Yuan Gong—The Creator
Source:artintern Author:James Hu Date: 2014-07-16 Size:
Among contemporary artists, Yuan Gong has already been the one receiving most attention, and also most controversies. The highest-pitched controversy is whether he is doing art, or whether it’s good art...

Q:James Hu

A:Yuan Gong

Among contemporary artists, Yuan Gong has already been the one receiving most attention, and also most controversies. The highest-pitched controversy is whether he is doing art, or whether it’s good art. After years of his occupation of and invasion to art, media grows more interested in him, and, in particular, more people look at him in a positive way. 

Yuan Gong started to paint in his childhood. Growing up, he became a designer, then a businessman, and now the founder of Yuan Gong Art Museum. This mixture of life experiences shapes a unique individual. He is quite a renegade from the art circle norms by his professional background, appearance, demeanor and even the way he makes his name in the art brotherhood, which actually promotes him to one of the typical cases of Chinese contemporaneity. On the one hand, Yuan Gong is more “mad and insane” than those artists who go by convention, like what he once said, “I would definitely go for extremes in everything I do. I would never let it go if I don’t pity or repent over how far I’ve gone.” On the flipside, one can observe the influence by Tibet and catastrophes on him, but still he has no control over the next creative mode. A pessimist, a go-getter, like Don Quixote stranded in the desert who kept going for his ambition, though he didn’t know where. Besides, he always chooses the risky passages, because “a safe journey is less fun”.

Yuan Gong follows the creative logic of interventional art practice advocated by Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys to stay involved at all levels of Chinese contemporary culture, intervene public life with relational aesthetics and interact with the contemporary world with his works. You may call him a speculator for his unjustifiable interventions. However, in an age which actually makes heroes, won’t your thinking of art be toppled down when he “speculates” with his life?

Q: Are you showing new works in the Armory Show?

A: I am bringing three pieces to the Armory Show, and two of them are new. One is created based on a gold Buddha statue in mid-15th century of Tibet, which is now owned by a collector. I established a database for some of his collected Buddha statues, used 3D printing technology with intentionally manipulated programming mistakes and finally generated a Buddha out of control. This can be deemed as an intervention in contemporary subjects by the extension of media that bears influences on our personality, status of life and social development. It resembles the melancholy fact when we are trapped in the dilemma of sustaining development and feeling the traditional culture in reality. I name it Tunning Back. It might be the melancholy part of my palette of emotions, and this series will grow further. I query my own life by confronting the sacred Buddha and religious belief and break their intrinsic formal dignity during my art practice. The rituality of art creation is like an adventure.

Q: Is there a moment that triggers your understanding of life?

A: I started to paint around 8 or 9 years old and then took it as my major. I was a designer at the Press and Publication Bureau of Shanghai when young and quit in two years to begin my own art design practice that I now think quite successful. I wanted to look into freedom by myself, so I had to be financially independent first. As luck would have it, I lifted myself from the financial plight and got virtually everything I wanted. Then I was tired of it, starting to reflect on the shades of meaning of money and belief in life. That perhaps is the moment.

Q: And you saw the “shadow” of Tibet.

A: As a director of an art institution, I led some artists to Tibet. I initiated the New Power in 2006, the largest of contemporary art events in China then, which won me the Annual Award by Artron.net. But art was more than its commercial flavor to me. When it curtained down and I talked with others, the idea of changing the scene of practice welled up in my mind, the idea leading to the trip to Tibet. That trip was joined by nearly 100 artists. And now looking back, it was an adventure that put our life at risk and placed us in confrontation with mainstream politics and culture. I invited Wang Lin, Xu Tianjin, Zhan Wang and Lv Shengzhong along, who had altitude stress and discomfort to varied extents. Lv was particularly troubled by severe anoxia and often admitted to emergency ward. The scheduled art programs were called off by the authority for no reason out of political inconformity. When I was in Tibet for prep work, I found, through my conversation with local Tibetans, that they couldn’t care less about your wealth or knowledge system. It went true for the Living Buddha, Lama, believers or even our Tibetan driver. In our conversation, they impressed me with a self-possessed and firm stance, a greater confidence in life. They lived on a firm and steady ground, not like us, who are lost in fickleness in reality. Our four successive visits to Tibet were surrounded by variegated questions like the meaning of life and I was most enlightened by the very changeable nature of life. So after those trips, I was more determined and became a go-getter. Hesitation and too much thinking was out of the question.

