中文English

No.10 – My Life and My Art

Ruijun Shen (RJS)
in conversation with
Yan Bing (YB)
 
 
Recorded: 21 October, 2018
Location: Yan Bing’s studio
 
 
Ruijun Shen (abbreviated as RJS):
Your artworks have an important relationship with your hometown. You’ve recently went back home. Can you talk about what you’ve discovered during your time back at your hometown?
 
Yan Bing (abbreviated as YB):
There weren’t any discoveries actually. I just went back home. Before, I didn’t go back home very often. Then I suddenly realized that I hadn’t been back for 2 years. So, this time, I took the chance of having to sort out some business there, and hurried back home. I feel differently about the same people and things every time I go back. My feeling changes as I age and spend a longer time away from home. This time, I also have a quite different feeling. I used to burden myself with many things, but now I seem to be much relieved.
 
RJS:
Could you give a few more detailed examples?
 
YB:
Examples might not work very well, since this feeling comes from random experiences in different aspects of life. For instance, it made me sad when I found that I didn’t know the youths in the village now. They are the mainstay and also the transformers of the village. They were only kids and at most in their teens when I left. But they all know me, because when I left, I was I already a young man. Before, I believed I had a lot of personal attachment and relations to this place only because it is my hometown. But now, I realized this is simply my own wishful thinking. Things have passed away. This is the world they live in. It is their tangible home. I’ve already left and haven’t been involved in it for so many years, and there is no possibility to return and live there. Many old people living in my past memories have passed away, and the middle-aged is now the elderly. Hometown, for me, is just a place of my childhood memories. It is a long way away from reality, yet this distance has been gradually accumulated. This is what I faced up to this time.    
 
RJS:
Why is there something that you cannot give up in the hometown of your childhood? There must be something you cherish, I guess?
 
YB:
My old life, memories of teenage years, joy of achievement and struggles of growing up. They have significant meanings  and have moisturised my heart many times. It is hard to summarize in just a few words. It takes a very long time to comprehend. Also, I finally understand that the people and things in my memories of the hometown have long been turned over. But this entity of my hometown is still there and keeps changing all the time, as well as the people and things I care about. Just like the mysterious book in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the story goes on before the devastating storm.
 
RJS:
Is your attachment with hometown coming from questions like “where am I from”?
 
YB:
Maybe, but it’s not a self-initiated reflection. Perhaps when I was a teenager, my hometown life was satiating enough, also insular enough, so I didn’t have too many random thoughts. What was formed in my mind during that time had a great impact on the future me. Maybe children grown up in big cities won’t have such a strong sense of hometown.
 
RJS:
Not really, I am actually a bit like you in this aspect. I had never really liked Guangzhou and always wanted to leave the city. I grew up in the old Xiguan area. But after I went to the US, I always wanted to take a walk in the old area everytime I came back. Later I moved back to Guangzhou, and I like to take friends to visit the old area, and never feel bored.
 
YB:
Because it contains certain relationship with your teenage years.
 
RJS:
I don’t really know. I’ve never thought about it actually.
 
YB:
I am more and more aware that teenage years are the most precious stage of one’s life, during which I felt keenly about things, but without enough power, I struggled to fight against the surroundings, yet this in turn gave me the most ingrained experience. When I became an adult, I despised on many things, and this confidence was built up exactly during teenage years. As a result, my attachment to the hometown is very complicated, and when, one day, I suddenly realized my split-up with it, it was an emotional moment for me. 
 
RJS:
Does it mean that the place is a projection of your own imagination?
 
YB:
It is a real place, truly existing. It’s simply that my sense of time and space are displaced and cause misunderstandings. After I understood that, I put away the projection of my imagination, and only borrow the real place to evoke my memories of hometown, to make comparisons and recognize its changes and continuations. This makes me less anxious.
 
RJS:
How come?
 
YB:
This is a place where people live. They can construct, transform, or destroy this place according to their own wills. My concern is only wishful. The village has its own fate. 
 
RJS:
You keep returning to your hometown to look for inspirations. What does it have to do with your current life? You mentioned that you are much more at ease now, so does that mean there is no more relationship? Then what is still attracting you in your hometown?
 
YB:
I’ve never returned for inspirations, I seldom go back, only to sort out certain specific business. Actually, hometown has never exited my life, even when it only exists in forms of memories and information. I’ve been repeatedly probing the relationship between the life experience of my teenage years and the current me. What this experience will transform into in my mind is something unknown to me. I had no such feeling when I left the hometown, as no distance had been formed at that time. Then I finished the college and have worked for nearly 20 years, I slowly start to ruminate on my life before. I constantly reflect on the first 19 years of my life, which is deeply rooted in that place and never moved. All the different emotions of that 19 years are related to the wind, water, sun, rain, people and so many other things of that place. These things constitute the main content of life, which passed hurriedly then but have left ineffaceable marks in my heart, and they don’t fade away, reminding me to keep reconsidering and questioning what truly are they.
 
