An Interview with Zhang Hongtu
by Charles Schultz, published by Whitehot, whitehotmagazine.com, 2008
An Interview with Zhang Hongtu
by Wang Ying and translated by Sun Yan, “Reinventing Tradition in a New World”,
published by Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 2004
An Interview with Zhang Hongtu - Artist of the Week
by Cui Fei, chineseart.com, 2001
An Interview with Zhang Hongtu
by Lydia Yee, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York, 1995
Zhang Hongtu/Hongtu Zhang, An Interview
by Jonathan Hay, “Boundaries in China”, published by Reaktion Books Ltd, London, UK, 1995
An Interview with Zhang Hongtu - Artist of the Week
by Cui Fei, chineseart.com, 2001.
As one of the leading Chinese contemporary artists living in the United States, Zhang Hongtu is best known for the paintings and installations of the Mao series. His art continues to be vibrant and developmental. Since coming to the United States in 1982, he has continued to experiment in a wide range of media. His work includes the "Soy Sauce calligraphy series," the "Landscape Painting series," and others. In the recent exhibition 'Infinity/Unknown-Culture and Identity in the Digital Age' at the Taipei Gallery, NYC, three digital works demonstrated his latest explorations of new technologies. In this interview, Zhang talked about how he views and deals with changes in his work, and the relationship of his life experiences to his work. This interview was conducted both at his home in Manhattan and his studio in Brooklyn, New York.
I. THE WORK
Cui Fei: Mr. Zhang, could you talk about your most recent digital work currently on show at the Taipei gallery? Could you also comment on computer art?
Zhang Hongtu: I started computer art not too long ago. I haven't done much so far. In a very strict sense, my work probably should not be defined as "digital art". For me, the computer is just a tool. The idea is still consistent with my previous work.
The work "Page of a Christie's Catalogue-very rare complete set of twelve zodiac figures" represents my impressions of a recent trip back to China. It seemed to me then that the "counterfeit" was everywhere. "Fakeness" had become a common phenomenon. In my work, I also make use of the counterfeit, but try to do so in a creative way. "Fakeness" becomes a theme of my work. There are three elements in this work: the Tang Tri-Colored pottery texture, the Mao outfit, and the postures of the 12 zodiac animals. Everyone will be able to relate to these animals connected to their birth years. When I mixed these three seemingly unrelated elements, I intended to create new images that have connections with reality - connections which transcend the meaning of the twelve animals. This strange mixture parallels the current situation in China: a mixture of old and new, East and West. From 1987 to 1997, for about 10 years, I was unable to re-enter China because of the Mao series. When I returned in 1997 it was as if I had entered a totally new world. It was a profound experience, even a kind of shock.
Cui: Many immigrants experience this when they return to their homeland. This so-called "second culture shock" is even stronger than the initial one they experienced when they first traveled to a new country.
Zhang Hongtu: Yes, That's true. I have a very personal memory of the China I had left behind. When I returned to my homeland, I found myself questioning this memory, even denying it, doubting its accuracy. The first culture shock experience I had was, of course, when I arrived in the United States. It arose merely from the comparison of the old environment with the new one. But this time, I had to compare my struggle with my own memory and sense of self.
The diptych 'Bikers' also reflects my impression of my recent trips to China. The bicycle is still the primary form of transportation for most of people there. I felt that more people are eager for material life. Every image in these paintings is real. I took hundreds of digital pictures in Beijing, which were then retouched and rearranged in Adobe Photoshop. The background of the first piece is a Chinese landscape painting, while that of the second one is simply an empty space. Here I used Chinese traditional collection seals and the scroll painting format to create an ancient atmosphere. So, there is again a mixture and twist: of old and new.
My third work in this show is the 'Self-Portrait, in the style of the old masters'. In general, a self-portrait aims to represent the artist's identity, but I did not intend to emphasize my appearance in this work. In stead, there is a mixture going on: the background is taken from Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, while the way I compose the figure refers to Picasso's portrait painting, and an ancient Chinese folk song is written on the background.
Cubism has had a great impact upon my approach to art. Cubism was a liberation from traditional reality, appearance and illusion. It was a breakthrough in art history. Cubist artists broke down an object and presented several aspects of that object in one work. However, their innovations are not groundless - these artists were influenced by Cezanne and African sculpture, and they had direct connection with the cultural environment at that time. Particularly, I was influenced greatly by Picasso. However, I feel it would be meaningless to paint a self-portrait in his style - it would merely be a kind of recapitulation.
Using a computer in artwork has many specific advantages. For example, one can preserve the texture of skin, and change color by a simple click of the mouse. The Chinese folk song expresses a profound Asian philosophy: remain essentially the same internally despite all apparent external changes. For instance, from Renaissance art to digital art, there were countless revolutions in art history. But one thing has never changed, that is, the fundamental language of art. The function of human eyes has never changed. Whether you have double-fold eyelids, or single-fold eyelids, or single-fold eyelids later customized to double-fold eyelids, the essential ability of all human eyes is simply to perceive the world. And this ability is forever the same. The common function of human eyes determines the commonality of visual art.
Cui: From the Mao series to the Soy Sauce series, and then to this digital art series, your work is constantly changing. A universal question faced by all artists is how to deal with changes. As artists, we are all encountering changes and related problems, such as how to push our limits, how to keep experimenting with new things so that we can improve ourselves. When we change, there are always risks and challenges because we are doing something that we are not familiar with. Sometimes it is even a little bit scary. Could you talk about how you think about the changes in your work?
Zhang Hongtu: Although my media and methods are changing, the basic foundation of my work - my attitude toward art, the relationship of art with myself as well as with my life experience, and the relationship with the audience - has never changed.
When my work begins to change, I don't deliberately claim that "I will change." For example, the Mao series is more like psychotherapy to me. After I was cured, in a sense, it became meaningless for me to keep doing it. So, I stopped naturally. But the last piece of the Mao series led me to the Landscape Painting series. So, the change is not coming from nowhere. It is developed from my previous work. It comes naturally. When I make changes in my work, I don't worry too much about "taking a risk" or losing my audience. I think that as long as you have the right attitude, there will not be a problem when you change.
I don't have a strategy though. I don't have a scenario of how to conquer the market, or how to conquer museums. Basically, I tie my art with my life experiences. Therefore, when my life changes, it definitely affects my work.
Life is hard to predict. When I came to the United States 1982, I did not expect to stay here for almost two decades. Even now, I don't know how long I will stay in New York City. Although I don't have a very clear plan, it doesn't mean that I will "drift with the tide." It is my principle and foundation to try to connect my art with my life experience. One thing I certainly will not do is to adjust my work to follow the main stream, or certain popular trends. I don't really care how others may think about the changes I made in my work, even if they respond negatively. I am very serious about one thing; that is the connection of my art and my life experience. This actually is the criterion of whether or not you are honest with yourself and your vision. On the other hand, I am not living in a place that is totally isolated from human society - after all, I am part of this society. Although people have different characters and interests, we do have commonalties. So, my life experiences can echo with others'. Thus, I am not overly concerned about whether my work is too personal to understand, or whether people like my work or not. As long as I am honest to myself, I will have some connections with others.
Cui: No matter who you are and what you do, you are a human being. So, there are always connections with others.
Zhang Hongtu: Yes, the function of art is to communicate. Everybody has the instinct to be an artist as a child, but not every child has had the chance to be an artist as an adult. When I use my work to speak for myself, I also speak for those who have had experiences similar to mine. I don't really have an audience in mind when I work. Yet, at the end, my work always draws its own audience.
Cui: You talked about the relationship of your work with your audience. When you did the Mao series, you were already very successful. In general, for people who have gained fame, changing styles may be even more risky.
Zhang Hongtu: Most of time, people will immediately envision an artist's style upon hearing their name. In my case, my different styles make it hard for people to have a unified picture of what kind of artist I am. The galleries are not quite sure if they can sell my work when it is done in a new, unfamiliar style. It is also hard for historians and critics to categorize me into certain trends or schools. This is a very practical problem. I thought about how to address it, but finally gave up. I think this is their problem, ultimately, not mine. My responsibility is to do my work.
Certainly, when my work changes, some of my audience becomes a little confused, because they are more used to my old works. Some of them do not understand my new works, and even criticize them in newspapers or reviews. However, I have confidence that good work will draw an audience on its own merits.
Cui: Do you care when your work receives negative criticism?
Zhang Hongtu: Only in early times. My Mao series was criticized as being influenced by the Russian artists Komar and Melamid. They painted Lenin and Stalin in the style of socialist realism. Although I had a similar background; that is, coming from a Communistic country and dealing with a previous political icon, I did not even know either artist when I started the Mao series. My work is merely a reflection of my experience. But after that, such criticism no longer bothered me. I believe that the audience is the best judge.
Cui: You've lived in the United States for 19 years. It is probably no longer accurate to define you as a "Chinese artist;" but it is definitely not true either to define you as a western artist. As artists living in-between cultures, one of the most common questions we are asked is "what is your identity?" What is your answer to that?
I thought of myself initially as a bona fide Chinese artist. Earlier, when someone said that I was probably no longer a "Chinese artist", I took it heavily. Now, I don't care too much about it. Perhaps, I have been away from China for too long. Curators and critics in China have showed a certain distance from my works. I was seldom invited to Chinese Avant-garde exhibitions in China or in Europe. I understand that curators or critics have their own definitions for "a Chinese artist." If you don't fit their definitions, they will not label you as such, and you don't belong to that group. But American critics certainly label me as a "Chinese artist." Some people say I am probably a "Chinese immigrant artist." I never heard this title before, so I joke with them: Americans call the American Born Chinese "ABCs"; accordingly, I call myself a "CIA." (Chinese Immigrant Artist).
My final conclusion is that this question is really not of concern to me. If I think about it constantly, it will become a mental burden for me. They can name me, label me, whatever they want, it really doesn't matter, as long as not too far off the target - something like a "Malaysian artist," for example.
IV. THE MEETING POINT OF THE EAST AND THE WEST
Cui: Could you talk about the influences of both Chinese culture and Western Culture on your work? What kind of relationship do you think they have?
Zhang Hongtu: I try to mix both cultures. For me, the relationship of these two cultures is not like oil and water which cannot be mixed. Rather, they are like milk and coffee which can really mix well.
I learned ancient eastern tradition in China and I learned the most advanced technologies in the United States. This kind of mixture, hybrid or combination is also the theme of my work. In my soy sauce calligraphy, I mixed the Chinese traditional calligraphy format with the Sweatshop help wanted advert I found in Chinatown. In my 'Self-Portrait, in the style of the old masters', I mixed Picasso's style, the Mona Lisa's background, and a traditional Chinese painting format. For the landscape painting - I call it Shan Shui painting - series that I am doing right now, I mix Chinese traditional landscape paintings with Impressionist styles. So, I actually made something unique, which doesn't belong to any single category. I think the blurred boundary represents the reality of current human society. The boundaries between the East and the West, between races, even within art itself, are becoming more and more blurred.
