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Fredrik Fällman: Foreword to Luo Fei collection of writings

Fredrik FällmanForeword to Luo Fei collection of writings

Fredrik Fällman①
Associate Professor of Chinese Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden

The theme for the 18th biennial conference of the European Association of Chinese Studies (第十八届欧洲汉学学会双年会议) in Riga, Latvia, in 2010, was “Culture is Crowded Bridge” (文化:一座拥挤的桥梁). This theme may sound peculiar, but also tells something more than just the imagery intended on the surface. I think it is applicable to this collection of Luo Fei’s writings. Culture can be a bridge, art can be a bridge, and both the artistic and curatorial work of Luo Fei, alone and through TCG Nordica, is such a bridge. However, it is not only a bridge between cultures and countries, between China and Sweden or other Nordic countries. Art can be a bridge between areas or spheres within societies, and open our eyes for what is truly important, for truths and expressions of feelings, ideas and emotions we cannot express otherwise.

Even before becoming a bridge between minds, ideas and entities, art and other cultural expressions are important parts of our societies. As a sinologist, my own research has primarily dealt with contemporary Chinese intellectuals and their religious faith, but also the more general discussion of “a threefold crisis of faith” (三信问题,即信心、信任、信仰), as well as religious and ethnic policies in China. To my mind, “ultimate concerns” (终极关怀) and faith are very basic starting points for any human being, no matter what decision one is about to take, for work or personal reasons. When economists, political scientists, politicians and different analysts make macro level analyses about the World or specific countries or areas, they often tend to neglect art, faith and other less “tangible” phenomena. Facts and numbers are very important to understand a situation, but if no consideration is taken to the underlying human emotions, faith and artistic expressions, much is lost.

As someone working with academic research in humanities (人文学), one often becomes involved in discussion of the meaning of humanities. In recent years the debate in the Nordic countries (北欧国家) has focused on how to make humanities more “useful” for society. But how to measure such a thing? And what is useful? The question as such makes me think of the futility sometimes expressed in some of Luo Fei’s art works, e.g. “Let’s blow this piece of paper” (让我们吹起这纸), which is seemingly pointless or sisyphean (西西弗斯式), but also very playful. This playful attitude paired with a serious reflection on self, life, art and faith is something often lacking in academia. Such “cross-fertilization” between academia (学术界) and art on questions of life, faith and art would not least benefit academia, maybe also art circles. Luo Fei and some of the artists he is involved with are consciously and unconsciously doing such things all the time. This is very encouraging and inspiring!

In my research I have also looked in to the issue of modernity and what alternative forms it may take in the Chinese context. I have specifically looked at the phenomenon of “Cultural Christians” (文化基督徒)② from the 1980s, and while they may have lost their role today, their perspective of creating a modernity (现代性) on different grounds, with room for faith and free cultural expression, is still highly relevant and equally valid. However, the focus of such a perspective in contemporary China has shifted from established academia to independent scholars, writers and artists. Today they are those in the “avant-garde” for investigating such fundamental issues, and what Luo Fei and those around him are doing is part of this perspective. In my opinion, they will play a role in dealing with the “three-fold crisis of faith”, possibly of more substantial value than other official efforts.

Our societies, Western, North European or Chinese, need this other perspective, from the side, from below, from inside, and we get some reflections of this “other other” (其他的他者) in what Luo Fei is doing and writing. The expression jianghu (江湖) often has connotations that would be considered mostly negative, such as “fake” (假的) or “shrewd” (狡猾), but I find that its inherent notion of itinerancy or vagrancy, as well as free moving, is most appropriate in this context, not least since Luo Fei was involved in the art project called Jianghu in 2005-06. One could also relate it to the free spirit of the artist, even the Daoist concept of xiaoyao (逍遥). In the context of Luo Fei, Nordica and Yunnan, I see Luo Fei’s and his colleagues involvement in the Jianghu art project as symbolic for involvement, for crossing boundaries, and turning peripheral and marginalized things into focus points, and turning things upside down, provoking our thoughts. Through his own work, his work with TCG Nordica, Luo Fei, is an important bridge builder between artists, between art and society, opening up for reflection on art, faith and social concerns, and also inspiring us in far away Nordic countries to think differently and engage with China outside the more clearly defined fields of academia or business. Let us hope for an even more “crowded bridge” in the years to come, that many more can meet and experience together, and be inspired to express and share, in art and through art. Luo Fei is a good guide to get us on to that “crowded” bridge.

① Fredrik Fällman(杨富雷) is also Board Member, Institute of Sino-Christian Studies, Hong Kong and Board Member, Areopagos Foundation, Norway.
② Cultural Christian as a phenomenon appeared in the 1980’s, with Liu Xiaofeng being the major influence. They were those young and middle-aged intellectuals who sought the “ultimate concern” or who interpret faith from the perspective of philosophy, literature and theology. They renounced the ceremony, fellowship and some doctrines of Christianity, and they simply called themselves “Christians”, not “Christian believers”. Very few of them were baptized. This had been particularly stressed by the institutionalized church, mostly attributed to Bishop Ding Guangxun introducing the term “cultural Christians”. Here “culture” could be (ought to be) the important component of faith and the process of redemption, and Christ could be the “Savior of Cultures”. This idea was influenced by the American theologian, Richard Niebuhr.

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Climbing the ladder with your feet on the ground

Anders-GustafssonClimbing the ladder with your feet on the ground
Luo Fei seen through his work ‘The Black Spot’

Anders Gustafsson
Former Programs Director at TCG Nordica.

I once watched a man climbing a ladder. It was my friend Luo Fei, the artist.

It was during a performance at TCG Nordica called ‘The Black Spot’. He was balancing a piece of paper on his face, nose up, using his tongue to keep it still. He aimed towards the ceiling, towards a strong spotlight. The paper looked like a thin veil between him and the blinding light. The paper would repeatedly fall off his face, down on the floor, and he would have to start all over again. A seemingly pointless exercise.
Finally he managed to reach the spotlight. On the floor there was another paper where he kept on writing the Chinese character ‘guang’ (光light). Suddenly his performance seemed intriguing, like a novel with an open end.

I once watched a man climbing a ladder. It was my friend Luo Fei, the thinker.

