TRESPASSING:Yang Zhenzhong Interview I/Li Zhenhua x Yang zhenzhong,Translated by Xu Qin
L: Your early works seem to be characterized by a sort of sentimental aspect. Is it possibly associated with the late 1980s? Does it commemorate the anonymous deceased,approach tradition with skepticism, or respond to modern science and rapid economic development? Or is it looking for an origin inside the system of art, language and history?
Y: After the late 1980s, people seemed occupied in making money; the whole country was busy in developing, trying to make people look at something new.Deep down in people’s mind, however, heavy depression became the mainstream.A great change has taken place in people’s mind as they continue to try to catch up with the waves of the economic reform, which they can hardly handle.Reflection of both the inside and outside of art is mixed with teasing and self-ridicule. As a result, whether the artist intends to or not, they are influenced by so much feeling that they cannot help but leave marks on these works.
L: You use photograph and video as mediums at the very beginning. Why is this?
Y: I did painting at first. Then I gave it up in pursuit of higher efficiency and more freedom. In fact, I began to work with photographs and videos in the mid-1990s.At that point I didn’t care much about which form or method I used, I just wanted to use whatever worked smoothly for me.
L: “Worked smoothly” describes a very natural and relaxed state. Notably, such a state is based on an adept use of media. This poses another question. How would you define “worked smoothly”? Is it a state which requires attention to particular works or is it a sort of pure unconsciousness?
Y: You missed one point. Sometimes work that is produced in a process of learning can turn out to be better than that which is made strictly with proficient skills.So I define “worked smoothly” as both attentive and relaxed. I also feel that feeling too much at ease doesn’t make the whole process any easier at all.
L: I very much like your Shower (video, 1995). It is indiscernibly neurotic; it also demonstrates an obsession to clean with great anxiety, of course still ending in failure. Taking into consideration the tight space and the man’s repeated soaping of the clothes he is wearing, is there any metaphor present here?
Y: At first, Shower was simply a performance piece. Later in post -production, I edited it to make the whole process seem like snap action seen in silent movies and added an athletic and fast paced music from an unknown source as background.It’s kind of my very first video. The delight in taking a shower is blocked by the clothes, thus representing a superficial state of mind. The metaphor here is a subtle reference; it also opens up the possibility of analysis to the audience.
L: So then what was your experience while making the video? Who’s the audience for this kind of art? What do you consider to be the boundary in your transition to performance and video art? Is video as a medium here simply a form of recording or is it contributory to the work’s aesthetic significance?
Y: Of course, I didn’t feel comfortable when showering. And there is no real intended audience. You can’t expect a graduate to attract an audience by doing this kind of thing back in Hangzhou. So I just put the camera on a tripod and recorded the whole process. Two years later, I got a PC and edited it. As for the boundary between performance and video, I’d like to put it this way: at first,video is used only to record the performance. After the video is done, the performance can be defined as the medium.
L: This all sounds very interesting. For one thing, there is a bit of time delay in the video. According to Qiu Zhijie the PC revolution is the predecessor of the DV revolution,which grew in the late 1990s. From the perspective of both technological and social development, the video seems in line with Qiu’s words. In your opinion, how has the development of PC and editing technology influenced your work? Secondly, does the time delay problem allow for the performance to be considered a material source?Have you considered the relationship between work, space and audience in reference to the work seen as the act of showering being generally private?
Y: I would say I didn’t think much about it at the time and I couldn’t have thought that far. It just occurred to me that I should record it and so I did. It wasn’t until the first video was presented that I started to consider the relationship between work, space and audience. There is no doubt that technological evolution and development has influenced our work greatly. It also makes sense the other way around. New exploration intended to develop new technology is in high public demand. Is it possible that one day we will finally be satisfied with the technologies we’ve already got? Seemingly, no. Need and desire never disappear, right?And technology itself is luring and constantly creating new need. For example,the PC and iPhone are not necessities. We can live without them. But they do occupy our life and constantly create new need. So when hi-tech tycoons say they see potential in certain technology, they don’t only see need, but also the possibility to create new need. Is it so? Are we blind consumers?
