Wang Huaxiang: Responding to Contemporary Issues in an Ancient Way

TEXT:Emily Zhou    DATE: 2021.4.9

“Mended Porcelain: Bridging the Crack—Wang Huaxiang‘s Solo Exhibition” officially launched on March 13 at Suzhou Museum. The exhibition features artist Wang Huaxiang’s “Mended Porcelain” series created during the pandemic in 2020, which expresses his mental state, anxiety and conscientiousness by using paintings, with the intention of declaring a war against all types of “viruses” including enmity, injury, dispute, destruction, shortsightedness, conflict, etc. 

On the afternoon of March 28, the opening seminar of the “Mended Porcelain—Wang Huaxiang‘s Solo Exhibition” was held in the exhibition hall of Suzhou Museum. The guests included scholars, artists, critics, and curators from all over the country. The seminar took Wang Huaxiang’s new work “Mended Porcelain” series as a starting point, then discussed his creative motivation, expressive techniques and perspective, and used this as a clue to review Wang Huaxiang’s experience and fortunes during many years of his art career.

As Mr. Pu Guochang mentioned in the seminar that these paintings are an important turning point in Wang Huaxiang's creation and life, and Wang Huaxiang has devoted himself using different emotions and experiences into these paintings. On the occasion of the opening seminar, CAFA ART INFO invited artist Wang Huaxiang to conduct an interview on topics such as the “Mended Porcelain” exhibition and related works.

Exhibition View

Group Photo of Honored Guests

06 艺术家王华祥在研讨会上发言.png

Artist Wang Huaxiang gave a speech in the seminar. 

Date: March 25th, 2021

Interviewee: Wang Huaxiang

Interviewer: Zhu Li (CAFA ART INFO))

Interview sorted out and translated by Emily Weimeng Zhou, edited by Sue.

Image courtesy of the artist and the organizer.

CAFA ART INFO: Hello, Professor Wang. The exhibition “Mended Porcelain” this time is cooperating with Suzhou Museum. The exhibition in Suzhou Museum always focuses more on traditional art. This time, it presents a selection of contemporary art from your recent creations, which is quite unique. Can you talk about the opportunity of the cooperation?

Wang Huaxiang: In fact, I know the Suzhou Museum because of its designer, I. M. Pei (in full leoh Ming Pei). After I visited Suzhou Museum, I found that I.M.Pei presented his understanding of the landscape in a unique way and invited visitors to enter the landscape. We know that the landscape in the scope of traditional Chinese art is generally for people to view and admire, but Pei’s design was precisely to allow people to wander between mountains and rivers. He used materials from nature, but presented a modern and contemporary design—this was a brand-new, non-traditional thing, and it showcased a particularly wonderful relationship with tradition—no matter its form or temperament, it is very traditional.

07 苏州博物馆新馆设计者,华裔建筑设计大师贝聿铭先生.png

I. M. Pei, the Designer of Suzhou Museum

Nowadays, many well-known museums and art museums attach great importance to their external space, while Suzhou Museum places great emphasis on its internal space. After the audience enters, they realize that the exhibition hall is an organic part of the whole. I think art permeates through the entire museum. The exhibition hall is just a moving content, but the building itself stands firmly.

So for I.M.Pei, a master who can realize the seamless connection between Chinese gardens and Western modern architecture, tradition and modernity, I actually have a lot of sympathy. I once wrote an article that emphasizes “to build a bridge between modernity and tradition”. Actually, my art today is precisely like this. My technique is very classical and realistic—I fear I could not create art in a traditional style. I have been studying techniques, shapes, and materials for two or three decades. I think these things are psychic and alive, that is what I call “psychic techniques”(CN.“技术有灵”). Just as I.M. Pei can combine modernity with tradition, the East and the West, I think I am just like this. In Suzhou Museum, I felt that this space fully fits with my work.

08 苏州博物馆.png

09 苏州博物馆.png

Suzhou Museum

CAFA ART INFO: This series of work created during the pandemic discusses repairing after tearing. The traditional technique “Mended Porcelain” is used as the title, which implies not only recovering the scars but also the crack itself and the process of repairing has finally become a vital section of the new works/products. Can you share your ideas in terms of this exhibition title and this series of creations?

