Talking Jiang Hai into Talking: An Interview with Du Zhigang Date: 2011-04-22 Size:
Jiang Hai began his career in 1988 when he painted Edge of the Land. He later had his debut solo show at Beijing Concert Hall gallery, which put him in the frontier of the art world where his name became gradually recognized. In 2010, at the age of fifty, he completed his series Head·Brain: Hybrid Bodies of Man and Beast, which expresses his mind as a solitary soul of art.

Jiang Hai began his career in 1988 when he painted Edge of the Land. He later had his debut solo show at Beijing Concert Hall gallery, which put him in the frontier of the art world where his name became gradually recognized. In 2010, at the age of fifty, he completed his series Head·Brain: Hybrid Bodies of Man and Beast, which expresses his mind as a solitary soul of art. Over the past twenty-five years, Jiang Hai has led a life that is quiet on the surface but restless underneath, just as his name (which means river and sea) suggests. He has a stable and soothing life, with a beautiful wife and smart son. Although his life is as tranquil as a pond of water in the spring time, he has a heavy metal rock band inside himself, which is as strong as a tornado sweeping across the pond of water. He would secretly peep into the desires of the materialist world and then blame the civilized society for its weirdness. He looks amiable and kind but he hides a dagger behind his smile, as the Chinese put it. He uses his left eye to strip off the underwear of desire and his right eye to poke at the side ribs of civilization.

Standing alert on the solid ground, Jiang Hai watches over materialism intertwined with desires, masculine desires interwoven with feminine ones, and the extravaganza and falling of liberated sexuality. His paintings are filled with tragic sentiments, especially his works form the 1990s.

Led and even spoiled by a tragic perspective, Jiang Hai has been obsessed with issues of alienation for the past twenty years or so. And he does not seem to give up soon.

To watch in calm is what makes one a good artist. In the eyes of such artists, there is never anything that is celebratory, sweet or harmonious. But rather, there is evilness, which he takes as his job to elaborate. For the past twenty-five years, Jiang Hai has dedicated himself to this, just as Charles Baudelaire to his one hundred and forty years ago.

Jiang Hai is a non-collaborator with modern civilization, in a way that is uncompromising, nonnegotiable, totally straightforward and in a bloody tone, that is all but obvious in his imaginary art world.

Most of Jiang Hai’s male hormones have been released into his painting. He does not talk that much, and it’s hard for one to start him talking. Fortunately, he and I have at least the same desire to talk to each other.

Du Zhigang (Du hereafter): Let’s start with something that is not that serious. How do you look at your practice in painting for the past twenty-five years?

Jiang Hai (Jiang hereafter, with a light smile, and in a slow and leisurely way): Well, it sounds really unserious, but it’s a tough question. It’s hard to look at oneself clearly, accurately, in a short distance, from a small angle, because the result would be either one-sided, deformed or imaginary. You can never get the truth. Maybe some day you get it right about yourself, but no one would take it seriously. They’ll think you are narcissistic or something like that. You’ll put yourself in the same embarrassing situation when you try to explain yourself about your own artwork. If you remain silent with no comment on your stuff, they’ll probably believe that you have no real ideas but simply paint out of mess so that you can prevent others from entering your art and yourself. Yet, if you try to “interpret” a little bit by saying something you really mean, they’ll probably say “Yuck, is that it? Is it that simple?” It will sound like I am simply illustrating some ideas. So, I have to return this question to you. What do you think is the significance of the things I have been doing?

Du: In my opinion, what you have been doing over the past twenty-five years is nothing but to change the life of canvas. Do you agree?

Jiang: That’s a funny saying. I have in fact been consuming canvas, and I think I am a long-term contractor with canvas manufacturers. But in the meantime, I have also been consumed by canvas because I have dedicated my twenty-five years to it.

Du: What have you obtained from it?

Jiang: It’s a tricky question. What have I got? Nothing, except for hundreds of paintings.

