Interview: He Libin

He Libin
(Interview with the artist in his studio. 30th April 2010. Present: He Libin, Luo Fei and Anders Gustafsson.)

I once read a text by Jeff Crosby, where he emphasized that Kunming historically did play an often overlooked role in China’s road to modernity: from it’s time as a French outpost, to its role as a refuge for Chinese intellectuals during the Japanese occupation, Kunming often led the way for China’s embrace of modern ideas. I guess the South West Art Research Group should also be mentioned here. Do you see Kunming’s art community building on this heritage, or should we declare it dead and buried?

– It is building on that tradition. Compared with other citites, Kunming woke up early in relation to modernity. The first Chinese art community started here (Chuang Ku/Loft, 1999). It was influenced by the Western world. During French and Japanese occupation, this influence was forced upon us. The Han culture didn’t have such a big influence here, so Kunming could accept different cultures.

– It’s actually quite interesting that many Kunming artists are rather lazy, or very relaxed anyway. This also means they’re very free. So if there’s an interesting opportunity, the artists can easily gather. Chuang Ku is an example. Another case is the Jiang Hu-project 2005-2006 (a project supported by Lijiang studio). It influenced lots of young artists and was awarded a price for being the second best art project after the Shanghai Biennal in 2006.

But isn’t the Kunming art community more scattered now than say four-five years ago?

– Yes, definitively.

But is that a sign of the artists cooperating less? Or of something else?

– We cooperate more, actually. There are more opportunities and possibilities. Four years ago, there was only Loft. The exhibitions were more simple at that point. Now we have more art spaces, which results in more cross over art.

I’ve noticed that people in Kunming often remind us foreigners about the minorities influence on the culture of Yunnan. You are of Naxi heritage yourself. Do you see any influence from the minority cultures on contemporary art?

– Personally, the Naxi culture doesn’t attract me. I’m mainly living with Han-people. Even though Yunnan is a minority province, Yunnan’s main culture is Han. Just look at the menues in the restaurants. The minority food is often there more like a decoration.

– Another important thing is, that in the 20th century, even if we have many minorities, we where occupied by Western countries. That influenced us. Minority culture is maybe more influential in song and dance, but not so much in the visual art where the Western influence was stronger.
As far as the art academies educational tradition is concerned, the visual arts relates mainly to the Western system and the Chinese traditional painting: More precisely, the Western tradition of realism and the Chinese one where the students copy old masters and paint plants. So the influence on contemporary art is marginal, in my opinion.

– In early 1980’s there was an art wave, the Heavy Colored School and the Scenery School, who were influenced by minority culture. All the artists were Han-people, and they combined minority culture with western influences. Most of the minority art is more utility based, for religios ceremonies and so on. But it doesn’t reach independent or fine art. Different minorities have different religions. This means that they are enclosed in there own circles; it doesn’t spill over to other cultures.

– If you compare original minority art, with the Heavy Colored School and the Scenery School art, they are very different. The latter are landscape paintings with strong colors. But already in the 90’s they were less influential. They were hardly scratching the surface of the minorities cultures. It never dealt with the feelings of the individual, and it never acccounted for the individual’s experiences.

– When I watched them, they all looked the same. Soft, beautful, like a poem. I’ve lived with minorities, and I know that this beautiful side is only part of the truth. There are sorrow and suffering too. That kind of life is never covered by those paitings, and they don’t show these people’s real life.

– I think that the government knows and likes the Heavy Colored School and the Scenery School art, and those artists use this style to present a romantic idea about minorities to Westerners. They want Yunnan to be the biggest tourist province in China, so they portray it like the Garden of Eden.

It’s not only the minority cultures that distincts Yunnan from other provinces in China. It’s also the geographical proximity to Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. Myanmar is Yunnan’s biggest trading partner, for example. Is this influencing the Kunming art scene?

– The cooperation with these countries takes plcae within the economical sphere, but very rarely on a cultural level. So if we look back on the past years’ culture events, very few of them are in any way connected to these countries. (Even if the day before this interview an exhibition from Thailand opened at Yunnan Arts Institute).

– In recent years, we’ve learnt that the differences between art in Yunnan and, say Laos and Thailand, are really big. So we influence each other only to a small extent, if any. Their art education, exhibitions, collectors and foundations are all of Western origin. This will continue, I think, and the main reason for this is that in rescent history they were occupied by Western countries.