‘The Black Spot’ can be seen as a metaphor for mankind’s search for knowledge, for enlightenment and assurance. A task I can easily identify with Luo Fei. When I first went to China in 2005, I hoped I would find a friend among Chinese intellectuals. I wanted to learn more about the art, culture and history.
In Luo Fei I found him.
There’s a story about when he participated in an internet discussion forum, debating topics like art and different aspects of contemporary society. After a while, the group decided to meet face-to-face. People laughed when they saw Luo Fei: ¨’We thought you were at least 50!’
After leaving a discussion with Luo Fei, this has often been my thought as well. His knowledge reaches over contemporary art, philosophy, history, technology. With ease he moves between Dali and Dalí; he is as familiar with 20th century European history as he is with Chinese dynasties.
In the interview with Jonathan Aumen, Luo Fei quotes an unnamed Chinese art critic stating that if you are a religious artist, you end up being either a bad religious person or a bad artist. I do agree there is an inherent problem. Some religious people tend to preach about a certain ‘truth’ with well-defined boundaries which you are not supposed to cross; contemporary artists tend to explore, often exactly by crossing boundaries. Few succeed in making these two worlds fit together.
But the avant-garde have always been dealing head on with challenges of contemporary society. Why not religion then? Is this not at the very center of societal debate on a global scale?
You can find several prominent Chinese contemporary artists that deal with religion. Two cases in point are the Gao brothers’ ‘The Execution of Christ’ and Wang Qingsong’s use of Buddhist imagery, both examples have recently been thoroughly explored in ‘Yishu — Journal of contemporary Chinese art’.
With ‘The Black Spot’ I see Luo Fei working in a similar tradition. Using the seemingly obvious as an entrance to ask difficult questions, he is revealing that these very topics are in fact multilayered and complex.

I once watched a man climbing a ladder. It was my friend Luo Fei, the joker.

‘The Black Spot’ had a worrying sense of humor. The artist seemingly invited us to laugh, because the whole exercise had a comic touch to it. At first there was a sense of ridicule. I then choked on my own laughter when I realized that the performance reminded me of my own life.

I once watched a man climbing a ladder. It was my friend Luo Fei, the ‘main-garde’ idealist.
In the autumn of 2012, I sent a link from Arts Asia Pacific. Hou Hanru (侯瀚如) wrote about the need to develop a ‘third way’: A system ‘between the state-dominated model of the previous century and the capitalist-dominated model of today’.
In the interview with him in this book, Xue Tao proposes the term ‘non-stream’ about some Yunnan artists, who he says are neither mainstream, nor non-mainstream. I would like to propose the term ‘main-garde’ as they are neither mainstream, nor avant-garde. For Yunnan, being in the geographical and economical margins of China opens up a space for being main-garde. Apart from playing with words, think of the closeness to main ‘guard’. Guarding against what?
Remember that the self-acclaimed avant-garde was born among artists and writers in 19th century Paris, that felt rejected or neglected by the established Salons and art institutions. Similar to The Stars Group in Beijing in 1979, one might add. Avant-garde was by definition an outsider’s perspective.
Some art historians even say that the concept of avant-garde has been co-opted by the market up to the point where it is meaningless to still use the term. The German art historian Benjamin Buchloh talked about ‘developing new strategies to counteract and develop resistance’ to the controlling orthodoxies of the culture industry.
There is a space open for small, non-profit art spaces and art communities to present something different. It might not be avant-garde, but main-garde. Not guarding against buying and selling art works; also artists need to make a living. But against rampant commercialism and mindless imitation. It is in this context I place the Jianghu project that you can read about in this book; it is in the same context I place TCG Nordica and Luo Fei.
The art scene already have so many people and galleries who know the price of everything, but the value of nothing. I think this main-garde could be one example of Hou Hanru’s ‘third way’.

I once watched a man climbing a ladder. It was my friend Luo Fei, the humble.

I find some common traits among the best interviewers. Knowledge is important, but it is not enough. Among journalists, at least in the West, you sometimes find their ego obscuring the person or the topic they want to portray or explore. You need humility. Luo Fei has that. You will find he has been a contributor to art books, exhibition texts, articles and so on. But he always takes the back seat. Very often this humility has helped him in bringing forward the persons he is writing about.
Which brings us back to the performance ‘The Black Spot’. In my interpretation ‘The Black Spot’ ends with humility and with a warning. The character for light, ‘guang’, that Luo Fei wrote after having reached the spotlight, finally covered the whole paper black. As if saying: Even though you think you’ve found the light — or exactly because of it — you may end up fumbling in the dark. Either blinded by the light, or by your own ego, or by something else. This is your black spot.
In spite of these hazards, man’s duty is to carry on climbing. Luo Fei is contributing in his own way, by climbing the ladder with both his feet kept firmly on the ground.

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To Start from Art, Author’s Preface, Acknowledgments and Postscript

to start from art 400To Start from Art, Author’s Preface

Luo Fei (TCG Nordica Gallery Director & Curator)

Beginning in 2002, I started to engage in artistic creation, focusing on performance art, video and conceptual art. I planed an exhibition – “Blow-Up” – in 2013 for the first time. It was a kind of Avant-garde experimental art scene. The “Jianghu” series project① drew a great attention from the art communities in Yunnan as well as the whole China between 2005 and 2006, where I served as the project director and curator . Meanwhile, I’ve been writing to introduce Yunnan’s experimental arts to people of other places.

After 2007, I started to work in TCG Nordica cultural center, beginning the job as a permanent curator in an international cultural exchange center: administration, communication, meeting artists, organizing exhibitions, introducing works to the audiences, arrange exhibits, closure, assisting international artists, and contacting the media etc.

Later, because of the job and my family, both the time and space for my own art have gradually reduced, leaving me depressed. It’s as if a window was suddenly closed. However, as I continuously cooperate with other artists, which has been a challenging and enjoyable experience, I realize that being a curator may be another door opening for me. Being a curator allows me to review my own arts, and to have in-depth observation of the art state of a region, and to reflect – what is art, and what is art for? These are the most fundamental yet the most difficult and challenging problems. Of course, I’ve very much enjoyed, and had the opportunity to witness how various artists achieve their achievements at different stages of their lives.

For curators, one of the ways to introduce arts to the public is to write. Writing also introduces me to another way of working, and urges me to build relationships with the artists, to have in-depth communication and interviews with them, and to write prefaces for the exhibitions. Often, I would document the processes of some exhibitions or projects, what happened before, during or after, as well as my own thoughts along the way. So, writing has trained my artistic intuition, and required me to read more, to improve knowledge and to establish my own judgment system.

A publisher once said that the editor’s job is to judge and decide, to discover and present. I believe that’s what curators should be doing for the most part of their jobs, i.e. to discover the artists and their works, and to find some kind of intrinsic relationships between numerous works and artists. To decide which are suitable for an exhibition, what works should be on this wall, or on that wall, it’s the curator’s job to bring out the dialog between the works. Therefore, the curator is working with the intuition, knowledge, ideas, experiences, spaces, and even under the framework of relations to bring meaning for the artists’ hard work.