Du: Then what do you see in these hundreds of paintings?

Jiang (with a serious look): One orgasm after another.

Du: Sexual seduction.

Jiang (light smile, in a satisfied way): That’s right. Every round comes with information of unique pain and comfort.

Du: Speaking of sex, I notice that there are images of men and women in your work, I mean naked bodies. It seems to me that you are trying to speak with physical body. What kind of attitude is this?

Jiang (in a better mood for talking): In the words of Mr. Sun Yat-sen, if I may, I am human, thus I have full interest in human desires.

Du: I know these words. But Mr. Sun meant women, right?

Jiang: You’re right. Human desire is an interesting thing. Its primitive side has met with difficulties from the beginning, which makes it feel dirty. That’s probably why it has always tried to prove its noble side. Human desire has always been tucked and packed away and thus been prevented from human communications. However tight it is wrapped up by civilization, rules and customs, it can find even the narrowest leap to break through. It always tries to prove its compelling existence, even in just a moment of a flash. But the result of such a performance is never comedic, with an ending that is often not the happy one people expect. It is disturbing and defaming simply because of its destructive power.

Du: The performance of primitive desire is either a combat or a battle.

Jiang: Interesting analogy. In my painting, I like to place naked bodies, men and women, as signs of primitive desire in different reality situations or civilization atmospheres where they are totally on their own to perform, interpret and pursue multi-layered truth. As you can see, I constantly changer my subjects and themes, but the signs of desire is always the major character that is ubiquitous in my paintings. I put them into details and let them participate in configuring my work, where they could be part of the material and could be composed and decomposed. They could mingle with other elements and stay hidden until they get the chance to create all kinds of pictorial forces and meanings with their allurement or deficiency.

Du: Although you treat naked bodies as signs of primitive desire, your paintings look pretty sexy to me. They speak to my desire. That you fragment them is like swiftly touching the side of a sexy leg in order not to let the viewers get obsessed with it and misunderstand your original intention.

Jiang: Well, sex is the core of primitive desire. I don’t want viewers to quickly touch the leg. I’d rather like them to indulge themselves in it. Nakedness, sexiness and even pornography could be very fascinating. But it has become messy and uncertain in our time where conflict and transformation is the norm. This is a mistreatment of the glory and wonder that evolved over billions of years.

Du: Many artists today are obsessed too much with sex in reality rather than beyond reality. It is my understanding that an able artist is one who could freely play with the theme of sex in his artistic language. I like your 2005 series Reading Man and Identifying Characters, which is pretty sexy.

Jiang: I guess you’ve read The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, which I believe is absolutely a classic about sex. The author talks about sex in a way that is humorous, desolate and yet sublime, something that we should learn from. I think the theme of sex could be very powerful when expressed in artistic forms. There is plenty of room for expression, which could result in bloody spectacle when compared with any other form.

Du: I understand you use tremendous number of bodies as meaningful signs, but I see less sexuality but more violence. For example, your 2008 On the Edge of Vision: Deprivation and Forms of Objects: Binding look very violent to me.

Jiang: You really think so? I don’t consider myself an outsider. Human situations – whether you witness with your eyes wide open or imagine with your eyes closed—are always in the darkness. But many of us just don’t see it that way because we have become numb about it. I remember nearly a hundred years ago Lu Xun said something like this: Man uses violence but is also victimized by violence.

Du: And terror as well.

Jiang (now a little louder): You are right. Violence and terror are what I think the fundamental issues for mankind in the present and the future. The being and situation of mankind is very much that of a mentally troubled one. Sometimes we don’t see violence and terror that clearly simply because they are covered in a layer of powder.

Du: Ha-ha. That very much comes to the point. It seems that you are not the same nice and amiable person that everybody thinks they know. What a difference!

