Jiang Zhi X Nikita Yingqian Cai | Questions for Jiang Zhi

This post is also available in: 简体中文 (Chinese (Simplified)) English

Jiang Zhi = J

Nikita Yingqian Cai = C

Translated by Wu Chenyun


C: It was your writing about Yuan Jiang (a city located in north Hubei Province) that helped me to have a better understanding of you. It seems to me that period was of great importance for your art to take form. So today’s interview will start from there.

In Memoirs of Arty Youngsters in Yuanjiang, you wrote “carrying a drawing pad on your back while out after sundown, you would always run into them — the long haired loners with the unmistakable gaze of the artist…The immaterial component of this gaze is mainly created by the intense internal struggle between ‘I am a dumb-fuck’ and ‘I am no dumb-fuck’…” I have to say compared to your other writings, there is a sense of innocence, optimism and wild happiness in this particular piece. It’s very contagious. Can we say that the “fantasy” quality in your future creation has something to do with your experience in Yuanjiang?

J: Several of my friends in Yuan Jiang fit your description as innocent, optimistic and wildly imaginative. They often do something absurd and unconventional, and would hilariously tell people about what they have done. “dumb-fuck” could also be interpreted as “frantic”, insane, unserious and following instinct. Such people are by no means few in Chu State (B.C.1042-223, now Hunan and Hubei provinces). People usually describe culture of Chu as romantic, unrestrained, imaginative and where the boundary between fantasy and reality was blurred…Generally speaking, people like happiness. But now I feel that if we like happiness too much, it may result in the opposite. “Fantasy” is a kind of floating. I mean, if we use “fantasy” as a floating tool, it may be dangerous. It depends on whether you put “fantasy” and “reality” as two opposites or whether you use “fantasy” as a tool and means to combat “reality”. “Fantasy” is light and free, while “reality” is heavy and restrained. Probably we should not view “fantasy” and “reality” in this way. Both “fantasy” and “reality” are subjective. Only by realizing this are we able to find the way to live a life and create of our own. As far as I’m concerned, to combat “reality” with “fantasy” is doomed to be tragic. I used to be obsessed with this kind of tragically heroic aesthetics, like a moth flies into a flame. But now I no longer like that. Instead, I believe more in: transforming the subjective is to change the reality.

C: In your interview with Zheng Zhihua, the Memoirs of Arty Youngsters in Yuanjiang and Perishable Objects, the name of Van Gogh was mentioned, and you also said that Van Gogh was your favorite artist back then. Xiong Wangzhou claimed himself as “Van Gogh”. Compared to him, it seems though at that time you were also brimming with aspiration, you still kept a cool head. When did you realize you were truly “Van Gogh”? In other words, when did you honestly think you were an artist, and creating art was something serious to you rather than some game that was just for fun?

J: Back then we admired Van Gogh so much, that’s probably because he was a poor guy. His story was very encouraging. At that time, one way to combat lowliness was to magnify oneself, a spiritual uprising. Many years later I came to understand why some people claimed that they were capable of speaking the language of aliens. I should say I never truly liked Van Gogh. What I liked was the me that liked Van Gogh.

I never doubt I’m an artist. I started to copy drawings on Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden when I was six. And I knew then that was how an artist would spend his childhood. When in primary school, I invited a girl classmate to my home. I wanted to show her how I drank and drew like a romantic pro artist. That was the first time I drank wine and I picked spirits. I felt ashamed when I woke up on the floor afterwards. I sat for the entrance examination of arts academies for three times. Not that I didn’t receive any offer from colleges, but I was convinced that Central Academy of Fine Arts or Zhejiang Arts Academy (now China Academy of Art) was where I supposed to go. My parents showed deep concern to my unrealistically ambitious dream. They thought I should thank god if I was admitted by any junior college. I always think of myself as an artist, sooner or later. So I never bother myself with questions like whether I’m an artist or when I would become an artist. I have no interest in those issues at all. I treat my art creation seriously. When you’re a child, you would play games seriously and intently. I’m not quite sure what you meant by “game”. To me, if nowadays I am given the chance to treat art creation as a children’ game, I would cherish it very much. We never leave fantasy behind, don’t we? I feel that what poets do is to explore for the source of fantasy by means of fantasy. I just finished reading the book Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger: An Unresolved Conversation, 1951–1970. It wrote that “genuine poets and philosophers all devoted themselves to a similar process: the expression of existence.”

