Zhang Xiaotao: Dense Fog, my animated film for next year’s solo exhibition, will be longer. I think that you can’t clearly address these undertones without enough depth and time.
Peng Feng: Since the piece’s background is rather complicated, you can’t do it in a minimalist fashion like those others. You have to make it more complex and more splendid.
Zhang: Britain in the ‘90’s had a turn of the century mix of dispiritedness, death and magnificence. Britain is an island nation, extremely conservative, extremely violent, and it is related to the bigoted aspects of its culture. Maybe this is due to different undercurrents. When we went to London for an exhibition in 2001, the important organizations over there ignored Chinese contemporary art. Why, seven years later, are they paying attention now? The nation’s economy and culture reached something that is in step with the world. A lot of changes in China today contain massive amounts of information and power. Usually the social reality is more creative than art, and this links up with how to create circumstances, transform the scene and the language of reality and enter into a deeper level of research into art and culture, not just simple sociological symbolic analysis. But we lack an ability to penetrate the culture, and this may be linked with the sense of religion and sense of history. It’s basically what you were just saying about the richness of Chinese society and the tangling of different worlds. If we took any little detail of Chinese society, expanded it and put it into a western context, it would be very interesting. Or has it not been extended enough? Peng: The issue of extension also requires concrete analysis. Sufficient extension for art is not necessarily a good thing. Their extension, ideology and routes are all very clear, and this is actually a burden on their artists’ creativity. Zhang: In the late ‘90’s, a German artist by the name of Thomas held an exhibition entitled Ultimate Shock, bringing corpses and things from the hospital to exhibit to the audience. In Germany it became a tourism fixture, and everyone who came to the city went to see it. Some people fainted on the spot, went into shock, some tried to smash it, some cursed it, some discussed it. It straddled the borders between art, museum studies, medicine, morality and religion. But what about China? In the late ‘90’s, a lot of people pulled corpses right out of the morgue to exhibit them. That might be creative, but there are moral and legal issues there. The Eastern European artists I’ve met, their art is very contagious, but overall there are a lot of similarities to Chinese art. When placed in the Eastern European context, it might be more penetrative than ours, because China is too iconic and hasn’t gone to a deeper level. Eastern European art has the tranquility that comes after suffering, this feeling of inability and collapse.
Peng: I like Eastern European stuff too. Ales Erjavec edited a book called Postmodernism and the Postsocialist Condition, and there’s an article about Chinese contemporary art. Through that book I discovered that Chinese political pop mainly came from Eastern Europe. Former Soviet and Eastern European countries were mocking their holy images, such as the hammer and sickle, and we learned it from them later. Zhang: Political pop from the former Soviet Union was in style all over the world. Since the former Soviet Union reformed politics before reforming the economy, after the national economy collapsed, their political pop was swept off the scene pretty quickly. Chinese political pop was spread because of the global market; maybe this is linked with China’s particular social traditions and the mess of the contemporary times, with the economy and culture in a transitional period. The economy is now looking back and granting recognition to culture. I never felt it before. When I went to exhibit in Europe in the late ’90’s, I felt humbled. Having exhibitions in Europe was really about making a pilgrimage, going over there to learn. After many years of growth, you come to realize that you’re an extremely important part of it all. Going back to Chengdu not long ago, Zhou Chunya said to me, “We used to think that international meant the West, but today, China is the international.” This kind of magnanimity may be because the culture and economy have arrived and created something up to pace, which is what lead us to having this revelation and caring about what’s local. Peng: When it comes to contemporary art, images are very easily internationalized. How do you internationalize literature? You can’t read it, and you have to get it translated. Images are direct, and there’s no need to translate them. There was a new twist in aesthetics in the twentieth century, called image turn. There emerged an image aesthetic, and people were just looking at images, not reading text. In this era of globalization, visual art is definitely the most popular. As for your animated film Night, there are no problems there. The visual effect is excellent. I just wonder, can you make some breakthroughs in other areas? Zhang: I don’t want to make a series of overly iconic works, because I want to stack information here. That’s the concept mentality, concepts about death and ruins. I am expressing a confluence of a realistic emotional state and an abstract sense of religion. It is about the flow of time, and even more so, it is full of the spatial-temporal Buddhist concept of the “sixfold cycle”. There are different undercurrents stacked up here. I am aiming for something stacked.
