中文English

No. 2: Be Entangled, It's the world.

Ruijun Shen (RJS)
in conversation with
Hu Xiaoyuan (HXY)
 
 
Recorded: 28 October, 2017
Location: Hu Xiaoyuan’s studio in Beijing
 
 
Ruijun Shen (abbreviated as RJS):
You once said that you especially like to think about your works while commuting on buses or staring blankly at everyday objects. It’s the starting point of your work. Why do you work in this way?
 
Hu Xiaoyuan (abbreviated as HXY):
It probably has to do with my personal experiences and habits. My childhood had a bit of a twist. Before 12, I was the kid who would play like mad with other children in the community’s yard. At 12, I began to accept the so-called standardized art education –like drawing, sketching, colours, etc. I was already learning rather systematically and from then on, my life became disciplined into the model of three points on a line, no longer having the childhood freedom. Later, I slowly discovered a new state of rest, and that’s what you just mentioned, “staring blankly”. The state of blankness isn’t only staring without thinking anything, but instead, trains of interesting ideas and things pass through, like a reel of film inside the brain, only that my body stays still. I remember during the weekends back then, my parents often cooked with the radio on. I woke up hearing that, and as it was still early before going to the art class. I would lie there, listening to the things bustling around my ears, very lively. It’s unlike the feeling of emptiness when your surrounding is extremely quiet. So, I seized moments to get lost in the traversing thoughts, to detach myself from the surroundings. It’s like separating out a small room in a big and safe space, letting myself freely and randomly muse on and on in this small room.
 
The habit has stayed with me as I grow up. Maybe the venturing and traversing of thoughts in a relaxed state later developed into a regular need.
 
In my later years of education, there was this main bus station near where I lived. Getting on a bus at the main station means there will always be plenty of passengers with you. The situation was very similar to my childhood experience. The surrounding was bustling and lively yet this energy had nothing to do with me, but at the same time, it reassures me a feeling of calm and secure, since no one would bother me. I could therefore freely and instantly release my thoughts. I very much enjoyed the feeling.
 
RJS:
Does this mean that by drifting away, you create a personal space inside a space of actuality?
 
HXY:
I’ve never summed up such individual experience in this way before. But if you were to summarise it as such, it indeed sounds accurate. Purposeful intentions sometimes overlap with the unconscious ones.
 
RJS:
When I look at your works, I find two layers of reality. You trace the wood grains on a piece of raw silk, which is layered on top. Once you finish that, the silk with patterns of the wood grain is again layered on the wood whose grain is now covered under white paint. Two kinds of realities are configured.
 
HXY:
Actually, none of it is real. This and the previous question of yours remind me a video work I did before, ‘A Seamless Space’ (2010). Qiu Xiaofei and I often blindly wander around at dusk in the city. There was a time when we frequently visited a quiet area near Houhai. One day, we went again for a walk. It was the season when the willow tree stems had not yet sprouted. I point out the thin stems with no leaves to Qiu. But he looked up without really paying any attention. He probably didn’t see anything. I felt a bit stung and thought that, regardless of how intimate two people were, it would’t be seamless. This is only a small incidence between two individuals. It is not worth discussing for people who understand that ‘men are born lonely’. But it triggered another question for me: what if it’s not between two individuals but just myself? If it’s only one single individual and the in-between-ness only considers the person of this moment and him or her in the next moment, or compared with a unit of time shorter than second, would seamlessness then be possible?
 
A daily incidence has evoked my thinking about the self. It’s a bit similar to what’s said previously: being in a social environment, even the trivial details connect with you. Experience, as landing points of one after another parabolic trajectories of musing, becomes material for individual thinking.
 
Back to the ‘reality’ that we talked about a moment ago, there might be a process of transformation involved. It is this process that I’m most interested in.
 



A Seamless Space
Four channel video installation: LCD, motherboard, USB flash drive, adaptor.
28 x 43 x 3cm (x4) 
Duration: 03’00’’
Editions: 5
2010
(courtesy to the artist)
 
RJS:
It seems that your works focus more on human interiority. What’s your view on some of today’s social problems, for example, information overflow, anxiety and stress, or not knowing what one wants?
 
