Ancient wisdom, modern breath
Talks / Lecture
Chinese-Australian multimedia artist Tianli Zu and Chinese art scholar Edmund Capon AM, OBE, are two people for whom Chinese art and culture are at the very heart of their lives. They discuss their appreciation of Chinese culture from two completely different backgrounds, and inevitably differing sensibilities and values, and explore ways to live a contemporary life while maintaining Chinese tradition.
Transcript of Ancient Wisdom, Modern Breath
Speakers: Kathryn Favelle (K), Edmund Capon (E), Tianli Zu (T)
Location: National Library of Australia
K: For those of you who don’t know me my name’s Kathryn Favelle, and I’m the Director of Community Outreach here at the National Library. And, as we begin this evening, I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land on which we are now very privileged to call home and I thank their elders past and present for caring for our land.
Shortly we’re going to hear from two individuals who have been, and still are, shaping the artistic landscape in Australia. We asked them here tonight as part of the Library’s public programs for our exhibition, Celestial Empire, Life in China, 1644 to 1911. Now Celestial Empire and its public programs would not be possible without the tremendous support of a group of wonderful partners. It’s been an extraordinary collaboration between government, commercial partners and individual donors.
First and foremost, I thank the National Library of China for sharing its extraordinary collection with us and with all of you and I hope tonight that you’ll take the opportunity, perhaps again for many of you. I know at least Roger in the audience has probably seen it a hundred times by now, but you can never get enough of it. I thank our partners, Shell in Australia, Seven Network, Wanda One Pty Ltd, Optus Singtel, Huawei, Cathay Pacific, TFE Hotels and our event partners, the ANU Centre for China and the World and Asia Society Australia, for their generosity. I also thank our government partners, the Australian Government, for support through the National Collecting Institution’s Touring Outreach Program and the Australian China Council and the ACT Government through Visit Canberra. But most importantly I thank all of you for joining us this afternoon to hear from Tianli Zu and Edmund Capon in conversation.
Born in Beijing in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, Tianli grew up with her grandparents, and they were her first introduction to an artistic life. Her grandmother taught her sewing and papercutting, and she learned calligraphy from her grandfather. Her work today draws on these folk art skills, juxtaposing the traditional with contemporary themes. And since moving to Australia in 1988, Tianli has displayed her work in both solo and group exhibitions around the country and in China, and now on the front of the National Library through Enlighten.
For many of you Edmund needs absolutely no introduction. It’s widely acknowledged that in over 30 years as Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales he was responsible for its transformation from small town institution into a world class gallery, showcasing the best of Australian and international art. His particular interests have long lain with China. Inspired in his youth, he achieved a Master of Philosophy in Chinese art and archaeology from London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies. He began his career in the textiles branch at the Victoria and Albert Museum later moving to become Assistant Keeper in the Far Eastern Section. During this time he undertook three cultural tours of China. Edmund arrived in Australia in 18 ... in 1978 ... 1888, we can wish ... and the rest as they say is history. He oversaw many of the most important exhibitions of Asian art seen in Australia including the 1983 blockbuster, ‘The Entombed Warriors.’
As it turns out, Tianli and Edmund are no strangers. Tianli was a finalist in last year’s Archibald Prize for her stunning portrait of Edmund in-situ at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I suspect that the time they spent together during the creation of that portrait would have encouraged some fascinating conversations, and I’m hoping that tonight we will get a little glimpse of the discussions that they shared during that process. We will have time for some questions, so save them up, and I hope that you will have a wonderful, wonderful evening. Please join me in welcoming Tianli Zu and Edmund Capon.
E: Thank you. Great. Thanks for asking us. I said we didn’t have serious discussions during the painting of that portrait, but we did get up to a lot of mischief, which is probably a lot more fun. However, I tell you, what the first thing I was really taken with when going ‘round the show—which I’ve now seen twice—was I had absolutely no idea what a wealth of material resided in this institution. It’s an absolutely amazing documentation down there I had absolutely no idea about,, and I was asking where, you know, who and when it was all collected, so I’ve got some questions for you later anyway.
