A conversation between Li Xiaoshan and Zhu Wei
Xiaoshan (Li): What do you think about contemporary art?
Wei (Zhu): I always revolt against using the term contemporary art at
every turn. Some people always emphasize that they are contemporary, and
even do contemporary art in a way they used to do political movements. I
think they’re only using the name to achieve their own goals. For
instance an eighteen-year-old girl standing in front of us, and she
constantly stress that she’s eighteen, which everybody can see. If
you’re really young, you don’t have to say that, everybody knows.
Then why she has to keep stressing on her age and youth? She must have
some attempt. May be she can make a better deal with her age - if
she’s a prostitute. Youth is visual, if you have to accentuate your
juvenility, that only proves you’re getting old. And this is a typical
situation in art nowadays: there always are people who consider
themselves contemporary. But can art actually be distinguished by
contemporary and none-contemporary? If you say you’re contemporary,
then please tell me what is not contemporary? It’s as simple as after
a few years we cannot say this installation is a contemporary
installation and that multi-media is not contemporary multi-media. To
label art is to make countless illegible individuals into a clear-cut
group - without the label people can’t recognize you. This is the
same with historians study history. But history only studies those
already become past tense, why art in present tense is so hurry to tab,
to footnote itself? Plus, if your work is labeled contemporary right
after creation, it only means the life of your work is in countdown -
in a short time it’s going to be none-contemporary, and will soon be
washed out and abandoned. We have to offer all kinds of ongoing art
phenomena with time and space, and not to hurry defining them as
contemporary or anything else.
What do you think about the 1985 Art Movement, the post-89 political
pop, Popi, and Cynical-realism, etc?
The 1985 Art Movement happened not long after the reform and opening up,
at the time we just started to accept some new western stuff. The
movement was self-generated by artists, though technically it was a
primitive emulation of western art, the artists were very simple and
idealistic. Gao Minglu once recalls that after the Grand Exhibition of
Modern Art held in the China Art Museum, the organizing committee asked
the participants to come and take theirs works back, but many artists
didn’t bother to come. The post-89 was quite different. It was created
out of nothing by an overseas gallery and a couple of critics. At the
time it was so called “Post-89 Chinese New Art”, using the word 89
was just a stunt. And the artists selected by the show were all
commercially smart: their works rifely used western materials; the
pictures were rich in color; themes perfunctory and away from trouble;
quickly finished in a short time and dumped in large quantity; no room
for artistic creation.
What is your view towards today’s ink and wash?
The Chinese ink and wash, or we should say Chinese painting,
historically had always been a parallel form of art and aesthetic with
the western painting. Why many Chinese artists nowadays feel unsure in
their creation? Only because the materials and concepts they master are
not original, but imported. The using of these materials and concepts
can only be copies, not renewable, whereas the Chinese painting, whose
frame of reference is not western. Many people have asked me which
foreign masters had influenced my creation, I can not tell, for in fact
there isn’t any. However, Fan Kuan in the Song Dynasty, Shi Tao and
Badashanren in the late Ming Dynasty and early Qing Dynasty have placed
great influence on me. They are much like my friends around me, my
frames of reference, and objects that I want to challenge and surpass.
the internalization of art
Have you ever confronted any problems in your creation in the last dozen
If there has been any, it’s only on the appearance of the pictures.
And the problem lies on the essence of Chinese ink and wash itself. Ink
and wash is a type of art that’s dominated by lines, while color and
formation only support the lines. Line is very elastic; a formation
based on lines would make color accessorial. If you want to make a
painting with all elements, like oil painting, then the lines will be
weakened, yet Chinese painting most emphasize on lines. The best
meticulous is line drawing, which is the very way to show someone’s
skill. The present painting pattern strives for painting feature and
partialness. I also tried to do frontal but never succeeded, I tore them
up all. There has to be some perspective, this is a barrier of line.
When painting I try my best not to use any western painting element.
Taking color as an example, as long as the color is available in Chinese
Painting pigments I absolutely don’t use Japanese Painting pigments.
You see in my paintings British watercolor pigments, propylene pigments,
and Japanese pigments is because that the Chinese ink and wash pigments
don’t have those colors. As I use perspective, which is only to solve
the problems of ink and wash painting. If the ink and wash painting
remains stuffy, it’ll only be what it was before.
