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A Conversation with Yu Youhan

Interviewer: Paul Gladston 2012

Yu Youhan is a painter who lives and works in Shanghai. He was born in Shanghai in 1943 and graduated from the Central Academy of Art and Design, Beijing in 1973. In the early 1980s, after an early period during the 1970s of producing landscape and figure paintings similar in style to those of the French impressionists and post-impressionists, Yu began to make abstract works that bring together stylistic influences from the work of the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian and traditional forms of Chinese ink and brush painting. In 1988 Yu then began to make 'Pop' paintings, often involving images based on official photographs of Mao Zedong, that were strongly influenced by the work of the North American artist Andy Warhol and the British artist Richard Hamilton. During the 1990s Yu embarked on the making of a series of landscape paintings combing Western and Chinese stylistic approaches before returning in recent years to a variation on his earlier abstract style of painting. In this conversation Yu discusses the relationship between his paintings and the wider historical background of their making. In doing so, he also sheds light on the personnel, professional and localized cultural attitudes that have informed his work as an artist. The text presented here is an edited transcript of a conversation recorded at the artist's home in Shanghai on March 7, 2009.

Paul Gladston: Since the early 1980s your painting has undergone a series of radical stylistic changes: first from abstraction to 'Pop', then from Pop to landscape painting and finally from landscape painting back to abstraction. Is there a relationship between these radical and ultimately circular stylistic changes and the immediate conditions―political, social, economic and cultural―within which you were working as an artist when you made them? Moreover, what exactly is it that you were you trying to achieve by making such changes?

Yu Youhan: After the adoption of Deng Xiaoping's opening-up and reform policy in December 1978, China's social atmosphere became much more open―at least compared with the atmosphere before 1978. It became possible to paint various kinds of paintings, not just the official academic paintings of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. I was born in Shanghai in 1943. The country was liberated when I was six years old. So I witnessed the changes from the liberation in 1949 to the adoption of the opening-up and reform policy in late 1978. I graduated from the Central Academy of Art and Design in Beijing (Zhongyang meishu xueyuan) in 1973. At that time, artists still had to follow government directives. When I had the opportunity to paint whatever I liked after 1978, I chose to paint something that wasn't political; something that calmed me down. I liked to read Laozi and I appreciated his idea of non-action (wu wei),  so I started to make abstract paintings in 1980 [see figure 1]. I started to make abstract painting's using a circle (yuan) motif in 1984/1985.  I stopped making these paintings in 1990. I started to make Pop paintings involving images of Mao Zedong in 1988. So, between 1988 and 1990, there was a period of stylistic overlap.

Paul Gladston: I can see how traditional Chinese thought and practice might have influenced your early abstract paintings; formal aspects of those paintings, especially the calligraphic quality of your mark-making, are strongly reminiscent of traditional forms of Chinese ink and brush painting. As you suggest, the aesthetic effect of those paintings is very calming. But why did you change radically from abstraction to Pop?

Yu Youhan: The reason why I changed from abstraction to Pop also had something to do with the social background at the time. I have always paid close attention to the changes that have taken place as part of the development of my country. Chinese society became quite corrupt during the 1980s and I wanted to address that in my painting. Initially, my abstract paintings were only for a small group of people―a kind of bourgeoisie living in an ivory tower. This was alright to begin with, because I made my early abstract paintings more out of personal interests and preferences. There were no public exhibitions of those paintings. However, later on, I felt that it was necessary to change my approach toward painting. By chance, I saw a booklet on Pop Art that had been published in the West. I had already explored various ways of thinking related to abstraction and I was thinking of trying something new. Galleries didn't impose contractual restrictions at that time, so it was very easy to change my stylistic approach. I was influenced by Andy Warhol in the US and Richard Hamilton in the UK. I tried to make Pop paintings by imitating them.
Paul Gladston: What kinds of paintings did you make before 1978?

Yu Youhan: I started to make paintings in 1973. Between 1973 and 1984, I mainly painted landscapes [see figure 2] and abstract paintings.

