The Roving Figures: The drawings of Karin Häll

The Roving Figures
– The drawings of Karin Häll

I walk slowly into myself, through a forest of empty suits of armor.
– Tomas Tranströmer

Swedish artist Karin Häll stuck several sketches of different sizes and shapes on the walls of her studio in Chuangku art community at Kunming: An eye, a tree, some gloomy faces, and The Life and Work, an artist’s handmade book from the coarse sandpaper. I was fascinated by the figures on these randomly arranged scrapes. They were lively yet slightly gloomy. It seemed as if they were talking to each other, yet they seem to have nothing to do with each other. These are moments from “life and work”, and figures invited by the artist to present themselves in between.

Karin was fond of drawing since she was a child. She was seriously criticized by the teacher for sketching in the textbooks, and was even asked to restore the books back to how they were look like. I can very much relate to her experience. Workbooks, textbooks, desks and walls could all be our canvas. No one can stop a person from drawing, just as you can’t stop a child from growing up.

We used to hike together on the outskirts of Kunming, enjoying the nature and overlooking the city. Drawing, she says, is much like hiking. It makes one relieved from the mental pressure. There is no pressure from “self-judgment” to do “official works”. I totally agree with that. Casual painting is very similar to hiking or walking. No specific reason or goal is needed. You’re just walking and drawing. After letting go the inner anxiety, you feel very much refreshed. They also often give people the illusion that we are busy and focused. In fact, more often than not, we are just being idle and distracted. It is said that the mind works best when distracted. Thoughts emerge naturally in inactivity, and then vanish automatically. Figures become the extension of roving thoughts, which in turn leads people to association and observing. That’s how we got the figures on the scraps of Karin’s paper. They are like the footprints of hiking in the hills, fresh, natural, firm and steady.

Karin’s drawings feature powerful lines and bold color bulks, emphasizing the contour of the figures and the stereoscopic aspect of them. This may have something to do with her sculpture practice. Her figures always start with bulky objects. In a recent exhibition, Karin used sculpture and finished products to make scattered black blocks on the wall. It seems as if they were fragments floating in the air or debris salvaged from the sea. In another work, “The Order of Things”, she put gloves, boots, books, plants, flowerpots and mud balls on a hilly setting of artificial hair. That very much reminds us the spaces in Giotto’s paintings, and the grotesque rocky mountains. The “finished” sculptures also offer us glimpses of Karin’s daily drawing practices: moving lines, wraparound bulks, and simple forms. Generally speaking, Karin would keep objects and figures apart from each other. But she could somehow make them associated with each other intrinsically. Those objects or figures are usually only half done. Or that’s how she intents people to see. This makes the figures detached from the roving thoughts, while the viewer’s attention is channeled to wander among the objects. She keeps the objects malleable, maintains the traces, and exposes the undertone. These are the labor work of her hands – covering, modifying, smearing, and emphasizing. That’s also how Karin works on her drawings. The traces of daubing and emphasizing are visible, and the paper being cut, bound, sewed and stuck. Although the drawings seem casual and were done freely, they demonstrate how she can control over the figures and strength to get particular feelings noticed. I think that’s the spirit.

As far as I can see, these figures are different moments from “life and work” that share common spiritual temperaments – fun, mysterious, and gloomy. For example, she likes to draw her left hand, figures from Nordic mythology, portraits shrouded in contemplation, and faces in the shadows. Besides, there are more bulky figures, such as houses, clouds, shoes, gloves, etc. This temperament might have come from the unique spiritual realm of northern Europe, championing simplicity and black. It reminds me of the patients in the ward of Munch’s paintings. Of course, there are some lovely and fun figures too. These figures, which are not deliberately created, have the same spiritual temperament. This is like a person who walks in a certain gait and posture that can be recognized from a distance.
An artist’s drawing is the most private stage, in which figures or texts are slowly come to present themselves. While the artist acts as the master of ceremonies, the figures come to look for their creator. It’s like how the Swedish poet Tranströmer put it that it’s not he who was looking for the lines, but the poems seek for him, begging to be presented. This is a mysterious process. Because of this, an artist or poet is not working on a mission that must be accomplished. Instead of forcing herself to create masterpieces, she just shares this process with others.

Without setting any frames and goals, she paints and smears freely. This is like natural breathing, strolling in the mountains, enjoying moments of silence, and preparing the figures to emerge. This is the pleasure and reflection brought to me by the mysterious and wonderful drawings of Karin Häll.