L: Lucky Family (photograph, 1995) is one of your most iconic works, for it expresses plausible politics as well as our ridicules society; of course, this all comes from the audience’s interpretation. How do you personally view it?
Y: I love it when audience’s interpretation is beyond the artist’s expectation. I often feel that the artist doesn’t need to be certain about his intention, but presuppose the form, material and content, so that he knows how to inspire audience to try to understand or even misunderstand his intention, which is also of much significance. Lucky Family also illustrates my first attempt at Photoshop.
L: Can you talk about how artists used this digital imaging tool in the 1990s? Was Photoshop at all special to you? Also, you mentioned understanding/misunderstanding,how does that influence the artist’s position or role within the art?
Y: I remember it was Photoshop 2.0 in 1995, the highest version that very few could get. And, at the time, Apple computers were only available in big ad agencies and professional graphic design companies. Thanks to a friend who worked at an ad agency, I was able to sneak into the agency late at night and complete the whole work after only three days. A big project that was, considering the equipment I used. At that time, documentary photography was the mainstream. And there were quite a few people within the contemporary art circle in mainland China who came to know about conceptual photography. Still there were very few who had access to digital imaging. After several years, however, photography post production no longer needs to be done in the dark room, but simply with a PC. It is truly quite an improvement. As for the understanding/misunderstanding part, there’s nothing bad about it. Sometimes artists deliberately create this kind of situation. After all, asking for understanding unduly is kind of obsessive. Personally I don’t think artists should worry too much about it. What they should focus on is to keep working.
L: Why is keeping oneself working so important? At present, should producing works be the top priority for artists?
Y: It depends. If you insist on making art with scrutiny, you can do nothing at all.That’s a decision in itself though. Because, if you do, one day there will be nothing you can do anymore. Many artists chose to stop working. For instance, Marcel Duchamp claimed that he quit early in his life. After he died, however, people found he had worked on something secretly. Since, in the end, you can’t be determined to stop, you should find a way to continue. Both low-budget and mass production are OK.
L: So what’s your choice, low-budget or mass production? Which belief do you uphold?
Y: It sounds like bragging if I say I uphold something. Whatever you choose, staying in peace is more important. You may be forced to make low-budget art or mass produce. A saying goes like this: A choice made with no alternative is always a right one. As for me, currently I’m not dong mass production, that’s for sure.
L: Fish Bowl (video installation, 1996) can be deemed as visual contradiction or even the start of a new media. Except for the small pumps of air that appear at the beginning of the video, can any sound from the scene be heard? What’s your opinion of the scene in which daily supplies are transformed and reversed so easily? And is the utterance of “we are not fish” a monologue of self-existence?
Y: In 1996, the small handheld video camera was already available on the market.But PC video editing equipment was still rarely seen. What’s interesting is we used a small video camera and had the actor utter “we are not fish” over and over again for forty-five minutes. One shot lasts an entire video tape. Then we used both the video camera and VCR to copy that to a VHS tape. And that’s what we watch in exhibitions. I’ve heard that many artists made videos in that way. Making use of all we’ve got, still a little bit backward though.Air pumps are simply for the simulation of a fish bowl. You can still hear the sound from the television. Sometimes the phrase is “I am not a fish”, sometimes “we are not fish”, which has something to do with the sense of existence both as individuals and as a group. The human mouth in the bowl opens and closes and opens again, presenting an illusion that it’s a fish mouth that was talking. That’s where the visual contradiction lies.
L: It was common to make use of media like this in the 1990s. Do you think the limit of the length of tape also limits the art as it determines the length of the video? Also, you mentioned the individual and the group. How do you make the difference between them apparent to the audience?
Y: Limit, yes. But it also allows for different possibilities. To some extent, real individual experience is also collective experience. I have said that before and I still believe it.
L: We need to think reasonably first. Do you have any facts to support your statement?In addition, if we think about it from an opposite perspective, can we say collective experience is also individual experience? If so, then what’s the difference between participants and observers?
