Geng Xue & Zhang Yongji & Wang Baoliang: Anxiety and Agony, a Kind of Positive Realism

TEXT:Sue Wang    DATE: 2018.6.26

Geng Xue graduated from the Sculpture Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 2007. Her creations excel by artfully combining the traditional sculpture language with the contemporary language including digital images and multi-media, thereby expanding the performance of sculptures. Wang Baoliang, who graduated from the Sculpture Department this year, chose the traditional language of woodcarving to display his own life. Zhang Yongji, who graduated from the School of Experimental Art, focused on public visual phenomenon and discussed the artistic individual energy in the Internet era through personalized creations. By referring to each other, the three artists cannot only discover things that each of them sticks to but also see the possibility of expanding their own creations. Perhaps they reflect one aspect of the sculpture creation as well as the status quo of the young artists in the contemporary art environment.

Interviewee: Geng Xue, Wang Baoliang, and Zhang Yongji

Time: June 8th, 2018

Location: The Central Academy of Fine Arts

Editor: Zhang Wenzhi

Translated by Paris Yang and edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO

Zhang Wenzhi: Today’s group is quite interesting. Ms. Geng graduated from the Sculpture and Printmaking Department and is now teaching at the Sculpture Department. Her graduation piece Mr. Sea is pretty popular in that it skillfully combines sculpture, ceramics, digital images and painting. Wang Baoliang just graduated from the Sculpture Department this year and chose the relatively traditional woodcarving for his graduation project. Zhang Yongji graduated from the School of Experimental Art this year. His graduation project is a set of digital images, which perfectly indicates the relations between public culture and contemporary art. Our discussion today will start with sculptures and concentrate on the multifarious connections and possibilities that occurred between them and the present-day context, which may leave some insights for each one of you. In response to one of the topics of the graduation season, Geng Xue, what was the scenario for your graduation?

Geng Xue: I got my B.A. from the Sculpture Department in 2007. The circumstances back then were different from nowadays. There was not such advanced Mobile Internet and students in the past did not have horizons as broad as those of today. The issues that I considered and faced at that time were fairly simple and completely different. What I could think of was to find my coordinates through the comparison between contemporary arts or art history. Actually, when I was in college, works with compelling Chinese characteristics that win Western favors or with straightforward criticism were in vogue. I endeavored to study Chinese art history at that time, such as ancient Chinese sculptures and classic works. I also had the intention to compare them with masterpieces from other Asian cultures like Korea and Japan. Drawn from different mindsets and female perspectives that were emphasized in literature and artworks, I was able to find sources and standpoints for my own creations. Under the incredibly helpful guidance of Prof. Xu Bing, I made Mr. Sea and graduated from the Academy with a master’s degree in printmaking in 2014. Before I went to grad school, I had made ceramics for many years and often took photos of ceramic pieces. It is in this course that I discovered the power of image. Sometimes, the image of porcelain could make an even stronger impression than the original piece. With this realization, I brainstormed to see whether the photos of sculptures could become artworks and gradually had confidence in these images. These issues haunted me for seven to eight years, and later I made a porcelain film.

Zhang Wenzhi: Mr. Wang Baoliang, your predecessor would spot her position from history and art history while she was preparing for a sculpture ten years ago. In addition to this, she would also convert and internalize a number of traditional images and texts. So, today, in 2018, what were your main concerns during your graduation project? I noticed that you chose to execute it in woodcarving, a more traditional language.

Wang Baoliang: I think there is one difference. When Ms. Geng was doing her project, she would ponder over her position in art history. It is a rigorous identification and a representation of a mature artist. But for me, what I harbored and relied on was just an instinctive impulse to seize the closest thing that I wanted to express the most. In light of this, I was a bit surprised to learn that my Sisyphean Happiness was remarked upon as a classical philosophical proposition. I did not overthink classical or contemporary issues. It was simply a piece of work that stemmed from my personal life. Because of my rather tortuous experience—I entered the Academy as an Oil Painting major, later switched to Sculpture Department, and I changed to another studio later, and plus the fact that I was usually in a tangled and struggling state, I paid more attention to common human lives. Regarding the language attribute of woodcarving, I counted this issue purely from the objective advantage of materials (wood is lighter yet sturdier, extremely suitable for mechanical installations) without the hope to accentuate the material itself.