Luo Fei
September 30, 2019, Afternoon
Prague Cafe, Kunming
Translated by Nathan XiaoThe Roving Figures
– The drawings of Karin Häll



弗雷德里克·费慕林 Fredrik Fermelin(瑞典) 和丽斌
刘辉 杨鼎 饶建雄 李思雨 王成龙 张龙 蒋才 何汝婷 蒋启建 董春文 刀继成
刘再明 杨振琦 段宇航 邵琳鉴 王胜凯 李振宇 刘俊妤 张俊鹏 焦勇 刘梦云 梁紫瑞 黄梓恒 李红梅 魏陆婕 刘宇 李涛 陶昱希 晋锐娜 白再阳 汤邵元 和玉菊 张磊 马隽哲 徐国鑫 卞文俊 马煜程 杨琪 周子晋 张晨阳 闻宽 安炤宇 杨杰 李华 傅尔加周
现场音乐:Eilev Stoveland Dekko(挪威),Fredrik Fermelin(瑞典)


文: 罗菲







Outrageous, like a painting.

Outrageous, like a painting.
text: Luo Fei
editor in English: Sanne Raabjerg

Painting is probably one of the most intimate and vexing things in the art world today. It always provides stories about itself. These stories set a lot of road signs for later painters. Sometimes, it heralds some sort of end, and sometimes it heralds a return. More frequently, it is just an ancient game that makes people feel like they can continue on their paths. For many painters, painting is just a matter of their own interest, and the continuing growth of their vision and craftsmanship is fascinating, and nothing more.

But painting today is no longer the wild land of artists. Today’s artists are not only facing painting itself, but also the entire art world. People go from looking for breakthroughs, in the methods of painting, in the way of seeing images and in the performative part of painting, to painting the possibility of “painting a painting” and to painting the matter of “painting”. This does not only make “painting” more complicated, but it also makes “seeing paintings” more complicated, since they are no longer as intuitive. The task of painting is no longer just to represent or express something, but to provide different possibilities in “painting” and “seeing”. Correspondingly, this is the starting point of our exhibition today.

Fredrik Fermelin, an artist who graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Sweden in 2015, came to TCG Nordica in September as an artist in residence. Here, he spent three full months focusing on painting. Before that, he mainly engaged in performance, installation, video and digital media, etc. Fermelin’s concept of painting is related to image generation in gif format. Two seemingly similar images are juxtaposed, and the audience themselves associate their correlation, similar to the method of making film montage. However, he just makes two paintings juxtaposed in space, not in time. Although he strongly denies that his paintings are related to the expressionist style, on the surface level they might seem to comprise expressionist tendencies, but that is not what he wants to pursue. He is more concerned with the potential constructional relationship between the pictures.

He Libin’s painting practice in recent years combines the way of performance art with blind painting. In the middle of the night, he paints his impressions and feelings on a large-scale canvas, both indoors and outdoors. In his practice of blind painting, painting, an art form with a long history, is forced into a critical state: Between visible and invisible, between known and unknown, between painting and non-painting. The only thing that can be identified and continually confirmed is the artist’s own existence and self-growth in the vast natural environment. This confirmation is accomplished through inner dialogue and contests in the long-lasting darkness. This turns the painting process into photography development: Developing it in the dark, watching it in the daylight.

He Libin’s and Fermelin’s paintings are very similar in style. They both use expressionism to paint landscapes, and they both provide an unconventional “seeing” experience. He Libin deliberately paints what he has seen when he cannot see; therefore, only time will show the final appearance of the painting. Fermelin’s juxtaposition in space of different paintings, creates uncertainty and dissimilarity in the paintings themselves and in the seeing of the paintings. They both paint in the most intuitive way, but at the same time they create paintings that can be seen on multiple levels.

For this exhibition, more than forty students from Yunnan Arts University participated in He Libin’s short-term expressive painting course. They combine their paintings with the practice methods of action painting, in order to discuss how paintings can be. Fredrik Fermelin, He Libin and the students present us with such a communicative exhibition about “Paintings Behind Paintings”. Here, I have just named it “Outrageous, like a painting”.

Curator: Luo Fei
Artists: Fredrik Fermelin, He Libin and his students from the Yunnan Arts University
Live Music on the opening: Eilev Stoveland Dekko, Fredrik Fermelin

Opening: 8pm, Dec 28th, 2018
Exhibition Time: Dec 28th 2018 to Jan 7th 2019 (Sundays Close)
TCG Nordica Culture Center, Chuangku, Xibalu 101, Kunming
Organized by TCG Nordica and Oilpainting Department of Yunnan Arts University

