中文English

No. 3: On 'As Such'

Ruijun Shen (RJS)

in conversation with

Jiang Zhi (JZ)

 

 

Recorded: 29 October, 2017

Location: Beijing

 

Ruijun Shen (abbreviated as RJS):

Let’s first talk about ‘As Such’. You often say we should perceive this world in the way of ‘as such’.

 

Jiang Zhi (abbreviated as JZ):

Perception involves how to ‘feel’ and how to ‘know’. We often connect these two acts, but they could be discussed separately. In fact, ‘as such’ directs at a common mistake: we often presume the things themselves are the same as the ones we perceive. For example, I see that mug is white and hard, so it must be white and hard, and these must be the two core qualities of this mug. We separate the things from our perceptions — it seems that the things are waiting for us to perceive them, and we will then believe our perceptions as the things themselves. If someone doesn’t see that as a mug, he or she must be a weirdo, or a witch. That is how we look on those who feel differently, or the dissidents. But in fact, is it really true that the mug is white and hard? Many species do not have the ability to see colours. Even as human beings, some people also lack that ability. That doesn’t mean those who can see colours are better than those who cannot. It is just one of the pre-settings for generating feelings. The pre-settings can also be restrictions, as you can only feel in the way the pre-settings allow you to see, hear, smell, etc. You believe these feelings are from the perceived objects, yet it is not true at all. From the perspectives of ‘to see’ or ‘to touch’, how you generate your own feelings is what really matters. To give an example, if you are in a place where people speak a language you do not understand, it is impossible for you to understand the sounds they make. You are not in their language system, what they say does not make any sense to you. Similarly, it is due to certain pre-settings that you think something is ‘what it is’. Different pre-settings give rise to different perceptions. ‘As’ in ‘as such’ is the moment when pre-setting works; when ‘as’ works, that thing is generated.

 

RJS:

What prompts you to connect with the world in this way?

 

JZ:

On one hand, this world will not make any sense from the point of view of ‘is such’, like the example I just made. It is wrong to think somebody is erroneous if he/she doesn’t see something in the way most people see and think it ‘is such’. The so-called ‘Great and Correct Thinkings’ are also ‘as such’, as they are not always correct. It is only in certain system and in certain time are they granted to be correct or useful. So we should never forcibly impose any thinkings on other people, as they might not be correct for them. But why do we have so many conflicts and even killings now? As our perceptive pre-settings are different at the first place, we have different feelings, understandings and thinkings towards things. We all believe in what we perceive as the objective fact, as the truth. People force other people to accept their ‘truth’, and even exclude or annihilate those who disagree. I think this is a very serious stance.

 

On the other hand, this attitude is a basic principle for treating everything. Only in this way could we not be restricted by certain historical customary convention. We should be able to notice that, besides those narrators who intentionally distort, ‘honest’ narrators, or different people, would keep different ‘true histories’ in their own memories.

 

RJS:

In our early education, we were taught to get to know a thing through a definition. Is the epistemology you suggested a reflection towards the existing frame of knowing?

 

JZ:

Things cannot be permanently defined in a specific way. Nowadays, most of the ways of knowing adopt the ‘is such’ formula. However, we have also learned a lot of historical lessons: misunderstandings, hatred and estrangement all comes from such formula. Once you believe in ‘is such’, it is very difficult to reflect back. But if you clearly know that all things, opinions, thoughts and feelings are simply ‘as such’, you will begin to mull over more regularly, and it is easier to understand and accept those ideas different from yours.

 

RJS:

A large part of your oeuvre focuses on social issues. And this ‘as such’ way of knowing the world we discussed in recent chats seems to run through all your artworks. What is the relationship between your attention on social issues and your art practice? Do they both have influence on each other?

