人物：Cecilia Freschini 意大利 FLASH ART 编辑
Where do we turn when the storm comes?
Participants: Cecilia Freschini, Flash Art, Italy;
Zhang Xiaotao, Artist
Time: 6:00pm, October 24, 2008
Location: Iberia Center for Contemporary Art, 798 Art District, Beijing
Interpreter: Dai Weiping
Editing: Liu Zhibin
CF: What have you been working on recently?
ZXT: I have recently been re-editing the parts of the animated film Mist that I wasn’t happy with. I think that some of the music and scenes are too strong; it needs quiet parts. I need some muted sections, and to work on the relationship between visuals, sound effects and music.
CF: Are these silent scenes connected to your own emotions?
ZXT: I hope that my artistic language can be an outgrowth of my spirit. Only then will it be infectious. This infectiousness is a very Eastern thing, something that slowly seeps out of the work. For example, the scene of the ants drowning is only a few seconds long. I’m extending that to thirty seconds, stretching out the timeline, giving it a lyrical feel. The lyrical feel of that scene is no less than that of the thousands of soldiers on the march. This scene comes from two drowning experiences I had as a child. I want to emphasize the illusory feel of floating in the water. I’ll never forget that blue-green world under the water.
CF: Are you pessimistic about the future?
ZXT: Perhaps it’s rooted in my experiences of growing up, the pessimism, skepticism and perplexity, because of things like car accidents, nearly drowning twice, and my failure at exams. It all grew into this kind of sleep paralysis that has been with me as I was growing up. My spiritual adversity, the massive pressure on my mind, family troubles during adolescence, all of this had a deep impact on me. These kinds of memories are like a hidden thread; though life is full of splendor, there is darkness below it. In light of the massive changes now taking place in China, every individual life is full of pessimism and anxiety. Why did I choose the name Mist? After I tested into university at the age of 20, I couldn’t help but cry every time I saw the glow of fire and the dense smoke belching out of the Chongqing Steel Factory. I felt that my future was lost, my eyes clouded over by the smoke. After another eighteen years of growing up, I returned to Chongqing Steel, and these images, sounds and smells still moved me. Why? This pessimistic sentiment was brought on by China’s drastic modernization process. The main issues facing Chinese contemporary art these days aren’t the systematic schema of “Mao”, “Tiananmen” or the “Four Great Inventions of China**************”, but the continuous attention and discussion of all kinds of problems on the scene. We have to listen, express, document and witness the anguish and dreams of China’s moment of massive change.
CF: This is different from your religious feelings?
ZXT: Artists look at the world from their individual perspective. If we look from the perspective of religion, that is a fixed constant. I want to use religious sentiments or a religious sense to view the changes in this world, seeing the world in a drop of water, concentrating the world into this one point. I magnify a single cell, and extract the most basic genetic elements. Perhaps this is more real and believable than the empty “grand narrative”. The most important thing is the individual viewpoint and perspective. Why do I consider the lot of the individual in the midst of social change? China’s religions have always had a limited scope, lacking the Universalist values of Western religions, so when the individual is faced with drastic social changes, he has a very limited capability to accept them. On the surface, my works focus on changes in the Chinese reality, but they also imply a discussion on religion.
CF: Chongqing Steel and “Windows to the World” are the main elements in your work. How do you connect them? You’ve also keenly observed the issues of globalized art production and the art market at 798. You arrived at 798 in 2002 and were an early witness to its development. What is your understanding about that aspect?
