Assadour: At preset, the main topic of my thesis is the experience of Varbanov in France and Bulgaria.
Liang Shaoji: Mr. Varbanov is a teacher who I always respect. During the years from 1986 to 1989, I studied in the Varbanov Tapestry Institute of Zhejiang Academy of Art (China Academy of Art currently), learning the creation of soft sculptures from him. All my experience at that time is still vivid in my mind.
I remember that Varbanov was the art consultant of Pierre Cardin while his wife was the general agent of Pierre Cardin in China as well as the organizer of the first Pierre Card in's fashion show team in China. When Varbanov was in the period of critical illness, Pierre Cardin proposed to take him back to Paris from Beijing for treatment, which showed that my teacher Varbanov was a legend.
Assadour: Pierre Cardin came to one of our exhibitions in Paris when he was 93. Here are some photos. This is an art bell in Paris and this is One Hundred Flutes that was collected by Zhejiang Art Museum.
Liang: Yes, this one is impressive. The coiling shape of it is the typical style of Varbanov.
Assadour: You are right. It is made by goat hair, the quality is better compared with goat hair used in1950s and 60s in Eastern Europe. They can construct space more easily and are easier to be preserved.
Liang: The use of this kind of material is simple, natural, honest and royal, full of the sense of culture.
Assadour: This is his son.
Liang: His son and daughter are both artists. His son, Xiao Song, drew abstract water and ink paintings, and had a bond with Gu Wenda. Xiao Song’s leg was cut by glass when he was taking photos of his father’s elastic cord work in Hangzhou.
Assadour: Yes, he was a photographer at that time.
Liang: Varbanov paid attention to the relationship between space and shadow. He once said, "No shadow, no space. "
Assadour: What’syour feeling now after seeing these works again?
Liang: I’m often asked by others "What is the most significant influence of Varbanov on you?" Sometimes, I just keep silent because his influence is manifold. But actually, what influenced me most are his personalty, his unswerving belief in art and his persistent struggle. He devoted his own life to a foreign country to build an international tapestry center in China. We are now on the shoulders of a giant. Varbanov spent his last two years in Hangzhou. At that time, he drew hundreds of sketches, planning to hold a large-scale solo exhibition in Beijing However, the sudden disease killed the plan and took his life away. But he still left many precious ideas to us.
At the beginning of 1989, before Varbanov went to the hospital, I saw him reading a book with concentration. Since he seldomly got up so early, I was curious and asked him, "What are you reading, Mr. Varbanov?" He replied, "Something you cannot understand instantly. " During that period, Varbanov was trying to paste coins and prescriptions on wood frames and wrap threads. He imagined to set a net on the sightseeing boats on West Lake, in the bamboo forest in Jiuxi and on drinking vessels in regions south of the Yangtze River. The most interesting thing was the elastic space he constructed with daily elastic cords-the soft construction and the sculpture with shadow. Then, I gradually realized that Varbanov was heading for post-modernity.
In his later years, Varbanov’s works became simple. When he was designing his works, he would draw a lot of sketches. However, he never created works fully according to his sketches. He would fine-tune the real work with freedom based on his own feelings when touching those materials. For instance, he made freestyle shapes with elastic palm pieces.
The exploration and comprehension of post-modernity in Varbanov’s later years inspired me to change my original views and to look for new development.
Assadour: Does Varbanov have his own philosophy? If he does, what is that?
Liang: He never talked about profound principles or something hard to understand. However, he had his own ideas and conceptions, which were conveyed to us by his guidance and edification. After returning back from the 13th International Tapestry Biennial in Lausanne, he summoned us and said, "You should not stop here. Of course, the first step is difficult. But the second one is more difficult. You all need to find your own language." Although Varbanov didn't know my silkworm experiment and my attempt to create works with live fibres to interact with the nature during his lifetime, he did inspire me to do so. Another impressive point about him was my creation of the tapestry Cloud. Since I felt that orderly edges were too rigid, I applied dislocated vertical bars and cut their side boundaries to create a sense of fragmentation. After seeing that, Varbanov said to me, "You’ve done a good job. The lines are moving." He reminded me of the heart of movement - the flowing space and time, the inner composition and the outer composition should all demonstrate the space-time concept. Thus, I styled my work a sense of drifting and named it "Cloud".