Peng: If it is about the “sixfold cycle”, then you should repeatedly emphasize it. Don’t be afraid of repetition. For instance, I saw a film piece at the Aftershock – British Contemporary Art exhibition. The piece showed the decomposition process of a rabbit carcass. It was a simple piece, comparing the rabbit carcass to a peach. In the end, the rabbit rotted very quickly, while the fruit, which everyone figured would rot easily, was fine. This work of film art made a concentrated presentation of the weakness of life. Right now we place a lot of importance on the life of people, but their lives are also quite weak. I just saw your animated work Night, which also used some comparisons, comparing the molding process of strawberries to the decomposition process of a human skeleton. Different forms of life disappear in different ways, but as long as it is life it will disappear all the same. This is a moving comparison. Contemporary art needs to use visual images and film to simplify concepts and allow them to stand out.
Zhang: Actually this origin is connected to my childhood. When I was in middle school and would go home for the weekend, my parents were away working, and I’d go home alone. I’d see the sunlight coming into the room, and the dust floating around was like the frames of a movie. There was the smell of mildew in the air. These are temporal fragments of deep memories. Later on I went to the Dazu stone carvings to draw life studies, and I liked the feel of those stones smoothed out by the wind, that weathered, water-stained feeling. This strikes something in the mind, and I’m going to do something with it in my new animated piece, like a ray of light reflecting on the water, and several ants sinking down. That’s actually my drowning experience, including the light, in the steel factory, not a person in sight, a ray of light shining in, and that feeling of the dust floating around. I’ve dissected time, maybe it’s an abstract process, something fragmented. In the Western Bible, bats, lizards and frogs are all inauspicious animals. In my future film, ants, lizards and bats destroy the buildings, destroy the factory. What I want is this kind of allegory or cycle, this material, spiritual, carnal, shadowy thing that is reborn in death.
Peng: We can basically define your works in this way: you take something from life that people don’t pay much attention to, especially Han Chinese today, and magnify it, and that thing is death. Some cultures pay a lot of attention to death.
Zhang: I recently went to the Tashilunpo Monastery in Shigatse, Tibet, to see the spirit pagodas of the previous Panchen Lamas and the sutra-chanting hall. A Lama told the tourists: why do we put the sky burial platform at the center of the chanting hall? It is to remind you that life and death are right before your eyes. This is a tunnel through time and space, so that you can know the past and the present, heaven and hell. It can take you through life and death. This hit me pretty hard. Why do sky burial platforms seem to have a spirit? Maybe it’s because it magnifies life and death, transcendent or tranquil. The chariot image comes from Western medieval paintings. Peter Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death depicts the victory of death over life, over reality. Post-medieval Christianity puts a lot of emphasis on this life, using an emphasis on life to resist death, because in medieval times the emphasis was on the other side, and no one cared about this life. The Renaissance’s emphasis on humanity and life, “defeating death with life”, I think was a conflict between the flesh and reality. Maybe my own attitude towards religion and life is full of doubt.
Peng: Overall, this animated work will bring a lot of discussion, about the meaning of life, the properties of life. You can extrapolate on these to get people thinking. Xu Tianjin: Discussions about life and death have been carried out for thousands of years. We might be able to tell about the ancients’ views on life and death through the ways they were buried. A lot of Chinese people believe in reincarnation, but we’re not in a good position right now to evaluate the depth of this belief. But from psychology, including with today’s villages, people know that after someone dies, he continues to live somewhere else, continues to live in a different way and form. During the Qingming Festival [i], where they burn money as an offering, is because people believe that the person buried is still alive, and needs money and wine. This is a clear example of differences in burial practices between East and West. They put a lot of things from the person’s life in the grave. If this concept wasn’t at work, we wouldn’t be able to see a lot of artworks from ancient times. The best ancient artworks are still buried in tombs, frescoes, sculptures and all kinds of crafts. It’s been like this since the Shang and Zhou Dynasties. In the Han Dynasty, they took their barn with them, their pigsty, their stove, etc. In their tombs you can find just about everything associated with living. Emperor Qin Shuhuang was on a higher level. He didn’t need people and replaced them with terracotta statues, but this idea and concept has continued on. Why isn’t cremation accepted? When the body is destroyed there won’t be a reincarnation. When a person enters the earth it implies that he’s settled down, made a file, and will begin living in another world. In the countryside, one of the main reasons that cremation hasn’t spread is because of transformations in the way people deal with death. City people seem to be progressing and becoming more civilized. They don’t believe in reincarnation, so they don’t think anything of cremation.
