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2010.09.09 Thu, by Translated by: Daniel Szehin Ho
Of Mammoths and Pietas
Conversation with Zeng Fanzhi

“I don’t like press conferences; I find it hard to say anything. An interview is much better,” Zeng Fanzhi said as he sat down. Surprising words, perhaps, from a celebrated Chinese artist who has for years received critical acclaim and sits at the top of the Chinese art market—indeed, in 2008, his Mask Series 1996 No. 6 set a record for an Asian contemporary artwork, selling for $9.7 million US. With exhibitions in recent years at the Singapore Art Museum, the Acquavella Galleries in New York and at the National Gallery in Bulgaria this summer, Zeng appears set to scale the heights of the international art world.

Soft-spoken and even-tempered, Zeng seemed nonplussed by the media chatter, and more concerned with his everyday lived-in experiences and the recovery of artistic traditions. On the occasion of his new solo exhibition at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai, he talked to the editors of Randian (Daniel Ho and Chris Moore) about his creative approach, his philosophy, and his latest works. Zeng repeatedly emphasized the need to slow down and to reflect, which, he explains, is probably a reaction to the dizzying pace of change in everyday life in China. In a similar vein, he expressed a longing for tradition all the while admitting its impossibility. “You’re living in a skyscraper,” he remarked, “in an age that has nothing to do with tradition.” He noted, too, how he had swung from absorbing everything Western to being enamored with China’s millennial artistic traditions.

Zeng Fanhzi

When asked about his relationship with art theory and theoretical critiques, however, Zeng was dismissive. “If you really do a great job explaining theories,” he said, “then you can’t be a good artist; you’ll have trouble making things since you have too many different ideas.” In this, Zeng is like many Chinese artists, who prefer to delve into the observation of everyday life (external and internal), a site of conflicting—and productive—interpretations, a site where one can pull back the veil of commonplace assumptions. Instead, Zeng explained at length his methods of producing artworks. So here, the interview begins, with a discussion of his new sculptural works.

Daniel Szehin Ho (DSH): Do your latest sculptural pieces have anything to do with the Mask series? The new sculptures seem to deal with the idea of covering something, opposing the outside and the inside.

Zeng Fanzhi (ZFZ): I think there is a connection with my earlier pieces, earlier than the Mask series, in fact. For example this work (Hospital Triptych No.2, 1992, 460 x 180 cm; of a nurse holding an injured man, surrounded by observers) has a lot to do with my past experiences. I can never forget this experience and this memory, and so this always appears and will always appear in my works. I’m talking about the two pieces; the first is the one with the cloth covering in the hospital. You know the sculpture in the church that is covered (Untitled, 2010, 172 x 145 x 88 cm; a sculpture of what appears to be the Pietà covered)? Like I said, many of my works repeatedly have some connection with previous works, but I express it in different ways.

DSH: You thought back to this hospital while you were creating this piece?

ZFZ: Uh…yes. But with this work, first there was the space in the church, and then there was the piece. My initial idea was to have something that connected with the past but I needed new implicit content. My recent sculptures have a theme of covers, after all.

DSH: But how did the church make you think of the hospital?

ZFZ: Oh, it wasn’t the hospital. This pose is actually a really classic pose in religious art: the Pietà, with Mary holding Jesus in her arms. It’s a pose that continuously reappears in Western art and it has had a huge influence on me. A few of my friends saw the connection immediately—since we learnt a lot of classical schemas from Western art. When you study that everyday, it goes right into your head.

DSH: You’re not a believer, you’re not religious. What did you all think of these religious symbols and imagery back then?

Zeng Fanzhi

ZFZ: I think you’re bound to catch something of the content at some point. But we really studied this at a surface level, since we didn’t deal with the religious bits. But we did consider this from an artistic perspective and learnt about it. Bit by bit, through this learning process, we came to know what it represented. To cite an example: in a lot of classical Western paintings or sculptures, you often see a lamb. Gradually you’d understand what the lamb stands for and why there is an animal in the middle of everything. You slowly grasp something of the religion.

DSH: The teachers didn’t explain the religious aspects?

ZFZ: Very little of it. They explained it in really basic terms; while explaining things, you would look with your own eyes and observe these classic paintings.

On the use of wood

DSH: Why in your recent sculptures (Covered Lamb, 2009, 110 x 70 x 55 cm; Covered unidentified object, 2010, 266 x 100 x 49 cm;Untitled, 2010, 172 x 145 x 88 cm) did you choose a single piece of wood and layer it?

