WL: I think you will surely remember when we first met each other, in your joint exhibition with Xu Lei, Liu Ming and Luo Ji, Reality on Paper, I visited you with Sun Liang.
TG: Well, I remembered, we were having tea in the balcony of previous Shanghai Art Museum building, which lies just opposite to People's Park. There's also an artist from Austria, time is flying so fast, so many years have past now. Actually, I began to read your articles since 1980s, and wanted to know you ever since. I wrote the invitation in person, and we felt really happy that you came. And Li Shan came too, it's a bit awkward that he had his right hand packed, and no handshake with us.
WL: I heard it from you that Liu Ming went to France after this exhibition. Many artists of that generation went abroad, many are from Nanjing. Have you ever thought of that?
TG: To be honest, I did. Liu Ming went the second year. Xia and Fan all went abroad in 1980s. Zeng Nian followed their practice in the end of June in 1989, however, two months later, his father died of a cold, as a result of inadequate care. Now, they often came back to China, and it is convenient for me to stay in their homes in Paris, it's good.
WL: I often felt depressive in those times, and it is quite during that period, I fell in love with contemporary art. I stopped writing articles, as a result, I had more time to see art works from my friends. That feeling is quite special, like surreptitiously reading banned book in 70s. And one more thing, it's still impressive on me that you brought me a shunga book of Edo Period you bought from Italy.
TG: Oh, that is quite a thick one, the original prints of those shunga ones are collected in The British Museum. I also had illustrated version of The Golden Lotus and The Carnal Prayer Mat, did I show them to you?
WL: I only had some impression on The Carnal Prayer Mat.
TG: I lent one copy to Xu Lei, who has not return to me till now. But it's ok, young man should have read this kind of books, from which one can derive great fun. And it is only from these books, I learnt philandering, but better late than never.
WL: It goes same with everybody. Later, we began to read Nobuyoshi Araki.
TG: In Gao Luopei's collection, Shunga woodblock prints from Ming Dynasty enjoy a high standard, other are not that good. Shunga reached its apex in Japanese art history, for it was given unmatched level of sensitivity and psychological nuance. While here in China, the depiction is dull and awkward, like a textbook for brides.
WL: I should have known you long before, I have published lots of literature reviews in Zhong Shan in 1980s, and sent many articles to Xu Zhaohuai, without knowing you were an art editor there.
TG: You are right, I just mentioned that I have known you for a long time, as I read your reviews so often. Do you know Mr. Liu Jingsheng, he is from Chinese Writers' Association.
WL: Of course, I know him, he is in Yu Hua magazine, right? We have met before, and I have sent some articles to him.
TG: Later, he worked in Jiang Su Writers' Association, besides, we lived in the same neighborhood. His compliments stirred my interests on you. In that time, magazines focused more on such stuff, the so-called pioneering writers, experimental works, literature movement, as well as "New Realism". For Zhaxi Dawa, Xu Xiaohe, Ma Yuan, it seems the spring of literature is on the way. However, I remembered one sentence from you, you said that literature history is composed of gravestones of the pioneers, maybe not the exact words.
WL: Just a casual remark, surprised that you remembered it.
TG: We were working to be modern artists then. Graphic design of Zhong Shang is oriented in avant-gardism and experimentalism, which resulted in novel and unique combination of articles and layout designs. Zhong Shan had a large circulation.
I also remembered that in 1985, artists, from Yun Nan and Si Chuan, Mao Xuhui, Pan Dehai, Zhang Xiaogang, Hou Wenyi etc., held an exhibition in Nanjing, entitled "New Figurative Art". It was easier that time as no formality or censorship was required, people just put up their works, and invited friends for a visit. After the exhibition, I treated them a dinner in Da San Yuan restaurant in Nanjing, we drunk up a whole barrel of beer with blue-edged bowls.
WL: Do you remember when I stayed in your home in Matai Street in 1992 or 1993, I didn't remember clearly the year. It rained after lunch, and you called a blind fortune-teller for me to kill time?
TG: Yes, yes, the rain was heavy that afternoon, no one had a mood for outing. Just as we were drinking Genmaicha, a kind of tea from Japan, I heard the bell from that fortune-teller, and asked if you want a try. Upon your confirmation, he came in, and kept silent. He required me to read aloud your birth date and horoscope, then he judged that you were a distinguished friend from culture community. I wanted to laugh, but tried hard to hold back. He then went on saying that you would travel a lot, eat a lot, and share your money with your friends, how interesting!
WL: Do you believe in this? Do you believe in traditional taboos and superstition?
