Commercial or art, I simply wanted to film things that interested me.
Interviewer: Harada Yukiko
Photographs: Maris Mezulis
Austere composition and fresh, luscious visuals: what lies behind the "world of Yang", the latest storm sweeping contemporary Chinese art? Is it the country's traditional aesthetics, cultivated over millennia? Or is it the growing freedom of economy, market and expression since official moves to allow a more open China? To find out, we visited the artist in his base of Shanghai, a city symbolic of the conflict between the two.
Grappling with lens-based art as a new form of expression in an increasingly open China
--- China has opened up considerably since the 1980s, with Shanghai in particular undergoing a dramatic transformation. The lifestyles of the young have also changed, haven't they? And young people are closely attuned to anything new on the domestic or overseas cultural scene made popular thanks to this greater openness, such as films.
Pirate DVDs are the most accessible form of entertainment here. A trip to the cinema costs a lot, but you can acquire even the latest releases currently in theatres for 10 yuan (approximately 140 yen). I must say though, I coveted them more when they were harder to come by. Back then I was always keen to see this one or that, but these days it's more a case of, "Oh well, I guess I'll take a look when I get the time" (laughs).
--- Among the Chinese artists appearing on the international art scene of late, video artists in particular have earned a reputation for high quality work. Are films a source of ideas for you personally?
I've been influenced by all sorts of films. In terms of directors it would be Fellini, Kurosawa Akira, Kitano Takeshi. All three craft well-rounded stories with the occasional hint of irony, and are unique in their respective modes of expression. They're inimitable: that's what I find so intriguing about them.
--- When did you first come to the world of lens-based art, and how?
I woke up to its potential around 1993, when I was at the China Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou. Back then, film in China was still largely undeveloped, nor were there any ideas giving rise to new forms of expression. I myself was studying oil painting, but bit by bit started to play around with cameras, and began taking photos. From there I gradually moved on to film and video. Not by simply jumping in at the deep end though: first I read all the film critiques in books and magazines I could lay my hands on. Because there were few opportunities to actually watch films, I used to read about them instead, and try to imagine what the visuals would look like.
--- Yes, ten years ago, China may have started to open up more, but everything was very much behind the times compared with now. The younger generation were starved of new modes of expression, and started experimenting with all sorts of techniques, didn't they?
Back then everyone was trying out this and that, seeking ways to express themselves that would set them apart from others, exploring their own forms of expression. In my case, this meant rapidly becoming absorbed in drawing with the computer, and I just naturally drifted away from painting.
Photographs are a one-second movie: Moving images and photos are one and the same
--- After graduating you returned to your hometown of Beijing and started making videos there, so why did you come to Shanghai?
I came to Shanghai to earn the money I needed to make a whole film. I got a job at a firm making game software and did packaging and software design while shooting my video works.
--- "Video/film works" rather than movies?
Commercial or art, I simply wanted to film things that interested me. And I still feel that way. I have goals in terms of the things I want to express, and I believe any approach is fine if it enables me to achieve those goals.
--- So you don't have any aspirations to be a film director?
If a suitable opportunity were to present itself at a suitable moment, of course I'd love to give it a go. First and foremost though, I want to keep making films and videos as my own work, my own expression. Commercial films have to be acceptable to a mass audience. They also have to succeed at the box office, and are restricted in many ways. So for genuine self-expression, I believe showing things as art is the way to go. Because while images that are hard to understand are not favored at the movie theatre, at the art gallery, the more incomprehensible the expression, the more welcome it seems to be (laughs). I also like the way people can view the work in a relaxed fashion, without mentally preparing themselves to do so like in a movie theatre. If there is a theory that says "films should be like this", I think perhaps we ought to be bold and employ the technique of "art" to break down such preconceptions.
--- Initially you showed mainly photographs. Do you separate photographs and moving images in your own mind?
Psychologically they're one and the same to me. I take photos as films of a single frame. I've been influenced by the work of people like Sugimoto Hiroshi and Jeff Wall, and pictures taken by photographers of their ilk truly are one-second movies. I take the shots I like, while consciously attempting to tell a big story in that single frame. I don't wait for any definitive moment to take the picture.
True to their own interests: Individual activities growing in due course to constitute a major movement
--- At the moment your career seems to be in overdrive, with work on show somewhere in the world almost every month. Do you have several pieces on the go at once?
I did used to receive a lot of offers to show in exhibitions, and produced work specifically for those, but right now I'm concentrating on creating just for myself. So I don't shoot multiple works simultaneously. I get more enjoyment out of immersing myself in a single video just for me than going to countless opening parties.
--- China is a place where history and tradition live and breathe: do you feel you've inherited any of that?
I'm aware that tradition is inevitably part of the backdrop to my work. The generation of artists before mine, in the 1980s, were eager to smash tradition, which gave them an incredible power. Spiritually they were sustained by this desire to do something, anything, to change the world. Which is an enviable way to be. Today's generation have turned inward, stayed true to what interests them as individuals. They all accept that tradition is important. In that sense, it seems we're almost too well-behaved.
--- So things are coming together on a smaller scale?
The activities of different individuals form different strands. These in turn coalesce into big art movements. Achieving expression as individuals also has social significance, in my view.
--- "Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest" on which you are currently working is a work in five parts that's been in progress now for five years, I believe. To date you've unveiled three of those parts, to considerable acclaim. Apparently you're working on it at present. Do you ever find that as you venture further out into the world, you lose sight of your own identity?
The most simple way to ensure that doesn't happen is to quietly ask myself, "Am I really doing what I enjoy?" Which means listening not to the voices of others, but to my own. And concentrating on the things I personally want to do. I believe respect for one's own ideas and feelings is vital. How the rest of the world reacts is of secondary importance.
--- I see. So what are you concentrating on most at the moment?
Let me think... table tennis? (Laughs) I have individuals around me right now that like my work, which is enjoying a bit of a boom. The same goes for art in general: contrary to what you might expect, this could be how the start of a major movement feels.
Born 1971 in Beijing. Graduated from China Academy of Art, Hangzhou in 1995. Lives and works in Shanghai. Selected major international art festivals: the 4th Shanghai Biennale (2002), Documenta 11 (2002), 50th Biennale di Venezia (2003) and the Internationale Sharjah Biennale 7 (2005). Selected solo exhibitions: "Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest and Selected Works on Video" (2003, Miami), "5 Films" (2004, Chicago), and "Don't worry, it will be better... " (2005, Vienna).