CinemaTalk: Interview with Professor Eugene Wang on Chinese Art and Film

By Michael Chenkin

Professor Eugene Wang

Eugene Yuejin Wang is Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Professor of Asian Art at Harvard University. We recently spoke with Professor Wang about his interests in Chinese art and Chinese film, the areas of intersection between these two fields, and his interest in painter Liu Xiaodong, who is the subject of Jia Zhangke’s documentary Dong. Dong will screen Monday 9/26 as the opening film of the 11-film series on Chinese independent film at Doc Films in Chicago. In this conversation Professor Wang reflects at length on the way Liu and other artists work in relation to the idea of nationhood, especially in regards to national disasters such as the 2008 Beichuan earthquake in Sichuan. Wang pays particular attention to Liu’s 2010 work “Getting Out of Beichuan,” which Wang considers “marks a new stage and possibly a new turning point in the contemporary Chinese art scene.”

A native of Jiangsu, China, Wang studied at Fudan University in Shanghai (B.A. 1983; M.A. 1986), and subsequently at Harvard University (A.M. 1990; Ph.D. 1997). He was the Ittleson Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in Visual Art, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (1995-96) before joining the art history faculty at the University of Chicago in 1996. His teaching appointment at Harvard University began in 1997, and he became the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Professor of Asian Art in 2005.

He has received the Guggenheim Fellowship, Charles A. Ryskamp Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, and postdoctoral and research grants from the Getty Foundation.

His book, Shaping the Lotus Sutra: Buddhist Visual Culture in Medieval China (2005) has received the Academic Achievement Award in memory of the late Professor Nichijin Sakamoto, Rissho University, Japan. He is the art history associate editor of the Encyclopedia of Buddhism (New York, 2004).

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dGF: I understand that a lot of your past research focused on Medieval Buddhist art and visual culture. Recently you have been researching Chinese film. Where did these interests arise? In addition, is there any synergy between inquiries into Buddhist art and Chinese film?

Eugene Wang: Before I started researching medieval art, I was deeply engaged in Chinese film. I actually wrote a script and published a few essays. Film has always been one of my side interests. I’m always intrigued by how people screen disparate images together. You have a set of images. They may or may not have a relationship with one another. Somehow you string them together and you have an image flow. In cinematic terms it would be called montage. If these images are on a wall, such as in Buddhist caves and wall paintings, then you have an iconographic program. There is something very interesting about the visual logic underlying this flow of images.

On top of that, film scholars love to talk about how the entire film medium can be traced back to the primal scene, Plato’s cave. In medieval China, there was this proverbial Shadow Cave, which showed images on the dim back wall of the cave. You enter and can’t see anything then all of a sudden the scenes reveal themselves. What that exemplifies is a pre- cinema cinema. There is a sense of images emerging out of the wall.

I was interested in film more as a structure of images. Modern technology has made that easier for streaming of images to be presented to an audience. Prior to that, there was always an impulse to make some kind of an image flow. More specifically in the Buddhist culture, there is a tendency to make that flow more of an internal set of entopic images so it is more like interior theatre that captures certain types of mental processes. What is shown is not what is normally seen around you, it something internal, mental. In the case of Buddhist art, these processes are presented on a cave wall.

dGF: How did your interests evolve from, initially, Chinese film into Buddhist art?

EW: In hindsight one could find all different ways of justifying that transition. Though for me, there is a deeper interest of exploring the visual narrative, in the sense of how images are connected by logic that is not just illustration of certain textual narratives. I have a problem with the common way people understand visual narrative. Often, it is understood to be an illustration of certain texts. The texts will tell you one story and then you illustrate that with a set of images. We all know that the monster that comes out of this type of visual illustration is different from the textual narrative in the sense that it has its own interest, it has its own flow, and often it will elaborate on things that the textual narrative does not seem to be interested in.

This is one of these issues I point out in my book Shaping the Lotus Sutra: Buddhist Visuality in Medieval China, which is a study on how visual narrative works in tenuous relationship to a Buddhist sutra. What I found was quite interesting. Often in the reading of the sutra, you would have certain details that were very insignificant. Somehow the painter elaborately paints these details. Likewise, there are other details you would think are so graphic and so evocative, but the painter was completely uninterested in them. These facts take you by surprise.

