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【2016】The Gift, or This Thing Called Oil Painting and how it Because Connected to Us — Philip Tinari

Philip Tinari: Let’s start from the beginning. I’m not really interested in when you became an artist, but rather the overall process of your personal growth through which you were shaped into an artist.

Wang Yin: Like me, my father studied in Beijing. He studied oil painting in the 1950s and returned to his hometown of Shandong in the 1960s. I was born in 1964, and grew up in what could be called a local artistic environment. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, I started studying painting in Qingdao, and initially I drew mostly still lifes and plasters. Qingdao is a place that the Germans played a big part in constructing.


Philip  Tinari: Like Shanghai.

Wang: They are somewhat alike, but they are also different. Qingdao has a rather feeble tradition of Chinese painting, but a more developed culture of Western painting.


Philip  Tinari: Nevertheless, thinking back, it must have been strange to see plaster statues of David lying around the place.

Wang: It didn’t feel strange to me back then, I simply thought that was what painting was. It wasn’t until much later that I started reflecting on the reason why we were painting this way.


Philip  Tinari: At the time, were you influenced by realist paintings and realism?

Wang: Compared to other places, Qingdao is a relatively small city; its cultural landscape was determined by just a handful of artists. My father had a lot of students there, and he believed that painting should proceed according to the standard of “Soviet painting.” This, together with some portraits of workers, farmers, and soldiers that I was exposed to during the Cultural Revolution that essentially followed the tradition of Soviet Realism and realism, informed my early experience of painting. At home, I also had access to catalogues that were available in China before the Cultural Revolution, such as those of Menzel, published in East Germany, and catalogues of oil paintings and sketches in the style of Social Realism from the Soviet era. That was the kind of art I was exposed to before moving to Beijing. After the Gang of Four was overthrown, the Cultural Revolution came to its end; I was about sixteen or seventeen at the time, and I started to encounter impressionism in the magazines that were then popular-there were even some expressionist and Fauvist works. Back then, specialist art magazines were rare, except for a few such as the Fine Arts series, published in Shanghai, and Foreign Literature and Art. These magazines also featured other related contents. We were quite different from painters in Beijing and Shanghai, as they had access to much more information.


Philip  Tinari: Before you came to Beijing, I suppose Qingdao hadn’t been exposed to those “enlightened” artists’ groups or movements, right?

Wang: No.


Philip  Tinari: Did you notice any obvious changes in the social atmosphere from the Maoist era to the post-Maoist era?

Wang: In fact, there were some changes. My father was affected by the Cultural Revolution to a certain extent, but the major changes in that era took place after the Lin Biao Incident. The philosophy scholar Li Zehou holds the view that the Cultural Revolution didn’t end until after the Lin Biao Incident-he considers this as the point at which people started to become suspicious of what they had firmly believed in before.


Philip  Tinari: Did you spend most of the 1980s in Beijing?

Wang: Yes. I moved to Beijing for college in 1983, so I experienced the spirit that was prevailing in Beijing at the time.


Philip  Tinari: In that case, you would have seen Rauschenberg’s exhibition, the nude exhibition [Oil Painting Exhibition of the Human Body, National Art Museum of China, Beijing, 1988], and the other important exhibitions of the time.

Wang: Yes, the exhibition scene in Beijing was very active in the 1980s. Major exhibitions that toured internationally, like Rauschenberg’s, had a considerable impact on people’s ideas. I majored in stage art at the Central Academy of Drama, which was a little bit special. At the time, tertiary education had just been resumed after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Enrolment was permitted again in 1977 or 1978, so we were among the first. In fact, my major did not accept students every year, and in my year, only eight students were accepted. Qi Mudong, my mentor at the time, was a key figure in the theatre world back then. He was the stage designer for Swan Lake, the first Chinese ballet, and was the first Chinese person to receive a postgraduate degree in stage art from the Soviet Union. He was an old revolutionary, so he wanted to turn the class into a product of the “Soviet” education model, and to mold us into someone like himself.

Soviet stage art was not the same as Western (European) stage art, and was quite different from that of the United States as well. The Soviet Union had a six-year program; their students had to complete the oil painting courses at the Repin State Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in St. Petersburg before moving on to theatre for a year. They believed that stage artists should, in the first place, be artists. Soviet stage art places an emphasis on the techniques of the plastic arts, which was their specialty-the Soviet Union had a school of stage art whose participants were mostly painters, such as Khilov and Vrubel, who were all experienced in stage design. This being the case, much of our curriculum was the same as the oil painting majors’ at the Central Academy of Fine Arts; they weren’t so much related to the stage at the beginning, because we had to learn the basis of “Soviet painting.” However, my mentor’s program was discontinued half way through.


