iNTERVIEW WITH ULI SIGG
US: You were educated in China, but you have been living in Europe for many years. Yet, the content of your paintings remains distinctly Chinese. Living abroad sharpens the perception of one’s own culture; it does this by way of raising our awareness of the differences and making clear what our values are and where they come from. This process may then trigger various anecdotal memories, or it may evoke all kinds of value judgments – from nostalgic consent to outright rejection of one’s native culture. What is your view on Chinese culture and society today and how do you see it reflected in your painting??
TL: I arrived in Paris in 1996 and have lived here since then. From 1997 to 2002 I spent six years at the Ecole des Beaux-arts in Paris studying occidental contemporay art and theory. During all these years I have kept in close contact with my home country by returning to China every year for about two months. The geographical distance and the journeys have allowed me to see and to compare these two very different cultures with a certain distance and clarity. When we are inside or at the foot of a mountain, we can never grasp it in its full dimension. We have to go far away from this mountain to see it properly, and the same goes for culture. I get the feeling that the more I stay abroad, the better I can understand and analyse Chinese culture, China’s past, its social problems and issues. This would suggest that separation can even accentuate one’s cultural origin.
Living in France now, I continue to question my own indentity. Sometimes I feel confused about moving between two cultures, so in order to analyse my origin, I feel compelled to go back to my childhood in China. I have several black and white photos from my family album which give me a great deal of inspiration, yet by now the past has become blurred. I remember that I was often alone, feeling isolated. I had no brothers or sisters as a consequence of the one-child policy that has ruled China since the late seventies. Before 1979 (the beginning of the economic reform) life for most Chinese families was full of economic hardship and I was brought up in a frugal environment devoid of toys. This has inspired my most recent series of work, where I have invented and depicted a fictitious brother and all the toys that I never had. I have created this fantasy world where I can relive my childhood. I use my painting as a means to reinvent the childhood that I never had.
I use a Western form of interpretation to tell my story – the selfportrait is only a medium. If I tend to choose a Chinese image and not an occidental image in my painting, it is because I can draw on so many more personal emotions to tell my story. My narratives are also a reflection of Chinese society today. The one-child policy is still enforced suggesting that the demographics in China will radically change as a result of this policy. Through my painting I try to analyse the social consequences thereof.
The reflection on Chinese culture is central to my work: in an earlier series, the “Nature Morte” series I attempted to re-interpert classical Chinese painting and contextualize it within the commercial world of today. In my series of “One Hundred Children” (Beizitou) and the series “Me and my Brother” I refer to a common traditional Chinese motif where the representation of a large group of children symbolizes prosperity and good fortune. Ancient Chinese paintings are of great interest to me and I find myself constantly rereading traditional paintings and images, analysing particularly how they represent people and society in a certain period. Using this classical painting style as a base, I began my work, incorporating a view of today and talking about current issues.
US: It is precisely your “outside” or distanced vantage point of this huge mountain I am interested in, your re-reading of figurative representations in traditional paintings of the Chinese past. How would you describe this representation of the human figure against a background of Western painting tradition and how has it impacted your own paintings?
TL: First of all, for a Western viewer, I do hope that my paintings are not overtly self-explanatory. They should not be understood too easily and effortlessly, and maybe retain a certain uncertainty or ambiguity to the very end. Ideally each painting contains a mysterious element; and this mysterious element constitutes the part of an art work I am most interested in. The viewer has to enter inside the realm of the work and through the process, will learn from it. I appreciate this complexity and the process of discovery. In fact the superposition and the mixing of so many layers of different cultures is highly complex, but it is precisely this cultural diversity that intrigues me. In recent years I have chosen oil painting as the medium and not the traditional technique of ink on paper that I have used for a long time before painting with oils. The subject matter, however, is very different from what can be found in traditional Chinese painting. I mix and highlight the contrast of the two cultures. I often take old Chinese motifs and re-intepret them; for example in the “Blue” series by using the color blue – which for the Chinese symbolises capitalism – replacing the shades of black and white used in traditional Chinese ink painting for still lives or landscapes. Many other elements of reinterpratation can be discovered only after a careful examination of the painting, e.g. the flowers which are morphed into sexual organs or the colorful children’s toys hidden between the stems of the flowers. Similarly for the recent children’s series, the old black and white photographs become full of colour, and when observing the details of the painting, we can again find small colorful toys or an inscription of current media texts across the portrait. This illustrates how Chinese culture is changed little by little by Western consumerism, often in very indistinct ways.