Anyway, the point of the discussion, you know, what are we going to talk about? What’s the issue that we really want to address? And I'm just going to read something because I’ve written it. And then we can go. It is that in spite of China’s turbulent history over the last 200 years—essentially that’s the era of the Manchu reign which is the Qing dynasty which is the subject of the exhibition—China remains as firmly identified and identifiable as ever, and during those past two centuries or so China has witnessed and experienced the most extraordinary change. And above all, pressures from the outside world as the west sought to exploit the potential of the middle kingdom.
From the heights of power and confidence that were achieved in the early years of the Qianlong era towards the middle of the, you know, the eighteenth century— as you know the time that I came to Australia— those pressures gradually exploited the inevitable weaknesses of a closed and increasingly corrupt administration. The journey to the eventual collapse in 1911 of the dynastic system that had in essence been in existence for two millennia—certainly since Qin Shihuang’s time in unification—were the most dramatic in China’s historical evolution over 7,000 years.
Now the other thing that I want to make a point about is that in spite of all of those changes and all that sort of intensity of evolution, China’s cultural evolution over 7,000 years or more is essentially intact. The claim is often made, particularly by China, that, whereas the great civilisations that defined the western world, whether they be in Mesopotamia, Greece, into Egypt, Rome, have essentially disappeared, China’s continues. What we see in Chinese art today is the natural inheritor of what was happening in the material culture of, and indeed the ideological culture of, China 7,000 years ago.
So in spite of all those upheavals and turmoil, cultural identity and sensibilities have survived and today they flourish I think stronger than ever in a very different world to that of the mysterious and secluded one of the Manchu dynasty. Today China plays a huge and dynamic role in the global politics, economics, business etc, etc, we all know that. I was listening today when they were going on about selling Darwin Harbour to the Chinese. I thought we should sell Tasmania to the Chinese as well. They might buy Canberra, if you don’t watch out. And while Chinese artists are increasingly visible in the world and increasingly active in art practices and communities around the world, I believe the fabric of Chinese thought and sensibilities remain a sustaining and guiding characteristic of their cultural and creative psyche.
I remember my first visit to China, which was in September and October 1972, so it was sort of maybe towards the end of the Cultural Revolution and the idea of art and culture was completely off the agenda, it was absolutely nothing. The only remote activity in the visual arts was what they called Huxian peasant painters, these little sort of Soviet–style of paintings. But museums had closed, galleries were closed, universities were closed, everything was closed except communes and cadre camps and I spent five weeks discussing everything from Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao.
Anyway, it’s this notion about the continuity, about the tenacity if you like of the Chinese cultural heritage and the Chinese artistic sensibility that’s really going to be the substance of what we’re going to talk about. The whys and wherefores, the contradictions and the aspirations of Chinese artists today. Do they acknowledge their indelible instincts of their Chinese heritage? Do they want to? Do they want to be seen and recognised around the world? Do they see themselves as artists of the world or simply as Chinese artists? And we might venture too into the murky territory of censorship and freedom and the intervention of politics into artistic practice in China today.
So we’ve sort of devised some themes which are roughly: identity and definition is one, continuity is another, the continuity, the threads of ideological and spiritual notions and ideas and values, nature and the landscape and then the cotemporary diaspora of Chinese activities and artists. I think we’re going to talk about each theme as we go along, are we?
T: Okay, sounds good.
E: Have we discussed this or not? Yes, I think we have.
T: Oh yeah, we have. Briefly.
E: Okay so the first one is about the identity and as I said China claims this extraordinary and tenacious cultural, artistic, evolutionary history and I think it’s one that they can claim with some justification. And I thought I’d begin with putting up there the most familiar of the contemporary artists, Ai Weiwei, who’s very naughty, we all know that Ai Weiwei’s naughty. He had a big show which was actually really terrific at the Royal Academy last year, opened in September in London. And I sat for an entire afternoon outside the front of the Royal Academy having a chat with him, and he’s a selfie gone bonkers, I can tell you. He must have taken on his phone at last 100 photographs of us sitting there and then he picked up my phone and took about 50 on my phone as well. We sat there and talked about, well of course his recent release, that was in September, only I think he only got his passport back in July, wasn’t it? Something like that. Xi Jinping actually gave it to him, I’m told, or that’s what he told me. And he’s now in Beijing and in Berlin and travelling around the world, he’s got a show that’s in, as you know probably, Melbourne with Andy Warhol.
[Slide image 1: Ai Weiwei, Coloured Vases, 2006.]