ZFZ: Actually, the reason was that, during the creative process, I didn’t want to follow Western methods exactly—Western aesthetics or taste. I tried my best to attempt something new, which is to say, to accept some old ways of making in Chinese tradition. It has been 500 years since the Renaissance in the West, but during the Song dynasty in China (around the 1000s and 1100s), Buddhist guanyins, boddhisattvas, and arhats were created in wood. The wood was carved and then lacquered over—traditional Chinese lacquer. This is actually an old material, but can be very meaningful in a new piece of work. The process of making it involves many changes in the heart and mind, and one has a sense of tranquility while making it.
A piece like this would be finished and might be placed for a hundred years. After a hundred years of weathering in the temple, the sculpture would become very old. And then it would be refreshed—by others a hundred years later. But the part from the past will remain; each layer will contain a past. Then after another hundred years, the same thing happens: someone else will redo it. This all happens on a single piece of work, making and remaking, so there will be layer after layer. The color will be layered. It needs time, it needs devotion from all who made the work.

Zeng Fanzhi

DSH: Sedimentation from different periods of time.

ZFZ: That’s why I used a really basic, primitive material—a block of wood—for the sculpture. I applied traditional lacquer layer by layer. After lacquering, I sanded it down, and then reapplied lacquer. On the second floor of the museum is a sculpture of a lamb (Covered Lamb, 2009, 110 x 70 x 55cm), which involved many, many layers that were sanded down each time. Sanding each layer and reapplying another. The final shiny luster needed some hand-polishing.

DSH: Very time-consuming.

ZFZ: Taking time was a part of the work. When you make something like that—like the etching—you’re really training yourself mentally, silently and quietly. You can’t just produce a whole line of products; it takes a year to make one. You are training yourself during this process. Slowly—not quickly—slowly making things. You quiet down and the work emerges with unexpected results.
The mammoth tusks were the same (Mammoth’s Tusks, 2010, 340 x 160 x 130 cm). We did it twenty-five times. Why twenty-five? I had one little thing—you see the little guys [referring to the lines/cracks] on the side, all cracked up on the side? They are a record of the process. The work as a whole is very finished but the sides still have some records of the process. Some are small, like porcelain crackles. You can count the twenty-five layers there. Pretty neat, doing this again and again, as I mentioned.
Of course, it wasn’t just me who did it, but I took part in it. I told my people not to hurry, to sand it slowly, to do things slowly. We couldn’t really rush it even if we’d wanted to, since it takes one to two weeks to dry after the lacquer’s on. Once it’s dried, we sand it down again. So the shine on the surface needs to be worked on over and over. Sanding it down and reapplying.

DSH: The twenty-five times took a year?

ZFZ: Yes, a year.

On the Inspiration of old things

DSH: Have you always had this interest in traditional ideas, or has this started recently?

ZFZ: It started around 2000. We grew up learning Western art, you know, and the whole process was about learning from the West, but if you keep learning as a student, you will only reach this far [gestures with his hand].
When we learn something else, we hope to have new kinds of understanding, since our experiences have been really rich. I’m forty-six years old; you know how much China has changed in the last forty-six years? An incredible amount. So we’re still learning, still understanding, still reflecting. With such huge changes, such rich experiences, we will gradually try to understand the tradition and to look into history when we create. In the 1980s, we only wanted to learn Western things. For the whole decade, we wanted to learn philosophies, arts, everything from the West. I don’t mean what we learnt was useless; I’m still eager to learn more.
I came to understand history, and a bit of religion, through art, and also came to see China’s past traditions. I also collect—some Western art, Chinese art, ancient art. Gradually, I started collecting old traditional Chinese art. It touched me, and I realized a lot.
I collected ancient sculpture from the Tang dynasty (around 600s to 900s), some even earlier, some Indian sculptures. I didn’t make sculptures in the past but as I collected, I felt it had a special beauty, so I visited many museums to see sculptures. I have seen too many paintings—I certainly saw some very good paintings, but I wanted to see something different. I collected these sculpture and everyday I looked at them and touched them. Many feelings came to me. I observed and appreciated them from different angles, and thought of how the ancients created them, of the process and of the experiences. For my own sculptures, this gave me a lot of inspiration. Looking at sculptures suddenly made me want to create sculpture. I’d absorbed a lot from various angles; I was prepared, ready to sculpt.

