A Conversation with Hong Hao|Freedom Has No Border

Recorded: 24 May, 2018
Location: Pace Gallery, Beijing


Shen Ruijun (abbreviated as RJS): Why are you interested in the concept of ‘border’? In your previous works, you painted so many maps. You seem to be especially drawn to ‘systems’. In our previous conversations, you mentioned that you are quite interested in Buddhist studies, yet according to which borders shouldn’t be distinguished. Why does your exhibition use this as its title?
Hong Hao (abbreviated as HH): It has to do with my own work. I think border reflects phenomenon of differences. To distinguish between this and that requires a form, which is exactly this border. It makes it possible for us to understand the world. For example, our recognition of an object is based on its contour. It occupies space so that we sense its existence. Previously, I’ve made many works of maps. Isn’t a map presenting itself exactly through borders? Without borders, it is unified into ‘one’. Borders show the differences among things. For example, borders on maps reflect the concept of ‘nation’. There are no such lines in nature. They are artificial outcomes associated with politics, cultures, nations, religions and histories. Actually, Buddhism doesn’t deny the existence of phenomenon. It says that phenomenon doesn’t have the svabhava (literally ‘own-becoming’) of what’s essential. It is the result of certain conditions which are not eternally unchanging.

Besides, border also has another significant meaning that is ‘to be defined’. It is a kind of regulated understanding. So, seeing my work from these two aspects of border, we can see that it proceeds in the states of making and breaking the borders. Breaking the borders through making borders. Making borders provides a way to understand phenomenon. To break the borders is to transcend the knowing attitude.

RJS: How did the concept of ‘border’ evolve in your creative process?
HH:When I first started making maps, I wanted to show the impact of demarcations on our understanding of the world. Because these demarcations are all defined concepts. They regulate our perspectives for seeing the world. These bounded definitions begin to foster a kind of ‘taken-for-granted’ attitude in us. Thus, to correct these demarcations is also to question the established facts. That’s why I made The New World Physical, for providing potential of re-reading the world. In this series of work, I swap the colours of land and ocean. Normally, lands are denoted in green, earthly brown and umber. The ocean is blue. Reversing the habitual use of colours also reverses the land and the ocean themselves.

Later I began to scan objects. I think substituting camera with scanner in order to capture images is also a disruption of demarcations, an ‘anti-photography’ photography. It subverts the concept of photography and displays a series of completely different logics, thus evolving our understanding of photography. For example, the most significant difference here is that of the relationship between people and those captured. Due to the way scanners work, human bodies have to be in contact with the scanned objects. First, it’s about ‘touch’. Every object in my work I’ve touched it myself. The process of ‘taking’ involves feelings and experience, especially things that relate to me, that I’ve experienced. Thus, the ‘touch’ enables me to see my attitudes towards them: desires, preferences and laments. Another action is to ‘put’ objects on the scanner or other places. Picking up and putting down are actually repetitive actions in our daily life. I think this behaviour during work is coherent with the quotidian behaviours in form. In this aspect, camera captures images in a reverse way. It can’t be in touch with the photographed object. To form an image, one needs distance. You can’t touch a person while photographing him or her. As a result, we also lose the chance to ‘experience’ the object.

Secondly, speaking from ‘seeing’ itself, scanner also has lenses. But I found that scanner’s lens can’t see the same part of the same object at the same time with the human eyes. In other words, what scanner captures is exactly the opposite of what human eyes see. It sees what we miss, and sees it from zero distance. However, camera’s lens can be seen as the extension of human eyes since it sees the same as the human eyes. Furthermore, this kind of ‘seeing’ maintains a distance. It records what the eyes see with a tool and transfers it into images.

Also, scanning is a straightforward way to narrate, as it looks straight ahead with no angled perspectives and with a depth of only 2cm. Thus, it flattens and decentralises all images. Unlike a camera’s lens that has a focal point, creating sharpness and blurs, differentiating between the nearby and the far away, subjects and surroundings. Scanned images have a perspective similar to cavalier perspectives, which enable all images to bear ‘equal’ relationships.

