The Growth of Concepts : Conversation between Xu Bing, Yin Shuangxi and Feng Boyi
Yin: Time passes fast. In an instant, 15 years have gone. In the last 10 years, the changes, both domestically and internationally, have been enormous. It’s public knowledge that you are internationally one of China’s most successful artists. At overseas universities, experts hold symposiums about you, and many PhD students do theses on your work. But academic circles at home know very little about you, with very little genuine academic exchange. I think we need to look back on the last 10 years and get a thorough understanding of your work and your thinking.
The best art cleaves to some kind of “core concept.” More than 10 years ago, you introduced “plurality” to domestic print art circles. This is such a core concept. By the time of last year’s annual higher education print making conference, there were many theses on “plurality,” indicating that it had become a structural component of understanding in print art circles. As I have said, this is like the concept of a seed. It can grow and flower in different places. It is something that possesses a deep-rooted possibility of spreading. If an outstanding artist can provide something structural and seed-like for the times, then, as in the thinking of Duchamp, he can develop many things.
The Central Academy of Fine Arts has already engaged you as a visiting professor. If you have the opportunity, you should return to academia and have an exchange of ideas with young people. There are elements of traditional Chinese philosophy in the background to your thinking and the structure of your knowledge – this is its basis. Moreover, modern art increasingly seeks big dramatic events with active visual results. The tendency is that international biennial art exhibitions are increasingly about entertainment – fun to visit and see. Visitors at the biennial international festivals can hear, see, move around and play, as if modern art has become a feast to be enjoyed. But, without pursuing reflection, it gives us only an immediate and showy beauty.
Xu: I think [Yin] Shuangxi’s ideas are good. You excavate something in the form of a seed. Basically, it’s just one thing. But what is this thing? For example, last time we met, you asked me whether I was willing to come back for a short time and give some talks. At the time I thought, if it would have practical benefits and time permitted, I was willing. Why is that? Speaking directly from my feelings, my experience, I feel that after so many years and in so many places, being involved in artistic production and activities, my contact with the art world, and including my cultural conflicts and all kinds of problems up until now, then at the very least I have gained plenty experience. You think, how do you tell a young artist roughly how to travel this road and become a good artist? This is not talking about being a great artist but how to frame yourself as an artistic worker. I say this because the stuff that a lot of people are doing looks pretty much like art, but actually has no relation to art – it’s something completely different from the stuff of art. For example, if I take a work space with several young people, and have the responsibility of taking them from being youths who like art to a place in which it is easier to develop and connect with the heart of art, content-wise, this touches on two things. One concerns modern art itself, its rules, and this is something that most people, well, everyone, is not clear about. The other is how do you make it a practical and orderly operation? This is because it forms a narrative, a system, and the more you participate in it, the more experience you have of it and how everything relates to each other within it, and in what ways it is appropriate to maintain a distance. These are things that can be sought, grasped and passed on to young people, helping them avoid a lot of obstacles and wasted time. For example, whether you persist in painting or not, I feel that for a lot of people there’s not simply one problem. A lot of mind-power and time is consumed by non-essential problems, and they cannot get at the genuine heart of the matter. I think that art school graduates all have some skills. They want to paint or experiment or do installations – they are interested in new things. But they still cannot grasp the relationship between art, culture and society. They don’t know what it means to be an artist. They are uncertain of what to do when they enter society. When I was a student, Yuan Yunsheng said something that has left an impression on me to this day. He said: “A good artist can make do wherever he is.” The “good” in this possibly refers to someone who has gone through the process of understanding the rationality of art.
Yin: The problem now is that creativity in contemporary art is extremely dynamic, but Chinese art schools basically don’t teach any of its methods, procedures, skills and concepts. For example, in early 1994, in your work A Case Study of Transference, at the Han Mo Arts Center, I was there from start to finish, and it was the first time that modern art had given me a sense of being there. It was totally different from the feeling you had of reading a typical picture. This made me conscious of how you need to enter the scene of contemporary art, experience its process. You can see the development of the work, but you cannot anticipate the direction in which it will develop.
Xu: In its fundamentals, this work is very similar to my others. They all carry a kind of reply to the connection between culture and people. They de-familiarize the viewer, make them feel uncomfortable and awkward. If you watch the recordings of it afterwards, the expressions of the people viewing it are very interesting. It’s actually a verification of people’s limitations, and that’s a burden that culture gives them.
Feng: After, I asked Xu Bing, why did you a series of animal “experiments?” He said, there are two kinds of animals in the world: One kind is humans who have been tattooed with culture, and another is life that has not been tattooed with culture. He wanted this kind of relationship, conflict and divergence.