Zeng Fanzhi

On Production:

ZFZ: But to create these sculptures, I wanted something connected with the past, but I didn’t just want to make a sculpture of the mask standing there.
This was my first sculpture (Untitled, 2009, 117 x 61 x 42 cm; a bronze sculpture of what appears to be a tree branch). Everyone knows my work. For me, I feel that making a sculpture out of a mask is really tedious. For example, I think painters who make sculptures out of their paintings are creating derivative works; it’s meaningless. If someone comes to me and says, “Make a mask, it’ll be great, and then it’ll sell for this much, let’s work together.” Well, I’ll say, forget it.
I’ve been thinking about sculptures for a long, long time. I felt I couldn’t start until the idea had matured, but now I feel ready. I could make something good.

DSH: As for your landscapes, are they connected to the long scrolls of Chinese landscapes, where the viewer progresses little by little?

ZFZ: A little, mainly because of how the paintings are set up. With such a large painting in such a small, narrow space to appreciate it, naturally you can only see it in parts, and then afterwards construct the whole in your mind. The painting was really too big, even while painting it I didn’t look at it from a distance. I wasn’t really using my eyes to paint but more a kind of feeling; I tried not to look too much. I didn’t really have that much time to do that. The canvas was so close, I had a huge bucket and brushes, and I painted from a really close distance. From the top on down, I didn’t try to look from a distance if the strokes were right or not, so I really painted with imagination and feeling. Once the different elements came together, I looked. In the end, I observed from afar and made adjustments, but the bulk of the work was done up close.

DSH: Did you paint in an unconscious way? A little abstract expressionist?

ZFZ: I painted mostly in a perceptual way, but I have self-restraint. You need to cultivate this restraint, this control of painting technique, so you can express your sentiments amply. You can’t really just paint it and leave it. The structure of the painting, the completeness, needs a certain rationality to severely restrain it within the boundaries of the line. You can’t just chuck everything there, the painting will just be a mess. It can be restrained. You can’t let it go completely: the painting will be a mess.

On Covers and Blockages

Chris Moore (CM): There was the Mask series which protected and prevented access, while with the sculptures now, we can see things being covered over. In a sense, the landscapes are the same as you cannot get into the landscapes: we are prevented because of these branches and burnt trees. There’s no way in—not necessarily that a person is trapped but there’s a protection, a defense against the viewer from getting into the picture. Is this connection a real connection?

ZFZ: You’re right in seeing that. There is this idea there.
The blockages in the landscapes are not the same as the masks; here, you can’t enter at all. All these lines up front really block any entry. You stand there, looking at the painting; you can’t get into it. These works…I find it hard to analyze them clearly myself, but there is this idea in several stages of the works.
This landscape is a landscape of the interior, of the heart, of the mind, not what my eyes can see. Viewers can see it as a landscape, but you will have trouble judging it, judging the structural elements. You only feel it’s a landscape, since there could be a sky, the earth, trees, but these elements aren’t what we normally see, aren’t specific objects. You can only rely on your eyes to observe them, and then use your imagination to integrate all these signs together. You have the feeling it’s a landscape.

DH: These “landscapes” have many layers, even some that were scraped.

ZFZ: Not scraped at all. Everything was done with traditional oil paints and canvas, and there was no scraping with sharp objects. The whole painting was done with brushes. A lot of people think there was scraping, but you can’t scrape very far and the scratches don’t change.

On Animals

CM: In the paintings, there are a lot of African animals, hyenas, lions, elephants—the elephants we also see in the church. What are these? Are these landscapes of the mind? Or are they like the African savannah? Or are they based partly on real Chinese locations? What is this relationship with Africa?

ZFZ: What kinds of animals didn’t really concern me; I just painted animals, whether they were from Africa or China. I chose objects I liked in videos, or scenes I wanted to paint. There’s no special theme here.
The animal in the etching (Untitled, 2009, 56.5 x 76.5 cm) is similar to ancient artists, modeled animal drawings of Song artists, but the etching makes it more Western, in the style of Dürer, of seventeenth-century etchings. But the whole structure, the feeling—including the plasticity of the animals—is to strike an Eastern sensibility.

DSH: But why animals? You’re tired of figures? You’re done?

