99 Art Website, ww.99ys.com, May 17, 2011
Zhu Wei: Techniques and Materials can be Inherited, but not Spirit
99 Art Website: Song Rui, Guest: Zhu Wei (artist)
Editor’s note: With the boom of contemporary art market and the constant sky-high price of contemporary art works, contemporary Chinese art has attracted a lot of attention in recent years, but meanwhile it also faces a lot of problems. Absurdity of content and diversity of form make people sense a great distance between contemporary art and real life. Especially the contemporary Chinese art under the western discourse power, how should it pursue contemporaneity while keeping traditional? How does the ink painting, which is always in a week position, face the problem? For this purpose, we interview the contemporary ink painter, Zhu Wei, and hope that this dialogue can be a useful exploration in the development of contemporary Chinese art.
Ink and wash has always been there and now the emphasis on tradition is in fact contempt for it
99 Art Website: How are you Zhu Wei? I’m really exciting that you accept our interview. First I want to ask about topics of the traditional and the contemporary which the art circle is discussing at present. It is generally believed that our inherent traditional culture or ethos will present a new look or a new turn in the field of contemporary art. Could you elaborate on your understanding of the traditional and the contemporary?
Zhu Wei: Firstly thanks for your interview.
The relationship between the traditional and the contemporary is the relationship between yesterday and today. It can be said that if there is no past, then there is no present and no future. This is an objective law. Any segment which is neglected has to be made up for sooner or later, and even doubly. Our country is a good example, in those years, we were about to enter communism society but in the end we had to return to the primary stage of socialism to concentrate on construction and development and made up the lesson of market economy fiercely and cruelly, more exaggerated than in the same period of countries in Europe and American.
Tangible things can be caught up by working overtime, but spirit and culture require more time to restore and improve. Through thirty years’ effort, GDP can be ranked second in the world, but even through several thirty years’ effort, we are unable to develop Chinese culture into the highest level in the world. “It takes ten years to grow trees but a hundred years to rear people” is exactly this meaning.
99 Art Website: Could you also explain whether there are some concepts you draw from tradition in the creation thoughts of this work? What is its internal context roughly like?
Zhu Wei: “Learning outwardly from nature, gaining inwardly in the heart”. The so-called nature is the objective world, the natural world and also the people and things presented before you. First you learn, imitate and record, then distill and conceive and in the end you make it out.
I have been drawing ink paintings for nearly three decades and all the materials and techniques come from tradition and are closely linked with tradition. I have not deviated from tradition, but what I draw is the current people and things which are now in progress. Those are also what people often call, the contemporary themes. So, I have never felt that the traditional is isolated from the contemporary. Applying the past to the present is my concept and creation context of ink painting.
99 Art Website: After the founding of new China, we experienced historical moments of the Cultural Revolution, Reform and Opening-up and the tensions in the late 80s. From the perspective of these historical events, the official posture and the trend in the West determine people’s attitude on art, tradition, culture and art to a large extent. In what state do you think the present traditional culture and art survive?
Zhu Wei: I think, not just after the foundation of new China. Since entering modern history, most Western countries had gone through social changes, their economies had developed rapidly and the growth had grown at double-digit rates. Their GDP continued to rise and their strength grew rapidly, but China was still continuing the feudal society which had already existed for thousands of years and its productivity was extremely low. In the end, Western countries came to demand and attack us, but we were unable to make any counterattack. In 1919, the May Fourth Movement broke out, the slogan of “Science and Democracy” was proposed and a large number of advanced Western science, technology and culture flooded in. Because of many years’ poverty and backwardness, the Chinese became extremely unconfident about everything of their own. People urgently need a new revolution to overthrow and negate everything of the past including culture, and in that period, ink painting suffered great destruction and denial for the first time in thousands of years. After the founding of China, 1950s witnessed the ink revolution, that is “revolutionize the life of ink painting” called by later generation, distorting ink painting beyond recognition. During the Cultural Revolution, ink painting was deemed reactionary and corrupt and was destroyed once again. The year of 1978 saw reform and opening-up, and in 1985, New Art Movement marginalized ink painting. In early 1980s, some critics made the claim of “ink painting is in dead end” which triggered a nationwide discussion on the survival and death of ink painting. In short, due to one hundred years of lack of confidence, ink painting has suffered greatly, but the result of suffer is that ink painting has been gradually marginalized. As part of traditional Chinese culture, ink painting has suffered to such an extent that has nothing to do with foreigners but all our own.
99 Art Website: Relatively closer to us, in speaking of this problem of ink painting, what is your view of master Wu Guanzhong’s statement “ink equals zero”?
