October/November 2016, SCOPE, Cover Story
What Are We Busy In? - - A Conversation With Zhu Wei
Thanks to Zhu Wei studio and collector Mr. Wang Huiming
Photography / Xie Teng
If comparing the rhythm of the time to a parabola, the work of outstanding artists is always like a stable axis. Their re-thinking on the mirror of history has been integrated into their lonely day-after-day work, and their thoughts, words and deeds together form the whole face of an artist. Finally, thought and practice will be converted into visual materials, and remain. In the early 1990s, when the first trend of art marketization suddenly came to China, Zhu Wei has become the rider of the tides without realizing it. Almost from the right beginning of his career, Zhu Wei has entered into the relatively standardized international art system, which, even in the present China art environment, is considered a rare opportunity. What follows is that his works has been collected by world famous museums and professional art collectors, while he himself as well becomes the first representative of Chinese contemporary ink painters who was promoted onto the international stage. More than thirty different albums of his paintings and retrospectives of his works have been published. A total of forty-three museums have added his sixty-seven ink paintings and sculptures into their collections.
The most important thing is Zhu Wei has always been practicing in such a road that is based on traditional ink and wash as well as applied to contemporary recreation. This is a tortuous but attractive way. The artist holds the heritage of thousands of years of art, in the meantime his thoughts is living in the present. From 1980s, an open Chinese society started from deep depth the mechanism to communicate with the world. Until today, this is still a question to face with and a path to seek solutions for the whole Chinese society, including the art circle. From the early 1990s, as a practice of visual modernity, there are a lot of mixed collages that can be linked to popular culture semantic appeared in Zhu Wei's works, such as rock lyrics with characteristic of the times, figures of political characters, the style of engraving print after the Ming dynasty, the composition of traditional portrait and so on, all of which constitute Zhu Wei's unique and distinctive artistic style. As he said, "I have painted ink painting for nearly thirty years. All of the materials and techniques I used come from or have a close relationship with the tradition. I have never left the tradition, but what I depict is the people and things that live in the present, or as people often called, the contemporary themes. So I don't think tradition and contemporary are isolated. Using the past to serve the present is my ink painting theory and creation context." Zhu Wei has spontaneously crossed the limitation of traditional paradigm by his nature, with an appearance which is quite different from the accustomed global media and language features today. When faced with the more and more homogenized art trend, whether we should indulge ourselves in a more familiar world, or we should seek for difference from homogenization, is still a difficult question. Under such background, the cultural gene of art is increasingly worthy of our research.
SCOPE: You have always been using a very personal style of modeling language to transfer your thinking of social problems onto paper. Can it be said that painting is your weapon?
Zhu Wei: It's hardly a weapon. The function of Chinese contemporary art is too poor to hurt anything. Chinese contemporary art is a very small circle, so small that it is almost negligible and makes no difference. Why? Contemporary art is a product of the industrial society, which is a reflecting or retribution of industrialization in every aspect of the society. The premise of an industrialized society is the development of the social system, social civilization, industrial environment, and the living environment of human. So when we mention contemporary art, it is an exaggerated saying. In fact, until today we still do not have such soil. We are not an industrialized country, so there will not be the thinking of industrialized countries. For example, now our popularity rate of Apple phone is higher than abroad, and even the Apple's manufacturing is in china. On the surface we look the same as other countries, but how has the communication tool developed to today's level? Why did two centuries ago, American painter Morse create the Morse code telegram? Why did one hundred and fifty years ago, Bell invent the telephone? How does Jobs put the phone and computer and camera in one piece, so that two people close at hand choose to meet on the WeChat? We basically had no idea. But it does not delay our use of mobile phones. The use of mobile phone and the invention of mobile phone are two logics: one requires a good student, who can follow