TG: I do not believe in ghosts, but I am obsessed with cultures from them. It helps people explain and move on from inextricable hardships and unchangeable facts. I think that with superstition, people will get to know what is taboo and what is awe, which could be learnt from stuff like the Kitchen God, or the King of Hell. Superstition culture, or traditional culture gives people hope, it's a pity that so little is left now.
WL: For some times, flying person, or dreamland, or supernatural ghost that flying against wind frequently appeared in your paintings.
TG: I am not sure. That might be a figure Yu Hua Deng Xian, means flying against the wind to be immortal, or might also be a figure flying around his own house, or might be a ghost emerged because of demolition. But there's one thing I am sure of, these paintings were drawn when Nanjing was having a big demolition, during which blocks of gorgeous ancient buildings were demolished.
WL: In which year you moved to Matai Street, and before that where did you live?
TG: I moved to Matai Street in 1985, and in the following five years, many changes happened here. The street was widened twice, and road was repaired once after another, but you cannot tell a big difference. Back in Minguo years(1912-1949), Matai Street was a main street running north to south. And when standing on Hunan Road, one can see Zijin Mountain through street-side platanus. Before living here, I lived in No.8, east lane, Gulou station. That was a garden house, but now everything is beyond recognition.
WL: Do you have any memory of Nanjing that you experienced as a child?
TG: I came to Nanjing with my parents at the age of 3, and lived in Gulou ever since. I got the impression that the sky looks red all night long.
WL: That should be 1958, an age of producing steel in backyard furnaces.
TG: Yes, small backyard furnaces suddenly emerge everywhere. In the day, people go out beating basins to expel sparrows, I was so happy to fetch sparrows on the ground that are so tired to keep on. "Dummy" factory and funeral home is also nearby, I could see groups of dumb person walking in and out, as well as relatives of dead person crying bitterly.
WL: You were in primary school when Cultural Revolution broke out, did your family, your parents have an impact?
TG: This is a lasting memory that I will never forget. I was in primary school, grade 2 that year. My father has gone through political campaigns since an article entitled Ninth Group of Anti-Enemy Troupe is a special action group of the Kuomingtang posted in front page of Wenhui Newspaper. Our home was overwhelmed with big character posters, which read "Over throw counterrevolutionary Tang Yang". I did not know how to react, thus staying at home day and night. One day, I heard my grandma screamed "what's the hell", I came out and found that a child living next door threw a piece of coal into her pan, in which fresh doodles were being cooked. I was so angry that I chopped their door to sheer frame. I knew I made a big mistake. I was more shocked in the night, only to find that my father was hanging a banner with red x, but my mother was sent to Shi Shan Tou farm at that time. My family was in a total chaos, as Red Guards from my mother's school ransacked our house, taking away some notebooks and photos, rebellions from my father's side followed the same practice. The fiercest physical struggle took place near my home in Mechanical and Electrical School, it was going with real gun and real sword! The stair in that building was made of wood, those people then set fire, which run from first floor to the third. Students run out of methods, but to stay back in the roof, protecting themselves from the fire, and eventually, jumped down the building with no other choice. Ambulance bell rang a whole day, as a result of persecution.
WL: Many artists of your age started drawing since Cultural Revolution, and had some connection with political propaganda, then how did you start, you loved drawing from an early age?
TG: I loved drawing from an early age, and at that time in school, my drawing tools always been confiscated by my teacher in class. It was like a dream, I did draw many political related ones in my secondary school, such as "infinite loyalty to red heart shall never die", "sailors never see the sunset, and golden shines cover Tiananmen Square forever", "it's definitely good to high hold the big flag" etc. I drew comics most often, a pen with water that penetrated Liu Shaoqi's temple, with a drop of fresh blood under the pen, and several red spots in the nose... Later when I went to the countryside, I once worked in the propaganda team of the commune, participated twice arts creation classes. Chen Danqing was also in our class. The organization provided drawing materials, and dining tickets, I was so happy that we just drew and did not need to do labor work. During that period, Chen Danqing has drawn Writing to Chairman Mao, and I drew Gongbi, a traditional Chinese realistic painting, Ode to the Morning, both of them were on "Jiangsu Province Peasants Art Show" held by Jiangsu Art Museum in Nanjing, that year was 1976, nearly the end of Cultural Revolution.
WL: In those years as "Educated Youth", except revolutionary arts, were you able to read any foreign arts, such as western painting albums, pokers, old issues of arts magazines? Many of our peers did this more or less surreptitiously.
