interview time: May 23th 2010
interview location: Beijing
LI Guohua(abbr.as Li): Since when did you begin to use video and photography for your work? Why did you choose this creation material?
CHEN Xiaoyun(abbr.as Chen): I chose video for my first video installation in 1999, on one hand, because it was fashion, it was a new creation material, it didn't have a high technical threshold or professional standard, only with proper equipments—shooting equipments and processing equipments, we can do it immediately; on the other hand, it was because of the unique characters of video material—direct, camouflaging and realistic, which differ its way of expression from that of painting and other art forms.
Besides, no matter photography or video, they all have a superficial form, that is its authenticity. Interestingly, it's the authenticity of the image rather than the objective authenticity of the image. In fact, video is a copy, therefor it has the 'fake authenticity', which usually has a strong permeability. So when you want to express or deal with some feelings, it can get into the situation quickly. Of course, all that depends on the technicality of video and the watching habits of spectators.
Li: As one of the art forms, video shows human feelings in a more direct and simpler way, compared to painting. I know you were major in Chinese painting, is there any relation between your concerns on the creations of videos and on the creation of paintings?
Chen: At first, my concern was on the 'abstract' of picture, because the production of camera is kind of a description and imitation of the reality. Due to my rejection of this approach to reality at the time, I did some experimental short videos to show sentiments through objects and to try the abstract narration. But later I felt they were too affected. Facing the fierce reality, any of our imagination will become weak. Therefor I began to pay attention to some sentiments related to the real life and give up those so-called refining or technical process, transformation and misappropriation, the remote confusion or things to let us be sad together. But till now, I still don't have a complete self-feeling. In the extreme bizarre, absurd and fierce society, self-feeling is a container, feel much makes you numb, then on the contrary, ourselves become less important.
My former major is not aggressive, and I don't have an obsession with technical background, so all that is not a problem for me.
Li: If we can divide artists into experience-based and reflective, obviously you belong to the first category. Sometimes direct feeling is more powerful than a second-thought result.
Chen: There is a reflection called lazy reflection, and another 'fake reflection', to stack some so-called reflection context or a so-called reflection posture. A certain kind of theory paranoia always thinks there must be a once-for-all reflection result that can completely guide his artistic creation and dissolve his panic for the unknown area of art. That so-called 'reflecting state' is more of vanity. The contemporary art I was talking about is that, the artists are scared by contemporary art itself, so they need reflection to give themselves gut and to update their theory. I always remind myself not to be a reflection amateur. Because it's comic to depend too much on this so-called conceptual replacement. Artists don't need to have the value of professional thinker, if we force ourselves to think over the direct reality, we will only end up with destroying the original nutrition and vivid elements of the real life, only the banality and the deceit left. But usually the sense of deceit is attractive and sexy.
Li: Which theme do your works focus on? Can you give a brief introduction of your different art stages?
Chen: I never set myself a theme or a topic. Maybe most of the people think a serious artist or a responsible artist should have a clear topic at a certain stage. But after all I am not a scientist. There is no need to set a clear topic or a work field, and to strengthen and increase my power inside this field. I always have an idle rhythm for creation; meanwhile the questions I care about are changing all the time. Of course, during the real creation process, some themes would be repeated in creation for some reasons. Therefor the works in this stage will bear some similarities. But this is not preset. At first, with my understanding for 'abstract' of image, I did a lot of affected, artificial and meaningless experiments, mostly feelings relating to the negative words. This condition can easily turn us to be negative, gloomy and obscure. As if that confusing feeling is what I wanted to achieve. But later, I gradually get tired of this kind of creation. So from 2003 and 2004, I began to turn to some powerful and positive stuff. Even though there was still some video abstract, but there was more personal language, which contained more potential explosive force. I have some works like 'Drag' and 'Lash' which came from one word or one simple but powerful gesture language. These actions themselves, including some post-processed images and backgrounds will offer a so-called shell or frame of metaphor. But this metaphor was uncertain, the spectators can judge according to their own experiences and feelings.