ZXT: 798 is a microcosm of the state of Chinese contemporary art. When I arrived in 2002, this was a stretch of rubble. There was no art market, only the “utopian ideals” of the artists and a few galleries. Within two or three years, the “rubbish pile” had become a “dream factory” and a “cultural zoo”. Outside my studio window all you could see was garbage and some junked trucks, and that’s what I painted. That was the real life of 798. 798 is a microcosm of Chinese reality and history. Why did I link Chongqing Steel with “Windows to the World”? One is of the socialist period, and the other, postsocialist. I am engaging in a comparative study of the two cases, placing animals, death and life on the same stage, creating an animal theatre. What I want to deduce is what kind of living condition will present itself from the individual in a certain era. This is a very meaningful question. The shift from Chongqing Steel to 798 to “Windows to the World” is actually the shift between “past”, “present” and “future”. There is a connection between them. What is the fate of these individuals placed within this time-space? This is the corresponding relationship between individual fates and the changing of the times against the backdrop of globalization in China. Tower of Babel is an icon of the empire of materialism. It considers the destruction wrought upon man by material society and the feeling of powerlessness brought on by the inability to predict future disasters, such as the feelings of powerlessness and suffering caused by the May 12 Sichuan Earthquake. No one has the power to predict or control disasters. The collapse of Lehman Brothers led to the global financial crisis. The feeling of terror is sweeping the globe like a plague. We are actually being hit by global, universal problems. Everyone has a serious sense of unease, a premonition that something big is going to happen. Where do we turn when the storm comes? Last December I held a solo exhibition, Rebirth, at the Sackler Museum at Peking University************. It discussed issues of life, a microscopic view and restoration of individual life. The destruction of the Tower of Babel at the end of the animated film is actually a shared problem mankind faces in a globalizing world. The rapid development of the world economy means harm to individual life and the collapse of the spirit. When disaster comes, every individual has the marks of a reaction. Why do I use Tibetan Buddhist elements in the animated film? I’m not talking about using religion to save mankind; I’m expressing my feeling of powerlessness and pain at the sight of traditional civilization’s lot in contemporary society. When it comes to the fracture and destruction of traditional cultural roots, the traditional civilizations we see now are in their final throes. Just like the sadness an old man feels when on the verge of death, the total death of tradition and the victory of materialism is a great tragedy. Materialism has virtually destroyed the values of traditional civilization!
CF: Do you think that religion can serve as a sanctuary, a respite, a revolution? Can it change the rapidly developing material life, and get people to move away from the material?
ZXT: I think that would be difficult, because the rapid cycles of the contemporary social economy are almost unstoppable. I lean more towards using tradition and the experience of history to find similar experiences or methods we can use to slow down, rather than the single answer of finding salvation through religion. Religion can elicit a kind of extremely narrow ethnic standpoint, and it might make this society more extreme. Take for example the conflicts between Islamic and Christian civilizations. Ever since 9/11, the conflicts between regions and countries have been ceaseless! Tradition cannot change the contemporary. It might be able to repair or correct the blind spots in the contemporary civilization system, but the pace of this era is just too rapid, and it has outstripped the judgment of our past knowledge and experience.
CF: Can you talk a bit about the influence that religion has had on your art and your mentality?
ZXT: I view art as a kind of personal religion. I think that the deconstruction work being carried out by the international art system has already reached its limit. Now that many things have been smashed, what to do with the leftover pieces? This is the biggest conundrum we now face. In today’s China, we’re doing too much deconstruction, so I hope to construct or reconstruct some type of values system, to take the shattered pieces and rearrange, analyze and discover something for the future. This is also the origin of this “microscopic narrative” we’re talking about, seeing the big in the little, uncovering the essence of things from their DNA, re-encoding the image world through the shattered pieces. It begins with piecing images together from the broken pieces. Perhaps after that the shattered pieces will naturally form into a program or a system of signs. It’s unclear right now, but in ten years it will have its own natural connections. Time will make the shattered pieces form their own shared logic, a rearranging and changing of the context. How do we see the world? Perhaps the river of history contains universal methods and a code to the future. “Tell the past, know the future”; today’s contemporary art is becoming increasingly commercial, shallow, fake, playful and systematized. Art should be something that grows out of the soul, something that does not change with any era. I feel that religion is a force and a crux for my spirit and soul. Why did I expend so much effort on this animated film? It isn’t just a simple video. Why do we make art? I hope for contemporary art to have meaning, to have a spirit, a soul, to have life and to be moving…perhaps that’s my understanding of the traditional and contemporary. When Mist showed at the Nanjing Triennial I watched people in the theatre. Many of them sat through thirty minutes, only leaving after the end of the film. They were moved by it. Good artworks will attract the viewers to sit down and thoroughly enjoy them. How come for a lot of the film works at the international biennials, we can only watch for a moment before we can’t watch anymore? This is also something I find perplexing.
