INTERVIEWS - Anglais
This interview between Chen Zhen and Zhu Xian was published in the transexperiences / Chen Zhen catalog, by the CCA-Center for Contemporary Art, Kitakyushu, Japan, in 1998. It was then reproduced in Chen Zhen. The Interviews, published by Les Presses du Réel / Palais de Tokyo, in 2003, p. 85-124.
Zhu Xian is a fictional character invented by Chen Zhen. His first name is an anagram of Zhen. By itself, "Zhu" means "bamboo" and "Xian" salty. Pronounced together, they form the word Zhen: “wise word”. Chen Zhen's parents wanted the first name of their three children to include the root "Zhu": bamboo is indeed the symbol of flexibility, but above all that of righteousness.
Translated by William Y. Jiang
Zhu: How time flies! Ten years passed in a flash. I remember asking you at the end of 1986 when you were about to leave for France, "At the 'age of establishment,' you are still leaving your native place. You have to re-build up your livelihood in a new country. Don't you think it's a bit too late to start from scratch?" You answered, "Well, let's just play by ear." Now that you have been away for the last ten years, and have "zou-ed"2 (travelled) over many countries. How do you feel?
Zhen: The word "zou" is a miraculous word. If one can truly appreciate the meaning of the word "zou" in his entire life, he would reach the realm of "Zhong Che Zhong Wu" (medium level of understanding and medium level of comprehension).3 "Wandering from place to place," "long-distance marching," "not shedding a tear until one sees the coffin (not stopping searching until faced with the grim reality)," and even "keeping aloof from the world," all of these have to do with the concept of "zou." Of course, what I really meant here was more of a "spiritual running-away."
Zhu: "Spiritual running-away?"
Zhen: Exactly. "Spiritual running-away." This is the most profound experience one can have in life. One should learn to break out of one's own "cocoon," and be courageous enough to "break away from one's own self," and to "abandon" one's own cultural context. The Chinese proverb "the soul has left its shelter" in fact symbolizes a critical state in which one's creative capacity has reached the most active zenith. The experience of "zou" and the excitement of creative work are all related to this type of experiences. Of course, "spiritual running-away" also has relevance to the issue of self-sought loneliness. For the past few years, "the self-sought loneliness of opening-up and moving-about" is the mainstay by which I was able to "zou" and to live.
Zhu: If you want now to summarize all of your experiences of "zou" in one sentence or even just in one word...
Zhen: Transexperiences. In Chinese, it can be said as "Rong Chao Jing Yan." This is a kind of "fusion-transcendence of experiences." There isn't such a word in either English or French, but the prefix "trans-" has the meanings of "crossing," "through," "above and beyond," "transfer," "over," "to the other side of," etc. If you juxtapose this prefix with the word "experience" and use it in the plural form, you coined a new word, which summarizes vividly and profoundly the complex life experiences of leaving one's native place and going from one place to another in one's life. What is most intriguing about it is that this prefix bears a linkage with the word "zou" we were just talking about.
Zhu: Am I, then, to understand that, on the one hand, to you, "transexperiences" represents the comprehensive inter-linkage and holistic mastery of the different periods and different happenings in a life characterized by overlapping and moving activities; on the other hand, in terms of the relationships and dissimilarities between you and "Others," "transexperiences" is a new "concept" that demonstrates your personal qualities and identity features as an individual?
Zhen: Not only that. "Transexperiences" also represents a concept of art. This is not a pure conceptual concept; rather, it is an impure experiential concept, a mode of thinking and method of artistic creation that is capable of connecting the preceding with the following, adapting itself to changing circumstances, accumulating year-in-year-out experiences, and being triggered at any instant. Furthermore, this type of experiential concept relates to an extremely important matter, that is, to immerse oneself in life, to blend and identify oneself with others. This still bears some influence from the "life-experiencing" movement during the Mao era in China.4 Therefore, for many years, I have exerted a great deal of my time and energy trying to communicate with the outside world by employing diligently my English and French language skills. I think, on the threshold of the twenty-first century, art will be able to manifest its most powerful vitality amidst the contacts, exchanges, misunderstandings, and conflicts between people and people, people and society, people and Mother Nature, people and science and technology, continents and continents, and ethnic groups and ethnic groups. What I am most interested in are these "networks of relationships." "Transexperiences," therefore, is not only following the ways of my own making, but also a concept that shares countless ties with all these networks.