In addition, with textual narrative you can say, “today I’m speaking here.” You can then switch your imaginary locales, and say “I’m now in New York as opposed to yesterday when I was in Boston.” In the first few sentences, you discuss your experiences in New York, then the next few sentences you talk about Washington D.C. Then you somehow recall your experiences in Boston. With textual narrative you have the convenience of not locking into these places in a very fixed topographic relationship. In your mind, these cities are free-floating abstract entities. With the visual narrative, once you put Boston on the map, it’s fixed. You cannot alter the order. This fixed relationship does not exist in the textual narrative. You can imagine once they illustrate different places mentioned in the text, and start to come up with a larger picture, they have to work out a good topography so this larger picture can make sense.

In addition, Buddhist texts have different chapters. You can read from chapter 1 to chapter 24 but in Buddhist art they would have scenes from all of these chapters dispersed in all different places. If you trace these scenes superficially, they are completely scrambled. If you study them carefully, it is not in total disarray. There is in fact logic or method to this seeming madness. That logic is visual and special. With that logic in place you begin to have all different types of implications as to why various scenes are placed next to one another.

dGF: In April, you presented at the “Just Images” symposium. Your topic was “Documentary Apathy and Sympathy: Liu Xiadong between Canvas and Camera.” Please tell us about your presentation.

Liu Xiaodong paints "Getting Out of Beichuan" (photo: Supernice.eu)

EG: In 2010 Liu Xiadong went to Sichuan to paint an earthquake scene. He set up this huge canvas and began to paint. Actually, he wasn’t painting the earthquake scene per-se. He invited a group of young woman from other towns to pose as models in front of this earthquake-caused pile of rubble. The sheer set up is mind-boggling. When this work was first shown, I was completely blown away by it. It is a huge canvas. The exhibition did a good job using multi-media to present it. You also have the photograph of him working with the models. You also have a video of him working and directing the models. This case intrigued me because I’m always interested in inter-media. How painting and photography interact with each other.

The case with Liu Xiaodong made it particularly interesting because he spearheaded the new generation of painters that came of ages in the 1990′s. The way they make their impact and distinctions is through not buying into national narratives, choosing to stay on the margins and exploring the marginality. They seem to be interested in the mood and gestures that are normally outside the larger narratives. There are certain received ways of characterizing how within the narrative characters work. Liu Xiaodong is, however, concerned about what is going on outside of the framework. He focuses on the migrants, the outcasts, people who don’t belong anywhere. He portrays these characters with nonchalance and indifference.

This apathy inadvertently carries an implicit critique of past generations of artists who he and his contemporaries believe are too driven by larger passions. What sets the ‘90′s generation apart from the ‘80′s is that the ‘90′s generation no longer feel bound to a larger national narrative. Liu Xiaodong’s Sichuan painting fascinates me because it marks a new stage and possibly a new turning point in the contemporary Chinese art scene. In other words, it marks both the culmination of the ‘90′s generation in terms of their distinct style and sensibility and challenge for them as well. These artists are facing this earthquake aftermath and the situation is potentially stirring and disturbing. Under these circumstances, it is very hard to remain emotionally unattached. How can Liu Xiadong and his contemporaries keep their distance from a national narrative but also remain engaged in a meaningful way.

dGF: Liu Xiadong went to Sichuan to paint in the aftermath of the Earthquake, but was his painting actually about the disaster?

Liu Xiaodong's finished painting "Getting Out of Beichuan" (photo: Supernice.eu)

EW: Technically, it seems to be about the earthquake, but this is really hard to assess what it is really about. Ultimately, the painting is about how human beings deal with the plight and challenge of surviving disasters. What he is trying to do is bring the painting to a level that it transcends the immediacy of this particular earthquake and get to another level. In a way, this is a departure from his earlier practice, which is why this painting fascinates me. His earlier practice carries a notable stance of refusal of any metaphysical overtones in his painting. The emphasis is always on the immediacy of the experience. When he paints laborers he makes sure not to fall into the 1980′s allegorical way of making a pictorial scene. He makes sure to let the viewer share in his interest of the texture of the real life with its brutalities, horrors, miseries, joy.

The subjects of this painting, the young women, were hired from Chongqing. They had nothing at all to do with the earthquake. The conceptual design behind this was Liu Xiadong came up with a philosophy or some sort of conviction. In the face of massive disasters, a typical Chinese response is that there should be some type of regeneration. In other words, the conviction rests on the hope of the young to reproduce.