Jiang (not smiling this time, but very seriously): To look at a life at a metaphysical level and to lead the same life in reality are two completely different things. I know how to treat them separately and I never mess up with them. The essence of human life is suffering. Superficially, I just mind my own business in real life, but I work with my art on a deeper level. Am I being a little too cynical?

Du: Interesting. There are many people who know how to separate these two lives but then they mix them together again at some point.

Jiang: That’s true. But not me.

Du: I got it. I feel that there is a critiquing atmosphere in your art, which is accompanied with sorrow, loneliness and depression, sometimes even with stubbornness. I don’t see any interruption of this atmosphere in your art for the past twenty years. How and why could you insist on this till today? What are you going to do next?

Jiang: I believe I am an honest person, who is loyal to his art practice. I feel free in making my own art history. In this sense, everything else is irrelevant. My approach to art is my own choice, and an honest choice, which has nothing to do with strategies or trends. Some critics think that the critiquing quality of contemporary art today has been paralyzed by the embracement of politics and commodification, which makes contemporary fundamentally weak and lost in its direction. I agree with this. The awkwardness and internal conflicts that contemporary artists are experiencing is being covered up in an unprecedented way. On the surface, everyone seems to be happy with reality, which gives no sign of division. But the fact is that everybody is enjoying a philistine happiness in order to avoid touching the weakness hidden deep in the darkness. In the space we live in, the premise for contemporary art to be critical is non-alternate political correctness, which no artist could escape from. This is like taking the muscles out of the feet of contemporary art. I think there is something waiting for us artists in the near future, that is, reflection – to reflect or ask ourselves why we couldn’t come up with a tragedian works in a time of tragedies. This, however, does not prevent me from doing what I’m doing. I search for the possibilities of unique forms in creating my own critical art. I think I just need more wisdom to find these possibilities.

#p#副标题#e#Du: To be frank with you, I think you have bold and sharp critiques, which are often articulated on cultural rather than political levels. These deeply meaningful critiques are not made to meet any practical needs; therefore, they will be widely spread.

Jiang: Not to meet practical needs. I agree. The so-called criticism of contemporary art is sometimes very pragmatist and even speculative. Many artists are being eroded by opportunism, pragmatism or cultural strategies, which in turn corrupts the critical power of art. I always believe in that art should be an independent entity which is deprived of secular interests. This is hard for many people, because we all need to survive and want to profit from low cost. Yet what a true artist does is something that is beyond his own self, something that should be detached from profits and interests, and something that enables you to go free like a horse flying in the sky. Or in the words of my wife, to be an artist is to do something “clean”. I use my hand to draw something from my heart. I don’t want to be cooperative with the secular demands; I want to transcend all those. That art could be powerful is first and foremost because it does not comply with the mundane world. I always remind myself of the possible entrapment. I am also careful not to use cultural criticism as a simple tool, which could turn out to be pretty boring, you know.

Du: Looking at your paintings from earlier period to today, I find that you have changed from abstract expressionism to sort of figurative. What does it mean to you? Does it mean your desire for that “issue” is growing too strong, or what? Is it transcending textual concerns? Could it get a little raw simply because it’s getting tough? Is it related to what you just said about “being careful not to use cultural criticism as a simple tool”?

Jiang: I don’t think it really matters whether it’s abstract or figurative, abstract expressionistic or figurative expressionistic. What matters is not the term, but the approach that best fits what you would like to express. Well, my desire for the “issue” never really diminishes. It’s getting stronger and stronger. I hope this “issue” could be expressed in a metaphorical or symbolic way in my work, or in other words, as metaphysical signs that should stand for metaphorical or symbolic meanings. But in the meantime, these signs should be open-ended and lead to metaphysical thinking of humanity. This needs to be done with wisdom, and I think I have been on the way to meet with this wisdom. In my opinion, the flexibility and open-endedness of signs gives us the efficient way to prevent art criticism from being used as a simple tool. It is also a way to prevent art from getting raw when it gets critical. I think I’ve been quite sensitive to this.