Assadour: When did you know Hou Hanru?
Liang: It was in the summer of 1986whenImetHouHanru. He came to the tapestry institute with Varbanov to see my work Sun Zi Bing Fa. When I returned from the International Tapestry Biennial in Lausanne in 1987, I brought back two exhibition catalogues. I gave one to Hou. The speech and comment on selected works from China by the General Secretary of the International Tapestry Biennial was actually translated by Hou Hanru from the catalogue. It was published on Art News of China. In fact, Hou got to know Varbanov in 1984 in Beijing. At that time, he took part in the First Soft Sculpture Exhibition in Beijing by three students from the National Academy of Arts & Design, Zhao Bowei, Han Meilun and Muguang, with the help of Varbanov. He even wrote an article for the exhibition. That exhibition threw a surprise to viewers with its amazing crafts and wonderful abstract space.
I started to create tapestries in 1978. After graduation, I created sculptures, oil paintings, prints and applied arts products. Gradually, I formed an idea to combine the volume of sculptures, the color of oil paintings and the crafts of weaving together. In 1984, ten of my works were selected by the First China Tapestry Art Exhibition held in the National Art Museum of China by the National Academy of Arts & Design. When I was deployed to investigate the markets of art wares in Germany and France in 1982 and 1983, I visited many foreign museums and witnessed numerous masterpieces. Though I had learned tapestry before, I was still astonished by the coiling-shaped works made by Varbanov. Those works were really charismatic in an enormous building space, showing a miracle of common materials. When Varbanov explained his works to those visitors who were around him, I was filled with deep esteem towards him.
There came the chance. In 1989, Varbanov came to Hangzhou in order to lead professors in Zhejiang Academy of Art to create works that could be selected by the International Tapestry Exhibition in Lausanne. They needed a batch of linens urgently so they contacted me. That's why I got to know him. Zheng Shengtian was the director of Auslandsamt. He knew from Professor Xiao Huixiang that I used different kinds of linens to make tapestries. I took some filaments, yarns and threads for them to pick. A few days later, Zheng Shengtian gave me several pages of materials of the International Tapestry Exhibition and asked whether I was interested in it. I decided to have a try and made two pieces of works. One was a disk wound by palm threads and palm pieces while the other was a thin blanket woven by rural wood loom with its warps woven with burned bamboo slips. When I took these two works to Hangzhou, they had already finished selecting works and taking photos. I was fortunate to be the last one. I met Varbanov the other day. After seeing my works constructed by bamboos and linens, Varbanov said, "They are good but too small. They should be at least several least several square meters if you want to be selected. It old him: "These are just apart of my whole work. I left other parts at home." I rushed back home that night and assembled the works overnight. The other day, I came back to the academy, showing them to Varbanov. Varbanov said: "You are really energetic." Then, he pointed out some problems of my works: there should be a closer relationship between the passages excerpted from Sun Zi Bing Fa and the linens. I went back to my workshop and modified them. I added two characters "Bing Zu" (Soldiers) beside the drooping and intertwined bamboo slips above the chess-manual-like geometrical linen squares. The two characters not only linked linens and bamboos, but also showed that "lineup" was the main concept of weaving. After the event, I happened to know that Varbanov said in the final examination: "From now on, all best artists can come to my workshop since our works will participate in the exhibition on behalf of China." Then, the academy instantly asked someone to take photos of my work and fill the form. Thus, Varbanov is a teacher who I will respect and remember forever.
Since Varbanov devoted most of his time to educating young artists during the four years in Hangzhou, the time for him to create his own works were lessened, especially in the first three years. However, Varbanov left one unprecedented work that triggered an influential tapestry movement in China. He put a proper wedge smartly in a proper time with a proper artistic form. In other words, at the beginning of the reform and opening when China was witnessing the 85 Art Movement and eager to communicate with the world, he used a kind of art language that could be accepted by the government, the public and the artists to explore a new space, thereby introducing many information and conceptions about western modern art to China. Thus, in Zhejiang Academy of Art, professors and students from Craft Department, Oil Painting Department, Sculpture Department, Chinese Painting Department and Print Department were all longing for communicating with Varbanov. The Varbanov Studio became the most vigorous and independent studio in the academy, gathering forerunners of the 85Art Movement and determined creators including Gu Wenda, Wang Gongyi, Shi Hui, Zhu Wei, Xu Jin, Wang Yibo, Liu Zheng, Lu Rulai, Liu Xiuqin and so on. They conducted different kinds of experiments of materials and space, breaking through existed boundaries. I witnessed Varbanov's pioneering undertaking, which inspired me till now.