Yin: As you just said, I tried to understand the inner connections between this work and Book from the Sky – this kind of culture, the traces of civilization, including the letters you wrote on the bodies of the pigs, including your painted donkeys at the Guangzhou Triennial, also your use of cigarettes to leave burns on Along the River During Qing Ming Festival. If there’s a connection between these things, it is that people, though their application and activities, leave traces on everything in the natural world. They feel they’ve basically changed it, and do they feel any doubts about this thing? In other words, can this powerful force of culture change everything?
Xu: What we’re discussing is not whether this powerful force of nature can change anything, but rather the uses and limitations of culture in certain relationships. A lot of my works have a connection with the concept of “tattoo.” Actually, we’ve all been tattooed; we’re all camouflaged by culture.
Feng: Xu Bing says he has always been doing these contrary things. Actually, the zebra-donkeys are not directed at the fabrication of the present, but rather as you just said the tattoo of culture – being concealed by culture.
Yin: That’s an extremely good way of putting it. Human beings are cultural animals. They are actually all tattooed by some kind of culture. It’s not on our bodies, but it’s in our blood, our bones, in our views and thinking. When we see animals behaving unnaturally, we’re actually acculturated, and it’s an expression of our shame at the tattoo of culture. If we were primitive tribal people, we would perhaps not be uncomfortable.
Xu: My works are particularly useful for intellectuals. But for people with no education or those with low levels of knowledge, they are not a very effective weapon.
Yin: There was a rumor at the time that an editor at Joint Publishing wanted to find a character that he recognized in Book from the Sky. In the end, he couldn’t find one and when he left he fell sick. This illustrates how your weapon is more shocking for those with knowledge and culture.
Xu: No matter whether it’s animals or letters, there’s a narrative running through my art that is like a challenge to existing ideas. Why use written language? Written language is a fundamental element in human culture. The transformation of written language is the transformation of something most fundamental to human thought. Why also use animals? These two things are completely different, because animals are the most representative of the non-acculturated. It’s opposing and explaining something from a different perspective.
Yin: It’s a return to principles. Sometimes, if you don’t have this thinking that seems to surpass conventions, you will get lost in them. They use the perspective of knowledge and culture to explain everything. You have to tell them that the things they rely on are worth having doubts about. But when they use this kind of knowledge structure to explain your stuff, they end up making your work mysterious and are drawn in like that.
Feng: Sometimes I think, why did Xu Bing do Where Does the Dust Collect? He feels like the origin of all culture is the written word, that written language is a basic element of culture. As a result, his dust is the most elemental thing in the material world. The vastest things, once destroyed, are dust.
Xu: That’s true. Dust is the most basic, fixed element. It cannot be changed. How is it that the Twin Towers were ultimately brought to the ground? It’s because they had a peculiar relationship with the structure of material things. They gathered together too much of the energy of material things. Actually, that’s not normal. They were man-made, capitalist, using material elements and becoming a vessel of the material. This thing is like a reminder in the dead of night – that all things return to their natural state.
Yin: Can we say this, that the theme of this work, Dust, is not simply anti-terrorism, but is aid to reflection on the basic nature of the material.
Xu: It’s definitely not about anti-terrorism. It’s an inquiry into the relationship between the material and spiritual worlds and our attitude in knowing the world. Actually, events, the animate and written language are all material and methods. Even though everyone uses the written word, what each of them says with the written word is different.
Yin: Talking of the written word, starting from Book from the Sky, in a process of defamiliarizing the writing system, your works almost never allow people to recognize a single word. Then, in your New English Calligraphy, you fuse the two systems, as if creating your own written system for general use. The former takes us from understanding to not understanding. The latter takes us from not understanding to understanding. Other people can understand your New English Calligraphy. Moreover, in some aspects, it can be taken as a new system of symbols and propagated as a new world language. I don’t know how many people there are in the world learning and researching your New English Calligraphy. Although you use an imitation classroom and it is unknown whether there will be a popularization of New English Calligraphy, there are certain people using it. It’s like when we talk about “cyber speak.” It’s incessantly flourishing and disappearing. Of course, more languages disappear than flourish. To create a language and popularize it is a very difficult thing. Esperanto has been around for decades, but only several million people use it. I know you’re not trying to start from scratch and create a new cultural system beyond the written words, but why do you have this persistent interest in the written word? Putting it simply,
Xu Bing’s works that involve the written word remind us that, from person to person, writing is a systemic instrument of communication, and it is something we should be extremely suspicious of. Does it promote exchange for humanity? Or at some level is at an obstacle to exchange for humanity?
Xu: What you have just said about the relationships between thought, language, the written word, including the doubts about language and so on, these are all important questions in contemporary philosophy and many people are discussing them. For this reason, Book from the Sky and New English Calligraphy, works like this, have received a lot of attention – they’re all related.