the instructions strictly and even can recite it, so that its service life can be longer, and it would be better if adding a screen protector; the invention of mobile phone requires a destroyer. Or otherwise since the transmission speed of telegraph cable lying at the bottom of Atlantic and Pacific Ocean had been fast enough, what the hell else can we do? The understanding of contemporary art in China is probably at the same level as grasping the basic principles of how to use mobile phones. About what will soon replace the mobile phone, nobody dare to think anything. Li Xiaoshan said, "Chinese contemporary art is like a primary school student doing his homework, who never knows whether what he is doing is correct." I think I'm just like this as well. I'm still not as good as Morse, who knew more than 180 years ago that "when electricity flows though a wire, no matter how long the wire is, the electricity can go through it rapidly. As long as the electricity stops for a moment, there will be sparks." Until today what I know is just: no matter how upset you are, be careful when you touch the switch, especially when your hands are wet. And the high-voltage wire is fucking more terrible, leaving away from it as far as possible. If we do not understand the occurrence and development of a thing, we will blindly worship it, blindly imitate it, and be blindly pessimistic about it, and even do not know what we should pay attention to. The contemporary art is not a mobile phone, and there is no an instruction book in a box, which will surely cause our closely following with trembling. I think the Chinese contemporary art has yet to depict the present situation of China society, and it just copies some contemporary art styles out of context in China, so people do not understand it. People would not go for it, and none of its feet is on the ground, thus it doesn't carry much weight in the society. As Wang Lin questioned in his article: "Other than vested interest, what else was left in Chinese contemporary art?" After thirty years, the bustling tourists in 798 just take it as a scenic spots, which is very similar to watching monkey play. I can even say that the contemporary art of China has not emerged yet. It has got to be a process of the development of society, the enlightenment movement, and the Renaissance, step by step. Now the so-called contemporary art is like a big boy's lonely wet dreams before he's mature enough to marry a woman - instead of getting recognition, he will get a startle.
SCOPE: Does it seem that you have a lot of thinking about painting recently? Sometimes either a large amount of output or a temporary pause could be a sign.
Zhu Wei: I do think more and paint less lately. It's not because there is nothing to paint, but because I don't feel right. It's bit like a donkey pulling mill. I stop when I should stop, and if you are waiting somebody else to stop you, you already have one foot in the grave.
The emergence of Chinese contemporary art must have its own contemporary art theory system first, and then the local painting under the guidance of this theory. Almost everyone knows the Italian Renaissance and the three masters of Renaissance, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Rafael. In fact, the Italian Renaissance masters are not the three, but the three humanist thinkers more than 200 years prior to them, Dante, Petrach, and Boccaccio. It's the three thinkers' theory and "The Divine Comedy" "The Decameron" that guide the creation of later artists. Before the birth of Western contemporary art, there was the influence of famous philosophers such as Hegel, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Feuerbach, Spencer, and Dewey. Frankly speaking, the theory of these Western thinkers was aimed at their own opera, drama, classical ballet, classical painting, poetry and literature. The birth of these theories is really none of China's business, while they even didn't know where China is. Then, if we don't have our own theory system of contemporary art, where did Chinese contemporary art come from? If we don't have contemporary art, what are we busily doing all day long? Is the purpose of making a bunch of things that look like contemporary art to trap art lovers or get some money from collectors? Is it debased for a country's contemporary art to do so?
SCOPE: Let's go back to your paintings. What are the painting tools you use most frequently? Harder brushes? How ripe the Xuan paper do you need? Is this kind of experience a necessary condition to achieve professional success?
Zhu Wei: I think it's a necessary condition to become a craftsman.
I'm always afraid that I will become a craftsman who paints something exactly like what he paints, who can finish a painting within a cigarette's time, and then sign and stamp it during a short period of burping or farting. This kind of talent often can be found especially among ink painters.