TG: Yes, I "borrowed" A Brief History of European Art accidentally from my neighbor, which walked me through artists like Van Gogh, Lautrec, Matisse, Gericault, Miro and Dali, and this book also accompanied me going to the countryside. Later, I took an exam for Nanjing Art Institute, but failed as my father's "historical problems".
WL: In the early 90s, I went to Nanjing and lived in your home as long as I had time. My deepest impression went for your dishes of old chicken soup and braised pork (Hong Shao Rou).
TG: Braised pork made by my aunt is my favorite, and it's the reason why I would love to go to Shanghai. Furniture in my aunt's home is made of beautiful rosewood; bowls, plates, spoons are pink, and with inscription of "Made in Qianlong of Qing Dynasty", which I now think should be fake; and ivory chopsticks that are fading in color. I behaved myself with these formal dinnerware, hoping to get praised by adults, and get two more pieces of braised pork. In my impression, old apartment in Shanghai are pervaded with a strong smell of bleaching powder, in them were terrazzo, porch, furnace, piano, bathtub with rust spot, most of my relative's home are decorated such.
WL: I started working in the factory as a worker since I was 16, and soon I learnt smoking and drinking strong tea. At that time, we were drinking very cheap tea, broken tea, which would become extremely strong once met with water... Later, I knew more about tea from you, say in early 90s, I had some knowledge of teaware, of course tea is the vital part. I tried Zhengshan Xiaozhong (Lapsang Souchong) for first time here with you in Matai Street. Maybe you have forgotten that.
TG: I started smoking almost the same time with you, I was in high school, and around 16. After Lin Biao's plane crash, we were organized by our school for a marching, and unfortunately, I was forced to carry heavy bags, which almost drove me crazy! As there were blood blisters on my feet, I refused to walk any longer, my teacher had no alternative but to put me in a car, where I had smoked a cigarette offered by my friend. This is how I had my first try on cigarette. After going to the countryside, I smoked more unscrupulously. I think we were lucky to had Lapsang Souchong in the 90s, it tasted rich in dimension, with a special smoky aroma. I have never drunk that good Lapsang Souchong ever since.
WL: Then talk about your father, especially your relation with him, I heard some before, but it cannot make a complete story.
TG: It was only when I came to Taiwan in 1996, did I know something more about my father. I heard it from my uncle in Taiwan. My father left Shanghai at the age of 18, and participated in Anti-Enemy Troupe, then joined Chinese Communist Party, he always regarded himself as "craftsman". I would like to leave out something here about my grandfather...
In Cultural Revolution, my father was required to go May 7th Cadre School, as a result, in 1969 and 1970, I studied in Gaozi Town Middle School, which lies next to May 7th. Every week, I came to my father to get a small bag of rice and money, 2 Jiao, for a living. The Cadre School headquartered in a group of Minguo Buildings (built between 1912-1949), which blended seamlessly into surrounding trees and bushes. The main building has 3 floors, and also a basement, rooms are decorated with terrazzo or wood floor, windows and doors are typical art deco style. Outside the building, there lied several trucks, two tractors and a gaz 69 jeep from Soviet Union. It is said that there used to be training center for spy in Minguo period.
Qiaotou Town is a typical Jiangnan ancient town. I used to run errands for my father's friend, going to post office to post letters, or state grocery to buy things. One more thing, there's a place for silkworm breeding nearby, the building was specifically designed for breeding, it's a pity I did not see breeding process myself. I once posted a photo of my father and me on Weibo, which is the only one I have ever taken with my father.
In 1980, a file issued by organization department, stating that problems about my father were clear, and my father was then "emancipated". He stayed in May 7th Cadre School until 1982, at the age of 62, he was among the group that left in the end, after which he retired.
WL: In which year, you go to the countryside?
TG: I went to a beautiful place in 1973, called Jiangpu County, Xiang Yang commune, East Red production brigade, happiness production team. In the first year, the secretary of production brigade pumped water in the pond and caught fishes everyday, which led to a piping. That day, I heard people shouting: breaking! breaking! Sounds came one after another, and it was near sunset, everybody was running towards home. In less than 20 minutes, flood waves rushed towards us, submerging houses, farms, everything in the lowland, it was quite a long night. When the dawn came next day, the currents came less violently, in the water I saw dead animals, pig, cow, dog, chicken, snake, frog and other insects. In that circumstance, one could only help oneself, I got my only property, a semi-conductor radio from my father, and some clothes, and rushed to join the escaping group, I was totally exhausted when getting to the highland.
Here, I need to explain that I am good at swimming. I have passed long-distance swimming exam when I was in primary school, grade four, and I once participated in an activity "Swimming through Yangtze River in commemorating Chairman Mao". After the accident, tens of pumpers with a diameter of 60 centimeters worked day and night for a week, to drain the waters in the village. I found that everything was in ruins, dead bodies, collapsed houses.