Yin: For example, in one exhibition, you have traditional Chinese characters suspended, floating, solid – half characters, half sculptures. On a flat surface, they seem to jump out, but in the air they float. It integrates with traditional Chinese painting, but also the painting projects something, and I think this has many implications. Whether it is my cultural background that prompts me to think a lot, or whether you really thought through these things, or whether you did it simply, I think of it as complex. What was your thinking in this deconstruction, rendering Chinese characters as objects?
Xu: Maybe you need to talk in the context of every work. Some of my later works have a connection with hieroglyphs. It’s like that special narrative that takes you back to the fact that Chinese characters derive from pictograms. I became increasingly interested in this, and if you follow that trail you can touch something very basic in our culture. This experiment began with my Nepal “plunge into life” trip. For the first time in ages, I took a sketch pad with me, but I couldn’t imagine sketching as before. As it happened, I quite naturally sketched with Chinese characters. What struck me most deeply was, as I sat on the mountain looking at a real mountain and wrote the character for mountain – shan – I actually was drawing that mountain. You are testing and verifying the relationship between cultural expression and nature, and ultimately you discover that everything you rely on in the system of expression in your culture cannot measure against the variety and abundance of nature. You’ve come up against dislocation and limitation. But in this “moment” of drawing you have touched the culture and thinking of China. Calligraphy and painting are the real fountainhead of culture. In an instant you feel like everything you have formerly discussed about calligraphy and styles of painting is actually uninteresting, just a game of cultural thinking and analysis. You feel the style you are working in is the most direct, the most authentic, with no reference to cultural forms – the most reasonable action and style in comparison to references and rules.
Yin: Can we think of it this way: That this work you’re doing has some kind of significance in terms of a return to purity and simplicity. To put it another way, when people have developed to a certain level in terms of epistemology and methodology, they again return to the known world and the origins of culture. In a sense, your work is very contemporary, but it also points to a kind of recall of the essence of historical knowledge. Foucault referred to the “archeology of knowledge.” He explained how knowledge becomes possibility, and where the basic legitimacy of human knowledge systems come from. We never wonder whether the ground we stand on is stable, or whether the education and knowledge we receive is trustworthy. From primary school to university, all the knowledge we learn is helpful, of help to us. We seldom turn things on their head and think about whether certain knowledge smothers our instinctive ability to really see things. As the weight of human knowledge accumulates, do we become more and more intelligent, progress and develop, or do we become more and more distant from basic principles? As I understand your work, you are pushing aside layer up on layer of the wrappings of knowledge, seeking out something at the kernel of knowledge.
Xu: I often say that my logos works are like a library, but a library that is difficult to use. Usually, written words are put to use after having been transmitted, communicated and exchanged. But my written words and intercepted, regressive and not communicated, so as to have the effect of throwing normal lines of thought into disorder. They’re like a computer virus, but in the human brain they temporarily cause thought to no longer work. People’s thinking is lazy. They are used to processing things in terms of knowledge and concepts they already have. For example, what is a book? It’s something you can flip through and get knowledge from, and that is what people recognize them in terms of. My works like to create an obstacle for you, forcing you to face a new challenge to your knowledge and conceptions. The most typical is the work, New English Calligraphy. This is because you have knowledge of what Chinese is and what English is, but both concepts are no use.
Yin: What you have just discussed is method. Your works are all some kind of obstruction – they stutter, stop and start. Ordinary people follow the current of history, as if on a boat naturally coursing downstream. But when they enter your works, they always hit obstacles – if not a dam, then rapids – sometimes even forcing them to abandon ship and go to shore, or to cross a mountain in order to go on. This forces people to recognize that, beyond the inertia of the road, what they know and their relations with the world need new channels and methods. It’s as we have said, you compel people to crash and carry out a forced reboot.
Feng: But this kind of forced reboot is an attempt to find another space, to change to another pattern of thought.
Xu: When you are reconnected, it lets you open up more space and possibilities for thought.
Yin: Otherwise you feel everything is too smooth and you overlook a lot of possibilities, just taking your road to its conclusion. I wonder whether your work points to obstructions in the linkages of the modern age that need to be reattached. It’s only if we constantly break and reconnect this multi-element intersection that we can produce many connections we couldn’t think of before.
Xu: It’s very likely it would bring some flexibility to fixed cultural habits, inertia of thought and knowledge structures. Flexibility brings chinks, and with that comes new space. A typical example is that winners of cultural awards in Japan are required to carry out some activities for the public good. I went to a primary school to teach the children how to write these kinds of characters. When I got there, I asked them what I was there to do that day. They said that I’d been invited to teach them how to write these characters. I said I had not come to teach them how to write these characters – what I hope is that in the process of writing these characters you open a space to think, and recognize anew the space in which you have learned the knowledge you have. After class, the teacher let them each say how they felt about the experience. Japanese children tend to be more polite, but what they had to say was still really interesting. They said that in all their years of studying this was the day that reaped the greatest rewards, because from this day on they now knew that everything they thought could be thought about from another perspective. Things didn’t necessarily have to be only considered in terms of what the teacher taught and what was in the books. They said that from that day on how they looked at things had changed.