Fourteen years ago, I paid a visit to Li Xiaoshan during the summer vacation of his university. We had chatted for half a month at his home in Nanjing, and according to the conversation, a draft manuscript of hundreds of thousands of words was generated. It was going to be published by Guangxi Normal University Press, with the name that Xiaoshan came up with, "The Night Days". But because my northern accent in the tapes was too difficult to be recognized for Li's assistant, the text recorded was the opposite effect to my intention, and it was even harder to change it than to rewrite it, then the book was put on ice. This book is mainly about something outside the location and techniques of ink painting.
Contemporary art in China must be established on the basis of contemporary ink painting. That is to say, first, we have local painting theory, and then, contemporary local art, and on the firm soil of local painting, various types of contemporary art come out. The current level of our industrialization and urban and rural development are just like the United States in 1920s. There is a gap of one hundred years. At that time the urbanization rate in US is 51%, while now we are 54%. As for other aspects of the society, there are still things that we cannot achieve even in today. Our productivity and relations of production are still not match, thus the superstructure based on which such as literature and art are not speaking the same language as other countries in the world. If a lot of artworks in one side look like the other side, it must be imitation or plagiarism. If you copy and plagiarize somebody, at the same time you want to play with him, and you want him to praise you and think highly of you, how could it be possible? It is nice enough not being scolded. A so-called civilization with five thousand years of history cannot produce its own contemporary art, but depends on imitation, it is really an embarrassment.
SCOPE: Caused by media change today, the world of art is facing with new challenges of visual exploration. As an artist, will you value the visual stimulation brought by new media language?
Zhu Wei: This is going back to the beginning. We have said that different stage of development has different soil, just as a thin man accompanies a fat man to lose weight together, one is losing weight, the other is killing himself. The primary issue here is how to let our old ink painting painted by brush and paper to be contemporary. Like the Western artists, we should improve our painting system first. For example, after the Renaissance, mannerism, Baroque, Rococo, neoclassicism, romanticism, critical realism, Barbizon school, Pre-Raphaelites, academicism, impressionism, postimpressionism, symbolism, cubism, abstract, presentationism and so on appeared successively, and then the contemporary art with various styles come out. To learn standing first, then to learn walking and running, that is a way to suffer less. Otherwise if we come back from the half way to make up the missed lesson, the cost will be huge.
SCOPE: Are you going to use the so-called new media as your creation tool? Why?
Zhu Wei: I'm not trying to use new media at present. I think the existing tools have not been fully used and grasped yet, so they are new to me.
SCOPE: Each era has its own aesthetic. They are different in 80s, 90s, and 00s, and each era is full of chaos. Which was eventually recorded by history became the mainstream of the times. So, for the soil itself, it seems that there is no good or bad?
Zhu Wei: It's not so quick to set up a new aesthetic. It's not like shopping mall promotion, which happens in each season. The change of aesthetic needs the stimulation of society change, which is, the soil you mentioned. For an instance, the reaction of artist who was born in 1960s is naturally reflected in their images. We are not as bitter as the previous generation, because when we grew up, the Cultural Revolution had ended. Without the experience of Sending Down Youth to the Countryside, we are not so longing for something as the previous generation were. In the mid of 1980s, artists spontaneously promoted the exploration and development of art. Essentially they were copying everything from the West. I have read articles written by artists during that period, and they are like a book from heaven. Afterwards I came to realize why. At that time a large amount of Western philosophy books came to China suddenly, so it was too rush for people to understand them. Coupled with the awful translation, the artists could only grasp a few isolated words out of context, and what they wrote was based on the poor knowledge. By the beginning of 90s, when the market has dawned in China, and art could be traded for money, artists started to think about how to sell works. My ink painting is the same. A painting for one hundred Yuan back then now could be ten million. Today, the contemporary art and art market is completely pushed by the capital. Artists were kidnapped by the short-term interests, and losing their discourse power. The innovation has basically stopped.
