RuijunShen (abbreviated below as SRJ)
in conversation with
He An (abbreviated below as HA)
Recorded: 4 January 2018
Location: He An’s studio
Ruijun Shen (RJS): Let's start from ancient architecture. Can you say a bit about why you are interested in it and what you get from the research?
He An (HA): With age I've suddenly discovered that everything still goes back to an individual problem. It’s a kind of problem of destiny, like asking, “Where is your place in the space of the contemporary?” How is that connected to your own blood relations? I want to find out. And because I really like the topics of space and spatiality, I started my search with architecture.
RJS: What do you think is the difference between the Western space of architecture and the Eastern one?
HA: We call Western constructions a logic of masonry. This masonry-based thinking is really a spectacular kind of logic. If we look at early structures, the West is represented by ancient Greece, which told us firstly what a column is and then from the foundation of the ancient Roman column developed to form the cylinder-shaped arch. The structure of an arch is created from two points connecting to form an arc; it’s a two-dimensional relationship. But ancient Roman architecture is not simply made of planar, two-dimensional relations. It was constantly pushing forward, later becoming the passageway and what we now call the barrel or cylindrical vault. Two barrel vaults intersect to make a cross vault (or groin vault), and if you spin an arch on its axis it creates a structure like a dome. Ancient Western architecture generally came about in this way.
RJS: Something like the planar dimension moving towards the three-dimensional and onwards...
HA: Yes. You know, like why does painting demand both depth as well as graphic composition, like Clement Greenberg's [emphasis on] the planar? It's super graphic, and in reality this is all related to architectural construction, it's related to this masonry type of thinking, to the idea of small units being stacked together to create a form. We call it small brick construction. This kind of small brick construction is piled up one by one, and sometimes the ones on top stick out a bit further than the layer below, and then a bit further, again and again. This is called a corbelled relationship, and this creates the arch, right? And so the wall must be made very thick. When you look at the Pantheon, its walls are really thick, like six meters. This is the masonry way of thinking. The Tower of Babylon gives exactly the same kind of feeling, and it's a very important concept. Important not because of its construction, but more because of the logic behind it. It is very definitely a western way of thinking. Piled up one by one, layer by layer very high, but then the building’s foundation must be very large, so unbelievably large like the surface of the entire globe in order for it to be able to reach heaven. Masonry logic needs to have a foundation, and at a certain point this masonry logic create a plane on top where people live and exchange; this is the connection to society. So because it derives from this logic, we Chinese are not able to understand the Tower of Babylon. What is the Chinese logic then? It's more about relations based upon nodal thinking. One point connects to another point, just like the networked relations of today. But how far was the Western masonry way of thinking transmitted? It spread all the way to the Western Han dynasty, and we took it in, too. We also liked it and used it to create grand things, layered things built up one by one. Even today we haven’t yet realized it, but the ground-level constructions of the Western Han are all actually tombstones. Graves actually come from masonry logic—that kind of vaulted chamber. But they didn't get so far as to think at the level of the foundation, not to anything large-scale, and it was only after the Ming Dynasty that we went back to it. We followed a different line of thought—relationships based upon skeletal points or nodes.
RJS: When did this start?
HA: This kind of relationship began approximately during the Western Han or Eastern Han periods, or maybe it was even earlier during the Warring Kingdoms period. Then the foundation for thinking began to change: here is empty space, and when it’s put together as a totality it creates a room, right?
RJS: The space inside a room.
HA: Right, this is what you call a nodal relationship.
RJS: Can you give an example to discuss?
HA: The spaces of sacrificial offerings, for example. If you are on a planed surface in the wild, and you suddenly have to make an offering, the western way would always, no matter what, be to surround a space, to make a small room and then enter it. The eastern way of thinking of the Chinese is different; you just use bamboo poles to mark four corners, stretch some string around them, and that is the concept of space in a room. It's empty, there's nothing there. But when several nodes connect, it reveals that this space is not the space of humans, it’s the space of the gods. This kind of logic is different, and to this day it has always been different. The way we create stones is different from the way they create stones in the West. In Germany there is also a kind of stone arch bridge, a very beautiful stone arch bridge that is also in reality built from small bricks stacked to form a whole. One small brick after another to create an arched shape. But if you look at the bridges in Suzhou, they are made of large stone slabs ground down to make a curve, where every juncture is fortified with a thin and lightweight piece. This is for sure largely connected to the nodal relation.