ZFZ: No, that’s not it. I wished to do something different, and I hoped to find some connection with the history of this exhibition space—it was a natural science museum in the 1930s. From the old photographs, I saw they mainly displayed taxidermic animals, or fossils. So I thought of animals, of the architecture, of linking back to history. The vast majority of the works here was conceived and planned for this space. I don’t know what to do with the works after the exhibit, since this was the special space.

On Drawing and Painting

CM: I’d like to know what the relationship is between your practice of drawing and the practice of painting, whether there is a relationship between the two or are they separate parts of your thinking process.

ZFZ: The feeling is completely different with the two. When I make a print, I go for the details and minutiae, but when I paint with oils, it’s all very perceptual—a relaxed state is needed for expression, all really relaxed. Prints, on the other hand, don’t allow you to relax, do not allow you a single mistake. Etchings require a very short point for the etching. So working on that is like meditating; you first need to quiet down, to empty yourself of everything, and then you pick up the needle and slowly, slowly start drawing. You can’t allow one wrong line: the results will be unacceptable when printed. The oils, however, require many “mistakes” together.

CM: I understand what you mean. So does that mean the paintings can develop? Do you need to have a complete idea of what the painting is going to be like, before you begin, or does it need to develop? With the drawings, you need to know roughly from the beginning what you are going to be doing. There’s no room for error with the etching; they have to be very precise, whereas with the paintings, they can change. So I’m wondering if the paintings develop, or do you already know what you are going to do?

ZFZ: I know about half of what I’ll paint. Including the sketches: I like to make tiny sketches, if I make them at all, because I don’t want myself to know the final results. While painting, some unexpected things appear.

Zeng Fanzhi

On a Calligraphic Style

DSH: Do the landscapes have anything to do with calligraphy? Are they inspired by calligraphy?

ZFZ: Around the year 2000, some realistic works I created used some calligraphy. For example, this piece in (Self-portrait, 1996, 180 x 200cm), and then another piece in 2002 (Untitled, 2002, 220 x 220cm), with the calligraphy of steles and tombs. I didn’t feel I’d reached what I was searching for but I kept trying. It wasn’t mature enough.
One work that I felt reached the desired calligraphic effect wasn’t even calligraphy (Untitled No. 1, 2002, 280 x 215 cm). Writing directly wasn’t what I wanted. You know the American, Jackson Pollock, he does things on the ground, but Chinese calligraphy has the sensation of writing. I took some aspect of writing without directly writing anything. I feel calligraphy has rhythm and a rich variety, including the transformation of the inner self when writing. This I found in the work of 2002. I never let go of this piece and it stayed with me. I’d spent eight years to get from there (in 2002) to now. It happened slowly; this new start was important. I don’t want to say the work itself is that good but I found what was wanted in this piece and through it, I’d found a way, a clear direction. I regard the previous works as failures—in terms of the exploration of calligraphy, not the paintings as a whole.

On the Rupture of Tradition

DSH: Do you think contemporary China has carried on Chinese tradition? Without ruptures?

ZFZ: Well, you know that there’s been a major rupture during the Cultural Revolution. In fact, even my parents’ generation did not really learn the tradition. Strictly speaking, since the May Fourth movement, any tradition has slowly—we don’t see it or hear about it anymore. I’m speaking of tradition broadly here, not just painting, but life, tradition in its many aspects. That was utterly gone after the Cultural Revolution.

DSH: Why do you think it’s important to revisit Chinese tradition, personally for you or more generally for China?

ZFZ: I feel China in the 1980s, especially around 1985, was completely following the West. I went to school at this time and we saw many, many things from the West—China was very open at that time, after the Cultural Revolution. A lot of exhibits from abroad, many currents of thought. We were pretty rebellious at the time and learnt a lot of new things from the West.
I went to many places that decade, to Shanghai, Xian, the Loess Plateau, and Beijing. Around 1984-1985, I made several trips to Beijing, to see art exhibits. The very first time I saw a Rauschenberg exhibit at the National Museum, I wondered if it was art. I felt it was just too far away from sketching and painting, utterly different. But he was a renowned great artist, so I was very confused and lost my sense of direction. This was in the early eighties, when I had many similar experiences. I just mentioned Rauschenberg as one example, but there were many similar shocks.
Before Rauschenberg, a lot of us only had one way of seeing art: through Soviet painters. And also a little bit of the Impressionists. Van Gogh, for example, was there in the early 1980s, and it felt like a huge change. After all, van Gogh’s paintings were already really far away from Socialist Realist art, already very rebellious when compared to the Soviet-led mainstream art. Rauschenberg, on the other hand, was another leap away, another age. It was the same with Zao Wou-ki’s abstract paintings. So we encountered influences in streams.
I felt that from 1985 to 1986 the entire art world in China was copying Pop Art and all those schools and styles. Just imitating. It was a learning process.