Du: I guess many people share my question when viewing your paintings: Is the sense of distortion, fragmentation and messiness a result of your philosophical attitude or a result of your aesthetic taste?

Jiang (smiling while sitting up straight): What do you think, Mr. Du? I think you have the answer to your question. Anyway, it’s my tone of speech, Jiang Hai’s tone. On one side of my tone are conceptual ideas including what you call “philosophical attitude”, while on the other side is formal taste. There is an invisible force that pulls the two sides together. An efficient tone would appear when the two sides are close to each other or even overlap each other. This is what an artist aspires for. Good tone of speech is a reflection of ideas and aesthetic taste. Whether a philosophical attitude leads to aesthetic taste or vice versa, I’m not sure about that. But the tone-of-speech derived visual or psychological “surprise” or “difference” is what you should expect from viewing my painting. It’s up to you whether you want to accept it or simply dump it.

Du: I think this is exactly how I got here.

Jiang: I appreciate that. If one would like to spend some time in trying to understand an artist and his products, I think he should first try to understand his logic and direction, which could sometimes be messy. His reasons could be deficient, his enthusiasm perversive, and his death exciting. But there is only way to understand him, that is, his artistic lineage or his history of art. And I think this is also the starting point for one to either praise or criticize an artist.

Du: If a viewer could really take this approach, I believe he would have surprising discoveries. But as the saying goes, there are one thousand Hamlets in the eyes of one thousand readers. For example, your Head-Brain series is understood as “modernity of the dragon” in the eyes of your son Jiang Dongxian. I was very impressed when he says that “the way man and beast are constructed in Head-Brain expresses the idea of rationality as accessory of desire. Human rationality should be used for activities that could be carried out only by man as the noble being, activities that have permanent significance and spiritual objectives. But this rationality is often used as a tool for measuring intuitive animal behavior. This measuring could be developed only by human beings to a scientific height. But why does not human being use this ability in their search for noble spiritual goals? By placing human bodies inside animal heads rather than replacing human heads with animal heads, Jiang Hai expresses his profound thinking of human essence in the modern society, which is not simply one of cynicism with entertaining humor.” Dongxian’s discussion reads like writing footnotes to the classics. I think he touches on the internal logic of your art from an overlooking vantage point where he could see the whole world with all kinds of beings. This is really fascinating.

Jiang: Ha-ha. He knows me, and I have become his material for writing.

Du: Speaking of Dongxian, I think you seem to have a different approach in your Son-Mask: For Jiang Dongxian series, which has spectacular view and visual strength. This is the first time you started using signs of human beings in recent years, right?

Jiang (not smiling, but excited): I don’t know why, you know. But I was very excited when I worked on this series. This is very rare for me. Initially, I wanted to make this as my son’s twentieth birthday present. But it turned out to be a new starting point for me. I felt like I was twenty years old again, energetic and excited, as if I was riding over the whole world with all the five elements. I felt like I could freely go up to the heaven or down to the hell without fear of any bloody things. I felt like crying out “Here I am”!

Du: You come with the wind! The masks look exciting and stimulating. The images in the masks with the five elements of gold, wood, water, fire and earth are excellently selected. Their significance as signs are apparently visualized as a relationship is formed by the different parts of a twenty-year old face.

Jiang (as if not being interrupted): I believe you have read Goethe’s Faust, whose image was always in my mind when I was working on this series. The world belongs to children. Everything is in their hands, the past, the present as well as the future. They’ll have to bear with all the happiness, pain, and satisfaction along with disasters, comedy and tragedy. They have to go through the whole process. It’s going to be our turn to take curtain calls, and they will have to take theirs, too. You have to show your best acting, whether it’s a comedy or tragedy, whether you wear a mask or not. This is what fatalism is all about. All these ideas, whether clear or not, poured in on me.

Du: You sound excited.

Jiang: Pardon me.