Wang Huaxiang: The emergence of the concept “Mended Porcelain” is a bit like an “apocalypse” for me. For many years, a number of people have emphasized the question of “how can painting survive within contemporary society or this era”, but it seems that most of the situations were not optimistic. As a result, it seems that we have handed over the stage of contemporary art to the non-painting or non-easel painting artists. It is not a question about personal interest, but a reality that the era hardly leaves the soil for painting. In this case, there is no way for painters to retreat, which forces me to think about the reason for the decline of painting (CN. 绘画的退场). 

CAFA ART INFO: Regarding the idea of “the decline of painting”, you also have your own research and understanding. Can you share a little bit more on this topic?

Wang Huaxiang: I have been thinking whether the decline of painting is permanent? Is it a historical logic necessity or an accident? Is it a holistic, cosmopolitan, or regional phenomenon? I have come to a conclusion, I think the receding of painting is dualistic. On the one hand, it is a logical consequence of the development of painting, while on the other hand, it is also very contingent.

Let’s start with the logical. I can understand that the emergence of contemporary art is driven by the internal power of art development, just like a person’s life and death process. For painting, when realism reached its peak, photography emerged, which actually replaced most of the functions of painting, especially the recording function of painting in the traditional sense. So from this point, I think the decline is inevitable.

10 锔瓷一 120×160cm 布面油画 2020年.png

Mended Porcelain No.1, 120×160cm, Oil on canvas, 2020

11 锔瓷二 30×40cm 布面油画 2020年.png

Mended Porcelain No.2, 30×40cm, Oil on canvas, 2020

12 创作草稿.png

Creative Draft

Then there is a phenomenon at this time, that is, the panic of painters. So how to deal with it? We have seen that some people, such as Paul Cézanne, have moved towards rational analysis and geometric routes in order to avoid the impact of photography. There was also a path towards expression like Van Gogh. Later, for Picasso and others, through deconstruction and reorganization, they actually constructed another subjective image. Meanwhile, some people also borrowed the forms from children's paintings, primitive art, or African art, among others. When it comes to Duchamp, he believed that anything with shapes could actually be art—why is a ready-made thing not art? This is the conscious survival of the painter. By doing so, the door of modern art has been opened. This is a new world—a world of consciousness and emotions, rather than the objective world we see. This is actually a way of survival, and it is not that great, but a large number of imitators all over the world have appeared.

On the other hand, I think it is a sort of contingency. Many people think that I am the one who does not understand modern and contemporary art. In fact, I am a relatively precocious person. As early as my teenage years, under the influence of Mr. Pu Guochang and others, I was already a modernist. Modernism has an important characteristic, namely, anti-imitation and anti-similarity. I have accepted this ethical view a long time ago. So when I encountered the phenomenon of imitating others in large numbers, I actually felt disdain for it. In 1999, I went to France and stayed there for half a year before I realized that this was not a problem that happened merely in China, but a global issue. I have reached the back of art history. After I understood these things, I decided not to chase after trends anymore. They were no longer tempting to me.

The contingency also lied in commercial intervention to a large extent. I was actually one of the first few Chinese artists to enter the market. I once expected to promote contemporary art through commerce, but then realized that this idea was too naive. I later discovered that business doesn't care whether it is art or not, it cares whether it is profitable or not instead. From this point of view, academics have become unimportant. So when a person is selected by the market, it is actually accidental. There is a set of rules of the game. I realized early on that the premise of pricing power is the right of definition—to define what is the art and what is not art. Both academia and commerce have a common argument, which seems that the materials and tools in the hands of an artist determine whether he or she is contemporary or not. If I want academia to recognize me, I must make changes. But people always have their own choices, and I feel uncomfortable doing that.

In fact, my emphasis on tradition has been swayed several times in the past, but I have confirmed it again and again. Until today, I firmly believe that I finally solved the problem of oil painting and I made a breakthrough.

