IN THE NEWS
Juergen Teller & Xiang Jing
By Joanna Kawecki
Beijing-born and based artist Xiang Jing is one of the few Chinese artists that has successfully reached global critical acclaim through her works based on human relation- ships and politics on a deeper level, exploring female existence. Her poignant and contemplative sculptures seek a truth and ‘ongoing philosophical inquiry’ that reflect women in contemporary society today, both locally and internationally, culturally.
JOANNA: What is a typical day for you in Beijing, at the studio or researching?
XIANG JING: My life is very easy to describe, as it almost keeps the same rhythm for as long as I can recall. My regular daily routine is to work in the studio during the day every day. There’s an old Chinese say- ing – act consistently for several decades as if it was day 1 – that would be very precise for me. Sculpting is a very time-consuming process. On one hand, there is endless labour work; on the other hand, to cope with mundane and repetitive work, I must keep my focus sharp and physical strength strong. So since I started creating artwork 20 years ago, I chose to break from all the bad habits and live a rigid and regular life, except when there are exhibitions or travels. Again, my routine is that I work in the studio during daytime and I spending my evenings writing, reading or occasionally meeting friends.
Sculpting is a long and slow process, how do you maintain focus and direction with your pieces before inal completion?
Since 2000, I began to realize that as an artist, I should not be constrained by exhibition invitations in my work. Instead, I should proactively structure my own series of artworks in a clear thread centering on the key issues, and deepen the issues as time goes on. So I gave myself one deinitive plan – I would use one “series” as one unit to (each series takes about
3 years) create a group of works, to integrate one or more themes in each particular series. The past se- ries include (the followings are names of each series): Mirror Image in 2002, Keep in Silence in 2005, Naked Beyond Skin in 2011, Will Things Ever Get Better? in 2011. I am working on my latest new series currently and am yet to finish.
Typically, when I work on the current series of artwork, I concurrently start thinking about and structuring the next series of artwork. Usually, I have the overall struc- ture and detailed execution plan of each series of artwork in place before I start, but often, as I actually start sculpting, it’s inevitable that some ideas would change. When ideas are transformed into concert art- works, I realize that some problems have occurred in the visualization process, so of course I would amend accordingly. Often I feel while creating, the distance between the author and the artwork is far too close – they are almost merged into oneness, so it is really hard to clearly identify my own problems. Before the process of interpreting the artwork commences, I often simply depend on a very strong sense of intuition to make judgment on things relatively blurry to me. But somehow, I would feel the decisions would be right. This description sounds a little mystical, but often, these decisions turn out to be spot on. For example, while sculpting my 2011 series Will Things Ever Get Better? and the current latest series of artwork, I have suffered immensely because of the uncertainty I experience. Actually, creators cannot assume the roles of authors and interpreter simultaneously. A certain time has to pass, when one has a certain distance from the artwork, when artwork gradually is turned into text, one is then capable to tell about the artwork. So I believe that while creating, creators / authors also own an extraordinary ‘aura’ typiied in Walter Benjamin’s words – it is the very aura that enables them to capture the very ‘correct’ matters that belong to them.
Your most recent exhibition in Lehmann Maupin in Hong Kong, was presented with a renowned photographic artist in the West, Juergen Teller. How was your approach to coordinating your works in a collaborative exhibition alongside a photographic artist?
I have known Juergen’s work for a long time, so when the Gallery told me they chose to show me together with him, I was very excited. I gave two proposals, one
was about ‘desire’ and another one about ‘aesthetics’, probably everyone inds the irst proposal can show a more obvious juxtaposition and clashing of the two artists. So the irst theme on ‘desire’ was chosen. But it was the gallery that picked my works to be shown. Then my chosen works were sent to Juergen Teller, and he would then respond to mine and pick his works to exhibit together with my works. I used to be very controlling, but this time, I became very delighted to see how ‘other people’ would understand and regroup my works. The
inal choices made by Juergen and curating including artwork layout in the gallery space manifest the gallery’s rich experience and also reveals a magical relationship between Juergen’s and my works. It was beyond just a simple ‘conlict’ – there was an abun- dance of fascinating chemistry both visually and connotatively.
Did this introduce a new audience and wider understanding to your own work?
I am certain this exhibition brings new audi- ence, but to understand my work to a great- er extent, it would be insuficient through these few pieces. But it was extraordinary small space.
As an artist born and currently located in Beijing, China - how has the area changed, and thus inluenced your work?
