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Interview with Wang Yin


You’re having your first solo exhibition in Spain. Since your works will be unfamiliar to viewers there, could you talk a little about the different stages of your artistic practice?


Well, one stage was while I was in university (1983-1988), where I pretty much experienced the whole “85 Movement.” Around 1985, we spontaneously started to create expressionist paintings and even went through an abstract phase. We were attracted by American Abstract Expressionist artists, like Willem de Kooning. But a year after my graduation, the Tian’anmen Square incident happened, which really affected me. I was living in Xidan at that time, so I had a clear memory of the whole series of events. As a result, I immediately started harboring doubts about the intellectual currents I participated in and about things I was interested in at the university. One other thing also influenced me a lot, which was my detailed research on Jerzy Grotowski’s “poor theatre” (my graduating thesis in 1988 was on Grotowski, since my major in university was stage design).

Grotowski had this core concept of “stripping away” or “stripping bare.” With this, he expressed his views on theatre, that since at least the 19th century, Western theatre has gradually evolved away from the fundamental essence of theatre. Theatre was continually filled in by literature, directors, costume design, stage design, lighting, by a kind of civilizing theatre, which gradually made theatre break away from its origins and essence. Grotowski’s practice was about constantly striping way these unnecessary elements. But how to proceed practically with this stripping away? He instilled his understanding of theatre in the molding of actors’ bodies; he had a whole method of training actors.

His practice really opened my eyes. At the turn of the late-80s and early 90s, I started to lose faith in my past practice. “Contemporary art” as a term didn’t really exist at the time; there was just modern art. Why were we doing art that way? What did modern art mean for me? I was really disappointed in myself at that time, and I wanted to find another way out. Why was I painting? What did this thing, oil painting, have anything to do with me? I felt that the questions of expressionism, abstraction, and purification of artistic language were being discussed on an unreliable surface level in the 1980s; there seemed to be no meaning and so I threw them all away.

And so, the question of this relationship between myself and painting made me recall my first experiences learning painting when I was young, when I was exposed to early Chinese oil paintings, which all of a sudden felt closer to me. In the 1990s I started trying to paint things that lacked a sense of time or period, and I took magazine covers from the “May Fourth period” as the subject of my paintings. On the surface, they were still oil paintings, but they didn’t look like they were painted either then or in the past, since they departed from the new artistic trends and idiom of the time. Or another way to put this is that I had already moved away from the context and train of thought I had before. I felt that Grotowski’s practice of stripping things away really showed me a way out.


What do you think you stripped away?


Some of the characteristics of painting at the time—expresionism, abstraction, nationalism, realist critique, “big soul” and Cynical Realism later on—all these were hotly disputed issues of the late-80s and early-90s, obvious topics that everyone constantly discussed. I felt I’d suddenly lost interest in all this and preferred not to work on these obvious ways of thought. “Stripping away” meant stripping all this away.


Did you feel that these problems had nothing to do with you? Or did you feel they were too empty?


I wanted to find a realistic connection with painting, something that belonged to me personally.

I had an intuition back then that early Chinese oil paintings had this spirit that attracted me. My work in the 1990s was basically in this vein. For a long time, my works didn’t receive much of a response and I was pretty much a non-professional, part-time painter (I was working a stage designer). Many friends in the art world felt that my work had nothing to do with the present times; I felt the same, too.

Around 2000, I changed tack. I would have experienced utter fatigue had I stuck mechanically with this stuff in the 1990s. From the late-90s to 2003, I tried out many different styles of painting: for instance, I worked with a folk painter to create Flower, and I also made use of unconventional media like slings, electric blankets and so on in my works. There were some Dadaist elements as well as connections with folk art; it was all rather disorderly, a freewheeling disorder.