Cui: In your landscape painting series, you paint in other artists' styles. Is it as if you are speaking in languages other than your own? How do you feel about that?
Zhang Hongtu: Facing an empty canvas, usually I have lots of Chinese traditional paintings on one side, and impressionist paintings on the other side. I paint the shape of Chinese traditional landscape painting - or Shan Shui painting - first. Then I imagine myself as Van Gogh, Cezanne, or Monet, like an actor, to apply their personalized color and brush stroke.
Cui: When you don't speak your own language, is there a conflict with the concept you mentioned before - that you need to be honest to yourself?
Zhang Hongtu: Yes, there is a conflict. When I paint in Cezanne's style, I want to use his techniques. I try to see Chinese landscape painting from Cezanne's perspective. During the whole process I am actually hiding from myself. Thus, I name my work "conceptual paintings." In traditional painting, we have to express our feelings, use very personal brush strokes and colors. Here "honest to myself" becomes "honest to my concept". I learned both Chinese art history and Western art history. I painted Chinese paintings and also Western paintings. Now, I am living in between cultures. Thus this kind of mixture is very objective. At this point, I am honest to myself. My painting process becomes a process to complete my concept.
V. AND LIFE GOES ON...
Cui: When you came to the United States 19 years ago, it must have been very difficult for you.
Zhang Hongtu: For an artist, it doesn't matter whether it is difficult or not. As long as you have passion and interest in art, nothing can hold you back. In China, my wife and I both had decent jobs. But we did not have the freedom to make our work our own. Although we have more hardships in the United States, we have more freedom to do our own work. For me, that is enough.
Cui: In China, you did not have many choices. Life, in a sense, was actually simpler and thus, easier. When you came to the United States, suddenly facing so many possibilities, you must have had to make choices on your own. This must have been a very strong challenge. How did you deal with it?
Zhang Hongtu: I did not feel comfortable with the situation in China, where one was faced with very limited choices. I had only one strong desire, and yet could not accomplish it there. When I came to the United States, I indeed had many more choices. However, my single desire was so clear that it was not really affected by such a wide spectrum of other opportunities.
Cui: So, what is your desire?
Zhang Hongtu: To be an artist. I have been very sure of this since childhood. Certainly, the implication of the word "artist" is changing from time to time. But my desire "to be an artist" has never changed. I never had any doubt or uncertainty about it. When I first came to the United States, I took any job I could find in order to make a living. Some of the jobs I took are probably beyond what you could imagine. While working, I was thinking about my painting. As soon as I had enough money for living, I would often quit a job, no matter how much money I might have been able to make, or how secure a future it might have promised.
Cui: While your desire or goal to be an artist is very clear in your mind, is it clear to you what kind of artist you want to be?
Zhang Hongtu: In general, there is no doubt that I want to be the best artist in the world. It may sound naive, but you must have this ideal in your mind. Learning is necessary and you can learn from everybody. Even if you don't like the work of some very successful artists, it is not necessary to envy their commercial or market success. It is better not to think of it too much. If you set a goal, you must set the highest one. It doesn't matter whether or not you can actually achieve your goal. The process of trying is what is more important, it is from this that you can benefit the most. The final result consists of many factors, such as objective or subjective conditions, inborn or postnatal conditions. During the Cultural Revolution, it was impossible for us young artists in China to gain access to modern art. So, after I came to the United States, I wanted to compensate for the time I had lost. This is also the reason why I work very hard in my art. I feel that I have so much to say in my work. So I have to use my time to the fullest advantage.
Cui: What are your plans for the near future?
Zhang Hongtu: I will continue to do my landscape painting for a little while. I plan to travel to Europe to see the original places where the Impressionist masters conducted their work. I also plan to see the two Forbidden Cities in Beijing and Taipei.
This interview was conducted in Chinese and later translated into English by Cui Fei.
An Interview with Zhang Hongtu
by Lydia Yee, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York, 1995
Lydia Yee: When you were living in China, you were painting intimate landscapes and urban scenes in a semi-abstract style. Since arriving in New York in 1982, your work has undergone several significant transformations. Can you speak about the experience of emigrating from China and the influence of your new cultural environment as it has impacted upon your artistic development?
Zhang Hongtu: My memory is not very good with time and dates, but I will never forget July 14th, 1982 – that’s when I left China for the United States. Although I was born 51 years ago, psychologically I now feel as though I am only thirteen years old. I feel that I have been reborn as an artist since I moved to the United States.
At the age of sixteen, I chose to go to art school, yet the artistic ideas and styles I learned at school were not by choice. Socialist Realism which as adopted from the former Soviet Union was the only style we learned. Art history stopped with French Impressionism and anything that happened in Western art after that period was labeled as “bourgeois, decadent art”; even landscape and still-life painting were banned in the late 1960s during the Cultural Revolution.
I had a strong feeling when I was making art in China that there was always someone behind me telling me what I could and could not do. Of course, there are also censorship problems in the United States. I myself experienced censorship here, but basically you can still do what you want. As an artist there is nothing more important than this - the freedom to express yourself. Here, in a country with only two hundred years of history, there are not many so called masters from previous generations; artists have less pressure from the past and more space in modern society to make art. It’s just the opposite in China, history and traditional culture are heavy burdens for today’s artist. In recent years, Chinese movies have received more international attention. The directors are called “fifth generation film makers” – they don’t feel strong pressure from the past generations. They have the freedom to create something new, but visual art is different story, since hundreds of generations came before. This is another reason why I feel free as an artist in the United States.
When people ask me how my ideas have changed I like to tell them about an exhibition of contemporary Scandinavian art at the Guggenheim Museum. In the catalogue for the show there were two sentences which said, “All national art is bad. All good art is national.” Before I came to the United States my goal was to create something new by combing modern Western ideas with traditional Chinese styles and, actually, behind this idea was a terrible nationalism. Those two sentences shaped my basic ideas and the direction of my art. They made me concentrate on art itself and opened my mind to many different cultures. My work changed from neo-expressionism to painting the back of the head when something behind the canvas became more interesting. I then became interested in conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp, and also the gap between art and life. I do not stick to any specific category of art, my intention is to blur the boundaries between painting and sculpture, between individual works and installations, between fine art and popular culture. I don’t think there is any difference between oil on canvas and soy sauce on rice paper. The same image can be hanging on museum walls or on a tee shirt.
Lydia Yee: Perhaps because you arrived in New York in the 1980s when postmodernism was in its heyday and artists were working with a whole range of styles, it gave you great freedom to experiment and choose different artistic styles.
Zhang Hongtu: In my early New York years, there were so many things happening in the art world. I was confused by many new ideas and concepts. At that time neo-expressionism was a strong influence on the New York art scene – especially German artists like Anselm Kiefer who had many shows here – but there were also artworks that fell under such labels as “neo-geo,” “neo-bio,” and so on. I began to ask myself, “Why do I have to follow the mainstream? Why can’t I just learn from these different styles?”
Lydia Yee: The image of Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976), leader of the Chinese Communist party, first appeared in your work in 1987, when you painted a Mao cap onto the Quaker Oats man on an oatmeal carton. Although Mao had been dead for nearly a decade at that point, it was an irrelevant, almost sacrilegious, gesture on your part, particularly because you seemed to be equating Mao with a popular brand-name commodity. What prompted you to do this and what were your feelings about this afterwards?
Zhang Hongtu: At that time I was eating Quaker Oats every day and the image on the label always reminded me of Mao. When I painted on the Quaker Oats carton for the first time, it has no special purpose. I still worked on the Back of the Head (1985-89) series and I was trying to relate Daoist philosophy to my art. I hated any political content on art, but at the same time I still continued painting Quaker Oats cartons. I asked myself, “Why do I use Chairman Mao’s image to make jokes about him, even when I feel sinful and afraid?” Later, I realized that even though I had left China more than five years before, psychologically I couldn’t eliminate Mao’s image from my mind.
I was also interested in the relationship between Quaker Oats carton and American Pop Art, especially Andy Warhol’s work. Warhol used Mao’s image, and Mao for him was just another image from popular culture. He treated Mao’s image just like he treated Marilyn Monroe, Campbell Soup cans, etc. and transformed these images into “fine art.” For me, Mao’s image was god-like in China. What I have done is pull down this image from the pantheon to reality. Working on Mao is one way to extricate myself from the nightmare; first I felt sinful and fearful, now I feel nothing.
Lydia Yee: in this way, your work is a continuation of Pop Art – Warhol felt, by circulating images of executions, car crashes, and other disasters, that somehow we would lose our feelings about these tragic moments. If we continue to repeat these images over and over again, we become distanced from them. Maybe that’s how you feel about Mao today.
Zhang Hongtu: Yes, I think so. For me, Warhol’s car accidents do not really make me forget about the situation, but with Mao it really works. I can do anything with Mao’s image now.
Lydia Yee: The Tiananmen Square massacre was a real turning point in your work. In June of 1989, Communist leaders sought to suppress the pro-democracy movement in China and government troops killed hundreds of demonstrators and imprisoned thousands of others. You watched these events unfold on television in New York and, soon thereafter, you avidly began using Mao in your work. The almost systematic use of this iconic image after 1989 seems to reflect your own awareness of Mao’s significance and authority, even posthumously, both on a personal as well as a broader cultural level. How did the Tiananmen massacre lead to your decision to almost exclusively focus on Mao?
Zhang Hongtu: The Tiananmen Square massacre was an important turning point in my work. We were taught that artists are propaganda tools to be used by the Communist party. Lenin said, “Literature and art are cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine.” So when I left China to come to the United States, I thought that I would never do work with any political content. I always told myself to forget what happened in China and just concentrate on making art. Even the Quaker Oats carton, made before 1989 was only shown once at the Palladium nightclub; I didn’t take it seriously as a piece of artwork. Then came the 1989 Chinese student demonstrations and the June 4th massacre. I was glued to the TV screen day and nigh, so excited by the student demonstrations and so angry at the government’s bloody massacre. I didn’t forget what had happened in China. I couldn’t cut off my relationship between my past experience and my new life in the U.S. I couldn’t isolate myself from the society, so I started making art, mixing my life experience in China with the art concepts I learned after leaving China. Ironically, art has become a tool to make political statements again. But the difference is that art and artists in China were used as a tool by the government. Now I can use art to express my political ideas by choice.