Not only in Beijing, I believe people of my generation and age all over China would feel they have lived through many lives. In the short span of a few decades, each historical period was so distinctly different from another. This is the craziness and disruption an era brings to individuals, judg- ing from both the intensity and speed of change. This kind of change certainly have impacts on me. For Chinese of this gener- ation, no matter in countryside or city, they are all going through the endless pain of ‘losing their homeland’. This pattern of loss of space and loss of memory, renewal and reconstruction, almost become the basic way of thinking for us. Many generations are shaped by this pattern. Yet a culture without its root in homeland must be problematic, and I think many artists’ work would touch upon this issue. For a long time to come, I attempted to locate the the internal connec- tion between me and the culture. ‘Who am I and where do I come from’... Question like this always lingers on. Contemporary art is completely a western paradigm, so how to ind contemporary art’s rationale and pertinence in China’s complicated culture, this, has become a natural focus of thinking for me, in a doomed way.
Do you feel that there are few female artists in China, and would you like to see more emerge?
Yes, indeed. There are unreasonably few Chinese female artists today. The problem is that back in art schools, there are quite a lot of women studying art, sometimes even exceeding men. But in the endless journey of becoming an artist, many women get eliminated. This has to do with the current dominating value in China’s culture, where a woman’s deinitive value is still judgedby her domestic life. If one is married with children, it is deemed to bring more happi- ness than a successful career. Meanwhile, a woman with a successful career won’t be considered as a ‘life winner’ unless she is happily married with adorable children. If one only has accomplishments career-wise, she would be deemed as incomplete by others, and she might consider her life as a regretful one too. This monotonous value judgment is becoming more diverse in the younger generation, and there are more and more younger female artists. The diversity of value system and diversity of art forms are both progress. Of course, they have to stand against the test of time. I of course hope to see more excellent female artists emerge and stay on.
In your work, you are using various local materials such as Fiberglass, bronze, ceramics, polyurethane. Why do you gravitate towards using these certain materials?
Actually, so far most of my works are in iber- glass with acrylic paint. The technique stays quite consistent, with some variations on how I apply the paint on top of the sculpture. I have never used ceramic or polyurethane.
I don’t use bronze that often – sometimes it is by demand of outdoor exhibitions, sometimes it is by demand of collectors. For my artistic language, iberglass is a very convenient material without too much character. So I can endow it with any property I wish. At the beginning, I chose iberglass because I often created human igures, and the original colour of iberglass tends to be a warm grey, close to the skin tone of Eastern Asian people. Hand-painting on sculpture is a key step in my artistic language. I experiment with different ways of painting for different topics and works. The material itself is simply acrylic or colour powder, to gain a better control during hand-painting. My artistic methodology differs from the Western pursuit of a realist rendering in a scientiic way. My pursuit is on the psychological and symbolic subjective truth, because I want to unveil the true existential being under the skin. Traditional materials such as bronze has too strong an innate property, while iberglass is very itting to be endowed any character.
When creating an artwork, do you imagine the longevity or length of life that they will lead. In a museum, private home or gallery...
To be honest, when creating an artwork, each artist can only focus on his/her heart, working hard to manifest what is in his/her heart to an artwork. There has never been any art creation ‘for a certain purpose’ – if one insist, then it must be ‘for the artist herself’. The creator can only be responsible for him/herself. Of course when the artwork is completed and turns into an objective being, it will have another life and destiny. It leaves its author and enters into museum or gallery... For me, this is another stage of my work – exhibiting. Exhibition is another form of creating, at this moment, the creator is like a movie director, arranging sculptures / roles to enter a certain narration or a certain sce- nario. So I need to shift my focus to thinking the possibilities in this stage of expression. This stage is as interesting as creating an artwork, also because creating artworks is very secluded and can be lonely, more like a war of Don Quixote. In contrast, the process of realizing an exhibition is exciting and exhil- arating, because it’s an imaginary dialogue. I would think how to set up more channels for viewers to approach the works, and I would imagine their reactions. Yes, once an artwork leaves the creator, it will own a completely new ‘life’, including any viewers’ comments and critical opinions or definitions they all become the artwork’s own life and go beyond what the original creator (artist) can give to the artwork. At this point, the artwork and the creator each has a distinct and separate path in their destiny, and they might drift further apart from each other.
What is your process of working usually like: Do you sketch out each idea on paper first, or do you re-mould and re-shape your sculp- tures over time?