RJS: Can you give another example of this nodal relation?
HA: There are many kinds of nodal relationships, like the relationships among our own dougong structural elements, you see. Dougong is exactly made up from a kind of nodal connection, moving from one point to the next. By continuing to build up according to the dougong way, you will arrive at our [traditional Chinese] wood construction. For example, with the usual dougong connection the space between pillars relies upon nodes for support such that a door can be removed and the flexible structure entirely supported. This flexible style of framework contains horizontal trusses which, similar to the lever principle, support the entire roof. this kind of relationship doesn't exist in the West.
RJS: It’s an internally connecting relationship.
HA: It’s a horizontally distributed connection. So this kind of relationship definitely led to a different thought approach. The Chinese space of thinking is not like that of the West; it doesn't stress that kind of weightiness. The Western emphasis upon weight and importance led to its religious emphasis on mourning. But we are different. We are light-hearted, like what I mentioned about the raising of bamboo poles—this kind of space is not a place for commoners to enter, it simply can’t be entered. In reality it's a concept about emptiness, where there's nothing; the wind can just pass through. In the West this would be impossible.
Exhibition view, Tang Contemporary Art, 2015
(Images courtesy of He An studio)
RJS: I would like to go on to discuss your exhibition Armenia.
HA: Armenia actually came about after I read a small booklet about perspective . How did the western concept of perspective come about? Why is there this logic of parallel perspective? It's a religious form of thinking, and there was a desire to gain a new form of power, so they chose a new perspective (which actually was not totally new; perspective already existed in ancient Greece). It was related to mathematics and geometry. But the vanishing point we speak of in parallel perspective, you know how there’s this point of disappearance? In the beginning it wasn’t called a vanishing point; it was a core, or “heart point.” And why was it called the heart point? Because in the end you gather towards an invisible point far away, you vanish. In reality, this is the place of the Son, the Holy Father and the Holy Spirit as one—that's why it's called the heart point. So why was it later during the Renaissance changed to a "vanishing point"? It's so sacrilegious. The span [of change] was so big. In the beginning, one person calling someone else out could lead to the accused being burned to death. But progress and technological development in every arena led up to the Renaissance, where scientific observation and exploration then led to the discovery that that far off place was actually a vanishing point, not the place of the Holy Trinity. This created a secular relationship to people, because it places the limits of human vision as its point of origin. It brings everything back to people, because it's you who is doing the looking. This is the relationship created by parallel perspective, and it is the relationship the West largely adopted later. During the early Renaissance, they would place the vanishing point inside an arch, and on top of the arch would be an architrave or arch-like marble construction (even in Ancient Greece, Corinthian columns were used to show the existence of the gods), creating a symbol that while Jesus is not present, yet he is God. The idea that God is creation is related to an inherited tradition. It’ s really in line with both the ideas of the vanishing point and the heart point. If you look at The Annunciation by Da Vinci, it goes on and on in parallel lines. He is here, the angel is here talking with Maria, and Maria is there listening calmly, and both of their eyes are actually directed toward some distant, other place. In reality, this is already something different than before; it's not an architectural concept. What you see beginning here is the concept of a real vanishing into the distance. At the time when I was working on Armenia, I was thinking of this concept of the far away place. When we narrate ourselves, we narrate where this distant place is into the space of our own self-determination. This world is becoming more and more flat. Basically everyone already knows, you can go anywhere nowadays, from Paris to New York, but that doesn’t mean what it used to mean. You think these places mean something, but they’re not symbolic of distant places anymore. The physical route has already long diminished the possibility of their narration as distant places. So I’m looking for a distant place of the religious kind, a connection that can recognize and fulfill me within the limitations of my own life. I saw that there is this place called Armenia. I looked it up, and it just happened to be the place where the East meets the geo-center of western religion. Armenia was the