Most of the articles in this book were written for exhibitions, some have been included in relevant picture books or have been published in magazines. There were some that just posted on the walls briefly for the visitors to the gallery. Still there were some personal articles that have been posted on my blog or the website of TCG Nordica. A few of them were written lately and published here for the first time. I have revised every article, even those that have been published before, some more others less. This is due to my consideration for the text quality as well as the result of developments in my thinking processes.

These articles are all about certain cases of specific artists, most of them are from Yunnan, and there are also a few of international artists visiting Yunnan from Nordica’s artist-in-residence program. This is the artistic condition that sets Yunnan apart from other Chinese cities, international exchanges have become normal here because of such an organization as TCG Nordica.

These articles are about the scenes I experienced since 2005, covering a lot of artists and projects over a period of 10 years. In China, both the society and its people are witnessing a significant transformation, and a decade has made a piece of history and an entire “NEW” generation. To a certain extent, what these articles record serves as an epitome of Yunnan’s version of Chinese contemporary art and the history of Sino-western communication in this province. I put all these pieces together in this book, fitting them in 5 parts. It’s like how I would arrange a bunch of individual paintings for an exhibition, and they are put into five different spaces.

They are as follows: Landscape in Transition, Artist as Prophet, Past and Present, the Local Experiments, and Using Art to Build Bridges.
Landscape in Transition: landscape art in Yunnan has a special tradition which has continued to this day. The landscape art is also the most convenient one for people to learn about the environment, and the spiritual outlooks of the artists. At the same time, I am also interested in whether the classic landscape art can regain the vitality in contemporary artistic languages, which I am eager to see.

Artist as Prophet: This part discusses the identity of the artists from a religious dimension. This is an experimental proposal. Are there prophetic artists? What are the prophetic elements in arts? They are the artists who directly express in their works the criticism for social injustice, and have indeed a passion for truth and love. Of course, it does not mean all artists in this part are prophets, a few being quite extreme.

Past and Present: This is a rather general topic, yet an unavoidable situation in China, i.e. people’s perceptions of others, the world, and the arts are undergoing a rapid change. In particular, for China, this Oriental country with such a long history complex feelings for the West. How we look at the Occident has also changed. Such a change requires the artists, being the intellectuals, to respond.

The Local Experiments: This part includes articles about some Yunnan’s local collective exhibitions, as well as the reviews for TCG Nordica in the past ten years, the status of the Loft community and my reflections about China’s contemporary art.

Using Art to Build Bridges: This part is my work log and essays on the “Bridges” project and “Happiness, a Five-Year Plan” in both Kunming and Sweden in 2010 and 2012. It’s my hope to present the readers with lively and vivid scenes of cross-cultural exchanges.

I named the book To Start from Art. To me, whether as artists or curators, it’s about starting from the arts at and in our hands, continuously improving our own ideas, and sharing them with others. With efforts and understanding, we may be able to go to the origin of what art is all about. It is also possible that through arts we may have the opportunity to voice our concerns for the social issues in an imaginative way. We also learn to express how we have attentively listened to our own hearts. I believe art is not just a static room for us to wait in there quietly, of course it can also be so, but also an exercise of the heart that constantly speaks out and gives feedback. It is also like in a guerrilla war you are bound to change the mode of operation from time to time. However, no matter how it changes, I believe that behind the art, there is always some kind of subtle and penetrating impression. As for what that is, each artist and audience will give different answers. So there will be adventures and definitely more to be revealed behind the art.

August 15, 2013, Kunming
Translated by Xiao Diming

① “Jianghu” was how Yunnan’s young artists named their experimental art activities in 2005 – 2006. The project was supported by Lijiang Studio and ALAB Art Space, with Jay Brown, Mu Yumin, Xiang Weixing, Luo Fei, He Libin and Lin Shanwen being the main organizers. The project was nominated by the Long March Space in 2007 as the 2006 Best Exhibition in China.


Thanks to my father and mother who have worked so hard with my upbring.
It never came to my mind that those random thoughts of mine could end up being published as a book. However, I am truly grateful that they can be presented to the readers just as they are! This book, to a large extent, involves what I am doing as a curator. In all of my busy jobs and the hasty conversations I have with others, I’m always trying to look for the assurance of the real existence, the meaning of working on arts. I think writing is an effective approach to this. So this book portrays such processes, and how I am continuously making the effort to understand arts, to know the artists, and to identify myself.
In recent years there were increasingly more artists encouraging me to have these articles put together and published. This has been a great encouragement for my initial intention of publishing, so I would like to thank my artist peers. The exploration and reflection for arts you have made has also inspired me to explore and think more.
I confirmed the idea of publishing this book in the summer of 2012, and there were soon a lot of people showing their support. Ms Wu Yuerong, the manager and one of the founders of TCG Nordica, has given me tremendous support. It’s the trust she has placed in me that I could give full play to my ideas as a curator.
Thanks also go to Ms Anna Mellergård, another important founder of TCG Nordica, for her support. She is an important witness and promoter of Chinese contemporary art.
Thank those who worked so hard translating this book into English, they are Becky Davis, Jeff Crosby, Xiao Diming, Orion Martin, Zhou Qiao and Li Jianbo and others. Thank Judy Osborne, Hanne Nilsen Nygård and Knut Ove Nygård worked so diligently on the proofreading of the English texts.
I deeply appreciate Mr Zha Changpin, Mr Fredrik Fällman and Mr Anders Gustafsson for writing great prefaces for this collection.
Thank Shanghai Joint Publishing’s chief editor Mr Huang Tao and executive editor Mr Qian Zhenhua, because of their affirmation and help, we can see this book is available.
My sincere thanks go to Wang Yang, my wife, and our two daughters, and my parents-in-law. They took over so many of my family responsibilities as I was focusing on writing. They have shown understanding and huge support.
I am grateful for those unsung heroes – my friends. Thank you for your support and prayers, so that with faith I can go on running the race set before me.
Due to the limitation of my resources there are inevitable mistakes in the book. Please feel free to contact me should you have any comments, or feedback.
May you be blessed by this book.

