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David Diao's interview - Looking for the Source of Life And Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Source: LET'S ART Oct,2017

About exhibitions

1. I was honored to visit your exhibition at UCCA in 2015, and also interviewed you and wrote an article about this exhibition David Diao. The interview, your exhibition as well as individual works impressed me so much. Since then, I have been following your activities continually. In 2016, you had many solo exhibitions and group exhibitions, including REF: BARNETT NEWMAN etc. I find you are highly productive during my research. I would like to ask what’s your main subject discussed among those exhibitions after the solo show at UCCA in 2015? And what’s the biggest difference between the retrospective in China and exhibitions in other places?

It’s nice to be reacquainted since UCCA two years ago.  Thank you for reaching out to me.
That show was the chance of a lifetime as it allowed me to present almost 50 years of work with all its peregrinations.  I worried that showing all that work was a lot to ask of the viewer but the fact that you and others  made the effort to unpack it is reassuring.  

Barnett Newman has been an abiding subject.  REF: BARNETT NEWMAN was a dedicated show at Office Baroque in Brussels of selected paintings from a trove of over 2 dozen going back to 1990.  Then I showed 3 monumental geometric paintings from the 70s at the Independent Art Fair in New York.  Most people had not seen these 40 year old works when they were first shown so there was a lot of surprise.  I presented the first version of my 5 years as a boy in HongKong at Basel HK. with Eslite followed by a more definitive version at my hometown gallery, Postmasters. 

Gallery and art fair showings just as a fact of scale are different from major museum shows. Also UCCA is special as it presented work to an audience quite unfamiliar with the work in the country of my birth. On thing I’ve noticed is there seems to be more media coverage in China but this may just mean that my career is further along.

It is not easy to name the main concern of my work.  Would it be enough to say the subject is “painting” as what passes for painting has not stood still; it has always been a contested field. So there is more work to do.  Thus my paintings have gone through many displacements as I partake in the conversation.  Having already voted for abstraction in the big divide between representation and abstraction, my small contribution is to insist that painting be more than the formal elements of abstraction-color, shape, composition- and be where narrative, argument , memory can produce signification.  If abstract painting was supposed to be autonomous then my besmirching it with stuff is heretical but frees it from self-imposed solipsism. At the same time this “opening up” places me in a hamster wheel  of trying to bring new material to the job and hence I never think I am productive enough.  

About identity

2、You’re an artist with a philosophical background; you had experienced turbulent time moving from one place to the other; and you’re very active in New York Art circle for most of your time. From my perspective, art and New York share a charming similarity, which is “inclusiveness”. Various elements and identities have the opportunity to be equally embraced. But I can see the struggle you have experienced in complete different logics, fields and regions from your work. Whether we can say that seeking the self-identity (mixed identity) can be seen as the hidden or one of consistent primary subjects of your creation? And how do you think of the “identity” and “recognition”

Not sure how inclusive the New York art world is but surely it’s the agora where all ideas are in play even if not on a level playing field. I think of myself as a New York artist before from anywhere else; my interests in art was spawned by the art of the New York School which had putatively won the Cold War and made New York the art capital of the world. I had little awareness of Chinese culture, and as an immigrant, mostly unconsciously worked to blend into America.  I was proud how successfully I managed to do so. I was mostly blind to the racial inequalities that are barely below the surface.  Nor did I see myself as part of the Asian immigrant community as my family had instilled in me a sense of our elite status.  The fact that we lost everything in the Chinese civil war made that fantasy more necessary for their sense of self worth. I am sure this rubbed off on me and gave me a deluded consciousness that whatever I did was worth doing and showing.  By the 90s, however, the world was rife with discourse of identity coming on the heels of post colonialism, the Vietnam War and expanded immigration. I could not be completely blind to these input.  Given my own inclinations, I might have blithely carried on as someone fully integrated and equal to anyone else. I can no longer do so. As I am also constantly on the lookout for new subject matter for my painting in my by now expanded painting practice, I soon came to utilize issues of identity as subject for painting. At the same time I am more conflicted about my identity than ever.  It resists resolution.  It’s just something I have to live with.