After 2003, I again tried to return to the logic of my practice from the 1990s, but this time, the path was different. I started going back to my childhood experiences of painting, like in Lu Xun Park. Lu Xun Park was a place where I sketched from life when I was young; painting the park again forced me to face my experiences in painting—how my painting developed, how I became the “me” today, how my artistic training honed me. Next came self-portraits, through which I recalled certain details in my artistic education; through drawing the human body, I experienced my painting teacher’s classic works in a new way. Or another example: I focused on some key painters who were crucial in art history, like Xu Beihong and others, and I reiterated their works in my own feeling. Since 2001, my works have included many layers of content, including subjects from early paintings and Soviet-style paintings to my experiences in the 1980s, which also encompassed China’s “nativist” oil paintings. These were all the objects of my practice.

So in broad strokes, those are the different stages of my practice.


Does this synopsis of yourself bother you or make you feel awkward?


Yes, I do get that feeling. Talking about yourself is boring. Forcing a logic or order on something is, in and of itself, a problem. Subjectively speaking, I’m not too keen on looking back on myself or rationalizing myself. The work of summing things up, to me, feels extremely reactionary (laughs); I don’t want to consider my own work in that way.



One question: throughout the whole of the 20th century up to now, we in China have been learning from the West, not only in painting, drawing, and the arts, but also in different social domains. Is that because the “language” of Chinese tradition has difficulty expressing the experiences of the present day, and so Western forms of language have to be borrowed in order to analyze and grasp some of our current realities? And yet, what is at stake seems to be the language itself; the key is how and not what. How do you see this problem?


The topic is too broad.


Let’s take the novels of Wang Shuo, for instance. This very colloquial type of work really appears to have the ability to renew or revitalize language, right? What do you see as problematic in the language of Chinese painting?


There is the ability to do that, but that’s it. This problem of language we can leave aside for now. Stuff that we can’t do we cannot worry about. In my mind, I believe in doing what I am able to do.


Well, what do you think should be done, and how?


I feel you have to follow your feelings. A couple of days ago, I was reading Walter Benjamin. He talked about how you don’t have to enter reality itself; you just have to find the entry, the opening to reality. In the first chapter of One-Way Street, he wrote about filling station, which is in fact a metaphor. When oil enters the mechanics of the car, even though the motor is complex with different pipes and parts all interconnecting and joined like a maze, once you find the opening, the oil will automatically reach the right destination. Then I thought, why was I so interested in early Chinese oil paintings? Maybe I wanted to find an entrance.


It’s like opening a secret door and finding another world hidden behind.


People have asked me, what is the relationship between your works and reality? What is reality? I could only say that my reality is myself, and I can feel it in a real, intimate way. All these years, people interested in my work have asked why my works aren’t connected to reality. I, on the other hand, think I am connected to reality.



What they mean by reality could be some specific social condition.


Right. I think I have kept my role as an observer of reality, which is an active attitude I maintain towards reality.


You have a piece called The Family of Geng Sanbao, which consists of small alterations of news photos. Many artists use news about society in their works in order to express their opinions about all kinds of social problems. Your intent seems to be different, no?


Works from this period are more carefree and spontaneous, like Sandstorm. Normally my method is organized, but at that time, I wanted to force myself into a disorganized state. For a short period of three years, I tried my best to make anything and everything I thought possible, from my feelings, without any analysis.


A relaxed state.




You painted “Sandstorm” because you live in Beijing and have a very personal experience with sandstorms. Is that why you are using this figuratively?


Not exactly. In fact, sandstorm is just a word for me. I just borrowed a natural phenomenon that everyone knows about.


Later on, you returned to a method of working that involved detailed analysis and research.


That was a natural, unforced progress. Overall, my works tend to be silent. Since the 90s, I have established a method of working; I have wanted my works to maintain a silent, unexpressive state. It’s a question of the method automatically creating meaning—if I paint a mango, a cup, or a tree, these things can by themselves automatically produce a rich meaning. This effect is better.


It is not possible for works not to express anything.


Right, I mean there’s a tendency towards non-expressiveness. I prefer to work like Grotowsky, who uses his method to speak.

