Interview with Chen Fanyuan and Feng Xianbo
On the afternoon of January 29, 2013 at TCG Nordica Gallery in Kunming
Luo Fei: Please introduce yourselves.
Feng Xianbo (Feng): I first came into contact with art during middle school, watching old men write calligraphy. In high school, I formally began to study painting under Yang Mei of Zhaotong, and it was only then that I realized the subject could be studied in university. Before, I’d always wanted to be a doctor or something; it wasn’t until I’d started studying calligraphy and traditional Chinese painting that I discovered I really enjoyed it and wanted to pursue it further. Later, I applied for the calligraphy major at the China Academy of Art. Only once I was at school did I discover that I didn’t even know the difference between writing and calligraphy. I was a total layman compared to the students around me.
Slowly, I caught up to everyone else’s rate of progress. By sophomore year, my seal-style script was actually rather well-known, thanks in large part to the patience and guidance of my teachers Wang Yongjiang and Lu Jinzhu. Overall, what impressed me most about the teachers at the academy was their dedication to their profession; our thesis advisors there would even go so far as to point out punctuation errors in our essays. Having returned to Yunnan these past few years, I haven’t found a comparable sense of duty to their students in the university professors here.
My calligraphy particularly aspires towards simplicity and a lack of complication, in the vein of inscriptions on ancient bronze objects, or seal scripts from the Han and Qin dynasties. After graduation, I worked for two years at the Zhejiang Fine Art Press and also frequently taught substitute classes in Hangzhou, where I discovered that the pleasures of creating art and teaching are endless and mutually reinforcing.
In terms of traditional Chinese painting, I’m most drawn to the works of the Yuan Dynasty, and out of the four great Yuan dynasty masters particularly idolize Ni Zan. His kind of landscape is one of the most characteristic ancient styles of that period–very removed from reality, desolate and of a primal simplicity, solemn, quiet and bleak. It is particularly timeless. Many of our works today pander to audiences and tend towards the mundane. They seek only to be deemed pretty by the largest number of people possible. Absent is exactly Ni Zan’s turn away from materialism and the physical world.
Chen Fanyuan (Chen): I probably began down this path back in second or third grade, when I demonstrated particular prowess in writing. I continued to get the encouragement of my peers, teachers and managers, and thanks to this sense of pride slowly began to want to become a calligrapher. Because I spent my childhood in the countryside, it wasn’t until I was 15 that I really came into contact with writing brush copybooks and began to understand calligraphy, and only then that I learned about Ou, Liu, Yan, Zhao and other great classics of calligraphy script forms.
In 1997, I was assigned to work in Kunming, and from then on had more opportunities for study. At that time, contemporary calligraphy had just entered its most exciting period. The magazine “Contemporary Calligraphy” opened up new visual possibilities for me. Instinctively, I’m more inclined towards contemporary calligraphy. I like novelty and am intensely curious about the things I don’t know about. Contemporary calligraphy is obviously influenced by Western forms, an influence that I have only a very limited understanding of. Graphic design is a very good field for me to pursue further, as it requires one to combine new ways of thinking with the use of one’s visual sense. This is exactly what I want.
In 2010, I enrolled in advanced studies at the China Academy of Calligraphy and developed a more comprehensive knowledge of the treasure trove that is this traditional form. I had the further good fortune during that period in Beijing to meet a pioneer of contemporary calligraphy, Professor Wei Ligang, and study as a member of his International Shuxiang Society . Actually, the course of my studies over these past ten or so years has traced a path from tradition calligraphy to contemporary calligraphy to contemporary Shuxiang. In this exhibition, the majority of my works have already broken away from the expression of Chinese characters themselves, and so I personally believe that they are more readily classified as a sort of contemporary Shuxiang.
LF: So you both began with calligraphy.
Chen: Yes. In fact, I can’t draw –the foundation of my work is pretty much only calligraphy. Before, I’d looked at calligraphy as calligraphy, but now, I increasingly view calligraphy through the lens of visual arts, and from this have found a number of new entry points into the discipline.
LF: Xianbo, you refer to ink paintings as traditional Chinese paintings, but do you find differences between the two?