13 艺术家王华祥创作作品中.png

Artist Wang Huaxiang was creating works.

CAFA ART INFO: Let’s return to the work of the “Mended Porcelain” series. What are the origins and metaphors behind it?

Wang Huaxiang: After trying to understand the issues mentioned above, I changed my state from being forced to marginalize to actively choosing to marginalize. I gradually moved from Wangfujing to the Pinggu district, and I actively chose to stay away from disturbances. Regarding the emergence of these paintings, I think it happens at the right time and in the right place, and it is inevitable. It is a fermentation of my experience over more than 30 years. When various complicated and confusing problems have been clarified, I can finally move forward.

In my mind, this batch of paintings has no “owner”. Only then will you be truly pure, and it will be possible to accurately grasp human nature, social deficiencies, and the essential state of these problems to the greatest extent. The creative state without the consideration of service object was like a god that has opened various “doors” to me, which made my every day full of joy. This made me realize that every time the worldly impurities, greed, and calculations were thrown away, I would gain equal proportions of happiness and freedom. But I also often returned to calculations, rational thinking and analysis, and as soon as I returned to such a state, the door would suddenly shut down, which was amazing.

Mended Porcelain No.4 (and detail), 120×120cm, Oil on canvas, 2020

The title of “Mended Porcelain” also originated from my long-term thinking, this is, how could I use one of the most ancient ways to respond to contemporary issues. If I succeed in solving it, I will blaze a trail for the academy and figurative painters. I am thinking that I can still adopt the narrative of the Renaissance to create, but I still expect to create a new narrative method. It is inseparable from my acceptance of modernist ethics from when I was young, and I cannot tolerate myself repeating the methods of others. So the “Mended Porcelain” this time is actually a kind of “Wang Huaxiang’s Grammar” eventually created by myself. 

Of course, it needs to be spawned by external factors, one is the COVID-19 pandemic, and the other is the impact of the subsequent international relations that touched me. When I saw this form of international dispute, the various divisions facing people, countries, and society, I suddenly became enlightened. Before this, almost all of my articles and controversies were directed at the critics and art circles and rarely touched society. However, the experience of the year 2020 suddenly broadened my horizons. I have seen a world full of controversy as a whole, rather than the small circles of our painters and critics, or business, culture, and politics. This time, we human beings have reached an unprecedented inflection point, which has never happened over the last few decades. When I had a clear understanding of the whole, “Mended Porcelain” just appeared. On the one hand, it represented my Chinese identity, while on the other hand, it marked a label for this era with an event that happened precisely at this moment.

16 锔瓷四-石版 40×40cm 石版画 2020年.png

Mended Porcelain No.4, 40×40cm, Lithograph, 2020

17 锔瓷油画四、石版画四 创作草稿.png

Creative Draft

I think that the emergence of a concept is closely related to the destiny of human beings. At this time of day, the divisions brought about by the current pandemic and the conflicts of human society have coincided with each other. When the phrase “Mended Porcelain” appeared, the picture was born. “Mended Porcelain” is not just a design and symbol of mine, it implies a broader meaning instead.

CAFA ART INFO: Yes, I agree with you. Although you have borrowed the concept of “Mended Porcelain”, the appearance of cracks is still different from the state of the closeness of the technique of mended porcelain in reality. It seems that it is deliberately presenting a state that is difficult to heal.

Wang Huaxiang: I would like to leave those cracks to time and to everyone to create. Some may expect them to be restored as before, while others may hope they break thoroughly. In this case, I feel like this part is full of suspense. It takes time to heal, or it may be broken as time passes.

CAFA ART INFO: How about your consideration in terms of the image selection in this series of work? We can see that it can be roughly divided into three categories, namely, “classical images in art history”, “ordinary human beings”, and “yourself”. You also put yourself in some paintings and are in a dominant position. Can you elaborate specifically about these three parts?

Wang Huaxiang: Regarding the classical images in art history, my first consideration comes from my instinct—I love these classical paintings. They are not based on utilitarian considerations but based on physiology. The second is an attitude towards technical learning. I think for a long time, I have not reached the confluence point of the techniques of classical painting until today. I have been looking up at them but I could not approach them. It took me three or four decades to step closer to this, and now I can say that I have finally reached these eternal things.  

