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In China With Jérôme Sans
Revista Umělec
Año 2010, 2
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In China With Jérôme Sans

Revista Umělec 2010/2


Palo Fabuš, Ivan Mečl | China | en cs de ru

Chinese art has made inroads into western galleries since the 1990s, but mostly through institutional means or in the environment of private multinational gallery-corporations. The selection is consequently limited and not entirely free, with the same rotation of names and presented with a particular western curatorial lens, lacking both impulsiveness and spontaneity. It might be expected that the ongoing work of French curator Jérôme Sans on the Chinese creative scene is threatened by these same shortcomings. However, Sans is no typical western stooge permitted to stick his nose into the sumptuous workshops of a few pre-selected super-artists. Rather, he is personally trying to write missing or wholly indecorous chapters of contemporary Chinese art, on the new wave of the 1980s for example, which is little-known in the West. He leads the UCCA gallery in Peking (with market access and support from private sources) under the unique conditions of the Chinese imperial resurgence as a continuation of his work at Palais de Tokyo. Now he has let the artists speak for themselves. From a recently-printed publication of conversations with thirty prominent contemporary Chinese artists we have selected three interesting cases, and we have appended the short conversations with their interviewers.

Inasmuch as a certain message repeats itself between the lines of most of the interviews with the artists, it in many cases reflects acknowledgment of the influence of Andy Warhol on the consideration of their own work and a wholly-understandable reflection on historical changes in the last thirty years, both on the individual and the collective level. The selected conversations stand out from the rest of the publication in their incisive frankness and their treatment of personal details, which cast at the least, an uncertain light onto the collective Chinese experience compared to the so-called ‘unrecognized obvious’.

Introduction translated from the Czech by Andrew Malcovsky.

Umělec: During your conversations what was the most unexpected answer?
Jérome Sans: Most of them were unexpected. This is why i did the book and discovered many amazing personalities. But Zhou Tiehai was the most unexpected. He played around with me and never answered my questions. This is him always taking you into unexpected territories.

U: Did you have any hard times during the talks ?
JS: On the contrary, i had a fantastic time with all of them and now we are extending, with most of them, the interviews into separate publications.

U: Have you already received some feedback from western readers. Are they surprised by the Chinese artist opinions and views ?
JS: With that book, i got amazing feedback, first of all from the artists who were really happy with their interviews. I also got amazing feedback from the audience and from the Publisher. In China, books with texts or interviews by artists don’t normally sell. The chinese version of my book was sold out within a few months. We are now at the third reprinting… Concerning western readers they were interested to hear for the first time those artists. Some buy several copies to offer them to friends around them.

U: A lot of interviewed artists endorse the legacy of Andy Warhol and Western art per se. What would stay in Chinese contemporary art, if you substracted this western influence ?
JS: Most of them weren’t familiar with Andy Warhol and had never had the chance to see properly any of his work. So if we substract western influence all of their Works stay the same.

U: What did they tell you without articulating it? (what did you gain from reading between the lines of their answers?)
JS: I read fantastic stories, attitudes, behaviors of a great scale. Betweenn the lines, I felt as if i was witnessing a Renaissance, a moment which i would never see again in my lifetime.

U: What could you say about the recent situation in Chinese art and culture. Do you expect any changes, a rise of some genres and a decline of others?
JS: China has a most extraordinarily vibrant and dynamic contemporary art scene. I have the impression of living again what I lived in New York or London in the early 1980’s. China is just in its birthing stages. It is just a beginning.

U: Given the work you have done to introduce Chinese art to the Western world, do you think that the majority of western intellectuals and curators still look at Chinese modern art as disconnected fragments, hype, stars and sparks and is this possibly down to the lack of useful literature in the West ?
JS: Who could possibly understand the complexities and intriguing qualities of foreign cultures and perspectives without being immersed in them ?

U: How did you find working in China, what have you experienced and what troubles did you have to solve ?
JS: Inventing a cultural institution in Beijing with the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, just as like in Paris at the Palais de Tokyo, it will always be a challegning endeavor…

U: Beside texts and talks of westerners it can be hard to find the critical position within Chinese art theory. How did you find Chinese criticism and intellectual discourse ?
JS: Our language and cultural barriers are enormous… the history of Chinese philosophy and thinking is monumental.

U: Is my feeling correct that the majority of the Chinese artfield works in solidarity with one another rather than descending into public arguments over individual discrepencies in each others work ?
JS: Your feeling is right.