Besides, through scanning consumer goods, I found out that every object represents a kind of need while at the same time I discovered people’s attitudes towards consumer goods. I think that consumption is a wish to build certain kind of connection between the goods’ values and the self. For example, owning something cool and expensive creates satisfaction, entices happiness and proudness. In fact, it allows man to possess a symbolism, thus reflecting a kind of attitude towards social value standards.

In the recent series Edged, my erasure of social characteristics and materiality of matters is ever more thorough, since I’ve also taken away my rationality towards the materials. I put objects directly onto canvases, and make rubbings of them, leaving only visual shapes indicative of their contours.

RJS:You’ve just mentioned about consumerist life. What’s your opinion of it?
HH:I think one change brought by globalization is consumption as strategy, which becomes the impetus for constructing social development. The concept is constantly magnified. Values that pursue material lives obtain a normalised logic. A relationship of reliance between men and objects is strengthened. This constitutes our contemporary life and cultural scene. You see, we all more or less sustain a commonly accepted survival method. You have to live this way since everybody else do so. And the entire social system constantly sets conditions for you to accept. More and more attentive services such as deliveries and electronic commerce let you sit and get what you want. It increases your ‘domestic need’, which I think could also be understood as a kind of internal desire — though it originally indicates a nation’s domestic demands. So, if societies do not have the need for consumption, the system loses its running energies. It might collapse, and followed by series of social problems.

RJS:Some of these desires are fundamental, but probably most of them aren’t necessary.
HH:Yes, they are mostly provoked. You may not have it before, yet when every person around you has it, you would feel out of place. I think many of our needs are given and planned out by the society. It tells you what kinds of needs you are supposed to have, as those are the requirements of the era, and you would risk falling out if you are lack of such needs. Thus, besides the basic needs for survival, the extras are nurtured. Our way of survival is the outcome of passively complying with the era. We constantly work hard to make the society’s needs our needs to an extent that it becomes why we live.

RJS:At the same time, we are enslaved by these needs and desires. We work for it. We are abducted by it.
HH:Yes, it becomes a strong ‘current’ — the society’s flooding current that engulfs us. You can’t act on your own and decide for yourself. This is also a border drawn by the system. It takes away your courage of even thinking about stepping out of the border. We are too chicken, too used to habits.

RJS:As individuals, is there any way to get out of the vicious cycle?
HH:That depends on one’s volition and a clear understanding that leads to freedom of choice. We have the choice of not complying with the system, so that to make it invalid to us. Or we can also choose to enter while maintaining a sensitive vigilance with no hankering eagerness. The system’s harm would thus diminish. The root cause of being shackled by the system is, in my opinion, the individuals’ strong expectations and demands. Desires make us stranded within demarcations, adhered to the inside. What we pay in return is our own life. Thus I think we need to understand more clearly what we truly need and what we achieve and lose at the same time.

For example, at this moment, society requires us to have houses, cars and money. Yet the seventies were much simpler, bicycles, watches and sewing machines were ‘the three biggies’. Later, in the eighties, refrigerators, televisions and washing machines seemed to be the standards of happiness.

RJS:But why the standards are easier to meet with in the past compared to the conditions nowadays? I often seeing people talk about stress and pressure. Back in the eighties and nineties, getting married would only need a thousand yuan, so most people got married in name of love. But now even in the rural areas, marriage needs half million yuan for buying a flat. Are the standards of the past easier to reach?
HH:For the majority, life is definitely much harder now than before. The three biggies in the seventies cost only half year’s salaries. In the eighties, they cost three years’ salaries. But now, a house may cost a person’s life savings. The cost to meet the standards is higher and higher.

RJS:So, how easy or difficult to meet standards also influences the extent to which people can gain happiness and freedom.
HH:Right, isn’t life just stranded by this (difference)? Apartments in Beijing are ten times more expensive than those in small cities.

RJS:But the problem is, salaries in small cities are also lower.
HH:Work hard in Beijing first.

RJS:Right, that’s what many people do. Yet many are reluctant to leave Beijing, a big city.
HH:Big cities have more centralised resources. Despite apartments, it’s easier to obtain other opportunities because the conditions needed are different.