Say if your paintings have a definite meaning, you will suddenly feel that nothing needs to begin. Before starting something like that, it already should have been stopped.


For you, what kind of sensation is this “silence”?


For me personally, it is the state that everything should have—an appropriate form.


How do you view art that is not so silent?


I think a lot of works from the Cultural Revolution aren’t silent, like The Rent Collection Courtyard, as well as some contemporary works. With works like The Rent Collection Courtyard, I can only maintain a state of curiosity, I cannot develop a deeper relationship with it, whereas an unassuming portrait can influence me for a long time. I remember a still life by Xu Xingzhi in an art museum in the 80s: the fruit he painted made me look again and again, over dozens of times. I felt there was rich content there, but I didn’t know what there was in it that attracted me. I still don’t know.


Your practice always proceeds in opposition to imagery and symbols fixed by art history. Why do you need to have them as targets?


My method of painting frequently needs to face them as objects; it’s related to how my way of painting and thinking was formed.


Was it accidental?


Perhaps. Painting definitely creates a relationship with the history of painting, but some of this is hidden, and the object isn’t revealed. I often directly take things from art history as objects of painting, like the style, colors, forms, and so on, from paintings of minorities or the borderlands, or else from the Soviet tradition of painting.


The ethnic minorities you paint seem to have lost their exoticism, or maybe lost a sense of fantasy and curiosity.


That’s right. The reason I painted these subjects was because they were subjects familiar to all, like the figures, portraits, still lifes, landscapes, etc. My aim was to make them a little more unfamiliar.


At one point, you used many schemas from the works of Xu Beihong, Yan Wenliang, Wang Shikuo. How do you understand their works?


These earlier Chinese artists are hard to understand merely from their paintings. Situated as they were at a turning point of Chinese aesthetics, they all had hopes of “borrowing from abroad in order to rebuild the order within,” but the paths they took differed. Yan Wenliang, Xu Beihong and Liu Haisu all lived under the same backdrop of the age, but their choices were drastically different.

My personally understanding of Xu Beihong is that he was able to sense the inner needs of his age; this was something he excelled at more than others. Today, we usually see Xu Beihong as a proponent of the conservatism that blocked the modernization of Chinese art. He excluded advanced, modernist art from the West, and utterly opposed progress; this view of Xu is universal in China and abroad. While he was in France, the artistic mainstream in the West had switched from academic paintings to the complete triumph of formalism and modernism; yet what he brought back to China was precisely this outdated, declining, lifeless academic style of painting, to which he devoted his life’s work.

I believe he made a constructive choice. He self-consciously took up the position of a Chinese intellectual in approaching the question of modernity in China then—since Chinese tradition was declining irredeemably, how would we use Western methods for renewal? For Xu Beihong, he chose realism precisely because it was what our nation needed.

On the other hand, Liu Haisu and others took a completely different tack. Liu embraced Matisse and Fauvism; he went through all the main Western currents and trends. I feel he didn’t really digest all that, or else he lacked a way to transform this otherness. This has been a problem in China all the way up to now, and not just in the arts.

With Wang Shikuo and Yan Wenliang, I think both had the ability to digest this foreign idiom emotionally. They were able to transform this into concrete experience, from something oppositional and external into something that blends into their personal experience.


In the minds of most people, you are an artist who places great importance on “rethinking art history” in your practice. In my opinion, however, this is only one level. On the surface, you have been holding a dialogue with art history, but in fact there is a lot of fragmentary, scattered, individual sensation in your work.


I agree with your point of view. The situation is not hard to understand: we all hope to have relatively clear boundaries when giving a name to something.


Because we get this sense of insecurity when we can’t use language to grasp what’s around us.




Last question: what is the question that most bothers you now?


The question that most bothers me is, does my work has any value?


That’s a big problem (laughs).


Yeah, much too big. This problem isn’t much of a problem though, since it’s the same for everyone.


 (Translated by Daniel Ho)