Zhu Wei: Now it’s not the question of ink equals zero or not, but that many exhibitions in the name of contemporary display little ink paintings, even if exhibitions with the theme of ancient ink artistry display oil paintings only. In 19**, I was invited to participate in a contemporary art exhibition with the theme of Cultural Revolution introspection. Right on the day before the exhibition opening, the organizer told me that because of the limited space of exhibition hall, all the ink painting works were turned down. Later I went to see the exhibition, in addition to many large oil paintings, there were many videos and installation works. A lot of walls were vacant and there is not problem to hang two or three ink paintings on them.
99 Art Website: Recently “Pure Views: Remote from Streams and Mountains” exhibition curated by Lu Peng was held in San Francisco, U.S. and then such an exhibition will be held in Chengdu Bienniale. In an article, he mentioned that tradition has just started, in the past three decades, our tradition broke due to social and historic reasons. Now he think that we should re-examine and discover tradition, do you think so?
Zhu Wei: Ink painting already exists, whether people pay attention to it or not, it has always been there. Whether tradition should be re-examined and discovered or not, now that someone mentioned this, it will certainly be beneficial to ink painting. But one thing is worth alerting that after twenty or thirty years, especially recent years’ boom and over-speculation, contemporary art has reached the time of creative exhaustion. It might be an opportunity for contemporary art to appear with traditional spirit and make use of tradition. It is not necessarily to truly discover tradition.
Persons with painting experience know that it is very strenuous to draw traditional Chinese objects with oil painting. Because of the limit of technique and materials, there will be a lot of estrangement and the artistic conception is difficult to emerge. I have drawn ancient landscapes and characters with oil painting and you won’t make any comment on them.
Because it is not authentic, it probably makes people feel like to eat water cooked fish with knife and fork.
99 Art Website: In the main body of the appearance of contemporary art, some internationally famous Chinese artists or the international exhibitions planned by famous curators, present the appearance of contemporary Chinese art mainly through oil painting.
Zhu Wei: Well. The causes of this phenomenon are what we have analyzed above.
99 Art Website: Will the artists like you who always carry some traditional and cultural development with the form of ink, our traditional form, have some small-scale activities?
Zhu Wei: Yes. And the scale is not small. In May, there will be a contemporary Chinese ink painting exhibition titled “Contemporary Chinese Ink on Paper” held in a gallery in New York, and the participants are Liu Qinghe, Wu Yi, Wei Dong, Li Jin, Wang Jinsong and me.
99 Art Website: These artists always draw ink paintings.
Zhu Wei: Yes. Wang Jinsong majored ink painting at University, later he painted other paintings and now he comes back to ink painting.
99 Art Website: And the curator?
Zhu Wei: The curator is Nannan, the artistic director of the gallery and Zhu Zhu wrote the article. We just ended another exhibition of contemporary Chinese ink painting, the participants are Liu Dan, Li Huayi, Xu Lei, Li Jin and me, and the location also is in New York.
Spiritually Contemporary and Technically Traditional
99 Art Website: For these artists who now work on contemporary Chinese ink painting creation, take you yourself as an example, what ecology and environment do you think you are in now?
Zhu Wei: I was among the first batch artists to cooperate with foreign galleries in the 1990s. At that time, I was drawing ink paintings. The next year, Wei Dong also joined, he was also drawing ink paintings. At that time there were three big galleries in Hong Kong, Plum Blossoms Gallery, Hanart TZ Gallery and Schoeni Art Gallery. The former acted as an agent of Wei Dong, Wu Guanzhong and me, the second acted as an agent of Fang Lijun, Wang Guangyi and Zhang Xiaogang and the latter acted as an agent of Yang Shaobin and Yue Minjun. In those years, a large number of exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art were held in Hong Kong, “Post 1989: New Art in China” in Hanart TZ Gallery, followed by my solo ink painting exhibition “Beijing Story” in Plum Blossoms Gallery and then the “Faces Behind the Bamboo Curtain: Works of Yue Minjun and Yang Shaobin” in Schoeni Art Gallery. At that time no one felt like to differ ink painting from oil painting, both paintings reflected recent things in China and the prices were the same. At one time, the prices of Wei Dong’s and my paintings were slightly higher than those of oil paintings. Having laid the foundation at that time, we have led good lives. Wei Dong now lives in New York with his family. In the early twenty-first century, contemporary Chinese art returns to mainland, especially when contemporary art enters auction house, the gap of attention and price between ink painting and oil painting has been apparently widened.
