is a limitation to you. In addition, when I was talking with you today, it seemed like I was your senior. Actually I don’t like such tone, because I am not.
August 28th, 2010, Shanghai
Recording Transferring: Zhang Fang
Xu Tan, Artist, 1957born in Wuhan of China. Currently lives and works in Shenzhen,Guangzhou and New York.
LM: Yesterday I went to see an exhibition in Shanghai named validity period.
CW: It seems that someone has organized an exhibition like this before.
LM: Right, today, after ten years, Yang Fudong together with Yang Zhenzhong and Xu Zhen organized such an exhibition again. When I referred this exhibition to the director of the Museum of Luxemburg he told me that he has no interest in such an exhibition at all, “this is standard contemporary art and maybe is able to go to the Kassel Documenta, but this kind of art is meaningless.” he said. “Here we are talking about art system,” I said, “contemporary art should be an art keeps on absorbing new elements.” He said:” it’s not like this; a system is always controlled by some people, beyond the system basically you will not be recognized”.
CW: Be excluded.
LM: Yes, not be accepted by the system. You are an excellent artist, but maybe you can’t go to the Kassel Documenta. He asked me:”do you want to be an excellent artist? Or do you simply want to be an artist who is able to go to the Kassel Documenta ? It’s not bad to go to the Kassel Documenta but if you set it as a goal it may bring something negative; overwhelmed by the determination to achieve the goal you will miss a lot along the way because you are too determined and concern too much about it, the possibility of the things that may happen to you on your way will be neglected. Go to the Kassel Documenta is not important, it doesn’t matter weather you can go or not.
A few days ago Wangjun came to shanghai from Sichuan, he said he won’t take out these problems, because he dares not. Actually I was confident when displaying these problems, firstly I am confident, take it out won’t do harm to me, secondly I hope to change myself by doing these works, I have a not so confident personality inside, I am a little bit shy.
CW: Hum, self suspicion.
LM: Sometimes I am a little self abased, but through this way of doing my work, you will see a very confident and strong personality of me. I do my works in my own way; I am doing myself, not something for other people’s pleasure.
CW: Hum yes.
LM: That I want to interview you is because we are roughly at the same age, and we have a lot of problems in common.
CW: Yes indeed.
LM: I resigned the position as a college teacher, and embarked on my way of becoming a professional artist without telling my parents. I can’t conceal it any more after about half a year, my mother felt very depressed because I am roving around Shanghai, as an artist I have no income. My farther has a very strong personality; he was my nightmare when I was a kid. He was like a shadow in my heart, he decides what is right and what is wrong, if he likes it then it maybe right, and if he don’t then it must be wrong.
My mother couldn’t go to sleep at night these days, every time she called me she complains about this, she couldn’t go to sleep because she was worrying about me.
At the beginning I comforted them, I told them being an artist is tough at the beginning but if I hold on to it when it works out, I will make money. However 4 years have gone I didn’t make any money. In their eyes I am a selfish person, other people begin supporting their family after college graduation, but all that I have done is for my dream. Every time when I think about this, I feel very depressed, but since I have embarked on my journey there will be no way back.
CW: Do your parents need your support? Can they live without your support?
LM: Living is not a problem.
CW: Actually what they need is not your money but a sense of security. The relationship between me and my parents are much better than you; this problem has been solved at least ten years ago.
LM: Ten years ago?
CW: Firstly I have a very strong personality, but strong is not resistance. As a matter of fact, my economic situation is worse than you, its still not so good today, I have been out of work since when I was 19 years old, I resigned after being a primary school teacher for one year. At the beginning my parents didn’t understand. But I am a very determined person; I told my parents that my situation will become better year by year. At the beginning I asked them for money, later on their business failed in 1997; they were on the edge of bankruptcy, so after 2000 I started to support them, till now I will give them money every month.
I have no idea of how I managed to get through all these years. I am a person that is very positive in life, I have never doubted about myself. As to the problem of selfish, though I have the closest blood relationship with my parents, we are independent. I am not them, I don’t have to do what they want me to, my parents are very clear about this, and they never force me to obey them. During the five to six years from my resignation to the year 1997, my parents felt shamed. They were running a restaurant these days, and had a complex social relationship, many people know that they have a son who studied well, but seems not so successful in career after graduation. They felt shamed because of lacking money. These people are clear of everything, they always ask my parents where I was working, and what I was doing, at the beginning my parents felt very embarrassed. They always told their friends that their son was writhing things, well; writing means working as a journalist, until one summer I went back, the owner of the house that my parents rent to ran the restaurant asked again, my mother told him that I was writing, what? Writing novels? It’s also very profitable. Not for money my mother said. I felt proud; finally under my influence she said so. Especially in the 1998 and 1999, when my mother saw that I was very devoted to my work, I worked day and night, except for eating and sleeping. Even though she couldn’t understand what I was doing but when she saw that I was doing it so devotedly she will understand it must be something that worth doing. What I am doing is simply not making money, it’s not a sin, some other people are willing to offer me their help, and then she knows I am doing nothing bad. Now they felt proud of me.
LM: Do they understand your works now?
CW: Not every piece of my work, but generally she understands what kind of novel I am writing, she often reads my novels, maybe not understand thoroughly for I don’t often discuss with her. Sometimes I teach her to do some ink and water painting, and calligraphy practice.
LM: The previous year your mother got sick?
CW: Yes, she received operation in November the 11th 2008.
LM: At that time you phoned many people hope to find some help?
CW: Yes I had no money at all, all the ten thousand RMB are borrowed. Some borrowed some are the favors offered by friends. I tried my best to pay them back all but it was impossible, there must be someone who is unhappy about the result or some other things, but some money must be paid back, I will do all that I could to pay them back.
LM: You have never doubt about yourself even at that situation? Because you cant take out any money.
CW: I always think about how to earn money, but I have never thought of giving up writing. There is nothing negotiable, never in the past twenty years. Besides I am very sensitive about this, once I felt something will affect my writing I will not touch it. It includes career (going to work), friendship, love, woman, and also support, if the support will do harm to my writing I will not accept it, I prefer stay hungry.
Parents have an instinct, the first thing they want is a feeling of security, they want you have a good life, this good include a variety of aspects. Of course in this world, the first thing that is required for a good life from their point of view is money, without which you can’t live well. If you have money but they have no idea of what you are doing, or if you are always busy and take them for granted, or your family life is not happy, then they will worry about you. So firstly I think it is spiritual, you should bring them the sense of security spiritually, and you should let them know you are doing something very meaningful to your life, no matter how much education you have received, as their son you should try your best to communicate with them.