Ink and wash is not just a simple question of merging into international
orbit, but the possibility of internationalization, and the fact that
internationalization already exists. Under such circumstances, what
course is ink and wash to follow? A new background has come into being,
the internationalized stage has become a background that has to be
faced, how are we going to cope with it?
I think that adhering to what we have already had have become more
Like Chinese, to translate it into English, there has to be a
translator. And translating certainly will include filtration and
Misunderstanding means your creation still needs interpretation, which
is probably because your conception is yet to be perfect. If you paint
with your heart, why would you worry about misunderstanding? Why would
you need to interpret?
The forms are different. For instance literature, it has to be
translated. And language translation, no matter how good it can be,
there has got to be something that’s missing. While painting is a
universal language that doesn’t need to be translated. We look at
African art, American art, European art, or Chinese traditional art, we
don’t need a translator to explain to us.
For painting is a very primitive language.
To enjoy or accept, it’s much easier than words. Word language is
largely abstract, needs to be transformed from one system to another.
And needs to be embodied with words.
If translate something from English to Chinese, there are many things
that can only be understood in English language system, which can’t be
translated in Chinese language system. And wise versa, there are many
Chinese that can’t be precisely translated into English. The Beijing
dialect, as of many other dialects, is hard to be understood in other
places of China that’s out of the Beijing dialect system, not to even
mention the English system. This is the very limitation and
characteristic of word language. But painting, as a visual language
form, is universal. It doesn’t need any translation to be understood.
Anyone is able to directly appreciate arts that don’t belong to his
system. I was talking about internationalization, and you asked me if
you were international? Why do you have such confidence and gut? It
means your experiences have already proved that you are. If we look back
to this question, we’ll find that painting language wasn’t universal
as it is now in the era when communication was obstructed. A certain
type of visual graphic was not understandable and appreciated by people
who didn’t belong to the cultural system. For example in the Qing
Dynasty, both for the westerners to Chinese paintings and Chinese to
western paintings, the difficulty of understanding was unbelievable.
I think the impact of the Chinese art on the western art was fierce too.
According to the documents of the time, the misunderstanding of the
western audiences to the Chinese paintings, and the evaluation of
westerners on the weak sculpting ability of the Chinese are enigmatical
nowadays. How come the Chinese simply couldn’t paint? In his book
Hegel directly said that the Chinese didn’t know plastic arts. Why?
Hegel’s reason was: we didn’t know light and shadow perspective. He
said we didn’t understand far and near of the light and shadow, this
is perspective. So, according to him, the paintings such as
Badashanren’s, just sketches of a few things, no background, no
nothing, isn’t this blind drawing? Obviously, his judgments were based
on western painting system.
And the judgments were made hundreds of years ago, he didn’t really
understand our painting system.
What is his problem then? Zou Yigui, a theorist and artist in the Qing
Dynasty, when talking about western paintings in his art review,
appraised western painters as “artisans though meticulous, not
artists”. Hegel said that the Chinese didn’t know what sculpting
was, and Zou Yigui said that western painters were craftsmen, could they
paint? They were not even painters. So at that time, the
misunderstanding on painting between the west and China, and the
difference on the evaluation of art were ridiculous seeing from now. But
as time passed by, after some time, when the westerners gradually had
seen more Chinese paintings, especially had had a better understanding
of the Chinese culture system, that they started to discover that the
connotation of the Chinese culture wasn’t as simple as they first
imagined. And the Chinese also had gradually found out that the western
painters were more than just “artisans though meticulous”, the
western paintings had a lot of good things that the Chinese painting
system didn’t grasp. And to the end of the 19th century, the social
reformers even used western painting as a weapon to reform Chinese
painting, and undrew a curtain. Once the curtain was undrawn, it had
made a great impact on our cultural system and painting system.
The attitude of the reformers in the end of the 19th century and
beginning of the 20th century, to my opinion, was entirely a reaction in
haste. A reaction to the swift collapse of their originally complacent
cultural state of mind, caused by the aggression against China by the
western countries. Now we may think that the reaction was hypercorrect,
but if you think on their minds, a vast country as China was, had been
ravaged and whacked up by the western countries for a long time, one
must be doubtful of the culture and civilization he belonged to. But the
thing is the very reason for China’s poverty and weakness at that
time, as well as being trampled upon, was due to its political system.
