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Interview: James Elaine and Zhang Yuan (1)

(2008-12-03 12:08:34)
标签:

james

zhang

yuan

china

international

art

分类: 艺术家访谈

Venue: Zhang Yuan’s studio

Time: Oct. 2008

 

James Elaine short bio 2008

James Elaine is an artist and curator for the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. In 2008 he was the recipient of the prestigious Ordway Prize for his lifetime curatorial work, an Asian Cultural Council curatorial travel grant, and a Studio for Metabolic Sculpture Fellowship to live and work in China researching the art scene there. Since 1999 at the Hammer Museum he has curated over 70 solo projects and 3 large survey exhibitions for emerging artists, the latest being THING: New Sculpture from Los Angeles, 2005, which won the International Art Critics Association’s award for best thematic museum show of the year. His films and videos and drawings have been included in museum and gallery exhibitions, and international film festivals around the world. In the spring of 2008 Elaine relocated to Beijing to live and work.

 

Zhang Yuan (further annotated as Z): This painting is from the Liang Jia Dian series, which gets its title from the area I live in. Liang Jia means the place where armor is repaired and polished. Dian means village. It also has the meaning of the place to show power and force. In ancient times Liang Jia meant repairing and polishing armor. Liang can also be a verb, so it contains two meanings.

James Elaine (further annotated as J): One meaning is cleaning the soldier’s armor; the other is the power of the soldier. You mentioned earlier that the reason of naming this work, Liang Jia Dian, is because it is also a rubbish dump, correct?

Z: That’s right! They are all connected. This name has two meanings. From a geographic perspective it has no meaning outside of a geographical name. I live in this place and know it well. As a matter of fact, something happened here that has somewhat of a relationship with its name.

J: What is the connection between the double meaning and the geographical place? One painting seems to be rather literal; there is Stalin standing in the window of an old decaying building and the other painting seems to be less literal or more mysterious.

Z: I did not use a soldier deliberately but I do agree that there are different meanings hidden underneath the calm and simple surface. It seems that the place I chose has specific meanings, actually it does not. The place seems ordinary, but when you investigate further into specific conditions you may find some very unordinary aspects. I have lived here for many years so I understand that the reality here is more complex than what just meets the eye. For instance, looking at the Olympics I can see that common people can be easily incited. This has been nurtured by the education system they grew up with. Also, through the Olympics I feel that China has the mass base to produce another Cultural Revolution-like movement. This is possible because the people would accept such a thing. It is the problem of our programmed thinking processes. Stalin is just a symbol. I think his image, which is like a horrible nightmare, can be used to stir up unrest. For instance, the kindhearted uncle down the street may surprise everyone one day and suddenly change into a vicious man.

J: What do you think, as you say, a new “Cultural Revolution-like movement” might look like this time? Is it already happening?   

Z: It may be different from what my father’s generation experienced. But likewise it may also cause similar harm. Although the social condition at that time is different from now the foundation is the same and can trigger another movement with the same type of characteristics. I believe that the masses are susceptible to repeating the past and the social order could burst at the seams if there is too much pressure put on the people. From 1949 to the present, a half a century, what we were taught from our educational system mirrors the two meanings of Liang Jia Dian; on one hand you have the cleaning, which is the work of the laborer, and at the same time on the other hand something else is stimulated and produced. This is how I see it.

J: I am relatively new to China. But what I initially have seen, at least in Beijing and Shanghai, is a hyper stimulated economy and culture. I have also seen teeming millions of people of all types and social levels working around the clock. There must be a gulf growing between the classes but I have not felt any foundation for volatile change. I can see the building blocks but have not yet felt any unrest.

Z: It might be different this time. I have lived in many places with my parents during my childhood. I do not feel that here is any different. Through the Olympic fever that I have witnessed I can see that this kind of thing has always existed and can be stirred up by certain situations and forces. The masses can be manipulated and I believe that the government knows this. Through their long time educational approach, they know what they have cultivated and what they can achieve.

J: Many paintings and drawings of yours depict a man bearing a torch. It does bring to mind the image of the Olympics. National pride is soaring. Does this lone figure represent this fever you are talking about? What about the other works? Can you tell me a little about the iconography used in the different series?

Z: The works in the exhibition are of three different series. One is entitled “Nameless Shipping Company” whose central image depicts a certain interest group. This image contains an allusion that implies something that we know, a ship, and something that we, being common people, cannot know. We do not know what this company is doing behind its opaque steel walls. Similarly in life, people work and live and move about happily doing what they are told to do without question. They cannot think independently therefore cannot be truly independent.

