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A Cesspool Covered with Flowers

----Replies to My Friends in the Coming Spring


January and February Combined Issue of HI Art, 2009

Q: Were there anything impressive to you last year? How much the economic crisis has influenced you?

A: I have mentioned in my latest two columns that in 2008 there were three things that impressed me: the big earthquake happened in Sichuan Province, the Olympic Games, and the Richter’s exhibition in China. We have suffered a tremendous loss in Sichuan Earthquake. By far, the total death toll has reached 69146, the announced magnitude has been revised from 7.8 to 8, and the entire economic loss has exceeded 20 billion dollars. It is really an arduous task to reconstruct the affected area. The 2008 Olympic was held in Beijing, lasting 16 days. According to Beijing Olympic Committee, they have donated 8 million yuan to stricken areas in Sichuan, and the account was balanced, with a small surplus. However, as far as I know, China has invested 48 billion dollars on 2008 Olympic Games, and only the opening and closing ceremonies have cost 500 million dollars: the income fell short of the expenditure. I do not know whom to believe.

As to the economic crisis, it is not necessary to panic. Now some media keep reporting how horrible the unprecedented economic crisis is, which has shocked the public. In my opinion, we are in no condition to ridicule this economic crisis rising from capitalist countries. Since China implemented the Reform and Opening Policy in 1978, we have held the slogan “Crossing the river by feeling for the stones”. However, over these 30 years, we have not “feeling for the stones” at all, and rather we have copied the economic operation mode of the capitalist markets. Nevertheless we are afraid of and object the saying that China is a quasi-market economy country. People who have witnessed the Cultural Revolution all remember that during the ten years of the revolution, the national economy had collapsed rather than on the edge of collapsing, with an extreme shortage of goods and materials. At that time, any goods that you could imagine had to be bought with various coupons, such as food coupon, cloth coupon, oil coupon, sesame oil coupon, meat coupon, egg coupon, bean product coupon, cigarette coupon, sugar coupon, bicycle coupon and sewing machine coupon, and the quantity was limited. Now it is less than 20 years since the coupons and allotment system have been canceled. I still remember that an expectant mother then could only buy a kilo of carrots with special coupons because of the lack of brown sugar. Even on Spring Festival, the cigarettes of famous brand such as “phoenix”, “peony” and “Large Front Door” would not be used to entertain guests. If a family had such cigarettes, they would treasure up them for half a year. Chinese people have survived such difficult lives, so it is unnecessary to be afraid of any kind of economic crisis and ridicule others’ panic.

The economic crisis has exerted some influence on me, but not too much. I, as well as my ink-and-wash paintings, have not been in the danger of foam economy and are going well, with obvious effect on art circles. Contemporary art in China has not solid basis and originality, but artists are keen on creating and spreading news. Now the art circle in China has been full filled with authentic and false news of success, which are rather undistinguishable: in my eyes it is just like a cesspool covered with flowers.

Q: How much importance do you attach to experimental spirit in artistic creation?

A: I think it comes first and is the most important.

To speak bluntly, experimental spirit is nothing but originality. Facing numerous various artistic works, even professionals will be confused, not to say inexperienced people. In my opinion, a classical work must be, first of all, original; otherwise it is valueless no matter how much praise it has received.

Then how to judge whether a work is original or not? Bluntly, an original one is something that you have never seen or heard of; theoretically, during artistic creation, the artists must focus on creativity, technique and material, and any breakthrough in these three aspects can be seen as an innovation. In terms of creativity, original works should reflect ideas that have never been adopted, obviously bear the sign of the times, and show strong critical consciousness. As to technique, original works are created with the methods that have not been used before, such as those painted by Richter, Shi Tao and Zhu Da. When it comes to materials, if a painter, such as Duchamp and Rauschenberg, can adopt something that others do not dare to use, then we can say his work is original. Of course, all innovation should be reasonable and bear squeezing. Those ridiculous ones, such as drawing lotus leaves with one’s bottom, eating shit, acting Sorcerer’s dance and making exaggerated expressions, should not be included.

Q: Then in terms of the innovation of ink-and-wash paintings, what kind of innovation do you think is more important, the one in skill or that in concept?

A: I think innovation in concept is the most important, and that in skill follows. It may be rather difficult to achieve both of them.

The history of ink-and-wash painting is above 2000 years longer than that of oil painting with a history for 700 years. Anyway, the skills that are formed during so long a period are much richer, more detailed and more mature than oil painting skills. For me, the existing skills are enough.

What we lack is the enrichment and updating of concepts, but I do not mean to negate them totally. Chinese people have lived a miserable life over recent hundreds of years, and sometimes they cannot even find the sense of safety. Therefore, they begin to suspect everything around them, including culture. This phenomenon is rather common and prevalent in China. Our current concept is like that and we should update it at first.

Q: I feel that since the beginning of your painting career, you have kept contending with western oil-painting concept with our local painting. Where does your motivation come from?

A: I have not any concept. What I have is the will that I will never give up till my complete failure. I think one should focus on his own task, and the half-made work should not be displayed. Nobody knows what you are thinking, and others will never make correct comment on your thoughts. Therefore it is unnecessary for you to listen to others, and thus you may not be influenced. Some people love announcing exaggerating news, with their purpose of confusing those who are weak-minded or conforming their own will. Hence we must not be tempted by them.

For anything, we should find its root by asking some questions: Why he said like this and not like that? Does he keep saying so or will change his way tomorrow? Who has paid him? Who ordered him? You have spent dozens of years in studying something, without any clear result, and how can those unprofessional people guide you? Moreover, the world is full of truth and lies, and only by engaging in something can you understand its nature. However, after engaging in it, you will usually do something involuntarily, and then the only thing you can do is to face everything with smile.

After you have understood that, you may not need any motivation. Just like there is a cesspit covered by flowers ahead, and you will choose to skirt around it without any painstaking judgment and hard ideological struggle.

Zhu Wei

February 5th, 2009