Assadour: Were exhibitions of Varbanov and Robert Rauschenberg held at the same time in the same hall in 1985?
Liang: Yes, that was a coincidence. The tour exhibition of Rauschenberg and the soft sculpture exhibtion of Varbanov were held in the East Hall and West Hall separately in the National Art Museum of China. The size of Rauschenberg's was quite large, occupying the Central Hall and Back Hall. Rauschenberg also went to watch Varbanov's exhibition and spoke highly of it.
Assadour: Do you think Varbanov was influenced by Rauschenberg?
Liang: Of course. Post-modernity appeared obviously in Varbanov's later works.
Assadour: He also put models in his weaving works.
Liang: Varbanov paid attention to materials and space as well as conceptions. His works are not merely simple fabrics.
Assadour: Did Varbanov mention Rauschenberg in his process of tapestry creation?
Liang: The point of Varbanov's teaching was to discuss with you in the practice and gave you instructions. He seldomly talked about certain artist. Most of time, he just told us the way to view art questions.
Assadour: Art questions?
Liang: Art questions. I remember that once I went to a lecture given by an American sculptor. Varbanov asked about my feeling. I replied: "It sounds interesting. But if you ask me to ground glass only, I will probably choose something more profound." Varbanov told me: "Remember: Although there are somethings that you can not understand currently, never deny them subjectively before you fully understand them." Mr. Varbanov never limited you but provided you ways to view questions. He thought that there were many paths for us to realize an art go also we should know all of them. Finally, you may just choose one of them that is the most promising.
Though I learned from Varbanov for four years, I actually spent three years with him. From 1986 to 1987, I became the director of the Taizhou Applied Arts Institute and commuted between Hangzhou and Linhai.
Varbanov also came back to Paris sometimes. Later, Varbanov made the decision to invite leaders of the academy to go to Linhai in order to urge the prefectural government of Taizhou to release me. Finally, he took me back to Hangzhou and made his studio behind the auditorium my bedroom. Thus, I possessed more opportunities to witness the whole process of Varbanov's creation in his later years.
Varbanov is an internationalistic and inclusive artist. He regarded Bulgaria, Paris and China as his hometowns. His bone ashes were also buried in Bulgaria, Paris and the Babaoshan Cemetery in Beijing. In 1987, Counsellor Guo from the Chinese embassy in Switzerland praised Varbanov as "an expert like Dwarkanath Kotnis".
Assadour: How do you change crafts into art in your creation?
Liang: I've been an applied arts designer for a long time so I'm quite familiar with the folk process of weaving. I was once exposed to apart of manual skills used by Varbanov. For his unique crafts, methods and materials, I studied hard. Before I created "Sun Zi Bing Fa", I met Varbanov for the first time. Having seeing my early tapestry works, he said: "You have a solid foundation but you need to be alert to the unchangeablity of the inheritance of folk crafts. Folk culture need to sprout and grow. The exhibition in Lausanne is a modern one." His words inspired me to reflect that folk crafts are the root of art with literati art, royal art and business art all deriving from it. However, folk artists attach too much importance to skills, which makes them conservative and narrow-minded. Actually, "skills" and "objects"should be sublimated, turning from "material" to "Tao". The heart of art is creation. Those so-called "finished" works that I showed to Varbanov were "finished" because they were in defense of the "super-stability". However, we must break the "super-stability" and simplify it. Therefore, I created "Sun Zi Bing Fa". Later, owing to my reflection on the spatial mobility, I discovered the secretes of time. I tried to exchange time with space and entered the field of living fibers, giving rise to the topic of life and the hotspot of bioscience and bio art. Admittedly, the change from crafts to art won't happen overnight. It will be along-term life experience which takes creation as the path, experiment as the power, accident as the Buddhist allegory, meditation as the wings and persistence as the pillar.
Assadour: I have a question. When you were learning from Varbanov, what did you think you were creating, tapestry or art?
