People who first meet David Diao would certainly not consider him as a foreigner, because he speaks Chinese without an odd accent. He can talk freely about daily activities, but when it comes to the complex concepts in his artistic creation, he might get stuck, and then he has to explain in English. Only then will people realize that he is actually an American artist, with a face of Chinese.
Due to the special identity, many people try to find some traces of "Chinese Cultural Identity" in his works. Pardon Me, Your Chinoiserie Is Showing（1993）and The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1994), two works of art he created 20 years ago, are typical examples. When the visitors look at their titles, those stories behind will come to their mind immediately, which might not be pleasant. However, when Diao was asked about "Identity" and the two artworks are taken as examples, he answered in a sly grin, "I don’t think my identity special, I did it just because it was a popular theme then."
"But you mentioned in some of your previous interviews that the experience of leaving mainland China in childhood scarred you. Have you ever created artwork to heal yourself?" The questioner, who was not satisfied with the answer, wanted to dig out the sad past in Diao's mind.
"People think I'm heartbroken for that, but in fact there aren’t many sad stories. For me, this experience is such a good material that I can use in my work. Let them cry for those sad stories," Diao himself also laughed, like a kid playing pranks. He refused to be sensational.
"So, you think identity is not what we should focus on in your artwork? " The questioner struggled to throw out the last question.
"Identity is definitely a problem, because almost everyone pays attention to it. But I am not able to solve this problem," Diao answered politely in unidiomatic Chinese. It seems that as a Chinese American artist, he cannot stay out of identity politics, which has become one of his labels, although he has already been fed up with the identity thing: "I dislike labeling, because it's like shorthand, turning the individuality into some common symbols. Every artist wants to be unique, but the label of certain art genre makes him become a member of the group. I found that this frequently happens in China, while it is not that common in other countries."
Diao hates labeling, because it limits artists’ characteristics, and indeed, he broadens the boundaries when making art. Suprematism, the Let a Hundred Flower Bloom Campaign, modern furniture, family history are the subjects of his art, or the ancestors of his all-roundness. "In my opinion, art is not just art itself. It is a culture, and it is made up of many things. From design, architecture to furniture, its range is quite broad," he said slowly.
David Diao’s solo show Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors at ShanghART Gallery indicates what he said. His favorite artists, architecture, furniture and unforgettable family history are transcoded into visual icons and hidden in the paintings. Created in 1999, Easy Chair#1 and Couch take the material from a furniture piece in the artist’s daily life. "Before making this work, I thought about what Henri Matisse said, ‘Art is a relaxing armchair’. Therefore, the choice of the sofa is also related to art.” Diao added: " People always think art is too far to reach, so I would like to make the normal, unsought and less interesting stuff into art. I don’t want to keep art mysterious."
In this exhibition, there is a series of works based on Suprematism’s leading figure El Lissitzky and furniture company Herman Miller. These are the latest works created in 2017. The signature curves from El Lissitzky and the logo of Herman Miller, which are the thematic elements in these works, not only store his hobbies as well as his life, but also awake the memory of art history. This is Diao’s symbolic style. In Glissement, 1984, he borrows Kazimir Malevich’s classic squares, and recreates the installation view of “The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10”（An exhibition of Malevich held in 1915）into a two-dimensional work, which is a tribute to Malevich and a record of the event greatly influencing the development of contemporary art. Since then, he has found the balance between form and content in abstract art - transforming people, events, things into abstract symbols, and leaving some space for people to discover the ideas beyond the visual beauty. In a lot of his works, David Diao has done something similar to an art historian - turning texts into pictures.
When it comes to why he chooses this working method, he gave a straightforward reply: "First of all, I never receive any professional art education. It is very difficult for me to do something special, so I can only take the easiest way. In addition, I also have a 'democratic' idea for art-making – I hope anyone can do the same job as I do. No talents needed. People can use this instrument to express themselves."
Diao's artistic creation has been greatly influenced by the Russian avant-garde movement in the early twentieth century. "I read the books from Soviet Union in the 60s, and I got to know the big names like Kazimir Malevich and Alexander Rodchenko at that time. They caught my attention at once. And the United States was opposing Soviet Union at that time, which made me like them better. Most importantly, Soviet Union’s art is not for the rich. Modern art began with fighting against the bourgeoisie. Soviet Union’s art served the people, and for artists there is no distinction between the ‘high’ artistic creation and the ordinary everyday job, like Rodchenko, who also created advertising posters. That is why I like him."
As mentioned above, Diao always claims that art is for the public, but, paradoxically, the hidden clues of art history, his personal life and memories he buried in the work become an invisible entrance requirement. The audience who lacks the basic knowledge of art history and the understanding of the artist’s life would get lost in these seemingly simple abstract icons. For this point, Diao is quite tolerant: "My work is like a building with multiple floors. People can go to the first floor, the second floor or the third floor, I don't care. Maybe some of them just like the color matching of the painting. Of course, I will be happier if they can go into a deeper layer of the work. Sometimes even I cannot fully understand what I have made, so reviews from others would be really helpful. And I welcome people's criticism, as I can learn a lot from different points of view. Some criticism also gives me the material for a new work."
From 2015 David Diao’s retrospective at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, West Bund Art and Design 2017 in Shanghai, to the show of his new works at ShanghART Beijing, it seems that Diao’s connection with mainland China is getting closer and closer. When the questioner wanted to introduce the topic of “Fallen leaves return to the roots -- to revert to one's origin”, Diao’s answer avoided the "routine" again: "It was they (exhibition organizers) who came to me. These shows all happened naturally. I am lucky."