尚未完成:合订本2017计划 Not Yet Complete Project


















白雪娟绘画书 Drawing Book by Bai Xuejuan










阿俊(丽江)、阿南(大理)、八九(丽江)、白雪娟(个旧)、常雄(昆明)、陈梵元(昆明)、陈继平(昆明)、陈嘉雯(昆明)、陈蕊(昆明)、陈姝羽(昆明)、陈邑安(昆明)、成鱼跃(昆明)、戴丹娜(景德镇)、丁艾纯(昆明)、丁章玉(昆明)、董洁(成都)、董栙(昆明)、豆子(昆明)、Efat Razowana Reya(孟加拉吉大港市)、付美军(重庆)、戈捍(昆明)、戈楷(昆明)、钴叉(昆明)、郭棚(昆明)、郝煜(昆明)、和丽斌(昆明)、贺锦艺(昆明)、胡军强(昆明)、胡涯蛟(昆明)、黄成春(昆明)、黄越君(福州)、Jonathan Aumen(美国弗吉尼亚州)、蒋磊(昆明)、蒋若禹(重庆)、解炫(昆明)、金大伟(昆明)、兰庆星(昆明)、蓝皮(昆明)、老二(昆明)、Laetitia Deschamps(法国巴黎)、雷诺阿(昆明)、雷炜(昆明)、雷燕(昆明)、黎之阳(昆明)、李季(昆明)、李荣强(北京)、李瑞(昆明)、李尚武(昆明)、李婉璇(昆明)、李映星(昆明)、李泽嵩(昆明)、林善文(昆明)、刘和焦(昆明)、刘和森(贵州)、刘辉(昆明)、刘开懿(昆明)、刘丽娟(武汉)、刘香林(深圳)、刘子艺(昆明)、鲁啸天(昆明)、陆锦(昆明)、罗斌(昆明)、罗菲(昆明)、罗文明(楚雄)、罗文涛(昆明)、马力(昆明)、马维(昆明)、莫荧(美国阿拉巴马州)、牟思延(昆明)、慕容亚明(郑州)、年进军(昆明)、聂泰宇(昆明)、欧阳鹤立(昆明)、清水惠美(日本神奈川)、Shank(桂林)、沈琳霞(武汉)、舒扬(昆明)、宋梓萍(昆明)、苏家寿(昆明)、苏亚碧(大理)、孙逊志(美国加州)、唐志冈(昆明)、陶发(昆明)、陶锦(昆明)、王蓓(昆明)、五月(昆明)、武景民(楚雄)、夏华(挪威奥斯陆)、信王军(北京)、薛滔(昆明)、薛小晓(昆明)、严仁奎(昆明)、岩完(昆明)、杨辉(昆明)、杨雄盛(昆明)、尹天石(南宁)、应博睿(昆明)、余廷洋(昆明)、宰鹏飞(昆明)、张宸硕(昆明)、张华(昆明)、张琼飞(法国昂热)、张竹筠(北京)、赵磊明(昆明)、郑宏昌(北京)、周开成(昆明)、周扬(昆明)、朱思睿(宣威)、朱亚琴(昆明)、朱久洋(北京)

《尚未完成》合订本里李季的作品 Thought by artist Li Ji in the book of Not Yet Complete






Megumi Shimizu’s works (Kanagawa, JPN)

Not Yet Complete — One Volume Artist Book Project 2017

Today art has begun, but is not yet complete. I simply want to reveal the images of sensation(intuition), be it just a sliver, before its systemization.

“Not yet complete” causes one to remain suspicious, remain uncertain, and remain unfamiliar.

“Not yet complete” leads one to doubt utopia, nihilism, and the validity of universalism.

I do not have an optimistic view about the future of our planet, therefore I am expectant about the “not yet complete” now.

We may forget or push things aside, but there is always something “already here and not yet complete”. When this completion comes to past it will exceed all imagination.

Mankind has begun but is not yet complete.

— Luo Fei (curator)

Drawing by Laetitia Deschamps(Paris, FRA)


▎About “Not Yet Complete”

“One Volume Artist Book Project 2017” is planned by Luo Fei. The theme is “not yet complete”.

A (set of) artwork of the participator for sharing is demanded.

An artwork of “not yet complete” is uncompleted in reference to its state. It can be a sliver of an ongoing project, a discontinuous or even an unsuccessful artwork. It may be interrupted temporary or eternal. It can be a section, a part, a sliver, a fictitious sake, an unformed embryo, a protracted issue, a hunted issue, or a forgotten issue. Anyway, it is already here but not yet complete …

The progress, reason, and mode of “not yet complete” are decided by the participator. Mediums are unlimited. (e.g., painting, photograph, video, literature, music, layout, draft, minutes, account book, homework, etc.)

Everyone is welcomed to this year’s “one Volume”. The identity, age, nationality, census registration, and address are unlimited.

The “One Volume Artist Book 2017” includes publishing “Not Yet Complete —One Volume Artist Book of 2017” and holding an entity exhibition in Tai Project, Kunming. We have received 110 artworks in total from artists and people from different industries. They come from not only Yunnan province, but also other provinces of China such as Beijing, Henan, Guangxi, Fujian, Sichuan and other countries like Norway, America, Japan, and Bengal. Some of them are housewives, children, young artists as well as eximious proficient in art circles and each of them has at least one “artwork” which is not yet complete. As Li Ji, an artist, says, “Most things in our lives can never be completed, and not necessary …” Luo Fei, the curator, has an explanation on the idea of this exhibition, “’Not yet complete’ leads one to doubt utopia, nihilism, and the validity of universalism … In the long and not-yet-complete journey of life, everyone has infinite possibilities. And of course, everyone can be depressed because of ‘not yet complete’… However, as mankind, we have begun but are not complete. Every moment of present may be remodeled.”

