Interview: The "Chinese Element" and "Female Crafting" in Mingjun Luo's Art
Source:Artintern Author:Luo Mingjun,Liao Wen Date: 2006-07-14 Size:
You are the first sojourner Chinese artist I have gotten to know really well. You see, the first thing that came up is your identity. I actually don’t really like to define artists with such a western concept as “identity”.

Luo Mingjun, Noah's ark, 2001

Wen Liao (Liao): You are the first sojourner Chinese artist I have gotten to know really well. You see, the first thing that came up is your identity. I actually don’t really like to define artists with such a western concept as “identity”. I care far more about how one adapts to one’s unique, complex environment and how he/she articulates his/her internal experience and philosophy about life in his/her own ways as a contemporary artist. If the “identity” is a hat one wears to go outdoors, the internal experiences and philosophy about life are the intimate “underwear”.

Mingjun Luo (Luo): I agree.

Liao: I think the reason that “identity” has become an important issue today is because the identity in today’s society has been freed to a large extent. Identity has become much more diversified and also something everyone now encounters and has to deal with. For instance, as a sojourner Chinese, you have to deal with being a contemporary artist trained in the traditional artistry and yet a homemaker as well as a professional woman.

Luo: And also the identity for artistic creation.

Liao: Of course, concretely, you cross over China and the West, tradition and Today, male and female, familial role and professional identity. These are, after all, fundamentally cultural issues. They are also abstract as concepts. What I am most interested in knowing more is your life experience after you left China.

Luo: There hasn’t been any permanency after I left China. There have been ups and downs. None of this was ever taught in school and threw me off completely immediately. I have gotten used to it somewhat, but nothing has been really resolved.

Liao: I imagine this is something that can never be really and completely resolved. But I understand this is the reality of your experience. As an artist, you depict such reality in your art, illustrating its importance to your life/existence.

Luo: You have been to Switzerland. You know that the society there is very stable and steady. Nothing dramatic happens. What one has to deal with most is the issue of identity. For instance, the foreigners are worried about how they can stay; the adopted children are looking for their biological parents; the Swiss are trying to negotiate between the different languages being spoken there. People around you keep reminding you of who you are.

Liao: What you talked about are the concrete matters in daily living, something that constantly reminds the of your being an alien. Are these easier to cope with than the loneliness from being cut off from your culture?

Luo: Of course. Your being an alien can change; there is something you can do, something you can fight with. Having been cut from your culture, all you can do is lick your own wounds.

Liao: I could sense such a sense of aloneness without seeing your work the first time I went to your house. I remember your mother-in-law saying to me as soon as she met me that Mingjun finally found a Chinese she could “talk with”. Has it been your experience after all these years that you can assimilate in language and you can assimilate in life style, but it is very hard to assimilate in culture?

Luo: I did try to assimilate into the Western culture, but in the end I have succeeded in only being a critical outsider. The makeup of history (knowledge) is so different, including the songs you have sung since your childhood and the movies you have seen….

Liao: It’s not just the makeup of the history (knowledge) that is different. It is also the longings for the Chinese culture in your blood when you move abroad as an adult. I call that “Chinese complex”. It’s an aesthetics that will never leave you. From what I have heard, for those who are steeped in the Chinese aesthetic tradition and have lived in the Western countries for a long time, however well adapted and assimilated they are, such longings will forever be there, no matter how they will come and go. This has been articulated by many artists in a variety of ways. Have you ever experienced the cultural alienation, from the besiege of your heart and soul by endless waves of the ubiquitous foreign culture?

Luo: Yes and I couldn’t have said this better.

Liao: I have not had much experience living in the West. The longest time I spent abroad was half a year I spent in NYC. After the initial excitement as a tourist replaced by indifference and fatigue, in spite of the beautiful scenery and friendly people, such deeply felt cultural alienation just washed over me. It kept coming up and rushing around day after day, overwhelming everything. I started to hum Peking opera. I have never been such a fan who hums around the house even though I had always loved the aesthetics and performance of the traditional Chinese theatre. I just grabbed the Chinese-ness in the traditional opera that quite soothed and comforted my lonely sojourner’s heart.