Zhu: From this perspective, can "transexperiences" be also regarded as a latent consciousness, which stimulates you to enrich your life experiences to the greatest extent possible, and at the same time, enables you to make adjustments and take advantage of these experiences in a "natural" way, thus "unconsciously" establishing it as a type of "internal logic"?
Zhen: You can think that way. But "transexperiences" as a special mode of thinking and a special process of experience-accumulating is diametrically opposed to any attempt of theorizing and mechanizing it, because "transexperiences" is, in reality, a type of "state and characteristics of life."When I say that transexperiences is an artistic concept, I intend exactly to use "transexperiences" to blur the rationalization of art and the mechanization of artistic styles. As for "internal logic," two famous sayings in Chinese can illustrate clearly the point: "Ten thousand changes will not alter the essence of things," and "Stay unchanged to face off the ten thousand changes."
Zhu: According to what you said, then, can we regard "transexperiences" as a universal "life definition," applicable to everybody? If that is true, then, what is its relevance to art? What is its special connection with you as an artist with an Oriental cultural background?
Zhen: Your questions are based on contrary reasoning. This is probably because "transexperiences" itself has an intrinsic contrary inclination. Your first question touches upon the boundarylessness of art. Art is in fact relevant to everything, especially to people and their lives. Your question proves this characteristic of art from the contrary perspective, and pointed out the all-encompassing nature of "transexperiences" as a "concept of art." According to Buddhism, "All living creatures possess the sense of a Buddha." This saying points out the universally applicable law of "the possibility of anything being possible." To succeed, it depends on man. "Transexperiences" is applicable to everybody, including even prisoners. Your second question touches on the issue of individual intrinsic factors, which in its turn is an issue with "boundaries" and "particularities." The issue retraces the most primitive and most mysterious "secret codes" and "incantations" of art. In this respect, "transexperiences" does not mean the outward signs of an individual having travelled all over the world, thus being extremely experienced and knowledgeable; rather, "transexperiences" indicates a type of internal "loneliness of spirituality and the overlapping of life experiences," a type of "cultural homelessness," namely, you do not belong to anybody, yet you are in possession of everything. This type of experience itself constitutes a world of its own.
Trees Die When Moved, People Survive When Moving - The Body Moves While The Heart Remains Still
Zhu: It was not until the year of 1990 that you had your first exhibition in Paris. In other words, you did not have a single exhibition until after you left China for four years. What did you do then during these prior four years?
Zhen: I did not do any artistic creation.
Zhu: As an artist, you did not work for four years!
Zhen: What I meant was that I didn't complete any specific artistic creation, but I didn't mean that I didn't work. On the contrary, I worked very hard, day and night. It might be a period in my entire life during which I worked the most and my thoughts were most concentrated. Few people would understand this. At that time, my family did not come to Paris yet. I was alone, living an extremely simple life. I did not need much at that time. I rented a small servant room about seven square meters in size on the outskirts of Paris, "hiding in a small attic, oblivious of all four seasons."5 I lived like that for four years! Sometimes, I did not make any phone calls to anybody for a whole month, and nobody had any correspondence with me. Do you know what kind of life that was? A life in which you really felt you were a heavenly steed soaring across the skies and doing whatever you truly wanted! I had the rarest type of quietness and deep thinking in life!
Zhu: You seem to be describing a life in the paradise. But surely, in reality, things couldn't be that simple and that easy, could they? I heard that you were quite hard up at that time.
Zhen: That is a matter of balance. I once described my situation for this period to a French friend. I said, in terms of material life, I was in stark poverty, but in terms of here (pointing to the head), it was as if I was having a "treasury." Also, this is a matter of choice. If your body and heart are both above material desires, then, simplicity and loneliness can bring about a sense of leisure.
Zhu: What did you live on at that time?
Zhen: The first year, my brother saved on his scholarship to support me. That, for me, was like bringing charcoal in snowy weather--very timely help from him. I will never forget it for the rest of my life. In the ensuing years, I supported myself by sketching portraits for people on the street in the summer. I am a very good portrait-drawer. Three months of hard work could enable me to live like a king for the rest of the year. I am not a griper. Being far from China was of course not easy, but that was a time in my entire thirty years of life when I was for the first time my own "boss" and "dad." There were no seniors or juniors in the house, no personnel hierarchies, and life was in total anarchy. Except getting in trouble a few times with the police on the street, I had a life totally free from any restrictions and entanglements. I think I experienced the most satisfactory "status of an artist" at that time.
Zhu: You didn't have to be concerned with seniors and juniors, and poverty only made you tougher. But after all, what did you do?