C: What was your first piece of art work? And what’s the background of it?

J: When I was eight or nine years old, my younger brother, who was taken care of by a relative in the countryside since he was weaned, was about to come back home. He had been sent to the countryside because of me. When I was three, my father spent a lot of time working out of town, and my mother had to teach at school all day long. They wanted to send me to a relative’s in the village Nan Da Xiang. Understandably, I didn’t like the idea. So I came up with a self-rescue plan. I was so determined that I wouldn’t give up till I got my way. I kept crying, endlessly. In order to enhance the pathetic effect, I also employed an artful ruse by inflicting an injury on myself. There were many mosquitoes and insects in the countryside. I exposed myself to their bites, and desperately scratched the bumps. My skin was covered with scratches three days after. The relative had to send me back to my parents. Since then I monopolized the time with my parents (especially my mom), and my younger sister and brother were both sent to the countryside after they were born. At that time, to raise children was not an easy task, not to mention to raise them in an ideal way. On the day my brother returned home, I made a large “installation”. The classroom next door to our house was used as the exhibition hall. I created a giant as a gift for my brother by making use of all the brooms in the classroom and clothes of my family.

C: Are “National Association of Wondering Artists” and the “Republic of Wondering Artists” the same thing? Let’s talk about the association and the republic. How old were you when you became the minister of culture of these two organizations? What were you doing?

J: That was in 1987. I was 16.

C: It seems that you often encounter some interesting people in your life and creation, for instance, Xiong Wangzhou and his friends, Liu Qingshan in A Work and the male models you met when doing model turnover. What’s the relationship between you and them? Are they your friends in life? Or just people, with whom you create works, do research and collaborate? It seems they are very frank to you. You get along quite well. Is there a kind of natural connection between you and them?

J: You’re quite right. There’s a kind of natural connection between me and those friends and characters I’ve written about or appear in my works. Actually they are all part of me.

C: In the early stage of your art career, besides drawing, did your writing start from poem? Is that what led to the shooting of Forefinger?

J: I think my writing started from novel. When I was in middle school, I spent the whole summer vacation on writing. I locked myself in the room every day, only allowing my parents to send me lunches and dinners from a crack of the door. Every day I wrote for over ten hours, and drank tea to refresh myself. I think I enjoyed those days very much. I wrote, memorized and fabricated as much as I liked. Now that I look back, I believe the novel I wrote at that time must be very naïve. I was reading The Sorrows of Young Werther, poems by Pushkin and novels by Turgenev, which all had some influence on my adolescent daydreams. I wrote about tens of thousands words. I held poetry in awe, probably because I dared not to try such a sacred way of expression rashly. I always thought poetry was not merely an expression of poets but a kind of oracle. I still think so. I felt that poetry could speak out the unspeakable. Such a concept also influenced my attitudes toward art creation. Though now I still create many things that are speakable and can be told. My attitudes remain unchanged. The reason for that is simple: to write what cannot be written, to reveal the invisible and to think of what cannot be thought of deeply attract me. In this regard, I’ve always been doing preparation. The shooting of Forefinger was by accident. That was in 1997. A writer friend of mine, Peng Xixi, came to see me, saying that he was going to pay a visit to Forefinger, asked me to go with him and take some pictures. I never read his poems before. But when I learned of his stories, I got to know that he was a charismatic poet and was hospitalized for almost ten years due to schizophrenia. But he still kept writing poems. I was deeply moved. How do madness and normalness convert to each other? How do they influence each other? How can a man with some kind of schizophrenia (after all, everyone suffers some kind of mental disorder, more or less) live a life? How to continue creation? … These all intrigued me. So I wanted to study him in a more meticulous way. I thought of making a video, which could record 24 frames per second.

C: Gradually you realized that painting was not the only way for artists to create and express. There was a period that you spent equal efforts and time, if not more, on writing, right? What’s the relationship between writing and art creation?