J: Yes, very robot-like. This is a powerful image of authority and its ominous and      mysterious presence. A gigantic ocean vessel, floating walls of steel…

Z: However, we do not know what’s inside.

J: True. It is as fascinating as it is ominous. It is difficult to know its intent.

Z: I try to make it look like an overloaded car or truck on the street. I just use this form to describe the act of following without reason. You cannot see or figure out what is going on inside. The overloading gives you no insightful information and therefore is meaningless.

J: This is a typical Chinese day-to-day image. In English we would say that it is a   “loaded” image.

Z: This series is entitled “Stranger” and is about mysterious and unknowable figures (someone we can not get close to). They are not believable because we cannot understand who they are or what are their intentions. This painting is called “The Shot Car” which is not really an image that is familiar to our culture. It is not a part of our real life experience. It is not part of our society. This is an image that exists more in our imaginations and in film. It is out of my imagination.

J: Yes, this is an image that definitely exists in western film; a Hollywood icon that comes from a romanticized history of crime, even the struggle of the poor vs. the rich. But I do not think this painting is about that.

Z: That’s right! It is not only about the hatred for the rich. It is a psychological thing.

J: Now lets look at your new sculptural piece, the wooden room entitled “One Grain of Rice Breaks the Roof.” This is a simply but beautifully crafted room out of a natural wood. It is more like a closet than a room actually. When I entered the room I had several reactions, some were contradictory. The room is cozy and private and smells of fresh cut wood. There is a table and a chair and a child’s small painting inside. At first I felt very safe and happy, like a child in a secret chamber. Then I began to wonder how long could I remain in this room and it still be able to keep its charm. I noticed the windows had bars on them. It was hard to see out and I realized that I could be observed very easily from the outside looking in. Even though there was a table, a chair, some examination papers, and a painting there was nothing else, no tools to make my own art, no books to read; only one small closet sized room. I began to feel claustrophobic and perhaps imprisoned, and wondered what the room was all about.

Z: The carpenter was confused and felt strange about the room also. I told him that it was for my son to do his homework. He said I am too strict and that he could not understand this type of cruelty. In southern China there is an old saying that says, “a drop of grain can break a room.” It comes from a story about wisdom. In ancient times there were two persons that bet on who could fill up a room using the cheapest things in the shortest amount of time. One person used light to fill the room and put some small paintings on the wall. I based my room on this person’s solution to the contest. It is metaphoric. I will put in the room my son’s homework and exam papers for his first year of elementary school. Chinese education is so cruel. Students are driven to learn many things in school and to be responsive to the things the adults demand so that they become what their parents want them to be. I think this is so brutal and stunts a child’s natural growth. My son was very happy when I told him that I made a place for him to do his homework. This reaction contains two aspects both internal and external. People willingly accept a brutal reality in their lives, and are indifferent to their plight. I think this is wrong, but I cannot do anything about it. The carpenter could not accept what I told him but the fact remains and he can do nothing about it.

J: It is interesting that the carpenter could not understand your work and yet he and his children are in the same educational system you are describing. I guess that this illustrates well what you are trying to convey.

Z: My father died in 2005. He was around 30 years old during the Cultural Revolution. What he experienced was terrible. He was made to kneel down in public on a stage and then was kicked many times by others. I attended his funeral in 2005 but was not really upset by the loss. My childhood was so unhappy because he had been a harsh father. His suffering, because of the Cultural Revolution, caused him to be this way. He transferred his pain to me. As a matter of fact, I was indifferent when he died. Now, after 2 or 3 years I am so sad and want to understand why.

J: Yes, this story tells a lot about you and your work. I can feel sadness, separation, loss, confusion, and loneliness in your paintings. The past cannot be changed but within the present struggle to deal with this pain I feel great beauty and hope in your work. They are very truthful and powerful works of art.

Z: The title of this exhibition is “Imaginary Legend.” The works convey complicated states of mind and emotion. The imaginary situations, in fact, exist in reality but are filtered through my perspective and experience. I attempt to illustrate reality through the lens of the imaginary.

J: Your work has a very romantic air about it also. It is a very deep and personal account. Your life story parallels the history or media styled imagery in your paintings. It floats just underneath the surface.

Z: This one is entitled “Subtraction” and will be included in the exhibition. I made a stamp to mark my work; “2008 minus 1949 equals 59”. Chinese will celebrate anything with a feast, even without a reason. For me this is only a number in which I stamp my objects with. It is only a counting device like an accountant uses to count money. There is no other significance or celebration attached.

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