CF: I saw your animated film. It incorporates a lot of your life and work experience, from Chongqing Steel to “Windows to the World” and the artistic changes at 798. It seems that the future should have an end. What do you think? What kind of information are you trying to convey?
ZXT: I’m trying to use a “microscopic narrative” method to sample, magnify and visually analyze these two seemingly unrelated cases of Chongqing Steel and “Windows to the World”. The polluting smoke from the factory is in my eyes the smoke of the legend of modernized industry, or the fog of history and reality…. This artificial smoky landscape shields the origins of China’s pre-socialist collective idealist pursuit of modernization, the painful price exacted and the hard lessons learned. This massive steel facility is the stage for collective sleep paralysis and the transformation of historical memory. In the endless flow of crowds that descend upon “Windows to the World”, we cannot hide the drastic changes being wrought on the souls and faces of today’s Chinese people by the crazed material pursuits of the post-socialist era. I want to document and witness the process of anxiety, patience, hopelessness and collapse that the individual is going through. As a “director”, I use images of the life, death, joys and sorrows of ants, lizards, skeletons and small animals to create a fantastical theatre of the animal world. I am attempting to use the eyes of animals to visually analyze the spatiotemporal spiritual connection and continuance between Chongqing Steel and “Windows to the World”. In the passing of a moment we have experienced drastic and rapid changes in society: collectivist material pursuits, the collapse of traditional cultural roots, the universal loss of spirit in contemporary man and the mix of globalization and post-socialist political and economic transformations have all brought massive spiritual upheaval to every Chinese person, presenting as the spectacle of desolate ruins intermixed with flourishing construction sites. What is their universal connection? Through the arduous process of rebirth from devastation, let the future generations decode our jumbled information through our images and sounds…. Between empire and post-socialist politics, against the backdrop of the neoliberal order and global war, we have to wonder, what of our socialist heritage still exists? What has already died out? What kind of structural change has the transition period brought us? In the process of globalization, how do we attain recognition and translation of our identity? How do we move from the disorder of the transition period into a true pluralist construction of the economy, politics and culture of a “harmonious society”? I am using Mist to create a form of visual logic to decode or encode the process of the individual spirit moving through time and space from hope to destruction to rebirth in this contemporary scene where the modernization process of the Mao era is intricately entwined with the global free market era and the post-socialist political society.
With the rapid growth of the Chinese economy, the market and capital have brought prosperity to the art market. The legitimization of contemporary art in China was not a process of systemization or a natural occurrence; it was a revolution that was carried out in the market which brought contemporary art from the underground to the mainstream. Capitalized operations, however, have brought even greater problems. Money has virtually become the only standard for measuring contemporary art. Though the money is constantly increasing, the ontological language of art is growing ever weaker. We don’t see artists or their works, only markets and auctions! So what will today’s artists do once they have money? How will they make their art? This is the fundamental antecedent and context on which I base my work. I want to combine ideas, effort, money and technology in complex ways to make works that shock the soul, and do the most fundamental work of expressing my suspicions, pessimism and perplexity about this era. The art market depends on the growth of the Chinese economy. When collectors come from around the world to buy Chinese art, they are actually placing bets on China’s future, hoping that in the future China will play a greater role on the world stage, but I see the inertia in contemporary art, the destruction of art by the art market and the confusion of values. Today, the auctions have become the mainstream standard for the art market, and this is a destructive influence for many young people.