Y: Apart from a number of basic human collective experiences such as life, getting old, illness and death, we share most of our experiences in our early years.Under the current living structure, in which individuals are fading and the group is becoming more apparent, people of the same age are characterized as having a similar mode of thought and education background, and thus they share a lot of collective experiences and memories.
L: Is collective experience a common legacy? Will it evoke reminiscence of a certain age or memory of personal experience? At this level in social development, the experience of Chinese people is most often collective. Can this condition also be cherished?
Y: Yes. Be it a legacy or not, whether you cherish it or not, some collective experience will remain even if you are not aware of it.
L: In Balance (video installation, 1998), we see, for the first time, audience interaction in your work. What led you to do this? In your work, what’s vital in creating this interaction?How do you think interaction benefits visual work, including television, videotape and video on site?
Y: Balance was in my first solo exhibition which was held abroad. In Vancouver, I took part in a series of exhibitions themed ‘Jiangnan’ where artists organized their solo exhibitions in different galleries. I was the youngest among them. I sent a number of proposals to the organizer and they finally chose Balance. To complete the work, it was necessary to have an electronic sensor to help switch from video to camera and vise versa. Thanks to the technical staff provided by the organizer,I was finally able to manage it. Back then if I were in China, I wouldn’t even have thought about it, although it seems easy today.In the video, I maintained a standard smile for an extremely long period of time,as if waiting for the snap. But it felt like forever that I had my mouth pulled open,and the snap never came. When audience came in and confronted the television,they were captured on the screen to see if they were willing to imitate the smile.Their reaction and performance often went beyond my expectation. And that’s the interesting part.First, this kind of work increases audience participation. Secondly, it presents two challenges: one being technical support and the other being what to do to make it more sensible, convenient and attractive in order to invite more participants.What’s most important is the necessity of interaction.
L: Are you ever unsure if it’s necessary to include participants? Does interaction make it harder to make a judgment about the work and audience? Is it a turning point when,more often than not, you are involved in obscurity and ambiguity?
Y: I’m not denying the audience interaction. In fact, I’m emphasizing the importance of interactive works. But if we allow interaction simply for the sake of interaction,is it kind of showing off? As to obscurity and ambiguity, I believe it’s something that the artist often expects.
L: We are always awed by people showing off. But sometimes technology revolution leads to art revolution. As technology is introduced into art, fundamental changes take place. Without technology, does Balance still make sense? How about the exhibition?
Y: It could make sense in other forms as well.
L: The year of 1999 seems important to you. You seemed to begin working on living conditions related to urbanization culture. Your work then differs greatly from your works that focus on individual experience, which witnessed resurgence after 2002.Compared to your works made before 2000, which point to an individual inner-world shared by human beings, your later work begins to look at urbanization and people’s living conditions. They are the starting point of another leading element in your work.
Y: At the end of 1997, I moved from Hangzhou to Shanghai to continue my work.Geographically, the two cities are close. But there is great disparity in terms of life pace and the general way in which people live. Compared to Shanghai, people walking on the street in Hangzhou are much slower. Honestly, it wasn’t until I had lived here for several years that I began to be accustomed to Shanghai, the city features quick tempo and a fickle atmosphere.
L: Did you ever think the year 2000 would be the end of the world?
Y: I remember the first time I heard about the Doomsday prophecy was in 1999. I didn’t take it seriously. And if it was true, then I had nothing to worry about.
L: How do you define the relationship between I will Die (video) and your early memorial works? And how people reacted when they were filmed? I will Die is perhaps one of the most direct works I’ve ever seen. How did you decide how direct it could be? It not only deals with the relationship between you and those who were filmed, but also with the audience’s sympathy towards the work.
