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Understand One's Living Environment through Pop and Dada

Interview with Wei Guangqing Interviewer: Li Xianting 2005-09-25

Place:  Li Xiangting's apartment, Tongxian, Beijing

Li Xianting (Li):The earliest art group of new trend in Hubei was "Tribe, Tribe" in 1986. Were you a member?

Wei Guangqing (Wei): I was the youngest member among them.

Li: You painted a set of paintings at the time; they were your earliest original works, no?

Wei:It's my earliest set of oil paintings after my graduation from Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (China Academy of Art).

Li: Is it the first time you used multiple mediums?

Wei: Some used more than one material, and others are oil paintings.

Li: There was "maybe" a sense of existentialism. People loved to read philosophy at the time, and expressed their views through art. At the time, Shu Qun advocated something like rationalism and Northern Culture. I said "maybe", because we couldn't be sure that we really understood existentialism. In fact, whether we understand or not is not important. Just that modern philosophy offered artists a new angle.

Wei: Right. The people of the time were into the metaphysical state.

Li: How many pieces did you paint at the time?

Wei: About six or seven. What I used was instant canvas, and the additional materials were hard materials, so there is only a few completed pieces left.

Li: Which year?

Wei: It's 1986. Main projects included, Secret Ceremony, Yesterday is ‘Not-' Forever, Two Women's Quarrel over a Strange Issue, and Neighbor Shadow, which are reflecting the living status of that time, having a wall, a bed, and a little cat.

Li: What kind of issues were you paying attention to?

Wei: I was affected by existentialism at the time, paying attention to the issues according to the living status of human beings.

Li: Did you read a lot at the time?

Wei: Yes. I particularly loved Borges and Marquez. I read two translated editions of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez, and some short stories. I had particular interests in Magic Realism at the time.

Li: Have you ever read any books on existentialism?

Wei: I read Sartre's books.

Li: Which year did you graduate?

Wei: In 1985, it was very easy for us to be distributed with many universities for us to choose from. I decided to go back to Wuhan where it is close to my home and it would be easy for me to take care of my parents.

Li: Please talk about your university life.

Wei: When I was studying in the oil painting department of Zhejiang Academy for Fine Arts, since I entered college right after I graduated from high school, I was younger than most of the other students and quite lucky. I lived with students of higher grades when I entered the university. I was in the same dorm with Lin Lin, who was killed in the U.S. later. He entered school in 1997, and was Huang Yongping's classmate. Lin Lin is a rebellious person, cool, and independent. He spoke very little with the other students and not very closed with others… always thinking about something. He loved playing guitar. Playing guitar was quite fashionable. The students of the higher grades loved to read books. I discussed with them the books they read and the issues that concerned them. After their graduation, I was moved to a dorm with the class of 1978's students of the oil painting department, where Xu Jiang occupied the upper-bunk. I had lots of communication with students of the higher grades, so my starting point was high. There was no studio for the class of 1977. The 1978 class's oil painting department began their studios. Hou Wenyi of the 1978 class was representative of the first studio. She was the member of "New Figurativism" later on. Wang Guangyi, Zhang Peili, and Xue Pengzhu were Class 1980. Geng Jianyi, Liu Dahong, Wei Dalin and I were the class of 1981. Wei Xiaolin went to U.S. later. All of us from the three grades respectively formed the first studio. The time we entered college was just half a year after Hou Wenyi's graduation. The characteristic of the first studio emphasized on overall concept. Painting was subjective and concise.

Li: Could you tell us what was most impressive when you had contact with Lin Lin, or the books you have read?

Wei: What impressed me the most is I had been a schoolmate of Lin Lin for half a year. He was doing his graduation project. Because the school was too conservative, his project always couldn't pass, since it might have been too anti-traditional and anti-academy. He was kicked out finally because of the "problem" of thoughts. Until we graduated, with the help from a teacher, Zheng Shengtian, the school asked him to supply a piece of work for graduation. What I read at the time were Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation.

Li: Did he have any affect or illuminations on your art?