3、It seems the subject of your works have been shifted onto expressing individual experience and memory, compared to concentrate on the ideological “identity” in your recent 10 years. How do you see this change? How do you work in New York today? What’s the difference compared to 1990s? 

The opening to China and a Chinese audience forced me to take a deeper look at myself as Chinese.  That is also how autobiography entered the work. Although the story of my harried escape from Chengdu and the loss of my childhood home at the moment of Liberation festered in my mind for more than 50 years, it was only having to mount my first show in China in 2007 and my thought that I had to meet the local audience half way that impelled me into painting this story.  This series led into another autobiographical one, my 5 years as a boy in Hongkong. I had very skimpy documentation to use for both subjects, very few photos for example. Mostly I ended up using the methods I have developed from the previous 30 years of formal image making to tell these stories- geometrical shapes, charts, maps and text in that sense nothing has been wasted and one could even possibly approach the work as an oeuvre.
Whereas my heroes Malevich and Newman jettisoned what came before aiming for an ahistorical ground zero, I am too involved in historicity and somehow want to advance the whole story forward incorporating the contributions of my predecessors but also of my own painting history.

What I don’t attempt is some hybridization of East and West as is often attributed to Chinese artists: this usually results in some misunderstood watered down version of the most debased conventions of each.

A reason for this interview is my forthcoming presentation at West Bund.  One of the first paintings I plan to show is entitled, “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” which has this text in 3 languages, English, Ukranian and Chinese. The overt reference is to the film of Sergei Paradjanov from 1966 which I had seen and loved. Here I hope to have it serve as an umbrella for my objective for this group of work.  The various paintings make reference to my artistic ancestors, Malevich and El Lissitzky, the Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom Campaign and furniture design. In addition one work will reference my maternal grandfather who was an important figure in bring down the Qing dynasty and quelling the revolt for independence on the part of the Tibetans.  In other words, these are  shadows of both artistic and familial ancestors.

It’s hard to describe how things are different since the 1990s. I watched the Twin Towers fall and knew right  away that life had changed forever.  Terrorism brings us to a world of even more uncertainty.  My neighborhood has become grossly gentrified: very few artists such as myself are left. I am lucky to be protected in a rent controlled space.  Two years ago my landlord reclaimed my skylit top floor studio with huge walls and moved me to a lower floor which has double the square footage but smaller walls and less light. Despite the tradeoffs I value the change and have been adjusting. Somehow I’ve managed to produce a fair number of paintings. 

With the enlarged space I tried working with an assistant.
It proved too difficult for me to switch from a lifetime of solitary individual practice. It was very hard to delegate  work that I thought I could do better even if it’s just stretching a canvas.  

4、How do you evaluate the relations of art creation, history and environment? If this is inevitable?  

“Creation” as a word always seemed too high fallulting and long ago hijacked by the advertising and fashion worlds.  I prefer “art making” and particularly one that acknowledges the debt it owes to the work of others; never individual genius but communicative action and dialogue.  Yet painting is still attached to the proper name which might not be my intention but  I benefit from its commercial and social standing.

I’ve also always been entranced by alternative histories having learned to remember that official history is written by the winner at the expense of the vanquished. 

5. Recalling the interview in 2015, I was heavily impressed when you mentioned about your childhood, hometown and ancestral home, the Da Hen Li House in Chengdu, as well as the impact you received when you read the house was written in Zhang Rong’s novel Wild Swans. As I mentioned in my first question I have been tracking your exhibitions held in abroad, it seems the subject of the “motherland” has been rarely mentioned again. It has been three years since the retrospective exhibition which brought you back to China held at UCCA. If the concept of the “motherland” will appear in your work again? In terms of your creation, is it important for to be a Chinese or not?