first Christian country, and it's also the last one, the last borderline. From there you get to Turkey, to Anatolia and Asia Minor, and you begin to go towards what the West calls the Near East. The West reached a fusion of culture in the Middle East. They didn't understand the Far East, and it wasn't until large-scale maritime navigation after the 17th century that a concept of the Far East began to form. The Far East was their distant place. Standing now on the plane of our own faraway-ness, Armenia seems like my own distant place. It is by destiny that it becomes my far away place, and it is also a distant place metaphysically speaking, a metaphysically linear space. I have never been to this country physically, nor am i familiar with it geopolitically; everything I know via reading about it. I heard that the girls there are very pretty, and anyway it fit the kind of corporeal and spatial interests I had. But unless there is a very particular situation, I will probably never go there. But I quickly learned more about the country and its blood-filled history, Armenia's history of being slaughtered by others. It had what I felt to be an even greater symbolic and literary significance, and it matched up to my image of a horizon line. I just put my own feelings into it, so then what you see in the exhibition space is exactly my horizon—the passageway of the horizon, the parallel lines of the horizon, sexual relations and blood relations—all of it is in there. The door is created by many crosses stuck together, and the red ones represent blood. In reality, the back wall isn't complete, its height undulates. So when people enter, the whole middle section is made from my chest level to the wall, from my heart to the wall, from my shoulder to the wall, from my erect penis to the wall. The widest section is that distance from my erect penis to the wall, and together these distances create a passage. After you enter, the space in which you can move becomes gradually more narrow until you reach the point when it's less than your shoulder-width in distance. But the doors will open and close continually, randomly and one by one in a fixed rhythm. One closes, and after about twelve seconds, another one will open.
RJS: You mean that Armenia is a distant place with a message and that you have endowed it with feelings from your own body.
HA: Of course it is determined by the self. Western religion is related to the body, and so it has the concept of performance art. You must drink the blood of Jesus Christ; this is related to the body. China did not have a concept of performance art until more recently. And the relations that we formed are different—based upon feng shui principles and a cosmic view. Within our culture, people are no longer so important. [Chinese culture] embodies feng shui and the reciprocal relations between the heavens and earth. The people in this system are nearly negligible, and so if you are a heavenly body, you will magically transform into the wind, you will transform into a living object in this world—that is the Eastern system of relations.
RJS: I see that you have stolen a lot of character signs. Have you also researched into Chinese calligraphy?
HA: I really like calligraphy, and I think besides the furniture and the landscapes hanging in my house, the most suitable thing to hang on the walls would be calligraphy. It's really very abstract, just like the nodal thinking that I talked about.
RJS: Why is it a nodal thinking?
HA: Because it comes from a skeletal frame of logic.
RJS: What do you think is the advantage of this skeletal logic?
HA: It's light, really completely light and supple. It feels just like lines connecting to other lines in a dance, very pretty and beautiful and more in line with the kind of intimate feeling one experiences with nature.
RJS: Because it's not in isolation.
HA: Right, their reason for being is simply emptiness.
RJS: So have you ever researched the calligraphy of the character signs you have stolen?
HA: No, they are basically not researchable, it's just about finding the word you need. I was just thinking about this yesterday, how to find the ‘残 can’ character from 残忍 canren (meaning 'cruel')? I looked everywhere for the word ‘栈 zhan’ (the right component of the character being the same as the right-side component of ‘残 can’), and here I found the word 客栈 kezhan (together meaning ‘inn’). You’re lucky if you can find the character at all, there isn't so much choice in the matter. There are no options for so many of the words. Then I needed the left-side component of ‘残 can’, which is ‘歹 dai’ (meaning 'evil'), and I found the ‘夕 xi’ character from ‘夕阳 xiyang’ (meaning ‘sunset’), and then I just had to find the horizontal stroke above to make it ‘歹 dai’. So ‘残 can’ was made from three separate parts. It's not possible to be picky about it, there's no choice. You just slowly find them, and most of the typefaces are the popularly used ones, there are only a few different ones, most people won't use unusual fonts.