Wei: Actually, before entering Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, my painting emphasized too much on the process and effect of the surface, and couldn't understand conciseness well. When I took advanced classes in Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, I found it was different from other colleges of fine arts. I spent lots of time sketching to train my construction of works. After I entered Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, because I couldn't fully understand the works with high art value, so I required myself to "speak" to art history. I was a blank piece of paper when I entered school, reading lots of books concerning art history. Understanding art history helped me advance and improve. Meanwhile, I learned something from Lin Lin, understanding how to find correct methods of thinking, observing, and expressing, and daring art experience to explore various kinds of art expressions.  

Li: When you were talking with your fellow students, which master left the greatest impression on you?

Wei: Cezanne influenced me a lot. I considered that I had thoroughly researched every master through the four years of my university, from the vertical to the horizontal to understand more artists. For example, by my analysis, I thought Cézanne derived from Poussin by developing Poussin's sense from the indoor to the outdoor to find a "structure." Poussin's work is very subjective and staged. Cézanne's still objects are geometrical, and his expressive methods influenced Cubism later on.

Li: We should include Popa as one who greatly influenced the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts. Popa's work emphasized the figure with structure, concision, integrity, and strength, which is same as Cézanne's. It's the work with most significant modern idea before the western modernism influenced China. The style influenced Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts of the time, which is the avant-garde camp of Chinese contemporary art. I even thought Popa influenced Huang Yongping's painting of steel plates, Zhang Peili and Geng Jianyi's painting of people with indifferent emotions; Wang Guangyi's North Polar, including your and Song Yonghong's integrity of shape, discarding trivial shape and brushes, cool—on shape and portrait, abandoning the expression of emotion, hard—not only hard edges, but also hard shapes. Anyway, I saw an integrated interest of shape. I mentioned this phenomenon of Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in another article, but by now I hadn't have any time to discuss it in detail.

Wei: It's right. Because Wang Liuqiu and Hu Shanyu are the masters of the first studio, and Xu Junxuan and Jin Yide were students of Popa, they created a completed Popa education system. Their teachings were very strict, asking us to make geometric analysis, anatomical analysis, and artistic expression, which is the most important when we were painting human sketches. The students of the first studio were thoughtful, like reading and rebelling, so the outcome of this set of artists is not accidental—it is the "phenomenon of Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts" as you called it.

Li: Please talk about your graduation project.

Wei: When we graduated, Zheng Shengtian just came from the U.S. He guided our graduation project with Jin Yide, giving us a large space. Lots of conceptual and experimental graduation projects of our generation realized what Class 1977 hoped to do. These projects were not mature if judged from the present view, but they were quite meaningful. Art Newspaper regarded the Graduation Exhibition of 1985 as one of the ten big events of Chinese art of that year. For example, I submitted three pieces for my graduation: one is four-unit image of Border Town Culture in fresco which was published on an art magazine. I still like the work now, because I considered the issue of "commonness" in people's characters. I considered the large character scene to be a state of commonness, with no personality, but emphasized on the overall structure, which is to learn from Cezanne. Due to the influence from Neo-classicalism, I painted Towel Base, which based a Tibetan theme and also with a realistic handling. The third one is Industrial Landscape, which is an experimental project with concise and recapitulative characteristics.

Li: How many works did you do after "The New Trend of 1985?"

Wei: I was assigned to Hubei Academy of Fine Arts after my graduation from the university. It was in 1985 when the fine arts department of Hubei Art College renewed its name to Hubei Academy of Fine Arts. The situation was poor, I am poor too, and the environment for painting is not very good. I have to find a way to understand art, so I did some installations with instant materials, such as Dedicated to Pollock, Adam?Eve, etc. Later, I saw Rauschenberg's exhibition in Beijing and I was very excited, because I found something I resonant with. There were lots art groups: The Northern Art Group, The Southwest Art Group, Zhejiang Pond Community, "Tribe, Tribe" of Hubei, etc. "Thinking Trend of Fine Arts" and "Chinese Art Newspaper" also offered platforms of communication for Chinese modern art, so it was bustling. All of Two Women's Quarrel over a Strange Issue, Secret Ceremony, and Yesterday is ‘Not-'Forever were projects of the time.

