Marianne Brouwer(M.B.): In 1985 you enrolled as a student at the Varbanov Institute of Tapestry at the China Academy of Art in Zhejiang. You were then 40 years old. What did you do before that time? Have you always wanted to be an artist?
Liang Shaoji(L.S.): I have always been interested in art. I felt that it was an ideal place for me to express my emotions. Before the Cultural Revolution I studied sculpture at the Affiliated Middle School of the China Academy of Art. But when the Cultural Revolution began, everything came to a halt, schools were closed, and I started working in 1965.
M.B.: What kind of work did you do?
L.S.: Art design. I was assigned to the largest linen-making plant. There I used linen and cotton to make carpets, fabrics, lampshades, shoes, as well as tapestry. In my spare time I did some printing, oil painting and sculpture. Later I became the director of the Institute of Arts and Crafts in Taizhou. The scope of research of the Institute ranged from embroidery, to sculpture, to toys. As the director of the Institute in Taizhou, I could choose what to study and to focus on, and I could go on experimenting with fibers, which I liked so much. During that time the idea to integrate painting, sculpture, architecture and design first occurred to me. So already many years before I went to study at the Varbanov Institute I had started researching and experimenting with fibers. Moreover, thanks to the academic background of the Institute, I also got the opportunity to go abroad. I traveled to Germany, France, and the United States in the early 1980s.
While staying in those western countries, I felt that there really was a great difference between China and the West, between classical and modern art. Back then, I thought highly of German Expressionism. These were highly different and independent worlds, and yet all were equally fascinating. At that time I started to realize that the value of an artist lies in his individuality.
M.B.: You gave up a well-paid job for the uncertain future of being a contemporary artist in China. You had your share of poverty and hardship since then. What made you decide to become an art student again?
L.S.: when I decided to go back to school, the local government didn't want me to leave. We eventually agreed on a compromise. While studying at the Varbanov Institute, I remained the director of the Institute in Taizhou. Whenever something important or urgent happened there, I would go back to take care of it. But as a director, there were a lot of business-related things you needed to take care of. Therefore it was very hard for me to really concentrate on my field of research.
I feel very lucky to have had so many people who helped me, and who greatly influenced me during my student years. Above all I thank the late Mr. Varbanov. What he taught me is far more than techniques. It was the attitude towards art he showed that impressed and influenced me the most. He was a very dedicated artist. He came from Bulgaria, and lived and worked in Paris for a while after graduating from the China Academy of Art, but the beautiful memory of studying in China brought him back to China again. He wanted to function as a bridge between Chinese and western culture, and introduced western ideas of art to China. His love and understanding of Chinese culture distinguished him from most westerners. That's why he had greater influence in China. He viewed Chinese culture and art from a different perspective, which was very inspirational when I created my own art works.
M.B.: You witnessed the great changes, which happened in Chinese art around 1985 with the arrival of New Wave art. Around that time many new artists' groups emerged. Did you ever participate in any of them?
L.S.: During the early 1980's, when foreign books were allowed into China once again, I read a lot of books on philosophy and aesthetics, not only Chinese but western too, even though at that time the genuine profundity of those books was beyond my comprehension. But thanks to my previous experiences in western countries I felt as though I was suddenly becoming a lot more familiar with western culture and art. I was passionate about exploring this new art and new concepts.
The mid-80s were a period when Chinese culture was under constant shocks and challenges from western culture. Despite the fact that imitating the west was quite popular back then, that period was of paramount importance in terms of self-reflection and the reshaping of Chinese culture and art. I didn't participate in any of the newly emerging art groups, though, because I wanted to stay focused on fiber. To me, materials are not a fixed idea. You cannot say a certain material can only be used for a certain purpose. It's more like an expressive tool to explore the concept of art
The most impressive thing I remember from that period happened in 1989 when I was invited to participate in an international seminar of fiber art in the Soviet Union. I spent three months making an on-site fiber work in Riga, the capital of Latvia. The work won the first prize. I felt quite weird that I won the first prize so easily. Was that what I was after? I found that most participants focused on the aesthetic appearance and the decorative function of their works rather than the content. That's not what I wanted. To me, fiber is more than just a kind of material. It's more like an expressive tool to explore the concept of art. I really wanted to break through the boundaries of existing art forms and mix all kinds of art together. From that time on, I started thinking how to turn fiber art into a form of contemporary art. I really wanted to break through the boundaries of existing art forms. I wanted to find some kind of medium, which had not already been defined, but at the time I was not sure how to do it.
