November 2014, SCOPE
Artists and Reading
Editor's Note: Artists are a kind of people who create images. Does reading mean anything to artists? Today the answer seems clear. The essence of history, ideology, and tradition has been kept in books, and choosing what to read builds up an artist's knowledge structure. The challenge of contemporary art requires an artist to rely more and more on his knowledge structure. However, the images and literatures are unable to replace each other. The following dialogue between SCOPE and artist Zhu Wei will be an example showing the relationship between Zhu Wei's images and what he read.
SCOPE: Do you like reading? What can reading bring to you?
Zhu Wei: I didn't like reading since when I was a child. Being printed on books or not, the authority of books is always weak for me. Of course it's related to the historical background at that time. When I was young I often saw words like "Unity, Tension, Seriousness, and Liveliness" which I couldn't understand: how could a person be of both unity and tension, and of both seriousness and liveliness at the same time? How is it possible? Who has the right to command others in a condescending tone like this? It's a request from an adult to a child, from a commanding officer to a soldier, and from the ruler to the people. It's lack of the basic common sense of human being.
But now is different. There are more books with common sense, and more people with common sense. I came to like reading. Unfortunately I'm lack of basic training, which makes me read slower than normal speed, and it's hard to change. The benefit is I seldom forget what I have read.
Some titles of my painting series came directly from books. For example for the ink painting Pictures of the Strikingly Bizarre in 1990', and the prints cooperated with Singapore Tyler Print Institute in 2004, The New Pictures of the Strikingly Bizarre, both titles are derived from the vernacular novel written by Ling Mengchu in late Ming dynasty. The painting Beside the Girls in 1996 was named from Volumn II of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, Within a Budding Grove (in Chinese it was translated as Beside the Girls). For my recent works, there is a painting Curtain (2010), which was named after Milan Kundera's essay collection. And painting Hills Beyond A River (2010), originally it was an art history book of Yuan Dynasty written by James Cahill. The content of these books agreed with both of my mental state of creation and social changes at that time.
SCOPE: What kind of books do you like to read? And what's the proportion of them?
ZW: Actually I prefer newspapers and magazines now. The materials of newspapers and magazines are closer to reality. A book is like a house, the author building it from the foundation, and then structure, bricks and tiles, sometimes a layer of glass wall before it finished. All of these actually are a product of the author. Whether it's good or not is related to the author's idea, how profound his/her knowledge is, and how he/she explains profound theories in simple language. Being fiction or nonfiction, any book actually is a theory, a dream, a lie by an author. A book's relationship with reality is not as close as to the author.
Generally I'll choose books based on to what degree the book reflects reality, and whether it shows me something new. For example, there are mountains of books written by Chinese scholars about seeing the world from a Chinese perspective, among them the Indifferent to the World: 100 Years of Revelation, authored by Zi Zhongyun in 1990', is more pertinent, impartial, and without the inherently narrowness of weakling. Written by Wu Xiaobo, the Storming 30 Years: Chinese Enterprises 1978-2008 interprets merchant in a new light, lifting them from the bottom of traditional social status order which used to be "scholar, farmer, artisan and merchant" to a little bit higher. This book is not another popular opportunistic success studies, but a serious history. Ray Huang's 1587, a Year of No Significance takes the fifteenth year of Wanli as a miniature of thousands years of history in China, and draws a conclusion that being lack of "sensible mathematics" is the reason of China's less-developed. It seems like another expression to say China is ruled by men rather than laws, but with an American style of spirit of science, this book gives us an optimistic impression as if, as long as you are willing to change, the change will come. And Zhang Yihe's The Final Nobles. It brings the shadow of a past time back to life. All of these are interesting books.
Of course, most of what I read is relevant to art. I won't bother you with more examples. Besides that, I'll see whether the book is associated with things I concern. If a book is about a research on Madagascan ferns, no matter how new its idea is, and how true the facts are in it, it's still hard for me to finish it.
SCOPE: Do you think everyone should read books every day? What is the purpose to read a book?