Liang: Of course I wanted to create art. I started my exploration towards art in 1970s. Then after meeting with Varbanov, I was suddenly enlightened and confirmed the right way of art exploration - "Creation" is always the priority! During the 85 Art Movement, I read many books about western and eastern cultures, philosophies and aesthetics written by LaoZi, ZhuangZi, Nietzsche and Heidegger. During his visit to
China in 2007, the famous Japanese artist Ikko Tanaka said when he saw my album: "Philosophical concepts account for a large proportion in your works." I believe that the process of creation is more important than the result and our concepts may influence our visual experience. Of course, we can not simply illustrate philosophy with art, or our efforts will be in vain. If you ask me whether my works are artistic, I have to say that I seldom think about that. I just feel that it is an interesting job；a creative activity；a desire of discovery；a self-insight；a release of life that prompts me to create.
Assadour: Is it good to feed bees?
Assadour: Is it relevant to silkworm breeding?
Liang: I once searched information about animals like bees, spiders and silkworms. I started to breed silkworms in my childhood. Then, I applied many kinds of silks and threads in my applied art designs. But it was in 1989 when I formally learned sericulture and made use of the whole life circle of silkworms - from silkworm larva that eat mulberry leaves to spinning to cocoon and finally to moth-to create artworks. There was a book in Taiwan written: "Silkworm is the only insect that is domesticated by human in this world." Reeling silks by silkworm breeding was a great discovery and creation of Chinese people 4,000 years ago. The background of "Silk Road" thickens its history. However, most people may think about the Silk Road when they hear silkworms, which increases the difficulty of creation for me. In fact, I started my creation from the critical point of culture and science. "To view science with art and to view art with life."
As western artists have already used bees to make artworks, I will never do that again. Art must be unique.
Assadour: How about that French female artist who uses spiders?
Liang: You mean Louise Bourgeois? Her works are full of visual tensions, rich imaginations and criticisms. Her works include privacy, using spiders, oranges and bodies repeatedly to express the nightmare in our childhood as well as the desire for mother love. The Karsten Greve Gallery in Paris once introduced her to Centre National d’Art et Culture Georges Pompidou to hold an exhibtion. I also saw many photos of her works when I held my own exhibition in that gallery in 2009. She found corruptibility from ragged cloths, which is similar to the meaning of Nirvana in my silk works of the "Nature"series.
Assadour: Do you think there is a gender difference in new art?
Liang: I don't think we should dstinguish works made by male artists from those by female artists. Naturally, as a critic, it is comprehensible to analyze the relationship between aesthetics and artworks from the perspective of unique female emotions. But we shouldn't emphasize this too much. This is my own opinion.
Assadour: Did you have categories like eastern art and Chinese art when you were with Varbanov? What kind of art do you represent?
Liang: Yes, but my category is not traditional Chinese art and eastern art. I was born and raised up in China so our national culture is in my blood. Chinese artworks lay emphasis on emotions, implications, ambience and nature. That’s why we can see not only paintings but also characters, prefaces and postscripts, imprints and poems in traditional Chinese paintings, full of strong humanistic feelings. On the other hand, western art stresses logic, rational analysis, rigorous science and visual impact, which is "dominant".
Assadour: Western art tends to analyze things.
Liang: Yes. The modern culture is advancing continuously in western world with the radiance of science and rationality. Western abstract artist he logical result of western science, history, religion, philosophy and industry. On the contrary, eastern art is more implicit, pursuing the Buddhist mood of "lasting by leading a quiet life". I created the large-scale soft sculpture Cloud in 1988. It was in winter after snow when I was lying on the ground looking at the sky and the Yun gang Buddha. Suddenly, I felt those rocks were gradually expanding. As a result,I made a dislocated composition, using figures of Buddha in Yun gang Grottoes incised by direct lines. Besides I wrote a line of Du Fu's poem: "云在意俱迟the floating cloud is as carefree as my consciousness". When I told Varbanov this verse at first, he couldn't fully understand the profound meaning in it. However, he sensed the extensiveness and profound ness of Chinese culture so he permitted me to expand my consumption to a huge one, 7 metres wide, 4.6 metres long and 30 centimetres thickz and agreed me to weave the poem into the work.