RJS:
Could you give a specific example?
 
YB:
Sorry I can’t, it’s too quotidian and too concrete, which make me reluctant to express. I can try to say something more abstract. For example, I was once working on the hillside, and there was no one around me. When I turned around, I saw the sunset. It grew cooler as the sun sank. Wind blew on me, and I suddenly had a very strange feeling, neither happiness nor sadness. It was the feeling of being the only person in the whole world, a little teenager, facing infinity and unknowns alone, which I didn’t understand. When I ruminated on that feeling many years later, I wonder what it is, and I still don’t have an answer. It is related to life, individual, and youth, it is about a living being in the grand universe. It is also related to that specific environment, like that hillside, the season, and the amount of sweat I had at the time. It is a perception of the proportion between individual life and the world achieved only through the feelings I had by standing there, without concrete objects or complete events.
 


 
Yan Bing, Two Potatoes, Oil on canvas, 100×130cm, 2017
Courtesy of the artist
 
 
RJS:
Actually your works are quite abstract, especially the series of Potatoes that have no detailed background. What makes you do that? 
 
YB:
Concrete things are only places for eyes to stay, what I’m actually saying should exceed that concreteness. For instance, you wanted me to give a more specific example just now, and I found it inappropriate to give any example. I remember a story by Wang Xiaobo called “I’m Awaiting the Daybreak on a Deserted Island”, he wrote that once he climbed onto an uninhabited island, waiting for the dawn to come and the sun to rise above the sea level. The sun radiance is like thousands of golden arrows. He used a lot of words, which seems like to be describing an objective scene of a teenager looking at the sunrise, but he is actually talking about the relationship between the sun and the boy. My heart answered when I read this, as such experience is usually more intense. The concrete things are like that deserted island, which only becomes an island when it’s part of the vast sea, and the boundless sea realizes it as an island.
 
RJS:
Yet, narrative is also a quite important element in composition, if you don’t use that, what should be there to support the visual elements? What are the essential keys in your painting vocabulary?
 
YB:
I will control the narrative and not allow the painting to tell a story. Some works tend to narrate, but I will stop before it starts to tell. For instance, I seldom give you any specific examples in our conversation, but I repeatedly describe my experience and the atmosphere at that time. It’s hard to talk about my works as they have already been finished. I can only talk about the soil in which the works are cultivated, I think that is more intrinsic. For the context of Potatoes, the avoidance of too many details and narrative is for situating it in a relatively purer space and site, actually that is the space in my own mind, and I cast my own gaze at it. So even the light in the painting is not any specific natural light or lamplight, it’s my gaze. All these only got unravelled in the process of painting.
 
RJS:
Do you use any lighting when you paint? Or is it from your imagination? Or do you use any photos for reference?
 
YB:
There are photos. My habit is to have some real objects when I paint. When I painted the mushrooms, I also bought some real ones and looked at them from all different perspectives, looked at them for days until they started to rot away. In order to note down some shapes and forms for reference, I usually make some recordings by taking photos or making sketches. When they suddenly connect to the experience in my mind, that’s the time for me to start painting.
 
RJS:
What about light?
 
YB:
I don’t usually consider light first. I only take shapes and forms as I think I cannot create those things. All the shapes we can see are created by the Creator, as each one of them is too unique for me to create.
 
RJS:
I want to clarify my question. It’s very interesting that you mentioned “light” just now. You said that you want to fix a particular feeling in the scene, and keep the narrative elements as few as possible. And you also said that your “light” is from the “gaze”. “Feelings” are very abstract, I believe you are not representing the “feelings” of expressionism either. Maybe I need to find a better word, but what is it that you are trying to “suspend”? What else is supporting you to express this unique thing in your art practice?
 
YB:
Both lamplight and sunlight are physical, therefore rather rigid, yet the light of gaze is personal, and attached to the heart. To talk about “feelings”, we need to go back to the episode of my teenage years again: during the work break, I felt the coolness of wind, the warmness of sunset, the green light shrouding the valley, and the slight tremble in my heart, something has passed me. I have a lot of similar experiences like this. Concrete things and works happened before and after these moments, but what I remembered were these experience in the breaks. I found these moments extraordinary then, although without deeper understandings, my intuition told me I had sensed something very fundamental, which surpassed the more concrete everyday life. I often think back on those moments, which constitute my own starry sky. I believe everyone has his/her own starry sky, which is not void, but becomes the keynote of him/her as a person. That’s why everyone is different. In art practice, the impact of these invisible elements become especially evident. These “fundamental” experiences are what I’m gazing at and trying to probe into, and they are revealed, or visualized in my artworks. It’s fine to say “suspend”, but it’s not really “support”, it’s the talent and accent that I carried. A few days ago, I was on the way back from Gansu. One evening, the Gobi Desert was blanketed in heat after a whole day’s sunbath. The sunset was melted into dark-bronze-light on the surface of the ground, extending beyond the limit of my eyesight. I was completely struck by that moment. Nothing particular happened, it’s just a feeling of infinity in a more immense field. What you felt is revealed in your works.
     