Philip  Tinari: Was it because the academy balked?

Wang: No, it was because the students protested against it. But I was actually quite interested in the “Soviet painting” classes which we were required to take in the first two years of my study.


Philip  Tinari: Was he denounced during the Cultural Revolution?

Wang: Perhaps to some extent, because he was a figure of authority in the academic world, and had studied in the Soviet Union.


Philip  Tinari: When you graduated after five years of study, was there an artistic circle in Beijing, so to speak?

Wang: Yes.


Philip  Tinari: Were you still younger than most of your contemporaries in that circle?

Wang: At the time, the professors at the academy were constantly changing. My painting professor in my freshman year was Yang Feiyun, he had just graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and he taught us classical Chinese painting-back then at the academy, there were conflicts between the school of classical painting and those doing “Soviet painting”-but he returned to CAFA after a year. In my junior year, Xia Xiaowan came to our school; although he was never my teacher, we became friends as we were around the same age. He frequently took us to Li Xianting’s home, and everyone gradually got to know each other.


Philip  Tinari: What were your intellectual influences back then?

Wang: There were significant differences between our academy and CAFA in that we read a large number of scripts, and were exposed to a lot of contemporary film and music. From Nietzsche to Beckett, from John Cage to Brecht: we were exposed to all of them. During the 1980s in Beijing, there was new information every day, a lot of it. So in my third year of college, I began making abstract expressionist paintings. At the time, I really admired Bacon’s paintings, and after painting in his style for a while, I started to admire Jasper Johns’ paintings.


Philip  Tinari: Did you ever look into the artistic connections between Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg back then? Or did you study them as individual cases?

Wang: I was relatively familiar with American postwar art in general, but I didn’t study any individual examples in depth. From time to time, the US Embassy would invite us to go visit the collections they had on loan from MoMA.


Philip  Tinari: Were you still in school in 1989?

Wang: I graduated in 1988. My state of mind changed drastically in 1989- it was a big turning point for all of Chinese culture. The so-called “liberal atmosphere” and Western “capitalist liberalization” of the 1980s was faced with numerous challenges and suffered many setbacks in the face of reality. As for myself, I thought these Westernizing trends were like a play: once the performance reached its finale, we had to return to normal, without even any lingering sound. This had an immense impact on my pursuit and fascination with modern art. I found it unreal; to put it in today’s terms, it was “too artsy.”  


Philip  Tinari: This was your experience after going through the process of “liberalization”?

Wang: For about half a year after 1989, I didn’t really paint, although I managed to finish my thesis. It was pretty well received, and the college journal was also interested in publishing it-I studied an experimental avant-garde theatre play by Polish director Grotowski, focusing on its use of the stage space. The “poor theatre” movement proposed by Grotowski had a considerable influence on Western theatre in the 60s and 70s. At that time, I closely studied Grotowski’s major works-in the 80s, one of his works, titled Towards a Poor Theatre, was translated into Chinese. He also had influence on Arte Povera in Italy.

He was a curious director, an avant-garde dramatist who grew up in the environment of Eastern Europe. He had several sources of inspiration: one was the Russian “experimentalist” Stanislavsky, another was the post-World War I French founder of the “Theatre of Cruelty”, Artaud, who was also an influence on Foucault. In the 60s, Grotowski believed that Western theatre was following films, meaning that it was at the end of its wits, with no future ahead. According to him, it was the increasing panoply of things being shoehorned into theatre-stage-setting, costumes, music, and lighting-that had caused theatre to lose its essence. He asked: if theatre does not challenge and oppose film, then what is there left of the theatre? He proposed the concept of the “holy actor,”  the idea that the most important element of theatre was the actor. He did his best to minimize and eliminated all other elements.


Philip  Tinari: The development of the theatre you just described was not in dialogue with the United States at all.

Wang: You’re right. It had its origin in Eastern European culture. Grotowski emphasized the idea of theatre as ritual. In his latter life, he spent a period of time in the United States at a later stage before passing away in Italy in 1990. In the final stage of his work, his plays needed no audience; rather, it was a kind of “self-cultivation.” Nevertheless, he influenced a great number of people, and his influence persists to the present.