I rarely draw very detailed sketches – but of course I need to note down some ideas. Sculpting takes a long time and my working habit (as explained in Question 2) happens to think through my work in the unit of ‘one complete series of work’ – composed of many related pieces. Because I feel some themes cannot be explored and examined thoroughly in one or two pieces. I am not an artist who lives for solo exhibitions; instead, I love structuring a more complete system. As mentioned above, around 2000, it daunted on me the importance for an artist to build a self-contained structured system. So I gave myself the hard demand – inish a new ‘series’ every few years. On one hand, this hard rule can push me to keep working hard and following the work plan; one the other hand, I also hope accomplish a bigger and more complex structure of oeuvre, rather than think through each piece of work in an isolated manner. That’s why I usually spend a very long time to consider the ‘structure’ of each ‘series’. I can’t ind any word other than ‘structure’ for this purpose. I would think through, which works are necessary in order to express the under- lying themes for a certain ‘structure’. Once I start sculpting the artworks, I often have to amend slightly, because certain ideas I ‘planned’ beforehand turn out to be prob- lematic as my artworks take their physical forms. Of course, sometimes, I have to elim- inate some original ideas as I sculpt, simply because sculpting is too slow a process. Yet in retrospect, time has always proved it right to give them up. Also, as time moves on, I usually do not go back to rework on the ideas I chose to eliminate.
In some of your sculptures, the subjects can appear with hair and without.
For example, in “Rainbow” the girl has an afro-like hair, and in ‘Bang!’ both girls are hairless. How do you characterise these?
The problem with hair is always difficult for me. I have tried many different ways to solve the subjective feelings around hair, but haven’t been satisied myself either. There are two key issues within in. The irst issue is the meta-question of sculpture - the intrinsic quality of sculpture. Shall I be employing the realist sculpting technique I have learned in art school to hand-craft delicate ‘sculptures’? Actually, I do not care a great deal about the intrinsic value of sculpture as a medium, even in some ways, I am ‘anti-sculpture’, I hand-paint on sculptures, which is anti-sculpture. I use ready- made objects, which is also anti-sculpture. The second issue is that creating concrete and representational sculptures is very important to my artistic language, because my art is concerned with human beings, and it deals with issues of human beings, including how their details can arouse feelings on me. In my art, I am telling each meticulous details to render the human being live, from my strictly subjective point of view. It is but my subjective judgments, and this subjective language is exactly my artistic language, differing a great deal from the Western tradition of an objective realism under a scientific regime.
For ‘Bang!’, I was planning on using two wigs on the igures, I tried but it didn’t work well. Instead, the hairless igures seem to bring more dramatic intensity to the art- work. So I went with hairless. It was rare for hairless igure to appear in my earlier works (‘Bang!’ is an earlier piece). ‘Rainbow’ belongs to Naked Beyond Skin series. In this series, in order to draw a distance from everyday experience, most of the igures were hairless. This way the identity of these human igures is even more blurry, so viewers can focus on the theme I am trying to get across. ‘Rainbow’ is an exception – I used wig, but it doesn’t suggest real hair, it represents a ‘ensemble look’ that suit the delightful sentiment expressed by the work. So this wig is simply a wig, rather than the possible association of an ‘African identity,’ it is more like a prop we use at a party.
Here I also have to say that sculpture as a medium naturally has many limitations and is conditioned on many restrictions. So I am now breaking through simply ighting against the intrinsic sculptural language (in my early career) to reach a new stage – where I return to consider, how do I work with the innate constraints of sculpture as a medium, or simply put, ‘why choose sculpture’?
When sculpting a body, is there any par- ticular consideration taken for the shape of the head or is it spontaneous? Is Phrenol-ogy considered, or perhaps a particular culture’s common shape?
It is a very interesting question you asked, though I don’t often think much about this. Initially I never had a sense about this – at least not a cultural sense. In my surrounding, there isn’t so many races, but the human race always feels very diverse to me. Since young, I have been someone very sensitive to different appearances and characters. Since I started creating artwork, I had this habit – I never used any models. That is to say, all the igures I sculpt are made up by me or just in my head, because for me this subjectivity has the foremost importance. It is the perspective where I tell, an intentional methodology to keep ‘the wrong’ and make the best of it. I can only say, when I need a certain character, I ‘feel’ it should look so, sometimes I can’t get it right the irst time, but I still choose not to use models. It seems I cannot work off an existing person, even when I manage to sculpt it, it becomes very boring for me. I guess it’s due to my fascination with an internal bearing (air or existence) of a being, so it’s pointless to be ‘correct’; it matters more to create a spirit of being full of vigour.