Zhang Wenzhi: Seen from your experience and ideas, you seem to have a pretty impulsive logic, but this character does not appear to be embodied in your works.

Wang Baoliang: You are right. This final piece is quite conservative. If I were to grade myself, I would give a score of 60. It is better to be assessed as a completed work since it differs from what I had conceived. Originally, it was envisaged to have a bigger impact. For this piece, you may draw on some details if you want to immerse yourself in it. However, it is relatively weak in capturing attention and posing a visual impact at first sight. Of course, this kind of impact may be difficult to present through sculpture. Unlike digital images, which possess not merely dynamic visual effects but also sound, sculptures lack their unique competitive edge in terms of language.

Geng Xue: His work is very touching in regard to some remarkable subtleties. For instance, he crafted a wooden hand that kept throwing punches in a drawer. Such continuity would make you feel a sense of profoundness. Another example is a vase with bones placed inside. The vase was morphologically distorted, though it seemed to be static, the bones that it contained would squirm inadvertently. In this manner, the entire work was preeminent in combing mechanical motion, dynamism and modeling, making it possible to convey a deeper meaning, which was quite powerful.

Wang Baoliang: In fact, the primary goal of this piece was to show my condition. I have been trapped in an extremely difficult and anxious state in recent years. Since I could not find any inner peace, I guessed if it was my own problem. However, I then found out that it was a very pervasive phenomenon. Later I read Schopenhauer’s works and learned that from his unique perspective, agony is, in essence, positive and conversely, happiness is negative. Humans are born with pains. And it is these pains that push humans forward. This interpretation finally offered me inspiration and instruction.

Zhang Wenzhi: So, in your eyes, agony is a universal state of all human beings. Zhang Yongji, what do you think? Your graduation piece looks very convivial. And I heard it was based on Douyin (Tik Tok), which mirrors society.

Zhang Yongji: At the very beginning, my purpose was also to converse with myself and I tried to solve some internal problems. This process was painful and jumpy since I was situated in a chaotic state, it is super difficult to find a clear and rational clue. The more eager you are to deal with your disorder, the deeper you will be caught in it. Later, I jumped out of this state because I realized that taking myself too seriously was harmful. I think art does not necessarily need to express oneself. Actually, what everyone says can be very valuable, but it depends on the way and level he or she talks. Thus, enlightened by Prof. Xu Bing, I recognized that the more significant aspect of creation was the approach that you employ to articulate the most valuable words in your eyes. I explored this method in Time is Summoning. To me, simply shooting a film to present people’s conditions in the contemporary era was not so easy. Even worse was that many other people could also come up with this idea which means my piece could easily be neglected in the big environment. In the present Internet age, a lot of people release their energy on the Internet. Everyone is expressing and my words are also included in these expressions. Then how do I speak in my own way? Why not pull myself away and orchestrate these forces from a more macroscopic perspective? That way, I may improve my presentation. I think the impression of this piece turns out to be right in the end.

Geng Xue: I grasped several key points from his narrative. First of all, I can really empathize with what he just said about the incessant jumpy creations. Likewise, I was constantly wavering between digital images, photos, sculptures, paintings, and films, producing a large number of experimental works yet only few effective works. Secondly, like Prof. Xu Bing’s recommendation, it is pivotal to decide which language and method can better tell things that you are inclined to say. Last summer, when I was drafting the sculpture textbook I read several books and summarized some understanding from one of them. Drawn from one of the books Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985, I believe that the charm of art lies in its intricacy, i.e. the complex relationships between aesthetics and ethics, the process of creation and the artistic output, and reality and representative techniques as well. This type of relationship often needs to be tense and the games between different elements should be mutually paradoxical yet reinforced at the same time. It is not so easy for you to not only take control of a simple power, but also demonstrate this complex relationship from the aforementioned intricacy. Third, handling the Internet materials is actually quite difficult. As you mentioned earlier, your ideas will soon be overwhelmed by the crowd. People are all commenting and giving a voice and it is intriguing that sometimes those who are not artists may have an even better artistry. In this case, I think the major inquiries right now are how to adjust an artists’ mindset and how to make artworks.

