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Interview: James Elaine and Zhang Yuan (2)

(2008-12-03 12:13:33)







分类: 艺术家访谈

J: You have several types of work in your studio but all are linked together. What about the performance piece? How will it relate? Will you carry the wooden beam through the city into the actual exhibition?

Z: It depends. I think it is a little difficult to do that. If it cannot actually work in the exhibition as a performance then I will show it through documentation and drawings. Either way will be ok.

J: What do you want to convey? What really concerns you?

Z: I want to measure the space between the ancient and the present times by walking from one point to another and in this way to question how far our present credibility has come from long ago. As a pedestrian walks from one place to another I consider each step I will make as a question asking ”what’s the matter with us now.” This is my concern and the purpose of this performance. The government advocates credibility, but it is only a slogan to them. The word has lost it’s meaning and this has been exposed by the media and the things we see around us. Take the Olympics for example, the Chinese organizing committee publicly declared that the Beijing Olympics will be ‘green’ and will not disturb the local citizens. I do not know what the foreigners experience was, but the Chinese put everything they had into it! One example is the ‘odd and even’ policy for cars. This restriction for driving cars in Beijing put many individual enterprises at risk and many were closed down because they could not make enough money to carry on. This was a public disturbance because the normal citizen alone was responsible for the loss. The government promised one thing but delivered something else. We accepted it because we are used to this, but thinking about it after the fact we see the inherent problems.

J: The Olympics were spectacular! The opening and closing ceremonies were beyond belief. There were so many people performing and involved across the city. Were they all volunteers?

Z: They were all volunteers. But I think the government has no real credibility because they just pass the responsibilities and pressures onto us. The government can shame you into doing things. People can be easily used in this way. The Cultural Revolution is just another example.


 By the way, when we met last time I knew that you were the curator of Kara Walkers    first show in New York. I really love her work.


J: Yes, when I was the curator at The Drawing Center in New York I gave Kara her first major exhibition. She was such an incredibly talented young artist. When I first met her I immediately saw her great potential and invited her to exhibit.

Z: I think that she cares a lot about investigating history and the way she does it is so powerful and affective. I cannot read English but I can see that she cares about Black history, am I right?

J: Yes, you are right. Actually you both share a similar attitude and interest towards your own cultures and histories.

Z: I think many things should not be forgotten. But in China people tend to forget the truth and only celebrate the feasts.

J: How long have you been painting?

Z: I began drawing avidly as child. I studied fine art in University and graduated in 1989 and have not stopped drawing.

J: I know that you teach. Do you enjoy teaching?

Z: I like being a teacher but do not like the educational environment or system.

J: Can you teach the students what you want to teach?

Z: It is not that easy. Many students do not like drawing. They chose to study art because they were told in Middle School that they could pass the college entrance examination more easily through art. For the four years of studying in the University not more than 10 students in each of the 30 person classes really love art.

J: Unfortunately, this may be true in any field. I may go to 20 artist studios or see 20 exhibitions but only 2 or 3 are truly new and engaging to me. It is just the way it is. Nonetheless teaching is an important part of being an artist and you never know whose life you might change in the process.

Z: That’s right! You find out that you cannot teach most of the students what you want to teach, and then they do not know what they want to do anyway.

J: Have you made sculpture before this exhibition?

Z: I never did, but I have made installations before.

J: Do you like film?

Z: I like it extremely. I have collected several thousand films.

J: Your work has a cinematic feel to it.

Z: I also like comics and have drawn them for a long period of time.

J: Chinese? American? Japanese?

Z: I like European (French) and American comics, such as Sin City by Frank Miller and the French artist Moebius’s Lieutenant Blueberry, etc…

J: Tell me about your ideas for the exhibition “Imaginary Legends.”

Z: My most recent plan is to show a film but I do not think I can finish it in time because it is too huge of a project. The film would just show the hands of someone carefully making a plastic model like they were caring for a pet.

J: It is exciting to see you experimenting in different ways to investigate your subject. You are expressing the same thing through different mediums and each time you do   that something new is revealed.

Z: From one perspective it may seem too disorganized having so many different mediums, but in fact I think it would be more disorganized by only exhibiting one way of working.