Zhen: I was in the process of "breaking away" from my past, but at the same time, I found it difficult to break into the French society. I was therefore undergoing a period of transformation in which I had to start from learning French. At that time, two things loomed very important to me: studying western art history and the western society by way of learning the language, and re-reading Chinese culture in English and French.
Zhu: Unlike many of the Chinese avant-garde artists, you took hardly any "background bag" out from China. You started everything from scratch, and from the street. In such a situation, it is usually very difficult to take the first steps, but once started, late-comers may surpass the old-timers. Don't you think your development in recent years has proven this point?
Zhen: I am not sure if I walked faster than other people. What I do know is that it took me much longer to learn how to walk than most people. It is a good knack to be able to walk fast, but it is a much better knack to be able to walk for a long time. I used to like short distance running when I was twenty, and now I like long distance running much better, or I simply like "moving without running."
Zhu: I see you running around here and there all day long. How could you say you were not running?
Zhen: This is called "moving." Trees die when moved, people survive when moving.
Zhu: When a person moves, his heart is also moving.
Zhen: "Is the wind moving?" "Are the poles moving?" "Are the flags moving?" It is your heart that's moving (a classical allusion from Buddhism). When one is in a car, one's body is not moving and heart is not nervous, but the car is moving. This is called moving without moving. Nowadays, this type of creative method requires us to "travel ten thousand miles" on the globe and we should be able to move our body with our heart remaining still.
Zhu: You are preaching.
Zhen: No, not at all. You know, like many artists today, I spend two-thirds of my time each year traveling and working outside of my home. If you don't feel a "sense of crisis" towards this, you are in a very vulnerable state. Confronting this situation, you either refuse moving, or you turn the situation in your own favor. This is a matter of "reactive move" versus "proactive move." "Transexperiences" enables you consciously to take advantage of the moving status so that you could move without distracting your heart and that you could broaden your heart by moving.
"Short Circuit" As A Creative Method
Zhu: Let us now talk about your work. In 1995, you created Round Table in the United Nations' Building in Geneva. That work seemed to me to represent a turning point in your work. Not only did that work exhibit your usually flexible, diverse and meaningful techniques of transforming ready-made and found objects, but also in that work, you used a very simple visual language to make such ordinary things-- a table and some chairs--to assume visual characteristics which are rich in cultural, social, and even political connotations without losing one iota of cultural identify. Can you comment on that?
Zhen: As you know, one's sensitivity to an object often comes from daily observations and considerations of it. The creation of a good piece of art is by no means accidental. I used to feel very pitiful as to why, to the entire world, Chinese culture was epitomized only in Chinese restaurants! The round table of course is a major feature of the Chinese restaurant. For a long time, I had been paying considerable attention to the "round table" phenomenon.
Zhu: Did you want to "rehabilitate" the round table?
Zhen: Well, that was of course not the intention behind the creation of Round Table. At the moment, I happened to hit upon the idea of a round table, thought about its rich implications, and its potential to be transformed.
Zhu: Where did all the chairs come from? And what role did they play?
Zhen: The twenty-nine chairs were collected from five different continents in the world. But the key point about this work is neither the chairs nor the round table itself. Rather, it is the "guanxi" (relationships) between the table and the chairs. The crux of the problem lies in how to arrange all the chairs and the table in a "normal manner," but to create a kind of "abnormal relationships." When the chairs were embedded in the table top, the meanings emerged.
Zhu: This work is impregnated with rich implications. The visual language is very concise and powerful. At the same time, it gives me a sense of *"idealism": all people sitting around a round table, each on a par with another, to the satisfaction of all.
Zhen: You are an optimist. But did you realize that nobody could really sit at the table? All the chairs are locked by the table itself. Isn't the table a symbol of power here? It was very subtle to do art work in the context of the United Nations. The metaphor of the "round table" was aimed not only at the operating capabilities and the scope of power, but also at the various inequality issues in the development of the human kind. The round table has dual implications. On the one hand, it originates from the Chinese "festive meal," which implies unity, harmony, and dialogue; on the other hand, it originates from international "round table" conference, which implies discussion, negotiation, political dealing, and power constraints. Do you remember "hiding a dagger in a smile" is one of the Chinese thirty-six stratagems?6
Zhu: From the picture, the characteristics of the context of the place have reinforced the meanings of the work, thus giving the work a spiritual power.
Zhen: It is not the context that has elevated the work; rather, the conception of the work itself was in the first place based on the consideration of the context of the place. One of my consistent creative methods is to dialogue with the "inside/invisible context of the place." I have such experiences: whenever I propose a project--I mean a big installation project--in a place that I've never been, there are bound to be problems, big or small. Sometimes, I could really run into huge problems, even including the lack of inspiration. Another problem I may have is the irrelevance between the site and the work.