Zhang Yongji: I felt a keen sense of crisis when I was conceiving Time is Summoning. In fact, we had organized a short video exhibition—As Fast As Bolt, Ten-Second Photography Show in 2014. At that time, “Meipai”, an App specialized in filming ten-second videos, just began to grow. Intrigued by it, we called a group of friends and artists to create films in ten seconds. Now, with the increasing popularity of short videos, our ten-second videos are not at all the same as the ones today. The latest videos present more vivid and diversified creativity and a vitality of logic. You will discover that they cover all the manners that we tried to highlight in ours and generate even more possibilities in the meantime. Today, it seems that the creation of films is not about comparisons within small communities but among all contemporaries. If I were to make this sort of short video myself again, I will certainly be surpassed by people nowadays. Situated in the present context, many tactful film artists also appear to be powerless. Being aware of this circumstance, Time is Summoning incorporated short videos produced by the masses for reference and reorganization. Besides having continued  with my previous creation characteristics, I reckon the purposeful use of copy and paste is also in line with the feature of today’s short videos showing up on cell phone screens.

Zhang Wenzhi: After seeing your works and listening to your stories, I am thinking of a question. In the Internet era, and particularly with the arrival of the image era, artists’ power is sometimes very feeble. Just as Zhang Yongji raised, there will be little likelihood for him to win the game between the present era if he were to recreate a film himself. In fact, this is a common phenomenon. Artists cannot compete with social creative behavior. This raises another question of how artists make their own creations. It looks that Zhang Yongji has his own coping strategies, so does this bring us a sense of crisis artistically?

Geng Xue: I believe this sense of crisis is positive. I was a bit disappointed a few years ago since art had become increasingly commercialized and boring. When the Internet brought up these crazy issues, my disappointment gradually faded because suddenly I found new questions and enemies. Zhang Yongji’s strategy is to seek possibilities from confrontation. Similarly, what I am currently working on is about how to manage new problems for creations.

Zhang Yongji: Taking the scores of imitative behaviors as posted on Douyin as an example, I find that they share many similarities with our artistic creations. Some people engage in pure imitation, whereas others wish to personalize imitations. In other words, although it seems at the first glance that I am mimicking you, what I am actually doing is to challenge and outdo you. Many things in this current environment are fragmented, meaning that they want to see if you have a decent way to tackle them. The creation method that I am working on right now makes a contrast with the fragmentation era. Perhaps this is a breakthrough point that I have devised. But what we have to do next needs more deliberation and practice.

Geng Xue: I think if creation were to have a long-term development, methodologies are of equal importance. Now that everyone is expressing, maybe your words are also voiced by others, contributing to monotonous vision and aesthetics. Nonetheless, if artists want to go for a long run, recent Internet conditions will probably be only one of the stages that affect you. There will be another bigger methodological element to bolster your entire consideration as well as action. Ultimately, your life-time works altogether will be the reflections of your thoughts.

Zhang Wenzhi: Wang Baoliang, what is your opinion regarding this question? How do artists accommodate themselves in the scenario when the power of art is challenged by the collective creation of the entire society? It looks that sculptures are not exclusive to artists anymore. For example, three-dimensional printing nowadays makes it possible for everyone to model a figure.

Wang Baoliang: I consider your question in this way: If there is someone that can make woodcarvings as I do but without any systematic study, will he then replace or outdo me? For me, the answer is no. I think the ultimate determinant of an artist is the words you are going to say, i.e. what you are going to express. From this point of view, many people are not able to become an artist even though they have technical support because they do not know how to analyze an issue artistically. Artists, on the other hand, are exceptionally sensitive to this aspect. Hence, I believe that for an outstanding artist, even though technique is also essential, the most fundamental and supportive quality is his idea.

