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CHEN Xiaoyun: The active and passive relation between life and a severe bite

Interviewer: JIN Simeng 2010

After having been to CHEN Xiaoyun's solo exhibition 'Why life' at Shanghart Beijing, I went to meet him near Wangjing. We were both early. Because I never met him before, even though we were not far from each other, no one talked, no one called to tell the early arrival, life taught us well the good habit that we call 'courtesy'. While waiting, I doubted if it would be a relaxing chat. I always try to avoid the unfamiliar ask-and-answer interview with people I didn't know. At the same time, I don't want the conversation becomes nonsense, because artists hide under the cover of self-display and Hippie-cynicism to protect themselves from being hurt. We never stop mesuring our position or trying to adjust and control it. Someone calls it a game, to play with an unknown adversary, or generally speaking, to play with life. Instead of the results of this game, CHEN Xiaoyun is more interested in the process. He said a word he liked was 'hysteria', because in this insanity or craziness, there were desperation, pessimistic feeling and a severe bite.
"There is no murderer, no victim in life, only the criminal scene." This video subtitle hopped out in the dark exhibition space to surprise the spectators. CHEN Xiaoyun, with wise gaze, sincere attitude and a naughty chuckle, invited everyone to examine the scene.

Art Value: You were major in Chinese painting in China Academy of Fine Art, how did you think of making videos?
Chen: There is no threshold for art materials, they are all related, I don't think it's a big deal. It was the end of last century, video was an interesting material, so I wanted to have a try, because for me it was a direct and effective way. I didn't think it was special or not special, I happened to have a video camera at hand, then I tried by the way.

Art Value: Why didn't you finish your major? Did your interest change?
Chen: Not really, for young people, lots of accidental things, whims, not so scrupulous, no such pompous reasons like 'I don't want to do this major' or 'abandon the education system' etc., only some insignificant incidents.

Art Value: What kind of incidents?
Chen: Fight, fail in English, etc. I think it was me, I wasn't good enough. I need to be honest about my own faults, I can give myself a rebellious label (laugh ). Everyone has his own system, we should not violate that, if so, you have to accept the consequence. But I don't think it was impossible to accept that for me. School is only a stage for adolescence, only that I had a short one, but I also had this period, that was enough for me.

Art Value: After quitting school, did you feel having more freedom?
Chen: No, actually I was relative late in mental development, I don't mean that I had wonderful ideas at that time. But as soon as I quit school, I had abundant time and more freedom to realize whatever I had in mind. I wondered randomly in society for a long time after quitting school, I didn't say that I had to be like this or that, I only kept trying, finally I found out video was really my stuff.

Art Value: In 1996, did '1st China Video Art Exhibition' organized by QIU Zhijie and WU Meichun affect you?
Chen: Definitely. For every video artist in Hangzhou, this exhibition had certain effect on them. That was the first time for video exhibition, not only for exhibiting works, but also research and information documents. Neither very unfamiliar nor very novel, only that with video camera, the indispensable condition was provided. For all kinds of reasons, I bought a video camera. It was the time to popularize video camera (S8) to household, later when digital camera came out, editing then became easier.

Art Value: In March 2003, you also planned a 'possession video art exhibition' with TONG Biao in Hangzhou, why did you do such thing that wasn't related much to your work?
Chen: At that time, there was nearly no exhibition all over China, no exhibition organiser, no public resource department or relevant reportage. So exhibitions were organised by artists themselves, location and equipment ect. QIU Zhijie, XIU Zhen,YANG Zhenzhong, YANG Fudong, they were already doing this thing. A few exhibitions organised by them were very successful. Back then, artists had to be responsible for themselves, it was totally a spontaneous action.

Art Value: In GAO Shiming's article, he wrote:"The works from Hangzhou's video art movement are done according to contemporary art structure. To be specific, the structure crystallized and combined by 'mental image' and 'group of mental image' replaces the narrative and story line structure."
Chen: I think video art, as well as experimental film, is all about ruling out narration and specific story, without which, only the transmission of static images and rolling of intention left. Video art is a more sensitive, more refined, more personal novelty. Its non-open feature is because that the elements available for dialogue are even less, because they are too personal. Therefor, usually people say that all experimental videos have some similarity, but for me, experimental video is not experimental at all, it conceals too many things, it's only a gesture. But this gesture isn't qualified to compete with the commercial or real film. Before, it possessed some kind of tragedy, later it was more of a posturing. Video art is another concept, not classified into the film system or into the review habits of film. It's still an object related to fine art gallery or visual art experience. That's why I am more interested in it. The situation in Hangzhou may be a little special, there are more mutual contagious and influential factors among this domain. With a higher similarity and approval of interests, there may be certain type of result. We can't say it's bad, it's rather good for me.

