Karen Smith Interviews Chen Ke
Source:Artintern Author:Chen Ke Date: 2008-06-12 Size:
Karen Smith: Why did originally choose this “cartoon” style of expression? Chen Ke: I find the style to be very direct.


Karen Smith: Why did originally choose this “cartoon” style of expression?

Chen Ke: I find the style to be very direct.

KS: At that time in Sichuan, had the other painters in your circle already begun working with this type of imagery?

CK: Yes. Before I began to explore this style, I was aware Xiong Yu’s works also had a similar feeling.

KS: I have always felt that the community of artists living and working in Sichuan is extremely tight-knit and produces many cross-influences in the work, as much as inspiring difference.

CK: That’s true. There is a degree of mutual influence at work, but as time went on, I saw that each person’s work was actually quite different. I don’t think you can describe me as a standard “cartoon generation” artist––or a painter who is immersed in comic books. Categorizing my paintings as “cartoon” is also not entirely appropriate.

KS: But you agree that there is such a style? Or are “cartoons” just a manner of speech; a mechanism for publicizing a group of painters?

CK: I think that a group of young painters who look to comic book themes and imagery definitely exists, but it would be wrong to compare me to those artists who draw inspiration from Korean or Japanese “manga”––actually, when I was growing up, there weren’t so many of these type of cartoon-comic books around. We had a multitude of Chinese comic books, and some European fairytales. These had a far greater influence upon me. They were truly fantastical: perfect for someone like myself who loves daydreaming. I can’t say why other people invoke such things in their paintings; for me, that’s just how I paint.

KS: What was the greatest gain for you in moving to Beijing from Sichuan?

CK: I think that moving to Beijing had a considerably significant influence on my art. Beijing provides a much wider scope of influence. Here you can find influences from the south, the north, from China and abroad. What’s here is definitely so much broader than what exists in Chongqing. I also think that artists here are more independent, they are not tied to socializing within an isolated community… I really like that.

KS: I know some artists find it difficult to spend hours and hours alone in their studios in the company of their works. They need to interact with society, or with specific people, especially when developing new ideas and works. How would you describe your working practice?

CK: Currently the majority of my time is spent working alone in my studio. Of course if people come by to look around or talk, that’s great, but I don’t like to have too many––then I wouldn’t be able to work. I’m indifferent to being alone, maybe it has to do with my personality. Part of the reason I chose this profession is because I can realize projects on my own. I rather like that aspect of it.

KS: What the greatest challenge for you working as an independent artist?

CK: The greatest challenge that I face…I can deal with any problems that arise on the canvas. But there are some things that lay outside of art but that I still have to deal with: for example, the market or social cliques. I hope that gradually I can become inured to these influences and spend more of my time developing my work.

KS: You’ve been in Beijing for two years now, correct?

CK: Yes.

KS: What do you think is the greatest change that has occurred in your works during these two years?

CK: I’ve slowly come to realize what “cartoon” is, and have gained a new appreciation and understanding of it.

KS: But you just said that your works have little relationship to the “cartoon” genre.

CK: I know, but other than this word, which has already been used to death, I don’t know what other phrase can describe it. In my opinion, the most valuable thing about “cartoons” is not that they have a visual formula or a graphic style; it’s their directness, their purity. I am primarily thinking: what is painting, after all? Or for me personally, why do I feel compelled to paint? Especially as compared with other styles of painting, I look, and find myself asking, why would one want to paint in this manner? In the end, it is actually all about finding a method suitable for one’s self.

KS: And a method suitable for you includes the three-dimensional installations that you have recently begun to work on?

CK: Yes. Those works are actually expressing my understanding of painting. I experience these impulses, and after I have a new idea of how to paint, I can’t help but feel compelled to realize it. Actually, the reason that I began to create this series was because I was using this material as a basecoat on my canvases. I was never quite satisfied with the feeling of the materials used in my works, and had been hoping to find a medium that was more expressive. I feel that sometimes materials can express things that images cannot, so I began using modeling paste. First I applied it directly to the canvas, but I discovered that placing it on the canvas wasn’t satisfying enough. It has incredible adhesive strength, and sticks firmly to many different substances. First, I tried applying it to small objects, like spoons, or bowls. Eventually I moved on to larger items. I experienced huge satisfaction in the moment I apply it, especially when I began mixing it up with acrylic paint, which gave it a bit more texture. It was then in contemplating this texture that I would see a painting begin to compose itself out of the abstract form. There is something delightfully random in that, and its rather fun. Previously, I would have “seen” the final form of a composition in my mind before I even started painting. Though some unforeseen elements would emerge during the process of painting, there were definite limitations.

KS: How did you select the objects to be painted?