RJS: So many of the stolen characters from your neon light series pieces are collaged together?
HA: Most of them.
Do You Think That You Can Help Her Brother?
Light box installation, dimensions variable, 2008-2009
Australian Centre for Contemporary Art
(Image courtesy of He An studio)
RJS: Why do you choose to work in this way?
HA: There's no way to finish, it's impossible to complete. I'm already happy if I come across one or two incomplete parts. There's no way to complete them. Because the word you need must come from several characters collaged together. Take the '嫖 piao' character from '嫖娼 piaochang’ (to visit prostitutes)—where ever are you going to find the word '嫖 piao'? You have to steal a '女 nv' character, and then the '票 piao' part for the right side. We had to tear down a wall just to get the '票 piao' part from the word '饭票 fanpiao' (meal ticket) that was hung on a wall. That's the only way it can be done, but doing it like that actually makes the work more rich.
RJS: That's also a nodal logic. To break apart a closed off and fixed rule. Later you even had a few characters that became illegible or that you gutted to leave only the silhouette, why did you do that?
HA: I used the outline of the character then connected all the outlines together. This contour already defines the way that the text can be read, and it fixes the shape of a different space that you wouldn't see otherwise, so it forms a confusing relationship, a non-linear reading.
An Instant of My Purity is Worth a Lifetime of Your Lies,
LED light box, 150 cm in diameter, 2014
(Image courtesy of He An studio)
RJS: Why is it a non-linear reading?
HA: Linear reading is like, “Shen-Rui-Jun”—sequential and identifiable to everyone just like that. Non-linear reading is when I remove a part of a character, when I use only the outline to form a linear relationship that is impossible to read anymore. So it's no longer a linear relationship in the sense that it's no longer “Shen-Rui-Jun” anymore; you can read it any direction, upside-down or right side up.
RJS: And what is the advantage of that?
HA: The flow becomes very strong, it creates a symbolic relationship. And it can only be done in this way with Chinese characters, not with foreign text. Everyone knows that it is a sentence, but no one knows what that sentence is, so it's like a code. It's like an urban code, but this code exists in a void, like the empty space of a room.
RJS: The last time I spoke with you, you had mentioned that you’ve come into contact with many people from the lower rungs of society, like becoming friends with prostitutes, for example. What is your experience in the process of becoming friends with these people?
HA: When I first came to Beijing, they were the only people that communicated with me. It seemed that they were open to talking with me because I was a university student.
RJS: But not all university students would be willing to communicate with them.
HA: Right. They thought us university students were also lonely in this kind of place and condition, without knowing anyone in Beijing. So I talked with them a lot. And my family background is also from the lower end of society. My mother drifted over [to Hunan province] from Henan, and my father was just picking up trash from the street. It was only after the State economic reforms from 1978 that he was slowly able to build up a factory. Our house was a tent set up on the side of the old Beijing-Guangzhou railway line, we called them “Henan tents.” Those tents were very low-class. When we were young we'd get into fights every day; day in and day out it was this kind of stuff. If it wasn't me fighting, then it was us fighting with the leader of another crew of kids. So at a certain point while coming into contact with these people, you don't think that it's me coming into contact with them, just simply that it's not so different from when you were a kid.
RJS: So what is it about these people that attracts you to them? Because actually I think your work is related to them.
HA: Of course, it's because I think I am the same as them.
RJS: Do you think you have gained energy or been inspired by their kinds of lives?
HA: About being inspired...or gaining energy, that's for sure. You'll remind yourself every once in a while about which class you belong to. You'll remind yourself every once in a while, really. Sometimes while making work you'll hit a high, your thoughts will soar all over the place, or sometimes you'll have some unrealistically high opinions of yourself. Or in the process of making work, very often you aren’t even able to have a grip on yourself, you'll be influenced by a lot of texts, by the outside world. This is when you have to come back to where you came from.