Li: Why did you do instant installations, what was the influence? Everybody started to do ready-mades after Rauschenberg's exhibition.

Wei: It might be a feeling and I am quite sensitive to material.

Li: And the study of modern western art history?

Li: Yeah, it could be related to my study of the modern western art history. When I studied in Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, I got more information than I could get in any other academy, because students of the higher grades there could read lots of foreign magazines in the library and came into contact with the western modernism very early.

Li: Reading was strongly emphasized at the time. We all passed that age.

Wei: Right, they learned how to read western modernism.

Li: Understanding philosophy through art, and taking western modernism as a reference to replace mainstream thinking of the 1950s system and resolve the Chinese issues that concern by everyone. To artists, it was related their living environment, experiences, and expression. Actually, the whole Chinese cultural fever was like that.

Wei: Right, we understood art and life through philosophy. My performance art in 1988, Simulative Experience- Suicide Plan about ‘One'. The concept of the project came from my student's suicide. I regret that he didn't die in the name of art. On August 8, 1988, such a lucky day, I was bitten by a poisonous insect; I experienced the fragility of life.

Li: Don't regret. We cannot experience a suicide's feelings. If one has no reason for life, art means nothing, unless art is his life. What role did Ma Liuming play in this project?

Wei: Two of my students were bounded up, including Ma Liuming. They were actors of the suicide project. The complete project was presented at the Yellow Mountain Meeting. This project was selected for the Modern Art Exhibition of 1989. You hinted me to do it a little more ruthlessly. I displayed it in the form of performance and installation. Actually, my idea was to anonymously call the Chinese Art Museum, and tell them someone is going to commit suicide. But due to the gun incident at the museum, it was closed; so my project was not realized.

Li: I hinted for you to do this? I forgot. We were young at that time. The situation after 1980 made us hot-blooded. "Make something" was the common emotion of the time, so when I designed the exhibition in 1989, I particularly placed in the first exhibition hall with especially exciting projects in the most obvious places to emphasize the rebelliousness of exhibition and the strength of visual simulation. Your Suicide Plan was the earliest Chinese event art. Event art is different from performance art. Event art has the characteristics of performance, but it was not as same as performance art that expresses through body language, but rather it expresses its ideas through mental experiences. The direction of event was stronger than performance. In practice, it has the characteristics of a social event. I always think event art is an issue especially worth discussing in contemporary Chinese art. It related to the emotion of "make something," similar to the western state of mind, when Dada was created. The words you wrote about "suicide" read like pronouncement or ambiguous philosophical maxim. Many articles of 1985 had such characters. You took Camus's "the only serious philosophical issue is suicide" as instruction put at the beginning of the article. Just as our living environment and psychological status determined how we accept the influence of modernism. Suicide Plan related to the ready-mades of Dada works you made in 1985. In other words, you used the anti-cultural emotion expressed in the Dada style ready-mades for the suicide event in 1988. It was following the development of your art concept. Your period of painting "Tribe, Tribe" is of super-realistic style. The trend of the 1985 period borrowed from Dada and Metaphysical Super-realism. You occupied these two types. You were a typical artist of the 1985 period. The following projects are such ones made in composite materials: Red Frame, Yellow Book, and Black Book. I thought it's the turn of your artistic creation.

Wei: Right. After 1989, I was assigned to teach in Hubei Wuxue Normal University for one year. I had no classes there. I had my student, who was also a teacher there helped me to complete the assignments, so I easily completed the series, made of composite materials, Red Frame, Yellow Book, and Black Book, etc.

