Interview | Chen Xiaoguo
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C: Chen Xiaoguo
RD: Research Department at the Magician Space
RD: In this solo exhibition you selected different methods of presentation. The exhibition reminds us of a globalized visual experience where images are constantly superimposed on the internet. The covered paintings elicit the viewer’s curiosity, while the large number of foreign faces in the painting makes one wonder if you are exploring the issue of identity. You seem to be attracting attention in various aspects. Would you like to talk about the meaning of these foreign faces?
C: On a surface level, the images I chose are about race, minority groups, political correctness, or identity politics, but they are actually meant to create confusion. I don’t think I’m painting under the mask of a foreigner, since I am dealing with problems that anyone would face.
The figure in the work Resident_Give A Sign (2021) is Roman Abramovich, the owner of the Chelsea Football Club. Abramovich entered the art circle as a collector before and was embraced and welcomed by the Western art world. I remember seeing a magazine cover my freshman year with a photo of him with the title “Will Abramovich be the savior of Western contemporary art?” Today, after the Russian-Ukrainian war started, the West changed its attitude. They want to expel Abramovich and think he is evil, although no one thought his money was evil before. This even makes me feel conflicted when I watch football— I’ve been supporting Chelsea, does that mean that I also support a dictator?
In this story, I don’t position myself as a foreigner. I am just a Chelsea fan. Everyone in the world, Black, white, Asian, could be a Chelsea fan. This is also why I think painting and using the images of foreigners is not a prerogative of the West. This is the general feeling of football fans under globalization.
I named this painting Give a Sign, not Surrender or Welcome because I think those words with a clear indication are particularly dangerous for my works. Uncertainty makes the painting more unrestrained, rather than set a directional end point (of interpretation). Many of the images I use come from football culture. I use this theme as a bait. However, instead of reenacting the theme, I let the process of painting play freely, and eventually let it reveal the most genuine part of the painting. For example, Resident_Golden Ball I (2021) has nothing to do with the original theme of the image. Instead, it points to some experimental scene or popular cyberpunk aesthetic.
RD: In a way, your images come from personal experiences. They remind you of the qualities of certain images of art and motivate you to work. What do these images mean to you?
C: These images are the starting points of my work, but in the end, my paintings take on new artistic meanings. The source image for Resident_Godfather (2021) is an artist photo posted by the Hauser& Wirth Gallery on its WeChat account. When I saw the image, I felt like I almost encountered an “event.” I believe it is artificially shaping the image of the artist behind the scenes. This kind of invisible consciousness often permeates the art world. In the painting I deliberately let the picture resemble a godfather. My choice of each picture is actually strategic. Another painting depicts a border policeman, whom I handled very beautifully, making him look like a charismatic drug dealer. There are also several works I named “actors.” These men who seem to be particularly ambiguous are actually ordinary people. The initial images I choose are all from quotidian situations— like when people take a photo with their phone and uploaded it to Instagram or Google Map. But I don’t simply reproduce them into pictures, but transform them into ambiguous, suggestive paintings.
I encounter “events” every day. I capture them, reenact them, and release them through the potential of painting. The title of Resident_Temporal International (2021) is a word I made up. It’s like a manifesto, a painting genre, or even an advertisement for a street fashion brand. The title signifies temporary, international, and has a meaning that transcends the already categorized current state. It’s not only the Residents series, but I also did the same thing for the works in the exhibition Before Sunrise last year.
RD: Speaking of transcending the status quo, you tend to make your pictures ambiguous, whether it’s your brushstrokes, palette, or figures, you mask the specific indices of everyday images. In addition, the overlapping paintings on top of each other also accentuate the vagueness for the spectators. Is ambiguity a crucial concept for your work?
C: The best state is not to be categorized and generalized by existing vocabulary. Whether it is my attitude towards art or the brushstrokes of my painting, I always pursue the first intuition and (embrace) accidents. The ambiguity in Elizabeth Peyton’s paintings influenced my paintings. Her first solo exhibition was at the Chelsea Hotel, which directly inspired my first solo show at a nightclub in Lidu, Beijing. For me, how the audience looks (at my paintings) is a crucial issue, and I hope my paintings can break their traditional spectatorial habit. My works exhibited at the nightclub were created in the dark themselves. Just like ancient caves and churches, after we go in, we often don’t remember the frescoes or sculptures inside. We can only recall a feeling. This experience of viewing is exactly the state I have been looking for.
This time, the presentation of Residents is the same. I simulate the viewing experience of phone albums and Google Map for the display of my paintings. Their arrangement and superposition also arouse the curiosity of the viewers about the obscured paintings. How to exhibit and how to view are integral processes in the occurrence of art.
RD: Let’s return to your personal relationship with the exhibition title Residents. You paint the events you have encountered personally, how do you connect your individual experience to the rather collective concept of “residents”?
C: The Residents series was inspired by my curiosity about Simon, a Black neighbor who lives in Changping Village, Beijing. Last summer, He Chi invited me to a space in Xixincheng Village, Changping, and I noticed a curious purple house in the village. I was also attracted to a Black resident who was entering the courtyard on a tricycle. I first lived there as a resident. I felt like a stranger after moving there. When I was chased by a dog in the village I was thinking that this dog probably does not chase my Black neighbor. When I saw him wearing a T-shirt with “USA” on it I wondered if he was from America and liked to play basketball. When they were digging the sewers in the village, I discovered that we were both affected by it, and we exchanged our opinions with our eyes against the excavators… In a sense, he is an outsider like me. Although we have not spoken, we already developed a sense of intimacy at a distance. I painted a whole room of paintings of him. The image of Black people no longer exists in distant news online but intersects and collides with my real life. Half a year later, I filled the AIYO space where I lived with his portraits, along with various plants reminiscent of Africa. Just as a male bird attracts a female one, I finally drew him into the space with my art.
I’ve painted some Black football stars before, but simply because a certain image looks interesting to me. But after meeting Simon, I met and painted many Black people in the Residents series.
RD: Your encounter with Simon led you to discover the similarities in living situations, but does the abstract concept of residents overshadow the uniqueness of the individual? How are the residents portrayed in your paintings?
C: The concept of residents just exists. I’m not the one who proposes it. The concept of residents inherently entails a state of equality. When we talk about people, we should talk about it in the sense of residents, instead of color, race, or geography. This is precisely what the hidden part of the paintings reveals.
Although Simon is an excellent African musician, he is always the last person to pass through airport customs. He was stuck in a village in Beijing because of the pandemic, just like me in Beijing as a Hubei native, and many foreigners in Shanghai now. Chelsea’s owner Abramovich, a Jewish Russian, moved from Russia to the United Kingdom, Israel, and Portugal, and now is banned from re-entering the UK. These are also the current state of residents.
“Residents” is the title of a poem by a Chinese poet Duo Duo (Li Shizheng) when he was living in Amsterdam. The first line of the poem is “only when they drink beer in the depths of the sky do we kiss.” At the time I thought this was the feeling between me and Simon. He often parties with his friends across the street from me, all kinds of Black, Chinese, White people, kids, adults, men and women. I live alone in the space across from his house, and I drink beer too. This is why we used “Residents” as the title.
I think it’s very accurate.
Transcript: Li Hongli
Translation: Wu Yupeng