That's when the idea of silkworm breeding occurred to me. Since silk threads are not man-made, people have very limited control over them. We Chinese always say that man and nature need to live in a harmonious relationship. I started to wonder whether we really could achieve that, so I tried to combine the softness of natural silk threads with the cold harshness of metal as a completely new experiment. With that experience came new concepts and ideals. Since silkworms are living creatures, every cocoon can be regarded as the starting point of a life cycle. I didn't want to make use of high-tech or fashionable elements to conduct this kind of experiment with cocoons and silk threads. Picasso and Matisse both found new inspiration from African art, and I also wanted to find new possibilities by going back to the "primitive". So I just played with silk.
The long silk threads have something in common with the history of China. The softness and semi-transparency of silk are highly appreciated by eastern people. A silkworm can only survive for fifty to sixty days, but their life cycles form a kind of endless metempsychosis. There's a contrast there, which intrigues me above all. The relationship between the instant and eternity, and the value of the transience of life are two major points that my works focuses on.
M.B.: It seems to me that in addition a feeling of compassion with humanity, with the hardships of life, is an important aspect of your work as well.
L.S.: As an artist, I feel that silk threads actually have something in common with our destiny. Both are fragile and tough at the same time. I always respect people who, even though they live in unprivileged conditions, remain optimistic and positive. I am also passionate about newly born things, which is why I deal with such disparate themes as mining accidents, refugees and babies.
Life is full of uncertainties and possibilities, as if hanging by an invisible silk thread. The uncertainties and possibilities lie not only in nature and society, but also in life itself. Life will always follow the traces of the thread and try to find its chance at rebirth. The Chinese Taoist philosopher Zhuang Zi once expressed the idea that "everything needs to be treated equally". We shall not think human beings are superior to other living creatures. When I see a silkworm, I treat it like a baby. Therefore, to me, to care about them is like caring about life and human beings. Deep in our hearts, we shall not think ourselves superior to any other species in any way and shall respect all other creatures and take care of them. Nowadays the word "harmony" is mentioned frequently in China. As far as I'm concerned, there are quite a lot of people using this notion just to serve their own purpose. To them, mutual respect doesn't exist. I use silkworms as a tool to meditate on these issues and to express myself, and my emotions. Heidegger once said, that: "A poem is a kind of measurement and of homecoming, which means a return close to the source..." I think my "Nature Series" is like that, a kind of measurement or homecoming, born from poetic inspiration rather than from scientific labour.
M.B.: It took me no time at all to recognize the originality and the talent in your works. It took me a long time, however, to discover the complexity of the thoughts and the cosmology they contain. In order to grasp their full meaning, to truly understand and interpret them one needs to know about Chinese tradition, and the precise references to Chinese art and philosophy they contain. What do you think of a western audience's view of your work?
L.S.: When I make my works I do not really think about the audience, I mainly focus on what I want to express. As a Chinese artist, it's very natural for me to combine all sorts of Chinese philosophical ideas into my work. What I want to avoid is to use "Chineseness" only for the sake of shocking the audience. But a natural expression of emotions using elements of "Chineseness" is all right.
There is always some kind of misunderstanding and misreading between western and eastern cultures. This kind of misreading sometimes can give rise to new art. But from the perspective of communication, if you want to really enhance mutual understanding, I think there should be more space for the west and the east to have a dialogue with each other. As an artist, I always think that the most important thing is to express myself, or in other words, art is the expression of true emotions. So whether what I have said is right or wrong, or whether I made it clear enough only comes as a second thought.
