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A Portrait of the Artists Pu Jie Through an Interview

Interviewer: Matthias Dell 2006

Pu Jie, born 1959 lives and works in Shanghai as a painter and sculpture artist. He is also a teacher at the Shanghai Academy. His studio is at Moganshan Rd 50, in an old textile factory which was carefully renovated and became an attractive place for galleries and artists.

In Pu Jie's studio, two Americans in sun-glasses, carrying LV bags hurriedly came in with an arrogant aura. "This is Jack," one of them introduced, "Jack is a gallerist in New York, do you sell this pictures?" But Jack didn't say a word for a while. Then both left again.

Matthias Dell(Dell): Does such situation often occur?

Pu Jie(Pu): Yes.

Dell: Have they made an appointment with you or not?

Pu: No. These people disturb me and occupy the time I leave for painting.

Dell: But that also makes you happy, right? Don't you feel quite comfortable of being a Chinese artist? Chinese contemporary art is now receiving much focus with hidden opportunities. What's the reason for it? Does Chinese contemporary art become important? What's the liaison between it and the West?

Pu: Perhaps Chinese artists are now in their best historical time, an existing political term. But you should know that Chinese modern art had gone through a very difficult and tough condition in the 1980s and the early 1990s. As nearly all the exhibition venues showcasing modern art were off the mainstream. Even contemporary artworks were not allowed to be displayed in those official events; they still got "killed." For example, I remember that I was invited for a joint exhibition in Ningxia in 1987. I spent two weeks in finishing a 3-meter-long and 1.5-meter-wide art installation piece. But when the exhibition opened, I didn't find my piece. Later the organizer told me that "this kind of thing" was not suitable for a public show. Then my friend told "my thing" was thrown away in the corner at the backyard. It was strange at that time that many contemporary artists could afford these blows and behaved well at that time."

In the 1980s, the so called contemporary art were done and shown underground. It was a fact that the artists had to prepare themselves to accept. During that period, many of the artists' creations were not able to approach those ordinary viewers.

Since the "open up and reform" policy, China actually entered another great cultural activity–"economy is the core" influenced every Chinese and the world economy. It also decides that Chinese art is due to be concerned. While on the other hand, the concern on Chinese contemporary art also comes from the need of an extension from the intellectual induction and the power of Western culture. Viewed in a historical angle, it was only after the "open and reform" policy that China really became a  counterpart of the West that the pair's mutual benefits are critically linked; It was also after the "open and reform" policy that China started to "input and output" in various areas. But the mutual understanding of each culture is still filled with self-interpretation and mis-interpretation. This is the mixture of two different cultures that resulted in combination from time to time. Currently a word like globalization might sort out such combination. The concern of Chinese contemporary art also comes from the prevalent criticism among Chinese contemporary art and the unique wisdom of the Chinese language system. Last year, Swiss collector Uli Sigg organized a big sized exhibition titled "Mahjong" featuring the Chinese contemporary artworks that he collected for years at Knstmuseum Bern, Switzerland. The title perfectly crowns all the wisdom of Chinese culture with a mundane trick. I think these are the three major reasons that Chinese contemporary art is focused.

Dell: What do you think about artists? What are Chinese artists like?

Pu: There is no difference between artists and ordinary people. What the artists are doing is something that the others don't want to do or unable to do, then the so called artists will do. If there is anything that makes an artist particular, it is the independence of an artist who has strong characteristic and the self-judgment towards things and objects.

In 1980s, Chinese artists polarized seriously. One group belongs to the "mainstream" while the other started to question the concept and the artistic mode of the mainstream art. From the view of the art history, Chinese artists were never in such a strong opposite position towards concepts and ideas in the 1980s, sometimes the two groups were almost confronting each other. The "mainstream" artists often saw contemporary art as something fandangle while their counterpart were stubborn to make any compromise with the mainstream. Till now, mainstream artists and contemporary artists haven't well communicated. In fact, contemporary art goes far beyond those ordinary concepts, and these artists are a group of people that ponder on culture instead of merely serving for the visual effects.

Dell: The hues and forms in your paintings are reminiscent of Pop art, like Warhol and Lichtenstein. What are the reasons that make you adopt such mode, how do they inspire you?

Pu: I don't know whether I understand pop art or not. I don't remember that any artist before me has adopted my meaningful "dual visual angle" in the expressions. I remember Chinese critic Wang Lin once said that pop art is a modern prevalence, a kind of modern people's mood.