Assadour: When you were with Varbanov, the content of your works belonged to you while the expressive form was influenced by him, right?
Liang: Undoubtedly, when I was learning in Varbanov's studio, I greedily studied and absorbed his skills, techniques and ideas. Thus, it was natural form to be influenced by him. However, what impressed me most were the words Varbanov told us: "Everyone should find your own personality." Taking "Cloud" as a fundamental theme, I never stop my creation in the past 29 years. My works are continuously evolving and returning back to my original mind and nature. I once put silkworms on a mirror to spin towards the blue sky. The cloud-like silks were intertwined with the sky and real clouds. These false and true complements formed a dual mirror image. I put this work on the pulpit of the founder of Tiantai Sect (a sect of Buddhism), Master Zhizhe, and took a photo. Later, I used images of silks and silkworms as well as the NC programme to create a 30-metre long large-scale multimedia installation The Calendar of Stars (Xing Li).
In 2014, I held my solo exhibition Yuan which means the beginning of everything. Yuan is an essential element,standing for nirvana, samsara and unification. We must stay true to our mission in the experiment of creation and materials, receiving recovered energy from the thing-in-itself. The combination of western and eastern cultures do not necessarily mean "westernized Chinese style", or vice versa. It is a chemical reaction in which we can refine something brand-new and something beyond both western and eastern culture.
Assadour: Do you think that every artist should have a sensitive feeling about the materials?
Liang: Yes.I think that artist o choose and control the materials.I dealt with many kinds of materials: hemp palm, seaweed, bamboo, wood, stone, paper, water, glass, metal, abandoned plastic barrel and parts from computers. I planted bamboos and made videos. Most importantly, in recent 27 years, I studied the living fiber material. I studied the material in every aspect, learning about habits of silkworms, the biological clock of silkworms and the pathology of silkworms. I have observed different behaviors of silkworms when they touch different materials, finding out the law and the accidental factors. I also observed the whole process of their nirvana.I even regard the world of silkworms as an image of the universe.I believe it has connection with the contemporary culture and eco-aesthetics. The sound and the odor made by silkworms are creative intermediary. Therefore, I created Listening to Silkworms (Ting Can). A commenter from Holland wrote in "The Immateriality of The Materials", "Like silkworms, we all live in danger. Liang Shaoji pointed out that as long as we face the uncertainties in life, which is 'seeing the reason', we will find out that the spinning sensation is in our life. This is a common idea supported both by the eastern thought and the western thought We escape from the reality and seek shelter in the Utopia. We can hear that Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz said I exist because I can see', challenging René Descartes's 'I think, therefore I am.' And they again and again ask us to open our eyes.
Assadour: When you study the western philosophy, do you find the eastern thoughts in the 1940s and 1950s western philosophy? Like thoughts of Lao-tzu and Mencius?
Liang: Of course. In ancient culture, we Chinese believed in the five elements of gold, wood, water, fire and earth. The four factors in Greek culture were wind, earth, water and fire. Martin Heidegger translated and verified some paragraphs in Tao Te Ching written by Lao-tzu. Dadaism of the western art is influenced by the Buddhism. Impressionism is influenced by Japanese Ukiyo-e... Where is the origin of Chinese Brush Painting and painting skills? It is derived from Taizhou in Tang dynasty. A scholar in The China Academy of Art once said, Xiang Rong, his surname was Tiantai Chushi, was the first artist to use ink to paint. He belonged to Taizhou-Tiantai- Mountains painting school. The famous landscape painter in Tang dynasty, Jing Hao, said, Wu Daozi's landscape painting has brush but no ink; Xiang Rong`s painting has ink but no brush....I live in Tiantai, finding out the ink painting has connection with the natural region. Mountains and waters are beautiful in Tiantai. The climate is humid, often surrounded by many clouds. Tian tai is the birthplace of the Tiantai Sect Buddhism and the South School Taoism. What's more, since Jin dynasty, Chinese people had pursued "showing the spirit" in culture. Therefore, the ink painting spread out firstly to Jiangsu Province, then to the rest of China. The skills of ink painting have some common with the American artist Pollock's Drip technique, pursuing the fluidity of materials and the accidental factors. But Xiang Rong's creation is thousand years earlier than the Drip technique. Of course Pollock s Drip technique has some difference from Xiang Rong's ink skills.