慕容亚明的作品 Art project by Murong Yaming

▎About the “One Volume Edition Artist Book”

The “One Volume” is an artist book project — limited edition book, which was suggested by Lan Qingxing, originated by Xue Tao, Zhao Leiming, Tao Jin, He Libin, Zhou Kaicheng, Zhang Jinxi, Yin Yanhua in the end of 2006 and accomplished together by artists live or sojourn in Yunnan.

The “One Volume” is a spontaneous and self-supported project of artist association, which organized by different artists every year before the Spring Festival. The fund is from the participators in a way of low-cost crowd funding. The curator group and the organizers are volunteers.

Since 2006, the “Volume” has planned by these artists alone or in group: Lan Qingxing, Tao Jin, Zhao Leiming, Zhang Jinxi, Lan Qinglun, Duan Yisong, Zhao Guanghui, He Libin, Xue Tao, Li Zhong, Zhang Xingwang, Wang Han, Zhou Kaicheng, Xian Ge, Duan Min, Shi Yudong, Gong Honglin, Yin Yanhua, Zhang Hua, Luo Fei, li Rui, Tao Fa, Sha Yurong.

Curator: Luo Fei

Organizers: Xue Tao, He Libin, Lan Qingxing, Tao Jin, Zhang Jinxi, Zhao Leiming, Liu Lifen, Qiao Lidan.

Book Designer: Zhou Kaicheng, Luo Fei

Graphic Designer: Nian Jinjun

Opening Time: 3pm, January 27th, 2018

Take “the group photo of artists and Kunming” at the opening.

Exhibition Time: January 27th to February 3rd, 2018 (Closed on Mondays)

Address: Block A, Jinding 1919 Art Area, No.15 North Jindingshan Road, Kunming

Tel: 0871-65385159

刘丽娟作品 Art works by Liu Lijuan

▎Artists in the Exhibition:

A Jun(Lijiang), A Nan(Dali), Ba Jiu(Lijiang), Bai Xuejuan(Gejiu), Chang Xiong(Kunming), Chen Fanyuan(Kunming), Chen Jiping(Kunming), Chen Jiawen(Kunming), Chen Rui(Kunming), Chen Shuyu(Kunming), Chen Yian(Kunming), Chen Yuyue(Kunming), Dai Danna(Jingdezhen), Ding Aichun(Kunming), Ding Zhangyu(Kunming), Dong Jie(Chengdu), Dong Xiang(Kunming), Dou Zi(Kunming), Efat Razowana Reya(Chittagong, BAN), Fu Meijun(Chongqing), Ge Han(Kunming), Ge Kai(Kunming), Gu Cha(Kunming), Guo Peng(Kunming), Hao Yu(Kunming), He Libin(Kunming), He Jinyi(Kunming), Hu Junqiang(Kunming), Hu Yajiao(Kunming), Huang Chengchun(Kunming), Huang Yuejun(Fuzhou), Jonathan Aumen(Virginia, USA), Jiang Lei(Kunming), Jiang Ruiyu(Chongqing), Jin Dawei(Kunming), Lan Qingxing(Kunming), Lan Pi(Kunming), Lao Er(Kunming), Laetitia Deschamps(Paris, FRA), Lei Ruo’a(Kunming), Lei Wei(Kunming), Lei Yan(Kunming), Li Zhiyang(Kunming), Li Ji(Kunming), Li Rongqiang(Kunming), Li Rui(Kunming), Li Shangwu(Kunming), Li Wanxuan(Kunming), Li Yingxing(Kunming), Li Zesong(Kunming), Lin Shanwen(Kunming), Liu Hejiao(Kunming), Liu Hesen(Guizhou), Liu Hui(Kunming), Liu Kaiyi(Kunming), Liu Lijuan(Wuhan), Liu Xianglin(Shenzhen), Liu Ziyi(Kunming), Lu Xiaotian(Kunming), Lu Jin(Kunming), Luo Bin(Kunming), Luo Fei(Kunming), Luo Wenming(Kunming), Luo Wentao(Kunming), Ma Li(Kunming), Ma Wei(Kunming), Megumi Shimizu(Kanagawa, JPN), Mo Ying(Alabama, USA), Mou Siyan(Kunming), Murong Yaming(Zhengzhou), Nian Jinjun(Kunming), Nie Taiyu(Kunming), Ouyang Heli(Kunming), Shank(Guilin), Shen Linxia(Wuhan), Shu Yang(Kunming), Song Ziping(Kunming), Su Jiashou(Kunming), Su Yabi(Dali), Sun Xunzhi(California, USA), Tang Zhigang(Kunming), Tao Fa(Kunming), Tao Jin(Kunming), Wang Bei(Kunming), Wu Yue(Kunming), Wu Jingmin(Chuxiong), Xia Hua(Oslo, NOR), Xie Xuan(Kunming), Xin Wangjun(Kunming), Xue Tao(Kunming), Xue Xiaoxiao(Kunming), Yan Renkui(Kunming), Yan Wan(Kunming), Yang Hui(Kunming), Yang Xiongsheng(Kunming), Yin Tianshi(Nanning), Ying Borui(Kunming), Yu Tingyang(Kunming), Zai Pengfei(Kunming), Zhang Chenshuo(Kunming), Zhang Hua(Kunming), Zhang Qiongfei(Angers, FRA), Zhang Zhujun(Beijing), Zhao Leiming(Kunming), Zheng Hongchang(Beijing), Zhou Kaicheng(Kunming), Zhou Yang(Kunming), Zhu Sirui(Xuanwei), Zhu Yaqin(Kunming), Zhu Jiuyang(Beijing)