U: We can see many westerners in China living in cultural bubbles, practically and mentally disconnected from real life. How did you live there ?
JS: I never live disconnected wih the reality I am in. In China, I share my everyday activies with Chinese artists and actors of the cultural fields.

Song Dong // Living Many Lives


Jerome Sans: How did you become an artist? I read that when you were young, you did not want to go to kindergarten?
Song Dong: It’s true. I didn’t want to go to kindergarten, so my mum locked me at home. It seems like I would have no freedom, but in fact I had spiritual and intellectual freedom. I could decide how to spend my own time. I could paint, or do whatever I wanted to do. I enjoyed this life.

JS: And what were the subjects of your painting then?
SD: I would copy things from books and newspapers: animals, trees.

. . . . . .

JS: And then at the age of seven, you started to go to school. By eleven to twelve you had started a traditional art education. What were you doing at that time?
SD: I always liked to paint, individually speaking, and compared with peers, I was pretty good at it. So in 1977 I started a more specialized training at Xicheng District Youth Palace in Beijing. But the education I received there was of the Soviet academic style. We just painted from life, and did drawings. We would often go to the train station, the vegetable market, the park.

JS: And then you went to Capital Normal University, graduating in 1989. From the time you graduated until 1994, you were painting. What did you paint then?
SD: It was all still figurative, but there was still an element of imagining a space. Most of these works were about imagining a place outside the world, they seemed unconnected to the real world, belonging to another world. After 1989 I wanted to get farther away from the real world, to retreat to my own spiritual garden. And then later I started doing some more conceptual works.

. . . . . .

JS: You are considered one of China’s first conceptual artists; what does this mean to you?
SD: Who says? Lots of people did conceptual work before me, I don’t even know who the first would be. But that’s not important. I think art must always move in synch with thought, and expressing how the artist thinks is perhaps a bigger task than how to realize a specific work.

JS: How would you describe your work—it spans performance, photography, projection, installation. So how would you describe your own work?
SD: I am not the sort of artist who could use terms like you just listed to describe my work, so if I had to use one word, I would say I am a, “medium-agnostic artist,” because I think that life is art, and art is life, that there is no difference between the two. Life cannot be confined by a particular style and neither can art.

. . . . . .

JS: I saw you once do a performance of writing directly on the floor.
SD: That is Writing Time With Water. The idea is that even as we are talking now, time is ticking away bit by bit, but you don’t realize, you don’t know where it has gone. But as soon as you look down at your watch, you realize five minutes, or an hour, has gone by. When I write the time in water, you can see the passage of time, so it is actually a way of killing time.

JS: Everything is ephemeral. As soon as you say it, it is already gone.
SD: Life is ephemeral, the world is ephemeral, our planet is ephemeral. But I like this method of passing time, the process is more important than the result.

JS: It’s a gesture, even if it yields nothing. It is anti-archival.
SD: Actually this work and others like it are often recorded photographically, which gives the impression that something is left behind, a record of that bygone moment, but the thing itself has already disappeared. But most things are never recorded, or cannot be recorded. That seal is inscribed with the character for ‘water’. When I stamp it on the surface of the water then bears the character for ‘water’, but when I pull the seal up, it has disappeared. But it once existed—just like the calligraphy I write in water.

JS: An aesthetic of disappearance.
SD: Existence and disappearance are the same for me. For example, right now I think we are water, but you do not think the same. There is water in the air, it is extremely humid, so there is definitely water, but it exists in a different state, and you don’t think we are in water. Your understanding of water does not allow for us now being in water. But we are in another state of water. All of this is to say that absence and presence are the same, and cognition is most important.

JS: But the interesting part for me is that you are the opposite of your contemporaries who are into a very spectacular way of working. Most of Chinese contemporary artists of your generation make spectacular work; you are the opposite. It is a resistance to the violence of our world.
SD: The world is rich and complicated. When everyone is moving in one direction, that does not mean the direction is correct, and there is always more than one direction. Seen from another perspective, the world is always full of unnoticeable phenomena, things ignored, which are no less ‘big’ or important than these other huge phenomena. The largest things have no form.