At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, like everyone of my generation, I completely trusted in Mao. Yet, what Mao did during the Cultural Revolution changed my mind. I saw art and culture being destroyed by the Red Guards. I saw people dividing into different groups, fighting and killing each other, but everyone – killers and victims – declared they were on the side of Mao’s revolution. I found that all the young people, including myself, were all fooled and used by Mao. Ultimately, I felt there could be no democracy in China without criticizing Mao.
While working on Mao’s image in the last six years, I recognized that people generally need an icon to worship and follow. The image of the icon becomes more powerful and authoritative after time, but one has to be careful not be fooled and used by this figure. I think this is a universal issue. Mao was a Chinese Communist leader and I am artist from China, but I hope that people will not relate my art to China.
Lydia Yee: Can you also talk about the transition from using Mao’s face in works like the painting Last Banquet (1989) to your ongoing series Material Mao, which you began in 1991 and which is characterized by a cut-out silhouette of Mao that leaves a negative space in the surface of dozens of different materials?
Zhang Hongtu: I did paintings like The Last Banquet (1989), Chairmen Mao (1989), and Bilingual Chart of Acupuncture Points and Meridians (1990), almost immediately after the Tiananmen massacre. The message in those works is clear, but it differs from my concerns before the Tiananmen massacre. I tried to go back to my studio work that dealt with more formal concerns, which I had stopped in the summer of 1989. I returned to my interest in materials and began using burlap in a series of relief works, but there was a big difference from my older works. I began adding messages to the surface. For example, I appropriated warning labels from commercial packaging as a message and printed “DANGER, EXTREMELY FLAMMABLE” on a burlap relief work. The notion of blurring boundaries, working in the gap between art and life, became clearer. In 1990 I started cutting out images from burlap and cardboard. These images always dealt with an icon – related to history, religion, or culture. In those works, I used simple materials – only burlap and cardboard-but shifted between multiple images cut out from the surface. Mao’s portrait was only one of these multiple images. In 1991, I switched strategies and started to focus on a single image of Mao which I cut from the surface of many different materials. I was moving between positive and negative space, between presence and absence, and between the iconic image and everyday materials.
Lydia Yee: Your work borrows from the formal and conceptual strategies of Western art historical styles, particularly, as we previously discussed, the use popular icons which is characteristic of Pop Art. Andy Warhol first appropriated and repeated Mao’s image in his silkscreen paintings of the 1960s when Mao was at the height of his power, creating what are probably the best know portraits of the Chinese leader in Western art. Also, seriality, repetition, and the specificity of materials in Minimal art have had a strong influence on your series Material Mao. Can you address this influence of twentieth-century Western art on your work and also describe the ways in which your work departs from these strategies?
Zhang Hongtu: During the last thirty-three years, I learned Chinese calligraphy, ink painting, Buddhist art and, of course, the Socialist Realist style. Also, my art is always related to my life – I focused on Chairman Mao for eight years – but artistically the most significant influence on my work is twentieth-century Western Art. You have indicated two sources, Pop Art and Minimalism. I appreciated Andy Warhol’s silkscreen paintings of Mao. He made Mao’s image popular in the United States, and that’s one reason why almost everyone recognizes the silhouette image in my work as Mao. I also like the visual impact of Minimal art, but I would never place my art in a specific category or style. When I started the cut-out series, I did not relate it to Minimal art. I thought a single material could speak more clearly than several materials mixed together. I jokingly said to myself, “If I put back the positive part which I cut out from the material, the work will become a typical piece of Minimal art, so I can say my work is less than minimal.”
I was also influenced by Marcel Duchamp’s work. I was a student in China, Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) was cited by teachers as a typical example of bourgeois, decadent art, and students agreed that an urinal in a museum was definitely bourgeois art. When I came to the United States, I attempted to understand the urinal. I also became curious about his bicycle wheel, large glass, and the door installation. Consequently, his ideas about art liberated my mind from conventional definitions of art.
Lydia Yee: It seems to me that the materials you selected for Material Mao are quite unlike those slick industrial materials like stainless steel and plexiglas which were favored by the Minimalists. Your choices often tend toward natural, organic materials, such as plywood, leather, stone, grass and, even, rice, corn, and soy sauce. How do these materials reflect specific Chinese cultural associations?
Zhang Hongtu: There is a contrast between the natural everyday materials and the image, which is god-like, worshipped by a billion people. The viewer has to move between empty image and the material, so that the material works together with the image and becomes part of the content, not only the medium. For example, I like the natural color of the rice and corn but, more importantly, rice is a basic food in southern China and corn is a basic food in northern China. The materials always reminded me of people’s lives in China, especially the years from 1959 to 1962 after the Great Leap Forward, when thousands and thousands of people died of starvation. While I was working on these two pieces I was very careful, because when I wasted some of the corn kernels or grains of rice I felt guilty. The materials used by the Minimalists came from their life experience and the materials I use come from my life experience in China.
Lydia Yee: Do you think your materials will refer more to your life in the U.S as you continue to live and work here? I detect some of this influence in recent works such as Lipstick Mao (1993) which seems to be more synonymous with Western culture than China.
Zhang Hongtu: It is a very difficult question and I can only answer in terms of my past work. Two or three years ago, I could not have predicted what I am doing now. I do not think I will change my basic ideas about art and my work will always be related to my life experience either in China or here. Anything could potentially influence my artwork.
Lydia Yee: In the late 1980s, a number of artists emerged as part of a Chinese avant-garde movement. Many of their works combine experimental forms with political content which is often critical of Chinese history and culture. Also, another group know as Political Pop artists have been incorporating Mao’s portrait in their works, albeit with a more ambiguous political message. How would you describe your relationship to the Chinese avant-garde and, more specifically, to the practitioners of Political Pop who are also painting Mao’s image in their work?
Zhang Hongtu: Almost everyday I face questions about what kind of artist I am. People give me so many different labels: Chinese American artist, Asian artist, American artist, Chinese artist, people even call me a Muslim Chinese artist. I don’t think my artistic ideas and concepts are related to Chinese art history, but the content of the art is still very Chinese. In terms of the Chinese Political Pop artists, the only relationship between my work and theirs is that we had similar life experiences and personally relate to Mao’s image. However, many of these artists in China are more financially successful than I am, because they have relationships with galleries and collectors in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Lydia Yee: Do you think their work is driven more by market forces because of the demand from collectors?
Zhang Hongtu: I think so. I was on a panel discussion at New York University with Yu Youhan and Li Shan, two major figures of the Political Pop movement. Yu Youhan explained that people in Hong Kong are concerned about what will happen after 1997, so they buy Chariman Mao’s portrait to welcome the new government. It is a kind of security for them. He said, “People need it, so I continue to produce.” In an article in The New York Times, he was asked why the political content was not so clear and he replied, “If we reject Mao, we reject a part of ourselves.” That’s true, but for me, so what if we reject part of ourselves. Time change, our ideas change, and our feelings for Mao also change. In the Political Pop paintings the message is not clear, but since these artists ridicule Mao by painting flowers on his face or painting him next to Whitney Houston, they begin to destroy the god-like image. Here I do not have to be concerned about what the government might thing of my art, but over there artists still have to worry about that. The Chinese rock star Cui Jian recently compared artists in China to birds in a cage, they can sing beautifully but they are still in a cage. This is a major difference.
Lydia Yee: Does your work have more affinity with the Chinese avant-grade artists who experiment with different formats like installation or performance? Although many of them have left China for Europ or the U.S., those who stay in China have to work underground because their works is often critical of the government and Chinese culture in general.
Zhang Hongtu: I think that is right, It is also difficult for the Political Pop artists to show their work in China. As yet, they have not had any problems with the government, so they can continue to work but it is hard to show in public. I think my work is related to artists like Xu Bing and others who are dealing with Chinese culture, deconstructing historical and cultural images. We share a similar attitude that is cynical and skeptical which allows us to reinterpret Chinese history and culture.
Lydia Yee: I also want to ask you about the generational difference between yourself and the artists of the Chinese avant-garde who are a generation younger and lived through the democracy movement and the Tiananmen Square massacre. Although you share many ideas with this group of artists, your work is not associated with this group. Do you think this s because you have been living here in the U.S. since 1982 or because you are considered part of a different generation?
Zhang Hongtu: When I left in 1982, I did not think there was an avant-garde in China. There was an experimental group called Xing Xing (Star Star) which begain in 1979 and was active for two or three years. All of the members were younger than me and had no official training. Their skills were not so developed, yet their content was critical of Chinese society and their style was not limited to Socialist Realism. However, this group had already separated by 1982, so I did not think that there was an avant-garde in China when I came to the U.S.
For a certain period, I concentrated on the Daoist idea about the harmony between humans and nature, which was very influential to me. From magazines and letters from friends, I learned later in 1989 about artist who were considering the same kinds of issues and combining Daoism with different styles. Although we were in separate countries, we were taking a similar approach by cutting off the influence of the past and from the government’s ideas. There was an important exhibition in Beijing in 1985, which included artists who dealt with ancient Chinese philosophy, but in 1989 some work already began to deal with the social problems not just philosophy. Similarly, in 1987 I started the Quaker Oats cartons and a series of paintings called Sunrise that started to have some political content; I called it “soft political” work. I was freer than artists in China to make his type of work, but there was still something we shared cultural and historically – our reinterpretation of what happened during Chinese history. Sometimes it was positive and other times it was a negative attitude, but as long as you continue to make some artwork, I think it is okay.
Lydia Yee: I am particularly struck by the humorous quality of your work, which is at times ironic or satirical and at others quite absurd. In Chairmen Mao (1989), for example, you represent the any faces or identities of Mao in almost schizophrenic way – benevolent, sinister, even silly. The use of the plural “Chairmen” in the title suggests multiple personalities or a two-faced ruler whose seemingly arbitrary policies decided both individual and collective fates. On a lighter note, in your new work, Ping-Pong Mao (1995), viewers can play ping-pong on a table with two large silhouettes of Mao cut into the surface. Can you talk a bit about the role of humor in the Mao works?
Zhang Hongtu: Humor is the lubricating oil between the art and the audience. I don’t want to tell people what’s wrong with the Communist party and how bad Mao was. I don’t want my art to become only a political statement, but at the same time I hope they get something from my work and don’t feel bored. I am glad when people smile and joke in front of Mao’s image, instead of watching it with esteem and fear. It is not only humor, I also like my work to be playful. People can peek through a crack in a door or play ping-pong and through the process of playing they get the message.