J: I didn’t link painting, writing, sculpture and photography to the issue of whether I am an artist. The reason to write or create art in other forms is my desire to create. Artist is merely a title, a social role. It may have something to do with fame and wealth, but definitely has nothing to do with art creation. Neither does it have anything to do with my deepest desires. After graduation, I focused more on writing for about 2 to 3 years. I didn’t want to paint. Moreover, to a poor graduate like me, writing costed me less. I started to shift my interest to something else when I could afford a second-hand camera and had access to a video recorder.

C: I noticed that many of your writings were created between 1996 and 1998. Then you started to write intensively again after 2005. And you also created artworks on a more regular and intensive basis during that period. It seems you were a bit idle between 1999 and 2005. What did you do during that time?

J: When I graduated in 1995, I worked for Street, a Shenzhen-based magazine. However, I never spent a day in Shenzhen till the magazine was closed down in the end of 1998. I was assigned to Beijing since the beginning. I was the only staff at the Beijing station of the magazine. It was a monthly, so I had plenty time of my own after I finished doing interview and writing for the magazine. I spent almost all the time on writing, photo taking, video shooting and wandering. Frankly speaking, I spent more time wandering. I often went to Qiu Zhijie’s place to read all kind of art information he collected. I also spent a lot of time chatting with Yang Fudong and other poets, writers and playwrights. I also liked travelling.

In the end of 1998, the magazine was closed down. I lost my job in Beijing. So I went back to Shenzhen. The good thing was that I could live in the apartment of my own. I had paid monthly mortgage for over a year but never saw it in person before. I started writing novels again. I wandered around in this strange city, carrying my little DV with me. I shot some short films which I called Several Minutes of a Man (later renamed as The Moments). The fact that not living in Beijing made it seem like I disappeared from the art scene. But actually I still participated in exhibitions. Chen Tong invited me to have my first solo at his Borges Bookstore. I even luckily got on board with Guangdong Express curated by Hou Hanru for the 2003 Venice Biennale and won a CCAA award. All these showed that I was still part of the art scene. But in a sense, I was wandering on the edge of it.

I started to organize some film screening events since 2001 and established a league called United Power, attempting to boost the enthusiasm for art creation of the youth in Shenzhen. I also founded an independent publication together with my friends. We called friends, asking them to contribute, and raised funding for printing. Those were good years for the development of publishing industry in Shenzhen. So it all went well. The publication was called Paradox (Miu in Chinese). Both the publication and the league were named by Wa Wa. The publication was distributed to Guangzhou, Beijing, Chengdu, and were soon sold out. It even made its way to Sanlian Bookstore’s monthly sales chart. Later we made the second issue. But after we had a baby, Wa Wa and I didn’t have the energy to keep the publication going. Back then we actually had a lot of ideas about how to make art on paper. It’s quite a pity.

It was also around that time that Yang Fudong, Chen Xiaoyun, Cao Fei and I often discussed via MSN the possibility of organizing a group to do some works and exhibitions together. We proposed many names for this group and finally we decided upon “Cine Ladder”, which was proposed by Yang Fudong. That was in 2002. We discussed a lot about the scheme, but failed to work out a collaborative plan. That’s probably because all the group members had strong personality. When Gao Shiming curated for the 2004 Shanghai Biennale, he showed interest in our group. He suggested us to present a work at the biennale in the name of the group. Hence, each of us made an 8-minute video. After that the group didn’t continue to work together. “Cine Ladder” was like an underground group and would gather together and make some stir from time to time.

After I got the promise that I didn’t need to clock in and out every day, I started to work for Shenzhen TV station and then Phoenix Weekly. But the workload multiplied significantly compared to that in Beijing. Certainly, thanks to such experience, I had some deeper insight into how media worked, which had some influence on my future practice and sowed the seed for my series solo exhibition Attitude since 2009. Xu Tan once at a seminar defined my art as two –isms: media realism and fashion realism. I didn’t quite agree with him and we argued a little bit at the seminar. I thought “the subjective is in fact reality”. Moreover, what I did in Attitude was exactly how to prevent art work from turning to media representation and how to differentiate between authors and reporters. Xu Tan spoke about it later.

My working experience at Phoenix Weekly enhanced my interest in current affairs. At that time I had already lived with Wa Wa. It seemed she was born with a deep concern for the country and its people. She said her passion for politics might be genetic. Her grandfather Ren Guang (a renowned Chinese musician whose magnum opus was Song of the Fisherman, who died during the Wannan Incident in 1941 at the age of 41) was an artist actively engaged in politics. Her interest in news and journalism had a strong influence on me.