HXY:
It’s normal and necessarily so. It’s what the ‘society’ requires. In any era, any process of existence, there are many people not knowing what they want. Think about today’s educational, medical and electoral system. These systems offered to us by the society deprive further and further individualistic experience, thinking and judgement. Actually, erasing individuality and magnifying commonality are not the worst results. These conditions naturally lead to a lack of independent and in-depth thinking. The assemblage of people to form a ‘society’ necessarily leads to such inevitability. But if you don’t want to live in the primitive and the wild, entering into the society is inevitable.
 
A short time ago, I watched a European cartoon without any dialogue. The cartoon starts with a typical day of a stereotyped socialized man. He meticulously goes through the errands - gets up, brushes the teeth, has breakfast, puts on suit and tie, dearly kisses goodbye to his wife and child, stately takes up his briefcase, confidently walks out home and goes to work. Then he arrives at a place and humbly lies down on his stomach. He becomes a floor mat. People step over him. I was already tearing up after watching a short duration. I never thought about finishing the film from then on.
 
Every one is the same, as soon as you are disciplined by the society and becomes part of it, you will naturally be secured with a position. Whether it’s possible to form non-pyramid structure, I am not sure. But the society’s pyramid always has the biggest population at the bottom. When everyone at the bottom acquires his or her own clear thinking and pursues after it, those on top begin to worry. If the system only refurbishes or sustains itself, with no unexpected mutation that transcends the concept of a ‘system’, regardless of when and where, the outcome would be the same.
 
RJS:
Then what’s your view on freedom? You’ve mentioned that discipline is a question that you’ve always been thinking about.
 
HXY:
Nowadays, everyone seems to have some extent of freedom, the so-called pessimistic freedom. But the extents of these small freedoms can’t be compared. My mother always enjoys a bowl of Zha Jiang Mian (Beijing soybean paste noodles) at night. My dad sometimes plays mah-jong till midnight and skips the noodle. But to many people who pursue a freedom of a deeper sense, the freedom of whether having noodle or not isn’t enough. He or she will search for the aspired freedom in all kinds of areas, including politics, humanities, cultures, etc. Seen from certain perspectives, optimistic freedom has a very high pessimistic risk. The risk comes from those waving flags of an optimistic freedom, yet purposefully instigating people who originally would only care about a bowl of noodles to participate in things of which those people do not actually have a clear understanding. They take advantages of the concept of an optimistic freedom and then misguide others.
 
RJS:
Then what’s your take on equality?
 
HXY:
It might sound cruel if spelt out. Even though I do not want to admit it, I’m rather pessimistic about equality. I’ve spoken a lot about my understandings of modern society. According to these understandings, it’s very difficult to imagine an idealised state of equality, a kind of equality that possesses a genuine significance. Is it possible to have a psychological and subjective view of equality?  It probably depends on every individual’s understanding and need of it. For example, people living in Africa and Iceland don’t even get the same amount of sunshine, then attempting at achieving a kind of equality in the mental state requires an understanding and acquiescence of such difference as part of the reality.
 
RJS:
You often use paper, exuviated skins, raw silks, woods and natural materials. Why do you choose these materials? Is it related to the question you just talked about?
 
HXY:
When thinking about the materials, I don’t abide by the normative characteristics or meanings granted to them by the so-called ‘objective world’. I’m not interested in the definitions. To me, the materials are just matters, of which man is also one kind. Therefore, as a matter, when I face another matter, I begin to know the other – its look, temperature, habits, and I would observe its shape and expressions. Overall, when I confront the materials with such state of mind, they are no longer concepts or names, but are manifold and rich in possibilities.
 
For the materials you’ve just mentioned, I’m indeed infatuated with their natural forms and states as well as how they produce images at cognitive level. I’m quite sensitive to their existences.
 
RJS:
You just mentioned about not seeing things through definitions, what’s the advantage of this?
 
HXY:
The advantage is you can build very close connection with the world. Though this relation may appear to others as if you are conversing in secret codes with the world, the others cannot understand, be it by seeing or listening. Yet, living in such a massive world, forming a distinct and effective way of communicating with the world, for me as an individual, suits my survival.
 
