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A Conversation with Yang Fudong

Interviewer: Paul Gladston 2012

Yang Fudong is a film and video installation artist who lives and works in Shanghai. He was born in Beijing in 1971 and has lived and worked in Shanghai since graduating from the China Academy of Art, Hangzhou in 1995. Yang is one of China's best known contemporary artists, having gained a major international reputation for his often highly cinematic video installations, which have been shown regularly as part of major international survey exhibitions and one-person gallery shows across the globe. In this conversation Yang reflects on a range of issues related to the production and interpretation of his work including its problematic openness to interpretation from differing cultural perspectives. The text presented here is an edited transcript of a conversation recorded at a coffee bar-restaurant in Shanghai on December 14, 2007.

Paul Gladston: You are extremely well known internationally for your often highly cinematic film and video installations. But despite the fact that you are one of China's best know living artists, there is a great deal of uncertainty among critics and historians about the actual significance of your work. When I think about your work I'm reminded of Marcel Duchamp's Large Glass. Both your work and Duchamp's Large Glass are highly suggestive of meaning that is never made fully explicit either through a direct engagement with the work itself or through interviews about the possible significance of the work with its maker. Is it a deliberate aspect of your practice as an artist to delay, defer or suspend any sort of settled interpretation of your work?

Yang Fudong: No. It's just that the works are genuinely very hard to explain. It's difficult for me to explore the detailed reasons for the meaning of the works. I think that some things emerge naturally; in particular, the feelings brought about by the work. Nevertheless, it's difficult to explain the work clearly. This presents some difficulties. Interviewers sometimes ask me to give detailed explanations of the significance of my work. It's difficult to know how to respond. I'm just numbed by it.

Paul Gladston: Is there a relationship between your work and traditional Chinese aesthetics; particularly the traditional Chinese aesthetic concept of wan shang―that artworks are open to varied interpretation in relation to differences in subjective experience and feeling?

Yang Fudong: Many people have asked me if my works have something to do with Chinese tradition. But I find it hard to say what the true meaning of tradition is. Some people take time as a measurement; things before the present time can be thought of as traditional. In my opinion, one's work as an artist cannot be separated from the immediate context of one's own living environment, as well as the regional culture which nourishes that environment. The work of contemporary Chinese artists often appears to have nothing to with traditional Chinese artistic forms. But you cannot say it has absolutely nothing to do with Chinese tradition.

Paul Gladston: I would see tradition as something that is continually constructed and reconstructed in relation to contemporary circumstances. Are you conscious of reconstructing a specifically Chinese sense of cultural identity or tradition through your work?

Yang Fudong: No. That's far from what the significance of the artwork is. A lot of contemporary Chinese artists incorporate traditional Chinese things into their work. However, there are differences in the way they use them. Some may try to absorb nutrients from traditional things and then make them their own. But these traditional things have their own characteristics, which in my opinion will become a symbol of 'Chineseness' sooner or later―especially a symbol through which Western people can recognize Chinese contemporary art. I think this kind of thing promotes a certain distance, because to some extent the use of this kind of Chinese symbol, or an iconic symbol of Chinese culture, may not be a commendatory thing. Western commentators and critics sometimes try to find or discover something specifically Chinese about contemporary Chinese art, or they create a Chinese symbolic aesthetics according to their own imagination. So I think these things also present some problems.

Paul Gladston: Your work is often included in international survey exhibitions. Do you ever feel that there is a tension or conflict between your own creative vision and that of the curators of these exhibitions?

Yang Fudong: What can I say? I think in reality many curators work like directors. They view an exhibition as a planned series of events. In fact, it often looks a little bit like they are creating an artwork or piece of theatre; one is just required to play a role as a guest actor. So, they do not necessarily need the help of your particular view of things. What they really need are a lot of people playing different roles to fulfill their particular vision. There are also many Western people who place subjective emphasis on their own consciousness. And they use this subjective awareness to criticize and classify contemporary Chinese art. So the platform for this kind of dialogue is not very fair or equal. A lot of Westerners' views and interests are driven by their subjective awareness. Consequently, they never actually enter into the situation contained in the work. Many Western critics only see and read works superficially. Very few go into what they consider to be exotic; and they still feel these kinds of things as exotic within their own minds or cultures. As a result, there may be some sense of distance…which has caused some discrepancies.

Paul Gladston: Can theoretical discourses related to the terms post-modernism, post-structuralism and post-colonialism be used successfully as a way of interpreting contemporary Chinese art? And, if not, what might we use instead? Are there Chinese cultural/theoretical perspectives that might be brought successfully to bear?