Paul Gladston: So you started making abstract paintings as early as 1980?

Yu Youhan: Yes. Actually, there was an overlap with the earlier landscape paintings. I was teaching landscape painting in a school in Jia Ding, which is not in central Shanghai. I painted for my own interest after teaching.

Paul Gladston: During the Cultural Revolution, did you get into any trouble with the authorities as a result of making landscape paintings. As I understand it, such paintings did not conform to government directives on the production of art at that time?

Yu Youhan: No, no problems. I did it for myself. As I said, I was teaching landscape painting to students at the time.

Paul Gladston: And you were doing this openly?

Yu Youhan: Yes, it could be done openly.

Paul Gladston: Do you know the work of the German artist Gerhard Richter? He's well known for shifting constantly between different styles of painting. Sometimes he makes realist paintings based on photographic images, sometimes he makes abstractions, and sometimes he combines photographic realism with abstraction. All through his career as a mature artist, he has shuttled continually between differing styles of painting without any obvious developmental rationale. In the West, critics have interpreted this stylistic diversity as symptomatic of post-modernism.  Generally, what is meant by this is that instead of working sequentially away from realism toward abstraction―which is one way of interpreting the development of the work of modernist painters such a Piet Mondrian―Richter has instead maintained a very much more fragmented and open-ended view of the possibilities of his practice as a painter. Since 1980 you have also shifted continually between differing styles of painting. But it seems to me that there's a fundamental difference between your working practices and those of Richter: while Richter continues to move in an unstructured way between realism and abstraction, the trajectory of your development as a painter has been more obviously sequential and, in the end, circular. Why is this?

Yu Youhan: There's a saying in China which is "luo ye gui gen". This means that you're born in one place and no matter where you go later on when you get old you will always return to the place where you were born. In other words, it means you start from a certain point and get back to that point in the end. So the changes in the style of my paintings may have been influenced by traditional Chinese thinking. As for Gerhard Richter, I actually know his paintings quite well. His paintings combine abstract and concrete images into a single force, united together. For instance, in some of his paintings, he painted half a landscape, and then he used an abstract technique to cover the other half. As a result, one can see a landscape style, an abstract style and the cross-over between the two styles within a single painting. Chinese perspectives are different, however. Chinese aesthetic points of view change as the positions of the viewer changes. A typical example of this is the Chinese garden. When you are in a Chinese garden, what you see changes as you move through the space. When you are in a Western garden the totality of the garden is emphasized. I'm not sure whether my interpretations are right or not, but cultural differences would probably make my paintings different from those of Richter. Another reason could be my personality. I don't like to use the same style to make paintings all the time. Some artists stick to one style and go deeper and deeper into that style. Whereas for myself, I prefer to, "shoot a gun and change my position". There were so many different kinds of Western art in front of us during the 1980s. I was so curious to see what would happen if I tried different types of painting rather than being limited to one style. As I said earlier, I was an art teacher at the time, teaching landscape and scenery painting. I was also very interested in abstraction. So it was my personal interest to get to know different kinds of Western painting styles. I just followed my own feelings.

Paul Gladston: Richter can be understood to have shuttled continuously between different styles of painting because of his historical position as an artist in relation to modernism. During the 1960s and 1970s when Richter began his career as an artist, intellectually painting no longer seemed possible. One of the characteristics of Western modernism is a move toward increasing specialization. Many Western artists progressively gave up on realist representation and sculptural illusion in favour of abstraction and flatness. As a result, the perceived limitations on painting became tighter and tighter. Eventually many Western artists abandoned painting altogether either because the next logical step was to produce concrete three-dimensional forms of abstraction―Minimalism―or as a critical post-modernist response to the restrictive dictates of Modernism thinking―Conceptualism and performance art. Throughout his career Richter has tried to find ways to continue painting despite persistent doubts over the possibility of its historical continuity. As a Chinese painter of the 1980s I strongly suspect that you didn't share in these artistic concerns. Could you say more about the relationship between your own particular historical horizons and the stylistic plurality of your work as a contemporary Chinese artist?