But he interests me because what we’re talking about is the tenacity of the Chinese cultural and artistic sensibilities, and I think Ai Weiwei absolutely personifies that. And I’ve just thrown up one image here which you probably all know. It’s actually in the Queensland Art Gallery, although there’s lots of them. He once told me these are Neolithic pots from the Yangshao culture, the Neolithic culture in Gansu province, and you might think, oh they’re five, six thousand years old, these pots, great treasures. Well you can go to the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, which is in Stockholm, where they’ve got a storeroom of about 3,000 of them, so they’re very common, let’s put it like that.
Anyway, Ai Weiwei told me years ago that he got about 1,200 of these things, of these five to six thousand year old pots, and he did this with them, he coloured them, covered them in very contemporary ... When did he do these? 2000 or before? I think it’s a bit before.
T: This is 2008.
E: Yeah. No, no ... oh really?
T: Probably was a series, yeah.
E: Oh well he was doing them in the late ‘90s. So anyway the point is he was covering these these many multi-thousand year old pots in very contemporary dayglow colours. And as you know he’s done one with Coca-Cola ‘round it and all that. What intrigued me when I first saw him, I said, well look here is an object that speaks of its time, ie our time, and yet underneath that paint is a 6,000 year old ceramic made in northwest China all that time ago and it is actually untouched. So it carries its history within it and yet it’s got this wonderful veneer of modernity. I thought there was a lovely kind of, connotation that he’s making there, and he did the same, as you probably know, with bits of furniture, he took bits of furniture apart and sort of screwed them up and made them all angular and very different shapes etc. And he’s done it with a number of other things. He’s infamous of course for dropping a Han pot. People would say oh, what a terrible thing to do. Well again to be honest there’s plenty more where that came from so we shouldn’t ... I know we shouldn’t say that.
To me Ai Weiwei is the embodiment of this sense of fundamental continuity in the artistic and creative sensibilities, and he’s still working there today as we know, beavering away, being as mischievous as ever and upsetting the authorities whenever he possibly can, which on the whole I think is a good thing. I think you should say something, Tianli.
T: Okay, alright. I was probably ... interesting just listen. I probably go back to you posed the question just a little before. You were saying, ‘do the Chinese artists simply want to be recognised as Chinese artists,’ and for me, if I answer your question I would say, I’m Chinese and an artist, so no.
E: I’ll tell you, you all know Tracey Moffatt, don’t you? Okay. Tracey said— she’s a feisty woman, she’s terrific—she says ‘I’m an artist first and an Aboriginal second.’
T: No, I don’t put first or second. Equally, I’m Chinese and an artist.
E: Schizophrenic, that’s your problem.
T: Okay and before I start I must review something, that when Edmund and I were talking about this conversation, I documented our conversation. Meanwhile my emails, I wrote the word breath and I thought it was breathe with the ‘e.’
E: To breathe.
T: Yeah, to breathe. And Edmund never corrected me until one day I found out the typo myself. However Edmund was not only like [did not only like] the typo, but also suggested to use it as the conversation title, ‘Ancient Wisdom, Modern Breath’. The ancient ... wisdom is not knowledge that we can obtain from the library, wisdom is obtained of course in your local knowledge but it’s experience. Like Edmund has wisdom. And the ancient breath, without the ‘e,’ is important. This kind of like typo make me think at how often, very, very often as a Chinese and an artist, that I don’t even think about the Chinese tradition, however as a consequence it outpour spontaneously. Northern Song poet, Sushi, once wrote ‘I do not recognise Mt Lu’s true appearance because I am in this very mountain” ‘不识庐山真面目，只缘身在此山中’. That’s 北宋诗人苏轼. Like many orientalists, like what Edmund provides here, is from an outsider’s perspective, that away from the mountain. Seeing the Chinese history in one breath like we just heard, the whole breath, that’s very similar to the Buddhism and there is the real point. And the ying, the horizontal breath, we saw, we witnessed that he was winding through from the history back to present, that in the horizontal breath, that’s the western terms.
The other reason that it’s been difficult for me to recognise however is the fact that the Chinese tradition is fascinating to the western world.