Y: Only the death theme matters, I think.Most of the time, I looked for strangers in public place to be filmed. Their reactions differed. Of course, many just said “no”, mostly because death is kind of taboo. Some refused by using some weird superstitious or pseudo-religious excuses.Others just didn’t like to be filmed. But I would say the majority of people nodded. Whether people agreed to cooperate or not, they seldom disagreed with the statement. It tells a sort of truth. I tried to film people who varied in age,came from different walks of society and were also in different places at the time.There were no professional actors. As long as the camera was ready, everyone would try their best to perform, rather strangely though. Being hesitate, firm, exaggerated,serious or funny, etc., you named it, and they did it. And I used amateur equipment, as well. A small handheld video camera, bare hands, no lights, all this rendered the whole process and results a little bit casual and added warmth to the cold tone. But the tone would be passed on from one to another, and ultimately,to the audience.
L: Is 922 Rice Corns at all related to Lucky Family? There was tension in the pecking game; the people counting and photographer were all bored. They were mixed together to create a sense of humor and kind of went extreme.
Y: The connection may be very superficial; perhaps because they use the same animal? I think it employs a boring even stupid way to make fun of human’s intellectual activity. What is recorded is simple: a cockerel and a hen peck at rice. All they want is to feed themselves. Why would human beings think about things like boring obsessions with counting or define the obsession as a game?
L: What’s your opinion of “intellectual activity”? To you, are you personally or are humans as a whole mocked in the video?
Y: The famous entomologist Jean-Henri Casimir Fabre asked: what is human intelligence?What’s the difference between human intelligence and animal effort?If there is any ridicule, it would be directed towards humans, me included. If humans feel superior to other species because of intelligence, then they need to be ridiculed. But ridicule isn’t always the same as negation.
L: Spring Story (video, 2003) is presented in a direct way that differs from the previously mentioned work. You picked a different word or phrase from Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Campaign Speech and presented it to each interviewee and had them say it to the camera. Their short statements were put together in order to reproduce the speech. The images are deployed in a violent way as a tool to convey a specific ideology;they are generally closely connected to China’s Reform and Opening-up to the outside world. Is it appropriate to say that you use the juxtaposition of the directness of both the imaging tool and interviewees to respond to some seemingly pleasant social reality, but highly instructive in fact?
Y: I admit that I filmed and cut it in post-production all quite violently. The Spring Story is executed with “instructive” and somewhat forceful administrative means.We chose a large scale factory of Siemens in Pudong district of Shanghai where over 1,500 employees worked on shift. As the video is part of an art project in cooperation with the headquarters of Siemens in Germany, the chief executive of the factory gave order down to each workshop so that we could step into every department, workshop, even canteen to do the shooting. The HR arranged the roster to make sure every worker be filmed just once. Strictly speaking, the 1,500 workers are not interviewees. I allocated a word or a phrase, at most two or three words, from Deng’s speech to each worker so that they could enunciate in the original order. They did as I said and didn’t know exactly what they were talking about or where the words were from, just like their daily work orders-to screw a small jigsaw repeatedly without being told what they were manufacturing.Countless foreign-funded enterprises similar to Siemens sprang up across the country in early 1990s. Mass production, under the industry chain of laissez-faire capitalism, married a top-down drive to build socialism with Chinese characteristics in an absurd, yet flawless and efficient way. Deng’s keynote Southern Campaign Speech in 1992, the one recited by employees in the video, is explaining and guiding the Reform and Opening-up to the outside world which has been taking place in contemporary China.
L: How do you personally view Reform and Opening-up to the outside world in relation to your work and life in reality? As it’s been long since Deng’s speech, do you think it necessary to trace it back to its origin? Many artists or individuals are unable to escape the past or their own past experience. Your work is perhaps drawn more towards discussing politics than understanding the reality. Is it possible to say that you visualize your own personal mark8s on time and memory in your work? As in Trespassing, the title of your latest exhibition, it’s hard to be certain if you are criticizing or supporting this period of time. Is it an individual world waiting to be revealed or a disgusting past that should be gotten rid of completely? With Spring Story, you reproduce the historic moment and real landscape for the audience. To you, what is its practical significance? Does it make any sense at present?
