The sculptor Sui Jianguo’s “The Blind Portraits” series is of great significance in the sequence of his creations, proposing a concept and practice of contemporary sculpture that is different from the past. This piece is also presented as a portrait at the large-scale exhibition of “Portraits of the Times” in the Imperial Ancestral Temple. This piece has given rise to a series of discussions and reflections: Is it a portrait? What is the definition of portrait? Does the concept of portrait have an extension of connotation in the contemporary era? Together with these questions and controversy, CAFA ART INFO interviewed the artist Sui Jianguo. In his view, the “Blind Portraits” are certainly portraits, and it is the “form of portrait”, namely the “portrait of a portrait”. Combined with his own creative experience, Sui Jianguo also shared his unique understanding and interpretation of portraits.
Date: January 24, 2018
Venue: Sui Jianguo Art Studio
Interviewer: Zhu Li
Editor: Zhang Wenzhi
Artist: Sui Jianguo
Translated by Chen Peihua and edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO
CAFA ART INFO: Prof. Sui, it is known that you have not created a portrait in the usual sense for many years, and this features a piece of “The Blind Portraits” at the exhibition of “Portraits of the Times” in the Imperial Ancestral Temple, which has initiated a lot of discussions and controversy, arguing whether such a style of work is a “portrait” or not? Or how can we expand our understanding of portraits?
Sui Jianguo: For the concept of “portrait”, I have a different understanding, and I think I create the portrait of a portrait. When it was suggested that I attend such an exhibition, I have pondered the question. I have not created a portrait for a long time, neither a portrait nor a figurative work. I thought I did not have any work to participate in this exhibition, because only an image of a specific man is called a portrait. Taking a photo of a portrait as an example, it refers to a specific photo of a man, and the concept of a portrait can be broader. It involves the differences among the portrait, figure painting and thematic creation. When one draws a portrait, as long as the concept of portraits appears in your mind, it must be different from the characters, and also different from the thematic creation. First of all, there will be an image of a brain and shoulders appearing in your mind, which constitutes the basic form of a portrait. Because it perfectly highlights the characteristics of the human face, perfectly embodying a person, it creates a “portrait”.
The “Blind Portraits” was not deliberately trying to be a thing when it was created, but I found that it was completely a composition of a portrait, although it is five-meters high, it is a composition with a head on the shoulders regardless of size, so it should be a portrait, and I called it the “My Portrait” at the beginning, but it was not a representational piece. Because I made it when I closed my eyes, I called it the “Blind Portrait”.
I think there are three meanings. First of all, as soon as one sees the headline, then you may think that it is a portrait of a blind man created by the artist. The facial features of a blind man are different from ordinary people, and the use of ‘blind’ is often more exaggerated, so that it often becomes the object of expression. In addition, this title also suggests that it may be a portrait created by a blind man, who can’t see but probably makes a round head. When the blind touches a man using his hand, he always knows that a human head is an egg shape, but he does not know the trace from touching. If I make a blind man creating a portrait in mud that is me, I think it would probably be this way. The third meaning is neither a blind portrait, nor a portrait created by the blind, then why it is called the “blind portrait”? It goes back to the formality itself, which obscures all the elements of the portrait, such as facial features, hair, beard, eyes, etc., and ultimately highlights the form of portraits. I mean that this portrait is the “portrait of a portrait”. If there is not a thing as portraits and the sculpture of a portrait in human civilization over two thousand years, it is probably a description of the “form of head”, so that I think it is a portrait of a portrait. Moreover, I think it is really a portrait of this era, and it is possible to create such a portrait only in contemporary times, which would have been impossible in the past. I pursued a strong expression in the early creation of portraits, and I believed that erasing the features and all the contingencies, leaving one oval, made the most expressive thing.
CAFA ART INFO: When I sifted through your creative experiences today, I have a new experience that you expressed as an emotion in the creation of portraits in 1989, to perform a particularly depressive and exciting thing in the heart, through human faces rather than the performance of other objects from other perspectives. The “Blind Portraits” which have a significance with a turning point were created in 2008, and there is a dialogue and something between both.
Sui Jianguo: Yes, my graduation creation was from the “Weightlessness” series. If can be compared with “Portraits Hygiene”, “Portraits Hygiene” are much more intense than “Weightlessness”. No matter how distorted and intense the “Weightlessness” is, it isn’t as good as a round ball and isn’t as intense as a variety of cracks in a headlike shape.