US: I can understand that your main interest lies in layering, superimposing, fusing and recombining these two cultures which you move in and out of physically as well as mentally. Forgive my insistence, but please tell us more about how the human figure has been represented in Chinese traditional painting. This will expand our understanding of the complexity in painting in general and it will allow us to better access your own thoughts – and painting process – be it through its resemblence to traditional painting or its distancing from it.
TL: In traditional Chinese painting, I can feel the Taoist spirit, the relation between the void and the real, the ying and yang, the less and the more, the small self, ourselves, and the big self, the universe, and so on. The Book of Change says: “Above the form is Tao, beneath the form is emptiness”. The figures in the painting are therefore just one component of a bigger whole, a component which is far less important as such than the essence and the ambiance created by the work in its entirety. The spirit of Tao is inside each touch of the brush, even “the black of ink has five colours” – because of its many subtle nuances. To use only different shades of gray to represent the whole universe is very natural in Chinese tradition. Another important aspect is the concept of ‘Wu Chang’ which in Chinese philosophy states that things are in a constant state of movement, mutation and flux, that nothing is constant. We have two options: either we stay immobile while facing all this movement and flux around us, immobile in clinging to a specific style so that this style becomes a means for the artist to protect himself against this continuous flux; or we have to fullheartedly embrace these mutations and cycles, reject the notion of the “self”, reject a single style, and continuously make a fresh start to see the world around us. “No style is the best style”, – I think that this is an interesting position to take today against an art world based on the label of the style. In Buddhism, the obsession with the self is something we should reject as it prevents us from understanding the essence of the world. As a consequence I conciously change styles from time to time, or I may even apply several styles at the same time. For me the two most important aspects of art are feeling and experience. By now I even find the notion of concept in painting strange and passé. In my view it should be replaced by feeling and experience. I have only five photos from my childhood. I have used the same photograph as starting points for several of my paintings in my recent series “Me and my Brother”, still every portrait looks quite different, because the portrait itself is just a pretext, in fact I always paint my actual feelings, my hypothesis and imagination of my fictitious childhood. As I can not recreate the past, painting has become a kind of psychotherapy for me to interpret my experience.
Another facet of traditional painting is the use of text. Text is a very important element in traditional painting as we can very often find a poem in a corner of a classical painting. It is not a direct commentary or an interpretation of this painting, but may rather be something conplementary to the depicted motif or revealing another layer of understanding to this work. I use text frequently in my work. All of the texts used have been borrowed from the mass media, from newspapers or the Internet. The actual source isn’t important and the text excerpts are often incoherent, irrelevant and appear to be floating in the air. Words and sentences are written across faces or clothes, thereby underlining my feelings about the constant and all-permeating use of text in today’s world: we are victimised by the media, without a real right to choose what we want to read or hear.
US: You just mentioned that you think that working a fixed style is an undue limitation for an artist, that “no style is the best style” and that there are “different ways to paint”. In earlier interviews you mentioned that you have no specific plan when you start a painting. Can you explain why you make the unpredicted your method?
TL : With painting, every instant is unpredictable. You never know what is going to happen next, because with each brush stroke, everything changes and then at the next moment, with the next bruthstroke, everything changes again. The painting is in a constant state of development. What I paint in each moment is determined by what I have just painted a moment earlier. This process of change and metamorphosis is what I find so exciting about painting. In the process of making a painting I do not want to clearly define who I am, I am also searching for what I may become. It is the only medium that gives you this particular kind of pleasure. I want the people who see my paintings to feel the joy and pleasure that I can get from painting. It is very important for me to transmit this joy and pleasure
US: It does not sound like it – but I’ll still ask the question: Could you envisage ever using another medium to communicate what you want us to perceive, another medium than painting? For reasons such as having no fixed style, or for having said everything you want to express through painting, or from the sheer desire to experiment? Or do you feel there is still very much for you to discover by way of painting?
