Unexplainable Excitement and the "Printmaking / Oil Painting Technique"
Source: Date: 2008-11-13 Size:
Li Xianting Interviews Wang Yiqiong Li: I have seen these works of yours in the past, such as Horn Hat and the photograph Still Garden, which were all highly conceptual. You did highly conceptual work for many years. Why did you suddenly come back to this “printmaking / oil painting series&rd



Li Xianting Interviews Wang Yiqiong

Li: I have seen these works of yours in the past, such as Horn Hat and the photograph Still Garden, which were all highly conceptual. You did highly conceptual work for many years. Why did you suddenly come back to this “printmaking / oil painting series”, where you make a print, and use it as a reference to make an oil painting? Why do you make them twice?

Wang: I studied printmaking when I was at the Central Academy of Fine Art, especially copper etching, and I have always been making prints. I held a solo exhibition of my etchings in Beijing in 1990, which at the time could be seen as a successful exhibition. My classmates and teachers thought my work was pretty good, and Fang Lijun, my classmate, also liked my work. I liked my work. Upon graduation I returned to Jiangsu Province and fell immediately into a rut. I felt that this kind of success was illusory, totally meaningless, like I had lied to myself. At that time, since the magazines Jiangsu Pictorial and China Fine Arts had been shut down, the critics had nowhere to publish the articles they had written, and the future was very uncertain. Then I went to work at the Jiangsu Printmaking Academy, where I continued with printmaking. It was a massive imbalance that led me to do conceptual art, because for a long time I had always worked by hand; in this way, working by hand is a return to my earliest state. At the time I wondered, was there any hope or future in working by hand? Was doing conceptual stuff the only way to stay with the times? So I started making conceptual works. Horn Hat was because etchings were so painstaking, and I relaxed a bit. In China, bull horns allude to bullishness, meaning talent and ability.

Li: I think it was around 2000. Conceptual and new media art were really hot in the Chinese art scene. You had me wear the horn hat and get my photo taken. Isn’t that a bit like “sprouting horns”, the Chinese saying for showing talent?

Wang: Right, sprouting horns. I wanted everyone around me to be very bullish, and with this artwork I wanted every artist to have a connection with the “bull”, and in a way, have a connection with me. Early on a lot of artists liked doing sketches, comics and photographs. I wanted to find a medium, so I used silk screen printing to make a hat, and I had you wear it, and I had him wear it, and it was like your head was an art museum. By wearing the hat once, it was like the hat was being exhibited at an art museum, and our connection was established. That is what I was thinking at the time. When I was doing conceptual art in Nanjing there were a lot of subjective ideas. The further you get from the art hubs the more idealised the art becomes. When I got to Beijing I realised that the ideals were not all that clear. It became a real problem finding specific people to take photos of. I had wanted to relax, but instead it was really tiring, having to run all over the country and coming up against all sorts of problems. In the process of the actual shooting I had come up against a wall, but then I drew some spiritual inspiration from an American photographer. He was doing this theme, taking photos of world presidents, and he had to wait thirty years for one photo. That president refused to have his picture taken by other photographers for a long time, but after thirty years he got the photo and realised his dream. So I planned to do this for a while, and in the process a came across a lot of interesting things. It was great. After I finished I slowly discovered a lot of problems. There was a wide gap between my imagination and the situation of reality against our cultural background. So that is why I returned to working by hand.

Li: It was a return after a sudden change.

Wang: Yes. There was a core issue here, which was the spiritual transformation that takes place in artists when they move to Beijing. This transformation changed me. All of your past education, all of your cultural knowledge gets derailed when you come to Beijing and engage with the artistic currents there, and that causes a lot of pain. After I came to Beijing I made Horn Hat, and some installations, and compiled some essays, but it all amounted to nothing. I discovered that all of the knowledge I had absorbed, including knowledge of art history and any knowledge related to art, was problematic, very chaotic. So I took a lesson from the “refresh” technique in computing, and I did a reboot. It is really easy to delete things in a computer, but it is very difficult to delete things from the human brain. I wanted to delete things but couldn’t. It was very difficult to return to zero. I remember you curated an exhibition entitled Buddha Beads and Brushstrokes. Those exhibitions had a strong sense of asceticism and a psychological return to zero, though that return to zero was attained through art. My return was done through meditation and reflection. That was a very important topic in 2002 and 2003. We were in a chaotic period, and art was being taken over by the market. I think it was good that I had strove to return to zero, because it became impossible once the market took off. People became more restless, because a return to zero meant having no money, and you cannot live without money.