Q: Having gone so far, is it better for you to deliver your objective by intervening as an artist?

A: I was having a blurred idea when doing art in the course of art ontology back in 2008. But practice matters hugely for me to secure a context for practice and theory. That’s why my discussion of art today is done in the macro social context instead of the isolated art ontology-only setting, with examples of introducing to it journalism, communication, sociology and archeology. After my return from Tibet in 2008, I went to Beijing to study journalism and communication as well as archeology in Peking University. Then I was in Hong Kong Baptist University for an M.A. in Management, and Chinese National Academy of Arts for a Doctorate in Art. I tried to use this academic process to acquire rational knowledge. I don’t care when many people disapprove of my art as proper art since they’ve not seen my preparation for my future art life. I lay my foundation, like that for a skyscraper, and the deeper it goes, the higher it shall rise. As long as I take art seriously, I will one day make my name.

Q: You do have a standard in your mind, right?  

A: I have to be firmly entrenched in art ontology, otherwise I am losing my “root”. It means a lot to me, but still I have to construct an identity that’s only mine. It’s too general for you to claim the cultural identity of China by being born and educated here. What I need is a microscopic, unique cultural image and identity that belongs just to myself. To me, two problems prevail in the present Chinese art circle, and one of them is the absence of stories that really belong to those artists with great artworks that have an international look. Over-formalization is the tension that will eventually be extracted and emptied, yet the identity and content remain for permanency as the enduring power. I’ve closely looked at my identity basis in these eight years and my art practice has just budded on this basis.

Q: Is there a logical relation?

A: For instance, you are seeing signs of my leaving the society in the exhibition at Guangdong Museum of Art, whereas in the past I was trying to occupy and intervene in the society aggressively. I will continue to uphold the style of occupation and invasion in future, yet the practice will be confined and restrained in form, hoping that it can in turn give me more freedom. I was fortunate in the past for not being punished for my runaway and unbridled art practice that bears social risks. I am now contemplating over possibilities of change in future, to go beyond the stereotypical pattern in sociology. Though I have to move closer to art, I know for sure that, against this hope, I need more of honing myself in the society out there. It’s a feeble attempt for just practicing art for art’s sake. Art grows in glamor when it’s more embedded in the social setting. The farther down you reach the end of life, the wilder art becomes. I mean it really and essentially begins. That’s my logic, perhaps. I am grateful for all the favor I get from Heaven.

Q: Exhibitions at Guangdong Museum of Art are really taking a more international look. 

A: Individually, I am interested in the pulse of life, which is shown from my examining life to the influence culture poses to me. I excavated in a formidable way 100m3 of earth in the Zhougong Temple and stored it in two containers. The work itself is casting doubt over the culture in which we are immersed and hinting at the value of the termination of life. In others’ eyes, my art creation process is scattered about in dis-continuum, but I am clear about the connection from dots to clues and further to an organic whole. It is only after I finished my journey that I know it’s a long march, a journey in which life is placed in the context of art. My art practice is not based on a unitary method and this creative stage is basically concluded. Surely it doesn’t mean I fully devote myself to a working pattern under fixed formulas and restrictions, or running riot in occupying limited space. On the surface, people find it difficult to catch the clues of what I did in the last eight years, only seeing my seesawing between perception and rationality, though in general I had been really clear about what I wanted. I will keep my means of occupation in future. You may see the opening of my first international studio in Holland, which I hope is successful and forebodes my global presence. I will establish my space and exhibition in some peculiar places. It’s all for the fact that Chinese contemporary art should make its quest in the global context.

Q: What do think of the phenomenon that many western artists take things outside art as parts and parcels of contemporary art? 

A: Actually there lacks a definitive conclusion over contemporary art in the western academia. There are really lots of schools of academic thoughts. Here are a couple of critical standards. First, never ignore communication studies. We are familiar with many frameworks in its theory and occupation is a basic method, right? That’s what I’ve been up to. Second, traditional aesthetics has its fair place, despite the fact that some may displace beauty with ugliness and substitute aesthetic standards with you-know-what relations. I take these to my heart and am strongly against those who immerse themselves in what is not art and take that otherness as art. To me, this glory-seeking participation is meaningless and I shall never passively engage myself. I want my art to be the all-time protagonist. If I have to choose between life and art to impress the world, I’d prefer life, since it’s way greater than art. But your life is in your art. So art, what’s outside art and life penetrate into each other. This is what I am now, and what I will be when I turn 80. I have that indomitable tenacity in practicing art. I would definitely go for extremes in everything I do. I would never let it go if I don’t pity or repent over how far I’ve gone.