Yin: I also have that feeling, and that includes the inspiration of having this conversation today, as if I’m looking at the world in a new light. People feel that everything is right and proper, that this is definitely how things should be, but after being enlightened by an artist they discover that things can be opened up – I can be something other. To take an example: many people have been inspired by you and have created new calligraphies and fonts. It is not impossible to do, and for you this is good – you deconstruct the things that we are accustomed to.
Xu: Actually, the more you transform things people are used to, the more irritated they become. It’s the things we are used to, that are as they should be that we don’t recognize as having other possibilities. The familiar is the edge of the razor.
Yin: It’s like saying, if you are in an unfamiliar place, in order to live, you’d think through everything and employ every resource. But if you are in a very familiar environment, your way of life is relatively unfaltering, and everything becomes natural. It’s like, you call it a “tattoo” – let me put it another way and call it “domestication.” Human beings are not only evolving; they are also being domesticated by culture.
Xu: Actually, there’s no problem with so-called culture or written words. They’re just things we’re familiar with. These accustomed things are what people believe the most, things they accept without any thought, things they approve. Take Book from the Sky: Why did I have to print it out and make it so real? It’s because people think that things that are printed are things that can be trusted – it’s official, it can’t be spoken against. Why did I choose the songti font? It’s because it’s the most common font and has the least character and style.
Yin: This raises a question. It’s like as you just said before, your stuff before was more literary, and you want to seek something more direct. It’s because you too live within culture. You are not from the moon or a primitive society, and you are soaked in knowledge structures yourself. We’re all soaked in civilization. In this situation, you are trying to make people rethink things through your work. But you have two methods you use. One is to use cultural structures to culture, and the other is to use non-cultural structures to culture, using a kind of more pristine, non-cultural, un-cultural, anti-cultural method to express something.
Xu: In broad conceptual terms, you need to understand what it is that artists do and understand the relationship between art and culture, and understand what kind of art has value. It’s like avoiding being surrounded in the game of Go. I think this is important. A work’s value reposes in this issue – it’s something that humanity can never touch, and in this way your work will never be surrounded by those who come after you.
Yin: Right, in terms of art history, can you have a resilience of effect, and this relies on whether it can produce correlating connections for others. Everybody is in history, following in its wake, and people return to it, think about it, talk about it. Just take Duchamp. After all these decades, why fear criticism or abuse: he has to be taken as an island that cannot be encircled, and this is what attracts me to your work.
Xu: The ideas of a work have to be particularly strong, particularly exquisite. Achieve this and there’s an artwork. Other things are unimportant. If it has this, a work can be quite plain; the externalities can become simple. I’ve never particularly considered materials and style – I’ve never worried about that. Artists that worry too much about materials will never have any great success. If you don’t worry about materials, styles or schools of art, there will be no limitations to your art.
Yin: Could it be put this way: For young artists, I suggest it’s best not to lock yourself into being an artist of any medium; slowly make your materials and tools a way of thinking that reflects your being.
Xu: That’s where limitations come in – he can’t really find the things he is really interested in. Many artists conceal what is truly special about themselves through their materials.
Yin: A frame can bring him rewards, but it might also hold him there. He doesn’t know anywhere else, so it can be a place to hide. You love your fate because this point at which it opens up, but actually you are trapped, and the majority of people are in this revolving place, like a blindfolded horse working a mill.
Xu: In terms of logic and what we have just been talking about, everyone knows that this point is important. But at the same time it’s also very abstract. How do you grasp it? It lies in how sensitive to and how a person judges contemporary culture.
Yin: For example, in your creative work is modern news and information more important, or is it how you read and consider history, or is it a direct feeling for life that is more important? It’s obvious that news is an important resource, but can we only cleave to contemporary news?
Xu: When we get to this, it starts to get interesting. How do we seize something strong like this? My approach is, first of all, I don’t think that art in itself is important. I don’t demand that my works have a place in art history, or limit them to such. The scope of art itself is narrow. If your think is all inside the field, and your work in this line, you will remain on the surface of things. This is because the path needs t o be supplemented with other content. In recent years, the few things I’ve liked the most have not been done by artists. For example, several years ago, a friend of mine who loves computers said that within three years he would make it possible to resolve all shopping needs via the internet. His actions attracted a lot of attention and followers in internet circles and from big companies. I think this is contribution to future generations and it was an extremely valuable experiment. The material and form were simple and close to life. Isn’t this better than the actions or works of any artist?
