Lv Shengzhong is a paper-cut artist and his art always has been linked to folk memories and traditional physical forms, and he seems to be a traditional “pedant”, while he was early in incorporating into the category of “contemporary artists”. He is currently working as the Dean of the School of Experimental Art, CAFA. What is contemporary, how do the traditional cultural elements marry up with experimental art, which is a very interesting subject. Before the opening ceremony of “Last Century”, Lv Shengzhong was interviewed by CAFA ART INFO, he talked about his attitude to “contemporary trendy” at that time, how did he excavate the contemporary connotation of the “paper-cut” and other folk cultures, and he also said that “Last Century” represented what he tried to adjust on the road we have trodden from the source.
Interview Time: November 6, 2015
Interview Location: Today Art Museum – the site of the arrangement of Lv Shengzhong’s exhibition “Last Century”
Edited by Zhang Wenzhi, translated by Chen Peihua and edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO
How do you do! Thank you for accepting our interview, could you briefly introduce the general background to this exhibition?
Lv Shengzhong: It took me about a year of preparation for this exhibition, it is not long and I have a lot of work in the school at the same time. Director of Today Art Museum Gao Peng suggested that I could present the old works in the exhibition, but I didn’t want to present a retrospective, because I didn’t think I was too old enough to create a summary so I considered the exhibition as a piece of work, featuring 11 pieces, half of which are the old works with a new interpretation, and the second half are the new ones, to form the overall structure of the exhibition now.
The 2nd floor presents the New Year picture: “A Big Rooster”, “Chichu” created in 1988, and the recently created “A Full House” and “Human Brick”, which is a summary. Some works located in the 3rd and 4th floors are related to language, such as “Empty Book•Chinese Encyclopedic Dictionary”, “Dialogue/Words”, “Record of Emotion”, “Ephemeral and Eternal” located in the 3rd floor is a work that presents my investigation and study of the folk culture, the workload is so large that it will not be moved to the scene until tonight, so you could not see it now.
The theme of the exhibition is “Last Century”, and the “New Wave Art” of the last century which greatly influences the present as we all know you started to make a figure at that time, what was your attitude on western theory and creation at that time? Were you interested in it?
Lv Shengzhong: In the period of “The ’85 New Wave”, I was a postgraduate of CAFA, and Beijing was a cultural and artistic center, and we could hear and see all kinds of information in the academy. But CAFA had a different style, and it was not really conservative, instead it had an in-depth thought process and showed their own attitude when it was more rational. It was not easy for me to be admitted to CAFA, so I cherished the opportunity to be a postgraduate at CAFA, thinking of the study the first instead of the art creation. I studied the traditional folk art and folk New Year pictures, and spent most of my time in fieldwork on the two topics, so I was not directly involved in the art movement in the period of the ’85 at that time. Sometimes distance is not bad, for you can maintain a very substantial and calm attitude, and you have time to think and respond to it. After I graduated, Xu Bing and I had an exhibition together at the National Art Museum of China in 1988, and we were both called the avant-garde artists. At that time, we did not care about whether we were avant-garde, but it was important to find an appropriate language to express our own state, I thought it good. Through the fieldwork of folk culture, I understood international popular contemporary art, and folk art played a positive role in the connection between contemporary art and avant-garde art. At the beginning I refused contemporary art because I did not understand it, but after fieldwork of the folk culture and art, I understood the various forms of contemporary art at once, I thought they returned to art in another level in a sense. For example, I first doubted the forms of installation, performance, performing… but when I saw the folk forms of witchcraft, ceremony, altar; when I saw paper-cut was not the only thing of the palm in the countryside, but the landscape art of the whole village; this saw their insoles under the soles instead of hung in a frame, I suddenly felt tradition was not far from contemporary, they could be connected, and we can say that many things in contemporary art question the tradition of the new road. So my identity was naturally changed to the contemporary artist from the original explorer of folk culture and traditional art.
You have found a “paper-cut” as an exit from creation, “paper-cut” is a kind of decoration, it expresses a festival atmosphere, what is the profound meaning of the simple, pure cultural and aesthetic appeal in your work system? As a carrier, what is the connotation behind it?
Lv Shengzhong: It is a fact that children are also familiar with the art form of paper cutting now, and it is a rather instinctive action to pick up the scissors to cut. I did it when I was young, and my mother was good at paper-cutting, so that I was influenced by what I constantly saw and heard. At that time, I thought paper-cuts were a normal thing because it was part of my life, but I learned about it from another perspective today, with the identity of a contemporary intellectual and the position is also different. At the beginning, I was interested in the folk paper-cuts because the shape was very funny, and even explored the possibility of paper-cuts to create a diversification of artistic form. But after I came to Northern Shaanxi, I found that paper-cut was not simply a good-looking pattern, we found that once the caves were lit up in the evening, it was a spectacular landscape, on the other hand, “stripe” of pattern and “text” was the same in Chinese, paper-cuts of the windows formed an article that we could read. We often see only the colorful designs, if we understand the connotation, we can understand the content, in other words, it carries a lot of Chinese traditional culture, which is in the mainstream culture is abandoned and forgotten. I later made paper-cuts because I felt that it was a very mysterious thing. I once lived in the house of an old lady in a small village in Luochuan in Shaanxi province, where she often showed me her paper-cuts when she had time off, she was so quiet in making paper-cuts that I felt I was ignored, so that I really wanted to know what she thought at the time. One day she told me that she didn’t think of anything, instead her mind was empty. At that time, I felt it very strange, I thought that she would like to talk about the creative feelings like many artists, but she didn’t. I was interested in this sense of emptiness, so I followed her to cut, and they praised me for my good job.