One day in 2002, a designer friend told me there was an exhibition in his studio. It was close to where I worked, so I paid a visit. It was Chu Yun’s solo. That’s how I got to know him. The exhibition was named after the room number. Chu Yun’s soap piece was displayed for the first time. I told him I liked it very much, then we became friends. He lived in the same building of Liu Chuang. From time to time we would gather together at a pub near there, chatting and drinking. Later Gong Jian came to Shenzhen and became my co-worker at Phoenix Weekly.

One day in 2004 when Chu Yun, Liu Chuang and I were drinking in the pub, a friend of Chu Yun joined us. He talked about some secret SM stories taking place in Shenzhen. For instance, he said about how to train a man into a dog, chain him and walk him like a dog. I was so amazed. He gave me a website via which I could reach this secret circle. They replied my email, asking me to bring my girl friend or wife to a wife-swapping party. I was scared and never contacted them again. Later I shared this story with Chu Yun as a joke. And he also shared one of his stories in return. In the pub that we often gathered together, once he saw a very sexy girl performing pole dance. It turned out later that “she” was actually a “he”, but “he” totally thought himself as a “she”. This was not as extreme as the case that a man thought himself as dog, but it also shocked me greatly: a person with man’s body thought of himself as a woman. I was always interested in issues such as “body” and “soul”, “physical” and “spiritual”. So I asked for the contact of this guy. If I remember correctly, it was Shen Piji (artist and musician), who was the owner of the pub, helped me to contact the guy. Some days later, upon the invitation of Shen, he came to the pub and perform pole dance again. I recorded it with a DV. And I got to know him: Ping Er. He also took me to another pub in the city that night. It was named Three Primary Colors, where he and his “friends” often gathered together. Every night people dressing in drag would perform there.

Wa Wa and I spent a year shooting them. We wanted to make a semi-documentary. We chose Ping Er, Li Jun and Xiang Xiang as the leading roles. As I just shot a commercial for a Simmons mattress brand and earned tens of thousands yuan, the idea could be finally carried out. I also shot a series of pictures featuring “women” with men’s bodies and “men” with women’s bodies. I named the series Androgenra. The documentary and photographic series were presented at the Guangzhou Triennial curated by Hou Hanru.

C: From 1997 to 2006, Mu Mu was a constant theme in your work. Why? Where did you find her? What kind of person was her? What’s the story of her?

J: I met her at a second-hand stall in Hangzhou. She was very cute, but with a crack on her face. It was a tiny wooden puppet, that’s why I named her Mu Mu (mu means wood in Chinese). The crack on her face made her different from other puppets, so I bought her. The owner of the stall also gave me a little boy puppet and a horse puppet for free.

I think I was looking for something to rest my emotions, a companion. If there was no proper human candidate, a puppet would also do. Moreover, a puppet was easy to carry. For a while, I was so reveling in the game between her and me. Probably some people would say it was actually a one man’s game. Till I’m my age now I start to figure out that we have always been playing one man’s game, no matter how many others you are playing with. But back then I thought it was because of Mu Mu that the game seemed interesting and meaningful, which made me feel it was a game for two and both of us enjoyed the pleasure of fantasy.

IIn 1997 I interviewed a senior poet in Beijing. His name was Cai Qijiao. I could feel his childlike innocence and passionate energy the first sight I met him. Such qualities attracted me. So I visited him many times during that year. He was nearly 80 years old, but he was fond of talking about pretty girls, never concealing his passion for beauties. Once, when I shot for him, he said what he liked to shoot most was girls. I thought he must have shot for hundreds of girls. If those pictures were made into an exhibition, it must be very interesting. I also like taking pictures of girls and I shot over 100 “shy” girls (Maiden, All Too Maiden!). Is this why I felt immediately attracted to him?

He was sent to jail for “disrupting the marriage of a serviceman”. Ai Qing asked if he regretted, he said “No. There’s cost, but there’s also benefit. It teaches you that you need to be brave when facing a woman who loves you.”