Geng Xue: For instance, returning back to the issues of sculpture, first we need to figure out the essence of sculptures. It may not be the simulation of a form or modeling of a shape. The reason behind the prolonged academic year of the Sculpture Department is that this kind of spatial training is much more time-consuming. Perhaps our experience differs from those who study graphic arts. To put it another way, despite their excellent painting skill, oil painting majors may have difficulty in handcrafting sculptures in elective sculpture courses. This type of deep spatial training resembles children’s growth and development. They perceive space through crawling, which trains their tactile sense as well as the hand-brain relationship. Obviously, this relationship cannot be obtained through techniques, yet it directly relates to the way we see things. With this spatial training, children may have various perceptions as they face the world. Moreover, if I am going to make films, I will lead a different path than Zhang Yongji’s approach due to our different backgrounds. I come from the field of sculpture, whereas Zhang Yongji has his own history. With all this being said, technology can hardly replace this sort of past experience that has already been deeply rooted in your body. In fact, this also helps artists to face themselves more clearly.

Zhang Wenzhi: Ms. Geng Xue, as a predecessor, please leave some comments for this year’s CAFA sculpture graduation projects.

Geng Xue: I will start with my personal feelings as a senior schoolmate who graduated many years ago. I feel like the Sculpture Department as a whole is pretty strong. Each studio has its own edge and distinguished graduation piece. The piece Perhaps I Can Tell You created by Xie Shuhan from Studio No.6 has three pink females made out of pink sponges floating in the air and its entire modeling possesses the physicality of traditional Chinese image-shaping technique. Thus, in general, it is positioned in between traditional modeling and pop culture. Zhu Kelong’s Farewell is also pretty impressive in that it employs materials such as clay, straw, and cotton that are commonly used in traditional Chinese clay modeling. Executed in paper, fiber, and lacquer, Fang Ying’s Entering the Mundane World without Getting Tarnished also embodies the girl’s mastery over aesthetics and modeling. These are all real and sensational works that come from Studio No.6’s teaching system.

Tian Jianxin and Zhao You from Studio No.1 also made a few nice little woodcarvings that achieve a high standard in modeling and illustrate their daily accumulation of knowledge, which is a very commendable state. The majority of the students in the Sculpture Department are still sculpting human figures and there is nothing wrong with this. Nonetheless, some students have decided to conduct a wider array of experiments. This change is evident in Studio No.5 student Zhou Zhenxing’s Revolving Wooden Boat, Studio No.3 student Wang Songxin’s poetic Wares, and Zhang Zhihui’s Perhaps Maybe Look Like It or Not. The later one did some fascinating research on Internet images, pictures, and forms, suggesting that the student had thoroughly surveyed the new mode. Furthermore, Wang Yunpeng from Studio No.4 polished the abandoned architectural elements in his 3000 Catalogues, showcasing a marvelous formal beauty. Gan Haoyu’s Frightening Dream adopted porcelain to construct a landscape architecture and stone-laying related game space. Of course, our interview partner Wang Baoliang’s graduation project also topped the list is not surprising since it is, like what we discussed earlier, undoubtedly a wonderful piece of work.

All of these are projects that I remember the most. But different people may have different visions and ideas, thereby seeing different things. Actually, the graduation project only represents one of the stages and does not have any narrow judgment of failure or success. It is analogous to a picture that I had once seen, which tells a story in which a teacher is going to test an elephant, fish, monkey, turtle, and wolf. For a fair selection, everybody has to take the same exam: to climb that tree. There is a quote from Albert Einstein beneath the picture that reads “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Therefore, the question of education is very deep. It is problematic to not have a standard or solely refer to it. We need to be aware that keeping impartial to everyone’s talent is hardly achievable in a limited space. There is still a long way to go after graduation, either simple or difficult. Opening painting classes is a relatively simple path since it guarantees a faster income. In addition to this, preparing for postgraduate education is also comparatively stable. Nevertheless, if you choose a difficult creative path, it is better to not distance yourself from the outside world during the course of your creation. Instead, you should go to observe real lives in society and get to know different people, generating more opportunities for you to plan for future development. Although this method appears to be distressing and laborious, it will eventually equip you with a lot of skills after a few years.