Peng: The body can be destroyed, and the soul can fly. Xu: Now we are looking at life and death from the perspective of contemporary society and personal experience. A lot of people have been talking about this ever since the time of Confucius. “Without knowing life, how can you know death” was something Confucius said. How do you go about pondering this kind of stuff? It could be something that is never figured out. If “life and death” could be figured out, it probably would have been long ago. This question will continue to exist for a long time. Religious issues and life and death have a very tight relationship. There has never been a religion that could escape the issue of life and death. All philosophical issues lead right back to the question of life and death. Death is very close to each and every person, death in an instant. I really like the ants he uses. I see the ants as people, this tiny, ungraspable and impermanent feeling. Ants and people don’t really have any essential differences. Within reality, we work so hard, but we don’t know what the significance of all that work is. It’s just like ants. We view all that stuff the ants do as not having any real importance, but people are the same. We’re here talking about life and death, but it has no significance. It’s the same whether we talk about it or not, but it never bores us. Xiaotao has put in so much effort, collecting information everywhere, painting, and then he paints an artwork. The audience reacts, society reacts, but on the root level, the significance of all of that may not exist for him at all. The question of life and death is one that must be considered. The quality of existence depends on whether you’ve worked it out clearly or not. Though there’s no significance in discussing this question, we still have to discuss it, because the question of existence has probably been around as long as people have. The earliest we have seen people making special arrangements for people is with the Zhoukoudian Man of Beijing. Those people may have lived 100,000 years ago. They smeared cinnabar dust on the body, and used cinnabar for a long time. We’ve discovered that they understood cinnabar to have the effects of warding off ghosts and protecting youth. Some say that it also preserved the body. People had this concept at least at the point they began to make special arrangements for the dead. Then there was communication with heaven, when people would go to heaven or something after they died. In Han concepts of spirits and gods, they separated three levels; below, on the ground and in heaven. When someone died he might go to heaven. That’s a pretty mature concept there. Peng: This is the difference between civilized religion and primitive religion. We call primitive religion “superstition”. How does superstition come to bring order? Superstition uses taboos, it uses taboos to scare people and it becomes the norm. Civilized religions such as Islam, Christianity and Buddhism use belief in ideals to attract people. Zhang: I want to ask how you guys view the Tibetan concept of reincarnation. I’ve recently been reading Franz Boekle’s Born into Death. He says that man is made up of three parts, the body, the soul and the spirit. After the body is dead, how does the soul reincarnate? Is this possible?
Peng: We can split this up into two questions, one scientific and one philosophical. Scientifically, we definitely want to explore whether or not man really has a soul. We want verifiable evidence, and to find basic tenets with which to explain things. All questions regarding religious beliefs are not questions for science. In this realm, there is no true and false, no right and wrong, just belief and disbelief. When it comes to this, a lot of Christian Theologians, such as Pascal, have said that we cannot scientifically verify the existence of God, but they suggest that it is better to believe in him that not to believe in him. Why? Pascal says that this is like a gamble. If you believe in God and he actually exists, then he will commend and reward you, allowing you into heaven. If he doesn’t exist, you haven’t lost anything by believing in him. If you believe that God doesn’t exist and he actually does, he will punish you, and if he doesn’t you will not be rewarded. Pascal didn’t use scientific methods to prove the existence of God, he has just used philosophical reasoning. Philosophy shows us a world of reason. This world is a lovely world of meaning. It doesn’t necessarily need to be verified scientifically, because then it would be too solid. An important philosophical contribution of the twentieth century was the realization that this was a world of meaning, and that people live in a world of meaning, one that is made up of both things that exist and things that don’t. Living in this world of meaning is like floating in mid air. Our minds are full of all manner of thoughts, things that don’t exist in life, that can’t be verified scientifically, but affect our lives and have meaning. For instance, we speak of the “celestial horse flying across the sky”, and from the scientific perspective, the “celestial horse” does not exist at all, and has no meaning, but when we think of the “celestial horse”, we think of a lot of things, and these things have meaning. Back to the question of the “undying soul”, we still haven’t worked out whether or not the soul exists, but the soul has meaning for us. Belief that the soul doesn’t die or that the soul exists has different effects on us. Don’t look at the images in contemporary art as reflections of real life; many of them are created out of thin air, but they make up a part of our world. We live in a world of images, a world of meaning, a world of cultural symbols, and this world is reconstructed through our explanations. There is no naked world out there that was not constructed by us. We people only live in the world that we created. That naked world does not exist.