LM: I tried to communicate with my parents, but the kind of art I am doing, especially this form of art is even more difficult, it’s not like painting or writing novels. After telling them what you are doing, they will feel you are drifting away from happiness. When facing someone that has never tasted durian no matter how you describe its taste they will never understand.
CW:In the future, your situation may become better, and then these problems will disappear.
LM: Have you ever considered the relationship between your novels and economic. I can earn some money by selling some of my work in the galleries, but writhing novels seems to have no market.
CW: I have never considered, there is no relationship between my novel and economy.
LM: Do you think your novels will become popular?
CW: I think it’s almost impossible. We will have to face two problems, how to live? And what is the purpose of our life? That is we do our works, right? But if you can’t live, with the skin gone where can the hair adhere to? I will compromise in living. Until today I have never live on writing columns for news papers. Occasionally I will write a passage or so, I have never used my real name, and some people require that I should use my real name but I said no, because it is something more to do with my survival. I am very clear of the purpose of writhing short passages for newspapers, it is for survival, though it’s not a shame it can’t bring me any glory in writing.
LM: I am pursuing for the purity of human nature.
CW: Cooperate with galleries is for survival. That’s why some artists do design and other things. It’s a way of living; always we can find a way to live, to develop our ability, and using it to solve the problem of living, in return it will help me in my creation.
LM: Hum, let’s move to the next question.
CW: Am I an artist with no talent? right?
LM: Yes, why ask such a question? It is actually a way of self suspicion.
CW: I want to talk about this problem. I have never met this problem myself. I have been writing for 20 years, till now I think, talent is important for an artist at the beginning period of his career.
LM: The beginning period?
CW: Talent will become less and less important as an artist grows. Talent in Chinese is made up of two characters, they are gift and glory, glory is something skin deep. In Chinese there is a character means ability; ability means energy, glory and energy. Even a person with grate talent, if he want his art to be consistent and keeps on improving he should do some very important job, that is to change gift and glory into ability. Just like how we utilize solar energy, we have sunlight, but it also requires a variety of technology to transfer it into energy, which is ability. Glory is something on the surface, easy to attract other people’s attention, and energy is its engine. It’s a kind of force comes from inside to the outside. Now when I rethink about it I think talent is important to an artist but it’s not the most important, the most important thing is weather it suits you. Chinese contemporary art may explain a lot of problems; too many artists are very brilliant, but too much talent transferred into clever instead of ability, it’s something lighter than talent floating on the surface and easy to stimulate people. Too many Chinese artists are too clever, but seldom do their works touch my heart because they are something very surface, which I don’t like. I don’t think Van Gogh is very clever, which from his letters I can tell, he carefully described the settings in his room and the views in the field on his letters to his brother, no elaborate phrases, he simply describes how the grass grows, and that’s him. It suits him very well; he chose the way that suits him most. I think he can go on, and so do his paintings, he is very simple so does him.
LM: When it comes to here, a word suddenly comes into my mind--standard, it’s what we use to judge if we are talented, I have the standard in my heart, and if I can break the standard I will not use it to judge if I am talented or not.
CW: You should have faith in your own way, this is the most important, and do you know we all respect you very much; none of us here is like you. Many people are cleverer than you, but they can’t make art, because they have drowned in their cleverness.
LM: Last night I suddenly asked a question: Why I came to Shanghai to make art? Of course I didn’t ask why I didn’t go to New York to make art, because I don’t have the condition to go to New York. Why chose Shanghai or Beijing in China?
CW: There are other words behind the question:”I could also have made art in Suzhou.”
CW: Then did you come up with an answer last night?
LM: Of course. My decision was right; firstly I hold a high demand for myself, I tried to become a good artist, I should go to a place where concentrates artists, art centers, galleries and museums, in this way I can have a better understanding of what is art, only after understanding what is art will I find some benchmarks to judge my position, and know what to do. At that time Shanghai meets my demand.
CW: It’s a principle, or rather a common sense, which I don't think is completely right, the fact is if you are determined, you can make art everywhere. That is the fact, but the problem is that you need a process, when you first came to shanghai, you will realize it, when you gained confidence, ability, and the profound insight of art, you will realize, that you can make art in Suzhou too, that is for sure.
I think it has something to do with the survival of your art, that is when you have made something, firstly you want more of your friends to know about it, and get respond from them, though its not fatal, the respond has effect, but I don't think it affects the core value of your art.
However, if I simply don't like the city, why should I go back? I don't like Suzhou, I felt depressed when staying there and this is harmful to my art creation, I have to leave, that’s not something to be blamed, but I think the reason is not because works can’t be created in small places.
You maybe want to go back to Suzhou now, you feel that living in Suzhou will restrict your creativity, that is possible, but it’s not a reason that originates from your understanding of art. The reason is you simply don't feel right in Suzhou.
Some artists and philosophers like Arthur Rimbaud frequently go back to their hometown, Arthur Rimbaud’s hometown is in the countryside of France, he went back to do farm work like cutting grass, I remember knowing this from reading books and watching movies, but under that condition he can also create pomes, pressure gave him inspiration, then he escaped, on his way to Paris he create pomes again. He keeps on doing like this.
LM: Then let’s have a talk about have you ever considered of having a baby.
CW: That’s something bothers me.
LM: You also bothered by this?
CW: Hum, I bothered by this very much. Especially after 34 years old.
LM: Why so bothered?
CW: My reason is strange, and particular.
LM: You have never intended to have a baby?
CW: I am not very sure about if I should have a child, as an artist, I am very concerned about life, a child is a life and I should be responsible for it, we can't treat them like what our parents do to us, which is to put their expectations on us, and let us do what they have required. Actually this is a kind of high demand, a high demand for parents; you want education, and all the other things should meet the requirements. Because once you had a baby……many friends around us have changed a lot after having a baby, both physically and spiritually, they will feel satisfied because some most important things in their life have achieved, all the works have finished……. Of course some people are different. I am a clean freak in terms of art creation, I particularly dislike an artist keeps on talking about his son. The works are the sons of an artist; all sons are clever and lovely in the eyes of their fathers.
LM: I will ask myself, why I want to have a child? If it is a force of tradition, I will ask why everyone must have a child. I don't want to go against tradition, maybe I will chose to have a child, but I hope it is my own choice instead of being forced to do so by tradition. This will lead me to think a lot.
CW: You said you want to work it out, I am afraid you will be confused even when you have turned 50 years old, especially on the problem about life. I am very practical on some important issues, I am very practical, I always think about death. Even someone has told me that death proved once you lived, but without an end how to show people the process of your life? You are always in the process but in practice many people accept this, I will spend more time to think about it, to put it more clearly we don't have the sense that we have to thank our parents for giving life to us. I am confused why they give birth to me? We can’t control our birth.
