Written by Yummi
Translator | Jiang Linfeng
We invited An He, Chinese modern artist and representative of conceptual art, to Pioneer Salon this December. He had a conversation with scholar Zheng Wang, sharing his experiences of creation and thoughts with the theme of “Fragments and Fantasy”. They also discussed several topics including cultural evolution under industrialization and urbanization, regionalism of artistic creation, homeland and personal experience.
He’s works are widely used in industrial materials such as metal advertising board, concrete and neon lights. Regarding complicated urban marks as his art language, He’s works reflects physical and mental impact brought by Chinese urbanization and industrialization and globally rapid development. Thus, when experiencing his works, audience naturally have a sense of suspension: the recombination and mixture of trifles in daily life transcend the established semiotic meaning, which enables the audience to generate new perception of the present self, others and the society.
This article recalls the colloquium in the text format to summarize and present artists’ exploration of regionalism and localism in artistic creation, practices of semiotic character of works and monumentality, and humanistic care of individuals who experience social and cultural changes under each era.
Projection of Imaginary Social Stratum
Wang: Your works present monumentality in size. You usually used common materials in national advocacy and industrial production, such as concrete, glass, plastic and neon lights. Did you intentionally decide the specific size and material of your works based on your life experiences? Besides, over time, your early park-style works which were intended for public participation and taking the initiative to speak out seem to turn into internalized meditation space. Your vision also changes from nationality, culture and individual to wider scale of civilization and even universe. How do you like and explain this change? Do you think this change is necessary for most artists? What do you think of those artistic practices which use language and other signs as artistic materials?
Love and Rocket, cement, FRP, mixed media; diameter: 250cm; 2020
He: From the past artistic works, we can often notice time. In modern times, however, artistic creation intersects with social science and is governed by politics and discourse system; therefore, it is very difficult to see artists’ growth experiences. Many works cater to some theory or are part of the discourse system under research. Hence, from the moment these works are created, they are dated, for example, the currently popular works related to post-net and post-human theories.
Both domestic and international works demonstrate this trend. Before 2000, without the restriction of complete system of art gallery, works showed youthfulness in most cases. Take, for example, the series of works created with light boxes which are supported by hormone. Hence, in artistic creation, artists could have their own choice and do more than pure reading, whereas the current artistic creation is often preceded by reading. Although there are successful works brought by reading, the real artistic creation should be excellent works produced at any time. In the past, there was no sufficient reading materials, and the information obtained from reading as far away as if it came from Utopia. Therefore, the authenticity of works originates from creators’ growth experiences with time properties.
Miss You, Please Contact Me
LED，600 x 140cm，2000
The word monumentality originated from Ancient Egypt and was deliberately created by upper class to form cohesion within the lower class. It is a part of political discourse. Personally, I am from the bottom of the society and thus I can only fantasize and look up to the upper class. Every time I raise my head, an angle is formed and it is monumentality. Hence, it is natural for me to do so. Contemporary installation art also emphasizes spatial awareness, and when combined with artists’ own growth experiences, the monumentality of the works will be particularly revealed.
In recent years, my artistic style has indeed become more restrained, which is related to my age. As my life experiences change, my choice of creation changes. Ten Thousand Light Years is my personal narrative. It is different from my previous works that mainly focus on their sociality. Latin American is a place of disorder and the regional culture is attractive to artists. Authoritative European art system does not fit well with most modern artists’ growth experience. Therefore, not visiting these places is a flaw.
Next year, I will carry out a plan I made before the pandemic. I will start from Pamirs all the way to the Black Sea in the direction of the Silk Road to visit the whole Central Asia. This is the direction of cement. I choose this direction because of cheapness which is also the emphasis of my works.
See if the eldest brother can help her？
LED lightboxes，variable size，2008-2009
Wang: Monumentality and the characteristic of cement evokes Vladimir Tatlin’s sculpture art in the Soviet Union. At the beginning of 2000, in Wuhan there were many concrete buildings, or “Khrushchev buildings”. This kind of building has the function of publicity and memorial, and carries strong social meaning. Also, there is a relationship between cement and social stratum. Cement is the material of the proletariat. It is very interesting.
Metaphysically Spatial Depth:
Regional Narrative of Returning to Individual Experience
Wang: Your works are absurdly poetic in terms of materials and themes. The titles of your early works are long, and other works (e.g. Ten Thousand Light Years) have strong literariness in measure and intention. It seems that the names of your works imply a sense of loneliness of individuals and society, and you also leave space for audience to think about and imagine your works. What was your motivation for naming your works in this way? How do you consider the contradiction or combination between the narrative implied in the title of the work and the abstract perception of your works?
Ten Thousand Light Years, aluminum plates, lead, 140 x 200cm x 3, 2017
Ten Thousand Light Years, cement, steel, variable size, 2017
He: When artists create works with narrativity, they will not consider too much. Many of my artistic practices are magic realistic in terms of academic meaning. When I am creating my works, I need to grasp something within a split second.