Prior to this, the early art creation was performed by artists who were born in 50s, 60s and 70s. The mature period of their artworks is in 80s and 90s, in which the introspection on Cultural Revolution is used as coordinates, the distance from Cultural Revolution is taken as standards, and the symbols of Cultural Revolution is considered as artistic features. Their success in the market is so obvious that many people haven't thought about their failure. Being so anxious to create and so eager to recapture the lost time, the theme of the Cultural Revolution has been misjudged. The Cultural Revolution is not a result but a phenomenon, and the massive criticism allowing no explanation makes the phenomenon a result. The consequences will show up in the near future.
SCOPE: When the Western cultural came to China aggressively, it's impossible to avoid imitation and approaching in every aspect. What do you think about the imitation in art expressions?
Zhu Wei: Imitation is not a shame, but a bad imitation which leads to internecine is. The inspiration of "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Marquez, the master of magical realism in Latin American, was derived from Juan Rulfo's "Pedro Páramo". Juan Rulfo used two generations to place a family into a lonely situation, while Marquez used seven generations. However, Marquez made the whole story more dynamic, more fascinating. Therefore, he was called "the most brilliant master of imitation in the world". Pop art was originated in the United States. When popular symbols and trademarks which people were familiar with were put into painting, it became the pop art. Pop art contained sarcasm towards consumer culture in capitalist society, resistance against the authority of art and easel art, and denial of modern art, but when pop art spread to the Soviet Union, it evolved into Political Pop and succeeded. The examples include Kosolapov's representative work "Lenin and Coca Cola" and Kabakov's installation "the Red Wagon". It also results in a famous Soviet contemporary art genre, Moscow Conceptualism. China is not an exception. In these two countries, the most popular symbols are symbols of power and politics, and children too young to recognize mustard must know the symbol of regime. So when pop art came to these two countries, it immediately turned to political pop related to ideology, which even Andy Warhol himself might not foresee. But it's no doubt that this is a complete imitation.
SCOPE: You have painted many portraits which are a bit dazed and a little bland. Is this your observation of the faces of this era?
Zhu Wei: I have created 19 painting series, while each series varies from its beginning to its end. I don't like to be a symbol that the market can take advantage of readily. Many people told me not to change, so that I can be recognized easily, however, I'm glad that I keep walking forward step by step. And it's partly because of the various types of exhibition. I want to change, but before I made a change, there was an exhibition coming, so I had to change little by little. The real change happens in my concept painting series "The Ink and Wash Research Lectures series" from 2012.
From the "Comrade Captain" in 1993, I began to pay more attention to a certain person, while before that, I seemed seldom to paint a person's inner world. Prior to this, I often painted Mao Zedong and other public figures to emphasize the sense of the times, because if I painted my relatives or some guy's relatives, nobody knew them. On one hand, these paintings could be in concert with the society; on the other hand, I was trying to carve a path of contemporary meticulous ink painting at that time. I had thought ink painting was weak, and if I did not depict a narrative context or story, it could not establish itself. But when I have a firm grasp of figure painting, I can go to the inner world. It was not until this painting that I fully know how to paint a contemporary figure, and then I started to paint the big heads.
Being bland is because there were too many cheeky faces in art at that time. It's a strategy. So far, there is no other artist in the ink painting history who dares to paint a figure painting as big as three to five meters. I have painted about a dozen of such paintings those years.
SCOPE: let's talk about the art market, even though artists are not supposed to be drawn into this topic.
Zhu Wei: What artists create is spiritual wealth. No one will judge the value of an artist by how much he earns even in the most blamed society. Artists gain their respect because their purpose is not money, or making money while drawing a few paintings. Like intellectuals, artists are the social consciences, who create spiritual products to balance the general tendency of a society. They would like to make sacrifice in some way, or they don't even care at all.
The function of galleries is to find, popularize and market art works and even artists when the occasions call for it. In the art industry, galleries are the most Avant-garde, at the forefront and the most important part. Galleries choose art at their own peril. Galleries have to rely on their know-how and knowledge to judge and discover quality artworks and artists.
