Huang Zhiyang Interview
◎ By Craig Yee and Britta Erickson
Artist's studio, Beijing, China, September 15, 2013
Translation: Maya Kóvskaya
CY: My initial understanding of your creative process is that you don't necessarily have an image in mind when you start. Instead, you start with a system, a process, a way or method of creating.
HZY: All of my works comprise a system. I want to penetrate into the life process, to construct, discover, and reconstruct the so-called language system of painting or art. And why do I want to construct this system? Personally, I like to paint, so I had to find the most appropriate expressive methods for me. In 1985, in my sophomore year of college, I set in place the direction of my life's work. Bit by bit I began to accumulate the marks and symbols for my paintings. In the process of exploration that I began, searching for what could be called my own "space", pictures took form and found completion in correspondence to the conditions of the outside world, of society, and of the environment.
CY: You refer to the terms "Mark", "Symbol", "Space", "Language". It is important for me to know the meaning behind each of these terms.
HZY: From the hieroglyphics of Ancient Egypt to the Chinese practice of record keeping using knotted string and oracle bone inscriptions, all of these communications are simply messages - exchanges between persons, or resonances between the heavens and earth, ghosts and spirits. They take the form of marks, and through these marks one can comprehend the message transmitted by their producers. From the beginning of human civilization, these most primitive behaviors were the starting point for the life's work of an artist. My earliest works from my student days were an exercise in this. From the natural world, such as flowers, birds, plants, insects, the sun and the moon, morning and evening, shadow and light rays, leaves of trees, etc., all kinds of states are expressed. In this primeval, unformed and chaotic state, the methods and techniques required for expression precede the pedagogical systems of both Chinese and Western paintings. In my creative process, I initially rejected these. I started studying Western painting in primary school, and in high school I graduated as number three in my class for oil painting. From the time I was nine or ten years old through college, I began to grasp the basic outlines of Western aesthetics and determine what I wanted to do in this lifetime. I returned to underlying principles, going back to my most primary state, to explore the language and techniques I needed and the ideas and spiritual state I wanted in order to articulate through this language a common affinity with and correspondence to society.
HZY: According to Western semiotics, a symbol is a conventionally established piece of information that everyone can distinguish through a process of symbolization. I attempt to construct my own symbolic code. In the tribes of primitive peoples, the earliest artists [creators of symbols] were wushi 巫师 "shamans" [intermediaries between heaven, earth and man]. From mark to symbol is a long and complicated process of taking a marginal meaning [and rendering it recognizable]. It's a process of [what one might call] jifeichengshi 积非成是 "getting used to something that is originally seen as wrong until it becomes so common that it comes to be seen as right". Through a process of constantly being drilled and practiced, sending the message out there again and again, the mark that was not recognized [at first] becomes familiar to people, until finally it forms [part of] a symbolic system. Up to the present I have been gradually developing my own special, personal [system of] marks [to that end].
CY: By agreement, then, we collectively assign a meaning to a symbol. Would you say that a symbol, then, is a kind of mark?
HZY: I'll use the process of the symbolization in Western semiotics to explain my work. I draw a simple scribble that no one recognizes, but through constant transmission people come to accept it. Through constant drills and practiced repetitions of my own forms, language and marks, a personal code is formed. Through these pictures, painting and space engender resonance with a [viewing] public and come to be appreciated. This is the process of turning marks into symbolic code, i.e. the process of symbolization.
CY: So a symbol is part of a system. There is a conventional meaning assigned to it. A mark is just a trace, before any conventional meaning has been assigned to it.
BE: I get it. So I draw this [draws the shape of a heart]. It's a mark. After many people see it and agree that it indicates "heart," then, it's a symbol.
HZY: All my works, from the past till the present, are all a process of construction, regardless of whether they are [my] black and white Three Marks (fig. 1), Zoon - Dreamscape (fig. 2) or Zoon - Beijing Bio" (fig. 3) series or Possessing Numerous Peaks" (fig. 4) works, they are all marks in the process of being drilled, or repeatedly performed. All point towards a common thread that originates in shared phenomena—a process of reorganizing and reconstructing extant symbols that become, in the end, a personal mark [of the artist]. These kinds of messages come from the world of traditional symbols with drilled through reorganization, they become personal, individual marks. During the process of reorganization, however, the sign will slowly become recognized. It is the process by which an artist finds a common resonance from out of the uniqueness of particularity. Every person is an individual, and particularity shows the relationship between the uniqueness of the individual and the common resonance shared in the group.