During 2008 and 2009, I created some works like 'Fire'. A group of youngsters were burning a truck of books in a wild field. 'Night', migrant workers holding all kinds of tools were marching in the wild field. Puberty of individual, of society and of history at this moment showed a superficial splendid, noise and hysteria. Like this, I turned gradually from personal metaphor into so-called social and realistic metaphor.Till last year, 'Why life' synthesized these 2 metaphors, combined those so-called powerful and phrase-type creations and social metaphors, even for the title of the work. This form itself possesses the capability of tolerating everything, anything can be processed as life, and this is also the spiral power I wanted to form.
Li: From your words, I can see the importance you give to self-experience, you wish to use some simple and easy methods to do your own stuff. Then how do you think about the bustling 'trend' around you, which effect do they have on you? What's your understanding about 'urbanization'?
Chen: Trend is also a complicated concept, and is always a implicit thing. Undoubtedly, artist has to be responsible for his former education, while the education and the knowledge he received, as well as his various experience, contain all kinds of trend elements. And in one certain sense, visual art history itself is a 'trend history'. So, no artist can completely refuse trend or exist beyond the trend. Generally speaking, trend is some kind of style history or image history. We can only exam it from part to part, and not from a realistic point of view. Today's trend may be meaningless for our time, but it can affect some stage later. I think as an individual, facing the trend, we should have a clear consciousness, not follow without selecting, but not isolate oneself completely from it either.
Facing the so-called trend and urban life, some intellectuals think they lose themselves, but in fact they have a safe life and totally get into it. The basic quality as an artist is that we should not flatter the trend, even though the trend itself is no problem. Too much flattering for the trend is ridiculous, and it's also a vulgar collective unconsciousness, it's doubtable. In the meantime, the present urbanization stage is not selected naturally, it's an inevitable state during the development. So to criticize it is unrealistic and meaningless, because it doesn't depend on what we like or not. We can choose not to flatter the trend, but we can't deny others' right to seek for security from this obsequious manner.
Li: The art of an artist is wonderful because he expresses his true feelings from his own self. But when an artist caters too much for public need and the main stream, he loses his own self and true feelings, then his works have no more value.
Chen: The charm of artist is that he is obligated to to keep himself and his feelings independent. Artists are the group of people in the society who have the responsibility and the obligation to insist on oneself, their work is to confirm themselves repeatedly. In one sense, art is a profession, or the ethic of artist is to be maverick.
Li: Maybe because of market or other reasons, artists begin to become professional, but artist is an appellation or a concept similar to literati, so I don't think we can call it a profession.
Chen: This is helpless, of course the best is to have an aesthetic state. Artist can be an art appreciator rather than be bothered by failures or obstacles of creations or other specific questions like how to live and continue to create. But eventually artists have to achieve this aesthetic state through working, throw themselves into work, then certainly it is a profession.
Li: The sources of creation are artist's true feelings about society. In 'Why life', lots of words are criticism about some phenomenons in the real world, like some so-called marvel and harmony, which are actually an illusion. Living in this illusion, you need to know the real self, or maybe you think you are important, while in fact you are only someone neglected or looked down upon. Why do you have this kind of feeling?
Chen: Sometimes artist's feelings don't equal to himself. For example, sometimes I imaged myself processing a personal feeling inside a collective feeling, or processing a collective feeling inside a personal feeling. This work used a lot of words and subtitles, sometimes I feel words are more abstract, more direct than images, and the imagery sense brought by words is more flexible than that from the image. Besides that, I employed phrases for creation, because it was not possible to do it in a reasonable and logical way, I don't have that ability nor that obligation. I can only release and spread out various language fragments, fragments about society, about sentiments between people, mostly release. I located these pressure point, then released them one by one, not by guiding, purely shouted them out, through various tiny explosion to express a hysterical feeling.
Li: This feeling is very meaningful for present society, compared to the former social pattern guided by ideological struggle, it seems that we have obtained some freedom, but at the same time we are still live in a limited consciousness, can't get out of it.