LM: Buddhism concerned much about this, like the relationship between our parents; I think it's a kind of destiny. Maybe you are the reincarnation of a Buddha, through your parents’ body you come to this world, they bought you up, it’s simply a destiny, in this way, it will be more objective when regarding the relationship between you and your parents.
CW: It's something feels right, but can’t give me comfort.
LM: In Buddhism they discuss about death, after reading some books, I feel death is something very nature, just like you finished the cigarette, you think it has disappeared, but it still exists in other forms like ash, and heat, we just can’t see it.
CW: I understand, but still don’t have the sense of comfort; I hop to exist in this way, the current form. Of course this kind of existence is ever changing, but it is something I can control, death is not.
LM: Since it’s beyond control, then just let it go.
CW: Death is large problem, let’s move on.
LM: Yes indeed, let’s have a talk about religion.
CW: Will I become a monk?
LM: Yes, this is not a joke, many people laugh about it. I really like the thinking and understanding of Buddhism about the world, you believe in Buddhism, and Buddhism exercise will change you. I the practical world, I feel that I can’t achieve that kind of understanding if not become a monk.
CW: I feel very intimate with religion. What on earth do I like about religion? This is something I desperately want to make clear. You referred to wisdom, never in real life have I met a Buddha. All are read from the books, the monks that I have met make me feel that none of them live up to my expectation of a Buddha, including their talking and appearance, they ruined religion. Tolstoy once said: god is in our heart. What on earth do we like about religion? I think here are they; one is the religion exercise, it doesn't use hard condition as a benchmark, but I can feel its power. One thing that all of us like is Buddhism’s power of inspiration, I have never read any Buddhism script, I simply like the word Buddhism, I don't like talking about Zen which is something very popular after being transported from Japan to the western countries, Buddhism is simple.
LM: Maybe you just haven’t met. I met Kaden LAMA in Yushu, he said nothing but touched me. A small girl come to him for curing, after checked his illness, he gave her the medicine first, and gave all the money in his wallet to the girl. Meeting the herds man, he will stop the car, say hello to him and the herds man will let him touch his forehead, that feels very good, he maybe tired, but very patient, at last he hang Hada around my neck, and hugged me.
I felt that he was very tired, but was very patient, the person is warm, very warm, his eyes are shining the glory of wisdom, even though he was very tired, I felt its not something an ordinary person can do, very heart touching.
CW: I think religion is something manmade; it relies on the great persons.
LM: Yes, as in the art circle, there are great artists with great wisdom as well as great personality. So I will compare art with religion, if I cant become a good artist I want to be a Buddha.
CW: I used to think so.
LM: Today, I chose to be a good artist, so I should follow this path.
CW: All roads leads to Rome, its true after become a good artist you will become a good monk visversa.
LM: Yes, they have a lot in common, a Buddha will give bright and heat to people, its something beautiful. And a good artist can give more warmth and love to this world through his works and wisdom. So making art is also a kind of exercise.
Chen Wei, born in Jintan Jiangsu province. The author of novel collection You are beast and From now on. He created Black and Blue literature network, and Black and Blue art space. He edited and published the Black and Blue literature collection. He also participate in exhibition design and visual art creation.
Li Mu: This is a problem we don’t want to talk about Recently I am seriously concerning about this problem To participate in Kassel Documenta If I have to regard it as a goal I know I want to be a good artist I want to set such a goal
Liao Fei; Let me have a talk To myself I will go to the Kassel Documenta without hesitation if I were to have the opportunity Here is the problem Will you change yourself for achieving your goal?
Biljana: I think if you set your goal as being able to go to the exhibition Then making art will become too easy Sign a deal with a gallery to earn some money for a living Is not as profitable as running a restaurant Stay alive, and be happy that will be all right Personally I have never thought that Li Mu has set going to the Kassel Documenta as his goal We have talked about this If you regard Kassel as a stop of your journey its OK But it will be completely wrong if you set it as a goal
Kassel has selected many artists There are two years before the Documenta And it has selected some very good projects They are clearly oriented I have sent you the meteor You can explain it for them It is a very good piece of work with political significance So it is very well oriented
Li Mu; It introduced an art group, made up of two artists Long ago, a meteor landed in Argentina Three nations joined in the research America, Argentina and Germany Later on the meteor was cut into two pieces One piece in America the other in Argentina
Biljana: Back at these days they don’t have the condition to investigate the meteor They have to turn to foreign expert for help And can only take one piece back This is something happened in the 1950s From then till this time in Cassel These two meteors one in America, one in Argentina This art group did a lot of work They combined these two pieces together in this Kassel Documenta
Li Mu: What’s interestingly when the Documenta finishes These two pieces will separate again And return to their won countries
Biljana: So this is a very good direction You should know this exhibition curate by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev is well oriented She has invited some small institutions to do some discussion You can feel what this round of Documenta will be like
Li Mu: In the environment of Shanghai I feel it is rather enclosed I have a dream I wish to put myself in a broader horizon To compete with artists from America, Germany, and France To see what they are doing Then I will find my works are not good enough
Liao Wenfen: What you are worrying and doubting is the local environment It is also the environment you are living in Its driving force to your works is not as strong as when you are situated in the environment. That strong You have this presage If you were to stay in New York for 2 or 3 years You think it will be more helpful for you to Kassel Documenta than stay in Shanghai, is it right?
Li Mu: Recently I am studying English I wish I can overcome some basic difficulties.
Tang Dixin: I wish to go to the Kassel Docimenta next year If they don’t invite me I will go there by plane myself I will go there and do one thing I will say to myself: my work is all right. I should have this confidence I will go there and make a works I will tell myself that I have gone to the Kassel Documenta And made works But they didn’t let me participate I can only realize myself through this way
Li Mu: Someone asked me Do you want to participate to Kassel Documenta? I said yes I do He asked me: can you make it within 5 years? I said no How about 10 years? I said maybe He said: How should you work in these 10 years if you want to go? This is a good question I was struck dumb I will have to think about this How should I work to participate in Kassel Documenta ?
