Oriental Art Master Asks Zhu Wei Ten Questions
In the past, the majority of your work has been inspired by music or a combination of world events. How did this happen? What is the connection between these elements in relation to traditional scholar paintings and contemporary art?
Since the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, most of my ink paintings have depicted daily scenes such as cracking sunflower seeds and chitchatting, bearing a resemblance to stories from the Ming and Qing periods. For example, Beijing Stories, essentially encapsulates all facets of daily life, and yet at the time I thought I had left things out. I was meticulous not because I had just graduated and wanted to paint everything in my own style, but because the atmosphere of the day supported a spontaneous type of creativity. Everyone around me was motivated at the time by this atmosphere. Just like the Olympic games, which recently ended, each individual had the impression that they were doing something related to the Olympics regardless of what it was--everyone looked like a volunteer and sensed the imminence of something major happening. Sports make people happy and give physiological balance. For example, an athlete waiting at the start line, wouldn’t feel a toothache or the urge to fart. In fact, sports offer an opportunity and unite the minds of the people in equality. My meticulous ink paintings from that period were an attempt to document everything, so I wouldn't forget. As for music (Rock N Roll was the most popular genre of the day), it is nothing more than a tool. Just like a person searching for a place to vomit or defecate after overeating, he would not care whether he did the deed in a traditional or modern way, but rather, whatever gets the job done.
Your experience has obviously been influenced by western ideas, while your work in contrast has always maintained a composition and creative line characteristic of Chinese painting. Is it fair to assert that a contemporary approach has been the backbone for creating Chinese paintings? What are the setbacks and challenges of this？
Not only have my experiences been significantly influenced by western concepts, but the Chinese people have been influenced by western thoughts and trends collectively throughout the past century. Just like international architects have been coming to China to build houses throughout the past century －this has been the experimental plan for western ideas. From the Westernization Movement, to the One Hundred Days Movement, to the May Fourth Movement, to the Socialist Movement and so on and so on…tell me which has not been directed by western theories and studies? Even during the chaotic Cultural Revolution, blackboards, films, and slogans plastered along the streets reminded us to continue the revolution under Marxist-Leninist and Mao ideology. Obviously Marx and Lenin were not locals but what they created were theories and "isms." We, on the other hand, only had a school of thought that functioned to aid the indoctrination of these theories, which demonstrated the level of western thought in China. Growing up, I was subconsciously influenced by such intellectual trends. And these trends have been diffused throughout my blood, as a backbone, thus nothing is a true obstacle or challenge.
Over the years, the exploration of distinct features and reinventing the use of Chinese rice paper have become important aspects in your creative practice, which results from your in-depth understanding and execution of this material. Yet, you have not been completely absorbed by it and deliberately remain objective with the material. Do you often keep a distant relationship with the world you are familiar with?
The selection of material is a matter of technique, an artist’s means for survival. Once you are familiar with the material, it is easy to find various aspects that are not worth mentioning. To keep a certain amount of distance is like having to constantly step back to look at the overall image in order to prevent going astray. The artist should always maintain a critical attitude towards society. Otherwise, what would his role be?
From your artistic expression, one can notice your meticulous attention to detail. Is this mirrored in other aspects of your life as well? Is there any contradiction in your spiritual life and day-to-day life, or are these elements in harmony?
To be careful in life is to avoid unnecessary problems because I don’t want to create problems for myself. It is impossible for one’s spiritual life to be in sync with everyday living, and even less so to be very harmonious.
What do your works mean to you?
Today the art market is a concrete topic for an artist. In your opinion what has the market given to the artist? What kind of influence does the artist have on the market?
It has always been tangible. In the past, the artist has used their artworks in exchange for eggs, natural gas tanks, favors, and now, money. There is always a way for people to improve their lives. The market is the basis for the artist’s survival, by which the artist can offer better returns to society. No starving artist would be in the mood to paint. Of course, it does not involve speculation, which ultimately turns the market into murky waters.
In your view, what is the condition in which the artist practices art?
The artist is foremost a person, thus whichever condition would satisfy his urge to create.
Is it easier for you to create new work or subvert the past?
Innovation and subversion are in fact the same. While the new is created, the old must be subverted. Of course, this excludes imitation. Imitation makes one unable to distinguish whether one is making something new or playing with the old. Artists and scientists are admired because they are always exploring new things regardless of success.
The medium in which contemporary art is presented tends to be mixed. What is your opinion on such phenomenon? What would you like to be referred to, an artist or a painter?
The term contemporary art itself displays a lack of self-confidence. Like the buns on a steamer, if they are letting off steam, then they must be fresh. So it is useless to over emphasize as it gets quite annoying. As to which medium, I think anything goes as long as the idea comes across clearly. Otherwise, it’s idle. As for me, the distinction between a painter and an artist is: those who know how to paint are painters, those who can’t are artists, unto each his own, as long as one has a skill.
Your paintings incorporate many motifs and symbols from traditional Chinese painting, and you have studied the lives and thoughts of famous Chinese and western painters. Does this influence your attitude towards your way of thinking and lifestyle? Who are the artists you admire and respect? What characteristics have inspired you?
Working on something overtime produces fear, so one wants to know what his predecessors and contemporaries have accomplished. No one truly admires or detests other work, it’s all about boosting self-confidence. I enjoy Shi Tao and Bada Shanren because they are both ink painters and I feel akin to them. In fact, Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter are also excellent artists, but I always feel something separates us, that there is something irrelevant to me.
《东方艺术·大家》 2008年10月上半月刊 总第167期