Q: If you have the initiative, that will be challenge to the whole western system.  

A: I am not intending to change the western system with my own. The status quo of China is the result of continuous remaking by the west. I am bred in this system, and I don’t get blamed for what I am; the culprit is the culture that feeds me and the desires thus generated. Wang Lin asked me participate the exhibition of The Voice of the Unseen. He said, “Join us, but change the way you do it. Be there, and be provocative. Excite the media, both in China and abroad, on a dose of adrenaline.” I responded that I would present the western world my “theory of status”. The status of artists and emergence of Utopia are materialized by real action, which is more reliable than going after empty theories. That’s why I produced Air Strike on the World and got some media follow-up. In retrospect, I was not making a change but just presenting my “theory of status”, showing you the deserved status of artists under the sway of this turbulent age. Does my status change anything? It’s a choice by history, not mine.

Q: Can I take it as a passive status that though you intend not the change, every step brings changes?  

A: I never worry about it. I never worry about whether my solo exhibition is allowed into MOMA or elsewhere. I don’t care whether I will shake the system. I am convinced that others will help your dream come true after I die, so why rush it? What really counts is the status of the artist! You have gone the extra mile to bet your life for art, so what’s there to lose? Great and real art is destined to be blessed, and a good status is never passive.

Q: Then why do you present something different in the Armory Show? The beginning of your second phase? 

A: The Armory Show is the start of one part of my conception, and my work is probably having a greater magnitude. You can find in Armory Show a cautiously drawn boundary for myself, an installation, a sculpture, or a sculpture-like installation. It’s not a de facto sculpture, which sends out the odor of tens of kilograms of Tibetan incense that reside within. It’s an aggressive installation that emits a unique smell made of human and bovine bones.

Q: Human bones!?  

A: It’s an inspiration obtained from a place that practices celestial burial. I performed the ritual of burning incenses, kowtowing and praying as if it were a halidom, revering it like our life. My assistant dared not touch the bones, so I did all the job in gloves. It’s like inquiring after my own life.  Q: When I interviewed Ai Weiwei in 2007, he categorized artists all over the world into ultimately two types. One keeps constructing myths and the other, deconstructing them. He thought himself the latter. But the main problem with them is that few actually approve of their artistic concepts. What do you say? 

A:I am interested in how to change my life into an objectified being, namely how it will dissolve after I perish, the way of which means a lot to me. Some may have never examined their life. I am both gloomy and stimulated, interested in the value of my life. Some still question my identity as an artist. In fact I have found an artistic approach to respond to this inquisitiveness, and that’s enough. I can turn it into a power and energy. With that transformation, my artist identity loses its touch while my cultural identity owns it. I won’t forsake my origin in my future art practice, and I won’t enter the western context solely in an alien way. The western alienation is fine, and I sometimes take that as a reference. But I care very much about and stay vigilant against my cultural identity. I allow being marginalized in the west. I like to create myths of marginalized individual being.

Q: Tell me about your own reflections on your journey of art practice. 

A: At the invitation of international art institutions, I plan to exhibit an Old Summer Palace made of bones in Buckingham Palace in future. Some argue about its politicized nature, but I think not. It’s but an urge from my life. I express my embarrassment out of my discontent with the status quo as a Chinese, which is not to doubt or negate the history related to the Old Summer Palace. From the messy present China to history, you will distrust the so-named truth and doubt you personality based on and grown out of your knowledge of history. What’s the reason for my acting sad in Buckingham Palace? A critique on my own culture or a rebellion against the alien culture? The mixture of sadness out of both sources, as well as the blend of the contemporary and past, blur my sight. It’s likely that contemporary art unravels a maddening chaos, but it’s more about reflection and self-examination, instead of whining about history and reality. I want others to feel it through my repentance, and that’s the progressive tense of time. If contemporary art fails to be presented in a temporal framework, that’s the past tense, a lost cause. Contemporary art should run parallel to time, racing along when time travels to unfold the situation of life right now, right at the moment, no matter whether it relates to politics, economy, religion and culture or not.

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[Editor] 刘建兰