Luo Fei
Sep 26, 2013 Kunming
Translated by Xiao Diming


The international culture center, TCG Nordica, has throughout its history of thirteen years developed cooperation with many institutions as well as individuals. These include numerous Universities, Nordic Culture Institutions, Art Museums, Artist- in-Residence organizations and not-for-profit organizations. Also individual artists, poets, dancers and musicians are included in our large network. Indeed, many of our international exhibitions and culture projects would not have been possible to implement without the generously financial support from them. Depending on the character of the projects the following organizations have contributed, also financially: The Swedish Institute, Arts Council Norway, Swedish Arts Council, IASPIS, Nordic Culture Fund, Embassies and ArtsNordica1.
We want to thank everybody who believed in this book project and who contributed to make this publication possible.

Wu Yuerong and Anna Mellergård
Co-Founders of TCG Nordica

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Xue Tao Interview: Contemporary Art in Yunnan


artist Xue Tao, photo by Luo Fei

Xue Tao Interview: Contemporary Art in Yunnan

December 27, 2012, Loft Arts Community, Kunming
Luo Fei (abbreviated below as “Luo”): TCG Nordica Gallery Curator
Xue Tao (abbreviated below as “Xue): Artist
He Libin (abbreviated below as “He”): Curator and Director, Dean of Oil Painting Department, School of Art, Yunnan Art Institute

I.Setting Out from Yunnan

Luo Fei: You were one of the first off-canvas artists in Yunnan. You founded the Red Heart Commune in Dali, Yunnan Province, in 1994, and the Migratory Sky Art Space in Beijing in 2005. You have always been promoting interaction between Yunnan artists in the outside world, and have witnessed the beginnings and development of Yunnan artists born in the 70s. Please tell us a bit about what the situation was like when you founded the Red Heart Commune.

Xue Tao: I first entered the studio to learn painting in 1989, in my first year of middle school, and I graduated high school and took the university entrance exams in 1994. Most of my classmates at the studio got married and had kids after graduation, and basically stopped doing art. It wasn’t like today, when you test into the art academy after a few months. Back then, it was normal to keep testing for four to five years. I felt that after working so hard to test into an art program, it would be a shame to give it up. I should persevere in doing what I liked. So I formed a commune together with Lan Qinglun, Duan Yusong and Shi Zhimin. We didn’t know about the 85 New Wave at the time, and had only seen Scar Art in the magazines. We were all young artists in Dali, and we formed this group to help each other to continue with our passion. We had regular events such as exhibitions and exchanges, but we didn’t have a clear creative direction. In 1997 we started getting more members such as Su Yabi and Liu Kun. At the time, the only exhibitions in Kunming were for the Artists Association. We held our first exhibition in 1997. Our second exhibition, in 2000, was held at the Yunnan Art Academy Museum. Chen Changwei and a few others also joined. Later, we went on to hold an exhibition every two years, in a biennial format, which was influenced by the fad for biennial exhibitions at the time.

Luo: You founded the Migratory Sky Art Space in 2005. Is it still there?

Xue: Beginning in 2002, there were a lot more exhibitions in China, especially after the Loft was founded. In 2003, I did the Shadow New Media Exhibition with Xiang Weixing and a few others. You came to help for that one. Then, we held the Cry Sheep Exhibition at the Red Banana Gallery and Nordica. In 2003, we went to Shanghai for the Spring Art Salon, holding the Altitude Sickness Exhibition. Things were taking off in China, and everyone was actively taking part. That’s because after the 85 New Wave and “Post 89,” things had gone silent in the Chinese art scene. From the 90s to 2000, everything was quiet, and then suddenly a new energy burst forth in 2000. Chen Changwei, He Libin, He Jia and I stayed in Shanghai for a long time, interacting with artists from all over. Once our enthusiasm was let out, it couldn’t be pulled back in. Everyone had this impulse, this feeling that something big was about to happen in the Chinese art scene, though we didn’t know what it was.

In 2004, He Jia and I went to Beijing, to the Binhe Neighborhood in Tongxian, which was one of the places artists had gathered after the Yuanmingyuan Artist Village was scattered. At the time, some of the Yuanmingyuan painters had been sent back to their hometowns, some of the ones with money had bought houses in Songzhuang, and others had moved into the Binhe Neighborhood. He Yunchang was there, as were most of the key members of the Kitsch Art scene. But I started wondering what I was doing there. If I wanted the settled neighborhood life, I was already doing fine in Kunming, with a salary and insurance. That’s not what I quit my job in Kunming for. Later, I went to Suojia Village and set up a space, one set up with money from Yunnan artists. It was called Migratory Sky. I wanted to make a platform for Yunnan in Beijing.

Half a year after I set it up, they started demolishing Suojia Village. City officials said they were cleaning up the city’s image, knocking down buildings that weren’t up to code. Suojia Village fit the bill. I had just quit my job and borrowed money to set up this art space, and now, right at the beginning, I was facing a tragedy. When the demolition team came, everyone was asleep, and they made a big commotion as they came. We were surrounded by court officials, police and bulldozers.


Artists Xue Tao, Shi Zhimin, Chen Changwei, He Jia, He Libin in Shanghai, 2003

Luo: They didn’t notify you beforehand?

Xue: There was a notice, telling us to knock down the buildings ourselves by a certain date. Of course, no one did, because we had just built them. Then, they suddenly showed up and demolished them. The first one they knocked down was Shang Yang’s studio. His wife fainted, and was taken away in an ambulance. He’s a very famous and respected artist in China. All kinds of people lived in that art zone, including Tan Ping, who was the Vice Dean of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. But it didn’t matter. The political atmosphere in Beijing was too thick. When we saw that they would even knock down Shang Yang’s place, we all knew the game was up. Migratory Sky split up after the demotion.

Luo: Were you compensated?

Xue: No. We were lucky we weren’t fined. We had built it right across from the Village Council, on land rented from the village. The land used to be a graveyard, and they couldn’t do anything with it. It was just a bunch of weeds when we got there. The village was of course happy when we came to use it. We brought them income. Migratory Sky held two exhibitions, the first being an open studio exhibition, and the second being the Entertainment First Exhibition. There were about a hundred people at Suojia Village then, with artists from about a dozen countries. There were very few artist studios in the 798 Art Zone at the time, and people were even saying that 798 was slated for demolition.

Luo: You recently wrote a preface for an exhibition on post-70s Yunnan artists, using the term “non-stream” to describe them. You wrote, “Non-stream is a state that is neither mainstream nor non-mainstream, a state outside of the streams. This is an outstanding feature of Yunnan artists.” Is this an awkward predicament, or is it about finding one’s own way?