Lydia Yee: In Bilingual Chart of Acupuncture Points and Meridians as well as the two new door installations created for this exhibition, the doors in your work are important in terms of Communist society, suggesting that everybody is both watching and being watched. Your new work titled Front Door (1995), differs markedly from Etant donnés (1946-1966), the voyeuristic door installation by Marcel Duchamp, because the figure behind the door is not a passive object of the gaze. Mao peers back at us through the peep hole. What is the significance of the door in Chinese culture and its relation to your work?
Zhang Hongtu: The door is a very meaningful object in China. You can tell people’s position in society by the image of their door. For example, only the Forbidden City door can have 162 decorative studs, which represents a symbol of power, authority, and dictatorship. I refer to the nmber of studs in this door in my work titled 9 x9 x 2 (1992), each door has nine rows of studs and there are two doors. The emperor lived behind the doors of the Forbidden City, but after 1949 Mao and his government also lived behind these big red doors with 162 studs. People fears the doors but at the same time they desired to now what was going on behind the doors.
The apartment door is a different story. Following a thousand years of tradition, in each New Year, people paint an image of the door-god on their front door to keep the devil and bad luck out of the home, but the door only keeps the wind out of the home and not the devil. People have been watched all the time, like in George Orwell’s novel 1984, “Big Brother” was everywhere. This was my experience in China, especially during the Cultural Revolution. Have you ever heard the story of three men talking about the happiest moment in their lives The American guy said, “After work, go home, take off shoes, and relax.” The French guy says, “Travel with a girl.” The Chinese guy said, “At midnight a policeman knocks on the door, you get up, open the door, and tell the policemen ‘Chen lives next door.’” It is actually a story about a Russian man, but it is exactly the same situation in China, people have no privacy.
Lydia Yee: In some of your most recent works, feminine references appear to point to feminist concerns. In Lipstick Mao, for example, you use various shades of lipstick to highlight Mao’s silhouette cut from pages of his little red book. Also, in The Red Door (1993), the viewer peeks through a crack in the door and watches a video clip of Mao dancing with a young woman at a Communist party gathering. These works reveal the ambiguous, role of a woman in Chinese Communist society. They are equals in theory, but in practice, their social, political, and economic standing is circumscribed by their gender. How has your awareness of gender inequality in China influenced your work?
Zhang Hongtu: Even today, women’s rights are still a big problem in China. In Mao’s little red book, you will find the idea of equal rights for both sexes, but in reality there is never really equality between men and women. Even Mao himself didn’t follow what he said in his book. Sexism and male dominance are everywhere in the society all the way back to Confucianism, so nobody pays attention to this issue, neither men nor women. When I discussed this issue of women’s rights in China with my wife, she said, “Of course, it’s a big problem, but since women and men live under the same political pressure, they struggle with basic human rights like freedom of thought and speech. People do not feel women’s rights is a big issue.” On this issue, Mao was no different than the emperor in feudal society; he was even worse. The emperor told people he had the right to own a hundred women. Mao never said that, instead he showed his image to the public as a saint or a god. During a certain period, Mao would dance with girls once or twice a week, and nobody dared to imagine what he might do afterwards. When I mixed pages of the red book with lipstick and cut out Mao’s image from these materials, I was trying to express the hypocrisy of Mao and his party’s theories on women’s issues.
Lydia Yee: So living here has given you some distance on Chinese society, which has made it possible to examine such issues as gender inequality a little bit more. Because, as you said, you are not struggling with basic issues like human rights in general and, therefore, you are able to see some of the other sorts of tensions and contradictions in Chinese society.
Zhang Hongtu: That is right. I have said before if you have some distance on your culture you can see more clearly. You don’t know the image of mountain from the inside, but if you have distance from the mountain you will know its image. At a panel discussion, people were asking a female Chinese artist about difficulties for women artists in China, nobody [artists in China] seemed concerned about this issue. They had no point of comparison. IN China, women have no understanding of the possibilities of equal rights. I had met many American and Asian American women here who spoke about women’s rights. IN the beginning, I thought they already have many more rights than the women in China, why do they still have to struggle so much? Finally, I realized it is a big issue and you have to wake up to find out what are your rights. The problem in China is not only the government policy, but people have no idea bout equal rights. It’s like an incident when my painting was rejected from a show in Washington D.C., and people asked me about censorship in China. Nobody knows about censorship in China, because people censor themselves. Before they show a painting to the public, it is already censored.
Zhang Hongtu/Hongtu Zhang, An Interview|
by Jonathan Hay, “Boundaries in China”, published by Reaktion Books Ltd, London, UK, 1995
Zhang Hongtu was born in Gansu province, in northwest China, in 1943, but grew up in Beijing. After studies as the Central Academy of Arts and Crafts in Beijing, he was later assigned to work as a design supervisor in a jewellery company. In 1982, he left China to pursue a career as a painter in New York. Since that time he has participated in numerous group exhibitions, and was a member of the collective Epoxy in the late 1980s. He was extremely active in art world protests following the Tiananmen massacre of 4 June 1989. At the time of this interview with Jonathan Hay (1991), he was the recipient of a grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation.
JH: Like other East Asian artists in the West you encounter the particular problem that in the West the surname comes at the end instead of the beginning: are you Zhang Hongtu or Hongtu Zhang?
ZHT: I’m Zhang Hongtu now. Actually, I changed my name to Hongtu Zhang right after I came to the United States. Then one day a friend said to me Hongtu Zhang sounds like hong tuzhang, ‘a red official seal’. I hated this misunderstanding, so I changed my name back to Zhang Hongtu.
JH: You have Chinese citizenship but have lived and worked in the United States for almost nine years. In fact, you have made your home here. How has your long absence from China affected your ability to think of yourself as Chinese?
ZHT: For me being Chinese does not only mean someone who was born in China or still keeps Chinese citizenship, but also means someone whose mind or spiritual life is tightly related with Chinese culture, what people call their roots. When I left China I was thirty-seven years old, and the roots – Chinese culture – had already become part of my life just as a tail is a part of a dog’s body. I’m like a dog: the tail will be with me forever, no matter where I go. Sure, after nine years from China, I forget many things, like I forget that when you buy lunch you have to pay ration coupons with the money, and how much political pressure there was in my everyday life. But because I still keep reading Chinese books and thinking about Chinese culture, and especially because I have the opportunity to see the differences between Chinese culture and the Western culture which I learned about after I left China, my image of Chinese culture has become more clear. Su Dongpu (the poet, 1036- 1101) said: Bu shi Lushan zhen mianmu / Zhi yuan shen zai si shan zhong. Which means, one can’t see the image of Mt. Lu because one is inside the mountain. Now that I’m outside of the mountain, I can see what the image of the mountain is, so from this point of view I would say that I understand Chinese culture better than nine years ago. I have also come to understand myself as a Chinese person better than nine years ago because I think that, as an artist, to understand oneself is crucial, and that’s part of one’s identity. One’s identity is not just a matter of having citizenship or not.
JH: You do two kinds of painting concurrently, one that is explicitly political and another that on the surface avoids politics. How do you separate them in your mind, or do you?
ZHT: I don’t really separate the two kinds of work in my mind. No matter which one I do, it’s always related to my cultural background, my life experience. The political issue is part of my personal history, so this is why, although my political work is all about Mao, even my normal work which you mentioned avoids politics, also deals with social or cultural issues. That’s why I say they are not clearly separated.
JH: Your explicitly political work is perhaps better understood here than your studio painting…
ZHT: I think that in my political work the basic approach is a contemporary Western one. The styles are familiar to Western people. For example, I use ready-mades, collage, the technique of laser xerox copy, Marcel Duchamp’s way to change Mao’s face, Picasso’s ways to change Mao’s face…the Western audience is familiar with these styles. Also the content is related to current events: the democracy movement is found all over the world and especially in Eastern Europe. So these paintings are easier to understand. My studio work is more experimental in style. I want to make something unique, with my own language, and the content is more personal. This also creates a problem for the audience, to understand directly something from my personal experience. If somebody has something in common with me, some shared background, it’s easier, but most people have a different life experience. So sometimes my studio work has less of an audience than my political work.
JH: Staying with your studio work for a moment, it’s a general problem, isn’t it, for Chinese artist working in a contemporary mode in the West, that they have difficulty finding a Western audience. It occurs to me that along with other artists such as Gu Wenda, Zhang Jianjun or Hou Wenyi who work with iconic imagery and abstraction, you are in an awkward position in relation to Western public. One might say that your reference points on the Chinese side are too obscure to Western viewers, while your Western reference points are in a sense too familiar.
ZHT: Especially for artists who came from China when they were older, over thirty, thirty-five or forty, the influence of Chinese culture, especially ancient philosophy, is very, very strong. Somebody can say, ‘No, I don’t like the old stuff, I’m going to break with the tradition’, but nobody can avoid its influence. That’s why you find so many Chinese artists who in the content of their paintings still keep the influence of Chinese culture. But here, because one is living in this modern society, in New York, one sees contemporary art every day, so this influence is also very strong. Especially in New York, art is in step with everyday life. Modern civilization, new techniques, new ideas about art, about culture, even about science, all influence art. So one cannot take away from this kind of influence as well. That’s why in the results, visually, one can see the references, or the influences, from Western culture. And these are very familiar to people here. For me this is a challenge. Familiar is OK, but the challenge is that I have to make something of my own, unique, not only from my earlier life experience but also from my own knowledge of Western contemporary culture. As for the content or the concept, from Chinese history or culture, I don’t have any reason to avoid that, because it is part of my life. But I think that since the world is getting smaller and smaller, and more Western people are studying Eastern culture understanding each other may be easier in the future.
JH: Most readers will not be familiar with your work. You tend to work by series. Until recently, your series were characterized by a strong image to which you returned again and again: it might be a dark lumpish from representing the sun, or the back of a head, or stenciled messages in Chinese and English, or – in your explicitly political work – the image of Mao Zedong. But your most recent series is rather different, since it is characterized above all by a technique: you cut out the central motif and leave it as a void. Also, the imagery is much more wide-ranging: you draw on the imagery of various earlier series, but you have also added many new images which I think of as emblems of cultural identity – for example, the Great Wall, a Western-style book, a Doric column… What significance does this shift in your work have for you?
ZHT: First of all, I would like to say something about the history of this shift. A long time ago, I had a very clear aim in my painting: it was to combine modern Western art and Chinese traditional style. Already in 1962, 1963, when I was still at Middle School, I had this aim. I wasn’t the only one; many, many artists then were talking about how to give a national [Chinese] character to oil painting…
JH: Were you aware of what was going on in Taiwan and Hong Kong at that time, painters like Liu Guosong and the Fifth Moon group (Wuyue huahui) who were also pursuing an East-West synthesis?
ZHT: No, not at all. At any rate, the result of that kind of aim on my part was two different styles. One was oil painting – figure and landscape paintings – with line…
JH: Why was that? Why with line?