LF: Xianbo, many of your works, such as those depicting Kunming’s Western Hills or Dianchi Lake, are made through sketching from nature. You also make use of poetic inscriptions. Oil painting has always been associated with the practice of sketching from nature, but traditional Chinese painting typically hasn’t. Why do you choose to sketch?
Feng: Actually, traditional Chinese painting also emphasizes the importance of sketching. It’s just that method of sketching is different. Sketching in traditional Chinese painting is first and foremost an expression of cultural ideals. For instance, depictions of flowers and birds are most frequently associated with Confucian thought. The plum blossoms, orchids, bamboo and chrysanthemums that often appear all symbolize a corresponding facet of the spirit. Landscape painting is more influenced by Daoist and Zen thought. In the Western artistic tradition, no distinction is made between sketches of bamboo and other plants. Traditional Western painting emphasizes realism, perspective, and the play of light and shadow in enclosed spaces.
Traditional Chinese art represents different perspectives of the same object on the same plane, and so demonstrates a more fluid relationship between reality as it is observed and space. The “three distancing techniques” of landscape painting clearly demonstrate this mode of observation. The first half of the title of Du fu’s “Roving an eye over the river (游目俯大江)”is particularly apt: one’s“eye” doesn’t remain fixed, but rather roves across the expanse of the river. There is no stable perspective; space itself is in flux because the observing eye is itself in motion. The process of “sketching” in traditional Chinese painting is this process whereby real world images are examined from different vantage points in space and time and thus transformed, purified and sublimated into an expression of the most ideal crystallization of emotions. Therefore Chinese painting is not constrained by space or time; images of winter can show up in a scene depicting summer.
Another reason Chinese painting is associated with sketching is related to the very technique of using brush and ink. In order for one to express the particular temperament and feeling of an object, one must necessarily first begin one’s studies of Chinese painting with imitation. Only after a particular level of brush and ink technique has been mastered can one then begin to truly depict objects. Yet it is also because one begins directly with the brush that it’s easy for everyone to mistakenly believe that Chinese painting doesn’t emphasize sketching.
LF: Your works have layer upon layer of mountains and lakes, and are dotted with thatched huts and ships, but all of these are drawn in an ancient style. Do you believe this to be authentic?
Feng: I believe the categories of “real” and “fake” are not so clear in art. Artists should seek to portray our most ideal spiritual state. Reality perhaps inspires my painting and directs my attention, but I need not reproduce it. To paint landscapes, one must harness one’s own cultural philosophy and individual brushwork style, and these are distilled from one’s experience of reality. What ancient styles frequently portray is a kind of cultural symbol. The objects in the painting are not just simple visualizations of the real, material world. The essence of a true landscape painting cannot be expressed in words, as its meaning remains boundless.
LF: Fanyuan, you didn’t begin with traditional Chinese painting, yet you create ink painting works. Does this mean that you come to ink painting with a fresher perspective?
Chen: Being traditional doesn’t mean being constrained. These traditions are in fact endlessly freeing; they are my treasure trove, an inexhaustible source. All of my contemporary Shuxiang is an extension of traditional calligraphy practice.
LF: Fanyuan, your works experiment with the use of multiple types of materials. Compared to the elegance of Xianbo’s work and the Chinese scholarly tradition, your approach is much wilder, and explores the possibility of integrating calligraphy with Western modernist traditions. Does this sort of exploration indicate that traditional ink painting has now become problematic?
Chen: I think so. Ink and oil as materials each have their pros and cons. Ink is inherently imbued with national characteristics, and was developed as a medium in our formerly sealed off cultural environment. In today’s globalized world, industrialization and modernization are changing the times. Artists must reflect the spirit of our current age, and must use different types of formal expression to convey this. Even among my teachers, many who continue to make ink paintings are slathering propylene, oil paints and other sorts of materials on them. I think what’s important is the spirit of a piece, an oriental spirit, which isn’t determined by tools or materials. So a lot of my works don’t use ink but still, in fact, are a form of calligraphy.