RJS:Are people happier when they achieve more?
HH:I think we should clarify the concept of happiness first. It is a feeling of satisfaction. The obtainment of such satisfaction is related to material matters as well as one’s own mentality. The reason why more material satisfaction doesn’t guarantee more happiness is that the former always falls behind the speed that desire ‘grows’, and the constant heightening of the niche of needs. For example, the pressure caused by vying generates unhappiness from not having. Thus, easy-met sense of satisfaction, control of desires and the positioning of one’s needs become significant. Otherwise, the price of happiness will only grow bigger and bigger as the sense of happiness becomes farther and farther away.

RJS:Plus, shopping is in fact a cure. Speaking from this perspective, manufacturing desire and the mentality of lacking is indeed to stimulate consumption. The essential problem isn’t solved.
HH:This essential problem is both a problem of understanding and mentality. The solution after all still depends on understanding to transform one’s inner thoughts. Shopping brings satisfaction. But it’s only a temporary relief of worries. The effect usually lasts at most half day. When it loses effectiveness, one still needs to go shopping, to consume. In fact, this (process) fits what the system requires of us.

RJS:Then, what can we do about this situation as artists or individuals?
HH:I think art should offer people a spiritual satisfaction. Happiness doesn’t come from material life solely, but also from the spiritual. The standards of happiness should be pluralistic. In the past, such satisfaction often comes from reading and other spiritual activities. Also, spiritual pursuit better reflects human’s existential value compared to ‘instinctive’ materialistic satisfactions. The society’s general lack of spiritual life is due to an overall utilitarianism. Everything is associated with materialistic possessions especially money. Is financial independence a true freedom?

RJS:Then, what do you think is the real freedom?
HH:I think the real freedom is to be without barriers. It is a ‘state’ after the absolute elimination of perplexity and inner annoyance. So the problem of understanding needs to be solved first, to be clear about what one truly wants to do. Otherwise, being carried along by the currents would only lead to repetition of the others’ sufferings.

RJS:Right, you have to know what you truly want.
HH:Right, for example, what’s the purpose of pursuing materialism? It’s for happiness. Happiness in itself is a feeling. So the purpose is eventually to be satisfied at the level of mentality. The problem is that, nowadays, ways to obtain happiness are only viable through social relations: fame, power and status. In other words, it relies on the relationship with an other to prove one’s value, to make the self’s existence safe and solid. So it turns out that it’s the other that gives the self-confidence. Can oneself produce happiness on its own?

RJS:But happiness without the materialistic world would require immense strength.
HH:Then that’s a matter of individual cultivation. What we can do is to know ourselves, know what is truly valuable to ourselves, and what needs to be discarded. We are constrained by what’s outside of us, abducted by it. I believe we should not only look at the problematics of the outside but to seek from within. Changes outside may not influence oneself. Because its function is to seduce, and we have such seeds in us. That’s why I think we should manage our inner mentalities, to be observant of our mental activities, to see the psychological foundation of every idea and action, to be precautious against unhealthy emotions as if they are thieves. They are the arch-criminal of one’s unhappiness, which needs to be locked in cage. The ability of acceptance might also be needed simultaneously, to reduce the impact from outside. Free and independent happiness are real happiness. The ones obtained from the outside is always temporary because the outside is unstable, which, as the reliance of our mind and body, leads to changing emotions too.

RJS:Does it mean that after all we are to return to our own experience?
HH:Yes. Buddhism speaks of freedom as ‘being carefree’, which might be similar to the aforementioned state of freedom. And one’s inner mind is the source from which the state is produced.

RJS:Does Buddhist studies influence your perspective for understanding the world?
HH:The objective of a Buddhist cultivation is the complete emancipation from the troubles in life, allowing people to gain a total, genuine freedom. Everything essential is directed at the problem of life. Firstly, one needs to bring oneself to understand the real situations, to see the problems. Then, it helps to find the cause of the disease, which is our inverted understandings of the relationship between the self and the world. Series of unhealthy emotions are produced in a delusional mind, including greed and hatred. Eventually we will know what is true freedom and the way to achieve it. So we have to begin with changing our understanding and to form a wise one. Because understanding and existence are related, just like the standpoint of yogachara: the world we know is determined by our understanding. Therefore, I also want to adjust my understanding, to treat anew the problems of the world and life, and at the same time, to adjust my mentality while confronting people and events, to transform my subjectivity.