Yu Youhan: It's not feasible for scientists to constantly change their field of research. Art, however, involves the feelings and expressions of human beings toward nature and the outside world. When the surroundings change, artists should represent those changes.

Paul Gladston: Forgive me, but I'd like to press you a little further on this question. What interests me here is that there were significant differences in the historical horizons and concerns of Western and Chinese artists during the late 1970s and 1980s. For Western artists of the late 1970s and 1980s there was a prevailing post-modernist climate of doubt with regard to notions of rational social progress. By contrast, Chinese artists were working within a context in which there was renewed optimism in the possibility of rational social progress―the so-called "humanist enthusiasm" of the time―following on from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.  This suggests that, in contrast to the West, the dominant way of thinking in China during the 1980s was rather more modernist in tone than post-modernist. Were you conscious of these differing historical horizons and concerns during the 1980s?

Yu Youhan: The information we received about the West during the late 1970s and 1980s wasn't comprehensive. So, in relation to Western abstract painting, I only knew about the work of Mondrian. There was an exhibition of abstract art which came to China from Boston in 1982. That's how I got to know about newer forms of abstraction. I didn't fully understand the inner thoughts of the makers of these newer works. I just noticed the apparent expressions. As for context, it might appear to Western people that we were optimistic during the 1980s, but I don't think so. My attitude was one of wanting to escape into the work―into the circle paintings. At that time, I felt society was too noisy and I wished I could find a place, like an ivory tower, in which to hide myself. When I painted the Mao series, though I cherished the Maoist period, I also held more reflective and critical feelings about that period too. So, some paintings, which may appear to be a form of bohemian realist art, didn't express optimistic feelings at all. Instead, they were trying to reveal feelings about the betrayal of socialism. I think the Mao series of Pop paintings should belong to the history of China's folk or historical paintings. In these paintings, the background colours are very bright. But, if you look carefully, there are unstable elements in the background suggesting that disaster may take place at any time. As for my feelings towards Mao, though I no longer admire him as I used to during the Cultural Revolution, I don't think we should deny him totally. And I don't think Western propaganda about Mao is right either. I think every leader would like to lead their country toward a better future. If I can make some contribution to Chinese society through my paintings, I would like to pull down Mao's position as a saint and make him into an ordinary person. But what I don't want to do is to demonize him. Social transition in China will probably take place gradually, step by step. Mao led China to take one of those steps; but nobody could settle the matter all at once. To return to your question, my understanding of post-modernism is that this concept is broader and more natural than modernism. As for ways to interpret my own paintings, I didn't think about whether they were modernist or post-modernist. I made decisions on how to paint based mainly on my underlying thoughts, the compositional arrangement of the paintings, the possibilities offered by the photographic images available to me, and the historical background.

Paul Gladston: One of your Pop paintings of the 1980s, entitled Playing Ping-pong, portrays Mao Zedong set against an all-over decorative background entirely covered with images of flowers―almost like a chintzy piece of domestic wallpaper [see figure 3]. My immediate response to this painting is that it has something to do with the Let One Hundred Flowers Bloom Campaign of the late 1950s.  Did you intend that the painting should have this significance?

Yu Youhan: In making this painting it wasn't my intention to signify a meaning related to the Let One Hundred Flowers Bloom Campaign. The small flowers surrounding Mao were from people who admired him, whose admiration was a little bit blind.