JS: In many texts written about you, there is this recurring word of meditation. Are you interested in this meditative attitude? Does it concern you?
SD: Meditation is a form of Zen, a way for people to clear their minds. I am not Buddhist, but I like certain methods of Zen, because it does not require that you sit still, or carve statues. You can do anything at all, and it could carry the possibility of enlightenment. Enlightenment is just understanding this world. But of course enlightenment is anything but simple. Who can say they are enlightened? Even some who have attained enlightenment later lose it. Life is a process of coming to understand the world, of raising consciousness, thinking, confusion, reflection, doubt and rethinking. People ignore the little things, particularly the ones that are not easily discovered or seen. In recent months I have made some works about ignoring, like painting a wall with cream, and you realize that these things so often overlooked seem almost not to exist, but as soon as you discover them, you almost pay them too much attention. I am more interested in creating a path for thought. Thought is the most important.

JS: You are also usually dealing with living materials, natural things.
SD: I think that art is life; so much of my inspiration comes from life itself. And I live in art. But perhaps another part of it has to do with the Chinese idea of oneness with nature. It could be the influence of my childhood surroundings, or upbringing. I like this idea of man and nature being one.

JS: But writing all the time, what is the relationship to performance?
SD: Life is ritual, and a whole life is a lifelong ritual. You wake up and brush your teeth, wash your face, out of a habit, so these things no longer feel forced. Rituals generally feel forced, formalized elements of life. When you become an artist, your job is to create new forms of expression. And some things are best explained through ritualistic expression.

. . . . . .

JS: In your recent work you have been archiving the hutongs (a narrow street or alley) with photography and video, taking some pieces of this. Why are you working in this way?
SD: I am interested in objects and knowledge that are forgotten or overlooked. Today everyone is so interested in so-called visible development, projects like the CCTV Building or the Bird’s Nest and I think these are all great. These are flashpoints. People are overlooking the ordinary population. They have their life philosophy. They want to live well. They face these same questions of how, under their given conditions, to live the good life. What sort of wisdom do they bring to that task?

JS: I saw in your studio last time a piece with a wall from a hutong, a bed, a tree.
SD: That is a work that considers a question held in common by private and public space, it’s about how poor people use their wisdom—I use this word, “wisdom,” but it includes the ideas of trickiness and helplessness as well. It’s a question of how from their tiny spaces they go about eroding the public space. So in this work you see the space entirely organized by doors. These doors are collected from different homes, they form a new wall, and when they are all open, it becomes a public space, which can be entered from any angle. But once the doors are closed, it reverts into a private space. In the middle of the space there is a bed, and from the middle of the bed there grows a tree. This comes from my many decades of living in the hutongs, and my investigations into life there. Historically, only one family would live in each courtyard house. But after 1949, many families would be assigned to the same courtyard, and this gave us what we call the dazayuan (literally: big, complex, courtyard, a single converted courtyard home housing many families). At times, as many as twenty families would live in a single courtyard, and in order to claim more space, people would continuously impinge on the public space. People never stopped thinking about how to improve their own lives. There was a famous television series, The Happy Life of Chatterbox Zhang Damin, all about this sort of thing, with stories coming from everyday life. No one has the power to chop down the tree, because it already occupies the space, but all of the other public spaces have been occupied, leaving only the site of this tree. So when there is nowhere else left to live, what is to be done? The only answer is to let the tree come right through the bed. For a poor person, this is a forced solution. But as soon as this solution is implemented, it creates a space for living, and so the person is happy at his own intelligence, he enjoys it. When I use the wisdom of the poor to make works of art, I feel curious and strange. We live in a world that has been created for us, but the poor actually use their own wisdom to create a whole different lifestyle. So in my mind, they inhabit a very cool space.

JS: So it’s not a critique but a statement on hyper-poverty and hyper-wealth in China today?
SD: In the broadest sense, China does not have any truly wealthy people, because almost everyone has had the experience of being poor at one time or another, In the thirty years of Reform and Opening, wealth has been created, and with it a gap between rich and poor. But still most people’s understanding of wealth is partial. These two classes, rich and poor, have a difficult time understanding each other’s lives, and this creates huge social contradictions. I have always been interested in how poor people occupy space, how they use limited space to store things, like my mother who could hardly bear to throw anything away. What is this all about? Are they doing it for the sake of memory, or the future, or because they are just so poor that they need to find a way to occupy space and store objects? All of these practices reflect the thinking and philosophy of this social class. Rich people can use their money to buy whatever space they need, so long as they are permitted to buy it. Poor people may spend an entire lifetime without the space they crave. Nonetheless there is still this drive to make life just a little more comfortable, to have just a bit more space. How do they move into the public space? How do they deal with government regulation, or negotiate relationships with neighbors? In the end these designs do not grow from some creative desire, but rather stem from a cruel reality and a number of external factors.