Special Supported by: Tai Project, Qianxian, Jinfulou

curator Luo Fei on the opening speech

opening at Tai Project, Kunming

Exhibition of Not Yet Complete


— An Exhibition Review

By Luo Fei

In a room of the cultural space that has been adapted from an abandoned factory, there is a set of installation made of steel on the floor. It’s only as high as the knee, yet it almost filled the entire room. Audiences have to walk along the wall to go around it to observe it. Thick hemp ropes were tied tightly and neatly on the frame. The ropes went through the sleeves and pant legs of T-shirts and pants of different shades of green. They were from local second-hand market. They are either made stretched flat or slightly loosed hanging on the hemp ropes. The whole frame looked like a sturdy safety net, as if to catch fallen objects from the sky. From the knots on the frame and the ink marks whipped on the three pieces of paper exhibiting nearby, one can obviously feel the sense of power and determination.

As you get near this “safety net,” you could vaguely hear a low male voice (Chinese) and a crispy female voice (English) were reading something. Ah, it’s a poem – “Imaginary Routes”. It’s portraying a number of descriptive pictures, from the descriptions of open landscape quickly zooming in to narrations of the human condition. It’s a sound of self-reflection and contemplation. It seemed that the situation was tense. The contemplation and struggle that were hanging right above the earth was readily felt, like a very low cloud floated near from afar. The whole poem was hanged on the translucent paper next to the entrance to the “safety net”.

It’s a work by the Norwegian artist Sveinung Rudjord Unneland and the Danish writer Andreas Vermehren Holm during their stay in Kunming.

Also put on display were some Polaroid photos that Unirande and Holm took on the streets in Kunming. All of them were partially painted green, like the fences used to enclose the constructing buildings. It’s done in a way as if the city is always under construction – in fact that is the case. That is exactly what the exhibition is all about – a visible, never-finished world and an unseen and never-weary crowd in it.

In a society where social Darwinism is popular, life is bound to be an “Ascending Movement”. However, under the logic of the global capitalist economy, the people at the bottom always face the reality of being expelled. They are expelled from where they stay, where they work as well as their former life, and in turn they make a part of the creatures in the biosphere expelled from their habitat. Dignity is simply something too luxurious.

It seems that Unirande and Holm did not mean to present a tragedy, nor a hymn to praise the proletariat, but simply to outline, describe and examine the overall situation of mankind. It’s those who are at the bottom of the social landscape and put in the wide landscape that are interwoven, mutually constructed and stretched to form a solid “safety net”. Because everything will go back to the earth. And everything starts from here.

The exhibition combined the knowledge of the social framework and the contemplation related to existence, and mingled them with their visual forms and literariness. They formed a perceivable and readable passage that invites us to experience the inherent power of this “Descending Movement.”

December 6, 2017

Gao Xiang: Seeking an Eastern Method

Gao Xiang: Seeking an Eastern Method

Gao Xiang is a visual artist, a professor of oil painting at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts and a scholar of the modern Italian painter Giorgio Morandi
June 21, 2013, TCG Nordica Gallery
* This interview was published in the book To Start from Art by Shanghai Joint Publishing house in 2014, author: Luo Fei.

Gao Xiang, “The Dreams: To Feed The Tiger”, 160×120cm, Oil and Acrylic on Canvas, 2015

Luo Fei: I think that you are a unique artist in Yunnan. You paint oil paintings, carry out research and engage in certain cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural art projects. I remember when I first arrived in Kunming in 2000, you were making installations.

Gao Xiang: Right. Before 2000, I created a series of installations. I wanted to make transparent artworks connected to Ming dynasty furniture, which I did using Plexiglas. I was very enthusiastic about installation art at the time, but the artworks cost a lot to make. One table, including materials and labor, cost nearly 20,000 yuan.