Liao Fei: The previous day I live nearby Liu Weijian At that time we had a debate He said there is an artist named….. He lives in Tiantai Mountain Liang Shaoji At that time I held a very different view with him He said he appreciate the way Liang Shaoji uses very much He was undisturbed by the outside world He just does himself, like exercise He lives a seclude life When he decides go out He will participate in an exhibition Liang Shaoji participated in the Venice Biennale in the 1980s I think there is no free lunch in this world Liang Shaoji can be received by contemporary art And have participated in so many important exhibitions I don’t think he succeeded by luck He must know some standard These exhibitions will come to look for you There has already been a kind of standard These exhibitions will not come to look for you for no reason
Gao Minyan: Those years I was working for BIZART Fortunately had an opportunity to Kassel At that time these places like Kassel and Venice have a very high position in my heart I went to see the Kassel Documenta in person You are so approach to it I didn’t feel it that distant And participate in is not something very far away It is not something sacred and untouchable After seeing so many works in Kassel Documeta I talked about it with people after coming back Work hard maybe after two sessions I am able to go there Suddenly, a predecessor waked me up He asked how you will make efforts. In what direction I said then I will try my best to create good art pieces He said many artists are working hard to create good works But they couldn’t go Besides create good works There are many other ways You will have to do together Or you can simply waiting for your luck And he talked about a lot For example to go to some very good exhibitions abroad To get to know the curator I felt it is too complex It has already been very difficult to create good works Let alone so many irrelevant things
2 Should I have a child or not?
Biljana: I don’t know I hold a different view with you For I am a female Definitely I don’t want to give up what I want As to children it maybe very simple In rural families to have 4-5children is not a problem I feel this is a huge responsibility What will you give them? I don’t want to sacrifice what I have now for having a baby Do you like children? Of course I do But it’s far from enough To have a baby is something very simple But you should have a clear idea of what to do next
Chen Hangfen: Before I didn’t want to have a baby But now I have changed When I was in 2005, and when I met Rebecca I didn’t want a baby at all But now I am more and more looking forward to a baby Very strange But my desire is not enough She still don’t want to have one Originally I have never considered of having a baby But strangely, I have changed
Jin Shan: I want to have one
Chen Hangfen I didn’t finish yet Maybe it is because of age When you grow older you will become more traditional After rethink, maybe it is because of this Of course there is the problem of social pressure Including the pressure from your parents and relatives
Li Mu: I don’t want to decide weather to have or not have one I am in between two forces My family and my wife I think I should respect my wife’s decision Now my family has given me great pressure My wife told me she love me She don’t want me suffer from such huge pressure We may decide to have a baby I don’t feel good To myself I like children I am very like Biljana in this point If we plan to have a baby Then many plans should be suspended I don’t want to change my short term plan
Biljana: Why you hesitated to make decision at this point? My family and my wife have different choices Then where are you Don’t you feel that you are very irresponsible to keep silent?
Li Mu: I insisted to have a baby two years ago It was miserable I was on the edge of divorce with my wife I compromised I made a choice between having a child and maintaining the marriage I prefer my marriage to having a baby I don’t want force my wife to have a baby because of me and my family Zhang Fang insisted to have no baby I think love is far more important than having a baby If Zhang Fang insisted not to have one I will hold on to the pressure
Biljana: Did you spend two years to change Zhangfang to satisfy you family?
Li Mu: I told myself at that time Don’t intended to change a person’s thoughts and ideology She may change when time goes by If she didn’t change it doesn’t matter If changed it’s also fine After these years Zhang Fang holds a different view towards life She will not say I must to or must not to She is no longer so rigid when dealing with daily life Now she has realized if not to have a baby, she will no longer be able to She has seriously considered this And now she said we may need a baby
Biljana: I see this completely from the perspective of Zhang Fang I feel Zhang Fang will always support you to make art I never think a woman will stick to the end Zhang Fang is this type of woman( stick to till the end) If a woman want to have a baby Especially after 30 I don’t think it is appropriate to have one simply because you have pregnant You should have a full mental preparation for welcoming a baby To have or not to have one
3 Will a gallery sign the contract with me?
Li Mu: Will you compromise your original idea for signing a contract with a gallery?
Jin Shan: No If I don’t have the money to make my work I won’t compromise it for money How to finish this project without affected by lacking of money Objective speaking, there will be some influence
Li Mu: What do you think is a good art gallery?
Jin Shan: I have seen a lot of good art galleries in New York There was a variety types of artists and is truly diversified But here it is rather unified It is especially diversified in US Artists make all kinds of works You will feel very surprised: how could it be for that kind of stuff be traded as commodity The galleries can operate that kind of stuff into goods There are many directions to operate Not like what we have here that must be something material and can be hold on your hands I think that is what called a good gallery It can operate a piece of work from an artist into a good belonging to the business world You simply need to mind your own business Comparatively the interference is small But anyway there will be some interference The artists in New York are very cool and fashion There are fashions for both the poor and the rich All kinds of people, colorful They are bizarre at first look But when speaking they are very logical All of them are very earnest
Biljana: I want to ask you, I will ask it very directly Many people think your works in these years have been significantly influenced by galleries Maybe not influenced by the galleries Have you ever realized this?
Jin Shan: I have considered it before Since you have asked I will tell you frankly To me, currently speaking it is a problem of strategy What strategy? Some of my works is cooperated with galleries The others are cooperated with exhibitions I considered more about the attribute of the materials When cooperating with exhibitions I consider more about ideas instead of material To me these are two different approaches It will be best for the two ways combined together rather than separated But currently I don’t have the ability to combine these two To combine them is my target. The target will not change
Biljana: Do you think material will affect your exhibition? I think it will
Jin Shan: Let me tell you the truth The gallery gave me 300,000RMB for one and half a year My works sold worth 100,000 RMB This is the business That means I still owes 200,000 to the gallery He asked me what on earth you think you can give me to sell It’s the same in New York I showed them my works They said how you could sell them
Biljana: That is to say you have chosen the wrong gallery Then you don’t have to cooperate with the gallery In this way you may fail on both sides To get access to that kind of gallery is difficult but it is possible You can choose Every artist here wants to own a gallery Every artist here needs a good gallery and good exhibition This is a problem about choice for you as a professional artist You want both but maybe you can’t do well on either side
Jin Shan: Your reasoning is good But when applying the reasoning on you
Biljana: That must be very hard Or Li Mu won’t ask such a question
Jishan: The problem is no one want to cooperate with him He is willing to cooperate
Biljana: Someone has looked for him but he turned them down Is that right?
Li Mu: That’s what I want to concern How should we cooperate with galleries? And to cooperate with what kind of gallery
Jin Shan: Before you set out you have had a clear understanding of this matter It’s not something abstruse
Li Mu: Had I thought it thoroughly I wouldn’t have made these mistakes
Jin Shan: Do you really think the world is that simple? If it were that simple she wouldn’t have talked about these reasons It has something to do with your experience when you first cooperate with the galleries The problem of control Could you control it so accurate? It needs time Beside I haven’t cooperated with galleries for long Officially only two years I still owes him 200,000 He said if you have something to sell give it to me
Li Mu: Your works have no market, who should be responsible, you or him?