Li: I said Red Frame, Yellow Book, and Black Book are of the turn of your work, because I found that there was a sense that Red Wall was appearing in these backgrounds. Another reason is that they all look like relief and the whole work look like a book. Afterwards, the information from books both as cultural symbols and the factors related to the current cultural situation becomes the main images of your work. The third and most important reason is the pictures are stamped with numbers and seals, like "Logout" and "Audit," to make the pictures baffling. These incompatible images are quite Dada-like. Meanwhile, these abandoned seals all came from the Cultural Revolution with atmosphere of the time, which found a connection between Dada and Pop art. Chinese contemporary art, from the generation of 1985, Wu Shanzhuan, Gu Wenda, and Zhang Peili, to Wang Guangyi of the 1990s. They all used numbers and words in the same way to make ridiculous and unreadable materials. You can see that all of these people graduated from Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, including Huang Yongping, who transformed Zen through Dadaism. We can see that Dadaism had incalculable influence on the artists from Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts. The experiments with these factors formed the foundation for your later pop work, the series called Red Wall, which gained public recognition. The next series is "Eroticism Misunderstanding?" It is also Pop Art with a sense of Dadaism, juxtaposing pop magazines with ancient books to create a new sense of sexual vulgar-ness.

Wei: Right. I finished Red Wall: Zhu Zi's Family Maxims, and Red Wall: A Harmonious Household, etc., after I went back to Wuhan in 1991. In 1992, I joined "Post-89' Chinese Modern Art Exhibition" in Hongkong Art Center. Afterwards, I completed the series Eroticism Misunderstanding and My 1997. There are some vulgar figures in Eroticism Misunderstanding. I wanted to do a set of "bad paintings" that is anti-academy at the time.

Li: "Bad Painting" is part of Dadalism.

Wei: Actually, my staring point at the time is: overlapping the covers of pornographic magazines, the lifted print of Jin Ping Mei, and the barcodes of commercial society to express some ideas. On the other hand, it also attempts to resolve the conflicting problem of painting languages. Eroticism Misunderstanding in 1995 joined the exhibition you curated, titled "Run Away From National Ideology—Chinese Modern Art Exhibition" in Hamburg, German.

Li: What's after this one?

Wei: Marilyn Monroe. My ideas were very strange, when I did this set of works; I wanted to see China through the eyes of a movie star. I painted lots of stuff and plants in the former narrow strip of space. I wanted to create the feeling of being squeezed. After the completion of the work, I found that the narrow space, but it was quite penetrating, generating a new concept and effect, which is worthy of deep thoughts. It means that even during time of great adversity and pressure, it brings us profound thoughts. In 1997, I did installations, entitled Notebook, which used the renewed old engraved printing typeface.

Li: Engraved printing typeface?

Wei: Right. I changed it into a notebook to explain the variations in word use. In the information age, type had been eliminated, so I input the past and the current things again, stories and information that happened in China or foreign countries to refitted the notebook. From 1996 to 2001, I continuously made sixteen notebooks, and displayed them in a multimedia classroom in the exhibition hall where Germany Duy Rensburg Museum hosted "Chinart: The Contemporary Art from China." It was very interesting.

Li: Is Three Character Primer after this series?

Wei: No. I did another set of Red Wall: Zeng Guang Xian Wen in 2000, which is same as Red Wall in shape, but it has changes to concept. I borrowed the significance of Zeng Guang to name the exhibition In Fact You Can Also Broaden, exposing the sources of the pictures to produce interactions with audiences. From 2001 to 2002, I did some work which are variations of Red Wall, and related to belle, fashion portrait of younger generation, media, internet, and commercial costumer. I began the visual change in 2003, completing the cloth project of colorful strips, Three Character Primer. It too has visual characters: one is from media and looks like a colorful screen, but when they are put together they would look like a barcode; the other is made in words, using the key words of the Three Character Primer to compose the form of the picture, because Chinese words are pictographs. I made the words on the ground of the picture, processing the surface with yarn-look of coarse edges, and providing a hazy vision, which looks like old-time paper windows that can easily be broken by anything. It's mysterious.

Li: You produced a special space, one layer after another to create relationships between them, different from the juxtaposition of Red Wall and Eroticism Misunderstanding, but having the hidden feeling and offering some kind of cultural factors hidden in people's unconsciousness. Is the next one Made In China?

Wei: Made in China, Jin Ping Mei, Thirty-six Strategies, Sun Zi's Art of War, they changed both in words and form. The symbols appeared, such as "China", "Love", "36", "Chessboard", "Target", etc., making a multi-level transformation of words, materials, and forms. The coarse edge yarn formed "Teapots" and "Cups" to express the contemporary social issues hidden in the structure of Chinese traditional family, in my understanding. Target and chessboard could hint at how we face the contemporary social issues and make the right judgments and choices.