RJS: Why do you think you have to return to this kind of "keep it real" feeling? Why is this important?
HA: Because a lot of the time I'm not down to earth, so I have to come back down to earth to realize it. This gives me energy. I really stress upon the power of the work itself. The power of a work is contained within it and it's endless, not exploding out like a sudden action. But this power comes from the environment in which you exist, from the conditions I've grown up in since my childhood, and from whichever social class you come from. I really have to stress class sentiment.
RJS: Do you hope that your work gives something to this social class?
HA: No, because I only represent an individual. So this is why I am very confused about socially engaged artists, because as a person from the lower levels of society, you can only represent yourself, right? It’s like this, really.
RJS: Can you speak a bit about why?
HA: Because this kind of social intervention annoys me a little. It's as if I'm here to offer something to you all, to teach you all what freedom is. I've put myself on another level, now let me give you all something, let me save you, I am bringing my privilege in order to save you all. Or I bring my freedom to save you all. It's not like this. We don't need you in order to find freedom. We have our own leveling ground. That leveling ground means that, for example, at our level we have our own nature and ways of being, our own connections. These kinds of connections don't need to rely on the middle class to tell us anything, and they don’t need the middle class to lead the way. The lower classes, poor people, don't need to get along with the rich, it's not necessary.
RJS: Can you give an example, if people from the lower classes don't interact with other classes, if they make compromises, or if they are in a situation of being led by others, how can they—via their own practices—achieve what they want?
HA: This is a very big topic, you’re talking about a different identity. To discuss this you have to talk about Mao Zedong's thinking on revolution, the solidarities among those of the lower rungs of society. You can call it a struggle for rights, of course. At that time—no matter if they were of the lower class or of the middle class—everyone was struggling for common rights. It wasn't about middle class rights or lower class rights, there wasn't anything like that. If people could achieve these rights for all, then the lower class would create their own ways, maybe we could call them urban grey spaces, or street subculture. A group relationality would come together, and these kinds of relations would have nothing to do with the middle class. The middle class has its own good middle-class art. So if another kind of art emerges from street subculture, it will be a different kind of chain. So there will be no difference between high and low, you could read [the mainstream magazine] Bosom Friend everyday, or you read Shakespeare everyday. The crowd that reads Bosom Friend everyday could also to a great capacity produce very good art and literature. No one would need to tell them, “You should read Shakespeare.” But it seems like this kind of relationship [between class and culture] still doesn't exist in China. That's why I am a bit confused by socially engaged practices.
RJS: I understand, it's very interesting. This is actually a way of talking about equality. Each person has his/her own life, and has to follow their own way to live. This is actually a kind of equality.
HA: Equality is difference. Equality must acknowledge this kind of difference, and difference is necessary. You can't think that because you drive a BMW that you can tell me how things should be, that's not right.
RJS: Why would you think like this?
HA: Because after all these years together with them, we have slowly created reciprocal relationships.
RJS: Have you realized that their lives also have their good and happy moments, things with value?
HA: In the place I originally lived, especially at the time when I had just gotten to Beijing, I had regular contact with them and didn't think anything [happy or valuable]. They also have their despicable sides. Cheating, lying, everything goes—but slowly, after studying art, you realize that they are offering a different way of thinking.
RJS: What way?
HA: A kind of roughness, a crude feeling that remains every moment. I really have to stress which class you come from, and you really have to understand the ways of living within social class. Even if you have a lot of relationships outside of your class, it's not that you can leave behind the connection to your own.
Just Because I’m Superficial Doesn’t Have to Mean You Can’t Love Me
(Image courtesy of He An studio)
RJS: Can you talk about the piece Just Because I’m Superficial Doesn’t Have to Mean You Can’t Love Me?