Y: In spite of people’s varied opinions, there is one thing we can’t deny about Reform and Opening-up to the outside world: it changes China’s future as well as that of every citizen of China. Although the Southern Campaign Speech dates back to dozens of years ago, it’s still exerting influence and will continue to do so even in the long run. The work that concerns more politics is well-rooted in the understanding of reality. Over the past thirty years, China has undergone such great changes that each generation shares their own collective experience.Several years produce a generation gap. I’m lucky enough to experience all the changes and remain involved in a lot of it, but I still seemingly get involved in nothing.I think instinct plays an important role in the work, just as it does in discussions about how we put works in place in exhibitions. Criticism or support, profound experience or mundane counting, understanding of time and space, all these concepts work together and instinct comes into being. It works the same way with the audience. If there is any criticism or suggestion, it’s the audience who is to decode this with reference to their varied stances and experiences. Maybe that’s the practical significance a work presents, I suppose.
L: Here art burdens no social responsibility; it isn’t endowed with any pioneering traits. What do you think of the relationship between the artist as an individual and society? How do you deal with this relationship? And is there any essential relation between your current work and the fact that you are living in Shanghai?
Y: I agree that, with regard to its influence, art generally can’t shoulder much social responsibility. Same goes for the artist as an individual. It’s well enough for them to maintain skepticism towards society and play some jokes on it. They even have the ability to pull and twist the idea of social responsibility, but is this sort of thing not kind of suspicious? And, I believe there is always an essential relation between residence and art creation.
L: What’s necessary for artists when they are working? When you are doing something new do you want a completely materialized work or a process in which your idea extends and grows? Which one is needed?
Y: Is the necessity of artists work also the necessity of “useless” work within humanity?As to the materializing process, my preference is to revise throughout the work. From idea to practice, there is a big chance that something will go astray, which sometimes leads you to a dead end and sometimes improves your idea and something new emerges.
L: Art produces a soothing effect and is a treatment for people’s struggling mental world. What’s your attitude towards this statement? Nowadays do artists enjoy a sort of more legal status? What’s your opinion of the artist’s situation?
Y: I highly doubt art is soothing. To common people, a pop song is better than art in that respect. But personally I believe art is at least an intellectual activity without specific function, or one which functions only open to discussion. According to my observation, it seems that Chinese artists have been enjoying a more legal status after 2000 especially compared to the underground state in the 1980s and 1990s. Against the background of well-improved art related institutions and markets, artists with legal identity have become more professional.Earlier, most of them had a full-time job. Art, to them, was more like a part-time thing. The artists organized exhibitions on their own, which often ended up being closed down for unknown reasons. With such illegal identity, artists who carried out “underground” activity were surrounded by an illusion that they were driving a revolution against reality and politics. As the time goes by, the illusion continues to dissolve. And the object of the revolution becomes the artist himself.You don’t have to reject the institution after all. On the contrary, you cooperate with it and the market (cooperation is another form of fighting). Meanwhile,you dissociate yourself with institution and continue to fight as a guerrilla.
L: Is there any area restriction? For example, Yuanmingyuan (the old Summer Palace)and Songzhuang in modern times have undergone dramatic change. Artists tend to go extremes when they make choices, such as resigning, cutting off any connection to society, etc. About the part-time thing you mentioned, is it unique to Shanghai or Hangzhou in the 1990s?
Y: True. Both Beijing and Shanghai are cities with huge numbers of immigrants.Generally, immigrants to the two cities in the 1990s were two groups of young people with totally different purposes. People running to Beijing were more drawn to its status as a cultural center, while those flowing into Shanghai were up for making big money or simply to live.
L: Let’s talk about the exhibition. Is there anything particular you want to accomplish?
Y: Some pieces are restorations of old works, some are new experiments. Surely it is not a review exhibition. I chose the old works that point to certain themes and that were associated with the main theme this time. Most of them are videos and installations. Limited by conditions then, some were on display for only a few days, some of the original materials are now unavailable. I hope the restoration and re-making will not only reproduce the original work, but also add something new in its method of presentation and resulting audience experience. I also would like the old work to function in harmony with the overall context of the exhibition. Some new works are made against the background of the exhibition hall. I just hope we can accomplish it well.