ZW: One ought to read books as early as possible. I'm not encouraging a three-year-old child to recite Di Zi Gui (Standards for being a Good Pupil and Child), or bring a celebrity motto book to argue with everybody he meets at dinner tables. I mean, what a person read before his thirty has influence on him, while after that, even brilliant books will degenerate to footnotes and sidelights.
However, footnotes and sidelights are still important. Taking James Cahill as an example, several of his art history books have been translated into Chinese. These books are accurate and powerful footnotes, and they can help readers to judge and conclude things precisely. They are inspiring for me.
I seldom rely on books to relax myself, but with a few exceptions. Biographical books are useful in this aspect, and autobiographies are even better. Sometime an author of a biography makes up plots to attract readers, so you can find sentence like "at that time he was thinking...". How could the author know what the protagonist was thinking? Maybe the protagonist himself didn't know yet. The best-selling author Stephen Edwin King established a rock band with some of his writer friends in 90'. They often talked about works, but never asked each other where their inspiration came from, because "we knew we don't know".
I read biographies just like little Laizi said in the movie Farewell to My Concubine: "How could they become big roles? How many times were they beaten for this?" To read a biographical book is to see how many times they were beaten.
I'm not a big role, but at that moment it seemed like I found a best friend in books.
SCOPE: What kind of books or which one should we choose when we are facing so many books?
ZW: Pick up what you like.
SCOPE: Talking about reading, some people might ask: "Isn't it everyone knows how to read?" So, how to read a book?
ZW: The movie Back to 1942, based on a nonfiction written by Liu Zhenyun (the winner of Mao Dun Literature Prize), suffered a box-office failure. The director Feng Xiaogang accepted an interview with PEOPLE magazine at the beginning of this year, saying that he is pessimistic, because many evil things have been magnified today, and he thinks he has nothing to talk with the world. Also at the beginning of this year, New York University held a conversation between director Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee. As the conversation came to an end, Zhang Yimou could not help but leaned forward to ask his fellow director, “How do you put your Chinese world into your movies, if you’re making a movie for the world and you want the world to understand you?”
Here are two directors. One was angry at being left by the times, and the other was worried about being left by the world, both showing a creator's loneliness in a different way.
At the time of Lu Xun, "the sight of women's short sleeves at once makes them think of bare arms, of the naked body, the genitals, copulation, promiscuity, and bastards." Now things are different. Having seen "naked body", including "naked body" from abroad, it's hard for many young audiences to get excited only by the sight of short sleeves. They can understand Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, and Yasujirō Ozu's An Autumn Afternoon. They know what the coordinate of a serious movie is in a bigger x-y plane of the world.
We read books to see the world. And then, we need to look back to the present China. The value of a work must be reviewed in the context of local characteristics.
SCOPE: Does your mood or outside environment have any effect on you when you are reading? What environment and what time do you prefer to read?
ZW: I cannot read in public. I prefer to read on bed or toilet.
SCOPE: Could you please recommend some books you have read? And what's the reason you recommend them?
ZW: To Live, a novel by Yu Hua.
Although many people have read this novel, it's worth mentioning again.
Through a pair of sympathetic eyes, this novel was written in a tone of absurd. The son of a rich landlord who had been tainted with bad habits of frequenting brothels, gambling and drinking, once lost all his family's fortune in a gamble, and caused his father's death in indignation. Since then he became a totally poor man at the bottom of the society. However, because of the same reason, he saved his life in the later revolution. This story is very absurd and realistic at the same time. Black sheep of the family is not rare, but when it happened in specific times, it accomplished a profound story.
Both the story and language are good in this fiction. The language is a consistent style of Yu Hua's, which is precise and enthusiastic. An obviously miserable tragedy was written in a style of festive and orgiastic, which is traditional and can be found in classical fictions like All Men Are Brothers or and The Scholars, but Yu Hua takes it to the extreme. (V.S. Naipaul used it in his Miguel Street, which is a collection of short stories.) The best comedy is a tragedy, and the best tragedy is a comedy.