 

JZ:

People are changing all the time, let alone their thoughts and circumstances. I might have more interests in this thing today, but in a different issue tomorrow. This is the movement of attention. Maybe the social issue you paid attention to could touch you, but I do not think there is much difference. There is no external world, and nothing is purely external. In fact, all social issues are ‘as such’. If something may seem insignificant to you, and you are not interested in, that is just a result of your pre-setting system — it doesn’t evaluate it as important. Everything can be important, including making tea, and living a daily life, such trivial things. There is no hierarchy in terms of significance. For example, under many circumstances, making artworks is to show and to tell other people I think this thing can be viewed in this way. That is also why I use topical social issues in my works. A previous interview also touched upon this issue. The interviewer said that artworks were like beams lighting up unilluminated aspects of things. However his expression resembled what we used to say: artists spoke out the hidden sides of the thing. This kind of sayings are problematic. First, is there really a huge difference between what the artists see and what the others see of a thing in terms of the so-called ‘truth’? what is ‘the thing’ in the saying ‘light up the hidden sides of the thing’? and what is hidden in ‘the thing’? These become part of ‘the thing’, and therefore you are still inside the system that generates ‘the thing’. Ok, you made this work to fight against the system, only later discovered that, for example, if you try to resist Capitalism, but it does not weaken because of your critique and resistance. It only becomes stronger, and swallows up you as part of its production mechanism. So you are still speaking inside this system. First, you admit this perception system, and the system has sculpted you already, therefore what you make are all on the assembly line. If you try to make a red product to fight with the black product, but you are still a product on the same assembly line. When products become more and more, the system becomes more and more developed. Everything works in this way. Another point is, artists can also only see ‘as such’, not ‘is such’. We do not have the ability to see is such. This must be made clear. It does not mean there is a such waiting for the as, but the happening of as prompts the generation of such. There is no dark sides of a such waiting to be illuminated by you.

 

RJS:

Such conceptual system you discussed, where does it comes from? Where is the starting point?

 

JZ:

 

One of the starting points is that I hope to think earnestly and honestly. Also this is not a new idea invented by me, I’m just learning and living the predecessors’ experience and thinkings. Such conceptual system could be clearly expressed because it is related to Buddhism, and it shares a lot of vocabulary and ways of expressions with the later.

 


 

Seize candy from fresh

Photography 2017

Archival inkjet print 145cm X 111 cm   

courtesy to the artist

 

RJS:

Can you talk a bit more about the relationship?

 

JZ:

There are many cases of ‘as such’ in Buddhism. For exmaple, Buddhas have many names, like Tathagata (in Chinese language it is 如来 is ‘as’, is ‘come’). There are other Buddhas’ names like ‘As Gone’, ‘True Nature’ (Prakrti), ‘Voidness’ (Sunyata), ‘True Mind’. There are so many expressions in Buddhism aiming to stop you from sticking to the ‘such’. Yet, as the philosophy also requires language to make explication, so a lot of alternative sayings and methods are generated to break the limitation.

RJS:

Then how do you understand ‘true nature’ and self-consciousness?

 

JZ:

It is very hard to describe in language. All Buddhist classics try to say that it is very difficult to talk about ‘nature’. Sometimes when you meditate, you will suddenly have a feeling that yourself has disappeared. Yet, though there is no ‘self’ any more, there is still ‘awakening’. I think that is the true nature of things.

 

RJS:

What about self-consciousness?

 

JZ:

I think, therefore I am. I awake, therefore I am. These two ‘I’ might be different. The first one is a thinking ‘I’, it is ‘self-consciousness’. But the ‘awakening’, that is without any thought and contamination, is the ‘true nature’, or the ‘id’, the ‘true self’. When the ‘awakening’ is the ‘awakening’ itself, rather than my awakening or no-self awakening, a new ability to perceive will appear.

 

RJS:

What is a predestined limitation?

 

JZ:

To validate ‘I’ must first validate a ‘he’, to validate a ‘out’ also comes with an ‘in’. Therefore, ‘I’ could only be validated when there is ‘is such’, otherwise the ‘I’ would become a thing that has no ‘others’ to counter-validate. We are all able to feel the limitations of ‘others’, and this must be the result of the limitation of ‘self’. But no one believes that this ‘self’ is simply also an ‘as such’. ‘Self’ is just a becoming generated by the now and the here, this is its logic, and ‘self' itself is a conditioned limitation. So, that is self-consciousness — what I feel, what I like. We rarely reflect upon our personal perceptions, or think about why we can’t perceive the ‘perceptive abilities’ of those things that cannot be perceived. This is the limitation.

 

RJS:

You like to write calligraphy a lot. Why is so? Does calligraphy bring you any inspirations or impact?