Paul Gladston: The reason why I asked you this question is not because I think my reading is preferable to yours. When one interprets a work of art it's impossible to do so convincingly without considering the relationship between that work of art and the immediate context within which it was first produced and received. However, I don't think we should see that relationship as entirely defining. Like the Chinese Gardens you referred to, works of art are susceptible to different readings in relation to differing contexts and points of view―in the West we sometimes refer to these shifting perspectives with reference to the notion of parallax; that is to say, the apparent displacement of an observed object due to a change in the position of the observer. I suspect that my reading is conditioned to some degree by my position as a Western observer of contemporary Chinese art. I think in the West we have tended to see the best of contemporary Chinese art as strongly critical of the Maoist period; hence my reading which points toward a critical relationship between your painting and the appalling consequences of the Let One Hundred Flowers Bloom Campaign. This almost certainly grows out of the ideological antagonisms of the Cold War as well as my immersion in a climate of Western post-modernist doubt with regard to the possibility of radical social progress. You, on the other hand, as a Chinese have taken a different view. The interpretation of the painting that you have given involves a mixture of criticism and admiration.

Yu Youhan: Of course, I wouldn't object to your interpretation. I think the original intention of the creator cannot be used solely to determine the response of viewers.

Paul Gladston: The Mao series of the late 1980s and early 1990s has been referred to, alongside similar images by Wang Guangyi, as prototypical forms of Chinese 'Pop'. However, there are significant differences between your paintings and those of Wang Guangyi. Wang's paintings involving images of Mao make little or no reference to specific historical events, while yours do. Wang's aim, it seems to me, is to 'deconstruct' the myth signified by official images of Mao, while your paintings have a subtler relationship to the particularity of historical events. As you suggested earlier, it might be better to describe your paintings of Mao not simply as 'Pop', but as a modern form of Chinese history painting. In that respect, your work does seem to me to be close to that of post-war German painters, such as Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and Anselm Kiefer. The work of Richter, Polke and Kiefer can be interpreted, in part, as a critical response to traumatic events in Germany's recent history; in particular Germany's historical involvement with Nazism and the Holocaust. The outcome of this response is not always so-clear cut, however. While neither Richter nor Kiefer could be described as Nazi sympathizers, they do seek to uphold a historical sense of German identity including aspects of that identity co-opted by the Nazis for their own ends. Given what you have said, I can see something similar in relation to your paintings of Mao. It is possible to interpret your paintings of Mao as an attempt to work through and to come to terms with the traumatic events of China's revolutionary period under Mao―events of which you had personal experience.

Yu Youhan: Sure, my work definitely signifies some personal opinions about history; if they're similar to the work of some German artists or not, I'm not sure. I can neither speak German, nor English. To refer to one of my works from the 1980s, The World is Yours [see figure 4], in the title I actually quoted what Mao said to Chinese students studying abroad in the Soviet Union: "The world is yours, you are like the sun at eight or nine o'clock, which is full of hope". What Mao hoped to do was to avoid the dark sides of Western capitalism. This is totally different from the Chinese youth of today. When I was making that piece of work, I felt sad. The models in the painting represent young people who were curious about Western influences and absorbed them eagerly. This kind of historical contradiction made me sad. However, I still chose to use bright red as a predominant colour. I don't know if viewers can feel the sadness hidden in this painting. I hope they can. Otherwise, my works would be the same as those of some young artists.

Paul Gladston: From what you have just said, the somewhat equivocal view of China's revolutionary past presented by the Mao series is also meant to extend to the events of the 1980s. Were your paintings of Mao intended to act as allegories critical of the implementation of Deng Xiaoping's opening-up and reform policy?  During the 1980s, everyday life in China was still close in material terms to that which had been lived out during Mao's time. At the same time, the opening-up and reform policy was beginning to take China in a direction very much at odds with previously established Maoist ideology. Were the contradictions revealed by your paintings of Mao indicative of contradictions which had arisen as part of opening-up and reform?

Yu Youhan: The world is contradictory, so paintings should show this kind of contradiction or the confusions among the contradictions. I personally think we should do this.

Paul Gladston: Revolutionary Marxism aimed to resolve contradictions of this sort. But it seems that the world has become even more complex and more contradictory, that it has moved against the grain of Marxist dialectical thinking.

Yu Youhan: Yes, now we know we shouldn't interpret or look at things in a simplistic way. We didn't know this in the 1950s and 1960s.