He wrote the following lines in the 1960s: “In order to get a happy kiss, I’d rather smash myself into pieces.” He told me his last wish: spend all his savings to build a garden in his hometown, where young people could fall in love.

In 1998, I showed him some of Mu Mu’s pictures and asked him to write the words “Love Stage” for me. I said I would use this as the title if I was going to throw Mu Mu an exhibition one day.

His past experience and the sense of innocence he gave out strongly attracted me. Such innocence contained fearlessness and the attitudes to keep a distance from power. As he believed in freedom of art and nobility of love, he intentionally kept a distance from any forms of power structure. “My brave and free heart, who dares to reign over you…” (Wave, by Cai Qijiao, 1962)

Bei Dao wrote in an essay in memory of Cai Qijiao: in an era that featured nothing but class conflicts and struggles, it was love and art that helped him go beyond the limitation of resistance. And it was only love and art that could break through the causal chain of power and the invisible shackles of official language system; that could make a heart soft, and could restore the essence and free the soul.

As far as I’m concerned, in the face of power, we need to get rid of the idea of seizing power, and to watch out for the powerful and our own desires for power.

In 1999, I left Beijing for Shenzhen.

C: Mu Mu always seems to be a bit blue. She gazes silently at the sea, lost in the city and gains the courage to explore the Lop Nur. As a matter of fact, she is quite similar to the young generation of urban bourgeoisie. Has Mu Mu grown up? What makes her grow up? Will Mu Mu continue to appear in your work? Has her journey come to an end?

J: Now I feel that to let Mu Mu grow up was a mistake. I elaborately constructed an Adventures of Mu Mu. I think I’ve fulfilled her. It takes courage and a lot of love to grow up. When love is not enough, it is in need of courage. The issue of “love” will come along the process of our growth. Usually women care more about love than men. Hence, a woman’s growing up is brimming with dangers. I want Mu Mu to be happy forever, leading a worry-free life. If she’s little, she won’t think too much. In the foreword to Ellen Terry and Bernard Shaw: A Correspondence, he wrote: Only on paper has humanity yet achieved glory, beauty, truth, knowledge, virtue, and abiding love. It’s a pity that we cannot live only on paper.

C: After 2005, you created Our Love, M+1, W-1 and Androgenra one after another. The three pieces all dealt with identity, body and gender issues. Strictly speaking, the leading roles in Our Love were fictional to an extent. However, those who appeared in your works were real people in life. How did you meet and get to know them? You mentioned that Wa Wa had influence on the works you created during this period. If you don’t mind, could you please be more specific?

J: From 2000 to the end of 2010, Wa Wa played a part in almost every piece of my work. She helped me on many shooting sites. If she was otherwise engaged and couldn’t work together with me, she would text me. For instance, she would write: Though I cannot be there with you during the shooting this time, my heart is always with you. It’s just like I’m working with you.

On May 8, 2001, Wa Wa’s birthday, I had an assignment of shooting. When shooting I Am So Bored!, a female host modeled for me. I promised her that I would take a series of pictures of her for magazine useage, and she asked me to do it on that day. So Wa Wa had to be my assistant, running errands and arranging the setting-up. She was not quite happy about it, but she helped me in earnest anyway. It was over 9 o’clock at night when I finished shooting. We went to KFC at the Dongmen, and I sprained my ankle on the way. I was supposed to comfort her, but in the end, it was she that comforted me. Now that I look back, I felt I was really bad.

There was another incident, which was even worse. That was in 2006 when I shot the photographic series Things Would Turn Simpler Once They Happened. After we finished the work and went back home, it was over 12 o’clock. When we checked the films, we found that one reel of the film was missing. Wa Wa was in charge of the films, so I asked her to go back to the site and look for it. I can’t continue. When I feel I have the courage to face my memory, I would write in detail about the time Wa Wa and I spent together, working and creating. The grown-up version of Mu Mu was played almost all by Wa Wa.

C: The works you created afterwards, including Landscape of the Very Spirit, Things Would Turn Nails Once They Happened, Black Sentences and Sorry, all involved some social and political elements. They no longer featured things or people that you actually encountered in life. Are you someone who would struggle between “not able to take effective actions” and “act immediately”? Can these works be seen as a kind of interventions?