Xue: It’s a bit of both. It depends on what Yunnan artists want for themselves. If they hope to enter into the mainstream, then it’s an awkward predicament. If they don’t hope to enter into the mainstream, then it means they are finding their own path. But only the artist knows. Everyone else just sees them staying outside of the stream. Regional and cultural factors in Yunnan have kept many people outside of specific trends or streams. In Beijing, it is very clear. You are either mainstream or non-mainstream. If you want to fight the mainstream, you have to either step aside or form your own stream. Yunnan artists are none of the above. They don’t enter into the stream or resist it, and they don’t have any other stance either.


Wang Jun Performance “Kunming, I’m gone”, 2006

Luo: Their goals are unclear.

Xue: Right. They’re unclear. If they were clear, then in most cases, they would leave Kunming, at least for a while. That has been the case with the past few generations of influential artists since the 85 New Wave.

Luo: You went to Beijing in 2004 to seek out better development, and watched as the Chinese art market exploded in 2006, and as it fell after the 2008 financial crisis. You have experienced Chinese art as it had no market, then had a flourishing market, and then bottomed out. As an artist, how do you understand the connection between artistic creation and the economic environment?

Xue: This is a headache for me. Yunnan is too quiet. There are no surprises here. I went to Beijing to find surprises. Though there weren’t many galleries in Beijing at the time, I had a premonition that something was about to happen, so I quit my job and went. At the time, Chinese artists were all chasing after the “big face paintings,” painting in the style of Yue Minjun and Fang Lijun, with kitschy colors. It was the same with sculpture, with everyone working in fiberglass and automobile paint. Art made in this way saw certain market returns, and I was sometimes swept up in it too, but I pulled out. I was very conflicted. You need to have a market to survive, but the market is too tempting.

In 2007, the artists were all crazy. Artists in Beijing from 2006 to 2008 were the luckiest artists in the world, because every year, there were two months of exhibition opening banquets every single day, which was heaven for artists who had been surviving on steamed buns up to that point. As long as you were an artist, you would get a lot of invitations. That is because the market was good, and the galleries were all looking for resources, so they were very nice to all the artists. It didn’t matter what kind of art you were making. As long as you were an artist, you were treated with a certain amount of respect. In those days, I basically slept till the afternoon, when I would head out for an exhibition banquet, with the galleries covering late night barbecue, karaoke, bars, the works. The artists had it great. In April and May, then again in September and October, there was food to be had every day of the week, and on weekends for the rest of the year. Sometimes I had no idea whose exhibition it was or who was footing the bill.

Luo: Stuff like this can’t happen in Yunnan. Even though manna isn’t falling from the sky, the sky isn’t going to fall down and crush anyone either. The great ups and downs of the art market didn’t affect most artists here.

Xue: These daily banquets wouldn’t happen anywhere else. There were a lot of foreign artists in Beijing at the time who were jealous of the Chinese artists, who by the age of 30 were renting studios by the acre rather than by the square meter. Their studios were big enough to park a small airplane. Think about it. In another nation’s capital, if an artist had a studio that was several hundred square meters, even a few acres, it would mean he was an important artist. In Beijing it was easy. It didn’t cost much at all. A lot of artists saw their entire destiny change in a single night in 2006 or 2007. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, everyone started shrinking their studios, and it all entered into a slump.


Xue Tao’s installation “Compatriot” 2011

II. Open Language

Luo: Let’s talk about your artworks. You twist newspaper into ropes or compress it into shapes like blocks and balls. Some of your artworks are quite large. Do you make them yourself, or with assistants?

Xue: I was making them on my own at first, but as the market got better, I started hiring assistants. There’s a couple that helps me a lot. The man is a renovation worker, and welds the frames for me. The woman is in charge of twisting the newspapers.

Luo: Where do you get the newspapers?

Xue: I get them from a newspaper distributor. They recycle the ones that don’t circulate, and I get my newspapers from them. Sometimes I get them from newsstands.

Luo: Do you categorize them once you get them?

Xue: I don’t. I just make selections. It has to be stiff copperplate paper. If it rips when you fold it, I can’t use it. It has to be thin copperplate or coated paper. It has to be easy to crumple, but it can’t tear too easily.

Luo: Looking at your works over the past few years, the first thing one notices about your work is that it’s non-functional. Second, it doesn’t have a direct, easily-understood meaning. Third, your work is anti-formal. These traits are reminiscent of Arte Povera. Where do you get your inspiration?

Xue: An Italian artist once showed me an artwork made from twisted-up newspapers. I thought it was mine, because I had made some with English newspapers, but it was actually the work of an Arte Povera artist in his fifties. When you twist a newspaper up into a rope, it all comes out in that shape. I think, however, that mine is a bit different. My art has gone through roughly three phases. At first, it was the basic feel for the material, and then I treated it as a modeling technique. In the third phase, I treat it as a language. The reason I use newspaper is that it’s cheap, easy to obtain and convenient.


Xue Tao, “A Bunch of…” 2006

Luo: Your early works mainly imitated forms, such as the sun, flowers, pillars and the like. When we get to your rope works, we see that you have already cast off the modernist framework of form to pursue anti-form, alienation and individualized language. You emphasize a clear form, but do not consciously reveal your conceptual references.

Xue: Right. By 2011, I had entered into a state I was rather satisfied with. Before, I was doing modern art or postmodern art, but now I have truly come to understand contemporary art. At first, you submit to modeling and material, and now modeling and material submit to you. In terms of technique, I also feel increasingly free.

Luo: What is your view on the connection between your artworks and Arte Povera?

Xue: My own creative trajectory has been akin to learning the breadth of art history, but when I really set out to create, I don’t think about any particular schools of art or art history. If you do think about such things, the creative process will not be a joyful one. If, after completing something, you discover that something similar already exists, I think that is normal. It demonstrates that between civilizations and art, there is more potential for human communication. As for the Arte Povera artists, I don’t concern myself much with what they are doing or thinking. I’ve been to Turin and Milan, where Arte Povera began, and I have seen their works, only to discover that we are not quite the same.

Luo: In the narrow sense, Arte Povera is postmodern Italian art from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s. It was an art movement that arose in response to the drastic social changes and political schisms taking place in Italy at the time. Arte Povera artists presented found objects in dramatic ways to criticize consumerism, seek new ways of intervening in the world, and challenge the traditional order and aesthetics. This movement had a profound impact on contemporary art concepts and methods around the world. Let’s return to the previous question. Do you think that Yunnan possesses certain resources or value that it can provide to contemporary artists in today’s globalized context?