The problem of culture had something to do with the system, but down to
the concrete issue of art, so many factors were involved, such as
aesthetics standpoint, technical characteristic, and picture
composition. Such factors can’t be measured with scientific,
technological, military, or economical indexes. Their attitudes were
influenced by the social factors, not closely contacted with art itself.
Being suppressed by the forceful western culture, the steps of Chinese
painting became askew, sometimes marked time and sometimes back and
forth. The pace of Chinese painting’s evolvement had been normal,
basically linear. But by the end of the 19th century, its step forward
became turbulent. 100 years have passed, and a new situation has
emerged. The contemporary ink and wash artists create paintings and take
their works to the west, the western audiences no longer question
whether the painters are Chinese or not? What kind of painting is ink
and wash? They stress on painting itself. They like it they buy it. Take
you as an example, you say that those who love and appreciate your works
are all from the west. And these westerners would not ask “hey, Zhu
Wei, who are you? What do you do? What’s the meaning of your
paintings?” They don’t need to ask. I think there are at least two
reasons for this: first, the long-standing cultural exchange has widened
the eyeshot with which the western audiences accept the culture and art
of non-western system; second, which is more important, your works match
the thought, sentiment, appreciation and palate of the contemporary
western audiences. This is because your works are contemporary. If you
paint a work that looks like done by ancient Chinese, they perhaps would
buy it as a tourist souvenir. However, souvenir and art are completely
different things, as if we go to Tibet, Xi’an, or Yunnan and buy these
stuff. As a contemporary painter, the contemporary nature in his works
is crucial. Although a Chinese painter, you have in fact formed an
interpretation relationship with the western ideas and art fanciers.
They don’t ask you, and don’t need to pursue the significance of the
ethno-symbols in your works, as well as other profundities the works
might have. They only consider that as a painting work, they can accept,
they are able to appreciate, as simple as this.
These two points nicely illuminate that art is like this: it needs to
fulfill people’s aesthetic demand. Just a little bit of taste, a
little bit of innovation would make people like it. This is aesthetic
function. Frankly, I think painting becomes complicated after being
discussed by people. It’s actually very simple. If my paintings, other
than decorative functions, can express my thoughts to the audiences,
move the audiences, I’d be satisfied. When you study art or academic
trends you need to have in-depth understanding, but does such in-depth
understanding help one with his creation or one with his appreciation?
Many westerners are even ignorant of painting while still buy things
that are related to art. He depends on his instinct. Everyone has his
instinct. There might be some artists create on instinct, so the both
sides instantly reach a sort of connection. Some artists are very
famous, such as van Gogh, Picasso, and Richter, etc., because they have
become a guarantee of quality, people don’t need to worry about
whether they’re worth it or not, just need to worry a little about
whether they fit their tastes. To do profound research in art, artists
themselves don’t have the necessity, and general collectors don’t
have the time.
The result is rather simple. But sometimes man’s curiosity makes them
to explore cause from result, what reasons have caused the result?
Foreigners look at your paintings, what makes them fall in love with the
paintings at the first sight? The reasons are the two points I just
made, one is their eyeshot is wider than before, they can accept things
from non-western system. And two is your works have interpretation,
they’re different from ancient works, though you still use ink and
wash, the form of expression is different, so is the visual effect. This
kind of visual effect is close to the historical accumulation of western
painting, therefore, your works are not apart from western artistic
experience but approaching.
I think this is only a coincidence.
between Fan Kuan and van Gogh
The westerners in the early age, their acceptance of Chinese ink and
wash were completely driven by the curiosity to exotic culture. While
our acceptance of the western culture is not only exotic but wooing the
Now it’s still the same, still exotic culture. The fact that we have
to add in social factors when accepting western culture is only Chinese
reaction. The west never needs to have oil painting internationalized,
The western oil painting never needs to get close to any direction.
So the Chinese ink and wash, the real contemporary Chinese art don’t
need to get close to anybody. They are all international, even if an
exhibition held by a county cultural center, at the moment of the
exhibit, the exhibition is also international.