J: As far as I’m concerned, things don’t always keep their essential properties. When we look at them, we label them. The society imbues them with social properties, and politics imbue them with political properties. Landscape of the Very Spirit featured nothing special but landscape. If you want to know more about the background, I’d like to tell you the photographer at that time was a passionate mountain hiker who liked photography. And why did I go to shoot the famous “nail household” in Chongqing (Things Would Turn Nails Once They Happened)? Because I thought the shape of the building of that nail household looked like a protagonist of a play scene. As to Eternal Sleep, at that time I saw a picture of a burned face. The face belonged to an 80-year-old, who burned himself to protest forced demolition together with his son. Unfortunately, only he survived. The life afterwards would be a long nightmare.

C: You said when you were young (in your adolescent years) and learning painting, you thought of girls all day long. Later in your novels, there was often a girl who served as an object of sexual fantasies and spiritual salvation of a lonely, materially poor, sensitive and shy young man. In the works you created in 2009, such as 0.7% Salt, Curtain Call and Maiden, All Too Maiden! we seemed to see that the “innocent and perfect” disguise of these girls were stripped by reality. Except for the figures that media created, do you believe the beautiful objects appearing in our daydream exist in reality?

J: Many writers and scientists claimed that “woman is a mystery”. Stephen Hawking also said something like that. I think the reality is the subjectivity. I don’t think there’s a reality independent from our subjectivity. It is us that dress them with “innocence and beauty” and get obsessed with the idea of “innocence and beauty” in the first place. Then we indignantly strip the disguise (which never exists) and blame the reality that we tend to assume having nothing to do with us. I cannot control my care and compassion for them. Between the daydream and the reality, I cannot tell which one is more unlike a dream.

C: Diary, Love Letters and The Quiet Bodies all seem to be quite intimate. And that’s why they seem extremely beautiful; though “beautiful” may not be an appropriate word to describe contemporary art nowadays. Could you share with us what you were going through when you created these pieces?

J: When I was little I noticed, if you watched a movie, when a new reel of film was going to be put on, you would see some words fly through the screen rapidly. Before you could take a clear look, they disappeared. Then the story of the leading charaters of the movie continued. At that time, I was thinking that if the film was the text of the story and we played it frame by frame, when audience came out of the cinema, they would have no idea what happened, even though they had read the whole story. The secret was kept in the film. It was until 2004 that I was able to put that idea into real without costing me a fortune. That’s the background of Diary. Now that I look back, 2004 was a year of great changes in our life. We had our first child, which was a profound shift to our role of life. Moreover, I could no longer arrange my time as freely as I used to, as the place where I worked for didn’t allow me to work on a freelance basis. I thought this would be the beginning of a brand new story, and even I myself couldn’t figure out how the story would go.

I cannot really talk about Love Letters and The Quiet Bodies. To me, that period was gloomy. I wanted to understand things that were beyond my comprehension, for instance, love and transience. I thought it’s just an arrogant way of expression. But then I read a critique which mentioned that Mat Collishaw also restored to flowers and flames to express such idea. That was a relief to me, because I hadn’t seen those works of him and the example of Collishaw dispelled my concerns. It’s not just me telling to myself a private message sent to a particular person. It helped me become aware of the common emotions of human being, which would evoke an echo both in the east and the west, in the past and present.

C: Flowers, fireworks and light as an element or a theme constantly appear in your works. Sometimes they are romantic and transient, and sometimes they appear to be feeble and even cruel. Is there something in your life that is particularly related to these elements?

J: Wa Wa loved flowers very much. And she liked giving flowers to friends as presents. “Light” (fireworks are a kind of light) as an element and theme, indeed appears frequently in my works for quite a long time. But I cannot think of any of my personal life experience that has had some special connection with light. I guess I could only say that such an interest is purely intuitive.

In the interview about Nostalgia you mentioned the relationship between you and Zheng Zhihua. You said that “The plus sign between him and me does not mean that there is any connection between the works of us. Instead, it refers the connection between him and me as two individuals: we came from the same place; we used to dig up treasure together; we drank together; and it’s only 10-minute walk from his house to mine in Yuanjiang. About the connection between him and me, I think to put it this way is more objective and easier.” I think your words draw a good conclusion to today’s interview, and can serve as an entry point for the exhibition which we are preparing.