When I cut the little red figure, I suddenly experienced the “emptiness” she had told me about, namely to rule out all distractions, so that the mind turned to be very open, so that you could accommodate more, refusing any messy things disturbing you, to become very clean. I also understood the generous personality of the people from the Northern Shaanxi, they made so beautiful things although they lived in the barren land. The tolerance of an empty mind is also a unique part of their worldview.
The new wave and avant-garde are always highly disruptive, with a nature of anti-tradition, and anti-academy, it is the development context of the Western contemporary art history, and then what do you think of such a creative way that is contrary to “anti-tradition”?
Lv Shengzhong: Any avant-garde and revolutionary action always demands holding a banner, compared with the anti-tradition and anti-academy, my major was traditional, so I also received a lot of bona fide and vicious reviews at that time, some people asked why I still collected customs and folk tales, you should copy a western style. At that time people believed anti-tradition was the outlet, which was like the process of modernization in China, one could do nothing except follow the way of the west, fight against their own tradition to cater to the western model has become a convention. But China also had the inclusive possibility, when I finished the work, the opponents warmly accepted my work, and brought my exhibition into the new wave exhibitions, I think that it is a sense of identity, and it is not absolute. Because “anti-tradition” is just a slogan before another one appears, in order to change themselves, they forced themselves to walk on another road, but they have to repeat the traditions along with the past after walking on the new road. In my opinion, separating the tradition and contemporary is impossible, and the proposition of tradition and modern is just like yesterday and today, if there is nothing yesterday, there is nothing today. What is the border between tradition and modern? For example, does the time frame between 23:00 and 01:00 belong to yesterday or today? It is fuzzy. Every one of us carries yesterday and goes to tomorrow, standing on today and moving towards tomorrow, which is a truth. Today we talk about the topic of tradition and modern, I think it is a self-evident thing. We can never deny the tradition, but how should we treat tradition in modern times, how to make tradition a type of contemporary possibility.
Could you share you experience on the transformation of traditional language to the contemporary creation, combined with your own creative processes? Does the School of Experimental Art, CAFA set up the professional course for the “transformation of traditional language”?
Lv Shengzhong: Over the years, I was not a recognized researcher of traditional culture, one of the important reasons is that I don’t agree with the things like heritage declaring, which should be good but many places apply for heritage for the tourist trade, to promote the economy, which is not responsible for the traditional? It is similar to the “South China Tiger” event, and then the research of traditional culture is still empty. I personally think that the primary task is to save it rather than converting it. I once wrote a small article entitled “Save the Items before Talking about Culture”, if we don’t have any item, emptily talking about culture is a blurry and sad thing. The use and reproduction of traditional culture is not important today, because we do not completely understand it, so that it should be preserved for future study, rather than eagerly converting it to cultural products of today.
I have set the traditional conversion as one of a professional research direction, I hope the contemporary youth through this subject will have a new knowledge and interest in the traditional culture. Of course, when I set up the specialties of the School of Experimental Art, CAFA, I avoided building the specialties on the basis of my personal experiences, so that I visited a lot of universities and colleges, referred to a variety of ways in preparation for the school, and spent a year writing the teaching programme, I thought it was successful because my students have an unique style which is different from my style by inspection over the years. There are also students complaining to me, because I have reserved a lot of traditional culture, but the students rarely have this kind of course, so that we set up a variety of studios when the School of Experimental Art, CAFA was built one year ago. The studio of the Transformation of Traditional Language demands the student more authentically learn the tradition, the subject is restrictive, and it is necessary to research the tradition. I believe that paying attention to the tradition is an indispensable content of Chinese contemporary art and future art, and our students ask for it to be included into the course.
Chinese contemporary art introduced the Western model one hundred years ago, accompanied by the cultural consciousness of the evolution of the Western politics, economy, culture and philosophy. The exhibition entitled “Last Century” seems to review the history, achievements and setbacks of the last century, could you talk about the topic?
Lv Shengzhong: First of all, I tell you a story, we had a project entitled “See Climate”, a synchronous meeting of the Climate Conference in Copenhagen in 2008, a student studied cloud formation and collected the wood carvings of cloud charts in the Ming dynasty, which were similar to the cloud patterns of ornamentation, but they were the scientific cloud pictures at that time, seeing the clouds to predict the weather, and the auspicious or ominous moments. But we were confused as to why the ancient people understood it. A teacher said our eyes were blinded, I agreed with him.
Another story is about beer. In the 1980s, when I came back to my hometown in Shandong, the villagers did not drink beer, and they said it was like horse urine, and too bad to drink, but all the villagers drunk beer when I went home later, I wanted to know why. My hometown is near to Qingdao, where Qingdao beer is produced, it is strange that all the villagers suddenly drunk at that time. Were their stomachs changed? Was the flavor of beer changed? No, our mindsets were changed. Why drink beer? They drank a cup of bitter water which marked that Chinese people studied the West after the reform and opening up. The more beer you drink, the more delicious it is, so it permeates the bones of people. So I doubted the Western targets in the process of the modernization. So did the art, there were not any school of art education in China until the new culture movement, and then Chinese painting also demanded drawing, so Chinese culture was changed, but our understanding of western culture might not be accurate.
Why do I call the exhibition “Last Century”? I am wondering if we can return to the original position and have a new start, I cannot be a literati living in the Republic of China, but we can adjust the path we have walked in the past, although it might be wrong, we must dare to adjust ourselves, dare to make ourselves step back. It will help us go forward more smoothly.