99 Art Website: Does this related to the origin and habit of foreign reading?
Zhu Wei: No, but it has something to do with China’s current situation. Since the May Fourth Movement, oil painting, film and play came to China successively, their novelty has not worn off. Just like McDonald’s and KFC, young people like them much. When McDonald’s came to China in Reform and Opening-up years in 1980s, some people even held weddings there. Now it sounds ridiculous, but it is a process of acceptance.
99 Art Website: Film came in, stage play was also westernized and Peking Opera nearly disappeared.
Zhu Wei: Excuse me for interruption, but we still have Peking Opera in fact. Later Peking Opera was revitalized several times, but ink painting and oil painting are different from film and Peking Opera, the expression forms of ink painting and oil painting are the same.
99 Art Website: We still needs someone to promote it.
Zhu Wei: Not one, but it must be a group of persons. Young people like you stress loudly the ink painting at the appropriate time to make people not forget this thing. This is worth being respected.
99 Art Website: From the perspective of contemporary art field, a comparatively small number of artists and organizations work on ink paintings, right?
Zhu Wei: Actually the number is not small. What ink painting requires is artistic ability, a bit like martial arts. Usually people go back to the village for private practice and exert strength in secret, when time for contest is coming, they duke it out on the arena. When will you hear that a group of ink painters live and work in Summer Place, Artist Village of Tong County and Cuige Zhuang?
99 Art Website: We have visited dozen of studios, but when I made my first step into your studio, I feel that the environment of your studio is the best.
Zhu Wei: Thanks. Contemporary ink painters should have such a studio.
99 Art Website: That is to say that ink painting has still followed the feeling of pure remoteness in our tradition.
Zhu Wei: Each place has its own way to support its own inhabitants. Each place has its own way to support its own livestock, its own culture and even its own cucumbers. Chinese cucumber is different from American cucumber. Although both are called cucumber, their appearances and tastes are different. Artists should also be different, so is the contemporary art. Only in this way could contemporary art be fascinating.
Laying stress on tradition should begin from its localization, from its ecology and nature. It is not necessarily to inherit spiritually and it is difficult to inherit. Who had dinner with Shi Tao and who had a drink with Bada Shanren? We even haven’t seen them in person, how do we know what mental state they had and what state of mind they were in, and moreover, what they thought about?
99 Art Website: Now scholars usually hold such an opinion.
Zhu Wei: We should inherit the traditional techniques and materials and improve and supplement them. When we say integrating with tradition, it must be integrating with spirit. But except the common knowledge of “integration of nature and man”, what spirit does the Chinese tradition have? What is traditional spirit? I am afraid that no one can explain them clearly and accurately.
99 Art Website: Chinese ink and wash art has developed for many years technically and materially.
Zhu Wei: Ink painting has a history of over three thousand years and oil painting has a history of merely about seven hundred years. Techniques and materials through exploration of over three thousand years are more mature and comprehensive than those of oil painting through over seven hundred years. We should be confident to inherit, respect and make good use of them.
99 Art Website: The problem on tradition of Chinese ink painting is the problem that it is difficult to preserve the materials of ink painting.
Zhu Wei: To preserve is out of question.
99 Art Website: It is generally accepted that oil paintings are easier to preserve.
Zhu Wei: Chinese people love to debase ourselves. Ink paintings of over two thousand years old are preserved in the big museums all around the world, including China, but the preservation of oil paintings of six or seven years old is still a problem. The canvas of oil painting is thick, and the paint is used thicker than ink painting. After a long time, the paint is easy to dry, become brittle and turn into small fragments. So it should avoid being rolled and light. Western museums must keep constant temperature and humidity to protect oil paintings. Ink paintings do not need such protection.
99 Art Website: Each of our projects will be sorted out by a scholar, because we make presentations from the angle of media, we do some penetrating topics from the angle of scholars.
Zhu Wei: One thing is worthy of mention. So many masters and schools have appeared in seven hundred of oil painting field. Ink painting has a longer history with one peak after another, numerous schools and masters. Study of any school might span several hundred years and it still cannot be sure that it is accurate. It is more difficult to talk and judge in case of involving modernity. Contemporary art in China is basically through cloning and copying. Whether the exploration of an artist is right or wrong, he can refer to the history of Western contemporary art in which there are final conclusions. In this way no big mistakes emerge. However, ink paintings do not exist in West, and there are no references, specially the contemporary ink painting. It is more difficult to judge, no one would dare to take the risk. This is the reason why no one dares to react when Li Xiaoshan made the claim of “ink painting is in dead end”. If some one raises opposition, mostly he opposes from ideological and political point of view, or even just personal attacks.
The marginalization of contemporary ink painting is not because content but materials
99 Art Website: In fact, it seems that art museums, such as National Art Museum of China, still hold many ink painting exhibitions.