Zhu: You once said that when you were doing your project, you didn't need any studio. Then, isn't it fair to say that your heavy reliance on the site is in fact using the site as a kind of studio?
Zhen: To many artists, it is fair to say that. But to me, it is not. What I mean by leaving your studio is going to the real world, plunging deep into the inner layers of life. A site is not simply a space to work in, but it is a type of life. If the site is the contextual factors for the work, then what are the contextual factors of the site? We should look into this question.
Zhu: The contextual factors of the site?
Zhen: Yes! All the invisible things. For example, the history of the site, the background of the city where the site is located: its geographical, social, cultural, and ethnic context, etc. The theme of the exhibition and the intention of the curator are often part of the "contextual factors" also. Any major historical events and any particular events at the site of the exhibition would also be "contextual factors." Sometimes, even conditions of natural elements and the difference of seasons can also be considered as contextual elements. The characteristics of the climate and temperature, and rainy seasons or droughts can all be regarded as contextual factors. The work I created in Finland in 1994, 37( C--The Human Body's Temperature, is a good example of this kind. For contexts, we should be able to create something out of nothing, and to find pretexts for them.
Zhu: But in final analysis, paying attention to the context itself is a western influence. Don't you think it is in fact a constraint to you?
Zhen: If you look at things only through the yardstick of western art history, or speak of things only in a tone consistent with the thinking that "contemporary art was invented by the westerners," then, not only are you going to lose what you will have, but what you already have will also disappear. How do Chinese build their houses? The orientation of the roof beam, the positioning of doors and windows, the width of the eaves, the arrangements of furniture inside the house, and the positioning of the beds--all of these have to do with the surrounding environment.
Zhu: Now you are talking about Chinese Feng Sui.
Zhen: This is also the context! It is completely a matter of consciousness. When the heart is through, there is no barrier. The Chinese are a people who attach the most importance to the context. From time immemorial, the highest thinking mode and operating secret, in science or in art, are none other than the method of "attacking by the flanks" or "preaching Buddhism in a roundabout way." The Chinese folk medicine emphasizes "curing diseases in the upper body by treating the lower body" (curing a headache by applying acupunctural needles to the "gushing fountain acupoint" at the bottom of the foot; long-term sickness and difficulty in breathing can be cured by the method of reinforcing the kidneys and taking in air). All these practices are treating diseases in the context of the entire body. In the sphere surrounding an object, there are many oftentimes invisible objects and elements. In today's creation, not only should we consider the problem of expanding the concept of artistic works, but also develop the cognition of the scope and implications of the context.
Zhu: You seem to have some unique insights into the knowledge and experiences of the context. Then, let me ask, what are the exact relationship between the work and its context? In other words, in the particular relationship with its context, what should the creation process be?
Zhen: Once a friend of mine asked me, what was it like when I reach the most exciting moment and status in my creative process? I said, it was like the "short circuit" phenomenon in electricity. Two opposite electrodes meet: irrelevant, yet from the same electrical circuit. What I am really interested in is the "shocking" and "destructive" power triggered by a "short circuit." That is creation. That is the most stimulating moment. To give you a more direct answer, every time an artist runs across different contextual factors, he will feel--in varying degrees, scopes, and measures of power--conflicts, dialogues, and a "call from time and space" or a transformation of each other. In short, he will experience the "short circuit" phenomenon.
Zhu: Your experiences clash with the "site experiences," causing osmosis and transformation into each other. That is "transexperiences." But do you think the life of the artistic works themselves is thus being limited? Do the works still enjoy their independence? What do you do with them after the exhibition?