The western world … yeah, the Chinese fan, the Chinese tradition over time, internally made it ... its value seemingly dull, that I do not recognise. And also because from age of 15 I was trained in western classical way in fine arts and influenced by the western literature, art and art history, therefore it’s very easy to overlook the inevitable influences and the neutering that I received from Chinese tradition. Only recent years, to be honest, I re-examined my works. After I intuitively created them, I recognised that how my art have been spreading and developing Chinese tradition pervasively, yet unintentionally.
[Slide image2: Tianli Zu, The Ox Lantern, Chinese Zodiac Exhibition 2016, Martin Place, Sydney, steel & Perspex tile. Commissioned by City of Sydney]
It makes perfect sense that living nearly equal in number of years in China and Australia my art inescapably carries Chinese tradition because it’s embedded in my vein and out of no choice, simultaneously outpouring it to the present day in the context of contemporary art. In my view it perhaps living in Australia that is outside what the Chinese poet said, the Mt Lu, had made this ancient modern connection more coherent and significant.
It is a similar experience to American artist Mark Tobey merged with abstract expression with Chinese ink painting. While it opened a new horizon for him, he never left his western perspective. To me, my work view of life and art was deeply rooted from my birthplace, China, that is, applying the interplay of ying-yang to adapt to the disharmonised contemporary world. In Taoist Zhuang-tzu’s words, I am ‘walking in two paths at once’, the ancient, modern, the east and the west.
Have we got onto the identity yet?
E: There’s one other image in this bit …
T: Okay, is that slide on identity?
E: Well no, no ...
T: Which one?
E: Yes, it is, very much. We’re talking about this ...
[Slide image 3: Xu Bing, A Book from the Sky between 1987 and 1991.]
Just going back to this sense of perpetual evolution and how it is that China has seemed to have maintained its own pathway and I actually think there are two very fundamental reasons, and very, very practical reasons, which have been a big factor. One is geography, China’s actually geographically very well defined, and the other of course is language. And, you know, the language has not really changed over 2,000 years. And so I’m going to show you this picture which is Xu Bing’s book, A Book from the Sky, which was first shown in an exhibition we did at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in ... oh I can’t remember now, about 1980s, late 80s or 90s, or something like that and I was really stupid ‘cause I didn’t buy it and Queensland bought it, they own it now, but there are actually many of versions of it. And it’s not only a beautiful work of art and it’s a beautiful experience with these things but of course like so much Chinese art it’s actually got real content and whenever I look at that, because all the characters in that are just slightly wrong and it’s all about how misleading information can be.
And of course it’s a very pertinent and topical political observation. And it reminded me of the late Ming and the early Qing period. Many of the artists of that time were part of the Ming aristocracy and they got defeated and the Manchus came in, those thugs from the northeast, and artists, like Zhu Da particularly, were painting these beautiful things. And we look at them now and just think they’re wonderful moments of expression like a bird on a rock and the rock’s floating. But of course there’s all kinds of political connotations, like about instability and about uncertainty because of it was a comment on the political condition in the same way that this is.
We should move on to our next theme of continuity.
T: That’s alright, that’s just how the identity as I’m paper-cutting, but it’s nothing really about… Let’s move onto the next one.
E: Now the next is Zhang Xiaogang; you’ve seen the work of this artist? You probably have. It’s very, very distinctive, I mean obviously again it’s very political. They’re all called ‘Bloodline,’ so it’s all about tracing your ancestry et cetera, and there’s something rather stark about the imagery of his work. In a way it’s very contemporary, the work is contemporary in the sense that it you know it’s got a contemporary glass, it’s got a modern glass. You look at it and you say ‘oh that’s a modern painting,’ which of course it is, but my feeling about it is the texture of it and in a sense even the message of empathy within it is very much part of a continuing Chinese tradition and a continuing Chinese aesthetic as well, even though painting in China, like calligraphy ... calligraphy and painting are indivisible and in fact in the Chinese tradition, as I'm sure you probably know you know the three perfections of painting, poetry and calligraphy.
Calligraphy is deemed to be the highest of all arts because it contains both meaning and definition you know spirit and meaning. And I find even in a painting like this, I can see and sense that sense, that quality of continuity, that same empathy. Even though the materials are different, the use of shading and volume and expression of volume is different, to me it is nonetheless a natural inheritor of, you know, the Chinese tradition of the Song. You know I look at that and I think of the softness of a southern Song landscape painting by Mi Fei or somebody like that. It’s a long bow perhaps, but to me this is in essence the consequence of that eternal journey of continuity.