JS: You show us as well how all these people in hutongs are inventing new spaces on the roof.
SD: I actually have another work in this same vein called Living with Pigeons. It is about people using the right-to-occupy of animals to gain that same right for themselves. People are not ordinarily permitted to live on their roofs, nor are their neighbors or the government willing to let them build new structures on their roofs. But pigeons have the power to live on the roof, and so if you are a card-carrying member of the pigeon society, accredited to raise pigeons, you can build a pigeon cage on your roof. After a year or so, once the neighbors have gotten use to it, you can add some old doors or windows to the outside of the cage to keep out the wind and rain. Then after awhile you can start storing things up there. The pigeon cage keeps expanding and expanding, until it finally becomes a space a human can inhabit. This probably takes about a decade, or even longer. If you’re lucky enough to run into a governmental beautification program (like the one just staged in anticipation of Olympics), perhaps they will decide to renovate your house. And then, because you have this history of a ‘second floor’, when the house is rebuilt, this ‘pigeon cage’ becomes an officially sanctioned room. So you have actually used the power of the pigeon to win power for yourself.

Zeng Fanzhi //// Human nature


Jerome Sans: when did you start making paintings?
Zeng Fanzhi: I started to mess around at the age eight or nine, and then by fifteen or sixteen I started a systematic and formal study of drawing and color, so that I could get into an art academy. In 1987, I entered university, the oil painting department.

JS: What did you start doing when you were in school and when you got out of school?
ZFZ: I think my first real work was made at 1989, a realist image of a person. When I decided to paint it, I had already been observing this model for quite some time, and tried to convince him to pose for me. I told him I wanted to paint him. He agreed, and I began to paint. When I began to paint him I felt quite excited and even agitated. I say this is my first good work because in it I felt I was able to use lines to express my emotions.

JS: And this was why your first series was about a hospital? Because a hospital is a place of pain and emotions and bodies.
ZFZ: Yes, perhaps. I painted the hospital series in 1991, but the first work I mentioned was from 1988 or1989.

JS: Why did you start this move to the hospital?
ZFZ: I was still in college then, and so I had to create on the educational terms of the school. At that time in Chinese art schools there was this idea of going to the country to experience ‘real life’ and make art. We would go to places where there were minorities, to the countryside, to little villages for short stays, painting the locals. I hated this, hated painting sheep and shepherds. I thought it was boring and wanted to paint something closer to my life. I wondered why it was necessary for me to go to the countryside in order to “experience life”. I figured I was experiencing life every day as it was. That’s is why I decided to paint things around me, the things I experienced and saw day in and day out, the things that moved me and made me feel.

JS: The hospital is a place where life and death are connected very clearly in front of your nose. But life is about death, and death is about life.
ZFZ: That’s true. You are very right.

JS: So how did you come to paint hospitals?
ZFZ: I had to go to hospitals more or less every day back then.

JS: Why was that?
ZFZ: I lived next door to hospital, and the place where I was living had no toilet. So if I needed to use toilet I had to go to the hospital. In the 1980s, it wasn’t like now, it was a very big deal to have a toilet in your own home, and in fact we didn’t have one in my dormitory. So I had to go to the hospital all the time. The faces of the people of the hospital were inspiring to me. They would carve themselves in my brain, and I had no way of avoiding thenmany longer. So I began to paint them.

JS: These doctors look wild, not friendly, almost as if in a prison, torturing people. So all these paintings for me, if you don’t know it is hospital, it could be a prison. It’s a sort of mirror where you don’t know if these are patients, or soldiers, or inmates at a concentration camp. It is dangerous and wild.
ZFZ: Many of the figures in these paintings are not actually taken from the hospital. Some are my friends, or neighbors, or others I know well. At that time I simply painted the people around me. But hospitals at that time were quite scary, with people lying everywhere awaiting salvation. It was very much like in my paintings. This was the situation in Wuhan’s hospitals: people lying around with doctors next to them. People sought medical treatment in exactly this environment, there was no such thing as a clean, pristine hospital. So this is a very true likeness, my real environment.