Zhen: The "short circuit" phenomenon in the creative process indicates the conception of the work, and the triggering of the thinking process. The moment of its occurrence is very much like the conditions and moments of a "new baby bursting out from the womb." Dialoguing with the "inside/invisible context of the place" reflects the true concept and will of leaving the studio. This practice breaks away from the artist's tradition of monotonous thinking and closed-door studios by relying on occasional, temporary, uncertain, topsy-turvy, jumpy, and mixed experiences. This new method is concerned with how to disintegrate the mechanic nature of an artist doing creative work by himself. As for what to do with the work after exhibitions, that is the issue of "reinterpretation." For example, if you want to re-exhibit a work already exhibited elsewhere, you have to investigate the new set of the various contextual factors. I am now, however, also considering the issue of "inter-contextualization between or among the works." In other words, if you put together two or more works which have been created in different contexts, one work can "create a context" for another or vice versa. For example, if we put together Fu Dao / Fu Dao -- Upside-down Buddha/Arrival at good fortune from Japan's CCA (Center for Contemporary Art, Kitakyushu), Prayer Wheel--Money Makes the Mare Go from New York's P.S.1., and even Game Table from Shanghai, the three works will immediately incur a strong sense of "inter-contextualization," because, even though they were created in different settings, their inquiries into the problems of culture, economy, spiritual and material clashes, the globalization of the capital system, and the contextual conflicts of different cultures are of the same lineage. Take another example. If we put together in an exhibition Round Table, Game Table, and Under the Table --which I am going to create--the first was created in the context of the United Nations with the theme of "politics and the human kind," the second was born against the background of explosive economic growth in Shanghai with the consideration of "money and people," and the third will be a work that questions the relationships between "society and people" in the context of strong social conflicts, these three "tables" are bound to empathize strongly with each other. That would be an exhibition of "inter-contextualization among the works."
Zhu: What you just discussed sounded very interesting. It should be a new way of thinking in putting on "personal exhibitions." In this method, works are reorganized not only by their contents, but also by their formats. Wouldn't that represent a type of "transexperiences" between or among the works? What I am concerned with, however, is that if we put too much emphasis on contexts, wouldn't we impose too many conditions unnecessarily on artistic creation? Wouldn't your intention to develop ways of thinking and expand the contextual capacities almost limit you to the premises of being invited to "dialogue with the context" mechanically?
Zhen: Why do you think so? What is the context after all? Daily Incantations is the result of my first home visit to Shanghai after eight years of overseas life. Nobody gave me an invitation to exhibit at the time. Only, I saw once again those lovely Shanghai women cleaning nightstools by the street side in early mornings, and they did this in the shadow of the Shanghai Hilton Hotel! That was very similar in nature to the "daily readings of the Red Book" during the Cultural Revolution:7 an apathetically mechanic "daily repetitions." What makes this situation so intriguing is that this daily repetition is intertwined closely with "modernization." I hit upon the inspiration for Daily Incantations naturally, its conception and even its title. It was not subjected to any limitations. One should not assume rain whenever there is a little breeze. An artist can sometimes put on an exhibition in his own mind. "Dreams" are another type of "context." The encounter between an artist and a context can take place almost at any time and in any place. Of course, no matter where and when, whether the artist has inspiration or not is totally a different matter. In short, I don't impose, and am not subjected to, any limitations.
The Cultural Bank of Genes: Revitalizing the Past and Enlivening the Present
Zhu: Talking about "Daily Incantations," I'd like to talk about nightstools. How do the Chinese artists from your generation view the issue of making use of Chinese cultural symbols, especially those of you residing overseas, who are dealing with westerners all day long? I have a feeling that you are all walking the tightrope, and are playing with fire.
Zhen: Don't you think walking the tightrope and playing with fire are also a form of art? Of course, I know, it is your turn now to talk about the context.
Zhu: One lives in a context, and walks in front of other people.
Zhen: But one also lives in one's own world.
Zhu: Is your world China or the West?
Zhen: Somewhere in between.
Zhu: What I am asking is, what do you think of playing the Chinese card?
Zhen: I do not play the Chinese card. Nor do I play the western card. I especially do not like to be foolishly played as a card by others. The saying "playing whatever cards at whatever place you are" is in fact fixing your own context. Say, you will be in Europe in January, Asia in February, and America in May. If you are doing artistic creation while being on such constant move, what type of cards should you play? After all, you should play your own cards, the cards you have by yourself. The creative method of the "short circuit" I was talking about is one of my own cards.
Zhu: What are your relationships with the outside world and with other people while you are on the move?
Zhen: You have me in you, and I have you in me.
Zhu: You mix yourself with others without talking about any distinction?
Zhen: My attitude towards the world, and my artistic thinking and working procedures are all different from those of others. They are all built upon the concept of distancing. The Chinese saying "A long spell of separation leads to reunion, and a long spell of reunion leads to separation" is no other than a principle of dealing with the world and its people. Let me reiterate it here: this is called "the self-sought loneliness of opening-up and moving-about."
Zhu: You still fail to mention the issue of Chinese cultural symbols.