It doesn’t seem to be reliable to take an exhibition held by a county
culture center as an example. We talk about internationalization, talk
about whether one exhibition bears a significance of
internationalization, mainly according to two aspects: one is whether if
the exhibition has had influence on a certain extension, and whether if
it has brought about certain effectiveness. By effectiveness here I mean
its influential force. If the Venice Biennale didn’t invite artists
from all five continents, didn’t become a focus of all artists and art
lovers, and even ordinary audiences, we could not call it an
international exhibition. Same with the Canes Film Festival and Oscar.
When we call an event international, we base on the international
influence the event bring about. Two is that if we call an exhibition
held by a county culture center an international event, maybe because it
has invited and accepted artists and works of international level, but
the most important is, these artists and works have really participated.
Well like van Gogh, put out a few paintings to show them to the people
in a small French village, not even an exhibit, but aren’t the
van Gogh’s example and phenomenon doesn’t explain a county
exhibition in China’s Gansu or Yunnan. This only proves what I just
said about influence. He is familiar to and loved by all the artists and
art fanciers from around the world. His works are frenzied in the
international market because of his global fame. On the contrary, in a
county culture center in places like Gansu or Yunnan, someone, whose
works never appeared in any other exhibition, puts on a show by himself,
and emerges of itself and perishes of itself after the show, it only
means his works are just sketches and exercises of an art fan. It’ll
never make an international topic. International means it’s got to be
something that artists and art lovers from many many countries pay
attention to. So, that’s why I took your works as the beginning of the
topic, though people who collect your works have a different state of
mind with that of collecting van Gogh and Picasso. Van Gogh and
Picasso’s value on the international art stage will keep increasing,
increase to a sovereign position. I’ve seen an exhibition register of
the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the last 50 years, the
exhibitions with the most audiences were not any grand exhibits, but van
Gogh’s solo exhibitions. This is the very proof of van Gogh’s
I have paid my homage to it too.
Recently a Picasso’s oil painting fetched more than one hundred
million US Dollars at the auction, incredible, the record is a victory
of Picasso as well as art. Scaled by number, art can draw such a big
amount of capital, and the size of that piece of work isn’t big, nor
is it Picasso’s magnum opus. Picasso and van Gogh are the most
redoubtable in the auction market, last time a van Gogh’s work fetched
eighty million US Dollars, amazing! Now Picasso exceeded one hundred
million, which shows that there is still space for appreciation. When I
read this news I was excited. This shows that the significance of art in
people’s life is still increasing. The fact that one would spend so
much money on an artwork proves the importance of art in people’s
This is more of a victory of merchant. The role of art here is no more
than a donkey with a blinder that’s pulling a millstone.
The Chinese auction market is becoming more and more hot. There contains
many social factors that yet to be decoded. It’s not as simple as
spending money on paintings. There are more significances than just
buying a piece of painting. Looking at the domestic situation, even the
authorities have invested large amount of capital to build the
collection system. Moreover, the popular collection is in frenzy…
There is an interesting question, just flashed on my mind, when I was
talking about 200 years ago the westerners treated the Chinese ink and
wash paintings as exotic cultural relics, you chimed in that “now
it’s still the same”. Why till now the phenomenon still lasts?
This is understandable. The reason is the current art in the world is
still evaluated according to western standard. We can imagine, if the
contemporary art was defined by us, we’d also choose the materials and
conceptions that we’re familiar with to be the standard. Now we are
abandoning our original art that has developed for over thousands of
years and using others’ materials and conceptions to strive for
others’ recognition. Sticking a hot face on a yet to be cold ass, how
are we going to have a future?
If nothing’s changed, the topic is not a topic. Now because the
bulwark lies between the Chinese and western cultural system has been
broken, (the Chinese art) is no longer exotic.
(The bulwark) has been broken, it is us who have given in our position
and surrendered. You see the nowadays-Chinese contemporary art is full
of the shadows of Andy Warhol, Richter, David Hockney, and shadows of
the shadows, is there anything Chinese? Can this be called the Chinese
contemporary art? You emulate the others, and they take you in the game,
what fun do you have?
These issues to us seem to be unable to grasp and see thorough, why can
we never get around them?
It’s because of our inferiority complex.
Especially the current stage, people have strong psychological
expectation to internationalization. They feel that no matter how famous
they are on the domestic stage doesn’t compare with a nobody on the
This is probably a matter of money.