CAFA ART INFO: Why do human faces give people such a strong feeling?
Sui Jianguo: I think the face is a human projection, because people have self-worship, or characteristics of empathy, when people encounter such a sphere, first of all it tends to consider it as a head. It also moves from the Expressionist Aesthetics to the Aesthetics of Reception in the whole contemporary art. It believes that the connotation, comprehension and expression of the concept itself are more important than the artwork itself in the face of an artwork. I was especially relaxed when I created the “Blind Portraits”. Although the traces on the surfaces of sculptures are so exaggerated, I was actually relaxed because I did not know what I were doing when I closed my eyes, and just instinctively pinched them shut.
CAFA ART INFO: Did you want to shape a portrait or something else?
Sui Jianguo: No. I have made a proposition to myself in 2008 and 2009: the use of sculpture to conquer space. Therefore, all my works must be produced in a specific space. I created the works depending on what kind of space one was offered. So I made a series of works related to the specific space at that time. The “Blind Portraits” is created in the Zhuoyue Art Space in the 798 Art District at that time, a very high square box, so I thought this sculptural body should be high, but I did not know the specific image, and I didn’t know what I was using. When I could not help but remove my eyeshade to see it, I could not continue to do it because I knew what I was doing. Because all the paintings and sculptures are continued on the basis of considering the things that have been done. It is the requirement of the shaping itself, which is like a composition of Chinese painting and the intention initiates the expression. The first stroke initiates the second one that initiates the third one. The clay sculpture did the same, and it constantly corrects the similarity between the motion and the object in hand. So I found that I could not continue it after I removed my eyeshade in the process of creating the “Blind Portraits”, because I would definitely want to knead it again and shape it as a good sculpture.
CAFA ART INFO: Therefore, you stop when you find yourself going to have a directional shape?
Sui Jianguo: No, I stopped when I did not know what I was doing. I didn’t know what I did, so I stopped to see it, and I then found I could not continue again. If I continued, I did it consciously. Therefore, in this sense, the “Blind Portraits” can also be called the clay portrait, which is the portrait of the clay sculpture.
CAFA ART INFO: The exhibition is themed “Portraits of the Times”. We always remember the main theme including the image of China and the Chinese face, when mentioning the “times”, is it an unified will in the understanding of the word of “times”? What is the relationship between it and the creative self-will?
Sui Jianguo: I believe that self-awareness should be applied to the creation, rather than a unified consciousness, if the artist is willing to put themselves into a unified consciousness, putting themselves into the normal recognition of the times, it is also feasible. When I was studying the patterns of clothes at that time, the senior professor asked me what exactly I was expressing. I thought it was a process of studying in our academy, the academy system brought back from France, such as a super-culture and super-local international concept. When this technology serves an ideology, it has local colors and Chinese characteristics. The older generation of artists were in the most prosperous era of the country, and I thought they should be located in a position where they could forget themselves. So the paintings of that era were unified, and hardly appeared as a personality, the so-called personality was only because it was more accurately expressed and the shaping was better. If I was in that era, I would also throw myself into it, which is exactly my character. When there is a spirit of the times, a characteristic of the times, I think we can’t criticize the man who is willing to be involved in it at present. In addition, it is an era of the rejuvenating of Chinese civilization. The rejuvenation must have something to do with the tradition. The tradition is a set of cultural systems formed in the previous era, and such a tradition always plays a role at some moment. At this point, I think my “Blind Portraits” are the embodiment of the previous world view at present.
CAFA ART INFO: Combined with what you said above, and the exhibition of “Portraits of the Times”, there are oil paintings, sculptures, ink paintings, installations and other forms in this mixed context, should the concept of “portrait” be boarder in the exhibition?
Sui Jianguo: It is right. On the one hand, I think the theme of the “Portraits of the Times” can be expressed only through paintings and sculptures of portraits, and on the other hand, it can be portraits or thematic creations, and even I think it can be abstract, because it is a diversified system of this era. After years of development, Chinese art and culture should be more prosperous and more interesting than ever before. Why don’t we present this prosperity, diversification and freedom? I think “Portraits of the Times” should have a presence. My work can arouse the discussions among some senior professors, which is very interesting, and it shows that they have been thinking of these questions, and I may not think of them when I am older. If I am present at the exhibition, I would also like to discuss with them for a while.