For example, a group of children who grew up in a slum made a wish when they saw a meteor in the sky, but they did not know it was a satellite launched by the Soviet Union, which means the beginning of a war or international dispute. The satellite held the children’s best expectations but it heralded a great tragedy. This is a kind of magical realism.
I went to work and talked with A’ Chang. I broke up with him after work and stood in Paradise Circus Street, crying for hours.
LED lightboxes, 270 * 7000cm, 2008
Wang: Over the past two years, the city Wuhan has entered the public vision as a concept for some universally known reasons. As an artist from Wuhan, what do you think of the particular stance of this city in Chinese art and the process of Chinese modernization? Meanwhile, how do you like some art works with regionalism such as Yinan Diao’s Wild Goose Lake and Fangfang’s Feng Shui? Do you think artists can live completely apart from their homeland and dialect?
He: For creators, the stamp of homeland is hard to get rid of. Since I came to Beijing in 1996, I have learned Beijing dialect for a period of time. Some time ago, I was told that my Mandarin has been more and more standard. But when I am reading poems, I have to use Wuhan dialect sometimes. As I get older, I find that my growth experiences increase in every vein of my body. Although there are unbearable places in Wuhan, I still love it. This city has a sense of history and it is a unique part of the process of Chinese modernization. However, after the epidemic, it grows wildly like seaweed and stretches with the high and low tides. Therefore, when you reach a certain age, you have to look back to the city. I believe it is the same to you. Good art must be regional, and it is bound to present regional entanglement, such as language and political relations.
Wang: You just mentioned dialects, your Mandarin with the accent of Wuhan dialect and Beijing dialects. Language itself also represents power. Now, people speak Mandarin based on northern Chinese dialect. But I like speaking Wuhan dialect abroad. This is the reflection on and resistance against power.
He: For me, Wuhan dialect comes out naturally. When I am speaking, the accent is stronger; when I am reading novels or poems, I find that I have read them in Wuhan dialect.
A piece of candy paper in hand. The hand reached out the car window and the candy paper rustled in the wind. “Could I throw it away?” He asked his mother.
LED lightboxes, 4000 * 110 cm, 2017
Wang: In the conversation with Bingfeng Dong, you mentioned the production of space, and you thought that there was metaphysical depth in space, which represents in-depth expression of meaning. What kind of space do you think artists and curators should construct to be metaphysically deep?
He: It is not easy to achieve metaphysically spatial depth. I can only give examples of what good practice is. When viewing Beuys's works at Tate Modern, I saw huge industrial fragments, the ground covered with something like feces, and the shamanic language that runs through his artistic career. His work has a strong sense of wildness. Perhaps it is related to his personal religious experience and his sketches exude a tingling sensation. Since I also have personal religious experience, it is easy to get into the contextual relationship he expresses.
Beuys's works are the same with Kazimir Severinovich Malevich’s and Vladimir Tatlin’s in that his works can form angles and forcibly turn the space of art gallery into a domain that is wild and obsolete, and implies some political and judicial meaning. It makes audiences forget the visiting ceremony in the system of art gallery. Hence, Beuys's works absolutely have metaphysical depth.
Wang: Will you think about spatial depth when creating works? When exhibiting your works, will you discuss their placement with curators, or make special arrangements to create spatial depth, achieve surreal and meditative spaces, or try to subvert the relationship between interior and exterior, outdoor space and indoor space in the museum?
He: When creating and exhibiting works, I will ask to see the place. It is not for the placement of works. In fact, I need to walk around the place to feel and find something. It is necessary.
Dark Purple, refrigeration machines, steel, copper powder, variable size, 2018
Wang: Your previous written works are relatively flat and they are more like the spatial extension of language; but you probe into some broad topics such as outer space and human destiny. Do you take metaphysical depth of thought into account during your creation, or even before you even begin? In addition, perhaps because of the high degree of flatness and fragmentation of contemporary life, contemporary artists are now better at creating metaphysical depth, but lack the depth of meaning expression. What do you think of this problem?
He: The experience of contemporary daily life is very rich, so I will definitely take depth into account. Now demands of the time are different. Therefore, we need to learn all the time. For example, the concept of "post-net" is completely inconsistent with my growth experience, and I can't erase the traces of my growth in the first half of my life, so it is a little difficult to enter its context.
Together, cast aluminium, multiple sizes, 2021
The Ocean, vehicle doors, stones, air conditioner, resin, multiple sizes, 2021
Wang: Now it is popular to make art through computer modeling in virtual space. Do you think this technological art can reach metaphysical depth?
He: The development of human beings is closely relation with the development of technology. Now it is impossible to only talk about artists and art development itself in every era without technology. I also need to use computer to create my works. Hence, it is more important to see whether artists have the awareness of art creating in virtual space. Making art is cruel and runs the risk of being eliminated by the times.
Wang: Do you think artists have the responsibility to force themselves to keep up with the times? Or is it possible to keep a certain distance from the times?