Philip  Tinari: Did you ever meet him?

Wang: No, I didn’t. The reason why I’ve talked about Grotowski at length here is because while we usually think of being radical as being a “forward” movement, his way of being radical was expressed in an ancient manner. He was also influenced by Eastern theatre and ancient Greek theatre-he believed that theatre should return to its origins, to its genealogy, wherein lie answers to questions posed by today’s realities. He developed a rigorous method for the training of actors, a method through which the actor purifies himself. He believed that the light emitted by an actor externally was not important, what mattered was the actor’s inner light.


Philip  Tinari: What kind of impact did these studies leave on you?

Wang: After 1989, the society with which I was in contact, or should I say, the intellectual circle with which I was familiar, began to change direction. This change of direction was expressed in a greater emphasis for knowledge itself, rather than for big concepts. Culturally, we no longer talked about “big” things.


Philip  Tinari: What did you think of the 1989 Modern Art Exhibition?

Wang: The exhibition did not employ the term “contemporary art,” and the implication of the exhibition was that after we became aware of the various modern schools, we also had to apply the modes and methods of these schools. However, several works shown at the exhibition exceeded this conceptual framework. I found Huang Yongping’s Washing Machine fascinating, and there was also Wu Shanzhuan’s Selling Shrimp-these works carried a tone of irony and humor, they were not stiff, and were not as simple as “drawing an abstract painting” or “throwing out some condoms.”


Philip  Tinari: Did you feel that some of the artists at that time lacked a systematic approach?

Wang: I never really thought about it from that point of view. With some of the works I saw at the exhibition, I didn’t really feel excited. As for myself, I also had some doubts about my own works at that time, which pained me. I went through a period of stagnation, during which time I turned to writing. But the thought of not painting again never crossed my mind. However, with the “89” as a coalescing point, many people-for instance, Zhao Bandi and Wang Jianwei-were no longer confined to painting as their medium for artistic production afterwards. At the time, I was pondering some problems that seemed rather simple: what is the relation between painting as a concept and myself? Why do I paint? Reacting to the social climate at the time, some people started doing different things-for instance, researching some of the intellectuals from China’s Republican era. When I was little, there were some catalogues at home, and I had seen the early works of a lot of the oil painters, such as the sketches of Yan Wenliang, and those of Wu Zuoren.


Philip  Tinari: Perhaps there were also works by Pang Xunqin?

Wang: You’re right, but Yan Wenliang left a deeper impression on me. When I came across his works in my father’s catalogues as a kid, for some reason, I found them to be fascinating. I began to wonder how we and these things that we call oil paintings came to be hand-in-hand-for artists such as Yan Wenliang, there is a curious relationship between his paintings and our paintings. When I was still in college, these artists’ works had no influence on me; after the 1990s, however, they started to appeal to me. Over two years, in 1992 and 1993, I painted the cover works of several Chinese magazines which were among the first to feature oil paintings and art and literature, for which I used periodicals from the early 20th century such as Fiction Monthly and New Youth as an inspiration. What I painted was so-called “tacky oil paintings.” After the more scientific “Soviet paintings” were introduced into China in the 50s, many began to consider early Chinese paintings as immature “tacky oil paintings.” Artists such as Yan Wenliang were among the earliest who accepted the influence of Western painting, but even their works were considered not very mature.


Philip  Tinari: So you were intentionally making these choices with regards to painting techniques.

Wang: That’s right. At that time, I wanted to paint that kind of thing.


Philip  Tinari: At that time, Chinese art was flooded with the “giant heads” of Cynical Realism.

Wang: You’re right. For instance, Li Xianting began to promote things that carried a “Chinese style,” such as those he called “Popi” and “Kitsch.” “Popi,” which was a term he coined to summarize the new aesthetics that emerged after the “89.”


Philip  Tinari: Did you have any exhibitions around that time?

Wang: After I had completed these works, I organized an exhibition at CAFA, of which perhaps most people have little memory. At that time, the only person who was interested in the exhibition and took it most seriously was Hans van Dijk. At the exhibition, he took a walk around, didn’t say anything, and simply stood there looking. During that period, I had become acquainted with some new expressionist paintings through catalogues, and was able to see Kiefer’s and Baselitz’s works. There was a spirit of Scar Art in their works, which was very appealing to me.  