In the second year, my father came to visit me with his gaz 69 jeep, I was so proud to step into the car in front of my "educated youth" classmates, and came back to Nanjing for a short break.
WL: You must have a deep impression on flood after experiencing that. I noticed that water is a frequent element in your work, does this have anything to do with your flood experience?
TG: Yes, it's quite provoking, but I like water still, no change. Not every one has the chance to experience flood. Man got a supporting point with the outside world, no matter he is standing, sleeping or sitting; however, in the water, the situation is different, he is floating, under the condition of lesser gravity, like a baby in the womb. Water endowed me with such diverse feelings, it could be calm and gentle, as well as turbulent and tempestuous. I enjoyed such feeling, I could floating in water and get a snap, or I could swim 50 meters, depending on me. To me, I can manipulate water in key moments, and appreciate its variations, water does run through my work.
WL: In my impression, except Guang Ce and Huang Jun, artists from Nanjing are less influenced by western arts in form and material, they even insisted on using traditional Chinese jargon; While, you are concerned with western modern arts, and to some extent, affected by their concepts, why?
TG: There's a lot to go about this, perhaps, this is traditional culture rooted in our mind. People are naturally constrained by something, and at the same time, learning from this something. With internet developing so fast, western arts are available all of a sudden, we, by instinct, kept ourselves from new stuff, thus getting no time for thinking.
WL: Are you a member of "New Literati Painting"?
TG: I have participated twice their exhibition, not sure if this counts.
WL: I am sure you will not miss several important exhibitions from abroad in the end of 70s, and beginning of 80s.
TG: Sure, it's unforgettable! In order to see "French Village Landscape exhibition", I ride a bicycle from Nanjing to Shanghai, by way of Zhenjiang, Changzhou, Wuxi and Suzhou; then for "Japanese Modern Art Show", I came to Shanghai via Yixing, Huzhou, Hangzhou, Jiaxing; then for "American Indiana Aboriginal Art Show", I once again ride a bicycle via Yangzhou, Taizhou, Nantong, Changshu, to Shanghai.
WL: I could tell it's impressive, you went to the same destination via three different routes, and remembered clearly even after 30 years. It reminds me that you once ride to Zijin Mountain, and climbed to observatory then overlooked whole Nanjing City.
TG: Bicycle trips never stop since then. You cannot imagine how it feels when riding a mountain bicycle right up to the top. Lately, I found myself still interested in bicycling. I made a lot of trip in Wannan Mountain area, visited their natural village, and tried to live a primitive life as a farmer. I bought an old house dating back to Yuan, Ming Dynasty in 1999, after renovation, I moved in, and I had more time bicycling to nearby villages.
WL: I once saw your solo exhibition in Nanjing Museum in the middle of 90s, you drew on paper made by yourself. It's thick, and one can see the fiber of grass stem. You said you made the paper in Jingxian County in Anhui, it's strong.
TG: It's not museum, it's Jiangsu Art Museum, Flying over the Homeland, all works are done in hand-made paper. I studied hard on paper, especially xuan paper, and was trying to solve the problem with xuan paper, such as its vulnerability, color expressiveness. Xuan paper originated from Xiaoling in Jingxian County, Xuan Cheng area. I once had an in-depth interview with Zhang Genji, a paper craftsman, I am the only one who had ever interviewed him, and I got a photo as proof, haha.
He was 80 back to that time. But he is assiduously making paper himself, preparing material, choosing materials, boiling, dehydrating, following more than one hundred procedure, he makes them with inherited techniques and never ever adds chemical elements.
It's just paper, no matter of what kind, the more important part is what you express with it. Rosenberg has once made a huge "paper" in Jingxian County, but few people have saw this. And no artists followed the practice of making paper, it became a story of 90s.
WL: Due to making paper, you got interests in Anhui architecture.
TG: Yes, I felt it interesting and noble making natural paper with traditional techniques, especially in such an ancient architecture. One could experience mountains and seas, green trees, wood structure, carvings of stone, brick and wood, tenon and mortise structure, rivers, water flumes, walls, full of vigor and vibrancy.
WL: I seemed to predict that you would leave the city and go to a village, in an article about you in 1992.