Unfortunately the Nobel Committee for Literature cannot read Chinese, or understand China, probably. Because Yu Hua is a real writer, who doesn't know how to curry favor with somebody important, or to find a appropriate translator.
Albert Camus The Stranger
A strange narrative method was used in this novel. The tone of its narrative was insensitive until right before the ending, as if the protagonist didn't have feelings like normal people, but at the end, everything which had been repressed suddenly broke out, showing a perfect human nature and rich personality, and giving us a great shock.
When we read back, we are surprised that what the protagonist said and did was unexpectedly rational, and we understand: the protagonist lived a life spun off all illusions or beautifications, and because everyone else never lived in this way, the protagonist became a truly stranger.
V. S. Naipaul Miguel Street
This is a typical tragedy written in a joyful way. The characters in the book were in Trinidad, but it seems like they are living in the street we have grown up. Being impoverished, closed, numb and ignorant were normal state among these people, but occasionally, there was a golden moment fleeting. These moments existed and then disappeared, which makes us sigh.
Gabriel García Márquez One Hundred Years of Solitude
I have no much to say. It has become a representative of Latin America.
Ying Ruocheng Voices Carry: Behind Bars and Backstage During China's Revolution and Reform
Ying Ruocheng was former Vice Minister of the Ministry of culture. His grandfather Ying Lianzhi was the founder of the prominent newspaper "Ta Kung Pao", and instrumental in founding the Catholic Fujen University of Peking. His father Ying Qianli helped to reestablish the Fujen University in Taiwan. Ying Ruocheng came from a well educated intellectual family. To write about the family is to write a book.
Ying Ruocheng played the part of Liu Mazi and little Liu Mazi whom everybody hates in the famous drama Teahouse, he played the Fourth Master Liu in movie Camel Xiangzi, he played Willy Loman in Authur Miller's Death of A Salesman, and the warden in the movie The Last Emperor, and Lama Norbu in Little Buddha. To write about his career is to write a book.
But Ying's memoir Voices Carry: Behind Bars and Backstage During China's Revolution and Reform started from his life in jail in 1968, since that was the most bizarre thing happened on him. "The time I spent in jail let me understand China deeper than what I've learned in my entire life, which is gratifying." Ying had an optimistic spirit.
Ying told us many experiences in jails in this book. It will be interesting to compare this part with Yan Geling's best work Inmate Lu Yanshi.
Wang Shuo Wild Beast
It's good, while when it came out it was subversive.
Duan Chengshi Miscellanies Morsels from Youyang
A collection of legendary novels in Tang dynasty. It's energetic, which shows Tang dynasty was a dynasty full of energy.
Zhong Acheng The King of Chess
This fiction is unusual because it described the life of Sent-down youth in an unusually gallant and ancient style.
Dostoyevsky Crime and Punishment
If you can bare Dostoevsky's nervous style, this fiction is profound.
George Orwell 1984
Modern horror predictive fiction.
Sigmund Freud A Young Girl's Diary
An introduction to psychology.
Hannah Arendt The Origins of Totalitarianism
See the title of the book.
Ruth Benedict The Chrysanthemum and the Sword
It is said to be the best book to understand our neighbor.
Akira koshizawa Manchuria Capital Planning
As can be seen in the book, even the number of sewer well covers, the officer prostitutes, the unlicensed prostitutes were all clearly counted by Japanese rulers in Manchukuo.
Dominic Streatfeild The Secret History of Mind Control
An introduction to psychology.
SCOPE: Do you have the habit of collecting books?
ZW: Yes. Now I have about 11 thousands books.
I have written essays for art magazines for many years, and published an essay collection last year. For this reason a foundation invited me to write a book, from the point of view of an artist to write the history of Chinese contemporary art criticism. That is to say, it's a history of critics written by an artist. The perspective is very new. With profound respect and humility, I started to search for documents and books related to art criticisms. And if you have any, please let me know.