Xu: Maybe about half of the people are like this. A big part of our lives is virtual.
Peng: Today’s art images are anything but direct copies from life. To the contrary, images from art have changed our lives. The construction of new images is the construction of new realities. Through the creation of images or narratives, artists can allow us to have a full grasp of our own lives, stir up our interests and beliefs. In some religious stories, you can live in the narrative world, and these stories are like stories that really happened, constructing our world. Our world would be much sparser if it weren’t for the rich world created by art. Tibetan Buddhism definitely has a belief in the cycle of life and death, and to adherents, this is as real as anything can be. It is the real world they live in, it is like a scientific certainty, beyond any doubt.
Zhang: Actually the Han Chinese world also has souls and spiritual reincarnation. In the Shaolin Temple’s Classic of Changing Muscle Tendons and the Wuxia novel Book of the Sunflower, one can gain the martial arts expertise learned in a past life. In classical texts, you can read the spirit of past people. When I went back to Sichuan this time I saw my College idol Cheng Conglin. His painting Snow on X Day X Month 1968 marked the beginning of an era. The man and event that had affected me so deeply before were hard to forget, and seeing him felt like being “blessed”. I know from my ten-plus years of artistic development, from researching the masters to my own learning process, from Sichuan to Beijing to international exchange, I believe in the power to pass on someone’s genes or spirit.
Xu: There’s no problem believing in that, but among all the people out there, it’s not strange for someone’s development track to resemble that of someone else. Peng: This kind of influence is very universal, but don’t put too much stock in that. This kind of influence is not like that of common genes or possession by a soul, but the influence of surroundings, the result of influence. People are very malleable.
Zhang: I’ve realized that this view of life and death grows out of this kind of tragic stuff. Today when students come to show me their paintings, I suddenly remember the feelings I used to have towards my teacher. It’s a link. You realize that you become a link in the chain. Sometimes I think that buildings in the city are like the process of growth and disappearance of life. Time and space appear in dislocation and interact with each other.
Xu: I heard you talking about seeing buildings as living things, and I think that this is a great perspective. The building itself is a process of life, from the beginning to the end when it becomes rubble, it has a lot in common with organic life. Even chairs and cups could be living, it is all a process. This may change peoples’ attitudes towards life. We can’t ignore these things. We can’t say that only things that jump about are alive. If we looked at it this way, then as people we would care for these things. We should have reverence for life itself, and when we have this reverence, our attitudes towards the things we do will be different. People lack this reverence. It is the same with aesthetics. The only thing people revere right now is money, and this has a huge effect.
Zhang: Han people are always too realistic in the way they view things, a kind of “religion of the mortal world”. They place importance on the here and now. The Tibetans only look to the next life, not this one. These are two extremes. Does this comparison inspire?
Xu: For this exhibition we should also have some clear themes, but for this you need to state your academic principles clearly. This is very important. Before, I wanted to use this exhibition to give people some hope and some warnings. “Tragedy” is correct. I’m even more pessimistic than you are, but to present these things, there are some issues in the details that we need to work out step by step.
Zhang: This is the important thing among important things. There will be a lot of information in the catalogue. This super-text method, this multidisciplinary exchange will present the “experimental” process.
Xu: Doing contemporary art in China, if we don’t make use of the resources and foundation of the past few thousand years, then we’re making a huge mistake. Xiaotao’s works are good in that there is such a “root” inside. So I hope that if there is a chance in the future to communicate with these artists. We can learn a lot. We won’t necessarily set out to learn painting techniques, but get a perception for art. This is very important. Archaeologists need to understand art, because art is what we are researching, as well as aesthetics. We can’t use the language of aesthetics to describe this stuff, but maybe what we’re really focusing on is whether or not it’s beautiful, whether or not it’s harmonious.