Art Value: Then what's your 'mental image' you want to transmit in your work? Did you create a 'CHEN Xiaoyun style' atmosphere intentionally?
Chen: I think there is always part of deliberation in every artist's style and approach. Today is not a time of style, and we are not qualified to talk about style, because too many styles were already practiced by artists during last century. What we can do now is to rely on the unique feelings that our time can provide. The whole art history and visual experience history can lend us lots of stuff to integrate. Now we don't have any really original artist, that's also because of this. No artist can surpass his time, artist isn't in the very front of his time, but that doesn't mean artist isn't advanced, he can create another order and visual experience about this world. I never thought about a 'CHEN Xiaoyun' style, maybe the temperament and mood of works have a little personal particularity. But I don't care much about this, it depends on what I do, sometimes I can be coquettish, sometimes violent, sometimes also… everything is possible.

Art Value: For the installation and video works in this exhibition, word played a important role.
Chen: I also tried words before. Word is more abstract than image, for some people, it's easier to accept word, sometimes I even wanted to process the whole video as word. Instead of a video for watching, I want to make a video for reading. People are very cautious about the daily images captured in one space, but no one is cautious about reading, just like reading a magazine, text matches picture. More important is that, I want my work to have a readable sense, maybe it comes from my demand for narration, it's not necessary for the narration of video to have a plot or a story.

Art Value: In this way, word becomes vigorous, while image turns out to be illustrational comment.
Chen: Yes, I hope so. Word has a quality of coherent transmission, while video is more fragmental and ambiguous. The every blink of our daily life is in this condition, although real, but makes us numb. Word is reasonable, rambling, insulting, lyrical, perceptive, arbitrary, or sometimes even a false maxim. Video is synthesized, digestive. Therefore I can make video into a special symbol, which I might not dare to do before. Because this would be a taboo or make the rhetoric mediocre. But now I can do this, because word gives video clearer indication, including the picking of title—Life, why life. Everything can be defined as life, this is a safer way, meanwhile it provides me more space. Every sentence, every subtitle, every scene, undoubtedly, is about life.

Art Value: In "Why Life", there are some violent scenes, for example, distorted human face trod to the ground; left-over thrown to naked bottom; 360 degree twisted nipple, etc.
Chen: I was garrulous, coquettish,itchy during a time. I made some self-contemptuous and self-degrading stuff. It was a concentrated short-film, a self-imitating process. For example, "Drag" and "Lash" in 2005 are very important works for me, I really like them. After that, my works turned to be aggressive.

Art Value: Some were not direct human physical collisions, but soft violence, like human with object, human with space, language between human-beings. The language in the film is multi-angled, at the same time, they played the role of authorities, life fighters, defeated beggers, indifferent bystanders, etc. There are loneliness and anorexia, anxiety and swearing, contradiction and confusion, also maltreatment and victim of maltreatment.
Chen: I think this is a way to evoke public sympathetic response. Life, there is always a active and passive relation, no one is always active, and no one is always passive. Your words of maltreatment and victim of maltreatment are too dramatic, I don't have a life that dramatic.

Art Value: In the video, four men kept stuffing various food into a woman's mouth till she cried with pain. On another screen, two men chewed little by little, a body of a woman lying on her side, a little SM.
Art Value: There is a specific metaphor about sexual relationship inside. Love is aggressive, it doesn't have to be maltreatment and victim of that. I have no interest in SM, but I am very interested in the image effect of SM, this relation between desire and love. Stuffing the girl's mouth expressed "I want, I want, I give, I give too much till it causes you die", love is this crazy demand-giving condition. Bite, this tearing-up with bare teeth, is another kind of sexual physical contact. Because life is flowing, unless we block it with a big stone, climb over, then block and climb again, then we can have this Sisyphus-like effect. Actually life isn't like this.

