In your exhibition Imminent, you shot quite a few scenes in both Chinese and in English, using Chinese and Western actors to present the same dialogue. Why did you choose to work this way?
In the beginning I wanted to look at how different the actors interpreted the script, how different acting techniques in China and in Europe were reflected in the work. But when I started filming, I realized that what interested me were the different individuals, rather than their culture. So the process focused more on the meeting with the different actors.
Obviously, I’m very curious to see how the audience will react to seeing the same scene, acted in two different languages and in two different cultures. But the process itself was fascinating and rewarding. It was a pleasure, just to shoot the scenes in these different contexts. When I shot the sequences in English, I could respond immediately. But when I shot it in Chinese, it was a lot more abstract. I responded based on osmosis because I could only react to the way that they act in general, not how they respond to individual lines. Meaning that the direction of the two scenes was very different.
Can you elaborate on the relationship between the individual and cultural difference.
My general philosophy of life related to this question is double. On the one hand, I believe there’s far less difference between individual people than we tend to acknowledge. Humans stay in dialogue with each other all the time; we exchange ideas and values, so we become part of each other through a kind of osmosis. That’s why I chose to let a lot of different actors play the same part. I’m interested in seeing how that affects our interpretation of the character. But this strategy also allows me to take the idea of individuality apart.
In contrast to this, I am interested in the idea of cultural difference. But cultural difference is a tool to lay bare social constructions that inhibit us from finding personal freedom. It is greatly liberating to be living in more cultures than one. (E.g. to move between Europe and China) Because it allows me to see how social conditioning works in both. I can see that others act in a special way because they deem it socially acceptable. They do not make choices because they want to or because it goes well with their inner being.
My thinking is clearly coloured by the Taoist idea that each person has a true nature and that life is about trying to reach that. But this philosophy is also greatly coloured by relativist ideas, so I believe that this true nature is constantly re-negotiated. There is no pure essence to each person, that essence keeps changing along the journey of life.
Do you think that you will continue to develop this strategy, so that there will be a wider range of ethnicity amongst the actors in your videos to underline the metamorphose that is taking place among the characters?
I do not really see the point of speculating about future work. But the shape-shifting that you talk about in my films is something that is recurring and central in all my work. It is also central in Imminent. In these films it’s the clothes that denote which actor is playing which character. Which means that they can exchange character by changing clothes. You become I and I become you simply by changing outfit, breaking down the boundaries of what constitutes an individual.
The way that the characters merge into each makes me think about the disruption of time and space in Zhuangzi. Are you influenced by him in your work?
I’ve been reading Laozi for about twenty years in different languages, and I’ve been reading Zhuangzi for seven or eight years. I come back to the latter text constantly, reading and re-reading passages. So it’s very difficult for me to say where this idea comes from. Was I interested by these ideas because I’d read Zhuangzi or was I interested by Zhuangzi because these ideas were on my mind?
I have to admit that when I first started reading Zhuangzi, I really thought it was badly written. But then once I overcame that barrier and I started to read it with an open mind, a whole new universe opened. It has changed the very way that I look on reality. So to a certain degree, this kind of non-time, non-space, and this non-identity in Imminent is probably related to Zhuangzi.
In Cecilia Canziani’s (the curator of Imminent) text that about the exhibition, she talks about the ancient Greek, Menandro whose actors represented a social type, an attitude; a role rather than an individual therefore avoiding that specific quality.
Would you say your approach has been similar to that of Menandro?
The actors have appeared randomly. So, I find myself in a situation with an actor or with a group of actors, and then I respond to that situation. So it’s a lot more about untangling a situation and finding what it is that works. If I had a clear idea about the social aspects of a character, it would be too simple.
I like what Cecilia writes about Plato and she says that when “the principle of singularity is not in action any more, a new society can surface”. Can you talk about how you see this?
When we’re too preoccupied by our own problems, it becomes very difficult to have a dialogue with the rest of the world. If we can look beyond our own problems, we can then create a life where dialogues with the world really become possible. What Cecilia writes, is very much in line with the spirit of my work. I don’t know where this strong focus on the individual comes from in human culture, because it seems to make us very lonely and unhappy. Imminent tries to look at new forms of being together and perceiving the individual.
Your work is never about telling a story. It is more about a continuous reflection on a problem or a conflict, where does this approach to art come from?
My goal as an artist is to try to inspire people to have another outlook on reality from what they have had before. If I can do that, I have achieved something which is wonderful. But in order to do so, I have to inspire myself to find interesting questions and also to formulate them in an interesting way. If I come up with one single answer, it means that I’m preaching to people and that is the opposite of what I want to do. I want my work to be a like a sparring partner. If you feel like you can fight five rounds or twenty rounds with an idea, then I can start to build art around it. Art really doesn’t give any answers. It just provides the audience with questions.