Zhen: There is no forbidden zone here, just as the Eight Immortals in the Chinese legend cross the sea, each one shows his or her special talent. I could only offer my opinions here. First of all, I have two principles on this issue: one is "jie gu feng jin" or "using the past to satirize the present." Of course, we should not rely on anything from the past that is not relevant to the current society, politics, economy, and culture. My second principle is "jie huo gu," or relying on the "living past," but not worshipping the "dead past." In other words, using things from life, rather than purely from books. This is the reason and incentive that have motivated me to return many times in recent years to work in China and other Asian countries. This has been evidenced by a series of my works, such as Round Table, Daily Incantations, Game Table, Fu Dao/Fu Dao--Upside-down Buddha/Arrival at good fortune, and Prayer Wheel--Money Makes the Mare Go. Although these works were created in different contexts in Asia, Europe, or North America, the principle remains same: "Revitalizing the past and enlivening the present." You mentioned the nightstool. What is interesting to me about it is that it is, first of all, not art. It is an ordinary object for daily use. The Chinese have a double concept about the nightstool: the first is that most people view it as an ugly thing. The second is that those who believe in superstition think that the nightstool is the "son and grandson stool." It helps to propagate and reproduce, and to carry the generations onward. The intrinsic duality of this object is very close to the inner quality of contemporary art. The white calcium sediment on the inside wall of the nightstool is even a preciously rare Chinese medicine, called "philtrium white," used to dispel heat and alleviate fever. It is this kind of things with a dual nature that I like very much. Furthermore, in line with the western urban policies, nightstools are a thing to be discarded, a thing that is becoming extinct. Therefore, it has a close relationship with such concepts as "the West," "modernization," and "supplanting the old with the new." The abacus in Money Makes the Mare Go can be viewed as a similar thing. Both of these things bear a satirical meaning on the modern man and are thus worth "jie-ing."8
Zhu: You used the word "jie" very subtly. In other words, things that are "jie-ed" are ready. They are Chinese cultural symbols as a type of "ready-made."
Zhen: Are you trying to use the concept of "ready-made" to define the traditional Chinese culture? Aren't you afraid of imposing westernization upon the traditional Chinese culture on top of the already very westernized contemporary Chinese society (starting from the major metropolises)? In fact, at the same time of "jie-ing the past" (relying on the past), it is also very important to "disparage the past." The idea is not to transplant the images directly or move across time and space directly. Chinese cultural symbols are not "ready" at all, unless you are talking about calligraphy. Please don't forget, the whole generation of ours used to cherish a strong rebellious spirit against our own traditional culture. How could we become antique-lovers just because we need to use the traditional culture as a tactic while working in the western context?
Zhu: What do you call it then?
Zhen: I think it is a good idea to call it the "bank of genes." The Chinese culture as a "bank of genes" has been in "hibernation" for at least five hundred years. Now it is waking up.
Zhu: "Bank of genes"?
Zhen: Yes. What we are talking about is a matter of genes. Genes have two fundamental characteristics: the internal power of heredity and the external conditioning factors. Both of these two elements are prerequisites for genes to generate life.
Zhu: In that case, you couldn't help using Chinese cultural symbols, because of heredity.
Zhen: You were half correct in saying so. A person like me who left China at thirty cannot change the genes, even if I change my blood many times. Yellow race will be yellow race. But I could help myself if I want to. Of course, sometimes, I will be unintentionally influenced by my own genes. I just thought about one person, the Japanese artist, On Kawara. No matter how he thinks about his "date paintings," and no matter how westerners view his works, to me, two maxims about time in Buddhism must have exerted the gene effect on him to a certain extent: "It is impossible in life to expect one day to be better than another day" and "The meaning of life lies in the fact that one day is sure to be followed by another day."
Zhu: I have a hunch that the gene's internal and external elements share the same source with the concept of the "short circuit" you discussed earlier.
Zhen: They are two parallel lines of Yin and Yang9 in apposition to each other. You know, hybridization and grafting can be done only on the basis of genes. Grafting and hybridization are the copulation of two different types of genes to produce life, while piecing together is to glue one skin onto another to change appearances. Therefore, the proper use of Chinese culture should come from within, instead of from outside.
Zhu: If we say that your thirty years of life in China gave you your basic genes, haven't the ten years of life in the West also produced some gene factors in you? In my opinion, you have two types of genes in your body.
Zhen: No matter what the respective proportions of the two are, what you said was true. Nevertheless, I always feel that the mother tongue determines a person's "identity gene."
Zhu: In my opinion, if a good work of hybridization is to be created, first of all, the artist himself has to become a true "person of gene-hybridization." It won't work to fake your gene structure.