The third consideration is, I would say that every image is a phrase in my “Wang’s Grammar”. For example, the image of the Renaissance actually bears my protection of traditional values and eternal human nature, as well as the maintenance of nature, beauty and sex. Although I chose images out of instinct, I would learn about the cultural background and metaphors behind these images later. The selection is intuitive, but to step further requires knowledge, so I feel that I still leave the space for various interpretations regarding the images.

18 锔瓷十三 120×160cm 布面油画 2020年.png

Mended Porcelain No.13, 120×160cm, Oil on canvas, 2020

19 锔瓷十五 100×120cm 布面油画 2020年.png

Mended Porcelain No.15, 100×120cm, Oil on canvas, 2020

20 锔瓷十九 30×40cm 布面油画 2020年.png

Mended Porcelain No.19, 30×40cm, Oil on canvas, 2020

The second category is a combination of people from now and people from the past. On the one hand, I paid tribute to the painters I admire, on the other hand, I also tested whether I could stand beside the masters in the past. I hope to accept the comparison and pickiness of the viewers, and I am also nitpicking myself as an observer. In fact, today I can confidently say that I have completed just such a task after decades of effort.

Meanwhile, I do not think culture and human nature are things that can be separated by time. There is actually no essential difference between people today and people in the past. The so-called “cultural estrangement” is derived from self-interest. It seems that there is a sort of consciousness of power that influences people. It seems that to establish (the reputation of) oneself requires defeating others, or to affirm today must deny yesterday. That is not what I believe. 

The images of these ordinary people are my students and people around me. This is actually one of my creative methods, that is, I would choose the image nearby. I understand the images and experiences of these people, which often provide me with instant inspiration. It is also a sort of intuition. When our intuition is connected with our world view, and our perception of things and life, it is “connected”, and a painting then has power.

21 锔瓷六 60×120cm 布面油画 2020年.jpg

Mended Porcelain No.6, 60×120cm, Oil on canvas, 2020

22 锔瓷九 60×80cm 布面油画 2020年.png

Mended Porcelain No.9, 60×80cm, Oil on canvas, 2020

23 锔瓷八 60×80cm 布面油画 2020年.png

Mended Porcelain No.8, 60×80cm, Oil on canvas, 2020

As for when I put myself in the painting and place myself in the main position, which is more due to character. I think I am a bit like Caravaggio from this perspective.

Mended Porcelain No.10 (and Details)

CAFA ART INFO: From the previous experience and personality you have talked about, it seems that you have always had such a direct attitude. You don’t hide and obscure the problems and cracks you have encountered, but express yourself in a straightforward manner, with vigor and sincerity. This kind of character and behavior is actually rare and adheres to the academy system. How do you weigh and balance the contradiction between the “restrictions” in the academy and the free expression of creation?

Wang Huaxiang: I think I am an outlier in the college. I just talked about what I decided to no longer chase after the trend or after seeing the reality of the status quo, but my inertia, my surrounding environment, would still impact, hit, and oppress me. At this time, I am actually under a double-sided attack. In fact, the nature inside and outside the academy system is the same. There are two kinds of copying and repetition, one is a repetition of the modern and contemporary, and the other is a repetition of the tradition. I see that these two main groups are indifferent to creativity, but I think creativity is necessary.

I have an analogy, that is, if society is a big gear, then I am a small gear. The big gear of society turns every day. In fact, many people are desperately squashing into the big gear, but most of them would be thrown out. I am a small gear, and I find that this is my self-positioning for decades. When the time is right, I will spin with the big gear together. We know that the gears are occluded. The big gear runs at high speed, and I could follow it. However, if I don’t agree with the big gear, I will spin by myself. So I actually live in the suburbs of Beijing most of the time. Spatially speaking, I am not influenced by the outside world—the noise is inaudible, and the temptation is invisible. It is worth mentioning that I am not resting there, and looking forward to free meals, nor am I complaining that this era is not of my time. My basic principle is that if this world does not need me, I would no longer need this world either.