Luo: Did you sell it?

Gao: It has remained in my studio (laughs).

Luo: At the time, there were quite a few Kunming artists engaged in installation and performance art, such as Xiang Weixing, Zhang Chongxia, Ning Zhi and Jiang Jing. It was around the year 2000 that performance and installation art were being spread around China, and a lot of young artists were drawn in. It seemed as if using these mediums gave the artists a critical, independent attitude.

Gao: I was very enthusiastic at the time. There was a sense of freshness to it. That experience was very important, and it provided me with inspiration in my painting, spurring me to deal with the relationship between space and painting, with such approaches as painting on Plexiglas.

Luo: Since 2005, you have been painting a series of horses on round pieces of Plexiglas.

Gao: Right. That is in order to explore painting in space. Making installation art brought me in contact with the third dimension, and so I started wondering whether or not painting could also touch space, rather than merely being hung on a wall. I had a good opportunity in 2005, which was to travel to Kirstiansand in southern Norway. It was a contemporary art event to celebrate the centennial of Norway’s independence. Artists from ten countries participated, and I was recommended by Nordica. The organizer wanted us to create outdoor artworks, and I was thinking I could paint on Plexiglas, that it would be really cool to integrate it with the plants in the garden and the sea in the distance. I gained the most that time from working for long periods with Western artists. I learned a lot about Western contemporary art by talking and working with them, and that gave me a true understanding and feeling for their conceptual and performance artworks.

Gao Xiang, “The Dreams: Who is The Doll”, 220 x 300 x 60cm, Glass,Acrylic,Aluminium Frame, Kristiansand, Norway, 2005

Luo: How do you decide what contemporary art is?

Gao: I think there are many basic factors in contemporary art. It can be judged in terms of time or subject matter, or in terms of the idea of the artwork or the medium used. There are at least three or four comprehensive factors through which one can judge whether or not something is contemporary art.

Luo: I remember you painted night scenes for a while.

Gao: Yes, it was called Why Have Night Scenes Become so Alluring? I painted it between 2001 and 2003. I painted this series of night scenes at the same time I was making installations. There were about twenty of them, and they weren’t very big. I was doing a lot of bar-hopping at the time, and I caught a certain feel for the scenes of the night. I wanted to express it.

Luo: How did you end up painting horses? The horse is a classic form in Chinese traditional painting.

Gao: Right. Many ancient and modern Chinese painters have painted horses, painters such as Xu Beihong[1] and Li Gonglin.[2] It was by chance, however, that I ended up painting horses. One day, when I was painting “dolls,” I suddenly added a horse to the picture. I think it was a subconscious experiment. It felt mysterious. I didn’t really know anything about horses at the time; I was just trying to create the atmosphere of the painting. Of course, now I have painted many of them, and my horses have taken on symbolism. Sometimes it is femininity, sometimes it represents nature and sometimes myself.

Gao Xiang, “The Dreams: Lookout”, 180x80cm, Oil on Canvas, 2010

Luo: In the Dolls series, we always saw the figures of “big women” together with “little men.” I don’t think we ever saw “little women” with “big men.” Why is that?

Gao: Actually, much like my decision to paint horses, I didn’t really think about it. It’s just that there were a few times that I painted the men a bit smaller, and it felt interesting. There was this sense of freshness that is difficult to describe. I then started painting the men smaller and smaller, and it was fun. It fit with the feeling I was pursuing.

Luo: What was the feeling?

Gao: Very comfortable, very harmonious, but with latent discord and contradiction. All of my works feel very comfortable and harmonious in terms of color.

Luo: There is a feel to your paintings that is poetic, dreamlike and somewhat dramatic. How do these three come together?

Gao: I think it may be connected to my life experience or my artistic experience. For instance, the sense of theatre or drama is connected to the Southeast Asian art project I took part in from 2002 to 2004 – the Mekong River Project.

Luo: Did you do stage design?

Gao: This was a project connected to the National Theater in New York and sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation. Each installment brought together about twenty artists from various regions and fields such as dance, music, cinema, theater, choreography, folk puppetry and visual art. For instance, in 2004, I went to Cambodia for a month with famous Yunnan dancer Wen Hui.

Luo: What was your role in this?

Gao: They didn’t actually care what I did. I ended up being a part of the performance.

Luo: You performed?

Gao: I can perform if I want, but I don’t think it’s one of my strengths. At first, I was having a lot of trouble, thinking about how to integrate painting into a temporal artwork, so I didn’t know what to do. Later, when they performed, I would sit to the side and paint, using light to project the painting onto a big screen. My painting would change to the music, the dance and the story, so that they would fuse together in time. These experience have extended onto my painting and now play a role in it.

Luo: Your art has been exhibited internationally quite a bit in recent years. What do Westerners think of your art?

Gao: They mainly think it’s interesting, seeing something they don’t often see.