RJS:
Now there are many epic films with large scale and grand spectacle, and often deal with the relationship between man and the outside. This topic can also be found in your works, but yours do not have spectacle, instead specified one potato. What’s the difference between the experience you hope to convey and this epic intensity?
 
YB:
It’s people’s existence in this world, and the settlement of their spirits. Films or literature carry more consecutive narrations, hence richer. But paintings are still, they are plain surfaces. What can they do? I like the simplicity of painting, which has a cohesive power and a silent power, making it energetic enough to evoke the past and the present. Its visual capacity is too limited to feed everyone, but it returns the space for imagination to the spectators.
 
RJS:
Your paintings are very unique. They are neither studies or life drawings, nor classical realism in the tradition of oil painting. They are not of the style of Rembrandt, nor resemble the “Scar Art” in 1980s’ China. Could you talk a bit about this? As you studied painting, you had to get in touch with these things from the very beginning. Paintings seem not very conceptual, but actually they are. Every decision you made is a concept. I believe you had certain consideration as you made choices.
 
YB:
We should have had similar art education. From basic realistic trainings to art history, different times, different genres. For me, the most significant meaning of this learning process is a training in skills, a grasp of depicting objects, and a knowledge background in art history. There are two prerequisites that any students of art schools could acquire. For a long time after graduation, I couldn’t paint anything. There was a long halt. Later I got inspired by materials and began making installations. I stopped painting for a few years, which was not a voluntary decision. Every time I stood before the canvas, I felt a whole bunch of people were standing behind me, those belong to the art history, some were  dead and some were still alive. They were laughing at me for imitating them. So I threw away the paint brushes. I could feel the indigestion from the past knowledge and a lost me. After a few years, I painted Blacksmith Shop coincidentally when I went back to hometown. After I put down my paint brush, I noticed that I was so happy in this whole process and suddenly realized that those people behind me had surprisingly disappeared, returned to their own places. I was finally freed. Then I started to paint again, and gradually forget myself in the activity. Looking back, all these processes occurred naturally. Although I was anxious at times, I didn’t make any deliberate choices, I only made, at most, certain judgment. If you would say that I had “considerations”. Maybe I made out my relationship with it.
 
 


Yan Bing, Blacksmith Shop 2, Oil on canvas, 98×57cm, 2011
Courtesy of the artist
 
 
RJS:
You are right, but there’s one thing I don’t really understand. Actually the feelings you had in your hometown have stimulated you to make those decisions. They’ve had powerful impacts on your practice.   
 
YB:
Are you talking about subject matters?
 
RJS:
No, I’m talking about your feelings. You found something valuable in your past experience, and you recognize that. But you are actually living in Beijing now, which is a completely different environment. How do you understand modern cities and society?
 
YB:
This would put the past in opposition to the present life. I do make comparisons between rural areas and cities. Rural areas are more scattered and smaller in scale. It is an acquaintance society consisted of families and blood ties, as people are all doing similar agricultural works. On the other hand, cities are formed by large-scale population based on industrial and business activities. In cities, the difference of lifestyles is relatively large, thus life here depends on contract, law and even indifference. It is more inclusive, very crowded but independent, so the system and its technical civilization are more developed. I was slowly accustomed to life in cities. I remember that once I was on the train, and I handed an orange to the person sitting next to me. As a result, the man was shocked and kept waving hands, saying “no, no”. It took me quite long time to understand him. But now I’m very accustomed to urban life. It’s convenient and efficient. On the contrary, I’m not very used to slack and crude life now. However, the experiences I carried with myself have not yet become invalid. Changes in environment and lifestyle are only one of the many aspects, the essential issue is about human dilemma, which is universal. Of course, the distinction between cities and rural areas is not that huge now. I got to know some great young men in my hometown. They are modest and optimistic, and they are making changes. It’s very reassuring.
 
RJS:
Actually, I like your works partly because they are very solid. In today’s society, you feel that you possess a lot, but they are not solid.
 
YB:
Lives are actually very similar. The basic emotions and feelings are the same, although they may manifested in different ways and have difference causes. Once these emotions are interrupted, people become anxious and spiritually unsettled.
 
RJS:
So what do you think art is? Some people believe art is a tool to change the society.
 
YB:
This is a popular saying. A lot of people are engaging art into particular social situations. I cannot comment on this, as it might not be an approach I will use. I have my own dilemma, and a lot of problems to face. For me, art is a dim inward journey. 
 
RJS:
I would say my attitude is more classical. I want to search for the sheer purity that language can achieve, something that can be always relished. For example, when you listen to a song, you should listen to different versions of performance, like the Soviet and French ways of performing Zigeunerweisen are totally different. The education I received makes me cherish this. But now, not only in China but also in the whole world, the definition of art has changed dramatically.
 
YB:
This is a good thing. Knowledge should be constantly rinsed. There are more media and means now, which