Jin Shan: No matter who should be responsible The commercial result you get is different from other’s offer You will find a lot of problems when have a look around Your partner has problem, and of course you have too
4 Am I not a talented artist?
Lu Yang: I think the word talent is something comparative Influenced by a variety of experiences When judging if one has talent you will use the benchmarks You will use benchmarks to judge if you have the attributes
Li Mu: What do you feel about yourself?
Lu Yang: Myself? What do you guys think?
Liao Wenfen: In ancient China when someone say you are a talented person It’s not a very high evaluation You only have talent You are a talented person This means you have something to show off Something shining Not something like a mountain It won’t show off
Li Mu: What Lu Yang has referred to is a problem of finding benchmarks When I watch the works done by Van Gogh in his early years I find they are gump Judged by the standard back in college days, he is not talented at all
Lu Yang: Later on I read some materials For he wounded his brain From his vision things are just like this This is actually due to a certain type of disease Now in USA there is one artist who also has this disease After studied by a group of scientists He has the same disease like Van Gogh
Liao Wenfeng: When writing to his brother He was able to give a very clear analysis on colors
He desperately want to paint his paintings like those who was regarded as talented at his time But was not able to
Biljana: Liao Fei, do you think you are talented?
Liao Fei: When I was a kid many people told me that I can draw very well I kept on drawing till I graduated from primary school All teachers praised my paintings Later I entered high school I found something went wrong I have never seen plaster portraits Never seen the Roman King Agrippa I really felt that I was not talented at all They all lied to me Many students didn’t keep on drawing child pictures to Grad five They had dropped it long ago While I was taught to draw child pictures for a very long time Later on I entered Shanghai Normal University My teacher Xiang Jin always encouraged us She encouraged all of the students At that time we are very satisfied with ourselves Feeling that we are Ok Mrs. Xiang will never criticize students She only tells you how many strong points you have At that time I really thought I was very Ok I felt that I will be a good artist I did it for a very long time I did all kinds of things like filming videos Once I let Lu Chunsheng to watch my works He asked me why you don’t try to do some curator’s work I thought he expressed his opinion euphemistically What he wanted to say is that I am not suitable for making art I felt I like art And I want to do it I don’t have much feeling in doing curator’s work What should I do? I love novels So I read a lot of novels Much of my experience comes form the novels Then I tried to draw some illustrations After finished Many people felt all right So I was feeling all right again The first time I went to join a large exhibition in Beijing It seemed that some of the participants were at a certain level You maybe a clever person But if you are not at that level Your works will look bad Many people have talents in many areas But when compared with something else You will be competed down This is a problem of the level you are standing at Here will be another problem about oneself Sometime we will be restrained by ourselves The self sometimes is talent But for too many times it will restrain you
Li Mu: I am especially agreed with what he has referred to” level” “Level” is something can be improved through reading, accumulating knowledge and broaden your horizon I sensed a problem We lack communication Only when we have exhibitions we will have communication This communication is far from enough For example next year I will go to New York for about a month After came back I will have us together What I have seen What I have felt And I want to share with all of you When this work finished I will let everyone read these interview We are lacking such an atmosphere So many good friends So many excellent people We lack such kind of communication Not for preparing exhibition, and looking for opportunities But for growing together This is the most important thing
Biljana Ciric Gao Mingyan Tang Dxin Su Chang Zhang Lehua Liao Fei Liao Wenfeng Lu Jiawei Li Mu Lu Yang Lu Pingyuan Chen Hangfeng Jin Shan
BC：你刚才说到美术馆系统，Dorothea von Hantelmann写了一本书，在讨论四个艺术家的案例，包括提诺·塞格尔，丹尼尔·伯伦，杰夫·昆斯和杰姆斯·考乐曼，这本书叫《艺术能做什么》。这四个艺术家的案例，其实是通过他们的创作在改进一个艺术系统。所以，你刚才说的美术馆是否是一个棺材，这真的要取决于艺术家，你会不会把它当作一个棺材。她举了丹尼尔·伯伦的例子，他做了一个回顾展，很多艺术家会把自己的回顾展真的当成一次回顾，但是他完全抛开了一般回顾展的对艺术家的意义和工作方式。提诺·塞格尔对博物馆系统的思考，也是这样的。这完全取决于你作为一个艺术工作者，你是否会按照它的原先的规则去做，而且你是否希望通过你的参与，让这个艺术系统变的更丰富？你能不能提供一个更新的途径，去让这个艺术系统发展？因为艺术系统是按照一个规则在工作，这些规则多少都是固定的，很多人都是按照这个规则去做，只有很少数艺术家或者策展人会去挑战这些规则。这个挑战往往是最有价值的东西，因为它让这个系统能够去发展，能够去接受不一样的思考方式。
L: Why have you supported me in my work My Questions (2010)?
B: Why support you? I supported your work based on the idea of it. Later on, in terms of the way you realized the work, I proposed some suggestions. The reason to support you is very simple: this work follows the same index of your previous works which originate from daily life. It is not an artwork which will efficiently arrive at a conclusion. The questions you propose even though quite private, are still common ones faced by artists and curators. Artist’ identity, the conflicts between daily life and career, these questions should be discussed in a public context. I think the majority of artists are not willing to have sincere discussions about these questions with others.
A very good example which we can refer to is an exhibition entitled Institution for the Future which will take place in the UK. One of the participating artists, Ise, is a young Malaysian artist who works and lives in Kuala Lumpur. Yesterday we were applying for a budget for his plane tickets as he’s not represented by any gallery, and who works by himself. But he’s achieved a lot, launched the very first bilingual contemporary art magazine in Malaysia, everything is handled by him and two other friends. Plus, he’s running an independent residency program entitled Parking Project. Ise’s works are very interesting. We had a conversation about “choice”, in fact there’re a lot choices in this so-called art system, and you probably choose to be an artist of this kind, instead of a comparatively “safe” one. But of course you will pay for your choice.
Regarding society, there is still not recognition of the artist as an identity, i.e. recognition of his profession. This particular problem brings about other problems [for artists] concerning family, exhibitions and life. As you mentioned in the lecture, in the USA if you tell people you are an artist, you will be considered a knowledgeable and creative person, but the response you would receive here is more likely, “How you going to make a living? Can you sell what you make?”
This is a revealing question, in this kind of environment, I believe all artists are facing the same pressure as you do, and I believe many of them will compromise their careers due to this pressure. Maybe in a different environment these questions would not be so striking. For example artists in Europe, who work in such a supportive system, would not think, to pose this kind of question. I believe it is relevant to the general social environment, both in terms of the public and the individual. Usually these problems are exposed when the artists reach a certain age, and still many artists won’t talk about them in public. I guess that you wouldn’t have thought of these questions before your thirties, the very age when the pressures of society and family begin to set in.