Actually I like Warhol and Lichtenstein because of the strong modern fusion in their artworks. But you might know, I prefer the line depictions in traditional Chinese paintings. The use of lines is one important tradition of Chinese art.

Focusing social phenomenon and cultural form of modern China are what I am thinking. I think that Chinese contemporary art would lose its primitive power if abandoning these elements. What is modern art? There are lots of different explanations. But in view of the spirit of post-modernism, it is just the modern changes of society and culture. I think what Jean-Francois Lyotard pointed in his book is merely a spiritual description of the contemporary changes in culture. Post-modernism is not a creed, but a phenomena of modern society and culture, or in other words, a modern prevalence after avant-garde. But the mere serve for modern would make art a shallow shell. The backbone of Chinese contemporary art is the re-pondering towards Chinese culture with a critical attitude. As an artist, you must have the visual directness and uniqueness without the help of language, which is quite difficult in visual art.

For me, the adoption of "dual visual angle" is a partial overlapping of the past and present, East and West, A and B. Such overlapping is filled with cultural mutation and confrontation. It clears up the visual effect and ponders the flowing changes of the Chinese society in the past decades.

Dell: Those images of "cultural revolution" frequently appear in your paintings, what do they mean to you? What do they mean to today's China? What is the liaison between them and Chinese contemporary art?

Pu: The images of  "cultural revolution" are closely linked with my childhood memory. If I deleted these memories from my mind, then I wouldn't have known where I was from. Likewise my art expresses present, if it didn't, then I wouldn't belong to the present.

From primary school to high school, I was educated with the proletarian revolution ideas; while during the days at university, I was taught of market economy with Chinese characteristic. What I experienced are two different eras. If the purpose to receive education is for future wield, then does this epoch still needs "fight among different classes"? I feel myself paradoxical – what my left hand holds is the past while what in my right hand is the present.

Thus it's better to say the "dual visual angle" relates more to my living experience than my personal art symbol. The collision of the two periods forced me to see that I am living a  changing surrounding. Just like sitting in a vehicle, now we arrive here, but it is a real journey from where we used to be.

Dell: In the past two decades, China has changed dramatically with a stunning speed. China's economy also rapidly develops, and the living conditions of Chinese people like what you have depicted in your paintings are very modern. But how open is the Chinese government in its political strategy? As an artist, which part do you think has opened and which is not?

Pu: For example cultural censorship, the situation that someone told me what should be painted or not, never happens.

Artist is my identity in society. Sometimes my paintings involved the political figures or big historical events in China, but they are merely the personal "hot blood" towards politics. Perhaps like some Chinese intellectuals, I can't change the "bad habit" of "doctrinairism". But you might know, the intellectual group in almost every country is weak. "Power, status and money" control nearly every thing. Sometimes artists do paint something. For example, many Chinese artists were painting the political propaganda paintings during the "cultural revolution," but none of them became a politician at the end. "The extension of art is politics," is only true for politicians.

Dell: Something about the city you reside. The city construction changes Shanghai amazingly. You have resided in Shanghai and are a part of it. How do you view these changes? What do these changes mean in culture? How would they influence the people?

Pu: The changes in Shanghai actually represent the changes in China.

In regard of the outlook of the city, Shanghai does change greatly in the past decade that even many local people can hardly recognize it. Skyscrapers, construction sites and vehicles are everywhere. The city now becomes a big construction site, changing endlessly. Today there are hundreds of high-rises in Shanghai that it becomes a forest of concrete. Many local people have left their former residential areas consisted of lanes and narrow streets. The changes among cities in China are actually like another "cultural revolution." If the past "cultural revolution" aimed to change people from their inner side, then this one changes them from the "fresh" to a totally different one.

At the 2001 Chinese Document, I created a piece of artwork with the theme of city. I used the simplest quadrate wood blocks to shape a big city. To my surprise, each viewer was experiencing "this is our city." The installation named "global game" is a summary of nearly every city in China. Today the cities in China seriously lack individuality. We see quadrate buildings stamped with ceramic tiles in nearly every city in China. The city construction in China, a critical faulty behavior in managing a city, would affect the aesthetic taste, concept and living mode of the succeeding generations, and even affect the humanistic development. In 2003, I also created a similar installation work in London, but what surprised me was the London people also thought that was their city.

"Global Game" actually reflected an issued that confronted by all human kinds in the world – the living condition of the human beings, their physical desire, humanistic paradoxical. All these questions particularly stand out in Shanghai. In fact, a city accumulates its history, as one can't live in the present without the past.

Matthias Dell, cultural section at German Consulate in Shanghai

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