Xue: To ask whether or not Yunnan artists can provide more meaningful references is like asking what Chinese artists can provide for the world. I would be hard pressed, using my own abilities, to answer this question, because I think it is unclear whether or not Yunnan can provide contemporary art with a new model, new methods, new concepts or a new condition. This must be answered by history and time. As an individual, I am infinitesimal. I cannot transcend time and space to see the results.

Luo: How do you maintain a flow between your increasingly rich international experience and your inherent Dali experience? For instance, how do you bring your experience of globalization to Dali, and how do you bring your local experience into the contemporary context?

Xue: This is an important question, one many artists must ponder. I think that contemporary art is an extremely open language mode, one which gives artists great freedom. Just to have this language, however, is not the end. What matters is what you say with it. In global contemporary art, I have learned this language mode and method of interaction, allowing me to interact with people from different countries and different language backgrounds. As a Yunnanese born in Dali, or as an Easterner, my interest and understanding of handcrafting and Zen Buddhism is infused into my art. Some people may use contemporary art to express sociological or scientific matters, but I think that my own expression is more religious.

Luo: This calls to mind Mono-ha, because Mono-ha also used everyday objects, while they drew spiritual resources from Zen and Shinto to explore the relationships between something and nothingness, between man and thing, thing and space, man and space, referencing materiality. Arte Povera was more directed towards social criticism.

Xue: My art is none of the above. It may appear similar, but when placed together, they are quite different. Neither Mono-ha nor Arte Povera are as produced as my art. The difference is in this production aspect. The production aspect of Mono-ha is concealed, secondary, with the emphasis placed on materiality itself. My artworks highlight the production process.

Luo: You make the energy of vast amounts of highly repetitive labor come to rest on ordinary materials.

Xue: Right. I am most satisfied and interested in the production process. What people see is not an object, but a production process. There is a massive amount of manual labor within. As I understand Buddhism, Mono-ha and Arte Povera, Mono-ha is about “emptiness” while Arte Povera is about “substance,” while Buddhism is neither emptiness nor substance. What is expressed in the end is the “non-duality of emptiness and substance.” I see Mono-ha as a philosophized understanding of religion. Its understanding of Zen and the Dao is philosophical. Buddhism is neither philosophy nor wisdom. Zen is different. In India, Zen is called “dhyana.” Zen cannot be explained. If it can be explained, then it is something different. It is just like all of these ropes I have made. I can’t explain clearly what they are, but in the end, I am satisfied. It feels right.


Xue Tao, “State of the Union Message” 2012

III. The State of Art in Yunnan

He Libin: In recent years, the Chinese contemporary art market has been aggressively encroaching on young Yunnan artists. The situation is not as good as it was in 2000, much less the 1980s.

Xue: When the Red Heart Commune first began, a lot of the artists were making installation art. At the time, Shi Zhimin used glass, X-ray plates and acrylic to make his graduate thesis work. He was placed under investigation, and in the end barely got his degree.
hen Changwei and Duan Yisong all worked in installation art. In those days, a lot of people were making experimental artworks. For instance Ning Zhi, who was from the same graduating class as us in 1998, was also making installation art. The young people were basically all working in off-canvas art and conceptual photography, but later on, they all basically stopped.

Luo: After the market picked up, most people shifted to canvas painting. The last time a lot of Yunnan artists were making experimental art together was with Jianghu in 2005 and 2006.

He: When the market began to dominate art in 2006, artists came to see their positions and goals more clearly. Of course, the end of Jianghu in 2006 had nothing to do with the market.

Luo: As post-70s artists, do you think there are any clear shared characteristics among post-70s Yunnan artists?

Xue: A lot of the post-70s artists are multi-talented. For instance, Wu Yiqiang, Shi Jing, He Jia and Zhang Tian all work in painting, performance art and installations.

He: If we’re looking at it based on time, I think that the post-70s generation is in a rather anxious mental state, and this finds expression in their artworks. Post-80s artists find ways to dispel this sense of anxiety. Older artists have a clearer connection to the ideology of the state. They are imprinted by the state.

Luo: I feel that Xue Tao’s creative experience is quite representative of the post-70s artists. This generation got started in the traditional art academies, learning colors and modelling. They then went through the modernist enlightenment, self-awakening and the artist group movement. Then they entered into contemporary art within the patterns of globalization, using individualized language and spirit to express artistic concern within the context of globalization. Among earlier Yunnan artists, very few truly entered into contemporary artistic language, with most artists born in the 50s and 60s absorbing modernism or pacing about between modern and postmodern in a quest for Chinese schemas and the expression of the Chinese experience. Their contributions are mainly connected to the post-Cold War unification of the international economy, the collectivist narrative of modern Chinese society and resistance to the same. Their advancement of contemporary artistic concepts was highly limited, and that is why, after they were successful, the only thing they brought, aside from insight into success, was modernist sentiments left over from the 85 New Wave. They didn’t engage in much exploration of artistic concepts. Some artists are creating contemporary art at the same time they are painting Impressionist or Romanticist landscapes. I can understand that as they satisfy increasing domestic demand, they don’t have to focus so much on export as with contemporary art, but this phenomenon shows that they are lost and conflicted about their individual artistic mission. That is not to say, of course, that one cannot create artworks for the masses; that is another issue altogether.

Xue: The “85” artists basically work within a modernist context. Some artists of the post-60s generation entered into the contemporary, such as He Yunchang. As for the post-80s generation, the question is whether or not they’re interested in art in the first place.

Luo: A lot of post-80s artists have been influenced by the individual icon methodology and success schemes. Artistic concepts have been flattened and fragmented, many of them secondhand in the first place. They need to raise their individual character.

He: You raised the question of whether or not Yunnan could provide contemporary art with new possibilities. At this point, I’m not optimistic. Yunnan has its own culture that is markedly different from that of the Central Plain. In fact, southwestern Chinese art as a whole is different from that of other regions. For instance, it places more emphasis on expressiveness, temporality and spiritual experience. The artworks are more closely connected to nature. Setting out from a regional perspective, it is possible that Yunnan can produce something of value, but the future isn’t so clear.

Xue: Among the art spaces in Yunnan that do true contemporary art, TCG Nordica is one, then there’s Liu Lifen’s Contemporary Yunnan, as well as the Lijiang Studio. These three art spaces all have strong international backgrounds. There are also a few individuals who engage in contemporary art creation and curation, but that’s it. Statistically speaking, it is very small, and the role such small numbers can play is very limited. If we took those away, Yunnan would basically be a desert, with nothing but the modernist influence left behind from the 85 period. Kunming still ranks up there with some of the big contemporary art cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Chongqing, mainly because most cities lack contemporary art spaces that are truly rooted in their localities. Why are there so few? It is because there is no demand. If there was more demand, then there would be more. This shows that China is not prepared to enter into the contemporary art context. It hasn’t prepared at all; it is simply making the preliminary preparations.