RJS:You remind me of a question, which is what you are speaking about now, ‘border’.
HH:I think ‘border’ is just a differentiating form of knowing. It’s the beginning of knowing. I haven’t and cannot arrive at the state of non-differentiation at the moment.

RJS:It (understanding through ‘border’) is after all convenient. Let me ask about your previous work. You made the series Selected Scriptures, and you made a lot of works for this series actually. It’s a really good one. Why did you want to make this series? I find that all this time, you’ve been interested in ‘rules’. You have a vision of the bigger grids – you have a model first, then seek changes in it. This way of thinking and artistic practice have always been continuous and coherent.
HH:Selected Scriptures began in the year of 1988 when I was in art school. Before then, I printed out my sketches made during the journey to the countryside, made them like publications. The feature of printmaking is to print, which is also related to publishing. Later the prints turn into books. My initial feeling of books is that it’s authoritative, especially in our actuality, publications are outcomes of strict control. It reflects a regulated correctness. Thus, it makes people to believe in such a logic: what is published is always correct.

RJS:I remember you’ve said this before.
HH:Because it (book) gives me such impressions, same with the catalogues we saw last time. The process of learning art is largely related to catalogues. Works that are printed in catalogues seem to be verified masterpieces. The catalogues tell us what art should be. Standards, one after another. Books are one of the resources for nurturing understanding, which also regulate it. Thus, I started with the idea that ‘everything in books is correct’. Due to this idea, whatever I do inside the book should be correct. The form of book is always protective.

RJS:So you want to find different voices in the power structure?
HH:It’s to offer a possible attitude for re-examining the problem. My way of constructing the book’s content is to first dismantle all sorts of elements in our system and re-organise them on another level. In this way, new formal relationship and inner logics may emerge. This repetitive process, page after page, forms an actuality of established facts and existence, which is in the end canonised. As a result, understanding could only be observed if the right and the wrong is defined. That’s why nothing is ‘ought to be’ in my books.

RJS:When you said about this, it reminded me what Xu Bing also said: ‘there is nothing besides words in books’. That’s why Xu Bing made the words illegible. But you used a different deductive method, I guess.
HH:Yes, he dissolves book’s function of spreading knowledge. Books are to be read, and knowledge are thus acquired through words. Yet if it can’t be read, knowledge can’t be obtained. Books become a form. I make books in order to deal with the authority and monopoly of knowledge. In fact, a standard is also a perspective for understanding. You see, all concepts are defined by humans. ‘Human is the scale for all things’, then my own definitions should also be reasonable. I think by this way, we can question what we are habitually used to. In fact, when we see things, it’s always with a kind of concept and perspective. Different kinds of rules lead to different views, thus different understandings. Then what are things in themselves? What is the truth and the fact? That’s why I think our understanding falls short. Rationality, after all, is limited.

RJS: What you made was a different sense of actuality from established facts. It might be established yet if penetrated from different angles, it could produce different facts. What’s your view on creativity?
HH:From certain perspective, creativity also comes from a need. It reflects a public expectation and psychological desire. Because people are all inclined towards the new and away from the old, refusing the immutable state. Yet from the other perspective, creativity also means developing new frontiers, discovering new thinking and angles for understanding things. Thus, it also becomes a standard that the society is weighed against. Many contemporary art practices are also motivated by the ‘new’ to expand further possibilities. This will enrich the dimension of artistic manifestation, letting the understanding of art to become more pluralistic.