JS: They look frightened, terrified.
ZFZ: I was scared too. I liked to look at this scene, but they would always make me nervous. So perhaps these paintings actually show my feeling in looking at them. Of course when people get sick to a certain point, this terror disappears.

JS: There is a resonance with your work depicting meat and butchers, in terms of the brutality.
ZFZ: The thing is that when we look at these works today they seem brutal, but at that time, we lived in just such an environment, so it all seemed very natural. That was our life then. Of course now we are more civilized, so we think that meat should not be sold straight out, but rather packaged, obscured. But in the 1980s, meat was sold as meat, butchered right in front of your face. The animals were killed and carcasses placed right there for all to see. That was our living environment then.

JS: How did you move from the Hospital Series to the Mask Series? The eyes are very close, and in the hospital people wear another form of mask.
ZFZ: I began the Mask works after I left Wuhan, when I came to Beijing in 1993. I found myself in a new environment, and I was still painting hospitals and meat, but I started to feel this was no longer interesting, that I no longer had a sense of excitement or urgency. I got very nervous and started to think I was done for, that I had nothing left to paint, that my talent had dried up. There was a lot of emphasis on natural talent back then, and I thought I no longer had any. So I decided to stop painting these other things and began to change my subject matter around, painting different things. In 1993 and 1994 I changed styles quite often. Then one day I painted a portrait of a man wearing a mask. I had painted it almost unconsciously. There are no secrets to my painting, I just throw pigments onto canvas. After I finished this work, I realized it was very close to how I was feeling at the time, because I had arrived in a new city, and everything around me had changed. This figure was somehow connected to this feeling. I was floating each day in this new environment, not knowing any one, no one knowing me. It was this very strange sense of isolation. So I painted a man in mask, and got excited, because it seemed that this was how I was feeling at the time. So I painted another, and another, and another until it becomes a series.

JS: Was the mask a metaphor of the hidden, of the idea that one had to play in the society at that time?
ZFZ: In a way, yes. People seemed then to be hiding their true selves. China then was in a state of continuous development. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, for example, people’s habits of dress underwent great changes. We don’t even think about it anymore, but back then there were still a lot of people wearing Mao suits. I would read the news or watch television and wonder how it was that members of the Politburo standing committee had suddenly started wearing Western suits. Just this was amazing, but at that time, nearly everything in China was changing. Before, leaders had only worn Mao suits, but suddenly one of them would wear a Western suit, and you would realize that change was afoot. Secretary Hu Yaobang, for example, appeared once in a suit. Before, suits and ties were marks of bourgeoisie. So a lot of the changes taking place at that time were only on the level of the external. Inside, people were still the same as they had been. It was a contradictory process of development.

JS: The inside would remain the same but the outside would change
ZFZ: Yes. For example, I am very introverted, but in dealing with things I often hide my true self. It’s that sort of a dynamic. This is human nature.

JS: Yes, it’s exactly this metaphor of the mask as a society role one must play. This is a social attitude, and the social is a mask which hides the inside of a persona.
ZFZ: Yes, and you must not laugh, because in the past when Chinese came into contact with strangers or foreigners, they could not laugh. Now things are more open people are straight about what they are doing, they laugh when they want to. But you know that in the past, people were much more formal, they wouldn’t laugh. Today things are nothing like they were in the past.

JS: Do you laugh now?
ZFZ: Yes, I laugh now. But in the past when you were with others, you didn’t dare laugh or even smile. If you wanted to smile you just forced yourself to shut your mouth. If someone gave you money, you were very happy, but you dare not smile for fear that others would look down on you.

. . . . . .

JS: so what is your relationship with Andy Warhol? You portray yourself next to him, and some of your work has this feeling of Chinese pop.
ZFZ: At that time I was just starting to understand the Western art system, and we would often wonder why Andy Warhol was so successful. I would research his different processes. For painters like me, when we first saw Warhol’s works we would think they were amazing, and wonder how he had painted them. It seemed so difficult. Later we realized how simple it was, that he had just smeared some paint and then printed on top of it, that he had not painted the whole thing. So once I knew more about Andy Warhol, my feelings for him changed, although I still respect him immensely, because he traveled an entirely new path, entirely against tradition. He was new and successful and worthy of so much attention.

. . . . . .