Yang Fudong: First, the development processes, that is to say, the developmental tracks of the West and the East, are different. The Guangzhou Triennial will be held again next year. Its theme will be 'Farewell to Post-colonialism'.  This kind of theme is to me a relatively big topic and a very strange one. Artists like us may start to focus more on our own feelings rather than on very big topics such as the whole of society, the whole world etcetera. And we may not do things just for the sake of an 'ism'. I was talking recently with some Chinese curators. The feeling among them towards the theme of 'Farewell to Post-Colonialism' as a way of charting the development of art was very good. It was considered very serious and academic. However, it was also seen as very vague and misty, just like we were surrounded by cold and fog. And it felt like all of us were talking while suspended on parachutes; there was nothing under our feet because we were all up in the air. That kind of feeling is very strange. Although we may not fully understand the theory, all of us were very happy. What is globalization? What is internationalism? These things are not easy to define. I can do things I feel or that I like in my own region. And if these things are interesting, a lot of people, no matter whether they are domestic or overseas, will get the feeling. It is not necessary for me to give my work a background, particularly a Chinese background. And it is also not essential for me to set up a view, especially a Western view, to launch my work. In understanding a work, people in different regions or countries may have different opinions. That's normal. I don't like the views of people who live in big cities and who are fond of attending exhibitions, including those of Western viewers and some middle-class artists. Their comments are all very boring. In fact, it doesn't matter whether it's internationalization or globalization, or something else, all these things are very simple. All you can do is just start from the smallest and simplest part. Referring to China, we should be able to discern a question of major principle from minor issues or petty matters, that's what I'm saying.

Paul Gladston: A lot has been written about your work in an international context, much of it highly theoretical. What is your opinion of that writing? Does it represent your work successfully?

Yang Fudong: Theoretical writing always makes my head spin. I've read some theoretical articles. Generally speaking, many of them looked very professional, with references to various 'isms' and ideologies. But, in my opinion, the most important thing is clarity of content. It's better if the writer can put forward their views, ideas or the facts in a more approachable way. Writing is more meaningful when it isn't too philosophical or obscure and doesn't have one hundred word-long sentences without punctuation. With regard to Chinese theory, simply referring to ancient theories such as Chuang Tzu's "inaction" and "golden mean"  as a way of understanding contemporary Chinese art isn't accurate either. In fact, I think the interpreting of arts or other things cannot be followed blindly. Before a critic writes an article, he should see the work he's writing about first hand. He may have a feeling when he sees the work, and he should make reference to that feeling in his article. I think writing about art should be sensitive to feeling rather than being rational.

Paul Gladston: So, what exactly are the criteria, if any, by which we might judge the quality or success of individual works of contemporary Chinese art?

Yang Fudong: A few years ago, a lot of artists in China, especially famous artists, emphasized the value of elite culture. Even now many people are still very admiring of the formation of an elite culture, because they believe it is possible that through such a formation another national wave of passion for the arts, like that of the May Fourth Movement, can be promoted. But that's not the case inside the circle to which I belong. I think it is absolutely impossible for the masses to join such a wave, because it really has nothing to do with them. We should accept the past. There are some good things that shouldn't be thrown away, such as quality. I am not saying personal quality, but just a general idea of quality. One hundred artists may make one hundred paintings of orchids, but the audience will know that only two of them are of the highest quality; that's it. And I believe that this feeling does exist. It's the same for contemporary Chinese art. There is a lot of rubbish. If one makes 10,000 pictures of Mao Zedong of low quality just to make money, there's nothing behind that. And I think this is partly caused by some foreign curators, investors and critics who lack the ability to decide what is truly aesthetic or valuable. And this may make people confused about which works are really interesting and which are valueless. What's worse, these valueless works drive the market, which misleads the public. I have a feeling that there are quite a lot of people in China who dislike my work strongly or even hate it. But this situation cannot be changed in the short term. Sometimes my artist friends and I joke that after we die our work will become famous because CCTV  or other media organizations will celebrate it. I am not saying that we Chinese are not good at recognizing quality, but there are a lot of snobs here and their judgments are not always independent. In addition, sometimes we Chinese do not care about the Chinese, which is something that should come to an end. This has some similarities with the way the government in China goes about things. If the government decides that actions carried out by certain groups may have a negative influence on society, the government will try its best to stop these actions until no one mentions them anymore. What I mean is that it is difficult for some curators and critics to improve the mass aesthetic standard and to draw people's attention to contemporary arts though education. Many people now come to Shanghai for exhibitions, but the masses may not know what they are doing and, anyway, it has nothing to do with them. The masses may focus more on their daily life rather than the arts. Consequently, I think there is still a long way to go. I don't think things will change quickly. I don't expect that. Here is a very good example. A few years ago, some of my friends selected a number of films and videos directed by young artists, both domestic and overseas, and they showed these works in different universities in order to improve people's aesthetic standards. But I think this kind of forced brainwashing―that is to say, forcing people to see what they do not like―is useless. And people may not or only rarely attend. In my opinion, a better way is to shoot really remarkable movies or TV dramas. If you continue, the situation will change slowly and invisibly. It can also be achieved though the recommendations of the media, magazines and the Internet. And there are other groups of people, such as artists, who are continually making contributions to the contemporary arts. They may come across people who disagree with them. But that's better than forcing others to comment on their work.  