Luo: That’s true. I rather savored the classic Chinese literature that I never read and never thought to read when I was still in China. Chinese calligraphy became a much enjoyed past time instead of required homework that I had to do before.

Liao: Such was the real experience of your life. The most interesting thing about your work is that you try to demonstrate such experience in a variety of ways through your art. I have looked over your work very closely. What interests me most is how you use the “Chinese element” and the “feminine crafting” in such an everyday sort of way. I want to talk to you more about this.

Luo: I use paper and Chinese ink. This is probably how the “Chinese element” was expressed.

Liao: The presence of “Chinese element” is common in the work of the Chinese artists living abroad. But how it is used reflects more one’s experience and emotional needs. It isn’t for the highlighting of the Chinese identity or for the manipulation of the Chinese tradition.

Luo: It is really important to me that I am not “marketing Chinese culture” abroad. I don’t want to attract people who are just curious about Chinese culture to my exhibits. I want it to be a somber exploration of art.

Liao: I value the individualness in how artists convey their experiences or the unipue reasons for their expression. To me, the most valuable part of your work is the full expression of your thoughts as well as the unique reasons behind them, in such a down to earth, everyday, quiet manner.

Luo: I think it should be personal. As an individual, you can’t change the reality. All that you can do is express your personal feelings. What you noticed and commented on may be related to my family life and my social circles as well.

Liao: The objects in your Chinese ink paintings are everyday things, some classic Chinese objects, china, chopsticks, calligraphy brushes and also some Western household utensils, a whisk, a watering can, cosmetics, etc. very ordinary, very everyday. What’s the symbolism?

Luo: They are stuff I use everyday, things that are autobiographical; they may be too abstract on a cultural level, but quite concrete in life. Their cultural consideration came about only at exhibits. They feel different when put together.

Liao: You reduce their sizes, their dimensions, to the point of being decorative. There is a feeling of aloneness, of alienation to them.

Luo: That’s really well put, better than I can articulate. Yes, they do look odd to me. I am attached to them, but I don’t want to be affected by them. I feel I can leave them behind. This is why they have lives of their own.

Liao: What do these objects mean to you?

Luo: What would my life be like without them? Why are they in my life? Why do I need them?

Liao: They have become indispensable to your life. You feel a deep connection to them.

Luo: The quietness in Switzerland gives me time to face them.

Liao: That’s so wonderfully put. This reminds me of the people who mediate for years in front of a wall. They can see the world on the wall where ordinary people can’t see a thing. In essence, you project your feelings onto the objects.

Luo: There are a lot of things I want to paint and paint them well. Some of them have been lingering in my mind for a year or two. Sometimes I don’t like what I paint, but that does not happen too often. Actually I like novel. New things. I get along with young students. I am progressive in my ways, but it is not as easy for me to create as young people.

Liao: I’ve noticed that though you use the Chinese rice paper and ink, the techniques are not traditionally Chinese.

Luo: I realize that I used tools I was not very skilled with on purpose to allow me to “fool around”, to experiment both in life and in art. I am most trained and skilled in oil painting. I learned everything else on my own.

Liao: What’s the most exciting thing about “fooling around”? To break away from the disciplines? To explore more possibilities? To move away from the feeling of being “competent” from having been too “skilled” in something?

Luo: At the beginning, it was for getting away from the feeling of being “competent” escaping the familiar. Now it is more about articulation and expression outside the box.

Liao: The way you fuzzed the ink line drawings of the objects is very unique.

Luo: Isn’t it true that Chinese art values something between being faithful and not completely faithful to the real objects? Many contemporary artists seem to work this way. Make the line drawings in ink fuzzy helps to embed the objects deeply in the painting and make them inseparable, creating something that’s beyond my control as well. This is important. I want to portray an object, but it is not entirely within my control. Initially you decide if you will keep it or not, but in the end it takes a life of its own. You do get to decide ultimately if you want to keep it. I want to bring the objects to life.

Liao: And those calmly treated details are very unique too.