 

JZ:

At different stages, you will find different things interesting. I learned calligraphy when I was a child, but I seldom practiced then, though I liked it. Until a few years ago, I started to copying the Heart Sutra for inner peace, not for learning calligraphy. At that time, Chen Xiaoyun came to my place almost everyday, to accompany me in copying the scripture, as I was in a very difficult time. Thinking about it now, my calligraphy at that time was terrible, but Xiaoyun always praised me, said I had a talent for calligraphy. I didn’t deserve that as it was really ugly, nevertheless, I was quite happy when I heard this approval. As time went by, I was more willing to write good calligraphy. After that I started to practice by imitating some recognized model calligraphy works. I got to know more about calligraphy after some time, and some friends gave me useful advice: don’t write too fast, don’t write in your own way, but try to learn and feel how the masters wrote. Actually I did not listen to them at first, I wrote how I wanted to write, and just followed my feelings. But after I understood why they gave me such advice, I finally relieved myself. Imitation is not a shame, shame itself comes from over-saturated self-consciousness — as you will think your distinctness is sacrificed by imitation. But later I discovered I would never be able to write good calligraphy if I follow my personality. Why shouldn’t I change my personality if it is not a good one? People change all the time. They can be better and be worse, depending on how you develop and train yourself. Therefore, calligraphy practice can be regarded as a method for training myself.

 

RJS:

Which masters do you usually imitate?

JZ:

Mostly Wang Xizhi and Yan Zhanqing. I also imitate some others, depending on the situations.

 

 

The World is Yours as well as Ours, B-2016-02

Oil Painting 60X95cm 2016   

(courtesy to the artist)

 

 

RJS:

Let’s talk about the landscape paintings you recently made.

 

JZ:

The series is related to my major in college, which is printmaking, and it is also related to my photography works. I have painted this series for a long time. At first, I painted on canvas rather than silk-screen. But later I discovered an advantage of silk-screen: I can incorporate my photography as well as printmaking skills and experience in it. I can paint something different. For me, it is very easy to mix these different mediums. This is not the oil-paintinglization of photography, not photographizating of oil-painting, and not print-makinglization of photography. It is only my own interest, not any re-definition of painting. It is unable to define actually, and I showed you something that is undefinable. When we look at these paintings, it is difficult to distinguish whether they are oil-paintings, ink paintings, photography or print-making. They are not simply the painting of photography, or the photography of painting…there is no definition that involves any affiliation. Isn’t the history of modern art and after a history of shattering definitions? I can see that in the history of paintings, artists keep creating new methods to mix different mediums, and to cross-breed different genres, even different disciplines like chemistry, biology, and mechanical technology, etc. They are all breaking through different partitioned worlds.

This is also my belief: do not easily reject or accept. What I am interested in is to simply mix different mediums and methods. I believe everyone’s talent for creating miracles could be stimulated thusly.

 

RJS:

Could you explain it briefly?

 

JZ:

For example, in case of this painting, in order to form the image, one needs photography, silkscreen and oil-painting altogether. The effect in the end can’t be called neither photography, nor painting, nor silkscreen printing. This could have been what Chinese philosophy brought to me, the neither-nor relationship between ‘this’ and ‘that’. And through such materials and methods, I could work from both the front and the back. The colours could be pushed out from the back layer by layer. Paints of different colours are pushed through the hollowness of the canvas. Colours become patches and lumps. One layer of paint wraps over the lump of another. Plus, the materiality of colour is freed from the subjugation to the expression of image or the artists’ affective intentions. Accidental methods are discovered, for example, piercing through the lump of colour as if the placenta, conceiving the colour within. In this incident, it could also be dealt with beating, thumping and scraping to let the colour thrust out from within, thus making the entire picture plane a world that could be filled with streaming colours. I hope to obtain an effect as natural as possible. The Chinese’s understanding of aesthetics prioritises the nature. For the ancients, works that achieve the harmony with natures are ranked as ‘shen-pin', the divine class.

 

RJS:

The first class is ‘i-pin’, the untrammelled class.