In Taihu, he did a companion piece to the Sichuan painting. He invited a group of young men to model. These two pieces were put on exhibition next to each other, representing the Yin and Yang. With these forces you could symbolically orchestrate a scenario of regeneration. He seems to be saying that is a way to respond to disasters. Yet, what I find to be most interesting is that we actually don’t know if he was setting this up to be some kind of statement, i.e., to say that nothing else actually works and this is the only way out. In a way, it is undermining all these other solutions; or you could, if you want to press hard on this, derive some kind of inferences from this in thinking that it could be some kind of implicit critique of this kind of response to disasters.

dGF: Is this the first time he touches upon a national narrative?

EW: I don’t know if he is intentionally doing that, but it certainly carries some ramifications of that. He is a very smart artist. He came up with this solution and, of course, just left it unsaid. I don’t think there is a deliberate program of posing any implicit critique of national narratives but as an artistic strategy, it is very effective. It makes you think about what it is doing.

It raises the question you start to suspect: are we left to understand that he thinks all the ways of the government’s handling of the earthquake aftermath are ineffectual? I’m not saying he is implying that, but it certainly would elicit that type of response. Or, he could be saying he is just thinking that in fact the best therapeutic way of coping with this is to face the enormity of the disaster with courage. We may take comfort that eventually people are going to reproduce and the new lives are going to outlast the disaster.

Or, he may just use this way to simply justify his special skills in figure painting. Liu Xiaodong has a way of painting a landscape that he kind of distrusts. He believes that to paint landscape, it’s better to paint in the figural spirit. Try to paint the landscape in figures with a figural mood and so forth. It just may well be since he is good in painting portraits, this is just a way of rationalizing his artistic strategy.

All of these possibilities are there. This is why this work is so fascinating to me. It is very conceptual. Coming from Liu Xiadong, this is particularly fascinating because he and his generation are known for keeping out all this external verbiage and just deliver to you to this real authentic unmediated texture.

dGF: How does this generation of artists engage with the communities they are embedded in? As you mentioned previously, Liu Xiaodong goes to Sichuan and in the aftermath of the earthquake is painting among great ruin. What about the people around him? What is his relationship with these communities?

EW: The rapport is there. Liu Xiadong himself grew up as a street kid. He never assumes any elitist detachment from the common people. He could easily relate to them. On the other hand, he also kept a diary. From the diary we know in fact there are ugly things going on around him, as the painting production was dragging on. There was heavy drinking and bloodshed between his crew and another newly-arrived documentary film crew when he was in Sichuan. From the diary you could tell he was not making a fuss about this or romanticizing anything. In this sense, there is a detached observation of things around him.

Consequently, you could feel that he is trying to internalize this scene to the extent that what he sees outwardly is the staging of his own mental theatre. He never said anything about how he should respond to the conflicts going on around him. You almost get a sense he was becoming too philosophical about it. Yet, he doesn’t make his art in a philosophical gesture. He still clings to a deadpan observational mode.

Here and there, he would include little details that are often very suggestive and sometimes even private. For instance, he would paint a little horse in the background. The reason why this was the background was at the time, Liu Xiadong was observing horses mating. He found that very powerful. Nevertheless, the horse appears in the painting as a still life. Again, we see him including the motif of reproduction as a way of overcoming disasters. The most interesting thing about this is he includes this motif very cryptically. Unless you have already read his diaries about the painting, you wouldn’t really know that the horse is significant.

dGF: Liu Xiadong’s paintings are similar to those of his colleagues in the 1990′s generation of artists. What were the roots of this artistic movement? In Jia Zhangke’s documentary about Liu Xiaodong Dong, Liu Xiadong claims to be influenced by ancient Chinese art such as the Northern Wei periods. Are those really the antecedents for this generation of artists?

EW: In the scene where he mentions being influenced by ancient Chinese art he talks about his own art and says “meiyou yisi,” nothing is really interesting. Even concerning his own art, he starts to feel that it comes from a European oil painting tradition. In the end, he believes that he is still doing what other people have done before. You can start to sense his frustration with the reliance on the received visual means and formula. That is why I think Liu Xiaodong always continues his oil painting but, at the same time, is always casting doubt on his own work.

Subsequently, he is always deploying photography and video work as a means of internalizing the cinematic ways of looking at a scene. If you look at his Sichuan works, there are certain perspectives to internalize the camera eye and to see how the optical lens projects on the screen.