Du: Let’s change the subject. Some critics pointed out that the audience would find it hard to understand your work if they try to interpret it from their own visual and life experience. What do you have to say?

Jiang: I think I have said a lot. Most artists tend to be introspective, in a very addictive way, while not caring too much about responses from others or not being very sensitive to other sounds. If an artist is used to looking outward and gets fussy about every single trivial affair on the streets, he will soon be dead. To choose art is to choose solitariness, painfulness as well as joyfulness because an artist lives in the world of himself. Therefore, an artist could sometimes be very mentally troubled and stubbornly biased. Art could be a deficient product of artist, but it’s a product that could never be called back because it’s his life. The so-called deficiency is the very fact that it is very often hard to be understood. The author and the view are totally two different beings from different spaces. I work insanely and in a bloody way to get one thing done, while you could look at this same thing in a very leisurely way. This is utterly two different things, especially regarding the visual stuff. When I work on my stuff, I have nothing in mind about being watched by another eye. It’s a matter of predetermination whether someone could understand it or not. For me, I never care about I could obtain or lose from this. I will not change or correct myself in order for others to understand me. Otherwise it’s going to be a complete failure. An artist is more than often a lonely person. But strangely, as you know, there seems to be no great artist in the history of art who has never been understood. I believe he will be understood as long as he is true to himself. Am I being a little bit overly self-confident? Ha-ha.

Du: But if your work remains unfamiliar to the audience for a long enough time period, do you think it is going to affect its commercial value?

Jiang: I don’t think my work is unfamiliar any longer. There is nothing I can do if it is unfamiliar in any other ways. I can’t simply get an artificial nose in order to please those who love big noses or have an implant breast to please those who love big boobs. There are artists who work like that. I do like the potential commercial qualities of artworks, which I believe come from outside artworks themselves, from those who really understand the artworks. You are one of those who collect my paintings. Why do you buy them?

Du: I just like them. As you know, I especially love your Urban Structures series that you did from 1996 to 2001, particularly those with big machines. The atmosphere created by visual language and conceptual ideas is what are most fascinating and exciting to me. I also like your earlier Single Bodies and Lumps series. The dark lines look lonely and struggling, full of tragic tension and conflicts, which makes me feel like crying out. You know I favor tragic stuff. I buy them because I like them, not for any investing reasons. Your paintings are now very expensive. I can’t afford them.

Jiang (laughing, satisfied): Actually there is only a few not many who collect my paintings. They are the ones who love my art and share my taste, I guess. The important thing is that we could get along with each other.

Du: You seem to love thinking. Many believe that rational thinking could do more harm than benefit to artists because it interferes with their freedom and subjectivity in their using formal language. Do you agree?

Jiang: I love thinking, which could be part of my personality. But I am not good at philosophical thinking because I go abstract. I am used to thinking with pictures, thinking with my tone of speech. I could get excited by what I think and I never feel that rational thinking could limit my freedom. But I also keep warning myself, not of what you call “rational thinking”, but what I call “tone of speech”. I don’t want it to get lazy. I want change and passion.

Du: It seems to me that it’s getting harder and harder to see the true side of contemporary Chinese art. As a participant in the trend, how do you feel?

Jiang: I try to concentrate on my own painting and try not to think too much about some issues. That’s the business of art theoreticians. But I think that contemporary art in China should have some “thorns”, sharp “thorns”, which are very few today. It has also been prematurely made into a fashion and lacks primitive originality. The contemporary art that is intertwined with fashion shows and official art fairs is not contemporary art to me, not Chinese contemporary art at least. Contemporary art has long been tamed by the emperors and princesses in China. Also, many aspect of contemporary art today are too raw and rough. Nothing is calm. Nobody wants to express their ideas fully or with patience and thus their art has no real effect of impact. Weapon of criticism has been replaced by criticism of weapon. Chinese contemporary art has been suspended in and by China.

[Editor] Elemy Liu