JS: Violence is seen as well in your very famous exaggerated hands.
ZFZ: The figures sit there and you see the background. Actually my drawings are not like this; my drawings have the Great Hall of the people in the background, with red flags flying and gold stars. That was the original idea, to imply the brutality of political struggle. But in the end I did not dare paint like that, because in China it’s best not to make your painting overly political, lest you create trouble for yourself.

JS: And the hands, they are like the hands of a killer
ZFZ: I just love painting hands, so sometimes when I paint a human figure, I find a way of including his hand. I think that hands are particularly able to convey a person’s personality and emotion, especially because I unify their facial expression, hiding them behind masks. I hope to use hands to depict some internal emotions. Even if I cover up all of my sitters’ other skin, I cannot cover up the hands, so it seems the best to make the hand exaggerated, bigger, more dynamic. It makes the canvas more interesting.

JS: So the only sign of difference is the hand, telling you a story.
ZFZ: If you are nervous, happy, whatever—all of these subtle dynamics can be revealed in your hand.

. . . . . .

JS: Things have changed a lot since you were going to the toilet in the hospital twenty years ago. Now, where do you go to the toilet? Has your vision changed completely in this time? Things have changed so fast in such a very short time.
ZFZ: I can still see through all these changes, and I think this is my greatest resource. I have had so many experiences in my forty years, from having nothing at all, not even a penny, to having all that I enjoy today. These twenty years of development in China have been extraordinary, and every decade is different. I think this has contributed a great deal to my work. I consider it a great fortune. And since I am lucky enough to have today, I treasure this fortune. I love making art, and the thing that makes me happiest is that I have an opportunity to go on making it.

JS: This last question was mostly to make you end the interview with a smile.
ZFZ: I have always seemed serious when I talk, and sometimes this creates pressure for people. Like when I discuss prices or money with people, I am not unhappy, but people will think that I think the price is too low. So then they add more on. I tell them that is not what I meant, but it’s too late…….

Zheng Guogo ////// My Empire


Jerome Sans: Your works seem to be dealing with youth culture.
Zheng Guogo: That’s where I come from. I was young then, so that’s what I was interested in. But things change constantly. And here we are today.

. . . . . .

JS: What was the series you started with?
ZGG: My teacher. I squatted in the middle of the road with my teacher.

JS: Why did you make this work about your teacher? Normally you kill your teacher, you kill your father. Why did this become a subject for you?
ZGG: At the time I did not consider it a work. I was just squatting in the middle of the street and thought it was interesting, so I shouted for the camera and we took this picture.

JS: Is he really your teacher?
ZGG: No, of course not. I noticed this guy a few days before, squatting in the road out in front of my studio, so I wanted to see who he was, and once I did I thought he was really interesting, so I decided to make a photo. Once it was developed, I was amused.

JS: So why do you call him your teacher?
ZGG: He has a lot of knowledge that I will never, ever have. He’s crazy. When he walks, he turns somersaults. For dinner, he picks moldy scraps from the trash and then smiles and laughs as he eats them. I figured the next day he would have disappeared, but he was still there.

JS: Who was he really?
ZGG: He is a lunatic with an immune system unlike ours. He is truly crazy. I have no way of being like him.

JS: And what was your next step?
ZGG: A work called Planting Geese. I learned this from my ‘teacher’. When you plant the geese in the ground, they quack. It’s crazy.

JS: What was the intention?
ZGG: I didn’t know at the time, it was just pulling at me. I didn’t have a clear intention; I was interested in doing something that went against reality. I thought of one of my schoolteachers, who taught me that the eyes of geese shrink everything they see, whereas the eyes of cows enlarge things. So little children can tend cows, and geese, because they see you in a shrunken state, do not fear you. You drive a car toward a goose and it still thinks you are tiny. So geese are fearless somehow. This was a physics teacher. I like this idea of the fearless goose.

. . . . . .

JS: How does this work with the geese link to the Lives of Yangjiang Youth photography you took later?
ZGG: The link is hard to explain. The action and behavior of the kids in these pictures are foolish and almost criminal. They do things other people would not dare to do. So perhaps you could say that burying the geese was also a sort of outrageous action. But I never actually considered these works together. I just suddenly get interested in something and then I go and do it. Or you could say that burying geese, like the actions depicted in the photos, are things that if you told your parents about them, they would grow worried.”Ah?! How can you do that?” they might ask. Perhaps they would scold you. Young people like to do things their parents do not understand. Youth culture is not mainstream culture, because the dominant power always lies in the parents’ hands.