As for the Northern Wei thing, if he truly believes what he says, then he would have given up this hyper-realistic mode and do more schematic ways of creating figures. In the Northern Wei style, the figures would be geometrical and slimmer. He didn’t do that. This can only then lead you to believe that he is using the Northern Wei as a counterpoint – an abstract antithesis, not actual formal model – to undermine his reliance on European oil painting.

Unfortunately, he is trapped. Once you believe what you do is Western in essence, you try to do something to undermine this style. I guess it is his rhetorical way of dealing with his own frustration. It doesn’t hold.

dGF: Does the fact that he mentions the Northern Dynasties indicate that he is trying to break out and expand his style? Is he searching for a new inspiration?

EW: This is a dilemma not only for Liu Xiaodong but for all cutting edge artists. There has been this myth bandied around that any art medium has a development, and as an artist you are the one who is supposed to take it to the next level. Unfortunately, there is this sense that each artistic medium has come to an end. Everything that should be done has been done, and there is nothing left to be done in painting, if we follow the evolutionary premise. If you believe that, you can see that eventually there is nothing for artists to push the envelope with. This narrative has an impact on Liu Xiaodong.

Nevertheless, he is smart enough to realize that he should not buy into this narrative. If you want to be a successful artist, you need to drop that narrative because that narrative in itself is dead. If you drop that narrative, you find that there is actually a lot left to be done in painting.

Liu Xiadong is actually in a conflicted situation. One the one hand, he somewhat inadvertently still believes that narrative, which would lead him to question the purpose of his work. The fact that he still does what he does with some conviction shows that he also doesn’t care; he just does what he does.

There is of course, a certain limit to what he does. With photography available, there are questions as to why he is still spending days doing these portraits. Yet, we all know there is so much the painting can capture that photography cannot. On the other hand, he often works with photographers and filmmakers to document the artistic process. He is at a juncture where he realizes that painting as a medium has run into a wall, so he is thinking and asking the question, what’s next? What is a good painter supposed to do in this day and age with technology? That is not an easy question to answer. That moment of frustration is just his way of grappling with that difficult question.

There is already an implicit solution to this dilemma. Somehow, he still makes the art of painting matter by erecting this large canvas in front of the aftermath of the earthquake and painting these models as if a camera were set up. A camera was actually set up to document the process. There was a resulting rivalry between the camera crews and Liu Xiaodong. I actually did a comparison between what was recorded in the documentary film versus his painting. In the documentary film, you can see a meditative stance. There was one very powerful sequence in which the camera work seizes upon significant details of things in the ruins. You would have, for instance, some bricks and some shattered windows and then, all of a sudden, a clock. That sequence ends with a little cat peeping in the ruins. It’s almost like a surreal meditation on time, materiality, and survival.

You also see the filmmaker parading the female models at the foot of a gigantic dilapidated building. He makes this sharp contrast between the magnitude of the ruin and these tiny figures winding their way to Liu Xiadong’s painting spot. The filmmaker was trying to play this dramatic contrast between this magnitude of the natural disaster and the insignificant human figures. That visual rhetoric comes across very easily. In contrast, it’s interesting that Liu Xiaodong should set up his canvas away from the ruin sight, enlarge the human figures, and put the ruins in the distance, doing the opposite of the filmmaker. There is clearly not only a difference in the mediun, but also different approaches to visualizing the scene.

You can see in the film there is still some unarticulated monologue, which is a philosophical meditation on destruction, time, and life. In contrast, it makes Liu Xiaodong’s work all the more restrained in its refusal of any meditative stance. Obviously, the scene struck him as powerful, but he doesn’t have any pretension for philosophical meditation. In light of this film, you also sense that a lot is lost in the medium of oil painting. It is tantamount to saying that there is only so much you can do on the canvas. The canvas is also, in fact, as much about replicating and reconstituting things as it is a failure to capture things at the same time.

You can see that what Liu Xiaodong does with the canvas becomes a very powerful way of acknowledging the limitations of what the canvas can do. Yet, he sticks to it. By sticking to it, he lets us feel the a tacit refusal of any overt philosophical meditation. You are left with a very poignant feeling that a lot is lost in the picture, but that feeling is retained. That feeling is very powerful. It’s ironic that you have a canvas that purports to capture a slice of experience. It ends up being a very monumental reminder of how much is lost. To the extent that the canvas delivers that heavy feeling, it succeeds monumentally on the ruins of failure.

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