My early works were very faithful to the academic school. Copper prints are very academic, and I had worked very hard to attain that level. Xu Bing met me back then because I was always in the studio, working from eight in the morning to eleven at night. He told me I would tire myself out. He did not go to the copper printing studio very often, but he saw me there every time he did, so I caught his attention. As a student, I had taken part in some of the work for his Heavenly Book and Ghosts Pounding the Wall. By then you had already raised a lot of contemporary art ideas, but I was still in my student phase. I was only an observer at the China / Avant Garde exhibition of 1989, with none of my works on display, and my understanding of contemporary art was a bit behind. After over a decade I gradually came to realise that there were fundamental problems with the academic school I had loved so much, so I started thinking about how I could escape the problems of my academic pedigree.

Li: There are a lot of things that can be transferred from the academic school, but you definitely do not want to be “academic”.

Wang: Right. Cultivation and work are very important, but there’s no point to this ossified system of conventions. This system has a lot of influence over Chinese art, and I came from this system. If I had stayed in Beijing upon graduation and gone to the Yuan Ming Yuan or Song Zhuang artist villages, I might have taken a different path. My classmates like Fang Lijun, Qi Zhilong and Wang Qiang, who eat together every day as brothers, have taken a different path than I have. I have a ten year gap in the middle, not an artistic one, but a spiritual isolation, one that allowed me to reap rewards in a different system. Then I had an artwork that would “compete in the National Art Exhibition for a golden award”. What does that mean? Theoretically, being featured in the National Art Exhibition was not important, but the last national exhibition was the most important one in fifty years of the People’s Republic of China, and the Ministry of Information was paying attention. The amount of resources from this massive system, including administrators, the people put in action, the money and materials used, put it on par with the Olympics. I wanted to take part, but my goal was not the exhibition, but the proposal of a concept, which was that if this artwork won an award, it would be a success, and if not, a failure. So I made a lot of preparations, and when they evaluated the artworks, there was a lot of controversy and discussion surrounding my artwork. I won a bronze award. It was not about the award, as I consider a bronze award to be a failure, but this artwork became established within this system, and there was a duality there. I think that this aspect is rather interesting. I tried something with this work, and I failed.

Li: That is success, winning an award?

Wang: I had planned on winning the gold. Then I realised that I was being a bit childish, and that this was too much like something an art academy student would do. This bit of history gave me an important inspiration. How, as an artist today, could I participate in the construction of contemporary society? Then I came out with those oval photographs. I wanted to tell people what our identity was, and what the Chinese identity was in the contemporary sense. I wanted to use this method to deal with those issues. Appearing in the artworks were the commonly seen landscapes, trees, pavilions, plants and clouds, icons I had been using in many of my works since the nineties, but I didn’t want to use icons that were too conceptualised, such as dragons, phoenixes or scholar stones, because there’s not a whole lot you can do with those. But our Chinese resources are very rich; you can dig a wealth of them from ancient times, from current times, from books. I completely looked to nature, and I shot photos with a very southern feel. I did not shoot the gardens, instead I went to the mountains to shoot real landscapes. I realised that the landscape had been completely conceptualised by Chinese people. No matter how I shot, it all came out looking like a manicured garden. Then I realised that Chinese landscapes are massive gardens. My understanding of landscape is that it is not just mountains and rivers, it is a thread in Chinese culture, and you have to find a way to continue this thread. For instance, when we talk about rivers and mountain streams, they are no longer rivers, but national concepts. My work reflects things from that perspective. In it, there is a monkey wrapped on a person’s head. A lot of people asked me why I did that. I said that it is actually this kind of southern unconventionality. I wanted to convey the wounded state of contemporary man these days, and with a monkey wrapped around my head, it looks like a wounded person, with wounded, unconventional expressions and actions. When this person is placed together with the landscape, the landscape itself becomes unconventional, something that goes against the traditional landscape system. Traditional landscapes are very sublime, where nature is massive and people are tiny. This was how the ancients felt, but the sentiment I am letting out is that it is no longer a feeling of massive mountains and tiny people, but the perception that there is nowhere to hide. The landscape is beautiful, but there is nowhere for you to hide, because you are too wounded. I intentionally emphasised this wounded feeling. I have continued with this the whole time. I am from Jiangsu, and if I do not say that, I cannot move on. If you are a peasant, you feel you can never tell anyone you are a peasant. If you cannot do a reboot, then you will always have those deep-rooted traits. It is like us southerners coming to Beijing. We are all worried that someone will see that we are southerners. Southerners are too weak on many accounts, so I preemptively spit it out like silk from a worm. It is like telling people that you are a peasant, and what you are home is like, with a hoe, a sickle, a blanket and a pair of shoes. Once you say it, you realise you have not lost face. It’s very relaxing, and it does not matter anymore, you can go out and conquer the world. Mao Zedong was like that. Once you have filtered everything you are carrying inside, you can easily face it. So those artworks of mine were a filtering of my sentiments as a southerner. It was quite typical, I saw that I was so southern, I dealt with my identity, and everything was fine. Look at that stuff now. The other day a friend came to see my paintings and said that I’d finally stood up. On the one hand, they were big paintings, and he was talking about them standing up, but on the other hand it was that I had stood up as a southern artist. I was really happy. Of course I had just begun, and I wanted to find my own qualities – the union of concept and technique. Some of my earlier works were too conceptual, and I had lost a lot of the wellspring.