Feng: I find the Tang dynasty particularly inspiring, as they played a large role in preserving the traditional forms of their time while also remaining open to new forms of expression. In this period, calligraphists such as Chu Suiliang and Lu Jianzhi inherited and continued to propagate the traditions of the Two Wangs of the Wei and Jin dynasties, while others like Zhang Xu and Huai Su were boldly exploring the possibilities of romanticism. The Tang Dynasty was very tolerant of foreign cultures, but at the same time its own culture was also very widespread. It is easy to become closed off from the outside possibilities if the conception of “ink painting” is limited to only its most traditional forms. Therefore it is important to explore, and within a multicultural context allow different traditions to collide and coalesce. Chinese art is essentially a tradition that develops along one continuous line, with periods of daring experimentation. Both these paths of development are necessary – they are not mutually exclusive, but rather depend on each other.
Chen: In the 50s, many Western artists were influenced by Japanese modern calligraphy, and their formal language became much more direct. Many works of Abstract Expressionist painters have countless ties with calligraphy. When modern calligraphy began in China in the 80s, it absorbed this Western style, emphasizing a sense of dynamism. At this point, the barriers between eastern and western culture were broken down, and they began to mutually influence each other. I believe that as the world becomes more globalized, this will become more and more obvious trend. There’s no way to turn back time; we can never again return to the cultural environment of our ancestors. It’s therefore even more important for us to pay attention to the present and the future. Artists and scientist have this essential point in common: both must explore the unknown.
LF: Xianbo, in one of your own autobiographical narratives, you write, “The ultimate aim of calligraphy is to ‘enlighten the mind and improve human relations. ’ If created in an age without faith, it will inevitably confuse right with wrong, be unable to distinguish what is genuine from what is imitation, beauty from ugliness, the high from the low.” In other words, you believe art is not just to be enjoyed, but also serves to educate and influence people, and to build human relationships. Implied here is a premise, also Confucian, that you see artists put in the instructive position of saints or intellectuals. Do you think that today, this is possible?
Feng: What is most lacking in the world today is exactly this. Now, many people study art just because it’s an easier way to get into university. After graduation, the majority of art academy students never again devote themselves to artistic work, because using one’s own artistic ability to make a living is terribly hard and is not a path as direct as that of other industries. To this day, I still remember that at the opening ceremony of our first school year, academy president Xu Jiang said: “If you had wanted to get a good job after you graduate, you might as well have gone to a vocational school, because all great artists of past generations never gave up on their craft no matter what their financial circumstances or how much of a dead end they seemed to be facing.”
People say that this is an age without faith. For this very reason, it is even more important for artists to have their own reserve of determination and courage.
Even supposing calligraphy from now on is fated for a bleak future according to the words of certain prophets who say “the glory days are over, never to return again,” we cannot at this point lose our drive. Even if we fail and cannot return to the glorious days of the masters of old, we must still carry on the mission to continue our practice.
LF: Really, though, people of any age all have faith, it’s just that the things that they believe in are different. If we say there is no faith today, what we’re actually saying is that people believe in the wrong things. We worship money, material goods, and personal gain as God. The result is that hypocrisy, ugliness, fame, wealth, and excitations have filled our hearts.
Chen: We are actually doing this exhibition to open a discussion about the inheritance of tradition and broaden the sense of what that tradition can mean.
Feng: In painting and calligraphy, all is a balance between the two poles of emptiness and plenitude. One factor that affects this balance is the type of brushwork. If there are only strong marks and no soft ones, the work will look dull; if there are only soft marks and no strong ones, it will look thin. Another factor is the ink. Maintaining a proper balance of black and white depends on the interaction of the two shades with each other. Between these two poles, we have much room to experiment.
Notes: Shuxiang（书象）: a contemporary, experimental form that explores the line between calligraphy and abstract art.  Eastern Jin Dynasty calligrapher Wang Xizhi and Wang Xianzhi, they are father and son, Later generations called them “Two Wangs”.
Translated by Becky Davis
About the exhibition: http://blog.luofei.org/2013/03/chen-fanyuanfeng-xianbo-signs-exhibition/
Interview in Chinese(本访谈中文): http://blog.luofei.org/2013/02/interview-with-chenfanyuan-and-fengxianbo/