L: I’ve got another question, “Why do many of my artist friends think this work is no good?” Here we’re faced with the question of appraising an artwork. They say there’s nothing fresh in it. That it doesn’t meet their standard of good art. That it doesn’t meet their standard of good art. Also well when I create something, I don’t know if it’s a good work or not. While I can take it as a starting point from which to develop, (during this process a lot interesting things will be discovered) I never categorize it as art or not art. Meanwhile I feel my friends are applying these definitions to the work: this is art, and that is not. So as I feel calmer now. Since I find what I do interesting, I carry on, regardless of what other people say.
B: I suppose they don’t understand your previous works either – I mean projects during the past few years. There are things cannot be instantly judged as black and white. For me this project is just starting, because it just started to develop, maybe it can last for ten years, or another ten years. These things follow you as you mature, and your opinions towards these questions will change. Maybe you thought A last year and this year you switch to B, and I believe in five years, it will be a completely different story. This way of evaluating work is perfectly normal, thanks to the singular paradigm of art production. But this is actually a serious problem; the singular definition of art leads people to believe that only “the [art within the definition] art” is art. In China, galleries and museums comprise a mutually- supporting system. The majority of people can recognize a piece of art [as per the gallery/museum definition], because there’s no second system. While art can still be produced, it will receive a lot of negative comments, especially in China, simply because it because it doesn’t match the current production paradigm of contemporary art.
L: I was reading the magazine LEAP, from which I can learn the sound and feel of Chinese contemporary art. I feel I’m not there. But here comes another question I have to face: probably I will never be there.
B: So how you face it?
L: I’ve visited the collections exhibited at ShangART Warehouse and Lu Pingyuan asked me if I felt moved. I replied no, instead, I felt quite glad, since my work is completely different from those works, and not even in the same category as them.
I need to be prepared for the fact that probably I will never enter the mainstream of galleries and collections. In the past few years, I’ve been dreaming of signing with a big-name gallery; that my works would exhibit in the galleries, the best museums, just like all those great works. But I have to face the possibility that I will probably never get all these things.
B: I can’t believe that you have already given up on those dreams!
L: I haven’t, but the question is inevitable, that probably I can’t enter (the system). I’ll continue with my own methods of creation, which will lead to my not entering the collection system. My works are not developed visually, but from a starting point of an understanding of daily life.
B: You’re looking at this problem too narrowly. All you’re looking at is applicable to China; why not put yourself into a wider environment to discuss?
L: You’re right. I shouldn’t be demoralized by the environment in China, but look at the world and go more broad.
B: Then why just now you were dreaming about the magazines and galleries?
L: It was just a fleeting feeling. Since we always predict our futures according to the things we know and observe.
B: You need to always remind yourself that your work confronts not only China but the global environment. So never take things as absolute. Some of my overseas artist friends are only noticed by galleries when they are 35 or 36, and are slowly invited to co-operate. Abroad, artists in their thirties are just starting. But here, many artists of the same age have already solidified their style. Your production is quite different from them. When you think about these questions, you need to enlarge the environment. You are an international artist, which is very important.
L: You started curating since 2005, have been co-operating with a lot young artists, and were any of them signed with a gallery?
B: Of course yes.
L: What happened afterwards? To an artist, is it good or bad to be represented by a gallery?
B: I’ve co-operated with several Shanghainese artists, and afterwards due to different reasons, their works departed from my standard of art. To be represented by a gallery, can be good can be bad, depending on the artist himself. If the artist is supported by a professional gallery, definitely it’s good, while more or less you will be influenced. Why you are doing art? Whether the artist is influenced by signing with the gallery is up to him. I’ll never blame a gallery for the change of an artist; it depends on the artist’s understanding of art. For a curator it is the same story. If you just work for a museum, with fixed salary, but without creating something will you continue or not? If you think you can’t do what you want to do at the gallery then leave it. If artists become more commercial, then the problem definitely comes from the artist being irresponsible for their art.
There are many young artists who are 26 or 27. It is the age of experimentation， filled with desire for expression. Without a context, this period won’t last long, maybe two or three years. The artist will have nothing to create, will lose the strength of creation.
L: Some young people create relying only on passion. It doesn’t matter if they are represented by a gallery or not. But after this stage, will they not be able to create powerful works?
B: It totally depends on the artist himself; art is a lifelong career. It’s like what I have always been telling artists; now you do things with passion, because you are young and have a desire to express. It’s the same with the curator, two three years after, you must think rationally about complicated issues such as how the subject relates with the historical context and current situation. Many artists we know go back to painting after experimenting in media in their thirties, even more reserved; it’s a multifaceted problem. There’s no use in blaming the gallery or the environment. It’s about the independence and self-recognition of artist, about choice and judgment.
L: I agree with not blaming the environment, but meanwhile we still live it. I have witnessed many friends who gave up after several years of passionate creation, others were even more realistic, they combined art with the market, and made much more commercial work.
B: Of course. For me, these people who choose another direction will not ask the questions you’ve been asking. We don’t need to talk too much about the environment The other day we joined the lecture of Lu xinghua, and one editor of one editor of LEAP magazine said: Biljana is curator, she curates exhibitions; Lu Xinghua is critic, he writes critiques; LEAP is a magazine, which takes care of the responsibilities of the media. In my opinion, this comment might have fit the situation 20 years ago, but these roles should not be understood that way now. The role of an individual today is quite complex, artist can be a journalist, a writer; they can also be one of the basic components in building the system. If a curator only produces exhibition, intents in building the sort of things are missing in this environment; the question is how to fulfill your role and identity. If everyone thinks the same way, then the environment will transform in a few years. The attitude of the individual is particularly important. Artists should make works and participate in exhibitions to understand what the world is like in different cultural environments. It’s also important for others to interpret his work, understanding the worth of creating something magnificent, but how intensively the artist is devoted to the creation. Especially in China, since we always complain about the environment, we can only sit like fools and doing nothing, because there is no money and no opportunities. But I believe that there is still a lot that can be done which does not require that much money, if the artist doesn’t complain about the environment, we can only stand by like a fool and doing nothing, because no money no opportunity. But I believe there’re still a lot can be done which do not require that much money, if the artist doesn’t have a studio, then make your home as one.
L: To make an analogy, if someone tells you that a plot of land is no good, that it will not nurture the seeds which are planted, you will choose to leave, find another plot of good earth and plant. But actually you can change the earth. The culture earth here in China is created by millions of individuals, instead of being a fixed entity which can never change.
B: Recently I had an interview with Lu Yinghua; I mentioned to her that museums are not the only institutions today. Individual can become institutions; the thing is whether you are willing to take on this responsibility.