I have told Hai Tao (director of Platform China Contemporary Art Institute) that I believe that the artist should not be considered as special. As a person, I only voice my opinions. I do not believe that I should tailor what I want to do to fit a certain format or mold or to meet certain expectations.


From my perspective this is how I want to approach my upcoming exhibition. I do not want to be too predictable and show work that is too easily pigeon holed as ‘Zhang Yuan.’ I hope that people understand what I am thinking and trying to convey. I want the conceptual components of my work to be the form instead of the form itself.


J: Explain to me more the reference you made earlier about Liang Jia Dian and the exhibition.

Z: It is said that the government will build a rubbish dump for 600 million RMB, which will be very close to the Min Yuan channel. The people in the surrounding area and NPC members are all against it. This situation has been going on for a long time. The citizens often post papers to inform everyone what is really going on. In the newspapers the experts say that it will cause no harm. But even the mention of “harmlessness” makes us worried. We can smell the disgusting odor. It is strange though that I am really not fearful about it at the moment. The people who have lived there longer than me are calm and unconcerned. It seems ridiculous but when I smell the horrible odor the image of Stalin comes to mind. Maybe it is because I am used to filtering the world through my imagination?


By the way, a calm and innocent surface can hide a dark and ominous thing. The rubbish dump can also contain carcinogenic materials that can harm the channel. In my point of view it is not important to build a big marvelous stadium. The place where I live has never changed until now. I am afraid to even open the window. At night I get out of bed to close the window when I smell the nasty odor.

J: What do you think will happen in your community or in culture at large? In the end we can never really make huge changes in life but only do our small part. If people have the ears to hear then they will understand.

Z: En. That’s it… I think others can hear the humblest voice even though it comes from a powerless community. But I mean more than the concept of “listen.”


My mum said to me several times that it was so fortunate that I was only a 5-year-old child at the time of the Cultural Revolution. If I had been a 17 or 18-year-old adult I might have been killed. She witnessed many people’s deaths. When I saw the people beating my father I was powerless to do anything about it. I was so young and afraid. They were all around 20 years old and had blank expressions in their eyes. The fragments that remain in my mind are: the winter night, someone breaking into my home, freezing cold, my brother and I being picked up from our bed…I still fear these images. Why am I afraid? I think it is because of the horrible potential of mass frenzy. People were blindly operating in a mass fever the same way people are operating now; economic frenzy, material frenzy…etc.

What is culture for? Who builds it? Nobody. Isn’t there any other option or voice? For now it is ‘shameful’ to stop the economic boom. An old saying goes like this “laughing poor rather than prostitute,” which has some similarities to our present situation. For such a huge country why are people so single minded to do one thing? I think there are some problems here. Now, many people chose to be the streetwalker in order to improve their lives economically. Which is the same type of fever as the political fever before. It is all under the same flag, this is the problem.

J: Is this the same China of the Cultural Revolution?

Z: I think China has not changed. It cannot prove to be changed by just economic     development. The change I referred to is not material. People now only have new things.


The focus is different in every period. We see the harmfulness of the past century, and in the future we may see the harmfulness of today. It is a good thing to improve living conditions, but what about the spiritual condition? Thatcher said that China can hardly influence the world because China has no thinkers. We have nothing to say to the world. We have thinkers but they are from 2000 years ago.

J: Earlier you mentioned culture. What is Chinese culture or identity?

Z: Culture is a diversified thing rather than a single thing. It is environmental, a spiritual resting place. Identity is all around us too, like the air. It is diverse and everywhere. 

J: Yes, it is rather abstract. I think culture does have a face related to time and place, but I do not necessarily know how to describe it.

Z: It should be looked at by period because you do not know what the culture will finally be like from age to age.

J: What do you think about the current situation of Chinese contemporary art and the fact that many Chinese artists are now becoming quite wealthy?

Z: I am very depressed about current Chinese contemporary art. Some of my friends say that Chinese contemporary art is failing. I agree with them. The standard now for successful Chinese art is to become rich. The reason I think the current art is depressing is that it is irresponsible. You can see the elegance, indifference, and clever wisdom in it but you can hardly find any responsibility, spiritual power, or charm of individual personality. Compared to the reality of the times it only looks like a child’s lovely painting. When success is weighed by wealth and material gain the nations spirit will become impoverished. Then I think even the common people are only left with envy. It is a question about values.


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