Zhen: Excellent! You hit the mark on the crux of the matter. This is a poignant criticism on any superficial cultural piecing work.
Metaphorical Conceptual Method
Zhu: I have another question on this matter. How do you distinguish the intrinsic *dissimilarities* of the two sides to be hybridized? For example, you would not admit, simplistically, that you are a conceptual artist, but in addition to what you said about issues on creative methods and conditions such as the concepts of the "short circuit" and the "context," what is your mode of thinking? Compared with that of western artists, what are its characteristics?
Zhen: We Chinese are used to talking in a roundabout way. That has brought about some negative impressions on other people. The French subsume everything incomprehensible as "Chinese." (C'est du chinois.) I take it as a great compliment. It means that the Chinese don't look at issues directly, and don't state things directly. This point alone demonstrates the fundamental differences of us Chinese from other people. Innuendoes, hints, allusions, metaphors, pretexts, circumscription, paradoxes, upside-downs, interlocking, euphemisms, predictions, fallacies, opposites, ambiguities, and even classic quotations and references to authorities, etc.--all these demonstrate the extreme charm and power of the Chinese language and culture. In my opinion, all these can be summarized as the "metaphorical conceptual method."
Zhu: You just spoke half in Chinese and half in a western language.
Zhen: This has become a natural state of mine, a second nature.
Zhu: Does this thinking mode work in the western context?
Zhen: I have survived ten years with this thinking mode. Furthermore, in addition to being a thinking mode, for a "foreigner" like me to survive better, it is a conversational mode and a "cultural strategy," namely, the use of ambiguous and indirect language to achieve critical effects that are more effective and more in-depth than "frontal clashes." Therefore, I started doing installation art from 1990. The whole process--from conception to titles, materials, the choice of objects, and to the completion of the work and all--relies heavily on this metaphorical method. Besides, the key to metaphors is to "jie" (borrow).10 You can "jie" freely from here and there, and from the East or the West.
Zhu: I remember, at the beginning of 1992, you exhibited a work in MAGASIN (Centre Nationale d'Art Contemporain de Grenoble, France) with the title: Return the Incarnation in a Borrowed Corpse.
Zhen: About the word "jie"(borrow), there are many Chinese sayings: "presenting the Buddha with borrowed flowers," "murdering with a borrowed knife," "borrowing the subject to exaggerate matters," "relying on the water to make the boat go," "relying on the sail to arouse the wind," etc. I think the word "jie" here is a conceptual method that is very Chinese. The Chinese ancients call it "resourcefulness." The westerners'concepts are mainly in the "mind-thinking" arena, while the Chinese "resourcefulness" lies in the area of "heart-scheming." Using the mind is very different from using the heart. This is well worth looking into. Of course, behind the word "jie," there lies something that is more of conceptual hybridization and conceptual power impurity than of conceptual purity. In order to "jie"(borrow) freely and methodically, you must have rich "transexperiences." Life is a big bank. At the same time, the Chinese "jie" (borrow), in my opinion, implies an extremely powerful and confident "digestive power." No matter whether you borrow from the outsiders or the insiders, you always come out to be "yellow." Therefore, we today are not afraid of "borrowing" from either the Chinese past or the modern West. "Borrowing" can "disrupt the law" and achieve an "illogical concept" or a "haphazard logic."
Zhu: Aren't you afraid of misunderstanding?
Zhen: Recently, I had a conversation with an American art critic. The title of our conversation was called I Am Trying to Create Misunderstanding. Misunderstanding is a most tantalizing state of communication. It is an effective "medium" through which cross-cultural exchanges and the very co-existence of the various cultures are made possible.
Zhu: Earlier this year, you created Round Table--side by side for Lyon Biennial in France which had "Others" as its theme. On the spinning table-top, you carved a line which reads "Eternal Misunderstanding." It resembles the "short-hand" of a clock, making its eternal rounds between the European and the Asian continents. Was that your attempt to eternalize misunderstanding?
Zhen: I do not have the first claim on that idea. In 1993, on a flight to South Korea, Pontus Hulten asked me to sit beside him. We talked extensively about Asia and China, and about East-West cultural exchanges. As the plane was about to make its landing, I said to him, "You've devoted many years to the opening-up of the concept of art and East-West cultural exchanges. What is your personal experience in dealing with the Asian people?" "Eternal misunderstanding," he answered, in such surprising words, but somewhat pitifully. At that very moment, I thought to myself that, some day, I would create a project to extol eternal misunderstanding. So this time, as a first step to sing praises to eternal misunderstanding, I carved his words as a "found text" in this work. Of course, adding these words to Round Table--side by side is also trying to set up a dialogue, in my own way, with the inner sense of the show.