Chen: No one has security, no matter who, criminals or corrupt officials, they repeat their bad deeds to cover the earlier sin in order to get a so-called security. In fact, everyone is in a gray criminal state. Even though, compared with certain historical stage, we have a much easier life, but we can't take that extremely huge humain misery as a criteria. We should have a more marvellous future, a more correct one. We should not be controlled unconsciously and experience this collective consumption.
Li: Then for you, in present stage, how does contemporary art reflect all those questions?
Chen: From artistic point of view, all former activities, including art itself, achieved emancipation of human nature through aesthetic liberation. Speaking of the so-called intervention in society, I think the present contemporary art hasn't developed a so-called target, presently, the most possible is to take contemporary art itself as target, or transform it into a so-called ideology in order to diffuse in different cultures and into the social chain. This is actually very important, it may emancipate human nature or diversify people's focus on different questions. The point of contemporary art's existence in China is its diversity, it proves the possibility of diversity. The ever-effective part of contemporary art is that, as an unfamiliar thing in society, it produces some strange effect or insecurity. It's a abnormal marvellous impurity.
Li: When the high pressure time just passed, contemporary art remained in a breaking-through state from control, but now obviously we need to reestablish a human nature or a security as you just mentioned.
Chen: Contemporary art needs to get into the society gradually, and as a strange thing, to be accepted and respected by society, this is a real progress of society. Therefor, for its existence in the society, contemporary art has to produce insecurity and then eliminate this insecurity constantly in order to be accepted by the non-artist population as a marvellous thing. But one thing needs to be declared, art can never dominate human society, because it has no such function.
Li: Why is there a representation of lower-class population and small potato in your works? Which class do you think you belong to according to your life condition?
Chen: As for the the representation for the lower-class, I didn't have special feelings, no pity included. I only thought that, in such a society, they were the most powerless group. Not capable of rebelling, not aware of against whom to rebel. They, themselves, are in a condition of lacking capability and imagination. All the bad things in society fall on them. They have to carry the biggest pressure in life and also all the social disadvantages.
Social class? I don't know which class I belong to, which one takes me, that's the one I belong to.
Li: They are on the lowest level of the pyramid, the bearing is the biggest.
Chen: I think our current social structure is not yet a pyramid, it's only a interwined chaos. They are the biggest victims, at the same time, they possess a strong power, failed to release this power effectively, it will be uncontrollable, maybe even cause other new situations.
Li: We found out that, almost every revolution in history was based on power of these lower-class. But with every alternation of power and regime, a new pattern of dictature and lower-class is always formed.
Chen: This may be related to historical ideology. China has too long a history, plus hundreds of years Confucianism historical education, every Chinese has a so-called historical ideology, which would do lots of harm. If we try to understand in your way, one dictature overthrows another dictature in power by making use of the lower-class, repeating like this, we have no future. I don't think our society will develop in this way, after all, the education and information given to young people now days are far beyond our history, a lot of wonderful and successful things are shown, so in future, it shouldn't repeat like that.
Li: Usually, when we revolt against one dictature, we don't do that with a free spirit, but a power against another, because the popularisation of social culture is far away from an ideal condition.
Chen: In fact, for hundreds and thousands of years, we are always stimulating the evil side of human being, we don't have the basic thing, for example, special awe. We don't awe the spirits, lots of things have no limit, whenever there is a chance, everyone can become Monkey King or Bull King, everyone can turn into demon in a instant.
Li: How do you think we can have this 'awe'?
Chen: I think curiosity is the first step to awe, because of which, you will continue to ask questions and to have interest. Then awe comes naturally. When this curiosity cycles, your questions will cumulate, gradually, you will begin to ask some abstract questions. Awe will follow these questions. Awe can be for others, for society, for life, for history, and also be for the unknown aim of life. In a word, curiosity is very important, it's a way to keep distance.
Li: With the development of modern civilization and communication technology, curiosity of human being is losing gradually, as well as the awe for nature.
Chen: The curiosity for science and for religion is the same thing. The curiosity and awe for technology are also 'divinized', because these are things that can lead human being into progress. We can not stay where we were to wait for the social development. The appearance of steel and cement is not wrong, it's our way to built useless stuff for the sake of GDP that is ridiculous. We should keep being awed, not to be arrogant, not to waste too much.