Long time no see... (+René Magritte)

It's April! 

Gosh time flies even when you are suffering through the mudslide of grades, homework and the flood of college results of your own and your friends. 

I realize that I hadn't been blogging for nearly 3 months and I figured it is time for me to come back and start blogging again! Since the end of January, a lot of good things happened in my life, one of which is my first-choice college acceptance- I'm going to Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts next school year! I am so very excited to start this new journey and of course continue to blog about art even in Boston. I think I am going to be coming back to Beijing and Tokyo quite often during the breaks so I hope I will be able to continue to blog about Asian contemporary art as well! 

During the consecutive Chinese new year break and the spring break, i visited various museums and galleries around Beijing and some in Hakone and Tokyo. I went to a big-scaled exhibition of the Belgian Surrealist artist, René Magritte. Literally every work that I've seen from him was all there in the National Art Center in Roppongi, Tokyo- including the rough pen sketch of his famous The Treachery of Images (a.k.a/ "This is not a pipe" painting) and the Lovers series. 

One thing I noticed about Japanese exhibitions is that exhibition tend to be full in terms of both the audience and how the artwork is displayed. There were (probably) over 200 pieces by Magritte jammed inside a very small exhibition space, making the space between each work extremely narrow. Because the exhibition was a major exhibition that was advertised everywhere around Tokyo, there were so many people visiting even on Thursday when we visited. Because the paintings were literally just hang on the walls with equal distance from one another throughout the exhibition, it was a bit boring and tedious to walk through crowds of people in front of each work but I'd say it was so worth it because I thought the paintings were so amazing. 

Magritte's famous for his surreal and strange paintings that play with dimensions, proportions and colors. 

The Human Condition (image from Wikipedia)

The Human Condition (image from Wikipedia)

One of many favorites from this exhibition was a painting of a canvas titled the Human Condition, which depicts a canvas that reflects the landscape seen from the window behind the canvas. As a result, the canvas becomes something that looks transparent and partially invisible. I think the artist's virtuosity to create depth and the lack of depth is visible in how he tricks the viewers' eyes and it's interesting to see how Magritte turned the object into something that is both the reality and the representation of reality. In this way, this painting is quite similar to the Treachery of Images which focuses on the relationship between image and language. 

Magritte seems to really love confusing the audience as seen in the piece, the Empire of Light. 

The Empire of Light (image from wikipedia)  Is it night or day? 

The Empire of Light (image from wikipedia) 

Is it night or day? 

As much as I loved the paintings, I didn't like how the museum displayed the works chronologically in the order of the years of creation, for it made it harder to see the connection between the works he created in different time periods. But Magritte's constant use of the same motifs was visible throughout his career and it was easy to notice how the motifs changed throughout his life. He often used the same motifs of clear sky, a mysterious man with a top hat, words and umbrellas... but it seems like they represented different things during different times of his life. 

His style also changed dramatically during the years of world war, which was easy to see because of the chronological arrangement of this exhibition. 

I remember one of the curators of the Ullens museum telling me that a good curator takes the risk to select and arrange artwork in non-chronological way. Perhaps it's because the museum is a national, state-owned museum why the pieces were arranged in this safe, chronological manner. 

Anyway, I was so lucky to have the opportunity to see so many of Magritte's work in person (and for free- Thursday was highschooler's day)! I also went to see the Louvre exhibition in the same museum, so I will write up that in a later entry! 


Art History

I officially started my Art History course online today! 

After finishing my first ever course online, Eastern and Western thoughts, a comparative religion course, I was honestly nervous about starting another semester of online course because it was hard to navigate around an online platform and deal with the online censorship here in China. 

After looking through the resources, the timeline and the syllabus for this art history course though, I'm honestly excited! The teacher seems nice, the platform is more organised and much, much neater than before.

As my first assignment, I had to look at some medieval art from Austria and Spain. I was asked to choose two artworks from the Museum of Modern Art collection from the medieval time period and write up what makes these two works particularly "medieval." 

My favorite artwork was called the Opening of the Fifth Seal, created around 1180 AD in Burgos, Spain. 

Photo credit to the Museum of Modern Arts

Photo credit to the Museum of Modern Arts

It is a part of an illuminated manuscript, which is one of the important kinds of art from the medieval period. I learned that creating such manuscripts was the only way to note down and record events to pass onto the next generation before the invention of the print press. I particularly love the natural shades of red and navy- they are so lovely. These colours actually remind me of colours of Japanese kusaki zome, which are colours made from natural dye made from plants. I also like the intricate gold detailing on the parchment. I also learned that this use of gold is also an unique characteristic of medieval art. 