Luo: The artist list for your last exhibition in Canada included the Gao Brothers, Zhang Huan, Gu Wenda and Cao Fei. Their works contain clear social themes.

Gao: Right. Last year, a group exhibition I took part in at a Paris gallery included works by Ai Weiwei, Cai Guoqiang and Sui Jianguo. Cai Guoqiang’s work is different, but the other artists’ works have heavy sociological elements, touching directly on social issues. The Canadian and French curators thought that my Dolls series contained concealed social issues, such as issues about gender status or psychological gender balancing. My artworks actually aren’t so direct. They are more of a psychological response and experience. The other artists might strike at issues more directly, while I propose my individual mental perceptions.

Luo: The attitude of your artworks is not so direct, and focuses more on visual perceptions such as aesthetics.

Gao: This is perhaps connected to my experiences learning art. I am obsessed with the ontological aspects of art, for instance artistic form, colors, modeling. Their abstract visual effect can influence human perception and emotion. Of course, this has been emphasized in modernist era artworks, but I think that this is one of the most alluring aspects of art, something that is close to the power of visual art itself. It is very important to me.

Luo: Compared to the conceptual, you are more interested in aesthetic experience and visual pleasure.

Gao: I think that the perception of artistic form can allow the artwork to speak for itself. Actually, something I have always wanted to do is see if I can fuse the aesthetic experience, conceptuality and sociology so that they speak together.

Luo: Who would you say is a good model for this?

Gao: In Western contemporary art, there is Mimmo Paladino, Enzo Cucchi, Anselm Kiefer and Luc Tuymans. Their work has achieved an appropriate integration between their experiences of contemporary society, cultural traits, personalized artistic concepts and artistic language. When there are only “concepts” without visual transformation or highly developed artistic language, then the resulting artworks are mere propaganda posters. If they are just textual concepts, then it is better to let the philosophers and sociologists write them. The artist’s work should employ the appeal of visual language.

Luo: Is your focus on artistic ontology what led you to research Morandi?[3]

Gao: Yes. His artworks are very important in terms of the ontology of art. Of course, he is also conceptual. I think that he is a rather successful modern artist in this regard. For instance, most people focus on the color, forms and linguistic rendering of the bottles, but through these, you discover that his concepts are connected to his religious faith. He was a very pious catholic. He went to mass every Sunday. He lived a simple life, like that of a monk.

Gao Xiang, “The Dreams: Trojan Horse”, 180 x 80cm, Oil on Canvas 2010

Luo: This is a lot like the traditional monastic painters of China.

Gao: Yes, but because of their different religions and worldviews, their starting points and resulting expressions were different. Morandi was more directed at God in the sky. China’s monastic painters were connected to Daoism and Zen, aimed more at nature, the fusion between man and nature or the wanderings of the individual. Morandi’s painting was aimed directly at God. These were highly religious paintings for modernism.

Luo: Did he carefully collect those bottles?

Gao: He did. He personally purchased over a hundred bottles and jars. When he brought them home, he would sometimes treat them. For instance, he would take a chocolate jar, and treat it according to the color he wanted, perhaps painting it white, blue or brown.

Luo: Were those bottles from his own time, or were they antiques?

Gao: They were quite normal, water jugs and chocolate jars.

Luo: This is quite different from Chinese literati. Literati figures had a tradition of collecting various types of vessels, such as porcelain vases and bronze vessels, and they cared a lot about their eras and origins.

Gao: I think that Morandi was actually a lot like Chinese literati painters. Some of the more refined literati painters paid much attention to the mundane, discovering truths within ordinary things. This is quite like Zen.

Luo: Which literati painters?

Gao: For instance, Bada Shanren[4] and the Four Monks[5] all painted very ordinary things around them such as squashes, vegetables, lotus flowers and birds. The things Morandi collected were very normal, part of ordinary life.

Luo: We can also see from Morandi’s living arrangements that he led a very simple life.

Gao: It was very simple, even for his three sisters. I have gone through their closets, and none of them owned a single brightly-colored dress. Few people visit his old home, and I was the first Chines person to do so; I may be the last as well (laughs). The house was very simple, no different from that of your average farmer. When he built this house in 1956, however, he was already a very rich man. He could have lived a very luxurious life. He had no material desires at all. When Museo Morandi was sifting through his library, they found many blank checks among his books. These were given by the buyers of his paintings. He could fill these checks out however he pleased, within certain limits, and redeem them immediately, but he was using them as bookmarks (laughs).

Luo: Within Catholic ascetic traditions, there is the belief that simplicity is wealth. The simpler your external life, the richer your inner life.

Gao: His later studio was a bit bigger, but it was still only 40 square meters. His earlier home in Bologna was only nine square meters, including his studio. His material life was very simple, but he enjoyed great spiritual wealth.

Luo: Let’s get back to your artworks. I think that your art has a certain Eastern quality.