Ning Zhi, “The Manifesto”, 2000

Luo: The Chinese language academic scene has dubbed the last century of change as the modern transition, the transformation from a traditional society to a modern civilizational order supported by core modern values (freedom, reason and individual rights) and run according to market economics, democratic government and the ethnic nation-state. Critic Zha Changping describes contemporary China as a mixed modern society, where the premodern, modern, postmodern and alternative modern are mixed together, often interlocking and overlapping. This shows that China is not prepared to enter into the globalized world. It tends to view the world with a nationalist, clan-based worldview rather than universal values. One of the missions of Chinese contemporary art is to take part in promoting China’s modern transition.

Everyone knows that Yunnan is richly endowed geographically, ecologically and culturally. The key is for artists to change their vision and language. Today’s scene has developed into an ecosystem comprised of nature, society and culture, and when we look at this scene, we must keep in mind the pressing rural issues of land and left-behind children, the disparity of wealth and environmental issues. Beyond direct concern for social justice, even in artistic form, we must engage in a transformation of traditional aesthetic taste, of observational methods and concepts. Otherwise, we will always be in a state of cultural dislocation and chaos.

Translated by Jeff Crosby


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A Clinical Report on Contemporary Society


A Clinical Report on Contemporary Society

— On Zi Bai’s photo

By Luo Fei

In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation. 
-Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle

In modern society, there are no longer any isolated landscapes. Even in the most remote places, one comes across distressing scenes like the one that occurred just a few days ago in the Artic, where the melting of sea ice due to global warming caused a number of polar bears to starve to death, leaving behind a scattering of blanket-like bodies. All natural spaces in the modern era have been transformed into sites of interchange between the natural, cultural and social spheres. Given this situation, we can use French theorist and film director Guy Debord’s term of “spectacle” to describe all that we see.

In his 1967 work “Society of the Spectacle,” Debord uses the concept of “spectacle” to explain that both the public and private domains of daily life have experienced a sort of existential crisis due to the development of capitalism in Europe. He believes that in the “society of the spectacle,” relationships between people and commodities have replaced those between people. Because in societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles – a perversion of what ought to be the case. In a mediatized age, mere appearances become our most authentic reality – people come to live for them. The “society of the spectacle” makes people’s lives barren and devoid of authenticity; it gradually causes people’s critical thinking abilities to wither away.

This more sociological conception of “spectacle” (景观) has also affected the way artists have come to think and speak about landscapes (which in Chinese are now even referred to with the same term, 景观). The idea of “landscape” has come to include not just natural scenery, but also man-made wonders. Particularly since the 1960s, this understanding of “景观 (spectacle/landscape)” has expanded the range of techniques and subject matter used by landscape photographers by prompting artists to reconsider their views on the way man relates to nature, to the urban environment, and to his fellow man.

Zi Bai’s photography presents us with just such a virtual yet nonetheless real landscape, echoing the society consisting of an immense accumulation of spectacles described by Debord.

Since 2007, Zi Bai has taken a great number of photos of the refuse in garbage collecting stations, first in his hometown of Xishuangbanna and later in Kunming, Shanghai and other cities. He worked for many years in an advertising agency, and his outstanding Photoshop design and editing skills provide an excellent technical background for his creative works. In these hundreds of photographs of collected materials, impressive, nearly suffocating scenes emerge from the densely piled accumulations of our spectacular society.

In his “City Series 01,” under a dim sweep of thick clouds, billions of scarlet cans are heaped upon Tiananmen Square like the passionate masses that swarmed there during the Cultural Revolution era, waiting for their leader to appear. Here, what people cheer and worship is called “consumption,” and what they shout is: “Long live consumerism! Long live the Great Unity of consumers!” Zi Bai has created a scene of heathen idolatry; a fetishistic movement is on the rise, and in it brews the ecstasy and tumult of consumption.
“City Series 2,” “City Series 3,” and “City Series 4” are, respectively, images of the river below Shanghai – the Pearl of the Orient – filled with plastic water bottles, of roaring waves of beer cans swarming the feet of the American Statue of Liberty, and of drink cans piled high as mountains around the islands of Southeast Asia. In the equally inspiring piece “Men are Higher than Mountains,” discarded drink bottles are stacked like Himalayan peaks. Zi Bai uses these iconic scenes and landmarks to make the garbage seem even more vast, imposing and able to shock viewers, as well as to imbue his landscape photography with a Neo-Romantic character.




In his “More? Less? (How Much?)” Series, Zi Bai uses a panning overhead shot to photograph densely packed bottle caps, drink bottles, cans or syringes, creating images that look like beautifully colored wallpaper. Among them two photographs are of bullets and grenades used during the Vietnam War when the Americans tried to block North Vietnamese and Chinese supply lines to South Vietnam by dropping massive quantities of explosives on the mysterious Ho Chi Minh Trail. Later on, these areas became sites for tourism, attracting large numbers of people who came to collect fallen ammunition. It’s said that every year there were people who died doing this. In 2008 and 2009, Zi Bai went to local recycling centers in those regions to photograph these discarded munitions.
Aesthetically speaking, Zi Bai tends to showcase his propensity for the shocking yet delicate. Admiring his works from a certain distance, they always arouse a feeling of delight. But behind this attractive exterior lies a brutal reality – billions of piles of garbage and the crushed carcasses of road kill (“Disappearing Landscape” series). These works are in fact composed out of human greed and vanity, and function as visual evidence of our inability to act as proper stewards of the earth.

According to recent survey data from the Department of Housing, more than a third of Chinese cities are now completely encircled by garbage, which has even begun to spread into the countryside. These “garbage-besieged cities” have also led to the rise of increasing numbers of cancer villages.

Zi Bai’s manner of critiquing our social condition is in some ways similar to the technique of clinical analysis. Society in his eyes is like a diseased behemoth that needs to consume and excrete in alarming quantities. In order to diagnose this behemoth’s condition, Zi Bai attentively wades through and examines its excrement, documenting, using photography as this monster’s lab test results: a clinical report on the condition of contemporary society. He helps us begin to notice that the bottles and plastic bags in our own hands and our concept of consumption are working together to further the spectacle of the garbage that surrounds our cities in ever-increasing piles.