Li: Actually if you look at the works of successful Chinese artists, especially the painters, their technique is really good.

Wang: That is right, and that is why I returned to working by hand, just as I started with. I have always been interested in wood, as well as stone and copper, but I am most interested in wood. That is because I feel that wood represents certain qualities of Chinese culture. Iron is too hard, stone is too heavy, while wood brings together the best qualities of both. It is hard like stone and sharp like metal, but it is also durable. When you die, you lay in a wooden coffin. I think that wood is the material that is the closest to man.

Li: Foreigners are laid in coffins when they die too. Wood can also be very gentle. Chinese traditional buildings are made of wood and bricks, and there are many houses that are made of just wood, like the wood pagoda of Ying County. Stone is also very important in the traditional literati mentality; remember the Song Dynasty scholar Mi Fu, who practically worshipped stone. But stone is also about penetration and crumpling, so in a way it has been feminised. It is the same with metal. I think that for the most part, Chinese traditional literati culture is quite feminine.

Wang: Right. Wood has a human touch. It is a lot like man – it grows, and after it dies, it continues to grow, becoming host to mushrooms and whatnot. When a man dies, he becomes something else. One day I had the sudden realisation that it is painful when one cannot die. What I mean by that is when after one dies, the body is still in use, turned into different materials by microorganisms. Let’s go back to the question of technique.

Li: These paintings of yours are the result of a dual technique.

Wang: That is the idea. I think that contemporary artists should be very conceptually interesting, and they should also be highly talented in terms of technique.

Li: I think that artworks should be technically difficult and employ skills that others cannot replicate. When you look at the works of Liu Wei, Mao Yan and [Zhou] Chunya, a glance at the details and you know who painted them.

Wang: I also emphasise the mark of craftsmanship. To create this, I have two stages in my work. The first stage is the print, and when that is done, there is painting. It felt tedious at first, but not anymore, because it all happens with me, and tediousness is normal. Printmaking is what I began my studies with and have always been faithful to, and now I am slowly taking it a step forward, which is a very natural process. When Fang Lijun heard this, he said I was basically making a draft in print, and then painting it as a painting. He is right about that. He really understands printmaking. There is no hierarchy between printmaking and painting. They are just two different types of images, and they each have things on the margins that can be appropriated by the other. This is the kind of work that I have wanted to do for many years. The problem with printmaking today, I am not saying that it is bad, but its material qualities, production process, expressive content and the state that it is in all seem to be a bit weak these days.

Li: Printmaking was first used for illustrating books, and as an independent form of art, it was limited by the “smallness” of the medium. Modern society is one where the masses can all enjoy art. As the display space grows, prints are easily drowned out in these big spaces. So Fang Lijun made those massive prints, and when the prints became big, the solid edges and strong colours made them more eye-catching than oil paintings.

Wang: I also want to bring the strengths and weaknesses of printmaking together with those of oil painting. There are two kinds of technical problems involved. For one, printmaking is an art of solid edges, while oil painting is fluid. There is a contradiction between solid edges and fluid ones, so the paintings I make now are very much in the margins. You can see my individual iconology in the visual effect, but it’s very strange, and people always think that it kind of hangs somewhere between printmaking and oil painting. By the time I make a painting, I have already thought about this issue. I want people to think that it is neither a print nor an oil painting. Every time I start to use oil painting techniques I have to hold myself back and remind myself that I am not using oil painting techniques, only oil paints. Just as with Chinese painting, there are too many techniques in oil painting. I think that Chinese painting declined because there were too many techniques, and this is the same factor that led to the decline of oil painting. Some oil painters came to take a look, and I asked them for their suggestions, but they either thought it was great or it was bad, and no one had any suggestions. That was very sincere. If you look at my work from the perspective of oil painting techniques, then you can totally dismiss my work. But they also thought I had used oil paint to make something that looked like an oil painting but was not, and this is something that oil painting could borrow from. I am not using oil paintings to finish off the borders of a print, I am actually painting, and even doing a bit of calligraphy. If you take a closer look, you will also see knife marks in the paint, a complex set of connections that is visually perplexing, and that is what I am after. You just mentioned technique. If you want to move people, you need a technique that others cannot reproduce. Also, you need fresh individual iconography, so people feel that you are different. I think that the core of contemporary art is the copyright. Contemporary art is for single use. Once you have done something, it is hard for others to get by on copying it.