Mao Xuhui talks about your “anxiety”, reflected in the loss of the traditional landscape conquered by the destruction of modernity. Do you agree with this?

anders-interviews-helibin– Almost all Chinese have anxiety, it’s only on different levels… Personally, I don’t see myself as an intellectual. My anxiety is mainly about lifestyle. Being caught between on one hand my dream of a pure and simple life, on the other hand the modern life’s with its speed and its urges. So I’m almost afraid to go to the super market, it’s a big waste of products and resources. I’m afraid it’s all about desire. Maybe I would have preferred to live the simple life of minorities.

– The traditional Chinese intellectuals lead divided lifes. They wished to join this world and at the same time escape from it. So I don’t see myself as an intellectual. I can not totally embrace the traditional intellectuals’ opinions or feelings. My culture and knowledge system is only slightly influenced by Konfucianism. Deep down, I much more prefer daoism. Daoists usually live in forests or mountains.

I find your project, Recording Shenzhen, particularly interesting. You and some volunteers painted the city’s sceneries, but used water instead of colour. The art work lasted for a maximum of two hours. Isn’t that quite Daoistic?

– No idea, I hadn’ t thought of that, haha. But probably. Just like my recent works, where I only used water, air and other simple resources. Another important element in my work is about time.

Time… Isn’t there some similarity between the ephemeral or unreachable nature of this vaning waterdepictions of a hypermodern city, and the traditional landscapes of some of your other paintings? I mean: Aren’t we often projecting our contemporary thoughts and worldviews on a distant past that in some sense is unreachable?

– Yes. I always try to reach for it, but it disappears. It makes me sad, and if you lift up this feeling, it’s somthing like impermanence (a Buddhist term). And you can’t really know it or control it.

It looks to me that you are speaking the same language in The Forgotten Views and The Lost Writing; there you are using newspaper as material to depict traditional landscape or calligraphy. Newspapers as a material are ephemeral, even if not as much as painting in water.

helibin– Yes. But as you know, I’m not the person who plans everything. In this progress I tried different materials, but finally I choose newspaper. It’s cheap, actually it doesn’t cost me anything. And it’s a good material, easy to work with. All the newpapers came from friends, they’re for free. I can’t finish it, cause people always ask me if I need more newspapers…

– During the works I found newspaper as a material has its limits. Time will change it, it won’t last. I tried with other materails as well, like sand and metal. Mixed material. Time will change everything. Deep down I’m a pessimist. Impermanence, is a word I really understand and can identify with.

TCG Nordica is celebrating its 10 years anniversary. Please give me your thoughts on which role it – and Chuang Ku – has played through the years.

– They’ve played very different roles. Chuang Ku was established by Ye Yongqing and Tang Zhigang. In the beginning it was like creating an enclave. They were idealists, in a way they wished to build Utopia. With enclave, I mean they wanted to create a life style that was quite different from other citizens. Their land was sort of up in the air, it didn’t land.

– But because of these artists’ hard work, Kunming’s art events became more and more a part of the city’s daily life. There was a distance from the public, maybe. But art became more and more a part of daily life for artists, with exhibitions, platforms and so on. Before Chuang Ku, the opportunities to see or particpiate in an exhibition was very limited . It was limited to the official museums.

– In Chuang Ku there was a thinking mode that it’s “us” inside Chuang Ku, and “them” outside. To make a difference between them and the artists supported by the authorities. “We are Chuang Ku(Loft) artists, they are outsiders”. Maybe Western artists see it more as “I” and “you”, rather than “us” and “them”?

– When I read the last generations diaries (like Mao Xuhui, Ye Yongqing and so on), it was a lot about us and them. They were different, that also went for the relation to society. Today it’s a big difference. The boundaries have been blurred. And this is because of their success. They have become accepted, before they were a more heterogenous group.

And TCG Nordica?

– I see Nordica as a bridge. The founders wanted to share different kinds of culture with everyody. This sharing was not to make everybody be the same. In fact, it makes everybody different. This is the biggest difference between Nordica and Loft. Nordica was not just only for “us”. Instead it made us realize our differences. I think this is a culture difference. For Westerners it was I and you. For Chinese it was much about us and them; us always eating and drinking tea, playing cards together, for example.

– I think Nordica is the most inportant place at Loft. Without it, Loft would be a local community. There would be no dialogue, no conflict.

– According to Nordica’s vision, there’s still a kind of idealism, But it’s not Utopia. It has a positive view on everybody’s life style and culture. If the art community thinks: “Let’s build an alternative life style”, it’s more utopian. It makes everybody look the same. Like communism; everybody are the same.