Zhu: According to your idea, then, the consequence of multiculturalism could be just "misunderstanding"?
Zhen: Misunderstanding is predicated on meeting each other. It occurs only when you are trying to know and to understand the other party. Things obvious and superficial will not cause misunderstanding, which takes place only in certain deep layers of communication. Most people engaging in multicultural research seek understanding from, and of, others. But how could you study others by shutting yourself up? Therefore, we should be constantly on the move in order to study, seek, and create misunderstanding. Today, one of the major merits of art is to stimulate the true desire to study "Others" and "other cultures" by creating misunderstanding. In fact, "other cultures" can neither be invited over nor be bought over. What can be bought is only dried fish. Live fish can only be watched and appreciated in the water.
Zhu: Are the concepts of understanding and misunderstanding so diametrically opposed to each other?
Zhen: As far as art is concerned, understanding is non-existent. It would be an enormous epiphany if only one realizes where the misunderstanding occurred. Art history is a "history of images." Behind all the images are "lack of understanding" and misunderstanding. That's what we call art.
Zhu: What you are saying seems to border on superstition.
Zhen: Art is a kind of superstition. From certain perspective, science is also superstition. As long as there are "things inexplicable," and as long as there are attempts at explaining the inexplicable, there will be superstition. Misunderstanding is of course also a type of superstition. The desire behind understanding bears certain linkage to misunderstanding, but understanding itself and misunderstanding are incompatible.
One Move Per Decade
Zhu: Recent few years have witnessed a lot of your activities in Asia and North America. You seem to begin making your major moves. It's obvious that your train of creative thought is quite active.
Zhen: Strangely speaking, in my life experiences, every decade marks a new milestone. A decade of the Cultural Revolution, a decade of China's opening-up, and a decade of life in the West. Either I was pushed by others to move, or I myself wanted to move. Now that I am on the threshold of a new decade, a new move is only natural.
Zhu: When did you visit the United States for the first time? Was it for an exhibition?
Zhen: That was in 1993. The purpose of that visit was to gain life experiences in preparation for an exhibition to be held the following year in The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City.
Zhu: Your work Field of Waste possesses a straight-forward, yet enigmatic "field" quality. It is said that you were working in a Chinese sewing workshop in New York, sewing the "rugs," made of Chinese flags, American flags, and various clothes, and burning newspapers in Harlem.
Zhen: That experience symbolized a turning point in my life. For the first time, I came to realize that, in the United States, the concept of multiculturalism did not only belong to museums; rather, the concept was, first of all, formulated through the plural races in life and in the various inter-racial conflicts. The first thought that occurred to me at the moment was that I needed to work together with the people there to carry out my work. As a result, one half of the work Field of Waste grew out of collaboration with the workers in the Chinese sewing workshop, and the other half was accomplished through collaboration with two friends in the process of burning newspapers in Harlem. During that period, I got to know Nari Ward, a Jamaican-American artist. He was highly instrumental to the completion of my project. Through our friendship, I truly realize that, in the United States, "colored people hold half of the sky."
Zhu: But as I hear, there exist serious conflicts between Europe and the United States. Those who have resided in Europe for a considerable time often cherish an "anti-American" sentiment to varying degrees. So, Beuys' action ( I like America and America likes me) that year was not purely accidental.
Zhen: Don't you know what kind of education I received in China during my first thirty years of life?! The Eight-Power Allied Forces burned down Yuanming Garden in Beijing, and the Qing Dynasty Government ceded Hong Kong to the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, I have still resided in Paris, Europe for the last ten years. How could I follow the Europeans' every move just because I heard a few words from them? Beuys' action is that of a European white person, representing the "sequela" of power and history. Why should we share that burden that did not belong to us in the first place? Even Mao Tse-Tung said, upon the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China, that the peoples of China and the United States were friends with each other. That is also in line with the spirit of Buddhism. What I am interested in about the United States are its people and its societal tension, contradictions, and clashing power, against which artistic creations can be conceived. If one really wants to keep the United States at arm's length, one still has to study her and experience her at close quarters, just as you want to forever keep a certain distance from what you like the most, such as your motherland and your native culture. At the same time, such experience could add *another continent* in your heart. Once separated from the "ecological environment of one's mother-tongue," one could even turn his "linguistic constraints" into a type of freedom. The purpose of my coming out of China is not to circumscribe myself within another country or region; rather, I left China to embrace the entire world.