L: The context of art may be the most impossible thing to control. Is your work adjacent,contextually, to Shanghai and China as a whole? Narration or specific localization and dramatization are generally absent in your work. Does it have something to do with creating a context that makes work more accessible to any audience? Does it aim to motivate or trigger audience sympathy with visual language and directness so as to get rid of the geographical relationship that restrains the art and artist?
Y: It’s almost impossible to get rid of the geographical restrain completely. I don’t care much about it. There is delay in controlling it sometimes though. When you are working, you may not control it sensibly. I believe it to be more of a personality issue, or what interests you more determines how you choose narration, localization,etc. or not. You don’t have to stay away from life experience or wipe off geographical relation intentionally.
L: Since you are since involved in and advocating the Philosophy Fervor in Shanghai,can you talk about what part philosophy plays in your work?
Y: Thanks to Lu Xinghua, a philosophy teacher who is more than willing to be involved in contemporary art discourse, we have the Philosophy Fervor, i.e., the Holidays, or gatherings, in the Future Forum that have been held at high frequency over the past two years. And it’s necessary for us to regularly meet, especially when we are so busy working separately over the years. With the presence of Lu, a crazy philosophy teacher, we have different topics for each discussion so that the whole thing avoids being gossip between artists. There are times when serious discussions are turned into gossip by us “ignoramus”. And sometimes it’s more interesting. Philosophic topics usually drift in air and needn’t be tied down,or made concrete, immediately. In our opinion, what we talk about doesn’t have to be applied to real life even though it mostly centers on contemporary art.Sometimes I feel the meetings replace our gatherings in our younger years. Back then, we went to internet bars to play games with fever; In Hangzhou, flocks of us played cards; In Beijing, we had drinks and talks occasionally. The feeling of “play” or “hang out” is almost the same, which may do some influence on your work, or nothing at all.
L: Let’s talk about your new works. How do you view them and the relationships they present within the space?
Y: We have had several short but fruitful discussions concerning the presentation of old and new works in exhibition hall. Then we added something new and removed redundant parts to improve the overall presentation. For now I don’t think I can talk much about the new works because there are still unknown factors. I’m expecting it, too. Some works magnify or extend the space. So as to discussing a full play by play of the motive of a work in space/within the boundary of space,can we talk about it after we finish?
L: What do you think about the status of the artist nowadays? Is the artist’s identity superior to others?
Y: There can be superiority in artist’s identity, which isn’t something derived from wealth or fame, but the freedom to stay away from it. Being a famous and rich artist is not a bad thing as long as you have the freedom to stay away from it.
L: Do you or does your art have a sense of mission or does it pursue the ultimate question?Do you or does the art need to do so?
Y: I think I’m still far from being able to reach an ideal state which I respect. It means that you can quit anytime, you don’t owe anyone anything and don’t need the mission thing. It’s ok to pursue the ultimate question, but no need to take it too seriously. Since you haven’t quit, you focus on it and don’t complain, just like living with a peaceful mind in which you are ready to die any minute, but do your best to live. It’s hard.
L: How do you see misunderstanding of the presentation or exhibition of your works?Do you ever have exchanges with the audience?
Y: I suppose there are few artists who would tell the audience how to understand works. Isn’t it wiser to leave choice-making to them? Presentation and exhibition is always an exchange. Sometimes I’d rather avoid it.
L: How do you view the involvement of other artists and persons in the work? Is it necessary to have participation in your work?
Y: In earlier times, many artists made their presence in other’s works, like acting as a role/model or dubbing and doing backstage work. There were many reasons;to help each other, save money, do a favor for friend, or just go at one’s call. After our conditions improved and artists became independent of each other, however,such thing rarely happens. It’s good, too. It now appears that involvement in each other’s work is sort of witnessing each other. This perspective is worthwhile for you to consider as a curator as well.As to the necessity of audience participation, shall we say there would be no works without audience? Audience entry or participation is like the power switch of a work. Of course, many works are concepts. You don’t have to be personally at the site to experience a well-established concept. It’s ok for you to hear of it.Or is “hear of ” a kind of entry, too?