“China is still waiting for a new form of critique, one that does not use the format for realism. I believe that is how Chinese contemporary art can liberate itself.”
Born in Sichuan province, Wang Jiangwei has been a forerunner in the Chinese contemporary art scene. He has just recently put on his first solo exhibition in North America, Time Temple at the Guggenheim Museum in the New York City.
I had the opportunity to visit his studio in the outskirt of Beijing last weekend for a Q&A interview. He is currently very busy with work but he kindly gave me the opportunity to ask him many questions that I had from reading about his works and seeing his works in the museums and online videos.
Q: How would you describe art?
The shortest and the most direct answer is that art is exploring something that one doesn’t already know. This would be the easiest way to put it, but the long answer would be much more complicated. The idea of art is easy, but what springs forth from it, actually, is very, very complicated- and we can spend decades trying to sort it out.
Q: Speaking of “complicated”- When I read some articles about you online, I noticed that many critics say that your art is too complicated and hard to understand, that you are overcomplicating some fundamentally simple ideas. What do you think about this?
I reflect through my works the reality of the world. Can you imagine if there is only one kind of “easy” in this world? In other words, I can’t imagine that in this world there is one standard kind of “easy” or one kind of “complicated.” So, by making those “complicated” pieces, I am reflecting on the reality of the world in which we live. I use complexity as a way to protest against the one standard of “easy” that exists. I think this is the basic responsibility of contemporary art- to protest against uniformity.
Q: In the video for your show, Time Temple, at the Guggenheim, you stated that you hope that the audience sees each artwork as parts of a whole rather than individual works. Why?
I think of the exhibition itself as a single artwork. For example, I see you, and if I were going to introduce you to my friend, I will introduce you by your name. I wouldn’t introduce you by talking about your black jacket, or your jeans. It’s the same for my work. In my exhibition, people seeing my painting would sometimes ask, “what is this stripe for?” or “what does this [single element on the painting] do?” but in reality, [the elements] exist as a whole, as a single painting.
I believe artists exist not to react to things that already exist, things that are already there. For me, art itself is the subject. Art is never meant to be a reaction against something- this “something” can be understood as what’s happening socially, politically, or a mode of expression of beauty. But Art exists for itself, so it doesn't need to be supplemented by other ideas. To elaborate on this, the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, who wrote about the works Francis Bacon, stated that, “the work of art is a being of sensation and nothing else; it exists in itself.” In 2007, I named my first painting, 《表面的肖像》, which directly translates into the “portrait of the surface.” And the idea for that work came from Deleuze’s quote.
Q: It sounds like your perspective is similar to that of Greenberg, the American critic who pushed forward the idea of “Art for art’s sake.”
Yes, but I would take this idea further and say that art itself shouldn’t even be a mode. (seeing me confused) This is a complex topic.
Q: Hopefully, after I formally study art and art history, I will be able to grasp this idea better!
Q: In school, you specialized in painting but after you graduated from school you began to explore with a lot more different kinds of media. Why did you start working with different media?
When I was in school, I didn’t know there was anything else [in art] other than the traditional media like painting. Today, we know that art could be created from a wide variety of media, but back then, there was only painting. So all your explorations and expressions needed to be done through painting. So firstly, it was because there was no choice but to stick to painting in school. The Chinese philosophy is that one should be very knowledgeable and specialized in one subject in order to become successful, but I didn’t want to be sitting in one chair like that after graduating.
Secondly, you saw that I was changed by new types of media but in reality, I was changed by knowledge of science and philosophy. Before [in school], I was looking at art through the lens of art history, but when I began to see art through the lens of science and philosophy, I saw something new. With philosophy and science, we learn things about nature that changes the way we look at the world. I think art should be doing the same thing. So for me, philosophy, science, politics, and art are centered on the same idea and are all the same. They are all ways of thinking. I’ve never defined myself as a painter, sculptor, or an installation artist. For me, philosophy, politics, science, video, theater, and photography are all the same, in that they are all simply materials.
Also, I have never felt that I should be restricted by a medium. For example, the subjects of many of my paintings are coming from my videos, and you can also see how I create my video pieces are very much similar to how I direct theater pieces. In my installation works, I have adopted this idea of “rehearsal,” which comes from my theater pieces. And what “rehearsal” is, is this continuous beginning. Rehearsal is something you start one day, that erases and replaces what you did the last time, in order to create something new tomorrow. In doing so, you will not necessarily create something better, but you still have to do anyways. So you can see that my ideas are not limited to what type of material I use to create.
(Continued to part 2)