M.B.: I want to go back a little to the moment when the west discovered that it was not alone in the world. What I wanted to emphasize is that in the west we need much more understanding of what informs the works coming from non-western cultures, be they Chinese, African, South American or whatever else. I still think that too little effort is put into trying to learn more about the issues they contain, their cultural background and philosophy. Earlier you mentioned Matisse and Picasso. Actually not only African art but also Chinese, Japanese and Arab art have profoundly influenced western art and culture. But these influences were mostly valued as part of western art history, and hardly on their own. Western art history was like the sun and everything else was like the planets. So once in a while you discover a new planet. Ever since I trained as an art historian I wondered why the rest of the world, why so many different ways of looking and thinking, different art and belief systems seem to count for so little that they take up only a small section at the back of western art history books.
When I lived in Japan in the late 1960's, I researched the process of westernization in Japanese architecture. I discovered how much Japanese culture had to deny its own existence in order to adapt to the west and how much pain that caused. It profoundly affected my thoughts about the phenomenon of post-colonialism as a whole. Indian art, Chinese or African art are a hype today, but I think this hype is quite superficial in many aspects. For instance, you know and even quote Heidegger, but I don't know who the Gui Gu Zi is after whom one of your works is named. In the west we think it kind of normal that everyone knows about us, and we don't need to know about the others. With my dear friend Chen Zhen we used to talk a lot about the necessity of translation, meaning that Chinese artists living in the west had to translate their ideas, to adapt their works so that a western audience could truly understand them. Do we really appreciate in the west how important that was? How much effort that could take? If interviewing, exhibiting and talking can help to facilitate mutual understanding and respect, I think we may have achieved something in this world.
L.S.: You have been keeping an eye on Chinese contemporary art for many years and you have a lot of friends in China. Though you are a westerner, you really want Chinese art to be understood and accepted by the west and you have done a lot for that.
M.B.: Back in the early 90's, when I went to China, I was really excited by the contemporary art I saw there, the same excitement you feel when something of truly historical importance is happening in the world. I saw a lot of breakthrough ideas, reflecting what was going on in Chinese society in a completely new way. Artists were reinventing art as though from a new concept: an art that was truly contemporary, and utterly Chinese at the same time, although it's difficult for the west and even the Chinese themselves, to define what that really is.
L.S.: The developments of economy and culture in China are not well balanced. Chinese culture, once glorious and influential, is now faced with significant challenges. Previously, a lot of Chinese contemporary artists just borrowed ideas from the west and tried to dress them in a Chinese outfit, but now more and more Chinese artists try to explore Chinese traditional culture. Only in this way can we create something genuinely "Chinese", and can we start a dialogue with the outside world. However, we cannot simply pick up something, which already exists in the west and then try to find a Chinese counterpart to it.
I think we need to create something very Chinese. But this notion of "Chinese" is different from the traditional. We must be true to ourselves and to our emotions.
M.B.: More and more contemporary artists come from non-western countries: contemporary art has developed into a language we can all share. This enables you and me and others to understand each other. I think that concept art, video art and installation art are like tools or words. We share these tools and words all over the world. We share the same problems in terms of economy, industrialization and environmental protection, but we can also use these same tools, that same syntax to express, analyze and respect cultural or social difference.
L: As an artist, I think the greatest thing is that we can blend our understanding of different cultures together, and try to find the best way to express our emotions. I don't think we need to care about whether it's east or west, past or present. As long as it can help us express our emotions, I think that it is good art. Any kind of definition will become outdated someday, for new things keep on emerging all the time.
M.B.: For me, as a curator, it's important to provide a background to, and to create an understanding of art with the public. But that practice is always informed by my deep passion for art and my solidarity with the artist. At the core of this, however, there is a kind of stillness, of wordlessness, maybe awe, even: my belief that art touches at the independence of the human spirit and the freedom and the dignity of the human soul, and the need to share that with others.
Many people are intimidated, plain bored or even angered by contemporary art. It's always frustrating when you love something or you try very hard and people just turn their backs. Still, one of the goals of curating is to get as many people as possible to know what's out there and make them understand what they see. It's about dialogue and creating understanding.
L.S.: Perhaps that's exactly the freedom and the loneliness of being an artist.