CY: Particularity/commonality or plurality/universality is an important theme in contemporary Western thought. Is it not also an important theme in Chinese Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism?
HZY: In Buddhism and Daoism, this has been a core philosophical concept for the past 2000-3000 years. This is also important in my own art and painting system, albeit in a simple and small way.
CY: Western philosophy ends up being extremely skeptical by the 20th century but Chinese philosophy starts out extremely skeptical. As a result there is a way in which your artwork can be read using classical Chinese concepts or using contemporary Western ones - in fact, it puts the two very different frameworks in relationship to one another.
HZY: What is called commonality - the idea that people living on this earth all share something in common - is the entry point to the very first marks at the beginning of my artwork.
CY: We talked about space once before. One can say the universe exists in space, comes into existence in space, that the mind is a kind of space, or creates its own space, and that untouched paper, for the artist, is a space of action and creation.
HZY: Let's talk about method. Art stresses method. It is a common, resonant behavior, a magnetic field and aura. Consider the infinitesimally tiny human being in the universe and planets, and life replete with flowers, birds, plants, insects and other biological phenomena. In relation to your three spheres, the artist seems too great. Every person is probably not limited to these three spheres. How does an artist express deep thought and resonance by giving them form through painting or sculpture? Space is ubiquitous and immanent, it is visible and invisible, tangible and intangible, and includes humanly made objects. I personally employ a method of microcosmic introspection, finding homologies, parallels and correspondences through a deep, reflective analysis, dissection, and tearing apart, that is nevertheless wholly unplanned. There are many correspondences in the spaces of our lives. As a painter who wants to transmit some specific train of thought, I directly observe the blank spaces against this ground, using finely tuned brushstrokes to transmit [my way of thinking]. In the beginning that is how these works came about.
CY: When you say "microcosm" are you referring to a space smaller than us?
HZY: It's not limited to the microcosm of biological life. "Micro-perception" and the "microcosmic" utilize a state of consciousness and the tools of rationality to observe the principles of life or other rarified phenomena not reachable by human physiology. This is common knowledge in physics and the sciences. Micro-perception and the microcosmic are not limited to this physical form. In the process of making every work, it is as if I were a spirit medium.
CY: How is the spiritual part of this micro-world?
HZY: Small isn't the same as non-existent. Neurological patterns [lit. "brain waves"] follow on previous experiences and induce a person into a working state. It is a state that is akin to the coursing of an electrical current or a shaking state. From this state, works emerge from the brush and became a painting. Space can read form. The real working state during this process is very hard to describe with words.
BE: When you start to create, you face the emptiness. Do you try to make yourself empty too?
HZY: But it's not a real blank white space, it's only the disappearance of past experience. It's a akin to [the traditional saying] jianfomiefo 见佛灭佛 "if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill the Buddha". [Translator's Note: this is not literally an exhortation to kill, but rather to not fixate on or worship concrete manifestations but rather to know that the Buddha inheres in the state of searching, or being on the path.] This is a state that my work incessantly faces and confronts. Blank spaces are for facing mortality, and the process of rebirth. I hope to empty out past experience; only then can new things emerge. Sometimes I describe this as a state of self-torment that gains fervor through a venting of mood. In the midst of pondering and exploring, I get a sense of the tableau [of my work], and the moment it appears is the happiest thing.
HZY: [Arranging archaic ritual jade artifacts dating from the Han, Warring States, Zhou and Shang Periods on a sheet of paper…] That is my real work state. On the paper are objects I've collected (fig. 5). This is space and time. Only after space is given substantiation can new things be produced.
CY: You could say that these objects become symbols?
HZY: I hope it can engender resonances, only then can they become symbols, find a corresponding relationship. I am person of the present. When I put these old artifacts on an artwork, I hope that they can seamlessly agree in time and space. The longitudinal axis of time and the vectors of the [spatial] plane can fit together [like this].
