中文English

No.4 – The Humanist Attribute of Material

Ruijun Shen (RJS)
in conversation with
Yang Xinguang (YXG)
 
 
Recorded: 8 January, 2018
Location: Beijing





(Artist Yang Xinguang’s studio)


Shen Ruijun (abbreviated as RJS):
You are especially fond of making artworks with natural materials, like grass, wood, soil, stones, using these as medium. Why do you like them?
 
Yang Xinguang (abbreviated as YXG):
The way I choose materials is based on what I need for the artworks, not my own interests. Materials like grass, wood, soil, stones are all natural, very close to the original states of material. In many of my artworks, I intend to dissolve these states, thus to reinforce the humanist attributes on top of those. For example, I carved the cobblestones into cubes as it corresponds to the Confucian concept of xieju (絜矩, principle of applying a measuring square), while their original round state or edges and corners resemble Daoist thoughts that emphasize personal enrichment. As said in ‘The Great Learning’ chapter of Book of Rites, ‘what a man dislikes in his superiors, let him not display in the treatment of his inferiors; what he dislikes in inferiors, let him not display in the service of his superiors; what he hates in those who are before him, let him not therewith precede those who are behind him; what he hates in those who are behind him, let him not bestow on the left; what he hates to receive on the left, let him not bestow on the right: this is what is called “the principle with which, as with a measuring square, to regulate one's conduct.” ’ I carved the six faces of the cobblestones to make them cubes, and then form a huge cube with these individual ones, just like how a stable society is formed. In that case, a stone is not just simply a stone, as its material characteristic has been covered by humanistic heritage.

 


 


Clean Lines
Cobblestone, 2007
Dimensions variable
Courtesy of the artist


 

RJS:
This is very interesting. It is actually addressing the relation between the individual and the collective, other than talking about the objecthood in the discourse of Mono-ha. A cobblestone is a cobblestone. It retains its nature but with an morphology altered by your practice.
 
YXG
Right. The problem of ‘making’ is actually critical for Mono-ha. ‘Making’ interferes with Mono-ha’s pursuit of the tabula rasa state of the objects. They found it hard to cope with the role ‘making’ plays in restoring objective state of objects. Restoring the natural state of material through the will of man is by default a paradox. It is difficult to think of human’s role in bringing up material’s natural state. It is better to put effort into anthropomorphizing material in order to present human’s natural state, or objectifying human beings in order to understand material’s natural state, than emphasizing on material per se.
 
RJS:
Is there any other works of yours that follow this route?
 
YXG:
Niche is a work emphasizing the humanistic quality of bamboo. The ancient Chinese would say that bamboo is embodying the refined taste of literati class. It is also connected with the idea of emptiness in Buddhism. Therefore, I dig a recession in the shape of a niche on a bamboo, rendering the material far away from its original state. The work Sticks addresses the same question in a totally different temperament. The way human beings experience the world was largely based on the accumulation of humanist ideas throughout history, just like recently how it is revised by the changing technological conditions. The human perception is mediated. As human civilization develops, the mediated reality, with its distance from its original state further magnified, is going to be more and more complex, ultimately go beyond our limits as fleshy beings.

 


 

Niche

Bamboo, 2008

10 x 10 x 16.5 cm

Courtesy of the artist


 

RJS:

In Chinese classical theory of painting, it is often said that ‘the water is mountain’s vein and the vegetation its hair.’ How do you see those concepts in Chinese culture, such as ‘do as one would be done by others”, ‘interaction between the heavenly and the human’, ‘the isomorphism between the heavenly and the human?’

 

YXG:

‘The interaction’ and ‘the isomorphism between the heavenly and the human’ were largely applicable to ancient China, with its specific cultural conditions which made possible the pursuit of unity between cosmic order and moral order. Living in a different time, I don’t think I can properly grasp these ideas. People have a very different view of the cosmos today. The constant renewal of human knowledge put these kinds of purely subjective and esoteric discussions in a halt. ‘The water is mountain’s vein and the vegetation its hair’ is more like a hypothesis today. Magnifying and fetishizing a subjective mental state, projecting oneself onto the mountain and the water, caused the over-symbolization of the real landscape. People like that might think there has to be water if there’s a mountain, and there has to be grass, trees, fog and clouds. They just can’t feel their isomorphism with an austere landscape.

 

RJS:

A lot of your works carry references to Chinese poems. Why are you intrigued by classical poems?

 

YXG:

The literary tropes and allusions I usually use are actually more like empty symbols for people today. Classical literary texts will gradually lose its genuine affect as they are unceasingly quoted and referred to throughout history, reaching a state of empty signifiers. For example, ‘leaning against handrails’ looks like a natural pose but functions as an important trope in classical poems. The artificial denotation of this pose won’t erase its humanistic connotation. Its cultural significance overwrites its reality, leaving people with a lyrical urge when they are getting close to the handrails up at a high terrace.