At one point in a discussion woth the Loft artists, we tried to explain how we at Nordica work more with a flat organization, rather than a hierarchial one. One of the artists ironically exclaimed: “Ahh, you are the real communists!”

– Actually, even when there’s a cooperation with Nordica, everybody still have their individual work.

So will this – and should it – change for the future, in your opinion?

– I think Nordica shouldn’t change their role much in the future. I wish Nordica can just go deeper in their communication between different cultures. And also, I wish there could be more communication.

Other cultures, not just Scandinavian-Chinese, you mean?

– No, my point is that we need build more communication in Kunming, with other culture areas. Not only art, but literature and so on. It’s not only the Nordica staff’s responsibility, but everyone’s.

Can you give a concrete suggestion?

– For example the HIV-project. That was a very good example of a sort of cross-over project, where people meet on a bridge. I wish we could move further, where artists take responsibility for society. In the past years, the art scene has been more profound than the other culture areas.

So, for example, we arrange a concert and let artists and poets create from their experiences during it?

– Yes, and artists could cooperate with scientists.

And how about the future for Loft?

– There are many, many problems with Loft, and everybody knows that. But I think it doesn’t matter if it’s there or not. The most important is how the artists work in the future. I think that even if there’s no art community, it’s not important. If the artists bring art into the daily life, it’s something that could happen everywhere.

– The art communities in China was probably a phenomena related to a certain period of time. The artists needed to make themselves known, needed to gather energy from each other. When or if the artists become stronger, and aren’t considered as being on the edge of society, I think the communities will dissappear naturally.

– Even if Loft disappears, it’s not necessarily a big problem to Nordica, who can still continue their work. All the artists in China have found that the art communities haven’t been the most important thing. The organisations have been more important. Within each art community, there has been a maximum of one or two organisations that have done most of the work.

In one discussion I had with Jonathan Kearney, we both agreed that Kunming’s culture life is different than what you find in the coastal megacities. Kunming can maybe not claim to be The Real China, but that it can claim to be A Different China.
If you agree with this, what is the main contribution of the Kunming art scene, that makes it stand out from the rest?

– I agree. A different China. The Director and founder of Lijiang studio Jay Brown even made an exhibition in Germany with that name. I think all the events happening in Kunming contributed to the whole of China. Some of them had much influence. Generally speaking, the Kunming art scene even made Kunming different from other cities.

In what way, more precisely?

– There were some cases with big influences. The New Concrete Group in the 1980’s influenced many cities. Also, the Chuangku/Loft influenced other cities. Another one was Jiang Hu (The before-mentioned project in Lijiang). It was tightly connected to the local experience, it could never have happened anywhere else. It was a village project outside Lijiang. Invited international artists to connect with the local experience and culture.

– And then there’s Nordica.

– Most of Chinese contemporary art is about an urban experience. In Yunnan the contemporary art connects with experience from nature. Those who come here find other influences and raise other questions, in relation to nature. Yunnan can give the artists inspiration for “slower walking”.

– These things make art life here stand out from the rest of China.

The current party secretary, Qiu He has personal ambitions for Kunming’s future. The universities are moved to Chenguang, outside Kunming. A new airport, China’s 4th biggest, should be ready next year. Rail lines linking Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou, Guangxi and Chongqing will be upgraded. Construction of a high-speed rail between Kunming and Shanghai is already underway. Improved roads to Hanoi and Bangkok will shorten the time between Kunming and these cities drastically.
How do you think such changes will affect the Kunming art scene?

– It’s hard to say. I haven’t thought about it that much. I think it won’t change a lot for the artists themselves. They mainly focus on peoples’ hearts and experiences. But there might be changes in the patterns and structures, relating to the city’s enlargening. I haven’t seen any action from the government towards the art community, so the change might not be so big.

– The small art communities might spread out in different places, because of the economic development strategy. It will hardly make art develop faster, though. In order for the local art scene to stay healthy, it will need local curators, collectors and galleries. But that will take a long time.

You have chosen to stay here, although many artists follow the money to the coastal region. And it’s not that you haven’t seen the world. You have travelled to Scandinavia, for example. So what’s most attracting for you here?

– My family. Maybe I could earn more money in some other place, but I enjoy life here. I don’t want to leave my loved ones: parents, wife, daughter. The daily life is most important to me. Only then comes art.

Interview by Anders Gustafsson
Photo by Luo Fei


For more information about artist He Libin, please check his CV and works at,  thanks!