Probably it’s not possible for us to witness the evolution of the national system before we die. But we need to simply offer what we can, and then the environment will definitely change. In the exhibition I curated in Manchester entitled “Institution for the Future,” in fact all the titled “institutions” are individuals, artists. Ruangrupa, a small group features 7-8 artists who rent a small space and live there, it’s an achieve warehouse, a complete mess. They organized a lot educational activities there, spent enormous time on this basic, fundamental thing, which is particularly important. Which you confront directly with your local environment and situation, who is your audience? How to locate your audience? How to cultivate your audience? How you change the entire artistic environment? That’s it. The art environment in Indonesia is extremely difficult and commercialized as well, Ruangrupa never complains about the market, but consider what they can contribute for how to change standard which will enrich the structure inside this environment.
L: Last time when we talked about these questions with some artists, the dialogue was still not profound enough, but I consider it as a good start. Lastly I said when I returned from my New York residency program I would share my experiences with them and they all applauded.
Afterwards, I gave a lecture to share my experience in Rock Bund Art Museum, and I found most of the participating artists didn’t join the lecture. I’m wondering actually if I can gather the artists together to discuss the artworks I saw during the residency. The lecture aimed at a public audience, not much artists participated; if we can get artists gather together, the discussion will go deeper I guess.
B: Next time you could try. I don’t agree with you about your comments on the public, you think it’s because of their limited knowledge of the public that the discussion can’t get deeper, but it’s wrong. On the other hand, it’s about communication itself. Several months ago, a Finnish artist joined a residency program in Shanghai. I told some artists to organize a lecture by themselves, to invite him to introduce his work, get to know each other. And how did it turn out? The lecture started at 2pm – most of the artists arrived at 3pm, when the lecture was almost finished. It’s about attitude, if you can’t understand, then at least you want to understand. Most of them don’t have this attitude, they’ve got no questions, and that’s it. I was disappointed, at least you need to have curiosity, or your own views about the works, why not speak out? I believe every artist who gives a lecture is looking for feedback, no matter where they come from, they would like to hear you talk about their works, good and bad. But he got nothing apart a particularly boring lecture.
L: This also related to the environment I guess, environment can bring a passionate man into the dessert of coldness, a young creative talent to an old super boring nobody, without passion patience – a practical man. Since my return from New York, this feeling is getting stronger – the environment here doesn’t benefit artists.
B: That’s true. As an educated person, you need to constantly remind yourself that without a basic understanding about the environment it is impossible to do art. You can, but in the end you’re working within the system. This judgment cannot be given to you; it has to come from your own personal understanding. You have no way to change it, but of course you can always go and talk about it with young people. But still it’s usually the more mature artists who are thinking about this problem.
L: Though making art can make us more open, unfortunately, many artists close themselves inside a cramped studio, cutting themselves off from both the knowledge and friends. It’s much easier for these artists to be reluctant to get to know new things, to feel.
B: In China, artists rarely communicate with each other; they are distant with each other, whilst the channel they get to know the world through is very limited. This will influence their general conception about art and the universe. In the following years, what can an individual artist do? The answer will be very essential. Only artists will shoulder the responsibility to build the basic structure in this environment, instead of glittering galleries, museums or government, since which all are quite unstable, can fail any time.
L: Another question I proposed last year was about talent. I conceive of myself as not very talented, definitely not a genius like Picasso or Mozart. It always takes me very long time of studying and research in order to create a minor work. Can a non- talented artist make good art? This was what I felt anxious about. Without talent, how far I can go?
Now I think differently. Talent is three-dimensional, which includes how to study, how to work. Art does not rely on a coincidental idea or temporary passion, it’s a career. This different conception calmed my anxiety, and I’ll never say “I’m a talent -less artist”. What I need to consider is how to develop my work and study.
B: So now talent is no longer important?
L: In fact, everyone has talents, but different ones. So-called “talent” always refers to how quickly you respond, some are sharper, some take time, some are more imaginative, some not, these are all related to education and environment. What I need to do today is to follow my feelings, find a proper way to continue my work and research – education and environment. What I need to do today is to follow my feelings, find a proper way to continue my work and research, it’s about capability. So talk about talent doesn’t make any sense any more.
People change; there’ll be difference at my 40s compared to now. Environment changes – the living condition and the social context – my art will change in respond to these elements, which enable my work stay vigorous. But in real life its different – most people in their 40s, have lost the passion and creativity of their youth, but the activity respond to their way of working rather than these elements.
B: It’s about a general way of working; including study methods, knowledge structures, and contexts of different aspects. For me talent is not such simple topic in today’s art; the idea that you are a master thanks to your talent is wrong. There should be a procedure of self-education. Talent may count for 10-20%, the rest should rely on the accumulation of your work and study. It’s the same story with artist and curator, people and their understanding towards life are both changing, as is society and how we respond to it.
L: Let’s talk about dreams. Last year I asked myself, when can I participate in the Documenta (Kassel)? Have you ever dreamt of curating the Documenta?
B: Is this your dream?
L: Maybe it’s not, but I asked myself about it. I never visited the Documenta; my knowledge about it only comes from limited material. But I know the Documenta is an international high-profile academic exhibition. Some artists whom I admire such as Beuys have participated in several editions of the Documenta. I’m wondering if I should present my works in the Documenta to expose them to a wider audience, and I need to work hard for this opportunity. We don’t talk about the fair itself; we just talk about this dream. Do you have a same one?
B: Are you sure this is your dream? There’re probably others things which are much more important than this!
L: It’s okay to have this as my dream, and I will work for it. I am serious it was my dream by then.
B: It still is?
L: I’ve changed – I don’t care that much if it’ll be the Documenta, what I care about most is what kind of works I create and their influence. To join the Documenta is still my dream. This dream did not change. It sounds as I dream to participate, but actually it’s about to become a good artist.
B: Then you are not confident enough. You said you are more confident than last year, didn’t you?
L: Compared to last year yes. Speaking of the Documenta, I will always dream about it until I literally participate in it.
B: I hope you will have a greater dream than this one. (Laugh) I don’t know how you will respond to the same question in five years. Personally I don’t dream to curate any specific exhibitions. If I keep learning, good exhibitions will come naturally. My dream is to work with good artists, to continue learning and improving, this is what I care about. It never occurred to me to curate an exhibition like the Documenta, it’s just an exhibition – many great artists missed it and that means nothing, so you must not take it as your dream. Many Chinese artists joined the Documenta, and then what? Many great artists never joined the Documenta like you, and nothing changed. The Documenta is a very important exhibition no doubt, but I prefer curating exhibitions which will write a chapter in the art history thanks to their own qualities. To curate an exhibition in structure [which is political and has a large administration] is risky. You went to Venice Biennale; you know how horrible it was. It was the same for the Documenta. So I hope you will not make joining an exhibition your dream – if opportunity comes in your life which brings you to there, that’s fine. I hope you’ll have a much grander dream.