Art Value: You use violence to express helplessness in life, it's interesting to have this real and virtual power contrast.
Chen: Everyone has the same feeling about life, speechless or inexpressible, you can feel the pressure, but you can't avoid it, even think about it clearly.

Art Value: Are you a pessimist?
Chen: Pessimist, ehmn, maybe a little. Actually everyone is a little pessimist, it depends on how you understand pessimist. It can be a powerful stuff, but sometimes it's also nothing. Pessimism is too adolescent, I don't deserve it, I think there should be other words to describe me. Recently I prefer 'hysteria', in this crazy and frivolous state, there are desperation, pessimism, also a severe bite and a random bite. I think 'hysteria' is a neutral word, a critical point between mood and sentiment. One of my requests for making this video is to be hysteric, it doesn't mean hidden-coquettish, it needs a speed, a quick rhythm, lots of words and language, no matter swearing or image, irresponsibly fast rolling, only under the control of mood.
What kind of relation between life and work of artist? I don't think there is any. A good writer must be a good observer. A good artist doesn't need a bloody life to destroy himself in order to fathom the unique profound understanding about life and art. I never believe that. My works are all stories, also need fabrication. Spectators need to understand art and artist through this fabrication, but this is not important. No artist lives like a jerk or a god. We are all common people. The life of creation is boring and harsh, during which we have to keep lying to ourselves in order to continue working, or lying that 'this is good stuff', like a booster, then force ourselves to continue. I never saw anyone who can finish his work with leisure, always with incessant doubt, with the feeling that what we are doing is boring and complete junk. But a work, if only the concept is exciting, the process is without passion, then it can't be a good concept. Art is not that simple, can't be solved by a single concept, it needs a ever-enriching process, we have to admit its fortuitousness and the possibility of failure. The so-called experimental character may be one possibility of failure.

Art Value: The actors were all your friends, was it fun during the shooting? The scene with many hands digging the same nose, we can even hear your irrepressible laugh.
Chen: Hehe, it was lot of fun, shooting with well-known artist friends, while flirting each other and messing around. The shooting time for this video was really short, only 10 days, they can understand really fast my demand and the effect I wanted, we didn't need time to get along. On one hand, they were helping me, on the other hand, they were also having fun. The vomit scene in the video, may be disgusting for spectators, but actually it smelled good, coke with some Oreos biscuit and white sugar, smelled really good.

Art Value: Did you play in your friends' works?
Chen: Yes, but sometimes I was ruled out.

Art Value:Bad skill?
Chen: No, I tended to play their serious work into a comic, so most of my parts were cut of.

Art Value: Why did you choose to move to Beijing, instead of Shanghai, where video artists are gathering now?
Chen: Beijing is real, Hangzhou always has a protecting layer. Originally, all my exhibitions were in Shanghai, there didn't feel far away from home, since I wanted to leave, I would go to a place really far away. New environment makes you more independent, more willing to think about things never came to your mind before. After a while in Hangzhou, there was a certain pattern, everyone's type and order of work were similar. In Beijing, good and bad stimulations are both a lot, maybe for half a year, all the exhibitions you have been to are all rubbish.But no matter how bad they are, there are some warning functions. In Hangzhou, friends are so closed to each other. If you had a really bad work, no one thinks it's bad, also no one feels good, if you had a good work. Sentimental factor will affect your judgement. You will feel too safe to carry any risk, which should be essential to artists. Your choices will be narrower and narrower.When I was in Hangzhou, I was confused about my situation, work and life were mixed together. In Beijing, I gradually took art as work. Artists in Beijing are more professional for art, whenever you feel like playing, you find everyone else is working. You feel like skipping school, wondering in the street, want to find some playmates, but there is nobody, then you have to go back to study.

Art Value: You said it was not that you weren't ambitious, you knew how awesome you could be, those awesome stuff were all within the limit of your control and handle, but you didn't have the joy to to make them out, is that right?
Chen: Hehe, I don't remember I said that. Maybe I was boasting, pretended to be a genius. Sometimes talking is related to pronunciation, other times to oral vibration. Not every sentence said has legal liability.

Art Value: Then are you responsible for your works?
Chen: ehmn, I am serious with all I do, I rarely use the word 'sincere', but I think I am sincere, but when my work is finished, I don't have responsibility any more.

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Related Exhibitions:
Why Life


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