Yu Youhan and Michelle McCoy in Conversation via Laura Zhou

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Michelle McCoy: After your Chairman Mao paintings of the late 1980s/90s you went on to paint those behind Mao, the Chinese people. The paintings in your current show at ShanghART's H-Space depict the Yi Meng Shan area, an area untouched by tourism, economic development, or industrialization. What is your thinking behind your shift in subjects? Is one subject more important than the other?

Yu Youhan: Chairman Maoís Great Leap Forward started a change in China, but it didnít complete. Deng Xiaoping continued this with the opening up of China in the 1980s. All of the subjects have the same importance. I painted Mao. Then, I painted the people. Now I want to paint whatís at the peopleís feet: the dirt, the ground. I donít want to teach anybody anything. But, since the opening up of China, everyone should have a critic, a self-critic.

MM: Tell me more about the origin of these Yi Meng Shan scenes. Are they from your memory?

YU: I went to Yi Meng Shan in 2002. I could go by foot everywhere. There, itís old China. There are no travelers. The animals are not afraidómaybe you can talk with them! The people are hard, primitive farmers. I am not against all change. Although the Yi Meng Shan villagers have not gotten the modern machines and mansions, it is more natural, more honest. And it is a dying lifestyle. I miss those people.

MM: Do you now, or have you ever, considered yourself part of a counter-culture? Are the Yi Meng Shan paintings a rebellion?

YU: The ďPolitical PopĒ was a new direction when I was doing it. Now, Pop Art is in the mainstream of contemporary Chinese art. I need to go in a new direction now. The Pop language was a tool. I am finished with that concept. Maybe I will use that tool again; I donít know. Pop Art is like moving a western tree to Chinese soil, like breeding a western tree with a Chinese tree. I want to make art that is like a Chinese tree growing naturally from Chinese soil.

MM: Compare and contrast the Beijing and Shanghai art scenes.

YU: Before, Beijing artists worked in groups. They were more political. Shanghai has always been more individual artists, and about peopleís daily lives. Now, the difference is not so big. Some Beijing artists have come to Shanghai. Shanghai has new galleries, museums, spaces. The number of artists in Beijing is greater. Beijing has more universities for art.

MM: How healthy is the contemporary art world in Shanghai?

YU: It has grown up. Itís bigger. In China, artists study too much. They are not inspired from their hearts enough. In the ďNew Wave" of 1985, the arts grew as the economy grew. Thatís how it should be. Art has gotten more commercial. You can see a lot of artists have success. They think they need money. Itís better if you can do it from the heart.

MM: You emerged at the end of the Cultural Revolution as one of the founding artists of the so-called ďPolitical Pop" movement. Edward Lucie-Smith has compared you to the ďperestroika" or ďglasnost" artists, such as Ilya Kabakov, who emerged at the end of the Soviet Union. Do you identify with the perestroika artists?

YU: During the Cultural Revolution, I would not do this [points to his Mao catalog.] Maybe I would lose my head. People would think I was dangerous, or against something. But in 1989-90, I could make this. Itís playful. I didnít want my work to go off like a bomb; I wanted to have fun. I donít care about labels; I only care about art. I want to paint. When spring comes, a little sprout grows. I like this. Before the sprout grows, I donít think about it.

MM: What is the future of contemporary painting in China? Will it go through a theoretical ďdeath" as it has in the west?

YU: China is a big painting country. The Han nationality is not good for singing, dancing, or sports. We should paint.

MM: Have you ever felt compelled to give up painting for another medium, such as installation, video, performance, etc?

YU: Iím like the shoe repairman you see on the street. Iím used to it, so I donít want to change. Itís the same with cars and airplanes; we still walk. The Chinese art philosophy is to see the big within the small.

MM: What do you think of other ďPolitical Pop" artists, such as Li Shan?

YU: Itís difficult for me to talk about my contemporariesí work, but since you ask, Iíll find the right wordsÖWang Guangyi is famous for his Great Criticism. He continues to be the strongest critic. Li Shan is now painting strange things, like fish on bodies. He wants to create a dream-like surprise. Heís an idealist. I had an argument with Li Shan about painting in Australia.

MM: After painting, what is your second passion?

YU: I like photography, music, antiques.

MM: Letís look at your Mao and Whitney painting from 1989. Today, Chairman Mao lives only in the history books and Whitney Houston is a recovering drug addict. What, then, is todayís hope for the future?

YU: Mao was the central power of the Oriental tradition. Whitney was the ideal individualist. God let them both happen. In the future, they should be like two legs of the same body. Chinese learning western art traditions, this is not 100% correct. The joining of these cultures will not happen with a revolution. China is still poor. Maybe I am too early for it. Maybe the cooperation will come not through the U.S. or China, but some other country.