CK: I based my choices on my childhood memories, returning to objects that had been given to me by my parents. These were all things that they had kept for me. When I started asking about them, they took out all things they had stored, and sent them to me. The larger objects had to be bought as my parents no longer owned the items I sought. I found them at a secondhand market. These types of furniture from the 60s through to the 80s weren’t too hard to find because back then all the objects that Chinese people used were similar, and no one wants them any more.

KS: How did you apply the modeling paste to the furniture and the objects, with your hand, or a knife?

CK: I used a knife. Actually, a lot of it was flung or thrown onto the objects. When I was applying it I placed a protective covering over the surrounding areas, otherwise everything would have been covered in modeling paste. My painting process is rather lengthy, and passion needs a little bit of release. But I realize that this approach is rather addictive: the act of flinging paste at the object is very thrilling. I want to be excited about my creative process, just like when I was a child, and I would use a ballpoint pen to draw tirelessly for hours on end. Drawing then was especially pure, just a mere form of expression. If one day I could recapture that extremely pure, naïve state, I think I will have achieved my greatest goal.

KS: I know it’s not polite to ask but it seems important to know how old you are, or in what year you were born.

CK: In 1978.

KS: Do you feel part of a generation…are you aware of a common empathy amongst other artists of your age? In the present day, the pace of life is so fast, and it erasing a person’s sense of their past. You might return to your birthplace, and discover that the physical changes in the environment are so great that you cannot find your past or the traces of the world you knew during your childhood. One might say that your childhood is lost, or has vanished before your eyes. Could it be for this reason that the toys that you played with as a child, the environment with which you associate childhood memories, suggested themselves as a compelling subject for your art? Do these kind of feelings factor into your thought process?

CK: These works are definitely related to childhood, but it would be more precise to say that in recollecting pleasant childhood episodes they signify a post-childhood reflection upon past events. Because my family moved house, the environment of my former childhood no longer exists, and all the furniture was all replaced. I did this series also because I wanted to satisfy myself, to revisit those feelings.

KS: If you are working in this vein, can you foresee an end to this installation series?

CK: The current works were intended to give the feeling of an entire home, and I think that it is a complete body of work. After finishing this series, I don’t feel the need to repeat it.

KS: Speaking of this series as a complete body of work, this is an enormous installation, the works must be seen together to give the appropriate effect. Is that how you perceived the work: as one enormous installation?

CK: It is but inevitably the installation would have to be split into separate parts—unless it was possible for one collector to acquire the piece. It was more important to me to complete the work as a whole environment, and for the audience to see it in this way.

KS: You graduated in 2005, and arrived in Beijing just recently. At the time you arrived, there was no real market for your work, but when I saw the price list provided by the gallery, I was rather surprised. I didn’t imagine they would be so high. Does this notion of monetary value on the work have an influence on your creative state?

CK: I used be somewhat influenced, by the auctions, etc. Before I couldn’t understand it, because I was not sending my works to auction: so I couldn’t understand why something bought yesterday was re-auctioned off the next day, and perhaps sold for a really shocking price. My original plan was to go slowly, step by step, just doing things that made me happy, I really didn’t hope for such an escalation in price, but it happened; I can only deal with the present situation. Originally I was working with a gallery because I didn’t want to get involved with sales transactions. I wanted to focus my attention on my work. I find such elements bothersome; I don’t want to get involved.

KS: But do you think these prices express a true value?

CK: To some extent. But it is also another kind of game. It doesn’t have a lot to do with my work, so I didn’t think about it as much.

KS: If, for example, the price of your works was to fall, or to plateau out, do you think that it would influence your work? Would it have a negative impact?

CK: Yes. Perhaps when prices are high one feels a bit in crisis, but the price is already there. All I can do is the best I am capable of. If such a crisis were to occur, I would just carry on doing the best job I can, for everything else is beyond my control. Of course, if I’m going to cooperate with a gallery then I will do the utmost to curtail this [market fluctuation]. But I think that this current madness is also related to the larger art market so what can we do?

KS: Do you paint quickly? How many paintings do you produce in a year?

CK: More than 20.

KS: Do you have a preferred size for the canvases you use?

CK: No, I work on large and small canvases.

KS: I remember seeing your earliest photographic works. Your art has change since then, although it retains a certain dreamlike quality. One new element is a trace of a darker emotion in the work. I don’t know quite what it is, or what drives it. Can you talk a bit about the transition from the very sweet, almost innocent aura of the early works to the rather stark nature of the newer pieces?