T: Now can I just ...
E: What have you got?
T: Can I just go back to this one? I have to talk about this one, thinking of you talking about the calligraphy.
[Slide image 4: Tianli Zu, Nüwa is Pregnant II 2012, cotton paper, Chinese tea & ink: 420 x 240 cm. Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney.]
This is me, if you can think of, cutting, using knife as a brush, okay? So the way I talking, it’s going back to identity now, the way I dealing with identity of Chinese tradition comes through the metaphor and the idioms of my art. In my art I narrate Chinese myth, folklore or folklore-like story and the childhood memories, to unpack the hidden meaning of the idioms, the later highly relevant specially progressing ways or addressing the ills of the modern society. The reason that I constantly drawing back to the folklore is because they are my personal experiences, and secondly the resources can never be used up.
For example this distinguished cut-out form and animation style was influenced by my early 1980s experience with Shanxi paper cut artist and the folk theatre which I embedded with the profound belief from Chinese culture and ying-yang. The traditional Chinese paper cuts can be compared as primitive art, an inexpensive act of cutting palm size red paper. It is a Chinese tradition activity conducted among British women preparing for Chinese New Year or celebrative events, decorations, however my paper cuts normally site-specific. This is four and a half metres, I think, suspended from ceiling to floor, multilayered in some cases; large-scale.
And using this kind of paper cuts, it’s a familiar but unfamiliar ink size, these kind of familiar and unfamiliar aspect in my view could provoke thoughts and the interpretation of the effect quite effectively and that’s cannot be separated. As Edmund’s talking about, continuity, and I think continuity is the most fundamental theory in Daoism. One way to achieve that for me is to extend the philosophy and the methodology through my art practice. Because I’m a multimedia artist so my art is more for the crossing discipline, it engages handmade with technology, the cinematic aspect similar to shadow puppets which is originated from the Han dynasty but is also in line with the practice of the South American artist, Sir William Pentridge. A method of transforming live forms enable me to using small two-dimensional paper cuts to create and manipulate moving images in order to narrate stories that are similarly ancient yet timeless. Indeed the folktale-like story comments on current social conflicts. What I was seeking is to outcome the boundaries of the traditional two-dimensional undurable paper cuts to a three-dimensional paperless and a durable work. Such attempt aimed to preserve a lost craftsmanship by making it possible to prevent disappearance and sustain the richness of the ancient culture. Are we moving onto the next one?
E: Yeah, that’s a bit frightening, isn’t it? That’s in the white rabbit collection, Cang Xin.
[Slide image 5: Cang Xin, Shamanism series 2006.]
We’re talking now about the next sort of broad themes which is the spiritual and ideological threads that still continue. And this is an artist who was born in Mongolia and I think he lives in Beijing now, doesn’t he?
E: Yeah. But he’s fascinated with Shamanistic rites and this is the source of his, the inspiration for, most of his work. And again it comes back to this point about these threads, these sort of natural instincts which are so indelibly inscribed into the soul and the spirit of, you know, of the creative soul and the spirit of Chinese artists wherever they happen to be. And I was intrigued by this ‘cause when I did a show for White Rabbit I put this in and I asked some questions indirectly of the artist, ‘cause he didn’t come out, about his interest in these old Shamanistic traditions—mainly from, you know, northwest China—but also about other things. And he said yes, you know, I studied the Confucian text, I studied the Zhuangzi, I studied all these things and somehow I was quite intrigued by the fact that here was an artist very much about time, you know, with all the sort of angst and issues, and yet his mind, his soul, his creative spirit was absolutely driven by the ideological and spiritual sensibilities that were deeply enshrined in his imagination.