RJS:
Could you share some of your reflections on actuality?
 
HXY:
In 2015, I did a solo exhibition called Ant Bone. This year, a new solo exhibition Grass Thorn is showing at Beijing Commune. I plan to have my next solo exhibition Stone Doubts in two years. The two Chinese characters of 石 (stone) and 疑 (doubt), if combined together would make the character 礙 (obstruct) in traditional Chinese. My view on reality will be made clearer in this exhibition. Let’s hold that discussion for now.
 



Grass Thorn I
Rosewood, ink, raw silk, paint, acrylic, used grate, metallic nails, silk threads 
80 x 60 x 90 cm
2016
(courtesy to the artist)


RJS:
Do you read Buddhology?
 
HXY:
I do, but not much. For most of the philosophy and Buddhist Studies books, I can’t finish in a short time. I have to understand every sentence in order to move onto the next. This demands lots of time for thinking and re-reading.  For example, I’ve been interested in the concept of Śūnyatā (emptiness) a long time ago, but I couldn’t understand it. So I began looking for short stories about the idea. One of them goes like this: The Master takes a group of students and a dog to the top of a mountain for a lesson. He takes out a pen from his pocket and asks the students ‘what is this?’ The students answer ‘pen’.  The Master doesn’t speak anything but tosses the pen to the dog. The dog is usually very quiet during the class since no one plays with it. When the Master throws it the pen, it suddenly gets excited and gnaws and kicks at it. Now the master asks once again, “what is this?” The students remain silent.
 
At the beginning, I thought that “pen” is a concept, but for a dog that has never understood what a concept is, the pen could be taken as a stick or anything. Does the Master mean that, for the material deprived of concept or definition, it can be a pen, but also not a pen? After a very long time, when I read the story again, I realize another layer of meaning of Śūnyatā. For a dog, there is no such concept as a pen, what we call as a pen could be called in any other names, ‘woof’, ‘aaaarf’, ‘…’, whatever, but since it could be called in any names, so calling it a ‘pen’ is also ok. Now the ‘pen’ in this case and the ‘pen’in the students’ first answer are different. The cage of concept is unlatched.
 
About Śūnyatā, I could think further and deeper down. I need to re-read these texts and spend more time thinking.
 
RJS:
In the story you just mentioned, ‘pen’ is not a fixed concept. What it actually is depends on what relationship you have with it. As the dog treats it as a toy, the definition of this pen is then determined by its relationship with the dog.
 
HXY:
If spoken from the perspective of the so-called ‘pen’, one doesn’t have to be bounded by given concepts. Recognizing oneself as a pen at the outset might become the root of the problems ensued. Otherwise, believing oneself to be a pen which just as well be anything else or nothing, snapped into pieces, burnt in flames or stirred in shit, widens the possibilities of a freer existence.
 
I assume, sometimes thinking about the relationship between philosophy and reality is a thinking of validity. It’s the same for reading. I can’t read words as mere characters. Books that I don’t understand are invalid.
 
RJS:
Knowing and understanding are different.
 
HXY:
Exactly.
 
RJS:
Could you talk about your recent exhibition? You’ve mentioned to me before that it will be one about space, with big structures as well as small objects. It is different from the “wood” series, which are made of individual works. Why are you making works with spatial relationships this time?
 
HXY:
The process of making Grass Thorn took two years. Within these two years, I kept creating works. During the process, there is a past instant I kept thinking back to. It was a sensation I felt for two consecutive scenes, which I saw during a trip to Thailand. The instant wasn’t a lead for this exhibition, yet as the works came together, I became more and more aware of the connection between these two cases.
 