That was uncanny to discover that Zhang Rong’s father as editor of the Sichuan Daily worked in my childhood home.  It was just such coincidences that made that story so compelling.  I am always looking for other interesting bits to put into paintings.  If they happen to have China behind it, fine This notion of the “motherland” is alien to me. I am proud to be Chinese and follow developments in China with  more attention than I pay to other countries.  I am an equal opportunity employer, issues of Chineseness could be in new work or it might not.  I do not exert extra effort to come up with it.  

About Paintings

6、I remember you said art is not mysterious as it is originated from its own root and methodology. In the meanwhile, audiences need to keep learning and experiencing in order to better understand the artist. Some of your works seem to adopt the abstract elements, but some seem very figurative, for instance, some works with recognisable patterns or characters. Whether what they’re trying to express is figurative too? Do you mind audiences interpret your works in their own way? Or how do you think of the over interpretation?

My task as the artist is to make work that arouses the curiosity of the viewer to want to find out more.  And embedded in the work and its making is the possibility of its explication and not some obfuscating mystery that resists clarification.  I do this by every means possible given the limits of my ability. It’s not the same across the board; viewers have their own background and interest and will engage with the work on their own terms. I don’t expect to appeal to everyone and certainly not in any one way.  

The distinction between mimetic representation and abstraction has long been breached. Once abstraction was thought to be superior as it pointed to the universal while representational work merely replicated the particularity of the mundane world. But if each is considered a form of representation then they can both be used interchangeably. 

I continue to work mostly with clearly defined shapes and flat color with no blending or painterly flourish. I avoid spontaneous marks and gestures because they come burdened as markers of freedom and expression. I prefer to align with the ballast of the rational that comes with “Hard-edge.”  Having never learned to depict an object in space I resort to photo silkscreen whenever I need to image something from the world. 

I want a very solid and smooth surface for my paintings.  I achieve this by repeated layerings of, first gesso, then paint with a palette knife. The result is a burnished surface as smooth as formica but somehow still hand made.  This is very time consuming but I value this as time in which to be focused on the painting. The job is mesmerizing and utterly satisfying.  

7、You have created a series of geometric abstract paintings during 1970s, then the conceptual elements and collage started to emerge on your paintings. For such a shift, is this due to the crisis you have experienced (for nearly two years, you almost stopped working)? So can you talk about the idea which was conceived in the early stage of your geometric abstract works? And the relationship with the later works which reflect more intensive conceptual element? Additionally, can you talk about the crisis?

I worked on formal geometric paintings for about 7 years (1974 to 1981.). Prior to these I made more gestural abstractions using improvised instruments with the intention of maintaining large scale, a positive value carried over from the legacy of the Abstract Expressionists. After some years I came to crave more deliberate shape-making and more varied compositions but did not want to give up the immediacy of direct painting.  I chose geometrical shapes for their accessibility.  Its a vocabulary everyone knows and it was possible for me, someone without art school training, to work with. Making the shapes directly on the canvas without preliminary sketches retained the immediacy. Problem emerged as I came to see that aside from referencing the rational geometry within art history has stood for something of higher value and outside history.  This was useful in the long track to carve out a self sustaining autonomy for abstract art in flight from the merely mimetic. However by the time I came to it, the use of geometry seemed conventional and academic if not debased. A way forward was to use geometry not for its  transcendence but to foreground its conventionality and already fixed meanings. You can see how this line of thinking eventually led me to pick the canonical installation photo of Malevich’s  geometrical Suprematist  painting as a referent. To do this I had to go through the debates then raging within the art world particularly of the original vs the copy and the resulting strategy of appropriation.  It took me almost 2 years of lying about to get to it.

In 1979 I went back to Chengdu and saw my mother and siblings for the first time after 30 years. Only then did I learn of their hardships throughout the early days of Liberation and the Cultural Revolution.  It was especially painful that they suffered even more precisely because they had close family, my father and me, in America.  No doubt this reunion contributed to what has to be labeled survivor’s guilt. I felt the injustice of their life while I enjoyed the stability and freedom as an artist in America. These feelings along with the internal contradictions of the  geometrical paintings I was making resulted in my doing very little work from 1980 to 1983. 