 

 

RJS:

The pose of ‘leaning against handrails’ is meaningful in its own right. It gains meaning vis-à-vis a certain cultural context, mixed with the imagination and ‘misreading’ of later generations. It is not simply a pose anymore Do you find the classical literature still has a role in modern life?

 

YXG:

It definitely does. Classical poems are recited repeatedly, intoxicating us with the affective experiences they carry.


 


 

Leaning Against Handrails

Pinewood, 2008

Dimensions variable

Courtesy of the artist


 

RJS:

Could you talk about the work Counting Sand?

 

YXG:

I wasn’t going to make counting sand grains into a work in the beginning. I just wanted to find a way to calm myself and concentrate. I got a pile of sand and started counting the grains with a small bamboo stick. In this way I can concentrate. For every 100 grains I would drew a circle and then counted the circles in the end. I saw this as a form of meditation. I would do it when I had time but it’s easy to make mistakes when distracted. When finished, I thought there must be mistakes, so I counted the whole thing again, ending up with very different results, 185465 and 186837. After I saw the results, that pile of sand stops registering to me as an ordinary pile of sand. The numbers I extracted from it began to gain some concrete existence and overweighed the material reality of sand grains. The numbers actually do exist in this world. It’s just often omitted by us. In the process of extracting the numbers I was extremely self-disciplined. Self-discipline is to remove all the distracting thoughts and concentrate wholeheartedly on one thing. It is really close to meditation. I thought it’s a gateway to truth.


 



Counting sand
Sand, 2009
Dimensions variable
Courtesy of the artist


 

RJS:
What do you think is the truth in this case?
 
YXG:
I got two numbers. The truth or reality is actually obfuscated by me in this case. For sure we can get a precise count with scientific instruments, or distribute the labor to a lot more people. We can definitely get a ‘truthful’ number. It’s just me using a really awkward method to approximate the truth, much like how we try to approximate the universe. Before scientific methods answered our questions, people could only think really hard with their fleshy brains. However, in my opinion, the truth of the universe can’t be some kind of sensorial existence, or something perceivable and sensible. It needs to be reached through calculation and scientific analysis, in conjunction with ceaseless experimentation to provide proof. Art shouldn’t turn into science or mathematics. That’s another tricky topic.
 
RJS:
You mean, the former is a sensorial truth, the latter is an ontological truth?
 
YXG:
Not necessarily sensorial. It might be in another form, but definitely for people to see, for human perception, instead of a technological perception.
 
RJS:
Speaking of human perception, I remember that your works put a particular emphasis on the texture of materials. The feelings that texture delivers to the viewer, I think, are something also exists between things, or between things with affects. Your works infuse an affective quality into materials, or weave them into stories.
 
YXG:
The texture I’m looking for is the one beyond the original state of materials. I’m looking for textures as imageries catering to human perception and psychology. I’m interested in realizing these kinds of imageries through the manipulation of materials, thus building an alternative reality. Chinese people have collectively crafted a certain way of speaking about the relations between subject and object, mind and body. It is a common tactic to associate personal history with surroundings. ‘Expressing feelings through landscape, expressing ideal through object.’ Because our emotions fluctuate constantly, it gives us a sense of reality to project certain emotions onto some objects. Or, one would feel relieved when he or she ultimately realizes the impossibility of such projections. This kind of lyricism forms a unique culture of ‘things’. Subject and object are part of the one. The interaction between human and things are indeed interaction between things. ‘Approaching object in the means of object, eventually the distinction between the self and the object disappears’. That’s the primordial state of the world before the coming-into-being of human, when everything is part of the physical reality and all connected, forming a system of interrelatedness.
 
RJS:
How do you understand precision? It seems that scientific methods give us precise answers, but you are not content with monotonous answers. You are thinking about more complex and stereoscopic relations between objects.
 
YXG:
Precision is definitely non-sensorial. Sensorial experiences are limited by our body faculties. Affects and the body are one unity. The fleshiness of human body is hard to circumvent, especially in our time, when bodily experience overtakes emotions. We are living a life overcharged with sensorial experiences. The advancement of science and technology brings about immense comfort, pleasure and stimuli. Human today experience the world in a technologically assisted way. Technology is auxiliary in our affective experience. I am thinking that, how can the human body, as a conduit of our perception, maximize its capacity to process perceptions? Or shall we give up our fleshy perception and completely turn to technology?
 
RJS:
How do you see technology like VR and the new perception it brings about?
 
YXG:
VR brings us with rich virtual perception, all constructed by technology. It brings immersive experience, satiates our sensorial desire within the limitation of imagination. It is still in a rudimentary stage, but I believe it will provide a far more realistic experience in the future.
 

 



Artist Yang Xinguang (left) and curator of ‘Making with Time’ Ruijun Shen (right)