An Interview with Tang Guo
Question: Since 1996 your paintings present ideograms that are not painted in the calligraphy traditional style: can you tell us somelbing about it?
Tang Guo: Calligraphy in China is a central theme. A lot of contemporary scholars have been deepening this subject too, for example Xu Bing, Calligraphy contains numerous elements of beauty. Through calligraphy it's possible to know one artist's personality, mood and sentiments. In painting as like as in calligraphy we have slow or fast strokes. Sometimes, one paints without break, sometimes strongly, other times elegantly or delicately. In calligraphy it's the same. Since the ancient times, calligraphy has developed many kinds of styles. In my paintings, influence of calligraphy is clearly visible. Let's make an example: the structural relation between one ideogram and the other: some ideograms seem set out as a building; one on the other as in a step; other seem vertical and horizontal roads intersecting. These kind of relations are very complex. In my paintings I try to express all the beauty of traditional calligraphy, pointing out the structure, the links, the relation between one character and the other, the layout of the ideograms on the paper.
Q: The meaning of the characters themselves in this way are lost?
T: That's right. I use calligrapher to express a mood, not a litcral meaning.
Q: In your works there are a lot of pages from antique books, fragments as well as ideograms that have lost their original nature: all this make me think about Chinese antique culture.
T: Exactly, My works present cultural meanings. Han literature, frescos, Buddhist, old books sheets: all these elements have connection with calligraphy. They are still alive. Some are yellowed, fragilc. They have a broken beauty. I always look for this feeling in my works.
Q: Do you think that this beauty you are talking about is based on calligraphy or on the addition of all these elements?
T: It's based on a synthesis of all the elements: collage, reproductions, seals, painting, etc.
Q: Have you prepared paintings using, antique colours in layers, red on grey, earth on stones, mud colour, specifically for the exhibition shou in Italy?
T: I wanted to give clear references to Chinese traditional ink painting. It's been a natural process, I didn't realize it until I had finished. Anyway, different people will notice different elements in my paintings: maybe a scholar will pay attention to the ideograms, an architect to the range of colours, everyone owns a different sensibiliry. Pinting, I kept on my mind the relation between ink and colours, but non explicitly, I didn't want people to say I use to imitate antique colours and ink painting.
Q: Which are the differences between you own style and ink painting?
T: My works don't have direct relation with ink painting. I just use traditional techniques colours and paper made by hand. I use the materials of ink paintings to express new point of view. I guess I created a new visual imagination.
Q: What are your means?
T: I landmade paper, calligraphy, the way I make paper, etc, I use traditional means to express an abstract type of beauty. I'm not interested in painting, for example, a man's drinking coffee or one's driving a car.
Q: Can we say that your art don't have any connection with everyday Life?
T: Exactly. My paintings is made by abstract elements, it doesn't refect the sadness of a man, obscurity of society, economical or political changes, etc. I'm interesting in using the materials of traditional art to give birth to a new figurative form. Some day my art shows intellectual qualitics, others that it is spontancous; some say it makes people serence, others that it is peculiat. They all make me feel as if I reached my aim.
Q: Which is the link between your works and beauty?
T: I am deeply interested in the traditional graphic expression beauty. Not a lot of people really know it. Maybe few elements are definitively dead. Some people think I invent everything I do some other that I don't invent absolutely anything. Two thousand years ago the elements I use in my painting already existed, society is different, the way we think of art is different. I just want to pass on sensations of beauty. Some people staying in front of my paintngs have a feeling of inconvenicence, as in front of obscurity; but if they are Chinese, in the end they will feel something in common with my paintings, they will recognize their own culture. Maybe some Chinese prefer oil painting but I think it is a Western technique.
Q: How do you choose the colours?
T: I choose the colours I feel, that's all.
Q: Let's talk about the paper you use. Which material do you use to make the paper?
T: I trying to use antique systern. In the old age, it took them 360 days to make paper, living it drying at the sun and moisterning at the rain, filtering the impurities. today, they make paper in 30 days with a chemistry method. But pollution influences this new method negatively. So, I started again using the old systern.
Q: How does it work?
T: First, we take off thin layers of wood from a tree. After we put it in water, then we dry it and we add rice cellulose: it's a complicated method, we use very particular tools.
Q: How does it last?
T: Just the process of adding cellulose takes at least six months. then we add cane, that lasts a week.
Q: Your paintings often have a black tissue frame, how do you make it?
T: It's made of threads. A traditional painter helps me.
Q: How did you decide to use this method?
T: Not after much effort. My paintings and I are one thing.
Q: How do you think your paintings will be in the future?
T: I hope they will be beautiful, maybe I will not use many materials anymore, maybe they will be in harmony with the time being; I guess I will create new colours. I will try to find new structures to reach different visual results.
Q: During the Shanghai Museum exhibition in 1996 you showed a painting made only by paper you didn't paint anything on it.
T: I think the process of making paper is extremely interesting. I use old technique and new inspirations choosing new range of colours to obtain incredible results.
Q: When did your "abstract" period begin?
T: Since 1995. In the 80's I painted traditional, gentle works but with few elements of originality (for example the figures without face). Anyway when I started painting I felt already attacted by abstract style.
Q: How do you explain your development?
T: The main reason is that I'm attracted by "paper". Paper life was short, I wanted to resolve this problem. Paper can last twenty, thirty, forty years and then? A lot of scholars discuss about antique and contemporary painting, I wanted to find a method to make paper resist the time. Antique painting has been lasting for centuries, so why modern paper wear out after few years? Paper brought me to abstract painting.
Q: What influenced most your painting?
T: The design and the shape of old Chinese tools, porcelain, bronzes, music instruments. I guess that it is clear looking at my abstract paintings. All these elements play a central role in my painting.
Q: What do you feel when you paint?
T: Sometimes I feel nervous, but most of the time I'm perfectly calm. I have to be concentrated in what I'm doing. For example, today I want to paint a stone: how is this stone? Vertical or horizontal? Is it red or green? I take my time before starting painting so I don't have reason to feel agitated. I get nervous only if I can not do what I have in my mind.
Q: If you are not satisfied with one of your paintings, what do you do?
T: I throw it away.
Q: Does it happen often?
T: When I used to do ink painting, I usually throw away one third of my works.
Q: What about now?
T: Now it's better. I control better the colours, I am more mature.
Q: If an artist control perfectly the colours, the composition, the paper, the brush, if an artist has already done everything, where can be find new inspiration?
T: There is always a mood, a feeling that I didn't express yet because until that moment. I didn't have the right means. So, I can take ideas from ink painting, oil painting or maybe taking photographs, gathering materials. Recently I took digital photos of the famous rocks Jiang Nan. I want to obtain slides from them, I's like to project them on a wall to have a life-size image. Why didn't I paint them?
Q: Does this kind of artistic experience have any influence on your paintings?
T: Yes, they have, Jiang Nan is a famous place since Ming and Qing dynasty. For centuries a lot of scholats and artists have been to visit them because of their beauty. I joined them.
Q: Which was your first work?
T: An ink painting titled Melody, in 1975 it was present at the Jiangsu province Exhibition. It portrayed a seventeen mad girl near a bamboo, on the sides there were electic wires, on the back a big red sun and clouds.
Q: If an ink painting history was written, where do you thing they shoud place you?
T: Some people think I am close to ink painting vanguard, other people think I am too traditional to be place in the vanguard, maybe someone assesses me as inarginal, a little strange. I like it this way. It's not important. I can't see the reason why we must place an artist in a rigid position. The painter must paint, the critic must comment the paintings. E must not work out who exactly you are because ink painting is an inside world.