BE: Just now I got the impression that you are a shaman.
HZY: Language and marks are related. Marks are just self-made fragments. My individual process of using my own marks is a process I've been exploring for several decades. What does this language narrate? It's in all my three-dimensional installations and the system of marks I've developed. Marks are used to constitute an artificial language that symbolically codifies and [thereby] communicates with the outside world. From the perspective of artistic manifestation, art serves to express and manifest all manner of relationships between the individual and the outside world. By accumulating signs bit by bit through my art, I try to form my own individual way of speaking. This is a kind of language. The stories that this language narrates are not the sort set up by writers and directors, [rather] they are only a narrative system engendered by the continuous intersection and collision of time and space, that is, the narrative system that has been formed by my works over the past two or three decades. Lately I've been thinking about Three Marks as just a chapter or extract [from a larger body of work]. When I look at Three Marks and Zoon—Bio together, and add my big installation Nest and my sculptures, I find that there are relations corresponding [between the works]. Lately what I've been thinking is how I'd like to link up these works - there are probably eleven series that I have been working on - into some kind of story, message, or phenomenon, [through] pictorialization and symbolic arrangement. I can explain more clearly with a catalogue for reference.
HZY: From this you can see in my series, you can see a corresponding, reciprocal relationship between the individual, heaven, earth and space. The elementary designs, the heavens and earth, the universe, they are all there. The universe is condensed within such a minute individual unit. These are antique things [handling an archaic jade figurine from the Shang Period], they are [also] my things. My earliest works can all correspond reciprocally to space, and when you see this it is easier to understand what I am talking about. These [pointing to early works] are landscapes, animals (fig. 6); this one looks like a centipede (fig. 7), with its reduplicated compound form. So too when you cut a person open, the nerves are crowded together with blood vessels in a condition that is much like that of a plant or [other] organism (fig. 8). It's just that our construction is particularly complex. Of course when I was making these works, I didn't realize these things yet. I didn't use a microscope [to actually see this structure]. And so my earliest creative state was like that of a spirit medium. I squeezed myself into a corner and then allowed myself to burst forth, to emit certain forms and marks. On the basis of these forms, structures and marks, I slowly found the thread that I could use to compose and construct my designs, which I continuously practiced like a drill. My earliest painting started like this, with searching, including my works in 1998. And how did these things, these designs come about? All were a process of searching; the state of my earliest self making. Facing empty space and blank paper, I just did it without thinking too much in advance. The resulting marks, models, and so-called "totems" all naturally emerged, bit by bit. I think they will continue to evolve.
BE: Are you referring to the series, in which the human figure and plants are conjoined into one entity?
HZY: Human figures, plants, animals, organism, bacteria, mountains and rivers, all of nature is contained within.Actually, you can see the same kind of phenomenon in early Chinese paintings (fig. 9).
BE: In the first series were you using ink and a brush?
HZY: Yes. I had just taken up the brush and still had no idea what to paint. I got lucky. The first painted was snapped up by a museum for exhibition (fig. 10). The second one was in 1987, in my third year of college and it got selected to participate in a Chinese-Korean ink painting communication exhibition (fig. 11).
BE: There was one time when I was here and you showed a group of smaller paintings. Was that the first series?
HZY: That was in my fourth year of college. It can also be considered a series. Later on, after twentysome years it became the Dreamscape series (fig. 12). The small pieces you saw were ones that I made in 1989, in my fourth year. Later in 2007, I started to make these into a series as well. This is also an [early] series [pointing to another set of photographs]. It's from the same time period.
To put it simply, this is the home and residence of these organisms; their most primal state, their state away from home, on the earth. These are bullets shot down from the heavens. I can interweave the dozen or so series here into a kind of life state, a strange space of life, or an absurd scene of existence. Every series is continuously being practiced and performed like a drill. For example, the Three Marks works of today are the third generation, having been through a gradual transformation bit by bit over time.
CY: [Pointing to the earliest Three Marks works] So the first stage is like this (fig. 13)?