Paul Gladston: Your work is often described by critics as beautiful. How do you respond to that description?

Yang Fudong: First, I don't think 'beautiful' is a positive word. It sounds like everybody is praising you.  Many people, including some foreign people, see things in a very superficial way. They may say that the composition of the picture is beautiful, when I definitely think that it isn't good-looking. And secondly, if my work was only to be seen as beautiful from an aesthetic point view, that would also be very strange. The Chinese place a great deal of emphasis on tradition. It's considered important that one can perceive things spontaneously. Many Chinese paintings such as those of flowers or bamboos can be seen as beautiful. However, the author's emotion may not relate simply to the object being depicted. Instead, he may want to express something else. There are additional connotations. For example, the image may stand for loneliness. There is always something behind the image. It's always something about feeling. In China, no matter whether it's in literature, painting or other areas, perception always plays a crucial role, as this kind of thing cannot be touched or seen. Some foreigners prefer to connect my work to Chinese movies produced in the 1920s or 1930s or with traditional Chinese landscape painting. I don't like that. In fact, I think these understandings of the work are to some extent misleading. Take, for example, the work I made entitled No Snow on the Broken Bridge [see figure 13]. It feels a little bit cold. It feels lonely. Just like in winter, particularly in early winter. For example, when you are walking alone in the fields or along a river bank and the weather is cold, then you may pull up the collar of your coat. Or, when winter comes your breath may be misty. It's just such a kind of feeling. In fact, it's impossible for the author to talk clearly about some works. And I think this is the same for some viewers. I always feel that the relationship between viewers and works, no matter what kind of viewers they are, is just like a decoder…someone who is trying to decode the work. If you don't like some works, then you will never decode them. While some viewers will understand the code immediately, once they see the work, and then enter into the work. It's understandable, therefore, that in an exhibition some works may be felt or decoded, while others may not. It's very common, just like when one is looking at commodities, such as things here on the table, or some furniture.

Paul Gladston: So, you expect viewers to actively decode your artworks?

Yang Fudong: Not exactly, but it is a little bit like that kind of feeling. Actually, there is only one password, and the one you want to set is hopefully just the same as the audience's. If the audience has the same password as you, it's obviously very good. There's also the curve of beauty. If your work can lead your audiences and evoke their sympathetic response, that's also acceptable. Actually, I think it's just like watching a movie. When you are watching a movie and it puts you in a daze, then it must be a good movie. Even if you are not really watching it all that closely; you are just thinking about something else. I think the things that put you in a trance are good things. Even if you don't enter fully into the situation of the work, it is also acceptable. It can be very confusing, because I don't think it's necessary to speak out about some kinds of things. If my audiences can get the feeling, it's enough. And I don't think it's necessary to communicate it again verbally. When you go and see my works, if you can feel them, or you can develop feelings, I think that's good enough. Yes, it's just a feeling. I think ideas may not be absolutely clear. For example, when I was directing Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest [see figure 14], from part one to five there are almost no scenarios. Especially from part three to five, there isn't even one word spoken. People have asked me why I shoot in this way. Actually I don't know. A lot of things I do are spontaneous. Some have said that my works belong to post-modernism, and that I use certain kinds of methods related to that idea. In this case, I feel good because my works are supported by post-modernism. It sounds very professional. Take the third part of Seven Intellectuals as an example. What I did was just follow my intuition. I thought: I must go to the countryside to shoot the terrace fields. Then I went there. That's all. And then when I got there I focused on other specific things, such as choosing scenery. After that I would know naturally how to direct it. Later when I came back to that place, I would know how to shoot. It cannot be prepared in advance. Just like one cannot say that houses should be shot in that way or this way.

Paul Gladston: Do you see your work as having a social or political function?  