TL: As a matter of fact I do work with other media from time to time. These experiments, as I call them, are rather for personal experiences and experiments, to seek liberation at times and for amusement, but they are not of the same level and intensity as my work as a painter. Therefore I seldom show them. I founded a company named LC in 2003 with my partner Yichu Chen, who is an artist, too. In the name of LC Company, we did a big book featuring the products of this company: futuristic species of the year 2030. This book looks very scientific, as it refers to 2030, showing various newly invented hybridized species – the world becoming a hybrid world. At the same time I also made a lot of paintings: the “LC Species” and the “House-made” series.
Another project that I developed was selecting a daily image from television. According to the selected image, Yichu would go shopping for foodstuffs and cook. Then I composed the news image with the cooked food, and we would then eat the food arranged according to this news image before the camera. This way we used performance to allude how we digest news as we digest food everyday. This work was of great interest to the French television station CANAL+ television, so they did a special program about this work – we were interested to see how an image comes from TV and returns to TV.
US: I would like to exploit your rare experience of having gone through two art education systems, the Chinese system and then the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and how this has ultimately affected your painting. We have this assumption in the West that art education in China is too heavily based on technical skills, while in comparison the Western art schools are not demanding enough regarding the technical skills, but offer more learning on contemporary art as a school of thought. Is this correct? Where do you see the strengths and weaknesses of the respective systems? Can we read any of this in your present paintings?
TL: Before I began my studies at the Beaux-Arts de Paris (1997-2003), I practiced traditional Chinese painting for ten years in China. In 1999, when I was still a student at the Beaux-Arts, I wrote a book entitled Liberty and Order – Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Paris which was published by the People’s Fine-Arts Edition in 2000 (Beijing). The purpose of the book was to recount the experience of this school. Your assumption about the differences between the two education systems is correct even though things are beginning to change in China. Most art schools in France put their emphasis on thought and concept. But painting is based very much on technique and craftsmanship, and this is an aspect which has become neglected. I think that today we should reject any notion that concept is above craftsmanship particularly as the potential of the subconscious as a very important element for creativity is connected with the craftsmanship and the hand. Conceptual art is just one school in a different approach to art and we should find a balance between thought and technique, not exclude one for the other. Only by striving for a balance can find real liberty to properly choose our ways of expression. A good technique will make it possible to realize a project through good technical execution. The perfect technique of artists such as Gerard Richter, Bill Viola or Jeff Wall has never been an obstacle to their concept, but made their work all the more accessible, attractive and fascinating. I know that to grasp the technique particularly in painting takes so much time and energy. It would be so much more relaxing to avoid the necessary practice, but I think there is just no shortcut – even in contemporary art. It is essential to develop conceptual thinking and technique at the same time, and most importantly to never lose the pleasure in actually “making or realizing” the art work.
In China, art education is based on the technique and its training, much less on teaching the thought process or conceptual side of art. As a result, most works end up looking alike, lacking creativity and diversity. And in the West, due to this emphasis on concept and idea, resulting in a gap in technical skills – even to be noticed in multi-media – the students talk a lot, but realize few works. The consequence of this is that without sufficient training, most of them, after long years of study at the Beaux-Arts, have to choose another profession than being an artist. The best model of an art school for me consists of two parts: one part is exclusively composed of forums, conferences, discussions, all informal and liberal as in a café, with artists from outside being invited every day for interaction with the students. In the utilitarian society of today, this experience becomes more precious than ever. The second part is a training center for technical skills, allowing most graduates to make a living practising their art.
I was very lucky to study six years at the Beaux-Arts de Paris. I think that it is the only art school in France where painting is still highly regarded. It encourages the students to experiment with different media and styles. Diversity is the keyword in this school. Not only did I paint in the painting studio of Vladimir Velickovic, I also often visited the studios of Christian Boltanski, Richard Deacon, Giuseppe Penone and Fabrice Hybert. They gave me many ideas and encouraged me to diversify my painting style. The intellectual curiosity derived from this experience helped me enormously with my own studies. My “Blue” series, the “House-made”, the “Portraits of Deformation”, the “Hair” series and the black and white portraits all germinated during my studies at the Beaux-Arts. I continue to draw on this period, further developing these themes.