RJS:What I’m asking is two different kinds of innovations. For example, to release new products that are absolutely different from those of the past is one of it. But I find your works have always been concerned with changes within a norm. It reminds me the theory of ‘imitation’ in traditional Chinese paintings. Copying often precedes developing one’s own creative practice. This was also a method to create the ‘new’. How do you see these two kinds of creativity? One is absolute separation, which coincides with modern culture that sets apart from the past and makes new things. The other one is about constant changing within an old framework. What do you think of these two different models?
HH:Total separation is impossible. What’s being established doesn’t grow out from nowhere. It is also influenced by different aspects. Thus ‘overthrowing’ has its specificity. For example, contemporary art in eighties China mostly spoke against Soviet art which by then had been the only standard for understanding art, especially in the present. Because it screens off many other values of art. What was being overthrown was the monopoly such epistemology. The real aim of creativity is to break with a kind of constraint and to embark on new possibilities in order to solve contemporary issues. This is a useful strategy and pathway. On the other hand, searching for changes in previous frameworks requires an understanding of the framework, which in case of a system of thinking, would require a stable coherence. Creativity is the way to evolve such system. The concept of creativity itself, I believe, is exactly a creative thinking of breaking with demarcations.

RJS:You’ve just mentioned about the eighties. At the time, it was very clear that something needs to be overthrown, an ‘other’.
HH:The ‘other’ needs to be cast off since it was already binding our faculty of understanding.

RJS:But the problem comes. What do we do after the ‘other’ disappears?
HH:Breaking precedes establishment. ‘Breaking’ is a manifestation at the level of attitudes. ‘Establishing’ is the real purpose. The reason why people seek other pathways is that things from the past have lost their impacts. If we take what cause us trouble as the ‘other’, then, I think, this ‘other’ will always exist. Because this world is imperfect, perpetually problematic. As one problem is solved, more will continuously emerge.

RJS:As an artist and an individual, what do you think is our society’s problem?
HH:I think it’s the psychological problems caused by materialistic values, including evoked desires, anxieties, restlessness, dissatisfaction and unease. Today nearly everyone has these emotions. Lack of spiritual life is also one of the causes. The point of life shouldn’t be following the general trends. 

RJS:Regarding to the series Bottom, why did you scan these objects? Every object you scanned was three-dimensional, physically existing. But after your scanning, they became rather abstract forms. From My Things to Bottom, what transference have you made?
HH:Before the series of Bottom, I made My Things series. In My Things, by scanning objects that I’ve consumed, I want to present an observation of how I live, of my lifestyle, of its cause and sustaining power, which are mostly the result of social needs, and of its influence on me. So, it’s a work that accompanies the progress of my life since at that time my daily job is to keep a day-to-day account, to put the consumer goods of the day onto the scanner one by one.
The scanner’s mechanism actually inspired me, and thus began the transformation from My Things to Bottom. Having to scan on a daily basis, I kept repeating a single experience: when I put objects on the scanner, what I saw was the opposite of what the scanning lens saw. When I faced the object, I saw its front but the scanner saw its bottom. Thus, a heap of shapes of different textures appeared on the screen. Such images also blur our judgement of values even though the things themselves haven’t changed. Scanning the bottoms of consumer goods is a method to de-emotion. Because the information of a consumer good’s function and value is mostly shown on the surface. It reflects our desires, influences our emotions. But the bottom is neglected. It reflects the object’s state, form, material and textures, which have nothing to do with people’s needs.

RJS:When you collaborated with Polit-Sheer-Form Office, you’ve also discussed the relationship between individual and community or individual and society. While keeping the connection with the social system, how should the relationship between individuals and the society be dealt with. Since we’ve talked about individuals’ standards and attitudes towards the world, the external frameworks also exist. How should we balance?
HH:Can this framework influence us? If you think it can, then it definitely will. The priority is to understand how a society’s structure is formed and its effects, otherwise one will passively sink into it. Understanding is most important. Most of time, we make contact with things through feelings, which are often steered by the mood. An adverse situation may just be unfitting with one’s expectation, but this is also the truth of existence. So one needs to understand his or her own emotions, internal and external, then one would gain initiatives.

RJS:You’ve said it perfectly. Let’s shift our topic to modern education, especially education in the West. It promotes an idea that people can change the world, meaning that people can create things according to their own will. What do you think?
HH:Technology development and the evolving understanding of the world give us conditions to make changes. They make us more efficient. Yet, the purpose of changing the world, as for now, is to fulfil people’s growing desires more quickly.