Yang Fudong: I don't see my work as carrying out social responsibilities. Firstly, I don't think I have enough strength. Moreover, I'd like to do things following my heart. But I hope that I can change some things, since there are some problems which exist not only in areas of culture, but also in people's thinking. For example, there is a dramatic change in the thinking of young people. Look at the kids now. Many study abroad, but the majority of those that do are the dregs of our society. In order to solve problems, we should raise the problems by ourselves and solve them by ourselves; which is, I think, the best way since you cannot ask everybody to do the same thing.

Paul Gladston: How much have you been influenced by contemporary Chinese artists of the 1980s and 1990s?

Yang Fudong: Actually, I have a high opinion of these older artists, as what they faced was quite different from my generation. I prefer works made by them during the period between 1985 and 1990. I find their spirit and contribution to the development of arts in China very inspiring. Without artists such as Zhang Peili, Geng Jianyi and Wang Qiang  we would not have had such great improvements in Chinese art over the past twenty five years. When I was still a student, I saw works by Wang Qiang in magazines. Also, when I was in middle school, I saw Zhang Peili's oil paintings in an art museum. And it was really hard to understand them. At that time, all oil paintings were realistic. Zhang's paintings were impressionistic, or something like a sketch. For example, his black and white picture of a jazz saxophone, which referred to the way people create music and songs…this made Zhang's work very different. In addition, this particular work had a nice title: No Jazz, Tonight. I could not understand how this painting could be shown in a museum and win a gold or silver prize there, as what I was taught was realistic painting. This work was shown in an exhibition recently held online, mainly to review the works of 1985. And it still feels good, although I cannot definitely explain that feeling. There is a seemingly exaggerated comment by Zhang Wenbo, a painter in Beijing, who said that Zhang Peili's painting No Jazz, Tonight influenced his whole life. But it's true. At that time a lot of artists followed Zhang's way of painting. I think Zhang's work was better than Wang Guangyi's then. Wang Guangyi's work later became a symbol of China and a prominent feature of the art market, which felt very different.  

Paul Gladston: When did you first become aware of Zhang Peili's work as a video artist?

Yang Fudong: His early work Hygiene Piece, which involves the washing of a Chicken, was the first thing I saw. But I had no feeling on seeing this work, because what I want to do differs from him. At that time, when I was in year one of college, one of Bill Viola's videos was very popular on campus. I had a powerful feeling towards his video. Access to video was limited when I was a student. A better way for us to access film and video was to use written and verbal materials. For example, many famous foreign films were almost shown verbally. We discussed a film by reading some comments made by others. It was just like we used our imagination to enjoy the film. And a few years later when we actually watched the film, it was really different from what we had imagined. No matter how you introduced or appraised Fellini's 8 ? verbally, even with some accompanying photos, it was still very different when you actually watched it.  

Paul Gladston: So your own works have been influenced, in part, by how you imagined other films to be rather than the actual experience of viewing those films? Is that right?

Yang Fudong: More or less. Just like some French films; actually I didn't see them. However, there was an idea of freedom and some methods etcetera, which swept across me broadly. Consequently, even though one knew nothing, one could not escape their influence.

Paul Gladston: Chinese artists are often criticized for having copied Western artworks…

Yang Fudong: It's not fair. Nowadays there are many DVDs and plenty of pirated copies of films around, which make it easy for people to copy from others. However, the sources during my time as a student were really limited. Ten years ago there were few sources for artists to copy. And it was possible that students in this field might not see some of these sources. The kind of art made in 1985 is full of momentum as a result of the explosion of freedom of thought at that time. I think that at that time many works did draw on Western contemporary art including performance art. I think Zhang Peili, for example, learned a lot from the West. Artists then had a stronger desire for Western thoughts than we do now; they had really limited sources then. And now we focus more on ourselves, and our works are relatively independent. In the future artists may draw on Western art again or borrow ideas from famous Chinese artists. But I'm not sure about the kids born in the 80s', as they are a group who make use of shock tactics and are very unreasonable. The differences in approach between artists born in the 80s, 70s, 60s and 50s are clear. The artists born in the 50s and 60s were keen to create works of a high standard and they wanted to go abroad. But you find that people like us who were born in the 1970s rarely live abroad. For us, including the 80s' kids, it is not very important to attend an exhibition abroad. If we go to another country to join an exhibition, it's no different to being in China; including attending such famous exhibitions as La Biennale di Venezia. Now we have a much better state of mind; less lust and fewer intrigues. In recent years, however, I've found that many artists, no matter whether they are young or born in the 70s', have been using their brain to make works rather than using their heart, which causes their work to lack sincerity. This is a common problem. In fact, many artists, including some older artists, use their brain to think how to make adjustments to the work of others and then figure out a new way of making art for themselves. They are producing goods. But I think this phase will come to an end sooner or later, since they are not creating works but producing products.

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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