The year before last year, I went to Phuket in winter. In an evening, we rented a car and drove to a local residential town. It was raining and the traffic was jammed. We drove at a very low speed. Houses along the tropical roads are stout, crouching. The outer walls are very similar to the small shops we used to have, the front is made of moveable wooden boards so that the entire front wall could be opened up. Once it was opened up, the scene and the setting could be gleaned in one glance. The road that our car was moving through was very narrow. On both sides, houses are rather crammed where the distances between houses are relatively narrow, approximately 3 or 5 meters. I first saw a very busy small restaurant. The light was dimly warm, with plastic chairs and table. The cauldron is heated, dishes were stir-fried. It was packed with local people having dinner. It’s a very casual and everyday atmosphere. As the car moved ahead, 3 or 5 meters from it, a funeral was going on in a house. The deceased’s portrait is hung in the centre of the wall, facing the road. The light was pale white. To the left, monks sat on their heels, knees on floor, chanting. To the right were family relatives or friends. Seeing two drastically contrastive scenes in a fleeting moment really touched me. On one side was a very small restaurant serving the local community, while on the other side was a grieving funeral, solemn, quiet, and desolate. In a first glance, I saw the deceasing and sorrowness. In the next, I saw the everyday and the ordinary. The two drastically contrastive scenes exist in balance, without any unease. At the moment, I became enraptured by this discreet existence of a reticent balance.
 
The exhibition Grass Thorn mainly consists of two sets of new works, ‘Grass Thorn’ and ‘Momentary Place’. ‘Momentary Place’ is a series of structural works reconstructed in space with materials worn by time and processes. Materials used in ‘Grass Thorn’ have more variations, including woods, stones, used and rusted iron stands, etc. The temporalities and senses of process of these ‘ordinary objects’ had gone through a natural state of exhaustion; while the tracing of my own will is forcefully imposed onto the woods. These two kinds of seemingly awkward existences are, in the end, stably juxtaposed together, forming a discreet relation of balance.
 
RJS:
How do you find this stable balance during the actual process of making the work?
 
HXY:
I will try to achieve this balance in levels of intellectual, visual and aesthetic taste. Taking   ‘Grass Thorn I’ as an example, by only looking at the upper part, one sees a posture convoluted, strenuously controlled, tight, seeking completeness and solemnity. But look further down, one sees ordinary odds and ends, casual, slacken, ready-made. In the end, these two objects, which don’t logically match, are juxtaposed together, forming a stable and new existence.
 
RJS:
It seems reasonable.
 
HXY:
Ha ha. That’s why the two scenarios in Thailand kept coming back to me when I was making the works.
 
RJS:
Then do you think there exists something that enables you to connect these two together? Since their materials are completely different.
 
HXY:
Temperature is a very relevant part. Wood is a corpse that is still warm. Though the lower part is made of metal, after being worn-out by time and process, the remaining sensation reminds me of lingering warmth as well.
 



Wood No.7
Wood, ink, raw silk, paint, iron nails
255 x 135 x 6.5 cm
2014
(courtesy to the artist)
 
RJS:
In ‘Wood No.7’, you mentioned issues of standardisation and infinity. The boards are all cut according to certain standards. Is that right?
 
HXY:
Yes. But that is not the only aspect of standardization. The perception of the wood grains might also be part of a standardized understanding. Infinitude comes from my re-examination of possibilities for a new perception in the process of making the work. For example, when painting it, different people’s different eyesights lead to different observation angles and different perceptions of (in)concreteness. Then, this involves what’s mentioned previously: when confronting the concept of standardisation, there always exists an ‘I’ outside the standard. This ‘I’ brings a possibility of escaping standardisation. This possibility could in fact bring infinite changes in understandings and actions to the otherwise constrained concept. Taking a small example, tracing on a semi-transparent raw silk is actually stressful for the eyes. Sometimes as I painted, hey, I discovered, this patch seems off. And I looked underneath finding that there weren’t actually any grains, I painted many extra strokes. Or, sometimes after I finished painting a plank, I found out I missed out a knot. And, the difference of height between the planks form shadows at the gaps. The shadow casted due to this difference in height and the wood grains don’t belong on the same level of concreteness. The decision of whether drawing it or not indicates an understanding of actuality.
 
RJS:
Do you just leave the part you omitted as it is?
 
HXY:
That’s what I saw. There isn’t any reason to correct it after I finished the painting. In fact, I still believe that individuals should establish distinct connections with the world, whether through experience of thinking or experience of actions. That’s why I won’t ‘photocopy’ existing settings. Otherwise, man is controlled by all sorts of concepts of commonalities. I don’t like such feelings.
 