HA: This is really simple. We used to live in the Daxing area, and when we were in school we always used to go to those cheap clubs, the ones that had neon lights flashing all over the place. I wanted to do something to bring that kind of light to the exhibition space. Having a lot of contact with the girls there, I know they all use this kind of 10-30 yuan Chanel perfume that stings your eyes so badly you can't even open them. So in the exhibition space, a kind of slightly poisonous condition emerges at a certain moment. The lights are exactly like those in those clubs, kind of cheesy. In reality, it’s pointing directly towards the conditions of the bottom tiers of society.
RJS: Why do you use this title for the show?
HA: For example, if you like a prostitute, she'll tell you if she loves you or if she doesn’t, but because of the place she's in, she’ll say that love goes beyond all of it. So adding this title here is to raise the temperature a bit.
RJS: When did you make this work?
HA: I think it was a long time ago.
RJS: I am really interested in the fact that this work is totally sensual, not only the visual that we ordinarily perceive in art. A sculpture, an installation, a video—they're all visual. But here you have a piece that is at minimum a multi-sensory artwork, including smell, the feeling of the body when you enter the space. So I think it's really quite interesting, and very on the mark.
HA: When the work was shown in Beijing, a lot of girls took a whiff and didn't enter anymore. Even I couldn't go in there anymore.
Just Because I’m Superficial Doesn’t Have to Mean You Can’t Love Me
(Image courtesy of He An studio)
RJS: Everyone knows that you've become a religious believer, can you say why?
HA: Our family is from the lower rungs of society, the floating precariat kind. To be straightforward, the lower class is still tormented. You have to put your faith and trust somewhere or with someone, you need something to reach out to in order to sustain yourself. It's like how I began to read the Lord's Prayer. I was with hooligans getting into street fights, but I didn't have guts, I was scared to death. I really did read the Lord's Prayer, it would make you less afraid.
RJS: Can that be compared to the temporary kind of relief of taking hallucinogenic drugs when you're unhappy?
HA: Don't even talk about temporary. Life itself is temporary, you can't really think of it in terms like 'temporary' and ‘forever’—we’re all temporary. Maybe it's like putting your life in someone else's hands, but He can really make you gain a different kind of strength. And He has really made me realize that I have suffered much less pain than others. I think there is a metaphysical reason for this connection. If you look at it from another angle, it can't even be analyzed on the basis of logic. Religion is like this, it can't be analyzed, and once you try to analyze it a lot of things don't stand up. But when you're in the moment looking at it, it simply connects. It's just like a marriage agreement. We go for love to sign the papers and pick up the marriage certificate. But how you analyze this love, that's a completely different matter, and there are many different kinds.
RJS: So going back to your belief in God. You must certainly also have contact with people who don’t believe in religion or have a different world view.
HA: Of course. But all religion is only important for my personal growth and experience. So normally I will rarely tell others you should believe in God or you should whatever; I don't talk with other people about it. It's only an agreement that I've made with myself. Before I used to love eating meat, thought that nothing tasted good without meat, I was super greedy and loved to eat—a pig. But after I made this connection to God, my life divided in two: the former gluttonous life, and the life of not eating meat, of having nothing to do with it. I wanted a change from before, and it was only via religion that I could do it. I couldn't do it on my own, because those things tempted me endlessly. I had to rely on religion, and I made the connection. It's been eleven years since I last ate meat. So this kind of religious connection has been useful to me. And the other thing is that age will really make you compromise, it will throw you off kilter, and that includes all the excuses you give to yourself. There’s also your personal experience, and for me personally I need to be forgiven, or maybe you can say that I need strength from an unknown place in order to save myself. Because I've also done a lot of fucked up stuff, and it’s really related to my experience and background from a lower class. That's why I choose religion. I need a kind of connection.
RJS: Okay, so how do you see this material thirst—the never ending, materialistic pursuits of society today?