Not only money. I have met with a lot of artists who are wallow in
money, who are much wealthier than we can imagine, who can afford to
build a castle, construct a road, etc. But their seriousness on putting
up a show in America or Europe is absolutely not a joke. They’re no
satisfied by only selling their paintings, they need to impose some
influence on the international stage. The influence they take for is to
expose themselves in places where the masters once have been to or
It doesn’t matter for an artist to have such thinking. They think
it’s internationalized as long as they’ve been there. A few hundred,
or even a few thousand painters’ ideas, being put together, make up a
virtual prospect of internationalization.
No matter a few hundreds or thousands, the different impression of
internationalization in their minds combined, forms a virtual prospect
of internationalization. Just like a mirage.
As when I was small, the teacher asked us to write a composition longing
the 21st century: the new century is moment away, let’s countdown, 10,
9, 8… The fact is, open your eyes on the next day, open the door and
go out, it’s still the same bitter faces you see everyday.
Exactly. It only brings us a very shadowy impression. Ah, the new
century has come!
The new century has come, you still do whatever you have got to do, and
your mind hasn’t changed.
This comparison is great. This is just the imaginary of artists. This is
a penetrating metaphor. Your two parables are pretty sharp. One is
hundreds or thousands of painters have gone out, and the definitions of
internationalization in their minds combined to form an
internationalization mirage. The second is the countdown. As an artist
you put forward an analogy like this, it is different from the calm
analysis drawn apart from experience. It’s worth being analyzed. The
Chinese art in the past, for instance are the Song Dynasty paintings
international? What about the Ming and Qing Dynasties? We can
ratiocinate along this line, and draw such a conclusion: the excellent
works of any country, any nation, and any region are all international.
That’s about it. I keep saying that they’re all international, and
they are the mutual wealth of the mankind.
No matter what time it belongs to, as long as it’s an outstanding
piece of work, and contains the universal value of mankind, it’s
international. This kind of works may not be recognized in a certain
Right. It coincides common aesthetic standard. Van Gogh’s works are
very international now, and are considered superexcellent. In the
decades before and after he died, nobody knew him. But this doesn’t
affect him to be international in the later years. The Song Dynasty
paintings, after thousands of years, they are still international.
I have come up with an example, you just talked about the new century. A
western organization, to welcome the coming new century, has selected
100 persons who have made great contributions to the mankind in the last
millennium. Among which according to their standard there are five
Chinese, and one of them is Fan Kuan, which shows how big an influence
he had placed on the world. I felt at the time that this was selected by
the west, in spite of their limitation of west centric, they didn’t
ignore other parts of the human beings. In their regard, Fan Kuan was a
master, was one of the most respectable artists in the last one thousand
years. When Fan Kuan was creating such grandiose landscape paintings,
what were the western painters doing? In the Middle Ages of the west,
there were only artisans painting icons, religious paintings. Of course
Gombrich thinks the Middle Ages painting is the best, because it’s
schema. This is a judgment based on his own theory. Now you know Fan
Kuan is international, but at that time there wasn’t such a term. He
was a master of one thousand years, a most representative artist on
earth, and made great contribution to painting.
Now (the definition of) internationalization has been clarified. As long
as a thing shown in a county cultural center is international, it may
produce international influence.
So internationalization is not a desire. As if in America, Germany, or
France, despite their territorial advantage and how many activities that
might have some international influence they have held, the works shown
in these activities aren’t necessarily going to be international. But
your example of county cultural center is too general.
I use this as an example, is only to extremize the issue. Thus I can
make the concept of internationalization clear. If I take provincial art
museum as example people would still misunderstand my point.
It is an extreme example.
Here’s another example, I won’t have a motorcade in my wedding, and
I won’t have a bunch of people whom I don’t necessarily know to have
a banquet, but the formality won’t change the fact that I’m married.
Though I don’t have a grand wedding ceremony I am wedded, and my
marriage is a real existence.
The reality exists. You’re married. As I just said,
internationalization is not an activity locale, it’s historical, is
gradually born in practice.
Right. The quality of my marriage is high, though I don’t have the
ritual. But I am in fact married. So, if everyone understands this, they
wouldn’t have been so anxious.