 

JZ:

‘I-pin’ is a different name. ‘When one deviates from nature, then he will arrive at the divine, as he deviates from the divine, then he arrives at the sublime, as he deviates from the sublime, he arrives at the skilful. As the skilful falls stale, it leads to meticulousness.’ You could say that nature is the divine. The values of the ancients mostly emphasize on nature, letting things take their own course, without human intervention. With the untrammelled class, I reckon that it’s the mind returning to a natural state of tranquillity and idleness. It’s easily misunderstood as an unrestrained wilfulness, which I think is arrogance. Nature is the thing as it is, speaking not in the context of the tangible world. The divine is closer to the essence of nature, itself doesn’t do anything, without a self and a heart, yet it’s the mother of all doings.

 

RJS:

So you naturally bring the painting into being?

 

JZ:

As over-control might leads to a restricted magnification of artificiality. In fact, sometimes I even blindly paint on the back of the painting. For instance, when I find that I almost finish the painting on the front, I start to paint on the back without looking at the front again. If I keep painting on the front, a sense of attachment will grow out, and there will be more artificiality, more pretension, and therefore less animation on the painting.

 

RJS:

So what were you thinking when you painted on the back?

 

JZ:

I feel more liberated. As I have a general impression of the front in my mind, then something unexpected will appear when I paint on the back. Of course, there is a disposition I tend to follow, but the sense of happiness is very satisfactory when something unexpected turns out to be amazing.

 

RJS:

What if you paint so well on the back, but the painting has to be looked at from the front?

 

JZ:

Actually I cannot see anything from the back, I do not know whether I paint well or now. I only know how the painting looks like when I go back to look from the front. For example, this is a painting, I go to the back to paint, so I definitely cannot see from the front. The first stroke is on the front, the second one would cover the first one, but you can see that from the back. You see, there are the first, second, third, fourth layers, but you can only see the fourth layer in the end. You first see the first layer first, then the second, then the third, and finally the fourth.

RJS:

Don’t you think you are doing something futile?

 

JZ:

I cannot see when I paint, but I faintly know what the result would be. Also, we need some accidents to stimulate our own surpassing of ourselves.

 

RJS:

Isn’t this from experience?

JZ:

It is related to experience. Like when you cook, you know what tastes come from what ingredients.

 

RJS:

But how do you judge when you paint on the back? Do you want to paint well, or just for pleasure?

 

JZ:

Pleasure is an emotional state, and you can feel that instantly. But to judge whether I paint well or not is not very easy. Plus there are different levels of ‘pleasure’. Sometimes I paint effortlessly, I feel pleased, but sometimes it is the reverse, I feel irritated by the smoothness, and the pleasure is greater when I overcome some struggles and difficulties. However, I did not give up making evaluation either. Actually cooking is a good comparison: you just need to know the tastes of several ingredients to make a judgement of the relationship between different tastes; you do not need to follow the recipes. Of course, it is different for painting, as cooking is simply for making delicious food, but painting does not necessarily for nice-looking paintings.

 

RJS:

So your evaluation criterion may not just be visual?

 

JZ:

It is more like a visual imagination, similar to a kind of taste imagination for cooking.

 

RJS:

This psychological process is actually an estimating process.

 

JZ:

Yes. This estimating process is important. For example, when you are super familiar with something, you can do it even with your eyes closed.

 

RJS:

This is a state.

 

JZ:

Painting is also a state.

RJS:

You must be a good painter as you’ve painted for so many years. Might there be a kind of inertia?

 

JZ:

That is why I try to adopt different methods to paint. I do not want all results to be the same as what I expect them to be. In this way, the inertia could be canceled to certain extent.

 

RJS:

Can I say that what you paint everyday changes with your state on that day, and depends on your relationship with the painting. You do not make assumptions, but only find the results after you accomplish it.

 

JZ:

Basically, yes. This is my real state, and also the real state of things: changes, to change with conditions. I have to be really sensitive, more sensitive than machines. I shouldn’t ignore a single flow of wind’s influence on my painting, and shouldn’t ignore any subtle psychological changes in my mind. Sensitivity is the very basic requirement for creation. But of course there is certain pre-evaluation, depending on my previous experience and as I am already familiar with the process. I need to make it as natural as possible, to be natural is to follow the changes. Sometimes colours are like amber, not made by human. Colours interact and mix and change with their own dynamics, and kinetics.