HZY: Yes. It is seeking light, order, water; seeking mountains, spirits, water, light; seeking the microcosmic and infinitesimal within space. It is both simplifying and also complexifying. The system induces a cognitive reaction in me by using a few brushstrokes to slowly structure and construct the [larger, complex] composition - to simplify, and yet, one could also say, to complexify .
CY: [Point to works in this first series] Are these different colors?
HZY: Different colors. And there are several different colors here, not just two, so it's quite complex. I rely completely on direct perception and intuition to make my works.
CY: What is the second generation like?
HZY: The changes are noticeable; in the second-generation works, there are subtle differences, and there are a bit more colors (fig. 14). At the moment, the third generation works are more diverse and multivariate. They possess a dynamism, as if about to take off and break into a run (fig. 15). The geometric concepts are stronger, and the multifaceted nature of the use of space is richer. Through a painstakingly careful process of simplification and then re-complexification, ceaselessly repeated again and again, a sort of yin-yang process of contrasting opposites emerges. If [one can say that] life continues to go on, then [this is] equivalent to the beginning of a subsequent stage of life. Whether I'm utilizing these combinations or discovering new things, I hope that more unexpected and spontaneous discoveries lie ahead. This time at the National Museum the theme of the exhibition is gongke 功课 "Homework".
CY: So in this sense, are you becoming a writer? Before you said you were not like a writer, but here you talk about these eleven series as if you were their author.
HZY: I don't use the language of reality to narrate, and I am not a writer. These eleven series were not arranged [like a story]. I didn't intentionally plot out these series twenty-one years ago. Before [I made them], I didn't know [what they would be] either. It is simply that the images and information got richer and more definite, but not in the way that an author communicates his message.
HZY: It is a natural course of things. It is an accumulation of life. Within a thread in time, my experience in different spaces happens slowly. Now I hope to make it richer, to expand its richness. As for the story that it tells, I also don't know. Life keeps on going, so of course that makes it richer, more interesting. It's that simple.
HZY: The way I talk may sound little like "literati speak," that is, making use of classical language. It could be because I studied classical Chinese in school all the way through college, and took a lot of tests in classical Chinese. That's just how the Taiwan educational system is.
We [people who studied art] didn't need to [read the truly ancient texts such as the Five Classics]. Instead, we used traditional literary education materials such as [Tang] poetry and [Song] verse, as well as Outlook on Classical Chinese Literature. Confucius, and Mencius, were also required reading for the exams and were the subjects most loathed back then.
CY: I also hear in your discussion, Buddhist and Daoist ideas.
HZY: The mainstream in Taiwan was to study Confucianism, and the relationship between the noble official or princely minister, and the system of the siwei "Four Principles" and bade "Eight Virtues". Since antiquity, from the Spring and Autumn and Warring States period, Confucianism has dominated the frame and formal structure of social relationships.
On the other hand, the works of various thinkers of the late Zhou Dynasty, such as the Daoists Laozi and Zhuangzi, with their thinking about [the relationship between] heaven and humanity, has offered comfort and consolation in times of loneliness and despair. Confucian thought was classical learning for practical application and was [therefore] realistic. Confucianism was [concerned with] how to maintain ethical relations among people, and so Confucianism enjoyed primacy in our educational system. It was after I studied art that I came to appreciate and embrace Daoism.
CY: And then what about Buddhism?
HZY: In Taiwan, the religious system of Buddhism is the culture of ordinary people. Community is a universe, like the church in the West, it is the center of human affairs and dealings, the site of communication and exchange. We have composite Buddhist and Daoist temples and rituals that have become quite syncretic. Chinese idols have a real life image and also a spirit in death, even including animals like dogs. This is the world in which all living things have a spirit, and in our subconscious we hold the things of the invisible, intangible world that lies between heaven and earth in deep esteem. This is different from Confucius, who avoided ghosts like the plague, or from the Daoist system of Southeast Asia system, in which all living things have spirits, it is not like that.
Living in this kind of environment made my own religious beliefs synthetic. I liked to go to temples and watch the [Buddhist/Daoist] Master there recite the scriptures from memory. so the influence of folk culture on me had been very strong.