ZHT: Because at that time it was very easy to think of Western painting as being without line, since line – brushwork – is the most important thing in traditional Chinese painting. But I found out that the Post Impressionists, especially Matisse, had already done much the same thing long ago. The other result of my thinking in that period was a kind of abstract ink painting on rice paper, which so many oriental artists have done, a thousand times over. I didn’t find anything new. But even when I arrived in the United States in 1982 I still had the idea underlying those two styles – I wanted to combine, or mix, Western and Chinese things. But one day I changed my ideas. At the end of 1982 I saw a show of Scandinavian contemporary painting at the Guggenheim Museum, and there were two sentences in the catalogue: ‘All national art is bad. All good art is national.’ This really shocked me, and it made me rethink my idea of combining two styles. The second sentence, ‘All good art is national,’ was a really strong influence on me: to be a Chinese artist is not important, to be a good artist is important. So this was the next step: I could learn more and more from the new art world, from my reality in the United States. From that time on, I tried many styles. I was influenced by the mainstream, Neo-expressionists, people like Anselm Kiefer, but my works were too similar. Then later, I went back to reading Chinese books – history and philosophy – and by going back to myself, I found my way to the sunrise paintings and the back of the head paintings. The next stage was my political paintings after June 4, 1989, the Tiananmen massacre. At the beginning, I thought of it just as an immediate response. But later, after I had done two or three paintings of Mao, the paintings themselves taught me that this came from my life experience so it was not to be ignored, and I went on to do a series of political paintings all about Mao. So to get back to your question, changing my work had been very important to me for several years. At the end of the period when I was painting the back of heads I found that my work had too much of a personal feeling, and that the message was always exchanged between the work and myself. Once I started cutting out images I found more freedom and opportunity to express my ideas about reality. Now I can use many different images to make artworks, and since the images are always related to culture, to popular icons, it’s easier to exchange the message with the audience. Asking myself about the significance of these images had made me rethink the relationship between art and culture, the relationship between art and society.
JH: There you mention that these images you’re using are popular icons, and have to do with culture and art. What does it mean to use, say, a Doric column?
ZHT: This kind of idea comes partly from art history, but partly from my personal life. Nowadays the whole world is full of images – people speak of an image world – so any abstract form reminds people of something. There is no absolute abstract form. If it’s a square, people think about the modern city, a triangle, they think about a pyramid… This is different from Malevich’s time, when you could say you were doing work that was pure, close to spirituality, nothing to do with reality. Nowadays every image will remind you of something. People use images to do many different things, in the same way that high art styles are also used for commercial work – this is reasonable, it’s part of the historical process. In my case, if I had led a different life, if I hadn’t lived in China, hadn’t lived through the Cultural Revolution [1966-76], if I had a different family background, if I had moved to Taiwan before 1949, then I would have been a very different artist. Maybe I would have become an absolute formalist – maybe, I don’t know. But my life as a Chinese person, especially after the 1989 Democracy Movement, has influenced me strongly to think about history, about authority culture, and to doubt the authority of the image.
JH: So this new kind of work you are doing has an indirect connection with the events of June 4.
ZHT: Yes, an indirect connection.
JH: These recent cut-out paintings bring to mind a standard phrase of traditional Chinese art criticism: you wu zhi jian, ‘between presence and absence.’
ZHT: Yes, you wu zhi jian is good, but somehow I think you wu xiang sheng. It’s from [the Daoist philosopher] Laozi: it means that presence and absence generate each other. In my understanding of it, life is in between presence and absence, or in between existence and non existence, or in between reality and dream. In my new works, the image – I still believe in the power of the image – is still there but it’s empty. Then there are nonsense words present, visible, on the burlap. Both are significant images. The burlap is a part of the work, alongside the cut-out, like the yin-yang symbol. Since the hole is a significant image, it is in between presence and absence as you said, but it is related to reality.
JH: You mentioned the messages which you include on burlap, either that were already on it, or which you stenciled onto it in the same style. Some of the messages are in Chinese, others in English. You described them as nonsense words, but they are not wholly nonsense words, are they? In the context of the artwork, they seem to me more ambiguous or mysterious: DANGER, EXTREMELY FLAMMABLE, KEEP OUT OF THE REACH OF CHILDREN. Could we say that some sort of boundary is defined by language, or in your work is defined by this particular use of language, which promises understanding but does not fully deliver.
ZHT: Language promises understanding, any new language defines a new boundary. In ordinary life, when people exchange messages with each other, they have to use the same language. The problem is that artists are always trying to break boundaries and find a new language. But the significant thing is not just to break with the old but to create something new as well. When a new language is created, a new audience is created, so along with the creation of a new language the message of my work will be more clear. If my artistic language is complete and strong enough, the message in my work will be more clear. Even so, I still can’t make a message clear as crystal. I don’t like to teach the audience, instead I want to give the audience more space to re-create.
JH: The messages you stenciled on burlap could be interpreted to have political meaning.
ZHT: The words I used at that time were important, they had a message, but it wasn’t really political, it was more for psychological effect: phrases like DANGER, EXTREMELY FLAMMABLE, KEEP OUT OF THE REACH OF CHILDREN, NO CHEMICALS, to make people think about the environment, the reality of the society, but only psychologically.
JH: It’s not a commentary on the paintings themselves…?
JH: … because from the point of view of the Chinese government – I’m thinking of the recent Campaign against Spiritual Pollution – it could be said that your works are dangerous, and flammable, and should be kept out of the reach of children.
ZHT: To tell you the truth, with those paintings, I did not think too much about the relationship with the Chinese government. But you are right that if I showed the paintings with these messages in Chinese in China, the government, even the people, would definitely think this way, because people are always ready to find some special meaning in any single world.
JH: Then let’s imagine that the political situation changes and you have an opportunity to exhibit in Beijing, do you think that your studio work could be understood in Beijing?
ZHT: I think so, though maybe in a different way. But misunderstanding is acceptable. For example, I cut out the image, make a hole in my painting, and over here many people think this is a way of denying or being against something. But some of my Chinese friends think about Daoism, about nothingness, about something between nothingness and something, between xu (void) and shi (solid). To me it doesn’t matter, you can think this way or that way, I just give you a chance to think, feel a different way with this image.
JH: You said earlier that you want to give the audience space to re-create. That space must have a lot to do with the ground you give your images.
ZHT: In my head paintings, there is a space which is the background for the head, an abstract space. And in my new paintings there is a real space cut from wood, plywood, canvas, burlap, a physical space. But when I talk about leaving a space for the audience, for the viewer, to recreate, it’s psychological, it has to do with the message. In my paintings I’m not going to explain everything exactly and very, very clearly and completely. The space is exact – I cut it out – it’s a real space, it’s not an illusion. Maybe you want to see spiritual emptiness, maybe somebody wants to say because I cut the image out I negate something, I am against something. But for my own part, I just want to give you a chance to see the thing in a different way, not just see it in a surface way; for example, with the image of the Mona Lisa not just see it as the smile, colour, artistic technique, but see all sorts of other things as well. But it’s not unlimited. The image is still there, limiting you to think something, though not only something from the original painting such as her smile, or how great da Vinci is. So that’s what I mean by space – the opportunity to think and feel about the image.
JH: It’s almost as if you are trying to give fresh life to symbols that have become clichéd and hackneyed…
ZHT: Yes, everybody knows these are clichés, but I use them because they are something I have in common with people – they are public images, which I try to let people see from a new angle.
JH: What I was trying to get at before was the way that the psychological space that you create for the viewer is also influenced by the physical way that you create it. I’m sure that your cut-out paintings would have a quite different effect if they were cut out of formica, for example, instead of burlap. So why do you choose rough physical surroundings for your images? You must have some sort of psychological effect in mind.
ZHT: Yes, psychologically I would like to keep a distance from modern civilization, in other words, from my surrounding reality. Perhaps this is a traditional Chinese intellectual attitude. I am making a contrast with the machine-made or man-made world, both in everyday life and in the art world. If you go to see contemporary art in galleries or museums, you can see that many of the things look artificial. There’s a sleek surface. Maybe this is the right direction – it’s closer to high tech, to science – but personally I like to make a contrast with sleek surfaces and artificial materials, both in everyday life and in the art world.
JH: So this would be why, although your paintings are basically rectangular, the edges are always uneven.
ZHT: But the shape of my paintings is still basically rectangular. You know why? Because I found that some artists – of course they’re good artists, like Frank Stella, Elizabeth Murray – make the paintings totally non-rectangular. They can be any kind of shape. To me this is great, but it is merely different from reality. I make paintings that still look right-angled, look rectangular, yet none of the details are even. So it’s different from, but at the same time related to, reality.
JH: There’s a kind of ambiguity. That’s also true of the way your paintings mix painting and sculpture.
ZHT: Yes, the materials, the surface and the edges all come from the same point of view.
JH: So when you speak of making a contrast with modern civilization, with the machine aesthetic, you don’t even mean a complete contrast…
ZHT: No. I don’t want my work to look as if it comes from another planet.
JH: In the past you have spoken to me in Daoist terms about the lumpish motif in your ‘Sunrise’ series of paintings. You have related it, for example, to concepts of unity. But you also once told me that you thought of your ‘Sunrise’ paintings as ‘soft’ political works.
ZHT: Even the title has a political meaning in China, because ‘Chairman Mao is the red sun in our hearts’. I’m sure that anyone of my age had to sing this slogan during the Cultural Revolution, not only chant it, even sing it. So the sunrise series I did after leaving China – including black suns, square suns, irregular-shaped suns – like other paintings I did at that time, was an attempt to extricate myself from the past. But I didn’t want to do something that looked exactly like a political painting, like political statement in my painting…
JH: …Why not?
ZHT: I did the sunrise paintings before 1989. I still thought art was art, I didn’t want to use painting as a tool, as political propaganda. When I was in China, teachers, the government, everybody told you art is a tool of the government, of the party. You have to do something useful for the Communist Party. So when I left China I hated this idea; I thought art is art, art is not a tool, I am not a tool. As Lenin said, literature and art are ‘cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine’. I knew when I painted the ‘Sunrise’ paintings that there was a kind of relationship with Mao’s images and my life experience in China, but I deliberately avoided this kind of feeling. So I named them ‘Impression: Sunrise, 114 years after Monet’. I preferred an art-historical reference, but of course I could not make the political meaning disappear.