 

RJS:

When do you think you have finished the painting? How do you decide when to put down your paint brush?

 

JZ:

A painting has to be balanced. Not that kind of trite balance, but one with dynamics, balanced dynamics. It is similar with nature, any natural ecosystem should reach a balance, and that is what I hope to achieve in my paintings. There should be balance of humidity, balance of force, and balance of momentum — these can actually be traced in traditional Chinese paintings, the same as the Grand Submission (to the Natural Course).

 

RJS:

Then could you tell us what are the differences between your landscape paintings and western landscape paintings?

 

JZ: 

Since you want to do painting, you should at least provide a new fundamental method or means for it. You need to paint landscapes in a way that differs from any other ways you could find in the history of art, not only to paint landscapes different from the western ones. For example, the patterns of this painting originate from a breakdown of computer’s display system. As you move the dialog box, the mouse turns to a paintbrush, its movement could create something alien to your pre-existing aesthetic category.  At that time, I had many problems to be resolved, one of them is the problem of abstract and concrete. Actually there is no such problem as abstract and concrete, the problem only emerges when you have a discriminatory heart. During the process of growing up and getting old, we create distinctions and problems for ourselves, absurdly, compulsively and constantly, to cope with our little troubles and to satisfy our little desires. By the moment you are about to distinguish what it is, the problem reveals itself. However, as we are now in this system where the division of concrete and abstract already existed, it is impossible to take it away from our minds for it has been pre-set. How could you resolve it then? You couldn’t say that my paintings are abstract, because they are not abstract; you couldn’t say that they are concrete either, because they are not concrete. Yet I can’t just defend myself with my plain words, so I show it to you. I lay it out to show to others, and they would say ‘oh, now I see the way you work’. This computer has a system crush, yet even if it hasn’t, it won’t be conscious of whether it is forming something abstract or concrete. This image is thus nothing about abstract or concrete. Besides, something that is generated from the painting has a so-called abstract feeling, but feeling is after all someone’s feeling. I can take a screenshot or take a photo and then to paint a copy of it, that way I’m in fact doing it realistically, or in other word, concretely, right?

 

RJS:

Something realistic but abstract.

JZ: 

Yes. So do you think it is realistic or abstract if on one hand I am imitating? The question no longer exists, as neither is true. It is neither a realistic abstract, nor abstract realistic. There is no longer a definition that involves any subordinate relationship. When you want to solve a problem, it is not about who say yes and who say no, but you need to say, ‘there is no such problem’, then the problem would be truly solved as you have gone beyond the problem. Problems cannot be solved, the only way is to transcend it. Why do I say that we should transcend the problem? For example, you lost a toy duck when you were a child, and you would feel very depressed, as you have lost something you cherished. After twenty years, do you still think it is a big problem if you lose a toy duck? At this moment, this problem has been transcended. Your perception system no longer treat this toy as a problem. Problems do not await to be solved. For instance, if I feel distressing, I would try to solve this problem by drinking, walking, or chatting with people, but it cannot be solved, the problem is still there, I just temporarily forget about it or have anaesthetized myself, but the question will re-appear the next day. Therefore, to solve the problem of abstract and concrete is not by identification, but by transcendence — you will no longer have this problem at a certain state. Another thing is your conceptual support, the one of ‘as such’. This is simply how our perceptions work — the shape will inspire many imaginations. It does not mean what I painted is similar to certain architecture or a peak. This similarity, this ‘as’ does not exist for a computer. The shape which appears on screen does not exist on its own, it is a result of algorithm, or many systems, codes, and programmes. It is ‘a creation of causes’ — different causes and links lead to such a thing. But what is behind this? We cannot talk about this very deeply at the moment. But at least, we can superficially say it is 0 and 1, simple arrangements of 0 and 1, based on certain pre-settings. So, that is why I need to paint this painting, of course there is also an art-historical reason.

 

RJS:

What about landscape?