Assadour: Compared with the western art, can we regard Chinese art as telling stories?
Liang: In fact, the earliest Chinese art wasn't specific, like the painted pottery, the shape decoration on the bronze vessels, the brushstroke in lacquer painting and the infinite lines in calligraphy-they were all abstract.
Assadour: They are the early abstract art.
Liang: I think western art has its literary phase. From Greek mythology, Holy Bible, history, war to custom all of them have literary factor. As the development of reasonable analysis promoted by western scientific revolution, the abstract factors grew rapidly. And it eventually became into an independent abstract painting art. Chinese culture is "poetic". It focused on images. The plain argumentative method "Ming Xue" in the Warring States period and "a whitehorse is not a horse" didn't develop into their full exten. Later, they even became "obscurity". Therefore, there were only abstract factors in the art.
Assadour: Do you think that art and life can be separated?
Liang: Different people may have different opinions.As for me, art is life and my life is my art. "I am a baby silkworm".
Assadour: Do you think we can put Marcel Duchamp's art and Varbanov's art together?
Liang: I think Marcel Duchamp was super intelligent. He went very further. It is a kind of "nothing". He paved the path for post-modernism. Varbanov was still a little "existence".
Assadour: Can you tell apart these two kinds of artists - "nothing" and "existence"?
Liang: Existence comes from nothing; nothing comes from existence.
Assadour: It stands for Chinese philosophy.
Liang: When you finish a work, you can liberate yourself from all kinds of reasons: philosophical reason, literary reason and form reason...You will understand "Using no method is the best method". Artists do not create language for attracting attention by novelty, but for liberate themselves.
In the 1980s, Chinese and Western culture had a big collision.At that time, the misty poetry emerged. It deconstructed the previous grand historic and political narration. The Star-drawing School painted reasonably. Xiamen DaDa broke the traditional barriers and the powerful chains. Deconstruction and reconstruction are twin brothers. After the end of the exhibition in 1989, all artists started to find their own language. I chose the"nature series", chose to move away from the city and live in the mountains. I went there letting my life to"take a deep breath". I chose to marry art to science.
Assadour: In the whole world, Chinese population accounts for 30 percent. But the influential people in contemporary art history are all foreigners, like American, British, German, Russian and Polish. Why there are no Chinese artists?
Liang: The concept of contemporary art and the standard of values are pointed out and established by western people. China joined it later. This is the stage for western people. It will never be influenced by eastern people. For example, the Iranian artists, who take part in the international exhibition, not only have nostalgia, but also receive education in Europe and America. Of course, western people sometimes find complementary factors from foreign countries to activate their art, from like Russia, China, Eastern Europe,India and South America. But they still have the discourse power. Besides, the communication between eastern and western culture and art needs time. It needs time to deposit and react gradually. What's more, the economic and scientific foundation and cultural system of western countries are better than those of China. Their artists can gain support from foundation when they launch a big program... Although we have the potential admired by those western people, we still have along way to go.The day when the Chinese artists wake up is the day when Chinese contemporary art rises up.
Assadour: If western people can not understand the mountains, waters, flowers, birds and figures in the ink paintings,I think, they don't understand Chinese contemporary art at all. In my opinion, all Chinese thoughts and philosophy are all in those paintings.
Liang: That is the reason why I believe communication is very important.We should see art from the perspective of human civilization.The ultimate of art, I think, should be "Doing nothing is doing everything". There are no eastern people, western people, ancient time and contemporary time. There are only artists sincerely expressing their feelings according to their life experience. And that is the standard to judge all works.By doing so, Chinese contemporary art will get rid of the fake flourishing, meaninglessness, insincerity, flowery form, pursuing fashion and money.Again, it will as free as the"cloud". Talking of"nothing", I will think of emptiness, quiet, vacant, white and void...When you talk about eastern art, you must talk about emptiness.The "emptiness" in contemporary art doesn't lag in sensual appreciation, but is the devotional ask - "thinking". It is an attitude of verification and suspect.And it will release the advantages of critique and inspire endless creation. 27 years of rearing silkworms has taught me to regard "thinking" as "silk". And I will make efforts to build a "Silk-topia"world.
Hangzhou, June, 2016