Chen Xiaoyun VS Yang Zhenzhong

Chen Xiaoyun interviews Yang Zhenzhong


Chen: According to my knowledge you used to be a painter, when did you change over to the new media forms of video and photography?

Yang: Back then I painted because I enjoyed it, though having very earnestly completed one painting, I was never able to paint a second in the same style as the first. Actually at that time I thought I painted pretty well, it’s just that I had no continuity. I’m the type that likes new things and is bored by the old, while painting I was also playing with other materials. Later I started to develop an interest in other things, I wanted to try different forms such as performance. In 1995 I borrowed a video camera and made my first video.

Chen: So almost unconsciously you came to choose a new media approach, and used this approach to experiment with your interests and realize your ideas. Your works appear mild and everyday, but they always contain something very penetrating or else very strange. Perhaps you don’t work according to any consistent feelings or interest - is that how you would describe your own work?

Yang: You’re right, I have no consistency, personally I don’t feel that a series of works need have a constant direction, I don’t really have a plan - I tend to follow my whims. To discuss the issues addressed by my work you would probably have to look at a specific piece, it would be rather difficult to take my works as a whole.

Chen: In the last few years everyday experience has become more prominent in your works. For example, the video ‘The Face of Shanghai’ exhibited at the Shanghai ‘Art for Sale’ exhibition, and other video and photography works such as ‘Bicycle Gymnastics’ and ‘What You Can Tolerate Cannot be Dispelled by Your Tolerance’ are in actual fact all concerned with certain puzzling anxieties and impressions people experience in modern day society. In your recent work ‘I Will Die’ you confronted the people you interviewed with a very disturbing problem, to which they responded in many different manners. In this work you found a very clever way of controlling your audience, do you think the method you used here is ethical?

Yang: I don’t think there’s anything unethical about it. I participated in an exhibition in Brussels where an audience member asked me how I would feel if one of the people I filmed was killed by a car directly afterwards. In theory this is not likely, but if it were to really happen, then I don’t think I would continue with the project. But fortunately no disasters of that kind have happened up til now, and I am still going on with the work and may continue to expand it.

Chen: ‘Art for Sale’ was an important exhibition for the progress of contemporary art in Shanghai. After this exhibition, Shanghainese artists started to develop a lively art scene on their native soil, whereas previously Beijing had been the only main centre of activity for contemporary Chinese art. For this type of local exhibition there are always problems of scale, extent and quality to be considered. You were one of the curators of ‘Art for Sale’ - were there any other elements you considered in the planning process?

Yang: The state of the Shanghai art scene before ‘Art for Sale’ was just as you have described, many artists participated in exhibitions held in other places. Actually Shanghai was not completely without exhibitions, Zhu Qi had organized a few, but after each exhibition was over things went pretty quiet again. It’s because the city itself is too commercialized - Shanghai has more than 10 million inhabitants, and to date how many of them have become artists? A tiny proportion I can assure you. Back then many young people in Shanghai liked making art but they had no opportunities. At that time we often discussed these matters together, and felt that ‘Art for Sale’ was a really good idea for an exhibition, totally in accordance with the city of Shanghai, which is like a huge market. So we felt the title ‘Art for Sale’ to be very appropriate, and after the whole structure had been worked out we were even more confident about going through with it. An exhibition like this could bring Shanghai’s contemporary art scene to life, and boost everyone’s energy. I think that a great many young artists, especially those who worked with different media, were feeling bored and depressed, just hanging around, their vitality almost gone. Of course there were some like Xu Zhen who has always been very active, he’s the type that really wants to do something.

Chen: You often take part in contemporary art events abroad, how are the working methods of foreign artists different from those of Chinese artists? When they put on art events, is the influence of the outside environment different from conditions here?

Yang: The system is different, of course, but real differences are few, and mainly quantitative. As far as the art is concerned, I feel that young artists are all in the same boat, they are working hard but have few opportunities. At the bottom of the ladder, young artists have to find work and earn some money before they can do the things that interest them. But the clever ones will find many ways of achieving rapid success. Chinese art is currently very popular abroad, but many Western curators don’t really understand Chinese art, and exchange is very limited. Many people’s understanding of Chinese art is based on misunderstandings.

Chen: Which misunderstandings in particular?