He: Artists do not have the responsibility to keep up with the times. Art creation should eventually return to artists themselves. As Bohumil Hrabal puts it, "too loud solitude", all creation will return to individual solitude. It can’t be helped.
When you were working on your early lightbox series, you hired a gang of burglar to steal lamps. Was there a special motivation or meaning behind this anti-order practice? You just mentioned that good artworks must be regional, and art is essentially for a cultural or political purpose by embodying regionalism. Can good art achieve these purposes in other ways, even if it is not regional, or only vaguely regional?
He: For the first question, my answer is that my growth experience prompted me to do so. I am from a slum in Wuhan. I used to live in a shed built by Henan people and grew up beside Beijing-Guangzhou railway. In Hankou, we were called “children outside the railway”. During the crackdown in 1985 and 1986, policemen came to sheds to arrest people every day. There were cases in neighborhood and every story was shocking.
My personalities force me to face real growth experience, and my growth experience made it impossible for me to make something text-only and gentle. Stealing is considered a gentle behavior among those people, so it can be said that I have adopted the mildest method. For me, the meaning and logic of works are not that important. What counts is that I have to face myself. I do not consider in particular escaping from regionalism.
Art creation is like a gang war. When I am surrounded by a group of people, I cannot think too much but only go to fight and break through based on my familiar parts. Actually, every time I make new works, I have this feeling, so it is better not to read any books. I also require my students to do so. There is no need to read many books and care too much about something instead of body. Art works need to be identified, otherwise, we will be assimilated into various schools.
I grew up in a small town and I thought the dialect and local culture of my hometown were out of fashion. Therefore, I have been keeping away from it. I studied hard and went to Beijing. However, when I came to this city, I felt strong discomfort and realized the valuable culture of my hometown. But now there is a gap between my hometown and me. I am also a creator but I do not intentionally explore regionalism in my works. My works are some practices based on my personal experience. Does regionalism have to be that important? Should I go back to my hometown for art creation when I face the discomfort in Beijing?
He: I think we grow up in the place where we were born. Regionalism is related to individual experiences. It does not mean that we have to return to our hometown. An alien land can be our hometown, which has been a very common phenomenon under the context of post-nomadism in Europe. The situation of our current art creation is that we restart our journey to other places after we return to our hometown without the restriction of regions. After the pandemic, this kind of uncertainty is stronger. First-tier cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen play a leading role in responding to emergencies in China. In this sense, they serve as good examples for modern cities to resist against disasters and unite together. Wuhan is a big city, but at the beginning of the epidemic, it also experienced a period of helplessness. What really changed our national epidemic prevention and control measures was Guangzhou and Shanghai, the first-tier cities that fired the first shot. The culture of these first-tier cities has a fighting character, and it is this character leads to substantial change. In the future, this fighting spirit will continue to accumulate, and we, as creators, do not really have to go to these cities.
There is a benchmark between hometowns and first-tier cities. Signs become idyll, signifying the escape from modern city life. Eighty percent of those Hubei people who participated in the Kangle Village event in Guangzhou are from Tianmen. In the telephone conversation with them, I asked whether they will go to Beijing after the Spring Festival. Many said that they did not want to go. Most of them are in the clothing business in Beijing, and the money they make is enough to start a new business in Tianmen. But they have to return because of the energy and cost invested in Beijing are large. This may be a problem for China in the future, and it will also create a new cultural state.
Over the past two years, a great deal of urban art has emerged both online and offline, and many pure art creators have been covered up. How should they find their own way out?
He: This pressure exists in every era. The capital of the present is completely different from the past, for example, in the Renaissance era, it may be enough for artists to have the support of the local church. However, the problems that independent artists face today are much more complex, and the power of capital is as strong as, or even more powerful than, the power of dictatorship. In dictatorship, if one person falls, it may be over, but capital is not shaken by the individual’s life and death, but always goes forward. Therefore, many Western artists choose the left and Marxism, because these are things that capital cannot wash away.
I am lucky that three galleries are very kind and do not have requirements for my sales. I teach only for making a living. Therefore, in the process of creation, this problem is not taken into account for the time being. In the future, there will definitely be survival issues. But art will not be interesting if it does not involve sex and violence and displacement. Hence, we must always be prepared to face difficulties.
Zheng Wang is a member of the Yao ethnic group. He comes from Wuhan, China. He is a young curator, artist, art critic and writer. He got his bachelor degree of art history and fine arts in Rice University and master degree of art critic in California College of the Arts. Now he studies art history with a concentration in Asian modern art in Nanyang Technological University for his doctoral degree.
An He comes from Wuhan. He is a modern artist and a representative of conceptual art in China. He dropped out from Hubei Institute of Fine Arts. He was nominated for the 9th Award of Art China in 2014. His representative works include Miss You, Please Contact Me, Yu Zhi, Miho Yoshioka, Armenia and He Taoyuan.