HA: In the same way. I see this problem only for myself, and will not use some kind of morality to lash out and judge others outside of myself. I'm only saying that we are here temporarily, one generation after the next, temporary. So according to me, it doesn't matter how much you are in pursuit of the material, outside world; it won't overly influence the path that I am on. And my work therefore also doesn't make specific moral judgements about society. I try to avoid that.
RJS: While looking through your work, I discovered a really interesting story you told, about a grandma that touched a dragon. Can you tell the story?
HA: That was my paternal grandmother. Before the founding of the Republic, it used to flood a lot in Wuhan, because every time the Yangtze River overflowed there would be a huge flood. One year it flooded, and as the water was gushing out everyone was inundated by water, and many people were evacuated to a large boat. While the boat was floating down the Yangtze, the waves were very big, and because it was at the time already night, my grandma had to grab hold of the hull of the boat to feel her way around. At one point, she felt something in the water that had scales. Even though she was scared, she kept calm, and her father told her that if something like that happened, it meant that a dragon had come out to protect you, and that the people on the boat would be safe. She was calm, and eventually the boat reached its destination. She told me this story herself.
RJS: Do you believe it?
HA: It's the same again, you know, we are all just trying to make a connection. Contemporaneity doesn't really have the relationship to belief or non-belief, it's only about what's inside. Just like magical realism—when the journalist interviewed Gabriel García Márquez, he asked him, were those things you wrote about real?
RJS: You mean that you have to make this kind of connection to your surroundings, right?
HA: Yes, that's the contemporary. The reporter asked Márquez, doesn't it say that Aureliano's mother sees blood flowing out of her own body, flowing out onto the street and into each and every house? Márquez answered that for us this kind of thing happens every day. His reply is extremely strong and unyielding. Really, like it doesn't matter whether you believe me or not, but in that space, it’s real.
RJS: One important point about the contemporary zeitgeist is the opposition to spirituality. Before, everyone had religion, and later everyone believed in science and progress. Modern life is one of the results of this abolishment of religion for the belief in science.
HA: But within contemporaneity, what is even more emphasized are regional and ethnic relationships, for example with the opening up of Europe to refugees. The refugees are able to very quickly re-establish a psychological concept of nation, to re-build their beliefs. You have to stress this kind of connection. So even when technology and science are flourishing, you have to respect what in your mainstream society seems otherwise like a backwards kind of condition. The Other still exists, they grow together with you and will from today forward lay roots with you. This is contemporaneity.
RJS: Interesting. I remember last time we also talked about the issue of borders and defining them—the definition of a good person, ethical relations.
HA: This is the invisible border area of the body. For example if you take an artist, whatever I want to do, you have to put your finger on this border, to use your hand to literally reach out to find where the border is, but it’s basically just possibility—fragmented. I don't have a way to describe it more specifically. If you piece it together, it will probably take on the form of your own life right before death. This is the question of the border.
RJS: And what about ethical relations?
HA: I think that ethical relations belongs within this border area. There are different kinds, one being the ethical relations you have personally, and another is that of social ethics. For example, the Nobel Prize winning physicist Yang Zhenning marrying a woman 38 years his junior. For him, there is an ethical relation, but he has formed a very taut relationship to it, because he has traded society's ethics for his own contributions to science in order to gain a legitimacy for his personal ethics. It's the same with personal borders, each person has to feel out where the connections are, to form their own level of relational elasticity. You can trade in, and every social being needs a trading chip. In the course of a person’s life, this chip could be money, and most of the time nowadays it's money. Because most people think it's easiest that way (in actuality it's more complex). Social ethics defines many outside exceptions for what a good person is. So if you look at how we see Yang Zhenning now, people will immediately say, why would she choose him, and contemporary Chinese society will especially think that it’s because you have made such contributions to race and ideology. This kind of trade-off with the contributions to national ideology is actually a relatively backwards kind of thinking. J.M. Coetzee has always been exploring the problems of human borders—male and female, individual and of ethnic groups, the oppression of the Other. Borders are just the territory of an individual’s life.
Artist He An (left) with “Making with Time” series curator Ruijun Shen(right)