CF: This is a more personal question: are you a Buddhist?
ZXT: I am not a Buddhist, but from a young age I have always had a religious sense or a religious sentiment. I am highly infatuated with Buddhist art, and I’ve been studying those lines since I was a child, the grottoes of Dunhuang, Dazu and Anyue, the frescoes of Yongle Gong, the sculptures and paintings of Tibetan Buddhism, all of this had a powerful influence over me. Every time I go to famous cathedrals in Europe, see the paintings on the ceilings, the stained glass, hear the pipe organs, I am overcome by a fathomless sense of reverence, joy and emotion. The religious sense is contained in artists’ works. Art is not a religious practice; it is an individual religion which requires a great amount of spiritually significant behavior to craft into a personal language of the world. This is even better then the alchemy of old, transforming minerals into a “gold of the mind”; this process of transforming the material into the spiritual is similar.
CF: Religion can heighten one’s emotions. You have pessimistic views about reality; are you trying to use these religions feelings to express your pessimism?
ZXT: Religion contains a method and wisdom for viewing the world, but we cannot use the religious values of the past to guide today’s affairs. It would be very difficult to use certain religious views to save the world! The clashes between tradition and modernity, the individual and society are paradoxical. On the one hand they are being destroyed, but on the other they are being restored and continued. Tradition cannot save today, that’s just a beautiful dream. I once got lost on the road while driving on a winter’s night. You couldn’t see through all the fog, only about one or two meters ahead. It can be confusing and terrifying, but what you need at that moment is spiritual composure…. In history and reality we are in very similar circumstances. We can’t see clearly ahead, and everything is possible. Today the values standards of Chinese contemporary art have been totally upended by the market. This is the most daunting time for art, and this is why I’ve spent so much time and effort on my artwork. I cried at the press conference. I’ve been to so many exhibition openings, but I’ve never felt this way. After all this effort, when that moment came I just couldn’t control myself! After the opening I saw a lot of blog entries by people who had seen the show, at least fifty of them. It was really moving. They all had strong feelings after seeing the exhibition. My effort was understood by others. Art requires sincerity and impact. Perhaps one day I will put their comments in my catalogue.
CF: Here at 798 your exhibition is truly unique. At a lot of other exhibitions I just looked around and left, and they didn’t affect me. Your exhibition affected me deeply.
ZXT: I hope that my works have a kind of power that comes from the soul, one that can make people stop and enjoy them. This is a test for every artist, and it implies that you put more effort and thought into it than anyone else! When we face drastic changes in society, natural disasters or financial crises, what can artists do? I think that if art is still significant these days, we must talk about art as the expression of the social conscience, as a redemptive force and a warm sentiment!
CF: What do you think the difference is between Western and Chinese critics?
ZXT: Western artists are more concerned with the greater social background and the relationships of artistic context. They delve deeper into language and images, have more delicate methods of scientific and rational analysis, and are very strong in their decoding of images. Chinese critics are more concerned with discussing meaning. The issues they talk about are broader and less specific. Most of them have weak powers of visual perception. Now in China there are a lot of young critics who have been influenced by Western modern art history, philosophy and aesthetics. They can visually decode, and they focus on present problems, bringing about new changes. Chinese critics have more textual than visual experience. In the past, Western critics always viewed Chinese art through the lens of Cultural Revolution politics and vulgar sociology. This is a big problem. They haven’t set out to gain a specific understanding of the current Chinese scene. When Western critics look at artists and works in Western history, they lean towards artistic ontology. Now we need to move into a more microscopic reading method. Today’s China is a complex convergence of globalization, localization and modernization. This and the instant arrival of materialistic society have caused a growing crack in the spirit, one that may be irreparable. How do we go about reconstruction? I will work, bit by bit, through history and reality, in hopes of penetrating the dense fog of the metropolis of desire and the wasteland of the spirit, using visual language to “excavate” today’s China and find out what really happened.