Li: Now it's very clear to us, especially with regard to your work after the 1990s. You always juxtapose, mix, and hide the traditional cultural symbols and images with the symbols of the current social situation and consumer culture, to understand the cultural situation and the life you are living in.

Wei: Yes. My applications of many factors are aimed at the current social and cultural background, suggesting questions, and transforming them.

Li: Thus you continuously mixed traditional symbols into your work. What made you start doing that?

Wei: I have always been concerned about our ancient books. China has a very long history with so many ancient books and records. Although, there was some garbage, I found Zhu Zi's Family Maxims and Zeng Guang Xian Wei were in fact preaching morals. There were lots of problems waiting for us to resolve in our real lives. I think it's very important for us to reconnect with old cultural books, removing the dross and absorbing the essence. Old revolutionary medals and certificates could be sold in the antique market, and the new generation advocates for material desires with no moral bottom line. Our generation had experienced an era without political moral bottom line, but is now experiencing an era without economic moral bottom line. From the perspective of globalization to concern the entire state of development in China, our ideologically sensitive past has gradually faded. I would like to find such a change in the visual arts. I think this change is the entire human visual experience, rather than a narrow one. When I did the cover for Time magazine in 2000, the theme of that volume was to reflect the situation of China's young people. At that moment, I felt like I got the sense. I applied two characters with commonness: one was black-and-white figure; the other was the colorful new generation. I painted the television screen with six "crosses," and appropriated some pictures of Zeng Wen Guang Xian to the bottom of the screen. The top of the screen were materialistic things, such as: mobile phones, BMW, Coke, ecstasy, pistols, and dollars to hint at the relationship between spirit and substance is reversed. I jokingly called it "the era of materialism."

Li: Do you have such the metaphor when you first put Zhu Zi's Family Maxism together with the Red Wall? Are there any relationship between Zhu Zi's Family Maxism and Red Wall?

Wei: My early work, Red Wall: Zhu Zi's Family Maxism, is really with the ideological factor. Red Wall: Zeng Guang Xian Wen in 2000 is to understand Red Wall as an interactive relationship between "dismantle" and "build," which is the transformation from ideological symbols to symbols of consumer culture.

Li: How did you find these books and pictures in the beginning?

Wei: I inadvertently found an old calendar when I was strolling in an antique market. The book has lots of pictures, including Zhu Zi's Family Maxims and Zeng Guang Xian Wen. I often went to the bookstore selling ancient books to buy some thread-bound Chinese books with wood engraving print. The awkward brush of the illustrations in Jin Ping Mei of Ming edition is what I like.

Li: Are these pottery sculptures the latest?

Wei: I did a solo installation exhibition at ShanghArt Gallery, named "Twenty-six Guansha: Tranquility Day". I used the Chinese traditional "Twenty-six Guansha" to make 295 30cm-tall ceramic figurines. I redesigned the Pentagon to 26 sets of apartments, and arranged 26 pieces of these ceramic figures in each apartment. The project is mainly to observe the contemporary globalization issues from the sociological perspective. The instant appropriation and transformation of the historical images and resources compose the visual expression of contemporary issues. "The Pentagon" is a typical architectural symbol for American politics and power, with the structure of an enclosed courtyard. Especially after 911, the pattern of the entire world changed instantly. People's views on all things are faced with uncertainty and needed revaluation. It seems that everything had become very fragile, even politics, economy, and powers. I converted the power building to a residential building with small ceramic figures, therefore transforming classical icons to make a dramatic parallel juxtaposition.

Li: I hadn't seen this work. I would tell you my feeling after I look at it. Please first record your creative thoughts. Do you pinch those ceramic figures?

Wei: No. I could not resolve the technical problem. I offered the draft to the folk artists in Guangdong and ask them to make them.

Li: Ok. We finish our chat by roughly going through your creative experience to give a clue to the audience and researchers as a reference. The in-depth talk is left for the future.

September 8, 2007. Revision
October 5, 2007. Edited

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