Art, as visual documentation of an era, asks people to look beyond the world of appearances to the reality that exists below, and glimpse people’s greed. Art is a prophecy for this generation, calling on people to realize that if we don’t make any changes to our patterns of consumption or our manner of waste disposal, it will be the end of our world as we know it. Art is an expression of the human spirit: behind the billions of drink bottles there are billions of human beings with dry throats and dry souls. This is what I learned from Zi Bai’s clinical report on the state of contemporary society, of our horrifying society of the spectacle.

August 11, 2013
Translated by Becky Davis


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A Revival of Landscape Art

A Revival of Landscape Art

The Swedish artist Oscar Furbacken has worked intensively for six weeks (1/6-8/7 2013) as a summer artist-in-residence at TCG Nordica here in Kunming, China. In year 2000 he participated in a short artist’s exchange with the Yunnan Arts Institute in Kunming. He obtained his Master’s from the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm 2011, after many years of contemporary art studies and with a practice much related to nature and landscape.

From early on, Oscar has been deeply influenced by Naturalism and Romanticism in Western landscape painting and captivated by the grandiose beauty of the natural world. As a contemporary artist though, he has purposefully moved beyond pure Romanticism, using macro lenses to photograph moss, fungi and other botanical elements in ways that make them appear to take on the characteristics of landscape paintings. Since then, he has developed clever works in a variety of media (such as drawings, sculptures, photographs and video recordings) embedding them in different types of public spaces.

RISING_in-church-performance03Oscar consciously acquires the ingredients of the Romantic Western landscape, emphasizing the expressiveness of sunlight, the dynamism of his subjects, and the dream-like atmospheres. But it is within microcosms and miniatures that he embeds all this. Take the piece “RISING” from the 2010 solo exhibition that marked his graduation from the Royal Institute of Art. This 13-meter wide and 2-meter high acrylic painting installation depicting some scaled up moss and lichens found on the forest ground, is built to create a “space within the space.” Accompanied by lighting effects that changed every ten seconds, the piece was swathed in mysterious shocks of color that fully immersed the viewer in its spectacle. Before this vast, fairytale-like magnified world, reality became extraordinary, and spectators became no more than insects. The same work was later shown in the Katarina Church of Stockholm, juxtaposed to a darker painting depicting fungi on rotten wood. Enhanced by a performance of unveiling organized during Easter Mass the work commented and re-interpreted the Resurrection. In this specific context “RISING” became a spiritual event, an altarpiece on the possibility of a new life after death. Here, the landscape transcends a merely decorative function entering the realm of symbolic meaning.

Oscar seems particularly attentive to the way in which the subject of his work is influenced by the shifting of context, a sensitivity that was probably awaken by his childhood experience of cultures when immigrating to France with his parents. Here in Kunming, he has composed three groups of bronze sculptures entitled “Life Spills.” In these works, leftover bronze scraps from a nearby sculpture factory were given a proper polishing and presented on smooth, dark-colored glass. Through a meticulously chosen lighting, the pile of mottled scrap metal is endowed with the Zen-like appearance of Taihu stone, a type of garden stone frequently used in classical Chinese gardens. It also goes by the name of “porous stone.” Commonly used in rockeries, it is a type of karst limestone that, due to years of weathering, is extremely varied in form and possesses exquisite carbonates. Often quite large in size, this type of rock was typically arranged in the parks, gardens and other outdoor areas of the imperial family for people to admire. In a similar way the metal spills that were originally discarded by their workmen have now, under the attention of the artist, come alive into miniature landscapes. In contemporary China, this sort of landscape full of Zen and classical influences has all but ceased to exist as the country hurtles down the road of industrialization. Oscar’s work thereby invites the viewer to recall an older forms of landscape known in China as “shanshui (mountain and river)” paintings.

LandscapeReflected_03wIn ancient China, there was no such thing as landscape painting as we know it today – but the shanshui ink-paintings were common, a technique developed in the Sui Dynasty (AD 581-618). The biggest difference between the two art forms is the manner in which they are meant to be viewed. Shanshui paintings invite the eye to wander freely across their expanse. Using a form of cavalier perspective, in which diverse aspects of time and physical places may freely coexist within the same image, including different seasons. It’s a rather sophisticated approach to perspective, in which the focal point shifts as if slowly lowered from a mountain peak by parachute. So when Western painting centers on the reproduction of reality, Chinese shanshui paintings are mostly concerned with the abstract ideals of human experience. Western landscape traces out a history of art, whereas traditional Chinese landscape painting contains a history of ideas. The logic of this wandering mode of observation from the shanshui tradition, is evoked again as we watch Oscar’s video series entitled “Close Studies”. In this intriguing project he seamlessly fuses the magnified world of low-lying ground plants with everyday Stockholm life. These two parallel worlds are both full of poetic enchanting scenes, but to see them exist side by side without disrupting one another is a surprising discovery as we follow the smooth meandering path of the camera lens.

LandscapeReflected_01Another piece, called “Mountain City”, is an installation created from local materials: an oval meeting table with stools found in the gallery, a ”lazy Suzan” (rotating large glass plate seen everywhere on Chinese dining tables) and red bricks of the discarded sort that are found all over this city as they keep demolishing old houses. The pieces of bricks are fixed upon the round lazy Suzan in undulating ups and downs forming a landscape of picturesque disorder. Viewers can rotate the lazy Suzan, and place their gaze at a particular height to perceive what appears to be mountains in a reflecting ocean. Oscar ceaselessly encourages his audience to shift their viewing position either high or low, near or far in order to discover curious landscapes in the midst of everyday objects.

While focusing on the smallest of plants, Oscar’s work activates the viewers’ imagination and perception to recognize the greatness of nature. Paying careful attention to the viewing conditions of his exhibited pieces, Oscar also restores the Romantic from having been reduced to mere melodrama at the hands of the commercialism. The “rising” of this new approach on landscape in contemporary art is a pleasant surprise.

Written by Luo Fei (TCG Nordica Culture Center Curator)

Translated by Becky Davis, revised by the artist

Kunming, July 1, 2013


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Interview with Chen Fanyuan and Feng Xianbo

Chen Fanyuan's work

Chen Fanyuan’s work

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[1] . 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?

Feng Xianbo's works

Feng Xianbo’s works

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.

Chen Fanyuan's work

Chen Fanyuan’s work

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[2], 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.

Feng Xianbo's works

Feng Xianbo’s works

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.


[1] Shuxiang(书象): a contemporary, experimental form that explores the line between calligraphy and abstract art.
[2] Eastern Jin Dynasty calligrapher Wang Xizhi and Wang Xianzhi, they are father and son, Later generations called them “Two Wangs”.

Translated by Becky Davis

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