Art museums and museums rely on galleries to choose well-established artists rather than making acquaintance with them on their own feet or their progress will be severely curtailed. When you visit an artist who keeps a dog, you may get bitten; or when you visit a hospitable artist, you may be invited to dinner and the day will fly away.
At the auction house, in theory, everything can be auctioned off, including real estate, works of art, gloves, socks, wine. Everything is accepted and sold on commission. Both in history and at the moment, overseas or domestically, no auction houses purely rely on art for a living, therefore it maybe inferred that auction houses are not charged with the responsibility of discovering and judging artists. Certainly, auction houses in China are now competing with frontline galleries to do what the latter innately must do, but that is only temporary. Sooner or later, the auction houses will learn their lesson and walk along a more professional line.
To assess a gallery, it is essential to see how many good artists the gallery has cultivated and what kind of artistic trends it has ushered in. At the same time, it is necessary to see whether a good interactive relationship is built (by the gallery) between the artists and collectors and that the gallery has a few good stable collector clientele and market.
One needs only see what has been auctioned off and the sales price to evaluate an auction house; nobody expect an auction house to make art history by the sheer act of auction sales.
To judge an art museums or a museum, it is necessary to see how many good works of art it has done for public collection, how much art facts and figures it has made known to the public, and whether it accurately documents the shift of art in a given age.
SCOPE: Some time ago there was news showing that, according to statistics, the per capita income of several large cities in China has been above the intermediate level, which should have a good effect on the art industry.
Zhu Wei: A normal and balanced market will take millions of ordinary collectors as the core. The Western art market has achieved this, which is why their culture and art are full of life, and having strong driving force to continue the explorations. None of the outstanding art masters that we can remember is raised by the state or speculations. Even though they might be pushed by the capital, it’s still the millions of ordinary collectors that will pay the bill at last. This is to say, there must be hundreds and even thousands of art appreciators and supporters behind an outstanding artist, who will provide the artist time to focus on his creation, and reward his art lovers and supporters accordingly. The emergence of many art collectors in a country is linked with the economic strength of the country. I've never heard that people who are starving must collect a piece of art on their way of fleeing from famine. For thousands of years, China had been an economic society of agriculture and people led a quite good life. Almost every ordinary family had the tradition of collecting art. James Cahill, a famous American scholar of ancient Chinese paintings, told a story in his book "The Painter’s Practice": a collector in a village wanted to obtain a work from an artist, therefore everyday windy or rainy, he went to the hill or climbed on a tree near the village, to observe whether there was smoke coming out of the artist's chimney. If there was no smoke, the artist must be in shortage of grain. Then the collector would visit him with food as well as nice paper and ink in order to get his works. In the Song Dynasty, China’s GDP accounted for 80% of the world’s total with per capita income of US$ 2,280, in the Yuan Dynasty, 35%; in the Ming Dynasty, 45%, and in the Qing Dynasty, 40% to 45%. In the early Qing Dynasty, China’s GDP still led the world.
At the beginning of the last century, because of the arrival of the Western oil painting, we were eager to conceptualize the ink painting. In the late Ming and early Qing dynasty, some missionaries had already brought the oil painting into China, but it did not draw much attention. Although the Italian painter Giuseppe Castiglione, Joseph Panzi, and French painter Jean Denis Attiret had worked for many years in the court of the Qing dynasty, not only did they have no influence on other Chinese artists, but they often were so despised to such a degree that after decades, they had been deeply affected by Chinese painting and turned what they did into meticulous Chinese oil painting. During the May 4th Movement in the late Qing dynasty and early republic of China, a large number of oil painting artists who returned from study abroad started running schools, setting up oil painting associations, establishing oil painting bases, advocating Western aesthetics, promoting solid grounding in sketch and precise techniques of modeling, having life classes, and bringing the debate between Xu Beihong and Xu Zhimo on the evaluation of modern Western painters, and so on. It is impossible for foreign missionaries such as Matteo Ricci and Western painters such as Giuseppe Castiglione and Jean Denis Attiret to do so, and they would feel shy to do so. The culture war is different from the military war for there is no real outside force, and therefore, the victory depends entirely on domestic acceptance and self-disintegration. In order to build up an equivalent to the foreign painting, the name of Chinese painting was generated, which also became a beginning of the later names like ink painting, ink and wash, and so on.