JH: I want to ask you a related question about your paintings as an oil painter and the way that it relates to your work today. Many of the artists of your generation, who trained as oil painters in China and studied socialist realist painting, after coming to the West have continued to work in a realist style. Even though they changed their subjects and the content of their work and their themes, nonetheless the style that they work in today is still very close to the style they trained in China. But your style has changed enormously. Your studio work – the images of the backs of heads for example – on the surface has very little to do with socialist realism. However, I wonder if there is not some connection at a deeper level – I’m thinking of the socialist realist icons of smiling workers, for example, or other smiling figures.
ZHT: Socialist realism was the only artistic style permitted by the government if China when I was there. Also it was the only ‘ism’ taught in the art schools when I was a student. In fact, socialist realism dealt neither with the social, nor with reality. What people had to see in their everyday life, everywhere, was Mao’s face, with its huge size and hypocritical smile – especially during the Cultural Revolution. That is part of my life experience. When I made the back of the head paintings I had not consciously connected the idea with this part of my memory but I am sure it was connected subconsciously. For example, the colours black and grey instead of yellow and red, the back of the head instead of the smiling face. But personally I like to put the question in this way: in my paintings I show the back of the head to the audience, so the front of the head is actually facing empty space. That was my attitude during that time in China, to keep a distance from my reality. Maybe this one way to relate the back of the head paintings and socialist realism.
JH: Without suggesting that it was a conscious decision on your part, I was wondering too whether the very large scale of your head paintings might not owe something to the huge size of public icons in China?
ZHT: If people try to make somebody look like a god through the huge size of the portrait, as in the pictures of Mao, the size can make the image funny and make it lose its power. But if somebody enlarges the size of an object from everyday life, it can transform a common feeling about the same object, like you see in Claes Oldenburg’s work. I would prefer to say that I was influenced by Claes Oldenburg’s work than by Socialist Realist icons.
JH: When you speak of the image of the back of the head in terms of keeping a distance from your reality, it brings to mind some lines by the woman poet, Shu Ting, written in the late 1980s: ‘Who is it remains silent in all this hubbub? / Don’t turn your head; / at your back is only the leaden universe.’ Is there a shared experience?
ZHT: I like this poem: I had never read it before. I think we share some feelings about life and reality, though in my paintings visually I turn the head toward ‘the leaden universe’, and leave the ‘hubbub’ at the back. But the main thing is that the person is between the ‘hubbub’ and the ‘leaden universe’, so I would say we share a similar feeling.
JH: What struck me in the poem was the intense sense of the individual person, alone and trapped, but in public. It’s not the individual at home in some quiet corner and alone, but alone surrounded by all these people and on an almost cosmic scale. And that’s what brought your head paintings to mind, because they often remind me of crowds, partly because in some paintings you have more than one image of a head which makes one think of a crowd, and partly because the viewer’s closeness to the back of this person’s head is similar to the experience we have in a crowd. Standing in a crowd, or riding a bicycle in Beijing, much of the time you’re seeing the backs of people’s heads.
ZHT: That’s true. In fact, in China I did some paintings of people riding bicycles, and they were all seen from the back.
JH: You have related the ‘Sunrise’ and head paintings, produced in the United States over several years, to your earlier life in China. Were they an attempt to come to terms with the past?
ZHT: They were an attempt to come to terms with the past, but in the sense of an attempt to extricate myself from the past.
JH: Is it your own head, then?
ZHT: No, it’s just a head. I did a few small paintings based on my own head, which was interesting for me, but I didn’t need people to recognize it as my head. There was one show that asked for self-portraits, and there I gave my social security number to identify it.
JH: To me that would suggest that these paintings also have something to do with the anonymity of life in New York.
ZHT: Traditionally Chinese intellectuals and artists have kept a kind of distance from their reality. I mean that they haven’t dealt directly with social and political problems in their art. But coming here allowed me to have a different approach. I feel isolated from my new reality here, perhaps because of the language problems, the difference of lifestyle, the cultural shock. I can fit in but I still feel different. When I show the head surrounded by empty space, it shows that isolation.
JH: Earlier you spoke of the psychological space that you try to create for the viewer with your studio paintings. But the explicitly political works also create a psychological space, and one which to my eyes is very disturbing, because they draw on the power of the Mao icon at the same time as they oppose it. However, I wonder how sensitive to this a Western viewer can be, unless he or she has lived under a Communist regime.
ZHT: I agree with you. If one has never lived under a Communist government, Mao’s portrait means nothing: it’s just a popular image such as Warhol did, like Marilyn Monroe. But the first time I cut Mao’s portrait with a knife and put it back together to make a new Mao’s image, I felt guilty, sinful. Can you imagine? Mao died fifteen years ago, and I left China nine years ago, but I still felt guilty doing that artwork.
JH: That reminds me of the incident at Tiananmen Square, before the crack-down, when three men threw paint on the portrait of Mao above the Tiananmen Gate, and were pursued by the demonstrators and handed over to the police.
ZHT: Yes, one was sentenced to life imprisonment, one to twenty years, and the third to sixteen years. I heard that news just as I was doing the first group of Mao images, and it encouraged me to continue, because it was so unjust.
JH: What you’ve just been saying raises the question of taboos, which are one very obvious way of establishing boundaries. From what you say one can easily see the way that a certain kind of art helped to keep things in place, and the way that your own art explores taboos that have been important in your life.
ZHT: This may be different of cultural values between this country and China. In China, even before the Communist period, people always had to follow a standard, not only the intellectuals, everybody. The standard might come from history, from the government’s ideas, but people accepted it. If something deviated from the standard, then even before the government said it was wrong, one censored oneself. I think this is the most terrible thing in China, self-censorship. One always follows the official standard. Sometimes it is not official, but social, and not only the government will say you’re wrong but your classmates, your teachers, your friends will say you were wrong. In this country people have more opportunity to choose for themselves. But when I was in China, images and icons, not only Mao’s but historical ones as well, were a very powerful influence on my everyday life.
JH: In a widely reported incident in 1990, your version of The Last Supper, The Last Banquet, was banned from a federally-funded exhibition in Washington. Those who banned it thought, or believed that others would think, that by replacing Jesus and the Apostles with figures of Mao you were attacking Christianity, whereas you intended to attack Mao and socialist realism. How do you feel about that misunderstanding?
ZHT: The whole of history is full of misunderstandings. What I am concerned with is less misunderstanding for myself, so that I can see the world from my own perspective. I used Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper just as Marcel Duchamp used a bicycle wheel. The Last Supper for me is a ready-made image, so I replaced all thirteen faces, including both Jesus and Juda’s, with Mao’s face. The story is that after Jesus says ‘One of you will betray me’, all the twelve apostles have different reactions. In my painting the story is still there but the content is changed – Mao was betrayed by Mao. Perhaps some people who have stronger religious emotions are affected by that, so that even if they understand the story they don’t understand my intention.
Something else to mention is that after that painting was first exhibited in a show protesting against the Tiananmen massacre, but before the Washington exhibition, one Chinese painter whose name unfortunately is similar to mine went back to China from New York. At Beijing airport, in the customs office, he was held by a Chinese official. He asked him: ‘Are you Zhang Hongtu?’ He was only released after he showed all his ID cards.
JH: So did the Chinese authorities understand your painting better than the American authorities?
ZHT: At least they understood my purpose. They didn’t know the story, perhaps, but they got the point.
JH: Your use of a Christian story for The Last Banquet brings to mind the role that religion played in your early life. You grew up in Beijing, which is still the centre of China in a symbolic sense, but in a Moslem family, that’s to say, outside the ethnic centre of the Chinese population. In fact, yours is an unusual Moslem family, since your father is a prominent Moslem scholar who has been working for many years on a Chinese translation of the Koran. How were the boundaries marked between the culture of your community and Han Chinese culture?
ZHT: Han chauvinism is everywhere in China. It doesn’t only come from the government, it comes from the psychology, from everybody. It’s a terrible thing. The government has spent almost forty years destroying the boundary between Han and other peoples in China, both culturally and psychologically, so I am not very clear about the boundary, even though I live in a Moslem family. To give an example, idolatry is banned by Islam, but ever Moslem family had Mao’s portrait during a certain period. And not only did they have a portrait, but they had put it on the wall at the centre of the room up above everything else. There were also small sculptures, because you could buy them anywhere. This was really idolatry but all Moslem families had Mao’s portrait, both a picture and a sculpture.
JH: Isn’t it true that in the past, before 1949, Han families but not Moslem families would have put up another kind of image, of a domestic god? So there is actually a religious background for the placement of the Mao icon.
ZHT: Yes, that’s true. Not every family, but most families, though not Moslem ones. For example, people might have a Guanyin (Bodhisattva) in the living-room, and almost everyone had a stove god in the kitchen.
But I can still talk about a difference between the two cultures, without talking about boundaries. In a Moslem family though religious influence I reached Western culture much earlier than others in my generation. When I was young my parents and all my relatives called each other by Islamic names. Even I have my Islamic name, Mohammed. Also, if my father had the chance we talked about Islam – if he had the change, but not during the Cultural Revolution, of course. So I became more open-minded; my interest and knowledge were not glued by Confucianism and Daoism. Through the religious influence I had more knowledge about the West. I know many stories from the Old Testament, which is also a part of Western culture: if you study Western art history you have to understand the Bible. In this way I think I had a chance to reach Western culture earlier than my generation. So that’s one difference. But I don’t think that I can use the word boundary, because it’s very hard to see a boundary. If you ask someone else from a Moslem family, they would say that there’s almost no difference, just the lifestyle, not eating pork, that’s maybe the only thing.
JH: How conscious were you of belonging to a different community?
ZHT: There’s no community. Even in the Niujie area where I grew up. It was a Moslem community in Beijing before 1949, but after that people were all mixed together. But spiritually I still have a relationship with the Middle East, with Western culture, especially since my father studied Arabic in Egypt when he was eighteen years old, and traveled to Mecca, to Pakistan, to many countries. He talked with us about that, about his experience, so this was an influence on our consciousness. We had a kind of relationship with the world outside China.
JH: Has any of this found its way into your painting?
ZHT: Not directly, but it certainly influenced my attitude toward my everyday life.
JH: Including your attitude toward the patience of painting?
ZHT: Yes. I can give you an example. I started so study painting at a very early age. The purpose wasn’t to learn painting. I was just interested. But later my father told me many times: if you study something, you have to do it with a pure purpose. For example, art is art. You cannot use art as a tool to do something, for a name, for money, to make a living. Art is just like religion. In his thinking you have to put all your mind and body into religion. So this was the most important influence on my commitment to my career, to art. Also, the paintings about Mao, and then the cut-image paintings – these are connected with icons. Maybe there is an influence from the Moslem family here, because Islam is against idolatry. I believe in the power of the image, but I don’t believe in the authority of the image.