Zhu Wei: Mostly, artists pay for the rent.
99 Art Website: They all belong to the older generation.
Zhu Wei: There are also young artists.
99 Art Website: Contemporary ink painting seems to be marginalized gradually in the market.
Zhu Wei: The market of contemporary ink painting is marginalized not because content but materials.
99 Art Website: There is also guidance. Foreign markets mostly sell oil paintings; Sotheby’s and Christe’s are China’s weathervanes.
Zhu Wei: Foreigners are familiar with oil painting and auction is a commercial activity. So, it is easier to judge oil painting than ink painting. Chinese people have just started art collections, so the only way is to follow the foreigners.
99 Art Website: Painting is a kind of visual art. Take “Han Xizai Evening Banquet” as an example, when you see it at that time, you had the feeling of that era, but when you see it now, you have the feeling of the present.
Zhu Wei: “Han Xizai Evening Banquet” was totally the contemporary art at that time, it also was a political pop. Now it seems to become an insurmountable classic.
99 Art Website: Because it subverted the tradition.
Zhu Wei: It didn’t subvert the tradition. It is a description of political struggles. Houzhu of Southern Tang, Li Yu didn’t trust Han Xizai because he was a minister from northern part of China, but he wanted to put him in an important position and even promote him to prime minister at one time. Therefore, Li Yu sent two painters, Gu Hongzhong and Zhou Wenju to supervise Han Xizai. Although Han Xizai was under great pressure, he still enjoyed songs and dances and held banquet everyday to pretend that he was in an easy state. Gu Hongzhong drew a scroll of painting of the scenes which he had memorized. The painting is similar to the montage technique, vivid and fantastic. In my eyes, the protagonists in Gu Hongzhong’s “Han Xizai Evening Banquet” and Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” are the same, they are both preoccupied. But under the brush of Gu Hongzhong, the characters are lighthearted and jovial, and the scenes are controlled freely. The painting is better in overall mastery.
99 Art Website: In China, the accepted culture still is plum, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum.
Zhu Wei: These are common. In the past, basically every household, as long as decent, bought paintings. There are always such scenes in films, the landlord was knocked down and bundles of ink paintings and land deeds were publicly burned in the yard. At least this explains that the landlord had collected ink paintings. In the early 1050s, sketches of Qi Baishi could be bought with only about fifteen yuan.
Except plum, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum, there are also big scenes such as “Along the River during the Qingming Festival”.
99 Art Website: That is also realistic.
Zhu Wei: Yes, the realistic approach. “Along the River during the Qingming Festival” depicts the downtown scenes of Bianliang in Northern Song Dynasty, which is today’s Kaifeng City. Equivalently, the painting is a painting of the entire CBD. At that time, the “taxi” was drawn by six horses, equivalent to today’s six-cylinder SUV which we cannot reach that level today. Characters and objects in the painting are very contemporary and fashionable at that time. Over time, they became traditional, so I have said that the relationship between the traditional and the contemporary is the relationship between yesterday and today.
99 Art Website: The traditional spirit raised by so many scholars is not only about paintings but also about society, our thoughts, spirit and appearance.
Zhu Wei: Chinese theorists love to mention spirit, but foreign critics rarely mention it. Many foreign critics wrote articles on me, they didn’t mention spirit but quantify it, specifically. Such articles are easy for readers to understand. Inheriting traditional spirit is an empty phrase, which traditional spirit should we inherit? Promoting traditional culture, but which traditional culture should we promote? What is traditional spirit? And what is traditional culture?
Is it real inheritance or just seeking whatever treatment to cure illness and embracing Buddha’s feet in time of need?
Ink painting needs to be seriously treated and protected because it is our own brand. Only we do it well, it can be of the world and of all mankind. Like your own child, if you yourself don’t like it, it is basically impossible to expect others to praise it.
99 Art Website: Thank you for the interview, it's great!
Zhu Wei: Thank you, happy talk.
Background Information: Zhu Wei was born in Beijing in 1966 and studied successively at the People’s Liberation Army Art Academy, Beijing Academy of Film and China Institute of Art. Zhu Wei made his first appearance in international exhibition in 1993, and has held more than 20 individual exhibitions worldwide ever since. More than seven different editions of special catalogues of his works have been published. His works have been collected by more than 20 domestic and foreign museums.
Zhu Wei is one of the few artists in contemporary Chinese art circle who are known for their ink paintings both at home and abroad. His paintings express social criticism theme with traditional fine brushwork skill. His painting style is clear and full of visual tension. His sculpture and engraving works extending from ink paintings also inherit his consistent style of combining the traditional and the contemporary.
99艺术网 www.99ys.com 2011年5月17日