Philip  Tinari: The artists you mentioned are very influential, but your exposure to them was limited.

Wang: Yes.


Philip  Tinari: Who else was in your circle?

Wang: At that time in China, the art circle was centered around Mr. Li. It was 1993, which coincided with the 45th Venice Biennale, and Mr. Li played an active role in promoting many Chinese artists, including Wang Guangyi and Fang Lijun. But at the time, the works I was creating were focused exclusively on process. Of my friends, there were not only painters, but also poets, and we would get together sometimes to chat. I also enjoy reading, so I had quite a lot of friends who were poets.


Philip  Tinari: How did you make a living back then?

Wang: For a long time I wasn’t making a living by selling paintings, but by producing sets for experimental theatre. For example, there was Lin Zhaohua’s Hamlet, and I also worked on some other plays.


Philip  Tinari: There were also those directors such as Zhang Guangtian?

Wang: Yes, but Zhang Guangtian came later. There was also Mou Sen, but it was still Mr. Lin with whom I collaborated the most. At the time, Michael Kahn-Ackermann was working at the Goethe Institute, and he managed to get us DM 5,000-10,000 of funding for stage design. That was a lot of money at the time. Everyone was pretty happy.


Philip  Tinari: So your parents were supportive of you?

Wang: Yes, they didn’t really bother me.


Philip  Tinari: What theatres were you working at?

Wang: I was involved in some projects at the small theatre at the [Beijing] Film Academy, and at the People’s Art Theatre rehearsal hall. I even went to Japan for an exchange; there were some international theatre festivals there interested in cultural exchange.


Philip  Tinari: When was the first time you went abroad?

Wang: The first time I went abroad was in 1994, when I went to Japan to attend a theatre festival.


Philip  Tinari: Were there a lot of these kinds of events afterwards?

Wang: In 1997, I went to Italy for work for some time. I was hired by Zhang Yimou to produce the costumes for the opera version of Turandot.


Philip  Tinari: You must have witnessed a lot of different things in Florence.

Wang: Yes, I saw a lot of things, and I went to the Venice Biennale in 1997.


Philip  Tinari: If I recall, there weren’t any Chinese artists who participated in the 1997 iteration.

Wang: That’s right. The curator that year seemed rather Western-centric. They had little interest in exhibitions like Magiciens de la terre (Magicians of the World).


Philip  Tinari: So you were aware of exhibitions such as Magiciens de la terre back then?

Wang: Yes, I was. There were articles about these exhibitions in several magazines in China.


Philip  Tinari: When did you commit to painting? Was it due to financial concerns?

Wang: As for my paintings, I wasn’t even convinced myself that they had any commercial appeal. Although I had always relied on theatre and painting to make a living, my style of painting was not very well-received during the 90s.


Philip  Tinari: At that time, if it wasn’t the most progressive kind of painting, then there was no market demand for it.

Wang: That’s right.


Philip  Tinari: After the cover” works you painted, what creative direction did you turn in?

Wang: Throughout the 90s, I wanted to paint what we call “on-site experimental,” “bad” painting today. I once wrote an essay on “bad painting,” and I was aware at the time of that there was a style premised upon “painting badly,” which could become a new impetus for painting. I was pretty familiar with the idea of “bad taste” in the 80s, which was what the West considered “bad taste.”


Philip  Tinari: When did you start to feel as if you’d established your point of view as an artist?

Wang: As of today, in terms of content, my work is the same as it was in 1992 or 1993. But I’ve been constantly inventing new ways to respond to the problems I face in different periods. I think I often change the way I paint, but not so much the way I think. For instance, around 2000, I collaborated with a farmer for a period of time, which was intended as a response to art from the Yan’an era.


Philip  Tinari: So the inspiration behind Hundred Flowers also stems from the Yan’an era, is that right?

Wang: Yes.


Philip  Tinari: You were creating works together with a farmer?

Wang: Yes. I would paint a base, and he would paint a number of things in different styles on top of it. In 2000 and 2001, I did several experiments of this kind. After 2000, every now and then, I would put “Soviet paintings,” Republican era paintings and my own works on a  table, to examine the relationships between them, such as the relationship between Xu Beihong’s paintings and my own, or the relationship between the subjects chosen by ethnic minority painters and the subjects in my own work. I disassembled and broke down these relationships, but what it really revealed was the relationship between myself and oil painting, and why I make oil paintings-this simple question is the question I face when I work.  