The origins of this series were from the Daoist mass that the Master read for one or two services when my paternal grandfather passed away (fig. 16). The writing at the end is from the Diamond Sutras. Later, almost all of my exhibitions were related to this. And this is a banner. A Daoist or Buddhist master most definitely will have these kinds of things, which have this sort of folk Daoist character and flavor. And speaking of the influence of Buddhist thought on me, I can use three phrases to encapsulate it : mingxinjianxing 明心见性 "with clear heart/mind understand one's character", lidichengfo 立地成佛 "immediately become the Buddha", and jiefomiefo 借佛灭佛 "if you see the Buddha kill the Buddha". Every person is the Buddha and can directly sense [his or her disposition]. The Buddha is not a great thinker, it is a kind of way. The Tathagata Buddha used Buddhist practice itself to elucidate doctrine. It is part of the process. It is very important to understand this logic, but it must also be practiced again and again, like a kind of homework.
CY: These ideas are obviously part of Chinese culture. But they haven't ever before taken this form you practice. There is something very contemporary in your way.
BE: Where does this contemporary form come from?
HZY: Many people say that I was in the West for a long time, and often held exhibitions abroad. Actually, I've read many more Western texts than Chinese because our publishing industry isn't as advanced. When I was in the fourth grade, the first artist that I came to know was Jean-François Millet and from there I became familiar with the Impressionists. I have almost all the catalogues of all the Western artists from the Renaissance till the recent modernists, but a lot of people ask me why I was not influenced by Western art.
Actually, there was an influence. That influence takes the form of an individuality and acuity towards things, and a special, individualistic form of expression. The great masters of Western art were responding to their traditions, religions and society, but they weren't just talking about those things, rather, they were talking about themselves. The influence of Western artists on my work isn't one of form. To put it simply, they led me to form my own distinctive, individual creativity. This is the place where mainstream post-Song Dynasty visual artists in China have been the weakest. Nevertheless, there is still a vibrant, rich creativity in our folk culture. Ink landscape painting and the Song Dynasty neo-Confucian lixue 理学 "philosophy of principle" have a definite connection.
This philosophy analyzes nature, humanity/man, the spirit, and the enormous system that lies behind these manifestations and forms the basis for the system of traditional ink landscape painting. This is a very complete, consummate system. And precisely because it is so perfect and complete, from the Southern Song Dynasty through the Ming and Qing so-called artists and painters all venerated this system. At the time the mainstream "men of (ink) arts and letters", lacking creativity, started to excavate this enormous, consummate system, drawing on just one or two parts of the system - a rock here, a tree there. And so, in the mainstream Chinese painting system, there was little creativity to be found. There was only ceaseless repetition, gradually weakening [the system]. Of course there were always a few rare, excellent artists, but in terms of creativity, the entire aesthetic system from the Song Dynasty onward was a failure. The folk arts, in contrast, were extremely rich.
BE: You mentioned the influence of folk culture on you. Could you discuss this further?
HZY: For example, I picked up my brush. The most perfect system of brushwork was conceived in the Song Dynasty, but I could not find any [sustenance] from this system. The paintings at the Imperial Palace are rarely exhibited, although whenever they are shown, I definitely go see them. So, although I really like [this kind of art of the past], it is really difficult, as it is completely different from our modern way of life. What draws me in are the things from folk culture and from before the Song Dynasty, such as temples, things in graveyards/tombs, things from before the Han Dynasty - those are what attract me.
BE: Over a decade ago there were very few such things.
HZY: Before, I wasn't influenced by those things, but they are an integral part of a whole system. At one point, I read extensively on the topic of archeology, in places like the Imperial Palace or in the antiquarian shops. Chinese visual arts are not merely landscape painting or ink painting alone. The artifacts that have been unearthed by archeologists tell the history of the past eight thousand years. I have to be honest with myself. I like Song Dynasty paintings very much, they are such classics, but I like the richness and creativity, as well as the expansiveness of the aesthetic forms passed down in China by religious temples and imperial palaces even more. This is what directly influenced me when I started studying. I did not set about to do landscape painting, and have always been outside the ink painting system.
BE: I understand. I lived in Taipei in '81. I know there are lots of temples there.
HZY: My grandfather was a consulting member of an ancestral temple committee.