Gao: Thank you for that complement (laughs). To me, that is quite a compliment. As a student and later as an artist, I have visited many Western countries, and I gradually came to understand that I must seek out inspiration from Eastern traditional ideas or aesthetics in order to create artworks with originality.

Luo: What experiences does this inspiration draw from?

Gao: The first source is aesthetic ideas. For instance, in traditional Chinese painting, you often find very lofty metaphysical meaning. Also, I draw from the figurative schemas of traditional Chinese art. These two things are both quite far from Western classical, modern and contemporary art. I think this is a good thing, particularly in this era of globalization. Without this distance, we would all become the same, losing the artistic value that is rooted in individualization. That is a fundamental view for me. From the East, I seek out forms, perceptual methods and inner spirit that differ from those in the West.

Luo: Give me an example.

Gao: For instance, Chinese painting focuses a lot on emptiness, which is quite different from Western aesthetics. Chinese people view the blankness in the picture as the sky or as water, but in reality it is just blankness. Westerners with no experience of Chinese traditional painting may think that it is an unfinished painting, a sketch, and that the blankness has no meaning. The Eastern tradition also places a lot of emphasis on aesthetic experience that transcends reality. For instance, very few Chinese paintings of the last 2000 years depict war scenes, but we all know that China was no less warlike in this period than any Western nations, with battles of great size and brutality that produced profound memories. The Chinese never expressed these brutal memories. Their expressions are of ideal states, even fairy realms that transcend this suffering.

Luo: You are saying that this spiritual mindset needs to be expressed in contemporary art.

Gao: Actually, this Eastern transcendent state is particularly precious in our increasingly materialistic and ever-accelerating contemporary society. This was done long ago in Japan and Korea, so many Western critics believe that Japan and Korea are today’s inheritors of Eastern Zen aesthetics. For instance, the Japanese Mono-ha School[6] approaches art from Zen philosophy. I think that Chinese contemporary art has paid little attention to this type of artistic path in the last twenty years.

Luo: This is connected to the overall progression of society. Japan and Korea completed the modernist transition of their societies long ago. China overall is still in a pre-modern period. The greater backdrop determines how far an artist can go.

Gao: I really agree with that. This is connected to the state of a society’s development. Of course, I’m not saying that any contemporary art that draws from Eastern philosophy is good, just that I think this path has value.

Luo: Let’s talk about life. You’ve been working in both Kunming and Beijing over the past few years. What are your impressions of these two cities?

Gao: I have a pretty big studio in Beijing, where I can paint large paintings. When I’m back in Kunming, I have a studio at the Yuan Xiaocen Museum, where I can paint smaller paintings. Beijing is China’s cultural center, and you can see world-class exhibitions and artworks there. But the natural environment in Beijing is very poor. It is very cold in the winter and very hot in the summer. Life is rough there. Kunming is very livable, very comfortable. You really feel like you’re living. But there’s a distinct lack of cultural exchange there. Beijing is a lot more vibrant.

Luo: Do you think that you create better art in Beijing or Kunming?

Gao: That’s an interesting question (laughs). I think that a little more than half of my best works are created in Beijing.

Luo: It would seem that artists need pressure (laughs).

Gao: Right. Beijing is full of passion, and it’s also constantly giving you stimulation and pressure.

Luo: Thank you for giving this interview. I really enjoyed talking with you today.

[1] Xu Beihong (1895-1953), originally Xu Shoukang, was a Chinese modern painter and art educator. A forefather of modern Chinese art, Xu was known not only for his paintings of galloping horses but also for his ability to fuse Chinese and Western painting techniques to create a unique artistic style.
[2] Li Gonglin (1049-1106) was a painter in the Northern Song dynasty. His surviving works include Five Horses and Herding at Lin Wei Yan.
[3] Gao Xiang, Quiet Observation of Space, People’s Fine Arts Press, 2011. This book researches the work of 20th century Italian painter Giorgio Morandi, seeking out the roots of his artistic style through analysis of his painting forms, artistic views and attitudes towards the world in order to assess the artistic value of Morandi’s paintings.
[4] Bada Shanren (ca. 1626-1705), born Zhu Di, was from Nanchang, Jiangxi Province, and lived during the late Ming and early Qing dynasties. Bada was a member of the Ming dynasty royal family and a famous painter, one of the “Four Monks” of early Qing dynasty painting.
[5] The Four Monks were four Buddhist monk painters from the late Ming and early Qing dynasty. All were adept at landscape painting and were highly expressive in their work. They preferred innovation over imitation. The four monks were Yuan Qi (also known as Shi Tao, 1642-1718), Zhu Da (also known as Bada Shanren, ca. 1624-1705), Kun Can (1612-1692) and Zhe Jiang (monk name Hong Ren, 1610-1664).
[6] Mono-ha was a Japanese school of modern art that emerged between 1968 and 1971.

Translated by Jeff Crosby