Feng: If you want to play a role in art, you cannot be within art itself.
Xu: I hope that my work is not art itself. I’ve emphasized before, what you do, you need to have a need to do it. This need is that it has a benefit for humanity, or has a use for human thinking, or because nobody has done it and possesses original creativity. These are the only things worth doing. As for what it is, whether it is art, I don’t even consider it. As long as there’s life in your hands and what you’re doing has qualities, then there’s reason to throw your energy and time into it. And another thing – an attitude I have: wherever an artist lives, he has to confront the problems of that place. If there are problems, there is art, and that is a reason for work. This is how I see work. It’s because there are problems wherever you live that there will be no uncertainties about your art or worries about the style of your art.
Yin: Thinking about this for a moment, these considerations – isn’t this line of thinking leading us down into classical philosophy, including Hegel’s essence of phenomena? You know that the post-modern movement of structuralism maintains a skeptical attitude towards essentialism, and this includes historical determinism. Actually, as I see it, your thinking is very open, and doesn’t present an appearance of being binary. But we also cannot but admit that the world’s knowledge is not evenly distributed and it is not completely equal. Undoubtedly, there are aspects that are important and aspects that are not. As we just discussed, there are things with lifeblood and things without. In real life, there are things of urgency and things not. We have value systems and we can make judgments. So, at this point, how do you resolve these limitations? One is that anything goes. In contemporary art, there are some people who will say, I don’t demand profundity, I don’t want essence, I only want appearances to create popular culture or American culture. All we need is to put phenomena in place and that will do. But if we look at it in terms of European thinking or German philosophy, it has to move from phenomena to essence, and in this way doesn’t society become an obstacle to our knowledge? How do you resolve this epistemological binarism and the contradiction of opening up different spaces to diversity?
Xu: This is an interesting question. Actually, when I made that point, I didn’t rule out any possibility. There’s no single explanation of phenomena and essence. We can wrap up the issue of a phenomenon by taking it as essence. Look, Andy Warhol’s works started out as phenomena, became popular as manufactured pictures for the masses. All his work was a kind of phenomena, but in the end, his work and behavior was all accomplished on a basis of profound thought. His phenomena carries profundity. For me, what’s amazing about Warhol is that he was a great thinker. He was definitely a man of thought. He could grasp the phenomenal nature of modern society in the relations between contemporary culture and commerce and in the interstices of modern and classical. He revealed the essence of contemporary society. In his consideration, there was definitely no one consideration of phenomena and essence. His tight grasp on phenomena was his essence. In a word, in that age, and unlike other artists, in terms of that society and world, he was something unique, somebody who saw things the most for what they were. For this reason, there are no limitations to his work – whatever worked was alright.
Yin: Perhaps I’m being a little persistent, but I think you’re an artist of the academy. Your creative work and everything you do, when you look into it in detail, has cultural history running through it. In your assessment, Warhol was an artist of great thought. He took his insight into the world and expressed it uniquely in the form of art. In this sense, the artistic freedom he won was rather like the freedom of Picasso, throwing himself into all kinds of artistic endeavor, wasn’t it?
Xu: I think he was more like Duchamp. Duchamp shares many similarities. Duchamp in his time also saw deeply the relationships between art and culture, the limits of art itself and its uncertainties. Much of his output was from within irresolvable obstacles and vicious circles; he was playful and yet a thinker. In terms of art, his focus was on finding a way to talk, to speak your thoughts, because the thinking is new and hasn’t been spoken before, or no one recognizes it, so your language has to be completely new and spoken in a unique way. This is a new artistic narrative. There are many thinkers, but thinkers are not artists. The difference between a good artist and a bad artist is in whether they can find a unique way to speak.
Yin: Could we say this, that your thinking and other people’s thinking, in a certain way, touches on problems common to humanity, but when you express them specifically, as an artist, you are completely different to others.
Xu: It’s precisely because the concepts and ideas you want to express are new, demanding things that are absent from the current database of language, that a new language of art appears. This problem is not one of materials but a problem of artistic methodology. What is contemporary art? It is the sensitivity of artists to their conditions, which leads them to transform old artistic methodologies. It doesn’t matter how deep your thinking is; if you cannot offer up this kind of new artistic methodology, you are not a good artist.
Yin: You perhaps haven’t taken the responsibility of reforming old artistic systems and methodologies, or of painstakingly reforming old systems. But in being distinctive and expressing clearly your view of the world, you effect a systemic transformation of the old, with elements of challenge and creativity within it. When we talk about so-called creative elements, we perhaps are not talking about creativity of material, language or style, but a methodological experiment. If you have this, what you use is sufficient.
