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Shen Fan Interview

Interviewer: Christopher Phillips May,2008

Shen Fan is a Shanghai artist whose abstract paintings have been shown internationally. He is noted for his use of minimalist, monochromatic shapes in compositions that sometimes suggest scenes from nature.

For the 2006 Shanghai biennale he created a monumental installation. Five meters tall and 15 meters wide, Landscape: Tribute to Huang Binhong is a "painting" composed of 2,500 neon tubes designed by the artist to suggest short brushstrokes. The neon tubes are illuminated slowly in groups, over the course of several hours. They gradually create an abstracted landscape image, which is accompanied by a soundtrack that recalls traditional Chinese music. The work is dedicated to the celebrated artist Huang Binhong (1864-1955), one of the leading twentieth-century innovators in traditional Chinese painting, who was famous for his freehand landscapes. Recalling Huang Binhong's late style, Shen Fan's neon suggests bold, vigorous brushstrokes. The installation ingeniously combines references to China's past and present: to the long tradition of Chinese ink painting and to contemporary Shanghai's neon-illuminated nightscape.

Christopher Phillipe=CShen Fan=S

C: How have the changes in Shanghai during the past decade affected you?

S: The biggest change for me is frequently changing studios. As Shanghai grows bigger and bigger; I regularly have to move my studio. My present studio is the eighth one.The skyscrapers in Shanghai are built higher and higher. I think the Jin Mao Tower is high enough for Shanghai. Now there is an even taller high-rise, the World Financial Center, being built near the Jin Mao Tower. Terrible!

C: Could you describe your training as an artist?

S: I was born in Shanghai, and I grew up in the countryside. I came back to Shanghai for study around the age of ten and finished elementary school and middle school here. Afterwards, I did farm work in the countryside for six years: I planted rice, cotton, and other crops.Actually, I was a pretty good farmer. After work, I practiced painting and calligraphy by myself. At the end of six years, I went back to Shanghai, where I became a product designer. Of course, I did not stop my painting practice. Every day after work, I took out my small painting box; it could hold three small pieces of oil-painting paper. I would spend about half an hour on each of these small landscape paintings.I began to work in abstract painting around 1982, using such materials as Chinese ink, watercolor and oil paint. I was always trying to find a way to express myself. I thought that everybody has a completely different life experience, and if I wanted to express my own experience, it was inappropriate to express it through the methods of other people. One day, probably it was in 1986 or 1987, suddenly I felt that I had found the way to express myself. From that time to the present, my method has been relatively consistent.

C: Shanghai is a city where abstract painting has had a prominent presence since the 1980s. Why do you think abstract painting has been so strong in Shanghai compared to other Chinese cities?

S: It is probably because Shanghai is a more commercial city. Many of the people we call Shanghainese did not originally come from Shanghai. They came here from other parts of China, mainly in order to make a living. These people seldom care much about politics. Shanghai is a commercial city, while Beijing is more political.The artists in Shanghai, those who were born and grew up here, probably are more individualized than others in the way they talk, the way they live, and the way the observe the world. They are inclined to look at the world from inside themselves. For official artists, politics is used as a kind of art language. An abstract artist does not use politics as an art language; instead, essential visual elements might be used.For many years, in fact, I have been mainly engaged in creating a visual language from relatively essential things. For example, I use less and less color because color itself cheats character. Lines and dots are more essential; these elements do not lie. After studying art and practicing art, at last I found the art language that I use. However, I also can see that my approach has many things in common with Chinese traditional paintings and prints.

C: To Western observers, your paintings seem to have much in common with the Minimalist art of the 1960s and 70s, especially in your use of simple primary colors and strong repetitive patterns, and in your preference for working in extended series. Do you see any relation between your approach to painting and that of the Minimalist artists?

S: I think this is a very interesting phenomenon. I had a small exhibition in Tubingen, Germans thought that mu works looked very Westernized. But the local Germans thought these were obviously Chinese paintings done by a Chinese artist. You might say: from the water artists drink come the art work they will create. I think my art works are based on Minimalism, yet combined with my own experience of humanity and also of Chinese traditional culture.

C: Your paintings appear abstract, but their titles often allude to aspects of nature-mountains, rivers, and so on. How do you see the connection between your art and the world of nature?

S: If I say the river in the title of an art work, it does not refer to any specific meaning. For a long time, my studio was located beside Suzhou Creek, and so at that time I named many of my art works river. On the other hand, a title such as Mountains and Rivers has a more specific meaning in terms of the history of Chinese traditional landscape paintings.

C: What led you to make the neon-light installation Landscape: Tribute to Huang Binhong, which appeared at the Shanghai Biennale in 2006?

S: The Shanghai Art Museum asked me to propose a project for the Biennale. It was difficult to come up with a suitable idea, because I thought this project should be suitable not only for this exhibition but also for me. This art work should somehow connect with me, with the Shanghai Biennale, and also with the city of Shanghai. It was not easy. After rejecting four or five ideas, I thought I could not think about this project any more. It was time for the Spring Festival, so I took my daughter and my friends to San Ya for a vacation. I forgot about the project.

In fact, I had just spent almost three years working on landscape works through oil painting. And I was constantly studying Chinese classical print and Chinese traditional paintings. After spending ten days in San Ya, I returned to Shanghai. This idea occurred to me when I woke up one day. At that moment, I knew that it would be my project. I had thought about using neon materials several years earlier, because the relative of one of my friends ran a business making neon light, and I used to visit the factory. Suddenly the idea struck me that I could use this material.

Considering all these elements, it seems that although this final project suddenly occurred to me, it was not without reason. Firstly, it was connected with me. Secondly, the Shanghai Art Museum is located on Nanjing Road, which is famous for the neon lights that are a longstanding commercial symbol of Shanghai. That connected, too. So I thought that this art work would be suitable for me, for the Shanghai Art Museum, and also for the city. If it were exhibited in the countryside, it might not be so effective. It also has a relationship with Chinese classical art, a relation that you find also in the musical part. I think it proved to be an excellent project.

C: The program in China's art academies is now changing very quickly. In your own work, the sense of the long tradition of Chinese art is very strong. Among the younger artists today, do you find a similar sense of the long continuous growth of Chinese art?

S: In fact, I think the development of contemporary Chinese art is normal. In my opinion, it is not an unusual development process. Earlier in China, politics influenced art works. Now artists create works based on life. I think it is a very normal trend, which will develop in a good way. For some young artists today, their cultural formation, philosophical formation, and ideological formation are affected by globalization. Without globalization, their art works would not have a reason to exist. But I think their art works are extraordinary, because they show that we now live in a global village. These art works suit their lives. If an art work can fit with the current life of the time, and with the artist's own life, then it will be an excellent work.

C: Many Chinese artists today are having an enormous success in the global art market. What have been the effects of this economic success on the kinds of art now being made in China?

S: The whole of China today is like boiled water, which evaporates and turns to vapor. People feel the heat of contemporary Chinese art, because the water is boiling. I am not sure whether economic success has an influence on other people. I do not think it has any effect on me, because I have not made so much money with my art.

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