Li: What kind of problems do you encounter when painting with oils? I’d like to know some specifics about how you handle them, such as how you deal with the mutually exclusive relationship between the solid borders of printmaking and the brush strokes of oil painting. You cannot just paint solid borders, but the borders must be maintained, because the borders give the picture strength. I am interested in how you deal with this.

Wang: I have done printmaking for over a decade, and I have come up with my own methods for that. I have never come across any limitations with my colour process, and I can print things however I want to. I have never come across any limitations with my painting either; I just feel that once I started painting in large sizes it became much richer than the original prints.

Li: So you are basically saying that the print serves as your model.

Wang: You are right, the print is the scale model, and I make it bigger. I can use a lot more space, so when I am dealing with borders I think it is not much of an issue, not something that is important. The covering of colours is not that important either. That is because when you paint it big, you realise that where you were once limited to two colours, you can now use a hundred.

Li: You can see the marks of the two pressing against each other. It maintains the solid borders and strong colours of prints, and it also has the rich expressiveness of oil painting’s colour layers, colour degrees and brush strokes.

Wang: Right, aside from that, we can see that there is still more potential somewhere between the two, and that is what fascinates me the most. In printmaking, I can complete a work after pressing three colours, but when I turn it into an oil painting, I realise that there is more potential, even while maintaining the original three colours. I find it really interesting to paint with oil; it gives me a chance to paint it all over again. It is just like when you are drawing a mockup of a house, you get really involved, but when you turn that model into a real house, you get even more involved, because it is more vivid and interesting.

Li: When I make a mockup it is an idea, but when the house is being built you come across a lot of details that you did not consider when making the mockup. It is very meaningful.

Wang: Right. There is also the issue of implementation. Aside from technique, which you just mentioned, as an intellectual I think about exactly what I want to say in my dialogue with contemporary culture, how I choose this topic, why I want to paint this, what I want to express and why I want to use this technique. With market operations in art, schematisation has become quite big. A lot of people use all kinds of methods to create schema, to design a form that can be reproduced on a massive scale.

Li: There is no real point in us paying too much attention to that kind of stuff. I always say, “Let the money follow you, don’t follow the money”. I saw Duchamp’s works in Europe, and there were so many urinals. Duchamp could not ignore etiquette, he gave a lot of them away, so we can understand that. Géricault had one painting that he painted over thirty times. A lot of people liked it and wanted to collect it, so he copied it. That is not really an issue. But later people saw that a certain schema was successful, so they made the same one in a bunch of ways, thinking that was better than making a lot of different schema. We do not need to discuss this. Let’s continue on the images in your work.

Wang: Most of the forms are people. In my student days I did not paint people, nor did I paint landscapes. Instead, I mostly painted still lifes, because I felt that they corresponded better to my internal world. If I wanted to paint people I would have to research people. But then I suddenly realised that these objects were not of myself, and they were quite distant from society. On that day I said I would never paint a still life again, and that from now on I would paint people. With people, there is a wider spiritual realm, and it is all related to society. The theme I am working on now is called Chinese Lovers, which depicts my attitudes towards lovers in China. Lovers is a very interesting topic in China, but over time, it will eventually dissipate, become ambiguous, hard to describe, secretive, something that cannot be talked about publicly. It all looks very shocking, moving and complex. What I want to convey is this complexity and its ambiguous relationship with society. My next series will be called Kung-fu, which is not just limited to the martial arts as people understand them. I was practicing Tai-chi with a friend the other day. It is really interesting. On the surface it looks like a form, and there are many things that can be explained inside, but the explanation becomes difficult from the perspective of two-dimensional painting, so I will do it on a more ambiguous level. Kung-fu is often connected to strength and violence. What I want to do is actually connected to my previous Lovers series. Jin Yong’s1 novels often equate love and swordplay, and love is actually a kind of kung-fu. That is what I want to do. I want to beat around the bush, not to do it too strongly, because it is already visually quite strong. I do care about the transformation taking place in society, but a lot of people do not pay attention to the lives of the people that take place behind this social transformation. Someone told me something quite interesting the other day. He said that Bill Clinton had a very strong sex drive, and whether or not he had sex on a certain day might have determined whether or not he went to war with a certain country or signed off on a certain document. That is to say that his internal situation was a factor in these things, but all we could see on the surface was the signed document. The unsigned document might have some connection to his emotions, but that was left unsaid. That is what I want to do. I want to go find out what life is like behind the gentleman and the bandit.