Philip  Tinari: How do you select your subject matter? Are there some directions that you’re unwilling to disclose, or are there any specific texts? Or do you more often appeal to the imagination?

Wang: These days, I’m increasingly inclined not to speak out about these things.


Philip  Tinari: I can understand. Take Wang Xingwei as an example: in his paintings, we often see a female figure kneeling on the floor, but nobody knew where this figure came from. Eventually, the curator Pi Li-if I remember correctly-bought a book at a second-hand bookstore, only to discover this exact figure on the cover, which Wang Xingwei had produced for the publisher many years ago. But he would never tell you about these things. Once these things are said out loud, they come to dominate the discourse and interpretation of a work, and this is especially the case when representing ethnic minorities, which take on a political dimension.

Wang: You’re right, if we look at the development of Chinese oil painting, the theme of ethnic minorities is one that every generation has dealt with. I often paint things that we’re all used to, such as ethnic minorities…


Philip  Tinari: And trains.

Wang: Yes, and there’s also the theme of self-portraits. I prefer to depict themes that I’m familiar with, and decontextualize them to make them seem strange. For example, I repainted a large-scale landscape in the style of “Soviet painting.” In a contemporary context, “Soviet painting” is often judged to be an outdated artistic language and mode of expression, so by employing such a language and form, I can produce a sense of strangeness, a kind of sensory friction.


Philip  Tinari: You’re right. In consideration of the current state of painting, to choose to paint in oils already reveals something, as the ways in which images are produced have become extremely diverse.

Wang: For me, oil painting, as a material and medium, is just right. It’s easy to use and convenient.


Philip  Tinari: You can use this medium to comment on much broader…

Wang: Right, because for the development of oil painting and the of emergence of modernity in China goes hand-in-hand. There is a temporal overlap, so the changes in oil painting in China reveal many interesting things. When we look at or paint a “Soviet” realistic painting, we can say that it has its origins in the 50s. And when we paint in the style of “tacky oil painting,” we can say that it embodies features of Republican era China. I find that pretty interesting.


Philip  Tinari: How do you look at the entire course of modernization in China?

Does it start from the Qing dynasty?

Wang: Yes. Recently, I read in a newspaper that Yoshihiro Francis Fukuyama, the author of The End of History and the Last Man, came to China, and delivered a speech at Peking University, during which he claimed that a large part of the driving force behind the transformations undergone during China’s modernization, particularly in the last thirty years, originates from China’s unique traditions and cultures.


Philip  Tinari: Yes, in the last thirty years many scholars who specialize in Chinese history have amended their views. For instance, after 1949, all the American scholars were talking about how China had lost its international standing, things like this. But now they’ve all turned their attentions to finding the basis of China’s prosperity. A few days ago, I saw a collection of Arabian “tacky oil paintings” at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. There were works from the 20s and 30s and works from the 50s and 60s as well. I think this makes for an interesting comparison: every country has undergone trajectory toward modernity, but each of them is different. Some trajectories lean towards “the Left”, while others can be traced to the legacies of missionaries, or to wealthy families sending their kids abroad: these basic paradigms occur more or less around the same time as China moved from a Republican era style to the Soviet style. This is an interesting area of study, known as “comparative modernity.


Philip  Tinari: Why is the exhibition titled “The Gift”?

Wang: The title comes from a classic theory proposed by the 20th century sociologist Marcel Mauss. In [his essay of the same name], he discusses the Kwakiutl Indians’ ritual of “potlatch,”  which is centered around giving, receiving and giving in return.

In this exhibition, a number of the paintings is focused on the human body. In 1997, the curator Jean Clair presented a project named Identity and Alterity: A Short History of the Human Body and Face From 1895 to the Present at the Venice Biennale, where he proposed the idea that there is a certain conception of the human body that is unique to the West, that doesn’t exist outside of Europe. To understand it from our perspective, this idea is perhaps comparable to claiming that “‘Shanshui” [mountain/water landscape painting] is unique to China.” In the course of my own work, I have also come to consider certain artists from the Republic era of China, such as Xu Beihong, or the ability to observe the human body from a Western perspective, as a gift of Western ways of seeing. So how can we reciprocate such a gift? In this way, oil painting as a medium is characteristic of Mauss’ theory of “reciprocal exchange.”