I'm thinking about creating a collage of my favorite artworks on the wall in front of my desk at home or my art desk at school. It would be cool to create something that is like a sum of what I've learned and experienced during my two years in IB Arts, blogging, and semester of taking art history online. 

Oh speaking of blogging... Liu Wei's interview article is coming soon! 


Interview with Wang Jiangwei: Part 2

(Continued from part 1)

Q: At the Guggenheim, you put on a whole show about the perception of time. (“Time Temple”) How do you perceive time and what does it mean to you? 

In the essay I wrote for the catalogue for Guggenheim, I mentioned six points regarding the idea of time. The first point is the idea of “rehearsal” that I talked about earlier. At the time, when I was writing this essay for Guggenheim, it was April. I knew that the show was opening in the September of the same year. So the "rehearsal" was to recognize the time gap between April and September. 

The second is the idea of the present, as in the time we are passing right now. The idea comes from The Yellow Signal, the exhibition I did a while ago at the Ullens (Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, UCCA).  A lot of people, when they look at that show [filled with installations], thinks its about“space”- but how can you have space without time? 

I’m interested in exploring "potential." When you are describing a person, you would say that this person has “a lot of potential”, but why wouldn’t you say that this person has a lot of “abilities,” as in abilities he has now? I wonder if this goes the same for all things, that whatever object that we see right now- however exists- is only part of something more, and I wonder if there is a potential, or even something beyond its potential. This is what I am interested in. 

Q: What are you inspired by?

Artist don’t have inspirations. My “inspirations” come from my wondering about ways to escape from the world of what we already know and are familiar with. 

Q: Is that similar what you meant when you said in one of your published interviews, that your “biggest enemy is certainty”?

Yes- what I want to see is beyond the realm of what we already know.

Q: How do you create your installation pieces? I am interested in particular the installation of thousand basketballs and basketball hoops displayed in the Yellow Signal show, called “We Know What We Are Doing…”.

Today’s artists’ process differs a lot from those of the past, in that artworks are not completely handmade, but not completely outsourced. Now it’s about the right balance between the two. 

For example, in the past, the main challenges for multimedia or video artists was to figure out what they do not already know in terms of technology and techniques. Their challenges were quite easy to solve. 

To give a more personal example, when I put on a video production in the past, I had a team of 30 to 40 people including actors, actresses, cameraman, make up staff and assistants. The role I played there was the director. But after the whole filming process was done, I did all the editing by myself. From 3 minute to 3 hour long videos, I edited everything on (pointing at the desktop computer on his desk) that computer, including the 8 pieces displayed at the Ullens show. If a video work is not edited by the artist himself, then it is basically a fully commercial film. This is an example that shows the type of relationship I have with my video works, but the process is very similar with my installations and theater pieces. 

I didn’t make the basketballs in “We Know What We Are Doing…”, of course. My job was to decide how many basketballs and basketball hoops to use and how to lay them out. 13 people helped me organize and lay out the basketballs on the floor. Everyday during that exhibition, there was someone from UCCA, from my studio and from the audience who decided what to do with those basketballs. This continued for 21 days, so I called the installation the "21 day theater."

Q: Interesting!

The thing about contemporary art is that the dynamic between the technological aspects of the work and the artist and the studio changes a lot during the process of creation. And I think this is very interesting.  

If you are going to study art history in university, there are three things that you cannot ignore. One is philosophy, one is politics, and the last one- that not many people talk about yet- is the artist’s working process, the sociology of an artist’s studio. I believe that this topic will change a lot of Greenbergian principles.

Q: Thank you so much! 

After interviewing Mr. Wang Jiangwei, I realize that much of the meanings or ideas behind an artwork could remain a mystery in the first sight and can only be uncovered by directly talking to the artist and trying to understand his way of thinking. 

The interview with the artist was truly eyeopening. The funny thing was that I understood his ideas as much as I found them confusing. His ideas were very complex, scientific, philosophical and hard to understand, but at the same time, seeing his works and listening to his answers made very clear the logic behind each of his seemingly complex works. 

After this interview, I am even more excited to pursue Art administration and/or history in college and gain more knowledge about artists and art movements in the past in order to understand artists in the present better. I want to continue learning about art and directly ask artists questions whenever I have the opportunity to and expand my own perspective. 

One thing that stuck with me during the interview was towards the end of the interview, when Mr. Wang stated that when and if I step into the art world in the future, I will become "the guardian of his grave," as an artist. I cannot explain exactly what this means...but weirdly, it feels like I understand. The job as a person working in the art industry in the future will be to preserve the artist's works as well as his ideas and thoughts behind it, and to prolong the beauty of art even after the artist stops creating. 




Interview with Wang Jiangwei: Part 1

At his studio 

At his studio 

“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)