Paul Gladston: As you describe it, your work as a painter has been driven by contradictory impulses: on the one hand, a desire to make an active contribution to Chinese society; and, on the other, a desire to retreat into some sort of ivory tower. As I understand it, this contradiction is also characteristic of China's literati and Confucian traditions. Is there a connection?

Yu Youhan: Yes. Historically a lot of Chinese intellectuals and literati were like that. The reason they wanted to pursue a career in the civil service was not so that they could make a fortune. Instead, they wanted to do something for the country. If their talents were not appreciated by the emperor, then they could choose to become a hermit. One wish was to step forward. The other was to step backward. As for myself, I chose to be backward at the beginning. However, when the whole country was brought to boiling point because of the implementation of the opening-up and reform policy, I felt that I had the responsibility to make some sort of contribution to Chinese society. Of course, as an artist, what I do won't be as influential as some other professions. My paintings are just like small waves.

Paul Gladston: I would now like to ask some questions about your later landscape paintings of the 1990s [see figure 5]. It seems to me that one of the things that you were trying to do with these paintings was to say something about the relationship between Chinese people and the Chinese landscape―about 'Chineseness'― in terms of the coming together of Chinese society and the natural geographical spaces of China. Would you agree with that reading?

Yu Youhan: Yes.

Paul Gladston: Why did you start making these paintings?

Yu Youhan: It was a way to criticize certain issues which had arisen during the 1990s. After a period of economic reformation, some issues arose, for instance, environmental pollution and corruption. At that time, I made a journey to Mengshan.  When I climbed the Mountain, I experienced the kindness of the people there and the fresh environment. This made me feel connected to the original ecology of China. So I painted some landscapes about that experience after I came back from the mountain.

Paul Gladston: During the 1990s there were calls for the reassertion of a specifically Chinese cultural identity as part of the implementation of opening-up and reform.  Were the landscape paintings a self-conscious response to this call? Do they seek to reassert a traditional Chinese cultural view of the interrelationship between human-beings and nature as expressed by traditional Chinese shan-shui paintings?  Historically, landscape has been the dominant genre within Chinese painting. This is different from the European tradition where, since the Renaissance, history painting has been the most prevalent genre, historically speaking. Within a Chinese context, landscape painting is not just about representations of the land, it is also an embodiment of certain cultural attitudes about the relationship between human-beings and nature.

Yu Youhan: No, I didn't do it self-consciously. It was natural. If people think they're like Chinese shan shui paintings, I wouldn't disagree.

Paul Gladston: Having said all of that, these paintings aren't straightforward recapitulations of shan-shui. They are obviously hybrid works that combine aspects of traditional Chinese painting with the Western landscape tradition. Indeed, as I understand it, by making these paintings you were trying to arrive at some sort of synthesis of the Western and Chinese landscape traditions.

Yu Youhan: As you'll know from looking at my landscape paintings, there are slight differences among them. Some are more like Chinese shan shui paintings, some are more like Cézanne's.

Paul Gladston: Are these paintings yet another allegory of contemporaneous events; this time the difficulties of assimilating 'Western' modernity while maintaining some sort of a vernacular Chinese cultural identity as part of the process of opening-up and reform? Your paintings would appear to be the result of a struggle to bring Western and Chinese resources together as a novel means of representing the Chinese landscape.

Yu Youhan: Do you mean that I didn't find the connecting point?

Paul Gladston: I don't mean to suggest that the paintings aren't successful. It's just that the relationship between the differing styles isn't fully resolved.

Yu Youhan: I hoped that Oriental elements and Western elements had been connected quite well. However, if one looks at it again professionally, there might still be some difficulties in combining Western and Chinese elements.

Paul Gladston: Well it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to bring them together seamlessly. What intrigues me here is that there seems to be an unresolved tension in your landscapes between Western and Chinese landscape painting styles. It's interesting to me precisely because the relationship between the two doesn't appear to have been fully resolved. This leaves the possibility of a dynamic and open-ended relationship between differing cultural points of view; one in which each continues to re-contextualize and re-motivate the other.