For quite a few times, I cut off the face of figures that I almost finished sculpting, because I didn’t feel ‘right’ about the face. There is a character alive in my heart, once I clearly think through it, I would just finish sculpting the face in one go. Now it turns ‘right’ for me, because it now carries a demeanor that I need. Similar circumstances happened for ‘Your Body’, ‘White Virgin’, ‘Slipping, Ticktack Ticktack’. The demeanor of characters is a way for me to narrate, and it’s a key point of entrance to read my oeuvre.
You have previously mentioned that you went through a long period of refusing to grow up, seeing the world through child’s eyes which can be relected in many of your works in 2002. In what way was this period important for you to experience, and why?
My work in each stage deals with one or several important topics. I started my earli- est art making in 1995, when my age was approaching 30. But I still created a large number of works dealing with the adoles- cence topic. The theme of my 2002 ‘Mirror Image’ series was ‘growing up’, including some works with an obvious child-like per- spective. For example, After Yawn (2000) and Gift (2002) suggests distaste towards the adult body; Baby Baby (2001) makes a face to the world; Toy-Swimmer (2000) is a state of day dreaming, etc. That is to say, there is an opposing and rival world to the adult world. The name ‘Mirror Image’ itself has a connotation of introspective inward looking – so my life experience impacted my artwork creation, while I inished ‘growing up’ through my art creation. In the same series, works like Bang! (2002) and The Woman in the Mirror (2002) obviously enter into a stage of grown-up narration, breaking away from the stubborn personality refusing to grow up.
What are the strongest issues as a woman in today’s society, that you feel still need addressing?
In China, the reality pressured by both the tradition and the ever-so fast-paced trans- formation is very complex. Although we have long solved the problem for women’s right to participate in work (by natural demand of labour), the mainstream value still holds a rigid discrimination towards women – and women are actually playing the part of the conspirator for this value. So, to have women’s self-aware- ness and independence in a true sense, to think and let their voice be heard independent- ly is a very important step to realize diversity in cultures and values in our society.
What are the strongest issues as a female artist, that you feel still need to be addressed?
I can only talk about China’s speciic situation.
This world probably doesn’t have a term ‘male artist’, so being called ‘female artist’ already suggests the gloom of being marginalized, and this identity is constantly reminded by others. Being a mother or wife is an ordinary thing, but in China, it always becomes a reason for female artists to stop creating art. Indeed wom- en face many obstacles to continue their art creation, the biggest one is the non-existence of ‘choice by oneself as a possibility’ in China’s common value system. The value of individual is not considered the most important, and a woman gains a greater sense of belonging from family life (marriage and children) than doing her own thing that she’s passionate about. I think this world is full of prejudice and injustice, the best way to resist is to know oneself, and gain a true self-awareness, and thus ind path to connect with the world. So in China, being a nonconformist simply means keeping one’s independent judgments, seeing with one’s own eyes, thinking with one’s own mind, and feeling with one’s own heart. This should be the pursuit by any human being, but also what a female artist shall work hard for – so let us work hard to be a nonconformist.
As an artist, do you think that a critic or writer (or even a regular visitor), can understand the works sometimes better than the artist himself/herself?
Of course, from a different perspective, critics and regular visitors can bring a life full of vigor to the artwork (Question 8 above). This could be an extremely strong counter-force to the artist her/himself. I often get a strange feeling hearing others telling my work, and at this moment, I tend to think with more clarity. Compared to my painful suffering and waiting for the artwork to unveil itself to me when sculpting, this moment brings more happiness.
Is there a particular message or feeling you’d like to encourage for a viewer through your sculptures, or is an artwork simply for interpretation by each individual?
Naming my artwork is also a very difficult thing.
I have had many bad names, more than the brilliant ones. But I never liked naming my works as ‘Untitled’, because I am convinced that the creator is responsible for building a basic channel to facilitate understanding for viewers. I also use ‘mirror’ to describe art – when the work faces the creator, it shows reflection of the creator; when the mirror is turned to face the viewer, it reflects the viewer. So an artwork has many connotations endowed by the author, but also, everyone can locate his/her understanding and point of contact unique only to him/herself.