An interview with Zhang Hongtu
by Charles Schultz, published by Whitehot, whitehotmagazine.com, 2008
Charles Schultz speaks to Zhang Hongtu
Zhang Hongtu is a New York based, Chinese-born artist. In the early summer he was invited to participate in the Go Games, Beijing exhibition, an international group show organized to coincide with the Olympics. The exhibition opened on Monday, August 4th, without Hongtu’s contribution. His painting, a rendering of the Olympic stadium in a mock cubist style, was seized by the Chinese authorities at customs. I went out to Hongtu’s studio to talk with him about his controversial painting?
Charles Schultz: First, can you explain the background of the Go Games, Beijing exhibition, and why you decided to participate?
Zhang Hongtu: The exhibition was organized by a European company called Brands United. They organize art exhibitions around international sporting events. I think the last one was with the World Cup in Germany. Basically the idea of the curators is simple, they want to make a show that highlights the mixing of cultures, all the different nations coming together. So they invited me, and it was a perfect time for me because I recently began to make work that is more focused on contemporary issues. The Olympics is a huge contemporary issue, so I thought this would be a good exhibition.
Charles Schultz: Was your Bird’s Nest painting done especially for this exhibition?
Zhang Hongtu: Yes.
Charles Schultz: Can you explain a little about the painting? What inspired it? How it came together?
Zhang Hongtu: When I started this painting, the basic idea was about deconstructing the image of the Bird’s Nest. I wanted to express my own feeling not only about the Olympics but also about the human right issue in China My idea to deconstruct the Olympic stadium—the Bird’s Nest—was very natural, it already looks deconstructed, so I thought I would paint it in the cubist style, after Picasso. Once I had the painting I would find the right words. I chose words from the media that related to the east west issues surrounding the Olympics.
Charles Schultz: Why was the painting seized at customs?
Zhang Hongtu: The government gave three reasons, they said the color is too dull, the rendering of the stadium is not acceptable, and the phrases are all too sensitive.
Charles Schultz: What were the phrases that upset them?
Zhang Hongtu: I used key words from the media, “Human Right” and “Tibet” I wrote in English. In Chinese I wrote the Olympic Slogan “One World, One Dream” and the government’s phrase for the Olympic torch. They call it the “Holy Torch.” I chose these words very carefully, like acupuncture, they are precise and they hit a nerve.
Charles Schultz: What do you think about these phrases?
Zhang Hongtu: I think they highlight many big problems. First, I think it is ridiculous the phrase “One World, One Dream” It is ok for a slogan, but very superficial, very shallow. One thing about the world that I love is that everybody has their own dream. I mean do I have the same dream as the Tibetan monk or the immigrant worker that built the stadium or the Russian athlete that will play there? No. Also calling the torch “holy”; I think that is very ridiculous. It’s not sacred, but if the government says it is, then many Chinese people will believe it. So it’s easy for them to get upset when protesters extinguish the sacred torch. But these things are surface problems, what they cover is a much deeper dilemma.
Charles Schultz: What is the deeper problem?
Zhang Hongtu: The deeper problem is that most people only have one source for all their information, the government. So take the example of the situation in Tibet, most people in China have no idea about what is happening in Tibet. It’s not their fault; they have no chance to read what the Dalai Lama wrote in his book, no chance to hear him talk, they really don’t know anything about him. But they all criticize him, curse at him, call him the devil. This is unfair, and it really frustrates me. For me if I want to criticize you first I must get to know you, not just make accusations based on the government’s propaganda.
Charles Schultz: This painting signals a departure from your previous work. I know it’s not the first of its kind, but it’s among the beginning of a new body of work. What triggered this shift in focus?
Zhang Hongtu: Well, I want to say one thing first. I never make a choice when I will change direction, I always let the change happen naturally. I have been working on my previous body of work, the Shan Shui series, for almost ten years. In that series I used the styles of the western old masters, Cezanne, Picasso, Monet, to make reproductions of old Chinese master works. It is very enjoyable making those paintings, having a dialogue with these artists that I really respect. But I began to feel like there was something more the paintings could do. I’ve always been greatly interested in environmental issues and especially with water pollution. In my new work I still incorporate some of the styles of the western masters, and I still copy old Chinese master works. But where those masters saw raging waters, I see dry riverbeds. Where they painted clean water, now I am painting the polluted water. The funny thing is the water is still beautiful, it might be very dirty, very polluted, but it is still beautiful. Think about Turner’s paintings of the Thames, he made them during England’s Industrial revolution; that fog is probably smog, but it’s still beautiful. Only it’s a sort of poisonous beauty, the pollution isn’t obvious like tin cans in a river, it is in the air and water much more deeply. That is what I see. That is why I am making their masterpieces modern; I am filling them with the true beauty of now.
An Interview with Zhang Hongtu
by Wang Ying and translated by Sun Yan, “Reinventing Tradition in a New World”,
published by Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 2004
Let’s start with your new series on traditional Chinese shanshui (mountain and water) in impressionist style. What are the differences between Western landscape painting and shanshui? Why do you prefer shanshui, the original Chinese term to denote a painting on nature?
Some people may think I am splitting hairs over the differences between these two terms. In the US, shanshui is normally translated to “landscape painting.” These two words come from different language contexts, and cause confusion during translation. I don’t think shanshui can be correctly translated into English at all. Traditional Chinese paintings have different categories, for example, shanshui, birds and flowers, and architecture. In the West, however, most outdoor paintings are termed as landscape paintings. A painting of nature in China is called shanshuihua, or picture of mountain and water. It is because you always see shan (mountain) and shui (water) in these paintings. The shan is always still and the shui is always flowing. Chinese artists considered shan and shui as symbols of nature that were related to the yin and yang concepts.
In some Chinese paintings, the shan has a particular name and refers to an actual mountain. For instance, in Shen Zhou’s (1421-1591) paintings, he depicts “Supreme Mountain Lu,” but we know that he never visited Mount Lu. What is interesting is that nobody has ever questioned whether or not Shen Zhou’s Mount Lu is an accurate depiction of the same. Why is that? Because it is not a concern to Chinese artist and scholars.
On the contrary, European paintings from the Renaissance period to the Impressionist style focused on realism. What you see is what you paint. Even Van Gogh’s emotional brushstrokes and Cézanne’s emphasis on geometrical forms are closely based on nature and directly painted from nature.
Song-dynasty shanshui painters such as Fan Kuan also intended to depict nature realistically. How do you distinguish these artists’ attitudes towards nature with the comments you made on Van Gogh’s and Cézanne’s painting?
When I talk about nature, I consider it in more general terms. In the Song dynasty shanshui paintings that you mentioned, the artist is concerned more with the relationship between human beings and nature rather than nature itself. Human beings are always depicted in small scale; same with a tree or a pavillion. Nature is already in its ideal form. For example, a famous shanshui painting by Wang Shen indicates otherworldly nature. No one has ever questioned why his painting is not a direct depiction of nature. Chinese consider nature as an ideal environment. It is more about how the artist understands nature. This is the so-called “xin xiang” (images reflected in heart), neither a depiction of the physical form of nature, nor a simple transformation from the three-dimensional world to a two-dimensional painting. In the West, when we talk about landscape paintings, we already have an idea as to how it is supposed to look. If we use this preconception to talk about Chinese shanshui, we may not be able to understand it in the Chinese context. Of course, these are questions for scholars, but while I paint, I think about these questions and share them with my friends.
What are the significant differences between the two?
This is what I mentioned before. If the Western audiences don’t use the term landscape, they will not use the preconceptions associated with them to analyze Chinese shanshui. They will ask you why it is called shanshui and how shanshui developed in different periods in China. For example, in European history of landscape painting, there is a progression from realism to abstraction. However, Chinese shanshui does not have this trajectory. I hope the Western audiences will try to view the shanshui in a Chinese cultural context. Landscape and shanshui are just two different terms that view the painting of nature with different perspectives.
While I paint, I make some comparisons. In Cézanne’s landscape paintings, for example, there is an occasional human being, but I believe the colors and the structure of the mountains are his main concerns. Human beings are not emphasized in his paintings. In Van Gogh’s landscapes, we see strong emotional expressions, and a human being’s presence in the landscape only enhances this aspect. In the shanshui of Chinese artists like Ni Zan’s (1301-1374) and Dong Qingchang’s (1555-1636), there is no depiction of human beings. The compositions, the use of ink, and the brushstrokes are more important. Another comparison between shanshui and European painting would be in the use of color. During the Song dynasty, colors such as blue and green were used in shanshui. The color is beautiful and attractive and conveys a strong visual effect. However, when shanshui painters turn their focus on to brushstrokes, the structures of the mountains and the spirit of nature, color is redundant. It really reminds me of Duchamp’s (Marcel Duchamp) works. In his Nude Descending a Staircase, color is not the main concern, and yet we cannot say that Duchamp did not know how to use color. What he pursued is a concept of how to represent movement and space on a two-dimensional surface. When I think about these questions, I don’t think I am a Chinese artist in the traditional sense.
What is Duchamp’s influence on you?
The most significant influence is his idea that painting does not have to recreate a strong visual effect or stimulate the sensory perceptions in any way. What is more important is something behind the canvas. When we look at Duchamp’s paintings, the first impression we have is of being refused entry. There is a delayed perception in Duchamp’s paintings, which is very different from the first impression one gets from looking at Van Gogh’s paintings, where strong colors and distinctive brushstrokes make an immediate impression upon us. This delay in absorbing the painting allows the audience to readjust their perception.
What kind of information do you want to deliver to your viewers?
I don’t want to impose any ideas on the audience. I want every viewer to reach his or her own conclusion. I want to propose some questions related to the multi-cultural world we live in. For example, I want to pose the questions: What is traditional Chinese painting? What is western painting? What are the boundaries between them? I don’t want to simply label my work and myself in one way or the other, for when one is labeled, one is confined.
What then do you want to represent in your shanshui?
I do not intend to represent an ideal nature as in the Song dynasty shanshui paintings. My work is an ideal painting in terms of the composition, the color, the form, etc. In the Song dynasty shanshui painting, what attracts the viewer is the otherworldly feeling and not just the brushstrokes or the use of ink.
Your idea is to create an ideal painting. Why do you use old models instead of creating your own?
My works have always been related to pop icons and their use in art, such as the use of Mao’s image. Those icons already have the power of having caught the popular imagination and can be easily recognized by the audience. In my understanding, the Chinese shanshui has already become such an icon to the modern viewer. Chinese shanshui and Impressionist landscapes and prints in museum collections are the major sources for my creation. Only some paintings are based on my actual memory of the landscapes in China.
Do you use Chinese shanshui and impressionist landscape as your models because you also want the audiences to focus on the meaning of the mixture?