Yang: For example, the things which excite them are either of a political nature or use Chinese symbols, and some Chinese artists have taken the hint all too easily. That’s not to say that the artists deliberately comply, but that these things are very easy for them to play around with, and in playing this easy game you will quickly be on the road to success. This has had some adverse effects on Chinese art.

Chen: Western curators are likely to consider Chinese contemporary art from a very fixed point of view, but they will regard Western art from a very different point of view. They have thought all along that Chinese contemporary art is a product of a certain period in Western contemporary art, that it is a second wind prior to collapse or an alternative method of expression, and so confronted with Chinese contemporary art they are likely to have biased views. Are their views on Chinese art coloured by their perception of China as an ‘other’ region, or are they based on other largely irrelevant artistic factors?

Yang: Perhaps it’s not as serious as all that; under the present conditions, dilemmas such as those of Western curators will inevitably exist. But I feel that if many artists - both Chinese and foreign - get the chance to participate in big international exhibitions, this is a good thing. When I was abroad I talked to some foreign artists, and they have seen the pressure brought to bear on young artists who have participated in this kind of exhibition, it’s really a challenge.

Chen: In ‘Fish Tank’, an early video installation of yours, a video image is played under the surface of the water in a fish tank, a large mouth constantly repeating ‘We are not fish, we are not fish’, with a kind of harassing repetition of a basic theme. Your recent work ‘I Will Die’ seems to use a similar narrative structure, both works are built on your everyday or attributive judgement. You often make a very eccentric personal interpretation of basic, universally known facts. So how do you consider and explain the close relationship between these works?

Yang: There is certainly a similarity, as both works were made by me, but I don’t know how close the similarity is. When I make videos I concentrate on the coordination of sound and image above all else, I believe sound to be quite important. I’m very interested in the use of repeated short sentences in video.

Chen: Is that because in your works, everyday experience always has a kind of nervousness running through it?

Yang: Perhaps it is, I believe that life itself is in a state of constant repetition. In my videos I like to use repetition as a form of expression, it has a kind of power.

Chen: ‘I Will Die’ is a very interesting work, can you tell me something about the original idea behind this work, how it was realised and it’s later development?

Yang: This work began from a very simple idea, that it would be quite awkward to get people to say these words. After filming a few I felt it to be very interesting and continued with the project. All the ordinary people I filmed performed in front of the camera in very interesting and very different ways. Perhaps it is the power of the camera, when people talk in front of a camera - even if they are saying ‘I will die’ - they basically stop thinking, and just perform. For the audience, these words produce a contradiction, which comes from the performer, and the feelings of the audience towards the performer when he/she speaks these words; the feelings people get from this are very interesting. In Brussels I worked in the same way, using the same process, and though the background and language was different, many feelings are in fact pretty much the same. But I am still interested in going on with this work, perhaps I will get the chance to continue it in different places.

Chen: When artists create works, their methods can be narrowed down to a few categories, those which draw on individual emotions, those which draw on individual experience, and those which grow from purely theoretical material. Which category would you place yourself in?

Yang: I suppose I tend towards the emotional.

Chen: Some artists put great value on contemporary art theory, they start off with a kind of personal theoretical structure, and their art is a product of their thoughts and ideas. Their ideas are based on an intellectualized quantity of information, which later produces an emotional realisation. I don’t think that you are the type of artist who places great emphasis on knowledge or the pursuit of theory. Your emphasis is usually placed on your individual experiences or on things that are actually part of the language of art itself; do you agree?

Yang: Sometimes I feel that if you deal with individual experience on a certain level it becomes universal experience. Also I feel that theory and emotion, no matter what kind, are both by-products. That’s not to say I think theory is of no importance, actually art is also not that important, they are all the by-products of life.

Chen: Many people, perhaps based on a misunderstanding, or perhaps from their own imaginings, believe that artists lead a fantastic and extraordinary kind of lifestyle, as if only then can their art be of any value to life. In fact when they are not making art, artists are normal people, the same as everybody else. We both know that it’s since 1985 that Chinese contemporary art has possessed influence on any scale. The artists of that period made a great contribution, and gave a foreshadow of our present art scene, and after that the Chinese contemporary art world began to absorb and digest all the concepts and theories of Western contemporary art. And now it seems a new state of affairs has appeared; perhaps because everyone takes more initiative and is more active, they think more subjectively on issues pertaining to art itself. What are your views on this situation?

Yang: Although our environment is constantly changing, the difference that you are talking about lies mainly in the artist as an individual, the individual’s changing state of mind.