CK: In the process of painting I am continuously looking for something inherent, because my works are always related to my inner person. Through this process I am always uncovering new things: there are many layers to a person’s personality, things that go deep. In a certain moment you are reveal an aspect of your personality. In another moment, a totally different side. Perhaps before, when the environment we lived in were very simple, it was possible to express something very pure. But now the world is more complicated. The urban centers are being transformation to new environments. In an enormous city like Beijing, one has feelings of being unsettled. So right now, that sensation reflects another side of my personality.


KS: Do you feel that there are not enough female artists in your generation?

CK: Yes, in terms of numbers.

KS: How does that awareness affect you? That is to say that in certain circles you are at an advantage as a woman, but at certain times it is an obstacle?

CK: I haven’t had any conspicuous feelings one way or the other. I don’t really think about this when I’m working. Actually I really don’t like art that emphasizes gender. Sometimes, when people look at completed works, I hear them described as having feminine qualities. It’s very possible that this is an unconscious expression of my character, but I wasn’t considering these things while creating the work. There is a certain prejudice in thinking that the works that women create have no power, whilst works produced by men must have a certain “weight.” I don’t think that way. I do believe that men and women differ in the way they think, so art always has a personal value. Many works by female artists are powerful, it’s just that the way they express this power is different

KS: Have you decided on a name yet for your exhibition?

CK: Yes, the title is “With you, I will never feel lonely.” It’s the title of one of my previous paintings.

KS: Can you describe the painting?

CK: It was the first painting I completed after coming to Beijing. It shows a pair of twins sitting together. The style of the painting is similar to the previous approach seen in Sichuan, but the mood had already changed. Having just arrived, I felt lonely.

KS: You are a single child?

CK: I’m an only child.

KS: You have no brothers or sisters?

CK: None. At that time if you had another child you couldn’t work, you would be discharged from your work unit, so my parents did not have another. I think that actually this influenced me. When I was small I was always by myself, entertaining myself. Later on, I found I was used to being alone. This has influenced an entire generation of Chinese people.

KS: Do you think that this is a reason your generation tends to pay special attention to the problems of the past? For example, I am lucky in that whilst I might forget things about my childhood, I have a sister who remembers. That process of reminding each other about things that happened keeps the past alive. I can’t imagine not having that.

CK: Yes, I think this is a reason. Also, where I no longer live with my parents, we don’t have so many opportunities to talk about the past. I had an idea when I created this piece that I wanted to communicate this sensibility with my parents. Chinese people are not good at expressing emotions. Even for us, as the younger, freer generation, it is hard to express our feelings for our parents. But just because we don’t voice them does not mean that we don’t have a lot of feelings for them. Thus, the process of creating this particular groups of pieces for the show, allowed me to draw upon these warm emotions.

KS: Are your parents aware that their daughter is a rather successful painter?

CK: They have seen my paintings, but because they are rather removed from my day-to-day life, it is hard for them to get more than a very general, superficial idea. I haven’t told them too much about my life either.

KS: You’ve talked before about the humble nature of the environment you grew up in with you parents, the relative degree of poverty, and the low standard of income in the past. Do you think your parents would be shocked now by the price of your paintings?

CK: Actually they have no notion of consumption or concept of the price of art. I think that they are aware of it, and that they are even a little happy about it, without needing to know too much. Knowing too much would be bad. I was interested in showing them this new series of installation works. I was hoping they would enjoy the experience. I think they enjoyed being involved in the search for the objects I used. I remember the sound of my father’s voice when I called to ask him if they could help me locate thing from when I was a child. I knew all these things were packed in boxes. The whole process of looking for these objects definitely made them happy. As a family, we rediscovered many forgotten things, those times returned and that makes me feel that they also participated in the work, and that makes me happy.

KS: Do you think that they worry for their daughter, about how she conducts her life, and supports herself?

CK: When I graduated my mother and father wanted me to be a teacher at the university. In the end, I decided to become an artist. They weren’t too happy in the beginning: in their opinion it isn’t a proper job. But later on there was nothing they could do. They realized their daughter was already grown up and the decision wasn’t theirs to make. My father is also an art teacher, so he was rather happy that I chose this career. However, they still worry about me: to this day they hope that I will find a “stable” job.

KS: I guess that their concerns are tied to the pace of change in China. Recent development has unfolded so fast. The younger generation is more able to adapt, but for their generation has more trouble understanding the nature of society today and the opportunities it affords.

CK: It is hard for them to imagine. More so because our family doesn’t live in a very large city. The kinds of changes that are taking place are truly difficult for them to accept. Where I am changing, too, I also feel that communicating with my parents is at times not so easy. There are many things that it’s just not possible to share with them, so I choose to tell them things that might make them happy. That way they can still feel that I love them, even though they don’t understand many of my choices, including why I chose this profession. I think that part of the impetus for producing this work was the hope that we could remember times we had shared, and achieve a new level of communication.

[Editor] Mark Lee