. . . . . .

JS: Are you happy with your works? If you are happy with them, it means you have a special feeling for them. How do you feel when you look at your works?
ZGG: I like my work. I like almost everything I make. But they move in so many different directions, so can we skip over this question? Sometimes I don’t think they are even my own work, but rather a piece of myself, an external expression of my thought and action. I have confidence in my work, but no confidence in how to answer the question, “How would you describe your work?” Put simply, my works are just part of my life.

JS: And your life also a part of your work
ZGG: Yes, art is part of my life, so often I don’t even feel as if I am making works. It’s like I am living, and something happens, or there is an exhibition, so I finish a work in time for this or that, as a way of killing time. If I didn’t have anything to do, I would have no way to go on living.

JS: It depends on your vision of time.
ZGG: True enough. If I didn’t have this to do, I could pass the time just as easily by sleeping

JS: So why do you choose to make art?
ZGG: I got sucked in. People decided for me. I was doing just fine in Yangjiang, free to do this or that. And then all of a sudden...

. . . . . .

JS: You created a group, a young group of calligraphers, the Yangjiang group, to protest against the present situation of Chinese calligraphy.
ZGG: In 2002, I met Chen Zaiyan and Sun Qingin. They are calligraphers in the traditional sense. Talking with them I came to understand the state of calligraphy in China. There is the Chinese Calligraphy Association, with chapters in each province, city, country, and village. It is quite difficult to enter the Calligraphy Association in your county; you have to participate in certain official exhibitions. When you go from the county to the city, they critique you, saying what you do right and wrong, telling you where your mistakes are. But I started thinking that these judges from the cities might not necessarily have the expertise to accurately judge the calligraphy coming up from the villages. Someone in a small town somewhere might be an incredible calligrapher, but if he lacked the right connections, and the committee of judges doesn’t know what it is doing, then hasn’t this person’s talent been wasted? After I learned about this situation, I decided to form a calligraphy group, with the belief that calligraphy exists outside the official calligraphy world.

JS: And what do you produce?
ZGG: Our first exhibition was titled Are you going to look at calligraphy or to take my blood pressure? We write things that we cannot even recognize once we finish writing them. Our goal is to make everyone illiterate, including ourselves. We make installation from calligraphy, a thousand sheets of paper waving on the ground like an ocean, things like that.

. . . . . .

JS: What was the idea behind making your own Empire? It’s like being a teenager and telling your parents to stay out of your room, making your own little world.
ZGG: I think that at this point I need to do something that can last, not an installation that is only there for the duration of an exhibition and then taken down. This project is permanent, and I want to make it into a platform, like a missile launching station. I need a platform, from inside which I can research which missiles I can launch at which target, this one toward Venice, that one toward Kassel, or even farther. After I launch them I feel as if everything is suddenly clear and open.

JS: But not open, because there is a wall! The new empire. You are the emperor of your own world, like Michael Jackson in Neverland!
ZGG: Walls are easy to build and destroy, I have torn mine down many times. So I am still open. I have already built and destroyed the wall four times. Every so often a peasant will say to me, “I have this piece of land, and I want to sell it to you. Do you want it or not?” And I buy it. So then I tear down my wall and build it again, around this new piece of land. I could keep on expanding forever, without limits. Maybe someday I can tear down all of these walls, and the whole world will be mine.

JS: Is it true that you are building pavilions for your friends and relatives?
ZGG: yes

JS: Can I have my own pavilion?
ZGG: Yes

JS: It is common for an artist to have this sort of fantasy but rare for him to take it so far. This is as concrete as Andy Warhol’s factory, which he made in the urban context of New York, where all of his friends could gather together to invent, produce, exchange.
ZGG: His factory was pre-built, but my empire has to be built from scratch. I have no idea when it will finally be complete. It is still just a piece of land.

JS: You cannot yet use it?
ZGG: I am enjoying the process of construction, and it is entirely possible that one day the government will confiscate it. It is illegal, an unauthorized building. But who cares? I’m addicted, and I have accrued invisible capital in the process.

JS: Now the situation in China is that everyone finds a way of dealing with the government to expand their own space, but your example is extreme. The government might not have the ability to confiscate your plot.
ZGG: I am also preparing, thinking about ways to make the project legal.