DSH: When did this learning start to mature or maybe, be digested?

ZFZ: I won’t talk about others; I’ll start with myself.
I kept learning from the 1980s all the way to 1989, when I felt like I shouldn’t go on like that anymore. I’d found a feeling. In the beginning, I really felt the need to start from the inside. When we were in art school, teachers would always tell us, to create, you need to paint, and to paint, you need to go into the villages, to Tibet. So you painted Tibet but it had nothing to do with your life at all, but your teacher told you to paint that. The next day was the Huangtu Plateau and so on. I didn’t feel like going—it’s nice to go and visit but not for art. Life there had no relevance for me, my inner state, or my experiences.
So in 1989 I felt the need to give up imitating and to start from within and from my daily life. I won’t travel far to paint; my life was around me, and I’ll take that as the starting point for understanding, for a better realization and maturity in art. I stopped copying and using this mode of copying as a crutch.

Zeng Fanzhi

On Art Theories and Rapid Change

DSH: Many artists in the West pay a lot of attention to art theories. You don’t think it’s important to rely on or employ the discourse in China?

ZFZ: I don’t pay much attention to art theories. I rely on my life and intuition to make my art. When there are too many theories…because an artist is half a craftsman; he has a technique. You’ll have a hard time expressing too many ideas and theories. If you really do a great job (explaining) theories, then you can’t be a good artist; you’ll have trouble making things since you have too many different ideas.

DSH: I guess sometimes ideas can’t catch up with the pace of life; everyday life is faster than theories, which come later.

ZFZ: Everyday life has many changes, including changes on the inside. You can’t just use a theory to unify things together to create a work. A work like that becomes dishonest.

DSH: China is changing and developing so quickly, including the living habitat and way of life. So many things have changed. For art, this—

ZFZ: This is great for art. In the space of ten years, you need to adapt. Oftentimes you can’t stand still. It’s especially meaningful for artists who experience a full change in the society.

DSH: Is your interest or yearning towards tradition a reaction to this change?

ZFZ: Yes. We’ve changed too quickly, hurtling forward. Including my works. I’ve used my works to look at this. I wanted to slow myself down.
I went back to visit my old home. I found my old home—gone. I was amazed at the speed. The experiences in my childhood, my neighbors, the areas I played in: all gone, all new. This wipes your past memories clean; it’s too fast, your experiences have gone, or at least the buildings that were a part of your experience have disappeared. The whole street has gone but the street is new. These are some of the things I faced and experienced.

On the Challenge of Modernity

DSH: The rush of modernity can have a huge impact on a traditional culture and civilization—not only for China but even in the past for countries in the West. One aspect of tradition is carrying on from the past, but now everything has to be new and different. For example, can we really do calligraphy or paint traditional landscapes now?

ZFZ: Right. If you do calligraphy or traditional paintings…since artists have to paint from their lives, but if your life is lived in skyscrapers, you don’t live that life anymore. You’ll have trouble creating traditional literati landscapes. It’s not part of your life. You’re only imitating the past if you do that, you’re only imagining how the ancients live and think. You’re living in a skyscraper, in an age that has nothing to do with tradition.

DSH: Is China going through a complete westernization then?

ZFZ: I don’t think it is now. Before the year 2000 it wasn’t a complete westernization. But I feel in recent years many are thinking about this problem. At least I feel that the art world is completely westernizing, which is why I want to take something from tradition, to create with Eastern aesthetics, knowledge, ideas.

DSH: You really care about this Eastern aesthetic. But we live in a globalizing world, with the flow of money, goods, ideas, and art. We will still keep these distinctions in the future?

ZFZ: I don’t know. It’s too broad. When an artist creates, there must be something on the inside and a process of learning, and it’s different for everyone. Artists’ aesthetics can change, and the way they create changes.

DSH: To keep China’s traditions in the face of such rapid socio-economic change and industrialization—are you optimistic?

ZFZ: Of course I’m not optimistic. As an artist, I certainly can’t be optimistic. Artists who look at this cannot be optimistic