The wedding example you provided just explains that you don’t want the
ostentation and extravagance, but you can’t make others not to have
the ritual. Many people think it’s necessary. Wedding is a social
According to what you said, then people who don’t have the ritual
would all be cohabiting illegally.
There is a funny example: I have a friend, who has got married and
obtained the marriage certificate, and a new home has been settled too.
Later his wife has got pregnant, but the parents of both sides didn’t
consider them married, because they didn’t have a motorcade swaggering
the streets, and yet a banquet… So the parents said how could you call
this a marriage? Banquet and motorcade are even more important than the
marriage certificate, that’s called a marriage, that’s what the
concept of getting married is.
This is the problem of standard. I think there’s a problem, let’s
still use wedding as an example. You marry to a woman, you cheat her
that you only want to have a banquet but not the certificate, she would
definitely disagree. Because without the certificate your relationship
is not essential. You ask 10 girls and none of them would agree.
Everybody knows the issue is essential.
The little girls are sharp, only the certificate guarantees that the
marriage is real. The law only recognizes the certificate, not the
ceremony forced by the parents. The little girl understands, a hundred
tables of banquet is useless, a hundred rounds of motorcade parade is
meaningless. The understanding of internationalization is the same.
Right Mr. Li!
All of those artists who desire for internationalization should learn
from the little girl. They need to learn what is the essential of the
question. For art, if you are not accepted by the art history in the
future, everything you do is nonsense.
Each art camp must have its own uniqueness, and combined to give the art
When I was talking about Fan Kuan, and internationalization, I have
talked about this issue. The Chinese had already created such meticulous
and lofty paintings at that time, if the contemporaries want to continue
the resplendence, on visual quomoto they must not grub for small things,
minor details and nonessentials.
Some people’s ability is only enough to do those. Painters can only
create in their power. I have many subject matters that I can’t paint.
Painters’ way is different from that of critics. This is a technical
I also often quote a writer’s words in my articles, many times
already: “a writer can’t write what he wants to write, he can only
write what he’s able to write.” This is truly like an incantation.
You often go to America and Europe, what you have seen is different from
what they have. For instance what Liu Wenxi was facing in his golden age
of creation were only old farmers and yellow earth. So besides old
farmers and yellow earth, what else could he paint?
That’s right. If he painted something else, then he’s a cheater.
“Brush and ink go with the time”.
You have to admit that all kinds of elements in your works, like
chemical reaction, are changing.
Yes, my change is obvious and yet a gradual process.
This kind of change is subtle and exerted slowly. It’s not like a
switch, pah, light is on, and pah, light is off. It’s not so obvious.
One can tell from your books. After the “9×11”, you have gone to
America once again…
You have personally been to the scene, and it’s impossible that your
feelings aren’t affected. This is like to inject some drug into your
brain nerves, it’s invisible, it may not be within your eyeshot, but
it’s in effect. I showed your paintings to people, friends both in and
out art circles, and they actually all say (the paintings) have
something to do with “9×11”.
Some artists may not care about the national economy and people’s
livelihood, not concerned with the world affairs, not moved with the
heaviness of being… such as sufferings and stresses, they may be
ignorant to all these. But not all of the artists can ignore.
I feel I’m very concerned.
In the literature circles in the 80’s and 90’s there’s such a
point of view that creation has to keep away from politics, and a real
good work is independent of politics. I’m not totally against the
idea, nor a hundred per cent for it. Why? If the writers of the entire
society all care about politics, it’s abnormal. On the contrary, if
none of the writers in a society cares about politics, it’s abnormal
I think you don’t need to worry about this too much. There must be
some who care. As the rule of market it accommodates itself. The rule is
not only applied to economy, and it’s not that there is only market
economy and market rule. All aspects of the society have their own
rules, and they all have an invisible hand that is adjusting.
Evading is the main attitude many contemporary writers and artists
adopt. It has become a bomb shelter.
You evade, but it still influences you.
Zero influence. So many works created by writers and artists, what
contemporary predicament have these works reflected?
And there are people who have said that now China is in transition, a
time for great masters and great works to emerge. What do you think?
Time of transition produces good works, this is a pure bullshit. Art
creation is not cooking, that you must throw the food into the pot when
cooking oil is hot. Art creation needs sedimentation.