 

JZ: 

I have been doing this for three or four years, doing this kind of computer generated landscape. But later I said that I cannot limit myself in it. The principle I said has to be universal, not just for this one case. Then I start to think what should I do, using the same conceptual framework or methodology. It happens that there is a panorama mode on iPhone, and a lot of seemingly mistake distortions would be generated when you shake the phone. Of course this is technological, but these distortions are also weirdly natural, you do not find them disagreeable. Certainly, our brain has been pre-set to find it not unnatural — a kind of digital natural. I think I can incorporate this phenomenon into my works. At first, I printed with silk-screen. I used to paint a think layer of colours on canvas, print the silk-screen onto it, then scrape the colours to inlay them into the canvas. But there is a problem with this method, the process of printing is too uncontrollable. It might turn out to be superb, or terrible. I put the silk-screen in the corner after I separated it from the canvas, and then I took a look at it, surprisingly, I found it very nice-looking.


I started to paint directly on the screen, and it is easier for me to mix other techniques. It is as simple as that.

 


 

The World is Yours as well as Ours, B-2016-11

Oil Painting 60X95cm 2016   

(courtesy to the artist)

 

RJS:

You also mentioned last time that you also treated trees as landscape paintings.

 

JZ: 

It means we don’t treat a tree simply as a tree, it is ‘as such’. I do not know whether you have this experience: when we were very young, the toilets were always very filthy, and there were always marks on the wall; my legs were always numb when I stood up, as I was lost in looking at these marks — to me, they resembled mountains, trees, etc. I can see these dirty marks as trees or mountains, therefore I can also see trees as landscape paintings, see landscapes as tree paintings. There is no difference. Those were neither trees nor mountains, but just marks.

 

RJS:

But when we talk about landscape, we are talking about a relationship. Trees are still objects, things, yet there are relationships in landscapes, between mountains and waters; there are certain spatial relationships.

 

JZ: 

It depends on how you define such relationships. It is the same as paintings. For example, you can have transformations in paintings — animals transform to trees, trees transform to water or clouds. They transform to what is beside them. They transform to the reference you have arranged in the paintings. Yet such transformations are not complete. You can still see the original forms. I have made such attempts in my photography. Take the example of the paper I photographed. Someone once asked me if that is a mountain, I answered, it is not a mountain but a piece of paper, but it can also be a mountain.

 

RJS:

I think that work has multiple layers of meanings.

 

JZ: 

If we do not enforce a single meaning to a thing, then its meaning would never be single. Sometimes photography is more simple and direct in conveying this idea.

 

RJS:

Yes, it is more difficult in paintings, as there are more condensations. I remember last time you talked about the relativity of time, and we discussed dreaming, sometimes a whole life would pass in one dream. What is your opinion about time relativity now?

 

JZ: 

Relativity is about long and short, quick and slow. Many philosophers have discussed this issue. Jorge Luis Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths specialises on time. If time is linear, then the shortest segmentation of time will lead to the deduction that the ‘now’ is impossible. Then ‘now’ is the impossible middle point dividing past and future. Borges imagines an endless forking path of time, though he still assigns a limitation. Time is also an appearance of ‘as such’. Changes of our temporal perceptions will greatly change our spatial perceptions.

 

RJS:

How do you think about progress then? Progress is a question of science. In modern society, belief in scientific progress replaces religious beliefs. We think the society will keep moving forward, and we believe science will bring us better life. This is a very significant opinion of modernism.

 

JZ: 

I think the most important thing is how you treat the relationship between things around you and yourself. Does someone who lives in contemporary time have less distress than the one lives in ancient time?

 

RJS:

I guess almost the same.

 

JZ: 

People in ancient time might be distressed for a long arduous journey, but the distress is not extended because you walk on foot, or disappear more quickly because you take a flight. The feeling of convenience is epochal, and differs from individual to individual. So the notion of progress should be considered in different situations: compared with bow and arrows, nuclear bomb is a progress; compared with bamboo slips, e-reading is a progress; but at the same time, such progress is double-edged. For me, progress is to learn more and be more aware of one’s limitations, and to keep surpassing these limitations. Our fear, pain and anger all come from the limitations of our minds, and pre-settings of our perceptions. We might keep hold of our egocentrism, be trapped in ‘selves’, but these can also be momentary slips, just like how we might be enlightened and reborn at a right moment. Yet, it must be very difficult to change the perceptive system that produce such momentary thoughts. That is how I understand the notion of progress. The other kind of considerations about the notion do not really interest me.