Xu: When you have thoughts and feelings you have no choice but to express (why have you no choice but to express? It’s because they’re new), you have to find a method that you have no choice but to use. This perhaps never existed before, or perhaps you borrow something that existed before, or a form of expression from another field. It’s as you just said – I think it’s alright to use any cultural resources, and this will vary from person to person.
Yin: Regarding the choice of resources and materials for creative work, it seems as if there shouldn’t be any grading. It absolutely shouldn’t be that if you choose the resources of Chinese tradition that you are conservative, or that because you choose the materials of foreign contemporary that you are progressive.
Xu: Back in the early days, when I was teaching, I kept a notebook, and it was very helpful for me. At the time I wanted to get it clear just how artistic inspiration and thoughts happened. At one stage, I put down all my thoughts. For example, this cup: what kind of artwork did I want to do and what was the flow of my thoughts. As objectively as I could, in that moment, I recorded all my thoughts. After doing this for some time, I discovered that this thing creativity was an organic whole with everything within and without, before and after, and this leads to the value of art, in that it cannot be falsified. What was really interesting at that time and left me with a deep impression was that if I thought of doing a work, in that moment all my thinking would come into play, rather as in a game of chess, where the board is full of blank spaces and in a twinkling your mind fills them.
Yin: Not a piece has gone onto the board, but you’ve already filled in all the squares with your foresight and quick wits.
Xu: Yes. It happens in a twinkling. But if you want to think back on that moment and write it down, you’ll be writing a lot down. This thing is very authentic. I remember, when I thought about this thing in that moment, including what its fate would be, I would immediately think about its size, dimensions, orientation – its points of correlation with the work of whoever. All your knowledge, everything stockpiled, all bubbles up in affiliation with this imagined work. For example, if today this cup moves you, then all your experience of cups will come to life, including whose work involves cups. To what extent does this reach? Will one cup do, or do I need 1,000 cups? Why 1,000 cups? And so on. Not to mention everything related in your knowledge, in culture, in literature. It also includes your character, and whether you want it to be more contemporary or less contemporary. Actually, it’s all an expression of your character judgment, as in the clothes you wear. In that moment, everything within and without your personality is there and everything has to be answered. This is what finally determines what the work will be. Basically, you can say, what do you possess – how much information; how much learning; how much experience? This and your taste will all leave traces, and it cannot be falsified. Your thought connections are numerous, as are your feelings and your knowledge. The chess board is big, and it has to be filled.
Yin: Listening to your words, I’m now have some confidence in my assessment of contemporary art. As for contemporary works of art, if we take another view on it, the heroic spirit or villainy, the simple honesty or bluster of the artist will always be visible in the work. It’s as if we can also analyze contemporary works of art in terms of human and cultural morals and qualities.
Xu: This is certain. For example, some artists are negligent, eager for success, woolly, and want to attract attention through their works, or conceal something or flaunt something. All these fleeting things will ultimately be reflected in the work and exposed.
Yin: The greatest reward for me in talking to you today has been the self reflection on being an artist and an intellectual. It’s as some people say, you are walking along and your spirit has freed itself and is watching from the sidelines. I think this level of consciousness and self-reflection is very important. But these two problems, this kind of self consciousness, are very difficult. Most people, as they go through life, don’t have this kind of self-reflection.
Xu: People often ask, where does your inspiration come from, or how did you think of this? A lot of people are very interested in this. Ultimately, I discovered that this is important, but it’s not the crux.
Feng: You’ve always been thinking about this issue, so you’re sensitive to it.
Xu: You’ve seen this cup, and perhaps it has given rise to a new idea. Everyone will think you are lucky to have come across it. Actually it is because you have been interested in it for a long time.
Yin: It’s like saying that when you do this work, your past experience forms a resource, and it forms a latent influence on your work.
Xu: This is I hadn’t thought of, but it definitely does. Actually, I hadn’t considered the continuity of thought, and you don’t have to think of it. But when I think about continuity of thought, as you are honest – and dishonesty is a kind of honesty – then there is continuity of thought. Gu Yuan once said to me, whatever kind of artist you are is the kind of artist you are, and nobody needs to worry. He was a Communist Party artist saying that to us. At the time I thought it was rather strange. But he was an artist with experience, and in the end he understood art and the predestination of artistic fate. Actually, he was unclear why his own works were more representative than those of others. The more experience artists have, the older they are, the deeper their understanding of this is. It’s like the young are crazy, while the old understand their fate.
Feng: Can we look at this way – everyone has potential, but the crux is unearthing that potential and putting it into play?
Yin: Apart from potential, there’s consistent thought and work over many years, an accumulation of weight and practice. It’s as you just said: if you want to understand skill, these are things that an artist can afford to lack. For example, an opportunity comes and you don’t grasp it, or you don’t interact with other people.