Yu Youhan: I understand what you mean. Some art works incorporate three totally inharmonious elements into one piece of work. They don't try to harmonize them. Instead, they try to reveal their inharmonious characteristics. I'm not sure yet which standpoint I hold. It is still one thing I'm working on; to mix Eastern and Western elements perfectly.

Paul Gladston: That's interesting. I think our differing views of your work arise as the result of differing cultural perspectives. Historically, Western(ized) avant-garde and post-modernist art has been associated with the use of collage-montage techniques of one sort or another. Within this context, collage-montage is conventionally understood to involve the remounting of texts, images and/or objects within unusual settings wherein they take on new meanings in addition to those with which they are more usually associated. As a result of which, viewers are made to shuttle inconclusively between differing interpretations of the same text. Consequently, collage-montage has been used by Western(ized) avant-garde and post-modernist artists as a means of critically demonstrating―deconstructing―the arbitrariness and instability of signified meanings. Ostensibly, your landscape paintings also make use of collage-montage insofar as they involve the juxtaposition of otherwise disparate painterly styles. However, as you describe it, the intended effect of this juxtaposition is not to demonstrate instability of meaning, but to bring about a harmonious state of reciprocation between the differing styles in question. As I would understand it, your view is strongly informed by a traditional Chinese Daoist belief in the possibility of harmonious interactions between otherwise contrasting elements―a belief conventionally symbolized by the well-known yin-yang tu or yin-yang symbol.  By way of contrast, I would tend to see your landscape paintings from a Western theoretical perspective as deconstructive in their overall effect.

Yu Youhan: Yes, these kinds of cultural collisions also exist between Northern and Southern China.

Paul Gladston: Do you recognize the influence of Daoism on your thought and practice as an artist? At the beginning of this conversation you mentioned that your practice as a painter was influenced by readings of Laozi.

Yu Youhan: I didn't think too much about Laozi. I believed in the dictum: "truth is the most important thing". So I just followed my inner true feelings.

Paul Gladston: You have now returned to the making of abstract paintings similar in format to those you were making during the 1990s [see figure 6]. Why is that?

Yu Youhan: When I started to make Pop, it was a big change for me. When I was painting the Mao series, I came across some issues. So I stopped that because of personal and external reasons. I didn't plan to paint Mao for the whole of my life. Mao paintings seem to be for young artists. Also, as I've mentioned earlier, my personality determines that I constantly change what I'm doing. I made landscape paintings and, after that abstract paintings.

Paul Gladston: In coming full circle stylistically, do you think that you have returned to exactly the same place, or do you think that you have arrived somewhere else?

Yu Youhan: The paintings are not exactly the same. I just followed nature. The essence of a person doesn't change. So no matter whether I'm making an abstract painting or a landscape or a portrait, the essence is still the same; they express the same perspective or habit. When you get older, it's not as easy to change your aesthetic view points. So I'm not a revolutionary in art. I follow my interests and nature. When my interests change, I change.

About the Author

Paul Gladston is Associate Professor of Critical Theory and Visual Culture in the Department of Culture, Film and Media at the University of Nottingham. Between 2005 and 2010, he was seconded to the University of Nottingham Ningbo, China as the inaugural head of the Department of International Communications and director of the Institute of Comparative Cultural Studies. He has written extensively on the subject of contemporary Chinese art and contemporary Chinese art criticism for numerous magazines and journals including Yishu, Leap, Art Review, Contemporary Art and Investment, Artworld and Eyeline. His book length publications include the monograph Art History after Deconstruction (Magnolia, 2005) and an edited collection of essays, China and Other Spaces (CCCP, 2009). He is currently preparing a monograph on the theory and practice of contemporary Chinese art for Reaktion and, in collaboration with Katie Hill and Chris Smith, a guest edited edition of the journal Contemporary Art Practice for Intellect with the theme 'Contemporary Chinese Art and Criticality'.

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