JS: With lawyers?
ZGG: No. I am just asking around. If you maintain your relationships properly, no one will mess with you. They come and fine you a little bit, but once you pay it, it is as if you’re tacitly accepted. No one says anything, but that’s how it works. I’m enjoying myself.

JS: How do you envision this territory? What is visually or conceptually your plan for it? Will you move there definitively when it is complete?
ZGG: I have not thought it through yet. I have built a very primitive forest there. I bought centuries-old trees from all over and replanted them there.

JS: What do those trees look like?
ZGG: More than half of them have died. I feel so cheated.

JS: Do you do that quite often?
ZGG: Not anymore. Before I had no experience, but now I ask the experts when is the best time to transplant these trees. It is spring. There were a few times though that I would see a tree and want it so badly that I had to have it then, but as soon as they dug up it would die. I just wanted to move it right away, to look at it every day and be happy.

. . . . . .

JS: It looks a bit like archaeological modernism; it destroys the landscape. Will it always remain in this present half built state?
ZGG: It looks like the shell of a house that a developer couldn’t sell.

JS: Will you finish these buildings?
ZGG: Those are not actually buildings; they are skeletons for four giant mountains. At some point they will be converted over with rocks.

JS: So why didn’t you buy land with the mountains already?
ZGG: Because you can’t just hollow out mountains. People will live inside of my stone mountains. I am fabricating everything, including the forest. It is a very long process.

JS: So you want to do this your whole life?
ZGG: I don’t know; I just want to pass the time.

JS: And you will live there?
ZGG: Of course. If I build this whole thing I will want to enjoy it. In the end it will become a sanatorium. When the wind blows there it is quite comfortable.

JS: How many people work there?
ZGG: At the peak, more than 100

JS: They live there?
ZGG: Some of them

JS: In tents?
ZGG: No, they live in some simple structures they have erected, because some are migrant workers from elsewhere

JS: Do you have one house for yourself at least that is finished?
ZGG: Almost. There is a living room and kitchen where people can eat. Food is the most important problem to solve.

JS: You go there every month, every week?
ZGG: Yes, there is so much you have to show the workers how to do. A lot of the project lies in my imagination. Once the structure is built I have to imagine where the entrance and exits go. It is all in my head.

JS: Will these mountains be like skyscrapers?
ZGG: No, they will still look mountains, natural stone mountains.

JS: You brought the land from the peasants?
ZGG: That’s right.

JS: And they give you a deed to the property?
ZGG: Yes, a Guangdong-style deed.

JS: Are you very rich?
ZGG: No, I have thrown all of my money into this project. It is like the Bank of Empire, accruing mountains and houses. I think this is good, that if you make money as an artist, at some point you need to put that money back into your art and allow it to grow into something else.

JS: So this is your main project, your life project.
ZGG: For now at least. If there comes a day when I am no longer interested in it at all, I may move on.

JS: But you would lose all the energy and money you have invested.
ZGG: Not necessarily, because I think the process of accruing invisible capital is more important. Building this compound has opened me up, allowed me to stop caring.

JS: Do you pay attention to feng shui?
ZGG: No.

JS: So you don’t care where the mountains and rivers go?
ZGG: If you put enough money into something, the feng shui emerges. This is just a very ordinary piece of land, so there’s no point in saying the feng shui in naturally good or bad. It’s a piece of shit, I just happened to throw all of my money into it, so of course the feng shui is good.

JS: What is your architectural plan on this land?
ZGG: Let me draw it for you. In the computer game Age of Empire there is a secret weapon, a child riding a tricycle. At the front of the tricycle there is a cannon, and as soon as this child fires his cannon, everything explodes. The plan is based on the shape of this figure. It’s a secret weapon, and if you use it to defend a channel, it can hold off an entire invading army. As soon as he sees people coming, he fires a round, and everything around is completely destroyed, turned into ruins.

JS: When will this whole project be built?
ZGG: In another two years.

JS: How long have you been working on it already?
ZGG: Three years, since late 2005. Just building the surrounding wall is incredibly difficult, because you have to resolve the boundaries with the neighboring peasants.

JS: I want to see it. I want to know what you have built for me!
ZGG: I can give you a guest house.

JS: Not a guesthouse, Jérôme’s house!
ZGG: What do you want your house to be? Please don’t say you want to build a museum!

JS: No, just my own house
ZGG: That’s fine, but no air conditioning! [ Laughs.]


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