TG: Good prediction. I have a profound feeling for ancient architecture, and I love to wander in stone bridge, village and temple. I have long yearned for living in a house built in Ming Dynasty, and this dream come true now. It's not easy to live a life like this, but harder to continue the delicate and elegant lifestyle. My second wish is to take part in a restoring project of a high-level royal architecture, and this was realized too. It's Zhizhu Temple in Beijing. The project lasted five years, and got a prize last year by UNESCO. Can I keep my last wish as a secret? I am not against having a glass of good wine and being well-dressed in such temple, it's the same with appreciating old-Roman fresco and good food in an old temple in Italy.
WL: There's more painting albums than books in your study, as it were in other artists', and half of your albums are bought in foreign countries, usually what would you buy?
TG: Everything, from Shunga, Fontana, to Chinese fantastic rocks, bronze, pottery, garden, to Morandi, Duchanmp, Beuys, etc., everybody are reading these, I am just doing the same thing. We could know more and new stuff, as we get access to internet, Weibo, Facebook and online museum, but I will not let go my original reading habits, I feel good reading a book in the garden.
WL: Pottery you collected over the past two decades are also in display in your study, you denied the saying of collection, but I think there should be some reasons and stories, would you like to share?
TG: It's interesting to say, and it should date back to three decades ago, when the government is cleaning silt in Qin Huai River. The cleaning lasted a whole week, once the water was drained out, stone wharf from Qing Dynasty emerged, pottery shards from different times gradually surfaced. I could tell from color that pottery shards and ruins are from Qing, Ming, Yuan, Song, Tang, Liu Chao, Han Dynasty, respectively. It's a vivid history. I was so lucky that I got vase base from Yongzheng, broken teapot from Chunhua, “Tu Hui Zhan” in good condition, half "Chao Shou Yan", part of "Ji Tou Hu", shards of "Lotus Zun" in a few days. And I taught myself a great lesson with these collections by reading Chinese Pottery by Feng Xianming, pattern, quality, glaze, temperature, styles and tastes of different times. This is the best gift I got from life.
WL: I remembered you have given me a book, called The Way of Water and Sprouts of Virtue by a foreigner. Chinese painting, tea, paper-making can go nowhere without water, and your concept photography is called "Shui Kou (water source)", would you talk about your opinion on water?
TG: Chinese Jianghe culture is gentle and refined. The "water" I shot aims to express such gentle but determined quality, amidst the vagueness and loftiness. I got a Leica M3 from a photographer friend in 1989 when coming back from France, this new gift made me devoting more time on photography.
The book you mentioned before discussed philosophy of water, theories about relation between water and universe, temperament, nature, and wuwei (a Chinese Daoism philosophy), but these are not what I want to elaborate here. I just want to capture some fleeting moments of water, and enlarge them to 2 meters or beyond, thus audiences could experience the texture of water and its miraculous changes. This serves as my spiritual support and imagination sources, but now in reality, it collapsed, and gone.
WL: In your photography work "Human Territory", there are discarded farm tools and daily objects, but not a single person, it's quite a "human territory" with not a single human.
TG: I made Human Territory after Shui Kou, for recording and commemorating. Scenes are derived from agriculture sites, they were there, but seemed missing—bavin room, toilet, well room, Shaoji, basket, wood spoon, pottery furnace, stove, garden, barrel, water wheel, hoe, flail, pharmacy's, oil mill, tofu mill, craftsman, backyard corner, broken temple, snow covered ruin, disserted well, old brick etc. All are surrounding the house, and disappeared with the wind blows.
WL: Stagnant moment, could be endless moment as well. I am surprised at your new work The Rhyme of Ruins. My tuition suggests that this would be a masterpiece, as it explores and enlarges time, even with a simple form.
TG: Really? Glad you say this! The Rhyme of Ruins originates from the flood I experienced before. By the last moment of the flood befalling, fowls, snakes, scorpions and insects all incredibly have instinctively revealed a sense of calmness and detachment. Disaster may not be a bad book for life. The background sound of "WU WU WU" "O O O" seems to hate as well as to miss, to weep as well as to talk. I intentionally paused when taking a breath, which is like a dancing dragon, the lonely man in the small boat is moved to tears, it is the scene in Former Fu on Red Cliff. Perpetual struggle runs through the work, for the small boat disappeared and reappeared. The work is made of natural materials, such as dead branches and dead leaves. I dubbed the video using a traditional style of chanting, Xiao Ge, to express complex emotions of casualness and discontent. Xiao Ge is very popular in Wei Jin period, it means expressing one's bottom thoughts, without caring worldly opinions. And here my small boat "float freely in the sky, not knowing where to land; it is so tiny in the grand sky, abandoning secular world for being immortal in heaven". In the end, wind dwindles, fire dies out, that's called phoenix nirvana, I placed it in the last part. This is my latest work, you are the first audience.