8、Many characters such as Chinese and Russian etc. appeared in your early works. No matter Chinese character or Russian, they are more like abstract symbols for audiences from the Western mainstream art world. So if we can see the conceptual “abstraction” which was resulted in the differences in culture and understanding, as another motif which has been constantly adopted throughout your creation apart from “identity”?

I was looking a lot at the artists of the Russian avant-garde.  For Rodchenko or El Lissitzky there was no separation between art and life.  They lent their abilities to art works but also design and advertising.  The use of words and letter form was in both. I borrowed this from them.  Also, since I do not read Russian or Chinese, and see them as almost abstract design, the importation of these texts into the paintings was less drastic.  In addition we also have already in my own backyard the example of Jasper Johns who employed words in his paintings. Finally words and text usually imply work that is more conceptual.  Clearly this is something I value, to have my work seen as relating more to thinking than feeling.
One key painting from 1987, China, has in Russian letters “ZhongGuo” , phonetic for China as spoken by a Chinese, in the middle of a field horizontally bisected by red and yellow. If you are Chinese you might recognize the words as Russian and if you are Russian you can read “ZhongGuo” and not know its meaning.  Only if you happen to know both languages can you understand the whole picture.
Is the use of words a motif ?  I don’t know.  It certainly raises the possibility of more signification.  When I have an idea for work I usually make at least 2.  As someone said,”One might be an accident but two is intention.”

About recent work and life

9、It’s my privilege to have this opportunity to communicate with you again. We have discussed about your works. I would like to talk about your life style. What’s your recent creation status? Will there be a fixed working hours every day? If yes, what is your daily routine? 
I worked very hard to finish the second version of “HongKong Boyhood” for Postmasters which happened this past February. It had about 20 paintings in various sizes. When work is going well, the ideas come one after another.  Afterwards I am always surprised. I suppose I need some “theme” to sustain steady work.  “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” might yet become a productive departure point. I like the half dozen paintings made under its rubric but I am hoping for more. I am still learning not to be too depressed when work is not in high gear.
I am very lucky in these days of high rents to have a large place where I live and work.  I don’t have to commute to the studio.  My habit is such that there is very little distinction between work and leisure. I have never been someone who applies paint to surface everyday anyway.  As I still somehow continue my habit of not making preliminary sketches, I seem to spend a lot of time sitting around, but I am working.

10、You spent your childhood in China, then moved to Hong Kong, ultimately settled in the United States. I would like to ask you if there is an indelible memory left in your childhood. For instance, a certain taste (after all your hometown is Chengdu) an unforgettable food or an accent? Or a moment you especially wish to travel back?
I was ensconced in the cocoon of my family’s compound in the 6 years I lived in Chengdu. I remember a few neighboring streets but that’s all.  I have more formed memories of HongKong from age 6 to 12,  But even there they revolved around the few streets in Tsim She Tsui of home, school, church. “Three points a line,” the Chinese saying expresses my situation to a T.  

I did develop a taste for spicy food.  As a young teenager, fresh to New York, I got a lot of free pizza by betting I could stand as much red pepper as would stay on the pie.  I miss good hua jiao and count the days when my niece brings some from Chengdu.

I speak some Puotong Hua and Sichuan dialect but not well as I simply do not have the vocabulary beyond that of a 6 year old.  I do enjoy regaling friends by speaking a smattering of Sichuanese and saying, “Look, I speak exactly like Deng Xiaoping,”  People from my hometown town however say I sound like their grandmother.
My last trip to Chengdu was a long time ago.  Since then my mother and brother have died.  I don’t feel an urgency to return.  I know Chengdu has developed immensely even though Sichuan Daily still stands on the ground of my family home, I see it on Goggle Earth. 

Not so long ago, my maternal grandfather’s large house in the outskirts of Chengdu has been made into a museum in his honor.  I have memories of visiting him, traversing huge gardens with cockscomb flowers  and bridges to end up in his dim bedroom.  I am curious to see this place again. 

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