And so again you know I remember talking to Ai Weiwei too about that ‘cause he loves Daoism of course, as we all do. You mentioned it but there’s ... Has anybody read a book of essays by Pierre Ryckmans? You know The Hall of Uselessness? It’s got all his other wonderful essays in about French literature and about all kinds of things, Catholicism, but there’s a number of essays about China which are absolutely brilliant. But what I really liked about it was the title, ‘cause the title is taken from a line at the end of the fourth chapter of the Zhuangzi and it was written in late fourth century BC, which simply states everybody knows the value of what is useful, nobody understands the value of what is useless and I thought you know to me that’s a line that we should never forget. ‘Cause I was doing a talk about architecture the other day and I said you realise it’s the useless things that turn a building into a piece of architecture, it’s the useless things, the non-functional things, which add that value. And I was talking to Ai Weiwei about this too, ‘cause he was actually quite interested in Daoism and ... less so in Confucianism, but certainly in this hard to define spirit, the tenacity in a sense of the abstract, in the imagination.
Now are you going to show another picture?
T: You were just saying Ai Weiwei will never like Confucianism…
E: No, no, no ...
T: ... because [for Confucius the] number one thing is obey and you think he would do anything near that?
E: Confucianism is all about hierarchy.
T: That’s right.
E: Ritual and hierarchy.
T: Well his family was from there but he denied, he chose to deny the authority and take a different part.
E: There’s a very important thing in Confucianism though which is that he essentially believed that governments by ritual rather than law was preferable and I think I agree with that. In this he prefaced the age of reason by about 15 centuries, he prefaced Montesquieu.
T: Just touch upon what Edmund said about the ideological and the spiritual aspect, that’s how I, reflecting on my work, I think it’s a constant inspiration and exploration, that I’m still very new to the field. So while many questions I believe ways cannot be answered, my art constantly addressing this kind of social phenomena, in particular shadow character that is socially undesirable because it is a counterpart of the orthodox, that’s counting Ai Weiwei, we’re on the same platform, I think. My subject come directly from inspiration of reality. Ironically about the social expectations, such as I wanted food, taboo or forbidden behaviours that are abhorred in the perceived civilised modern world and by conventional societies.
[Slide image 6: Tianli Zu, Shadows of Strange Things (installation) 2013, acetate, acrylic & animation projection. Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney.]
The reason for exposing shadow, merely because it is often repressed. The core of my art practice has always been shadow and light, yin and yang interplay.
The significance of the opposition’s existence brings out the harmony. Achieving spiritually is an act of transcending material to immaterial by manifesting unity. It is driven by coincidence or chance in western terms. Daoists emphasise coincidence as a pre-existence with space while Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist, Carl Gustav Jung, encountered chance. To extend its unconsciousness means that developed further of this concept. Different approaches by result but the result is the same. Once you have achieved something by chance you have reached the unity, because there is no distinction between here and there, you and that object. It’s a spontaneous occurence and existence. So that’s how my view on these spirituality. And we’re coming into…?
E: Yeah, we’re going to talk about the landscape, we’ll come to this picture in a minute. In Chinese art, you know, the lands, the theme of the landscape has been the most tenacious and the fundamental theme, and it’s not about recording what the landscape looks like. If you think of a traditional Chinese landscape painting, a hanging scroll with all these rocks, normally there’s things all over the place. No landscape looks like that and it’s not about interpreting what the eye sees and the process was completely different too. The artist in China, right from you know the Tang dynasty onwards, would go out, experience nature, absorb it, absorb the experience, contemplate it and then go back home and work the painting in the studio. [The Western notion of painting en] plein air was simply not on.
And in the seventeenth century there was a wonderful artist called Shitao, or Daoji, who wrote a treatise on the painting and in that he said the single brush stroke is the source of all things you know it’s about that way that up here’s the mind and the heart and the soul, something travels down the arm to the hand, the hand is holding the brush, goes through the brush to the ink and then onto the paper. This is this lovely sense of perpetual flow.
So the landscape painting traditionally was not about representing nature, it was about exploring man’s relationship with nature, that was the fundamental purpose of Chinese painting. And it’s worth just touching on something else here in this context which is the notion of art for art’s sake which we hold so dear in western traditions is actually unfamiliar in Chinese art. All Chinese art has a meaning, it all has a purpose. This notion of you know of just making a painting and framing it and putting it up on a wall ... Paintings are not hung on the walls, they’re taken out and read, rolled up and put away so the whole experience is completely different. It is very much an intellectual idea as opposed to merely a visual idea.
(Slide image 7: Jun Chen, Peach Blossom I 2009, oil on canvas: 137 x 200 cm, The Hughes Gallery.)