In October 2016, The National Art Museum of China held a homecoming report exhibition after the largest international tour of Chinese oil painting. In the conference of the exhibition, Jin Shangyi said, "If we really want to do some cultural exchange with other countries, our oil painting won't work, because the world doesn't think much of it. It has to be the Chinese painting." Since the Oil painting has not been introduced into China until the recent 100 years, while in its history, no technique, style or trend was initiated or developed in China, there is still a long and hard journey to go before it takes roots. That’s why the Chinese art history is basically the history of ink painting, and it’s important for us to look at the contemporary ink painting from a historical angle. It'll be better if there is no fault. Many Asian countries lost their traditional local painting as a result of being colonized. What’s worse, they can’t even find teachers to teach local painting in universities. It’s fortunate that we still have the major or department of Chinese painting in fine arts academies, and they are given priority at least on surface. To match the contemporary oil painting, we hastily came up with the concept of contemporary ink painting. We are so comfortable with it that even no one cares to question about it. It proves that after May Fourth Movement, Cultural Revolution and reform and opening up in the last 100 years, we have become so broad-minded, so eager to criticize ourselves, and so powerful in self-denial and self-collapse. This is the living environment of our thousands-of-years-old traditional painting.
The contemporary ink painting is not a branch of traditional ink painting; it is an inheritance and continuation of traditional ink painting, but not a development. Everything of the contemporary ink painting can be found in traditional ones; however, some traditional elements are lost. Our inheritance varies from people to people. That is to say, everyone do it on their own capability. Some combine the traditional spirits and techniques with the present social transformation and characteristics of the times, and if the combination works well, contemporary ink painting can be created. Some just inherit the traditional techniques, but cannot link them with social reality. They play ink games and paint flowers and grasses which our ancestors had been painting for thousands of years, so these people can be regarded as ancient people who live in today. They are the most common. And there is another type, who is the most confusing. Neither can they combine their works with the transforming society, nor can they master traditional ink techniques. There seems to be some modern features in their painting, but you cannot tell when it was painted because there is no characteristics of the times. When it comes to the techniques, they hide the head but show the tail with a lot of vague gestures, but no real skill can be verified. It's impossible for this sort of painting become an ink description of the contemporary society, or be in the realm of "discussion on painting techniques", because either of above needs art exploration. Thus, they often depend on commercial speculation to cover the lack of academic research.
The most important issue that the contemporary ink painting confronts is whether it can keep up with the development of the society in both form and content, and whether it can reflect the reality. If this issue cannot be solved, it cannot be called contemporary ink. The state I expect is that the Chinese contemporary ink painting can be like the Western contemporary oil painting: there are art trends such as Political Pop represented by Andy Warhol , soft abstract represented by Richter, vivid depiction of real life represented David Hockney and so on. The ink painting would be so popular that years later, the Western artists will have a burning ambition to learn Chinese painting skills as a swarm of bees. They will study hard on "three layers of alum and nine procedures of dyeing", as well as various types of shading skills including big-axe shading and small-axe shading. They will compete to each other who is doing the best, and understanding the spirit of ink the most deeply. And then, there will be some German Gu Kaizhi, Li Keran, Fu Baoshi, some British Fan Kuan, Zhang Zeduan, Tang Bohu, some American Gu Hongzhong, Shi Tao, Bada Shanren and so on. Just as Westerners never discuss the existential questions of oil painting, we will no longer talk about whether ink painting has come to its dead end by then.