Luo: True. I love the details in life.

Liao: I notice how the details are treated rather delicately. You are not only very observant of the details in life, you are also very sensitive towards them.

Luo: I love delicate things in life. There were too few of them between the 1970’s and 1980’s (when I was growing up).

Liao: this is probably related to your personality too. Your attention to details shows through the interesting accessory on your clothing.

Luo: You noticed that, didn’t you? That’s true.

Liao: Many women artists like to paint the little things in their lives, but they tend to make them very homey.

Lu: But I don’t like things looking homey.

Liao: And yours are distant and somewhat alone too.

Luo: Yes, I like that they tell stories and have lives of their own, including those things that I use everyday. I feel everyone has its own destiny.

Liao: The coolness in how you treat the details enhances the aloneness in the painting, plus the uncertainty, the “fuzziness” in what may happen to them. Deep down, is there a feeling of drifting?

Luo: Your choice of words is very interesting. “Fuzzy” paints a very good picture. That was what I felt when I first started to paint objects. I used them everyday, but they had lives of their own. They will continue to exist when their owners are no longer around, just like we Chinese say things exist outside us, in spite of us. Did I give the feeling that the objects are more permanent than people?

Liao: They are distant.

Luo: They’ll never belong to you.

Liao: It seems to me that the distance between you and those objects has remained over the years.

Luo: An object is treated differently by different people. The same bowl is used for meals by some and is only looked at by others.

Liao: Some of your installation work used the Chinese Element as well, such as “The Comma” done in the church. I know it originated from a Western religion, but the language used conveyed the simplicity that is very Chinese. “None-ness” is not void/emptiness, but far above that.

Luo: When I was working on them, I kept thinking about the Peking opera I watched as a child. Perhaps the images or memories in my head made the creation easier.

Liao: Because you have experienced the aesthetics of the Chinese culture in quiet distance for a long time. The painting “Lao-zi” is a fairly direct examination and reflection on Chinese culture. Why did you choose “The Ways” by Lao-zi. Do you like it or is there something specially symbolic about it?

Luo: I never had any chance to read it when I was in China. When I moved abroad, I wasn’t working and was pregnant. I started to read things Chinese, things I didn’t really understand. I was homesick and was resistant to what was Western. I wanted to convince everybody with something most Chinese or perhaps I needed to protect myself for felt insecure.

Liao: Or perhaps you wanted to convince yourself. What impressed you most?

Luo: “Minimalism”, Isn’t that odd?

Liao: No, not at all. The core of Lao Zi’s thoughts was “the Way is where there is no way”, that is, Minimal and indefinite. Such experiences as yours are very unique and completely on the money. Is such a Minimalism ideological?

Luo: It was what I got from reading Lao Zi – “Minimal” has gotten me this far. I’d be washed up a long time ago without it. This is precisely why I am more and more committed to it. It allows me not only to find, create space in the traditional Chinese painting, but to find and create space in life. “Minimalism” in Western art is more of an artistic form.

Liao: For this piece of work, I like best the third version for which the paper was pasted on the ground and people can walk on it. It is a thorough breakthrough conceptually. Paper pasting is not only a very Chinese craft, but also a feminine one.

Luo: That’s right. It took me two days.

Liao: “Come and Go” was done this way too.

Luo: Yes, that took me three days.

Liao: I really like this piece. Did you purposefully paste the paper in such a way to make it look like red carpet?

Luo: I did two pieces for this idea. The first time it was black and white. It was meant to be the foundation for the second version. But then everyone noticed the first version so I got rid of it. That was for another exhibit at a different time. The theme for the exhibit was “come and go”. I was a bit lost on the theme. I felt that I had to open up a road and pave it. But where would I be coming from or going to? It struck me that I had nowhere to go on either side, as if I had already gone to “heaven”. It was actually only the wall that blocked the road, which can go on in the end.

Liao: Everything can go on indefinitely in our imagination and experience. Being blocked is also very real in reality. Perhaps this reflects your real life experience “coming and going” between the East and the West.