27 艺术家工作室.png

Artist Studio

28 艺术家王华祥进行创作.jpg

Artist Wang Huaxiang was creating.

My personality may have something to do with my growing up in an extremely horrible environment in rural Guizhou, as well as the personality of my parents and my imperceptible education. This allows me to not escape when I am under pressure and face it head-on. In fact, for most of the time, I have no way to retreat. Also, I have an instinct of “challenging the authority and the power”. 

I like writing. Much of my anger and grievances were released through writing. I later realized that when these emotions were converted into a language, I was actually consistent and saved myself. Many articles and ideas are not for writing itself, but must flow unconsciously.

At the same time, life experience also made me realize that when I lied to get something, I was actually sad and regretful deep in my heart, so I started to defend this authenticity. Every time I did so, I would appear to be incompatible with my surroundings, which forced me to have the idea of leaving this group. But then I gradually discovered the power of truth. In fact, telling the truth is not that terrible, so I once wrote an article that said, “You can try to tell the truth, it is not as dangerous as you think.” 

For we humans, the space of freedom can actually be a goal. I am a very free person in CAFA. My maintenance of truthfulness and sincerity has brought about people's tolerance of me in equal proportion. Why are they tolerant? Because people still have even a little “awe of truth” in their hearts. If I insist on one inch, people give up one inch, if I insist on one foot, they would give up one foot as well. Many people actually dare not make such an attempt out of considerations such as safety. I am actually very grateful for my relatively lonely lifestyle. 

CAFA ART INFO: I want to discuss with you about techniques and media. You have been constantly trying to make breakthroughs in different creative media in your artistic creation. You proposed “psychic techniques” and opened a doctoral research direction of “Technique Theory and Art Ethics”. I would like to ask you to talk about your views in this regard.

Wang Huaxiang: Many people despise technology and materials, especially basic technology and ontological technique because people do not believe in a so-called ontology. This is a characteristic of contemporary art, and ontology is despised. I think this is the same as learning a foreign language—technique is something that indeed is borrowed from outside. Traditional Chinese painting did not have the techniques of oil painting and sketching, nor the techniques of formal training. And in this learning process, I think that materials and techniques are a question of “vocabulary volume”, it is necessary and the accumulation of vocabulary determines people’s degree of freedom. The next problem is how to use these materials and techniques. If a person masters more “languages”, he or she can of course draw as he or she pleases. However, people nowadays are a bit eager for quick success and quick gain, learning merely what is useful. As for things that are not useful in the present, they would ignore them.

CAFA ART INFO: It has been more than forty years since you studied art in your youth. Looking back on the course and accumulation of these decades, what do you think is your most important philosophy and artistic outlook in art?

Wang Huaxuang: I am not sure if I can come up with a conclusion, as I mentioned more or less in the discussions above. I think art is a medium, a tool and a channel through which people interact with the world. When I chose art, I did not regard art as a noble thing. It does not have to be born with a spirit. In fact, to put it bluntly, I think that being an artist and a painter is just a profession, so that we can treat art with a peace of mind. Like any other profession, art is work. In this sense, whether you can rely on your work to make a living is the first step.

Mended Porcelain No.12, 120×160cm, Oil on canvas, 2020

32 锔瓷十二 创作草稿.png

Creative Draft

In this case, we must make every effort to do our best. I think this is professional ethics. As for whether it can be sold and how much money we can earn from it, there is a sense of luck in this. There is a saying “God disposes, man proposes”, I think that as a painter, we must do our best to “propose”. Since we have chosen this profession, we should respect and maintain it, instead of being parasitic in this profession, but should do our best to contribute to this profession.

In addition, from the perspective of survival, painters should not be professional, because professionalism is inferior. We may not encounter a good time, environment, and people around us. In this case, I would rather do something else to make money, so that we can follow our nature, conscience, knowledge, and our perception and understanding of history, society, and culture to create. Only with these conditions can a good artist be born.

Exhibition View