RJS:
Lots of your works are black, white and grey. Why choose such colours? Also the texture of transparency seems also to be what you are especially fond of.
 
HXY:
I pay attention to imperceptible or discreet existence. I don’t believe in clarity, directness, snappy crispy. The world in my perception is ‘chaos’. Because all objects and matter only exist or happen in relations. For example, there is a red colour of a slightly cold hue, when placed in front of a white wall also of a cold hue, it will show as proper red colour, yet when placed in front of a white wall of a slightly warm hue, it shows as a purplish red. Nothing exists independently in a vacuum without having relations with other matter. The world as it is only exists when all the matter and objects entangle. Those people who say that the most important feature of an apple are its vitamins must have personal interest at stake.
 
The many colours that I use have dark saturations, which confuse people of their hues. It’s rightly that this indirectness, which can’t be grasped in a glance, allow the materials to show different inclinations, characteristics and more possibilities in different relationships. Clear and distinct characteristics aren’t really in my interest.
 
RJS:
My last question is, tracing the woodgrains is actually a kind of control. You want to control it, yet you allow instances that are out of control to breath. How do you regard the logic of the controllable and the uncontrollable?
 
HXY:
There isn’t a thing that can be fully controlled. I think the part that can be controlled by human is almost negligible. In fact, even controlling oneself is very difficult, not to mention anything else. I once thought about this question of ‘whether to cooperate with the world or not’. Society or the world demands something from each individual. Some demands are clear, others not so. It’s actually the function of controlling. There was a time when I kept thinking of how to escape such control to achieve a maximal non-cooperation.
  1. Refuse to participate? (Yet to be alive is to participate.)
  2. Suicide? (Rothko did, yet he was portrayed as ever more legendary posthumously.)
  3. Not being born, or not existing? (Gods, illusions, uncertainties are also described and irrigated by the system.)
 
On the contrary, back to the other end of the two extremes, having full control of a thing is also impossible. It’s actually the process between these two extremes that is the ordinary state we encounter.
 
Back to my works, I admit that I have a desire to control and have certain expectations of the state I want to attain. But the result is, I will always change the plan and even the original intention during the process of making it.
 
RJS:
You said that when you fastened the nails into the wood, you had to do it very carefully. But you also said that you wouldn’t control it entirely?
 
HXY:
I often lost control in fastening nails. At the beginning I wanted to nail it so that the silk is stretched much tighter. So I went for a firm and tight effect, meticulously and repetitively hitting in the nails and pulling them back out. When I finally thought it ok, a rain came. The weather was humid, and the originally tightened raw silk loosened up all of a sudden. So I thought, regardless of how tight it is, there isn’t any absolute significance. Like this rain, even if it’s tight at this moment, things unexpected can lead everything go out of control in the next moment. 
 
You might think that such nailing is already a kind of absolute control. Yet to me, the outcome you see now is actually a rather relaxed control of mine. Also, sometimes loosening is also part of the controlling.
 
RJS:
We humans are constantly after development, which means to have more control of the world.
 
HXY:
Yet we always fail.
 
RJS:
And when you control too much, negative effects accompany. For example, when treating a disease, you have a medicine to cure it yet it may result in other side effects.
 
HXY:
It brings a whole lot of negative issues. For example, when anti-depressants detain your depressive emotions, they also repress your other emotions. What’s disappearing with anxiety and depression are happiness, excitement and satisfaction… Negative thoughts disappear as well as positive ones. It’s actually a one-off cut across a big range, without specific focus. We often talk about target-aiming nowadays, saying that it could provide a specified and focused control. But I’m doubt about it, of this kind of precision. My view of ‘precision’ is similar to what I just said about apple and vitamins. I’ve always thought that it's a cyclic relation that’s causing a problem. This cyclic relation is a system instead of individual singularities. I doubt the basis of the opinions that claim to solve a problem by controlling, defeating or distorting the singularities.
 
RJS:
The reason I continue to work on this project is also to bring up discussions on some of the problems of modernity. The problem is very big, but our conversation answers a bit to every aspect. Thanks.


 
Artist Hu Xiaoyuan (left) and Ruijun Shen (right), curator of ‘Making with Time’.