L: They will invite me only if my works are good enough; if I’m no good, it’ll be impossible to join this exhibition. So I’ll still dream about it. If one day I receive an invitation from the Documenta, that means I am a good artist.
B: It doesn’t work that way, not at all. They don’t invite you when you are doing excellent work, but when you are in a rut. So don’t yearn for this; what you are going to do will be way more important than this.
L: Actually my reflection on this exhibition itself has had a direct influence on the direction of my art creation. When I was in New York, I visited many museums in Washington; every time I walked out of one museum, I would feel like I had escaped from a coffin. The most vibrant moment of artwork belongs to the space where it happened, not in the museum, in where the artwork becomes dead, dead because it has been taken away the whole environment and conditions under which it was created. Ever since that moment, I hated museums. But then, I started to review the system of the museum, is this impression true? Is it really a coffin? Can it not be? Are the works really dead once they enter the museum? All these reflections influenced my work. But before these intimate journeys into the museum, before I had a chance to feel it up close, I had these yearnings to see it, but now I realize that it’s not something I need. But back to the Documenta, maybe when I literally join it, I would realize that it’s not something I need; even if the Documenta that year will be same horrible like this year the Venice Biennale, and then I would refuse it. Nothing is impossible.
B: You talked about the museum system. Dorothea von Hantelmann wrote a book entitled “How To Do Things with Art”, in which she did case studies of four artists: Tino Sehgal, Daniel Buren, Jeff Koons and James Coleman, to argue that their works are actually improving an art system. So whether a museum is a coffin is totally dependant on the artist, whether he would consider it as one. She took example of the retrospective solo show of Daniel Buren, who threw the normal sense of retrospective exhibition away, so as Tino Sehgal’s reflection on the museum system. It all depends on you as an artist, whether you will follow the original regulations, or shake up the system through your work? Whether you can leading the way and offer this art system a new direction in which to develop? Because the art system is based on general regulations which are mostly fixed, and the majority follows, only a few artists and curators will challenge these rules. This challenge is the most valuable thing, because it will allow the system to develop and people will come to accept a different way of thinking.
L: The so-called Euro-American art system, these standards have developed over many years, step by step. The whole world plays the same game with the same rules, if you don’t play, then stay out of the game. Cut all the links with it, but then how can there be creativity and change? If you close yourself off, build a wall to shut out the rest, then how you can create something new? Working behind closed doors is wrong. I also ask myself, if my work needs to match those standards as well?
I see myself studying, not studying the means of production, but the whole system of art. Because I do not know what it is, and what is going on around it. This is a process of necessity, and it’ll last for quite long. It’s actually quite enjoyable, this process of learning, to find a way to express yourself within the system. Many artists I know have found their own ways to create artworks. They will be exhibited in galleries.
B: It’s easy to learn.
L: Yes, it’s about how to understand the system, and from this I start to reflect upon who I am. Will you follow the system or adding something new? What is new, what will you bring? My thoughts have been wrapped up in this; I need to remind myself not to be eaten up by that system – it’s just like studying calligraphy.
B: So where you are now?
L: Now I think consciously, about what it is, and what I can do.
B: Any answers?
L: Not yet.
B: Any concrete actions?
L: I will slowly practice my experiments in the coming projects, and my creations will be more focused. I cannot remain satisfied with merely representing myself accurately. To present myself honestly is far from enough; I have to ask myself, what I can do, and what the other possibilities are.
B: I’m looking forward to it.
L: I’ll do my best.
B: Then this will be your next step, up until now you’ve never been so specific.
L: Recently I found some friends have lost their passion of creation; everyone became more and more practical. But we need the passion. I’ll think about what I can do, and start to do something, start with something small, without enormous plan. If we artist friends can gather together more often having discussions, help revive our passion. I guess, since there’ll be an atmosphere, your passion will influence me, mine will influence others, even if the influence will not be visible so soon.
B: Don’t take it as a rebuttal, but temporary passion is not enough in this environment. I feel it’s not necessary to organize more activities nor exhibitions, since they are not helpful for the artists. I’m talking about group shows, which is very characteristic of Shanghai, it might have been helpful for artists 7-8 years ago, but it doesn’t work now any more. Then what can be helpful? How to maintain a healthy development? That’s difficult to figure out.
L: I understand what you mean, what art means to you exactly? Slowly we can nurture our own growth and understanding; you don’t need to join many exhibitions, only to continue the concept, then your passion continue. So what we need to construct is communication instead of exhibitions without communication it’ll be a big loss to everyone.
B: Yes, communication is necessary, it’s a common need. If I’m in need of communicating with you, but you are not with even a slide interest, then the communication will be invalid.
But many people are not willing to think about these questions. Last year a group of artists had a exhibition in a container, but actually they didn’t do that [communication] work, which led to many failures. Last year I heard Hans Ulrich Obrist say that this problem exists not only in China, but around the world. What should be the characteristics of so-called art production? He considers it more or less like an educational institution; people exchange ideas, communicate for a long time, which will transform an environment and people’s reactions against it. In this case, we should only construct an “educational institution” instead of “exhibition space”, which requires enormous devotion and time, but many people are not willing to devote so much time, because it’s invisible. But I conceive it quite necessary in the current environment.
L: I personally find that I’ve benefited a lot from communication. Artwork is just the fruit of that labor; behind it is actually communication and exchange of ideas. If there can be such a “school” in Shanghai, where can discuss and study from each other, then that would be good. I always find the “Night @ RAM” series organized by Rockbund Art Museum fascinating. Disregarding individual events, but the general idea is great, because it invites many artists, art enthusiasts to go there for a lecture, join a discussion, watch a film. These are all spiritual things, things we need, as much as we need like food. I need it, and I believe every art lover needs it too.
B: “Night @ RAM” started from “By Day by Night” curated by Hou Hanru; that exhibition reflected on the museum system, and it literally had an influence on this museum. It’s a real contribution to today’s Chinese art scene. I find it interesting as well, even if it’s a small move, but when you keep going, it can become major and important.
L: Even more important than its exhibitions, the effect of these “Nights” is invisible, but its impact is profound. Only when activities become more vibrant, more informative, can the possibility of art be richer.
Biljana Ciric Biljana Ciric is independent curator based in Shanghai. In 2011 she initiated projectTaking the Stage OVER, one year ongoing investigation related to performative aspects in art. She is co-curator of Asia Triennale Manchester 2011 presenting project Institution for the Future and regular contributor for Yi Shu Journal, Flash Art, Broadsheet and other art publications.