And what’s interested me, and I’ve put this up because it’s a very different thing. This is Jun Chen, Chinese artist but living in Australia, and you might know his work, he showed with Ray Hughes a lot. And what interested me about his work is that he’s you know defiantly determinedly taking the oil, the brush and the canvas. He’s very strongly and very deliberately taking the western technique and the western medium and yet every time I look at those paintings I say ‘oh my god, that’s done by a Chinese artist.’ And the first time I even saw his work, even though I you know I didn’t see the name or anything, I had no idea who it was, I said ‘that’s interesting, that must be a Chinese artist who’s done that.’ It’s about this sensibility, this interpretation of the landscape and that you know that’s a fairly sort of realistic view of the landscape, I know, and I accept that but I will still maintain that it’s fundamentally an interpreted view and fundamentally an expression of Jun Chen’s feeling, association and you know and emotional context of the landscape. Off you go.
T: I think that’s exactly right.
T: Yeah, you give some very insightful knowledge and I think to me it’s the aesthetic of the Chinese to see what is the beauty and the beauty actually is coming from the inside, maybe it’s not even in the flower but that’s also same, Agnes Martin, who say the same thing, the beauty’s not in the rose but the beauty is in [one’s mind].
E: Who did you say, Agnes Martin?
T: Agnes Martin, who say the beauty is not in ...
E: What, all those straight lines?
T: Yes. Okay, well also ...
E: She’s a minimalist.
T: He’s a minimal, I am a minimalist too, and I think ... well I cannot agree with you more, the inseparable relationship between the human being and the nature, the individual and the cosmos or ancient Chinese philosophy address ... actually that’s addressed in the divination text, the I Ching, 3,000 years ago? Known as the Book of Changes, yet nowadays influenced the western world understanding the eastern thought. In Jung's foreword, actually, of I Ching that he wrote for Richard Wilhelm’s translation, he claimed Wilhelm’s grasp of living meaning of the text gives his version of I Ching, the depth of perspective that an exclusively academic knowledge of the Chinese philosophy that can never be provided. So that means in my view, okay, that while the nature and the universe is unknown, we do not know what is the infinite, but for Chinese we study self and by studying self we know what is the nature trying to engage with us].
E: This is new.
E: This is new.
T: For art we don’t copy nature, the art becomes part of the nature. That’s what also artist Hans Arp who was saying—that’s a Dadaist—we confuse the distinction between the art and nature. So the art is not like imitate or copy the nature, the art is nature so I’m referencing it because I think they also stand in the eastern point of view. I agree with you so much that when you say there’s always a meaning of the work. My work is very abstract.
[Slide image 8: Tinali Zu, White Shadows (detail) 2013, acetate, acrylic and animation projections, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.]
You could see how these things seems very dedicated cut but they all very concrete to me. Maybe ambiguous to the other. People always say oh how beautiful. When I was showing my work at the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, I had animation, was a whole wall full of this thing. That’s actually ... it’s part of poo, it’s shit. Often I feel like I expecting something [good] and suddenly something unexpected, unfortunate events happen to me, so I said, ‘oh shit!’ you know? So I enlarged this kind of drama, a whole wall of animation shit ...
E: Why did you do that?
T: I’ll just quickly finish that story, it was really funny because one of the old man, a senior man asked me what is that? He pointed out a pile of poo and I … he was a Chinese and I look at him, I couldn’t answer to him that was poo and I would start and a little child walked past and then he stopped the girl, and he said, ‘you know what is that? That’s ice-cream.’ So that’s very interesting answer and that remind me of story. There are two scholars walking on the road and then they saw an old man was sitting there in meditation, and one scholar went to him, ‘Meditation? Have you ever seen Buddha?’ And the old man got up, smiled, looked at the scholar and said ‘I think you look like Buddha.’ And the scholar said [exhales breath], ‘I think you look like piece of shit!’ So he went off. And the other scholar pushed this scholar and he said ‘you know he just give it back to you?!’ Because in the Buddhist mind, you see, you think things what you see. That’s revealing your own mind, when Buddha sees things beautiful. And we talk about Jun Chen’s work when see that outside world is beautiful because his mind is calm.
So that’s how the old man taught me a lesson, when I see the world it’s entangled, I’m always entangled with my life. What the old man must be very wise. What he sees is pure, like Agnes Martin. I’m bringing her back again, is it’s a calm world. So it depends on the individual interpretation of the things, so art is very little. It’s only give a suggestion, it never has answers.