Li: Serendipity.

Wang: Right, it is actually hard to grasp. I think that my works mirror the world. They are not the real thing, but what gets refracted through the lens. That is what I am digging for.

Li: I like the word entanglement. It is the emotional entanglement behind the person you care about, but it is also you are arrangement of the margins, pushing back and forth, the rich brushstrokes of oil painting and the solid borders of prints. That is very interesting. Painting in the end relies on some special kung-fu, special techniques, to express the schema and forms and the internal entanglements you perceive. A lot of people these days paint schema but they do not have a special technique. It is all very conceptualised. Let’s get back to the imagery in your work, the people, the eagles, they are all forms. We can talk all day about technique, but what do people first see when they look at your paintings?

Wang: My works fall into two parts. The first is about flight, Yes, Can Fly!. It is a statement telling people that this thing can fly. The sentiment expressed in this work is that people today are full of desire, but much of that desire is restrained, and that is painful. In painting eagles, or even roosters, I am saying that people today are like they have injected chicken blood2. This sentiment I have expressed is like being on chicken blood, totally and inexplicably excited.

Li: Injecting chicken blood was a popular folk remedy in the 1970’s. Now it has moved on to the cold water remedy, the hand-slapping remedy, etc…

Wang: This state that is reached by injecting chicken blood is what I want to convey. I think I am kind of like someone who has injected chicken blood. It was very serious for a few years. Here, injecting chicken blood is not about health, but about social healing. Look at this person, so excited, so crazed about doing things, like he has injected chicken blood, all full of excitement. This has been a pretty universal phenomenon over the past decade. Overexcitement leads to inflation. Everything is inflated, even people. A new board that has not been carved is very clean, and once you take a knife to it, it becomes scarred, and I turn these scars into my language, and this language is marked by excitement. This is a method that has grown out of the properties of printmaking. If I used oil paint, I would not be able to get this excited. It is carved out, mark by mark, and it is quite tangy, tangy and sharp. There is also a sense of tension that is applied to my works, which expresses that chicken blood condition I was just talking about. We need a language to express that feeling when someone is held back, but really wants to bust out. So I used this kind of language, and I strengthened it when I was carving. It is like that here too. This shape is a special shape, a kind of shape you will not find in other forms of painting. So I wanted to put these kinds of brushstrokes to work. One theme is the issue of flight, and another is the issue of emotion, Chinese Lovers. This Chinese Lovers theme is quite entangled. The relationship of Chinese lovers is secretive and furtive, but also equivocal. Though it is pumped full of chicken blood, no one dares to broadcast it, so it is even more tangled. Later on I made use of some flowers. Flowers are a popular icon. They have got a bit of ambiguity to them, and symbolise femininity.

Li: Your Yes, Can Fly!, Chinese Lovers and your current Kung-fu series use eagles, women, flowers and kung-fu to create metaphorical imagery; this is the first level of factors that go into your language, and the first thing that one sees when looking at the picture. The content behind the picture is the sentiment of this period – that unexplainable excitement that comes with injection of chicken blood or the use of stimulants, which is your perception of how things feel in man’s condition of existence, is the most important component of your work. For this, you have found a very creative technique for this batch of works – the “oil painting / printmaking technique”. This is the second level of factors that go into your language, and the main theme we have just discussed. The oil paintings that result from the “oil painting / printmaking technique” are permeated with the printmaking techniques you have learned over the decades, and they also make use of the colours, brushstrokes and richness of oil painting, which you apply in recreating an already completed print. The resulting image has the purity and strength of sharp edges and colour blocks from printmaking as well as the richness of oil painting. Especially worth noting is your handling of the boundaries between each form, a process that deals with the contradictions and entanglements between the characteristics of oil painting and printmaking; this also shows us your psychological process of unexplainable excitement and its suppression.

[Editor] Zhang Shuo