That’s possible. In my paintings, I can freely play with the concept but not the color, brushstrokes and compositions. I used to think about using my own preference for color to paint. There are two issues that arose from it. First, it is not a “play with an icon” game any more. It is my own personal expression. Second, the audiences are not necessarily familiar with my personal expression and it may not matter to them. For me, the concept is more important than the style or the visual effect.
To us, your landscape paintings also have a strong visual effect. For example, you write Chinese calligraphy and paint seals over the layers of oil paints. This creates a strong visual effect. How do you conceive of that in the first place?
It took me a while to reach the stage I am at now. I started the series in 1997. At the very beginning, I barely wrote on the painting. I did not even include the texts on the original Chinese painting. I thought that I had already made a detour when I painted the Chinese shanshui in Impressionist style. I was afraid that the Chinese characters would make the painting lose its balance even further. Later, I noticed that this very inconsistence was the main feature of my painting, so why not emphasize that? So I added all the texts and the seals on the original Chinese shanshui. I also added my own seals. I wanted to enhance the traditional concept in Chinese art history, which is the consistency of the poetry, calligraphy, paintings, and the seals.
The style of your calligraphy looks like print style calligraphy rather than handwritten. Can you tell us why you choose this kind of style?
At the very beginning, I used the calligraphic style I liked. The style is between running scripts and official scripts. Later, I noticed that my personal style was not evident in my painting. I used the composition of traditional Chinese shanshui and the color of the Impressionists. I thought my calligraphy should be similar too. Now I write in the Song-dynasty style script that was traditionally used for printing. [At this point, Zhang Hongtu led us to the paintings in his studio] For example, in this painting, these are the imitations of Wang Hui’s original calligraphy. All my own calligraphy is written in the Song printing style. I also used the seal “Henan is my home country”. In this Guo Xi-Van Gogh painting, I did not write any texts when I initially painted this work in 1998. All the texts such as Emperor Qianlong’s poem were added later in the winter of 2002.
How do you match the style of Van Gogh, Cézanne and Monet’s work with the Chinese shanshui?
This is a big issue. It takes some research to match two paintings. While I was still in middle school in China, I loved Impressionist works, but we were not allowed to paint in that style due to political reasons at that time. Although I did not work on the series right after I moved to the United States, I already had a large amount of information about the Impressionists’ work in my mind. Then I started to study Chinese shanshui paintings. For example, this is Van Gogh’s painting depicting dust, clouds and trees. The composition of this painting matches a landscape by Li Cheng. I plan to paint this very soon.
Bada (Bada Shanren 1625-1705) and Shitao’s (1630-1707) shanshui feature very individual styles and the whole picture suggests movement. I normally use Van Gogh’s style to paint their shanshui. Dong Qingchang and the Four Wang’s shanshui can be characterized as well-organized composition, with the use of the geometric forms and the lack of human activity. These features fit well into Cézanne’s style.
As for the Song dynasty shanshui paintings, they were picked on an individual basis. For instance, I have used Fan Kuan’s “Travelers’ in Mountains and Streams” twice already, for which I used both Cézanne’s and Van Gogh’s style. It is not because Fan Kuan’s brushstrokes look like Van Gogh’s. In Fan Kuan’s painting, we see gigantic mountains, powerful waterfalls and his passion toward nature. It matches the enthusiasm and brightness in Van Gogh’s painting. I think the monumentality in Cézanne’s works indicate similar feeling. Another example is Shen Zhou’s “Evening Rain” which is a perfect match for Monet’s style.
How did you first start the Chinese shanshui in Impressionist style?
This is related to my Mao series, and my interest in “playing with icons” and my own personal experience. Between 1996 and 1997, I realized that I lost my interest in Mao. The reason I did the Mao series in the first place was that it was a form of psychotherapy. I started with painting Mao’s image on the container of a Quaker Oats box. The face on the box bears a striking resemblance to Mao. I felt nervous and guilty while I was cutting Mao’s images for a collage. It would jeopardize my career if I did that in China as some of my Chinese friends had pointed out. This kind of guilty feeling became a motivation for me. I thought about it some more. Why am I able to use Bush’s and Clinton’s images freely but not Mao’s, even though Mao has already been deceased for many years? I felt that it was really my own psychological barrier. To the Chinese of my generation, Mao’s image was very special. However, to Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Mao’s image was no different from Campbell soup’s and Marilyn Monroe’s. My Mao series ended when my guilty feeling was gone and Mao ceased to have power over me. Then I started to create some works related to my life here in New York such as calligraphies done with soybean sauce.
In the late summer of 1997, I received a commission from Forbes magazine. At the time, I had just returned from Beijing after my first visit since I started living in the United States ten years before. The magazine asked me to paint four paintings as advertisements. I chose the poster style of Cultural Revolution, with the red colors and the revolutionary mood. The slogan on the painting said “capitalists of the world unite.” I don’t like the style of the Cultural Revolution. This work, however, made me think about how to revive a traditional style. My first work in the series started with Fan Kuan’s “Travelers’ in Mountains and Streams” in Van Gogh’s style in 1998. To me, this is not just an artistic and aesthetic question. It carries social messages as well. There is no pure American art or Chinese art in the contemporary world.
In some of your earlier works in China before your Mao series, it seems to us that you carried a burden and your works often indicate your concern with the future of China. Can you comment on that?
To me, it is a mixture of my instinct and responsibility. It is also related to my art education in China where I was taught that art should serve the people and should be understood by all. I still think these ideas are valid. However, my take of it is different from Mao’s interpretations of art. Art should not be a political tool. It is a way of communication. When I was in school, I was told that China has a rich history and that our mission was to restore its past glory. When I was in China, I did some work related to Chinese history such as Dayu (a legendary king) managing a flood and Kuafu (a figure in early Chinese mythology) chasing after the sun. After I moved here, I wanted to forget all of these. It became a burden for me. I have a rebellious attitude. I want to look at Chinese culture and history from a new perspective.
There are mixed feelings evoked by my shanshui paintings. Some Chinese criticize the fact that I apply color on Chinese shanshui, for traditional Chinese literati valued Shansui done in pure ink. Color was considered vulgar to Chinese literati artists. To the traditional Chinese literati, sensual impact should be reduced to a minimum. I don’t think my paintings fall into the category of traditional literati painting. However, sensual impact is part of contemporary life, so why not enjoy it? I don’t expect everybody to agree with me, but I do want them to think about these questions.
At the very beginning, I wanted to combine the traditional Chinese painting with the contemporary Western art. I painted some abstract paintings on rice paper in bright colors. I thought this would be the fusion of two cultures. Now I think it is a superficial imitation of abstract painting.
My idea was changed by a show at the Guggenheim museum. In the catalogue of the show, it said, “National art is bad, Good art is national.” I always thought that our national culture was our roots, especially to the Chinese coming to the United States. After reading that, I suddenly understood that a successful work should be judged by its quality and impact on the audience and not by the nationality of the style. This allowed me to be relieved of the burden of my own national art.
Color was a major concern in Chinese painting before the Song dynasty. The frescoes at Mogao caves carry strong colors. Can you explain how folk-art still preferred strong colors during and after the Song dynasty, while scholars looked down on any sensual stimulation?
This is a very big question. It is related to Daoist philosophy and Chan (Zen) Buddhism. Traditional Chinese artists were not interested in representing the three-dimensional world even when Jesuit painters such as Lang Shining (Giuseppe Castiglione 1688-1766) brought new points of perspective to China. It never stimulated the interest of the scholars. I believe this is also related to the actual Chinese scenery. When you look at mount Huang in distance, what you see is a silhouette among the clouds, not the color. All these contribute to the reason why Chinese literati painters preferred ink and simplicity. For Common people though, since their life was already very dull, they needed the stimulations of color. In folk art and music, sensual stimulation is very important. The idea of my shanshui paintings is to urge people to think about these questions.
You create some interesting pieces, such as the bronze McDonald wares and the Coca-cola bottles in blue and white porcelain. McDonald and Coca-cola are symbols of American pop culture. Can you talk about your concepts behind these works?
This can be traced back to my Christie’s catalogue series. I started the project after I came back from Beijing in 1997. I told my friends that I had a second cultural shock. The first is coming to the US and the second is going back to my home country, for fast-food chains like McDonald’s were everywhere in Beijing. That’s how I started. The earlier works in this series are all digital images.
Later, you cast McDonald wares in bronze and made Coca-cola bottles in porcelain. Bronze and porcelain are both traditional Chinese materials. Can you talk about why you picked them?
Most of the Chinese works auctioned at Christie’s were ancient art objects and these ancient arts were like icons to me—they were mostly bronzes and porcelain objects. So I picked bronzes for McDonald containers. Drinking Coca-cola is already part of everyday life in China. When I was in China, I was asked how I wanted to drink the Coca-cola: Cold or hot? The hot Coca-cola with ginger is a Chinese invention. I was amazed to see how fast American pop culture has been introduced in China and how Chinese have accepted and modified them as their own. So I used blue and white porcelain, and not the glass bottle. Coca-cola is a favorite drink amongst the young. Ironically, this is not a healthy drink for children. So I intentionally copied the scene of children playing at the courtyard from the Ming blue and white porcelain.
We are also interested in your background and experience. Can you talk about why you wanted to come to the United States?
China in 1982 was so different from China now. At the time, there was no way to change one’s job. When I was growing up, I wanted to become a great artist. After I graduated from high school and applied to the Central Academy of Fine Arts, I was not able to enter the Academy. That year the Academy did not recruit any students. Instead, I was admitted into the Central Academy of Arts and Crafts to study ceramic art. We had no class for three years during the Cultural Revolution. Then we were sent to the countryside. My work had nothing to do with my training at school. I was invited to teach at several prestigious institutions in Beijing. However, my institution did not allow me to change my job. It was very hard for me to continue the work I love. Under those circumstances, I felt that there was no future for my career. So I came to New York in 1982 on a student visa. I studied at an art school here, and also worked on different jobs to support myself.
What’s your connection with the contemporary art world in China? Have they seen your work in China? What’s their reaction?
The art world in China is still trying to understand my work. I hope I can exhibit my works in China sometime in the future. It might be true that the environment now in China is good for my career development. However, living in New York really gives me the advantage to get in touch with different cultures. The diversity of the culture in New York is the result of globalization. My exposure to this will constantly stimulate my creation.
If you were asked to give some advice to other immigrant Chinese artists, what would you want to say to them?
Discover your true self in the work. That is true freedom.
What do you think about the future of contemporary art?
I don’t predict the future. Mainstream art is just one perspective to look at the art. The contemporary art world also emphasizes diversity. The boundary between the mainstream and the margins will blur in the future.