Luo: This was the best decorative piece I have done. It helps to give the entire exhibit an all encompassing theme, or otherwise the exhibit may feel a bit cold.

Liao: I like the idea of red carpet. It is also very Chinese.

Luo: Red carpet is usually for celebrity guests.

Liao: Not only that. It is a symbol for ritual. People’s need for ritual isn’t just ceremonial, but also emotional, from wedding, banquets, to stately reception and military parades.

Luo: Except my red carpet was mutated. It squeaks when one walks on it.

Liao: This was precisely what I found most intriguing, for rituals are the most self deceptive. Squeaking mocks at such self-deception. All ceremonies are for onlookers, for them to see. The onlookers are excited, stimulated and envious. People who are participating/performing in the ceremony sometimes are quite uncomfortable, in all sorts of ways. For instance, many who don’t know may envy you who comes and goes between the East and the West. The sense of wondering is known only to yourself which you articulate through your art. It is a very good outlet.

Luo: This feeling will get stronger and stronger. Ceremony is something I want to get away from most, but I have to go some of the time.

Liao: What’s burdening isn’t just that we have to deal with the actual rituals, including our life itself. More and more people want to see you as a particular symbolic figure with your social status being lifted, even though you should be more real as you get older.

Luo: Yet we can’t really give up, abandon all things that are social.

Liao: That’s right. For instance, we don’t really need to be constantly invited to go to openings of exhibits, have pictures taken, accept interviews and mingle. But this is what others want and hope to get. I feel this more and more strongly as I go on. The rituals in life have gotten too complicated and overwhelming. Even life itself has become a ceremony. I am constantly worried that I may lose my self in such a ritualized existence. Perhaps I am particularly sensitive culturally to rituals.

Luo: It is exhausting...

Liao: It is. Now we got off track. I see that there is an element of crafting to your work. I often talk about that in my talk on “craft in art”.

Luo: I am really happy when I do crafts. So much stuff comes up and comes out. I have just finished a set of pictures, sewing up two halves of an apple with red thread.

Liao: You used paper to construct the giant arc. You are very good with paper pasting. I really like it.

Luo: I do too. The arc was made of many layers of paper and it took me a month to paste it together.

Liao: Paper folded boats are particularly fun. We all played with it when we were kids.

Luo: That’s right. It’s really fun.

Liao: The childish delight in children’s games is so in sync with the fairy tale nature of the story of Noah’s Arc, and yet so at odds with the trashy and inanimate nature of newspaper.

Luo: I fold things whenever I get my hands on pieces of paper. To have done such a huge paperfolding project really satisfied me.

Liao: Folding, pasting, sewing and embroidery are traditional tailoring methods. It is women artists’ contribution to the contemporary language of art to use them to articulate the experience of contemporary existence. Crafting is rarely used by male artists while many female artists often say they are in love with it. I have done some research and found that crafting is not only a way of expression for women artists. They articulate a great deal of what they feel at the moment going through such a “complicated crafting process”, or even experiences of some form of healing psychological or even physically. They have given crafting a meditative and soothing function or perhaps further explored such a function. For those artists to whose art crafting plays an important role, they all share such experiences, just like meditation. It is really interesting. You just spoke about being “satisfied”. Did you have a similar meditative experience?

Luo: That’s a given. Such an experience can be passed on to others around you too, a very warm and serene scene.

Liao: Actually every movement in such a creative process can be abstract, ideological and spiritual as well. From this point of view, it is about reducing the complex to the simple, to the pure, to the innocent, and to the plain. There is “serenity” in your art. Did the long and slow crafting process help to heal you mind?

Luo: Yes, it has. The gradual “perfecting” of something in your hands and being with a process help to leave out all other things that trouble you. It gave me a space to reflect.

Liao: What are you going to do in Shanghai?

Luo: Embroidery, on the type of fabric used for mosquito nets or for bandages, in red. I don’t know what the exhibit is going to be like. But I really hope I get to do some quiet embroidery.

Liao: I am sure you can do even better this time in Shanghai.

Luo: I hope so.

Translated by Ph.D Xiaolu Hsi

[Editor] Zhang Shuo