Xu: This is a rather technical issue. I’ve just thought, for example, you give me five students, how do I guide them? For a start, these five students are all definitely different and they all have different innate abilities. The question is how to help them find their innate abilities, to bring them into play, to make the best of their limitations and become something superior. This is important. The best elucidation of this was van Gogh. He painted and painted and painted, all badly, but in the end he became a master. He found the innate abilities within his limitations.
Yin: Yes, van Gogh did everything he could to paint like the artists in the academies, and he found an artist in Paris from a school of art to teach him. The artist trained him, called him stupid and said he had no sense of form, leaving van Gogh disappointed and depressed and despondent that he could not make it into the academy.
Xu: We should add that the scope of modern art is very broad. In this context, there is no such thing as a genius or a non-genius. All that exists is difference, and how you put your difference into play. That’s the issue. The problem is that innate ability is itself a fixed and narrow concept. For example, you say, who in art is a genius? What’s this genius? It’s because his thought complements the narrative of the field of art.
Yin: I maintain a skeptical attitude towards this.
Xu: Right, it’s actually not like that. The more talent a person has in a field, the more likely it is that it is dominated by fashion and there’s no space for them.
Feng: It was like that at the time – nobody could accept van Gogh’s talent, but we later generations think he was a master. Looking at it that way, there’s no such thing as genius or non-genius.
Yin: Now I have an apprehension that concerns me. As soon as we have the formation of the skills of contemporary art and they are propagated, we can in the future train a batch of professional contemporary artists – skilled, professional. This has the sense of a finished produce, installed, very much like contemporary art.
Feng: There’s already a whole lot of artists like that. When they exhibit, their stuff is not bad. They have rich experience.
Xu: I had this experience once. I was travelling to and fro between three cities in Albania. In that area of around 100 km it was all artists, and three museums took turns in holding annual exhibition. Every year they invited curators. But one year they decided that always inviting curators was boring, and they had an artist select the works, and in the end they invited me. On that occasion, I really learned how difficult it is to judge whether works are good and what to choose. This touches on conceptual problems in art, and how to judge what is good and what is bad. There were clearly two kinds of art: one kind particularly understood how to work with the fashionable materials of modern art, including how to exhibit it and what methods to complete the work – in other words particularly accomplished contemporary art. The other kind obviously did not understand the materials and methods of contemporary art, but were nevertheless honest, and genuinely revealed the characters of those behind them – you could see what the artist was thinking. But looking back on it, those works really didn’t necessarily exhibit very well. So in the end, there was no choice but to choose some of the pieces that had a sense of exhibition, because you have to consider the outcome of the exhibition itself, making it clear the multiple considerations that curators have.
Yin: You want your exhibition to be special. You’re worried that you can’t make your exhibition like an exhibition. This is something many curators fret about – that their exhibition will not be contemporary, and so-called contemporary includes the language, form and media.
Xu: Right, right, it’s like that. That’s why that last time, during the conversation with Feng Boyi, I said there are times I feel fed up with contemporary art. That’s because there’s too much “good,” boring contemporary art.
Yin: Is this a concern for you, that there are more and more invites to contemporary exhibitions and in certain circumstances you feel compelled to exhibit and make works.
Xu: Of course, I cannot say this doesn’t happen. You can only search for new things to do within the framework you have and what you have at hand. I always have a lot of ideas coming up. Some are what you’ve thought of today and feel are especially interesting, and then the next day you wake up and think they’re particularly uninteresting. But there are some ideas that you cannot beat off. Whenever you think of them you feel slightly excited and supplement them with more content. If you don’t have time to work on them or ignore them, after a little time they’re back. Usually, after a year or two or three, you become certain that you have to do it, that this is not one of those uninteresting ideas.
Yin: That’s a good way of putting it. Sometimes you have a really stirring idea, and the next day it seems really banal. This is perhaps is not really a question: Didn’t you say that problems are a precondition of art? Some problems are real problems – they constantly vex you – while some problems vex you at the time, but afterwards don’t seem like much.
Feng: I think what you just said about something coming back after two or three years – that probably is a real problem.
Xu: Yes. Generally speaking, everybody has problems with their interests and is sensitive about it. You can start to have doubts sometimes about even a particularly special idea or an idea with genuine value. Actually you often start to doubt it because it is special.
Yin: According to conventional systemic judgment, you can’t find a base by which to judge. All of sudden, you have lost the ability to judge. Traditional measures are of no use.
Xu: It’s like this. A sentence in an essay by Chen Danqing left me with a deep impression. It was his graduation paper and he had just got back from Tibet, and it had a few sketches. He was very down, uncertain, full of doubts. He felt like the graduation paper was stymied, so he did the sketches.