BE: Did you go to temples a lot as a child?
HZY: Yes. The temple was right across from my house. I had a lot of fun while they were holding religious services. I used to go and steal things.
BE: Where did you live?
HZY: I lived next to the Taipei Art Museum, where the American Army used to be stationed. There were lots of international business activities in the vicinity, such as bars, fancy haute couture stores where you could have a western suit tailor made, arts and crafts stores, and of course temples. At the time, that was the district where all the high-class hotels and restaurants were also located.
BE: When did you start reading those books on archeology?
HZY: Those things [reading archeology books] I did for fun when I was in my junior year of high school - I was about seventeen or eighteen then, so that would have been in 1981. In Taipei there were lots of antiquarian shops the old streets - it's a bit like Panjiayuan [an antique market in Beijing]. I spent most of my time hanging out in these shops with antique dealers. From high school to college, and even now, whenever I would have time, I'd go to check out the stuff in these places, looking for things. Searching for things among ordinary folk in everyday life, outside of the mainstream textbook system, this was a learning process for me. But the most important thing for me was the old Imperial Palace. That's what influenced me the most.
HZY: [In my youth] we were not willing to accept things from the academic system, but we did find some interest in the philosophy of Wang Yangming [1472–1529], [and the idea that] to investigate things is to attain knowledge. Chiang Kai-shek said he was the student of Wang Yangming. There is a grassy mountain in Taipei and, after Chiang Kai-shek moved there, he changed the name to Yangming Mountain. At the time we didn't understand [theoretical things], but as I got older, the things I'd read before started to make sense, as if a veil of ignorance was gradually lifted from my head. Studying neo-Confucian philosophy also included the study of [Southern Song philosopher and historian] Zhu Xi [1130–1200], and others. In terms of painting, the traditional literati artist would conform to Confucianism, Buddhism or Daoism, continuously observing and using these three in the course of nature and life.
HZY: As an individual, my works reflect my own direct observations and my own responses as an individual. My university was on Yangming Mountain, and at the foothills of the mountain was the Palace Museum. Yangming Mountain is the most famous park in Taiwan. The environment is quite nice. But by the time I had reached my fourth year in college, the water from the air and the water [we drank from a mountain spring] had begun to change. From then on, I could sense a crisis with regards to the weather, responding to climate change, and even in human interrelations. Order, the reconstruction of human and cultural order, and the construction of nature - these are the things I've come to think of in the past ten-twenty years, [and they are] all reflected in my works.
The city nightscape viewed from the university atop the mountain was a tumult of roiling red dust. Taipei is in a basin, so at night when you look down from the mountain, you could see thick red dust in the air above the city. We were all breathing polluted air, and on the mountain you could clearly see how thick this dust really was. There were all these pretty pine trees on the mountain, but one year, the trees got infected with insects and all began to die. It turns out that trade vessels had brought a destructive species from abroad. Taiwan people are really funny. Because these trees were in a place that the Head had to pass, every pine needle was sprayed with insecticide. But then, these German and other kinds of beetles arrived on trade ships by sea. From that time onward the ecological environment started to change. I started to pay attention to these things. The climate very obviously got warmer and warmer. During the first year of college it was very cold on the mountain in September, and rained like crazy. Several years later, this rain and wind would disappear, and the misty days grew few and far between. You could feel how the natural environment was changing. Maple trees and other beautiful trees suddenly died because of these changes. This was [cause for] introspection and a direct confrontation with these phenomena. There was no way to explain it away.
HZY: Thus, the most important consideration in my works involves facing this current crisis of environment and space. We've discussed how globalization has led to changes in living organisms as well as social and cultural systems. Starting with the Industrial Revolution of the 18th Century, the quantitative changes of industrialization have engendered qualitative changes in character in the ecosystem. Most of my works take note of this deviance in the ecosystem, revealing a state of emergency that is both a loss and a rediscovery of a kind of order. The series Possessing Numerous Peaks and Lover's Library (fig. 17), for example, attempt to rediscover a state of balance and order in the spatial system between people and between people and nature. My works very directly reflect these changes as they affect both the environment and [we] human beings. They are perhaps the defining conditions that we must confront in our time.