E: Okay just the last little bit was ...
T: Last one.
E: ... was about the diaspora, I mean we can just touch on it briefly because we’ve got to do some questions and you know Chinese artists are now moving around the world and particularly here.
[Slide image 9: Guan Wei, The Journey to Australia 2013, MCA.]
And Guan Wei of course it’s probably one of the most prevalent of those artists who lives now in Sydney and Beijing you know but there’s plenty more and about how in spite of their moving you know there is just like the Chinese diaspora anywhere in the world, I think, you take your culture, your heritage, your deeply inscribed sensibilities and traditions with you and it intrigued ... I think Guan Wei is a very good example of an artist who’s managed to you know to find his feet both in Australia and in China and somehow create a beautiful language that speaks to both worlds. They’re very autobiographical works, as you probably know, about the movement of peoples but I'm also thinking of artists in other parts of the world.
There’s a, very elderly now, Chinese painter in Paris called Zao Wou-ki, who’s been there for 50 years now and you know if you look you know looked at your landscape before, it’s actually very like Zao Wou-ki’s in some ways. It’s about instinctive brushwork, it’s about the fluency, and it’s about the honesty of that pure expression. And that’s another interpretation of the diaspora and you know it’s exactly what Tianli’s now doing too, you know, working here in an environment which is now a very cosmopolitan one. But it ... without any sense of prejudice or any sense of abandonment of your own traditions, and yet translating and transforming them into something that speaks to you know to us in our world today.
[Slide image 10: Tianli Zu, “Edmund, your Twombleys are behind you” 2015, acrylic on linen: 198.5 x 152. 5 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales.]
That is a lovely painting of a terrible subject.
T: As I said I was trained in the classical way, so when I had the opportunity to paint Edmund you know what can you do? You take the opportunity but I did say to Edmund, I said Edmund, I haven’t done painting for many years because I’ve been doing cut-outs and projections, animations of that but you don’t lose such opportunity when you have something.
The reason I want to end my note on this, last year’s Archibald painting of Edmund, because I think it could be seen as a mutual dialogue. That responding to the five themes we talked about, we touched upon the light and shadow, the minimal and the infinite absent and present not only resonated with the law of nature but also reveals the Chinese tradition continue encountering the western world in the contemporary sense, I think.
T: It’s Twombly. I love Twombly, I love Twombly.
E: This story. Has anybody actually seen this triptych of paintings? Which are fabulous. I first saw them in 1999. There was a show at the National Gallery in London which is a really interesting notion, they’d asked 12 artists from around the world to respond to their favourite painting. And Twombly, his favourite painting was Turner and The Fighting Temeraire so he created these pictures. That’s where I saw them. And in 2003 ... no, I’d met Twombly somewhere ... oh at a ... alfresco picnic in Tuscany, of course, and I loved his work anyway and I’ve suddenly thought I think those paintings are so wonderful and I contacted Gagosian, his dealer, in about 2003 or something and then I rang Twombly who you know has lived in Italy since the ‘50s and he said yeah they’re still in store in London so I brought them out to Sydney, hung them in the Old Courts of the Gallery in the hope that I could raise the two and a half million dollars for the three pictures. Not the slightest interest, not the slightest interest.
So I left there for about six weeks and I thought this is a lost cause so got them all packed up and the shippers came the next morning, I said ‘that was a mistake.’ So I rang the shippers, I said ‘don’t send them, bring them back.’ They came back, I hung them again and literally within a month we’d raised the money. It was very odd but I had three absolute wonderful friends and eccentrics who were dead against it. Geoffrey Smart, Margaret Olley and Barry Humphries. Geoffrey Smart story’s a long and complicated one ‘cause they go back a long way, a couple of old queens. And Olley didn’t like them at all, she’s ‘oh Edmund, do you really want to buy those wobblies?’ Kept on calling my ‘wobblies.’ And Barry Humphries didn’t like them and Barry actually wrote a little poem that he’d published in The Spectator in London and he said oh Edward’s friend, the pain ... Mr Twombly, the artist, who cannot draw. And on that note we shall finish. Okay. Thank you, thanks for your patience.
[End of recording]