RJS:But I still want to discuss it further. We can’t deny the effectiveness of this approach. Over the past two hundred years, what the cities have become is a victory of the above approach.
HH:Yes, but what about our environment. I think technology development relates to people’s needs. In daily life, technology brings us convenience. It realises our imagination for desires, while at the same time, opens up our further imagination. I think the problem now is not about material development but the cure for people’s inner world.

RJS:One last question. You made a series of work called As It Is. Does it mean to suit measures to local conditions?
HH:Right. It is to form a tacit and mutual understanding with the reality. Thus, ‘as it is’ is necessarily preceded by ‘what it is’. This ‘what it is’ could be understood as a kind of existence, a reality tangled with our social system. This ‘what it is’ is the documents, maps and tickets that I’ve collected and related to this system. I copy the texts of their fronts on their backs. I want to form a reciprocal relation between spiritual experience of the individual and a format of the society. Besides, all these documents are made of paper. Paper has its own characteristics. It undergoes apparent reactions due to its surrounding environment, especially humidity. For example, in winter, works in glass frames shrink due to the dry climate. It may also flutter due to static electricity of polymethyl methacrylate (acrylic). While in summer, because of the humid weather, it swells and forms wrinkles. Thus, finished works also have a living form. This may also be the ‘as it is’ of acting according to what it is.

RJS:In fact, it also reflects your world view?
HH:Yes. ‘As it is’ in fact originates from traditional Chinese garden landscaping, for which all artificial things are used to interact and form relationships with nature. Unlike the western gardening, in which everything is neat and tidy, including trees that are decoratively trimmed, seems to manifest the superiority of human species reigning over the world. The manners of Chinese gardening follow the nature, so does Japanese gardening. People’s capability of transforming is not emphasized. Instead, it expresses respect and yearning for the nature, an attitude of men being the descendants of nature.


Hong Hao is an artist who understands social relationships and forms as the extension of subjective consciousness. He has developed a special art form of self-recognition. He was first recognized with his early printmaking series Selected Scriptures. Later, he rises to international recognition with his distinct form of scanned images, such as My Things. His practice leads us to understand anew the happenings, objects and contemporary life, incorporating materials such as maps, books, tickets, old stuff, daily wares, etc., using handmade plate-making, scanning and printing as his main working methods. Hong Hao’s works are frequently shown in major domestic and international exhibitions. His artworks are collected by Museum of Modern Art in New York, Metropolitan Museum, British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum and other art institutions.




Shen Ruijun, artist and curator, born in 1976, Guangzhou, currently works and lives in Guangzhou and New York.Formerly the Chief Curator of Guangdong Times Art Museum (2014-2017), Shen Ruijun is currently the China program director of KADIST (San Francisco/Paris) .

As a curator, Shen Ruijun has curated many successful exhibitions, including “Gentle Wave in Your Eye Fluid-A Pipilotti Rist Solo Exhibition” (2013), the “Pulse-Reaction” series (2012, 2016), and “Polit-Sheer-Form!” at Queens Museum of Art, New York (2014). She also co-curated the 6th Chengdu Biennale (2013). Her ongoing research and curatorial direction include using Chinese gardens as an entry point to study the ideological roots of Chinese culture, traditional culture-inspired approach to addressing the dilemmas faced in contemporary life, and the possibility of translating the spatiality of gardens into contemporary art practice. She has been curating a series of garden-related exhibitions since 2015.


Hong Hao

Beijing-based multidisciplinary artist Hong Hao works with photography, printmaking, collage, video installation, and painting to probe the culture of capitalist consumption in China, investigating the complex relationships that we have with our possessions and pointing to the paradox of excess in a communist country.

After graduating from the printmaking department of the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 1989, Hong embarked upon a body of work of photographic collages made by assembling items like maps, receipts, food, and banknotes in a scanner. The scanner bed ultimately flattened these items, upending their hierarchies of value. Well-known bodies of work include “My Things” (begun 2001), in which Hong organized his possessions by form and color, and “Selected Scriptures” (1992-2000), in which the artist made prints of maps that subverted the tradition of the woodblock-printed book with its implications of fixed meaning. His work can be found in numerous public collections including those of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archeology at the University of Oxford, the Hong Kong Museum of Art, the British Museum in London, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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