Feng: I saw that also. At the time he was actually panicking. He didn’t want to show anyone. He had no idea that it would receive such a big reaction.
Xu: It was enlightening for me at the time. It was because what was in it was something different from our conventions that he had doubts. He couldn’t be confident, because it contained something new.
Yin: I can sum it up in part as such: With constant reflection and doubts, a space for conscious thinking and new possibilities opens up. As you just put it, innate ability is possibility. Everybody has the possibility to develop and grow, but how do you open up innate ability. Most of our innate ability is obstructed by something. Your works repeatedly remind us and reveal to us what it is that is obstructing us. You don’t provide an answer, and also don’t provide a door, but you can suddenly give people a wall. This makes people think that if they continue on they need to ponder on the wall and break through a door. This I understand – that any ordinary door is not a door.
Xu: You just said you have to be always opening it. I think this is very important. Don’t allow yourself any cultural concepts whatsoever – no cultural position or references, if possible. Powerful people are not formed by culture but by thinking.
Yin: You know that culture cannot be kept at bay, but in your reflection and creativity you can strive to float and move within culture.
Xu: Shake off the burden of culture. There’s a saying in Zen: The Buddha appears only in the absence of offered conditions. Its meaning is that you can only grasp something when you are genuinely and thoroughly pure.
Yin: Today you have given us a proper bath of ideas. I think exchanges of this kind are really necessary. I remember in the 1980s, you often talked all through the night. It seems so long ago. Nowadays when artists get together, they never talk about art. Contemporary art has become increasingly technical and strategic. Young Chinese artists go abroad to exhibit all the time. They know all about international exhibitions and the types and tastes of curators. They are always making more and more professional and “attractive” contemporary art.
Feng: Actually, I’ve always wanted to do an exhibition in which the artist reflects on himself. Artists are always exposing society, not exposing themselves.
Yin: There are a lot of Western artistic stars – they shine bright. But we are always repeatedly discussing the same few, and their works are all growing. In a certain sense, they are like the flu, a virus – they duplicate and disseminate. In the process of duplication they deviate. I think these things should be the point of our work. In this respect, contemporary art criticism is lagging and lost for words. Here, at some kind of level, we have neglected our responsibilities but still have many perplexities.
Xu: Many people are still not clear about contemporary art. I’m still not clear. Many curators and critics are not clear. This is because it is a growing and uncertain thing. It’s too young and changing too quickly. In the past we three felt that the West had already done everything in this field, but afterwards I came to think that this was not so.
Yin: You’ve walked to the frontline and discovered that there is still virgin land ahead. Are there still many things you want to do, territories you have not visited, that you have not yet, as others think, traveled to the frontlines of contemporary art, and are dangling helplessly at the end of a rope?
Xu: No. I sometimes think the genuinely best in me has yet to emerge. I definitely think I have a lot of ideas that are really interesting and I have to get onto them.
1. The international environmental conservation organization RARE has invited Xu Bing to visit four major American galleries and cooperate in activities. The four galleries are the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, the New York New Museum and the Houston Museum of Fine Art. This highly experimental event brings together four organizations, each of which offers four famous artists the opportunity to choose a UNESCO World Heritage Site – including Indonesia’s Komodo National Park, Mexico’s Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve and Turkey’s Göreme National Park, among 16 other protected nature reserves.
This is unique opportunity for 16 artists to each reflect on the relationships between rare and on-the-brink of extinction natural environments, human legacies, indigenous peoples and nature. The agenda is free. According to how they feel, the artists can choose any way to be creative and express themselves, with no limitations. The aim is to have people care more for humanity’s inheritance and have a positive influence on the cultural environment through artists’ creativity. The program will run for three years, and the final exhibitions will be held at the four American galleries. Xu Bing will go to Kenya in mid-May to take his “plunge into life.” He nurtures a deep interest in the coexistence of Kenya’s 50 tribes and wildlife.
2. In 2005, Xu Bing was awarded the 96th Youth Friends Award by the New York City Education Bureau and the High School Education Arts Committee. With 100 years of history, the award is a bridge between New York’s public high schools and the city’s rich arts resources. The famous award is given to one artist annually, with the purpose of encouraging them to make new contributions to the cause of education. Xu Bing’s was recognized for his prodigious creative output, his exceedingly popular talks at schools and his selfless contributions to arts bodies in New York. This year’s award was presented at the New York Metropolitan Museum by Grace Rainey Rogers.
Xu Bing, visiting professor, Central Academy of Fine Arts, resident in the USAYin Shuangxi, professor, Central Academy of Fine Arts and deputy editor of the CAFA magazine, Meishu YanjiuFeng Boyi, Deputy Editor of the China Artists Association magazine, Meishujia Tongxun