The goal of this interview is to establish your views on art and I find that your artwork is full of irrational questions. Can you define how you see the relationship between art and irrationality?
One of the most fundamental problems of the world is that it’s obsessed with rationality. If we look at it from a western standpoint basically from the birth of the Christianity until about 1500, everything in life was about religion. During 1500 years, reality was defined by religion. After that, René Descartes began to create his idea of mathematics and the divide between the body and soul. The world also saw the amazing work created by Isaac Newton. Reality gradually began to shift from being defined by religion to being defined by science. But a pendulum swings one way and then the opposite, but it always swings too far.
The whole idea of rationality and that we can actually understand the reality that surrounds us, has gone too far. By integrating these irrational and impossible contradictions into the artwork, I’m looking at reality in a way which is slightly different. By doing so, I am trying to ask people why they believe so firmly in rationality.
Most of the work that I produce functions like Zen Buddhist koans. The most famous of these to my knowledge is: “We all know what the sound of two hands clapping sound like, what is the sound of one hand clapping?” For instance a lot of my thinking brings together Taoist ideas with Freudian theories. For each project that I realize, a meeting point for two incompatible philosophies is formed.
But you cannot merge these theories. If I exaggerate greatly, we can say that one is all about what the Chinese call ‘losing face’, and the other about the opposite. But going between Taoism and psychoanalytical thinking, creates a very exciting tension and that is what matters. Art should be like a force field between opposing ideas. I think everything that you can resolve rationally in your life is not very important, while the complicated and real issues in life cannot be resolved.
A scientist defines a question, researches it and then publicizes the results of this research. In what way is your work different from a scientist’s?
There are two fundamental differences between my work and the scientist’s work. Firstly, I am interested in the interior life of human beings. We can call it metaphysical or spiritual. For the most part, this aspect of life cannot be measured. On a very superficial level you can measure it. You show a porno sequence to a man, he will probably get an erection and become excited. But it has very little to do with the real experiences that he lives in front of the film. But he is probably torn between different natural drives and social inhibitions that form a very complicated network of mental and bodily reactions. So art is somehow a go-between between the interior and exterior world and that is something that science cannot reach – at least not yet.
Secondly, the difference is that the scientist has a very narrow audience (at least in a short perspective). The scientist’s work is basically for the people who fund the research and other researchers who work in the same field as he does. Obviously, they need to arouse the curiosity of those people, to create something which is new and inspiring. I have to create something that is accessible for quite diverse audiences. So I need to produce work, which can be accessed on different levels, because that is the only way that I can appeal to a larger audience.
Does that mean that art is more complicated than science? (followed by laughter)
I don’t think one is more complex than the other. I’m working on a project that I will show in Sweden next year. It is a collaboration with a biochemist. So I engage in dialogues with scientists. The bottom line is that we’re doing the same thing. We are all trying to create ideas that will re-formulate our relationship to reality, in one way or another.
Whether one is more complicated than another, I really don’t know. It’s like asking who is the most important person, Einstein or Duchamp? However, I would like to say that in my experience, people who have successful careers in the sciences tend to be interested in the arts and humanities. Likewise, people who make interesting contributions in art tend to have a relationship to a discipline outside of art. When our worlds become too self-contained they lose their dynamism.
In Imminent one of the characters says that intuition becomes creativity, which becomes knowledge. It seems to be a central theme in the work, would you agree?
Well, in the scientific paradigm which was established by Descartes and Newton, basically stipulates that nature can be boxed in and if we look closely enough at reality it will reveal some kind of eternal truth. What I have discovered in the world, which is further informed by reading books like the I Ching, and studying philosophers like Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze, is that everything changes all the time. So That there is a continuous and ceaseless motion going on everywhere in the universe. In Imminent I merge this idea and also let it meet science, to see how we can still define and understand the world when everything is changing all the time. What I am saying does not go against knowledge; it tries to further the idea of what knowledge can be.
I want to talk about the sculpture that you show in Imminent. It is an object that seems to have arrived from another world. In Chinese the wind is a weak force, but it can also be the force that tips something over; the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
I like that, something which is very weak, but if it finds itself in a right moment, it can have immense effect on the world. I also think that it is very appropriate for the entire exhibition. But the sculpture also raises another issue. The world looks at each of us depending on how we look at the world.
For instance, most dangerous situations also offer a potential for new things to happen and for progress to be made. The two main characters in Imminent live in a very tense moment of history. But while everybody else is scared, they are just curious. So they actually use a negative situation to create something positive. Before the crises that the world is in in Imminent, they had no power. But because of the way they deal with these changes, they create a situation where they attract everyone’s attention. So, in the end it is about perception and self-empowerment.
So We always need to come back to timing and context. The brick can be used to build the house, but it can also be used to break a window. In certain situations you may have to break the glass and in others, you might have to build a house. It’s all about the context, it’s all about where, what time, what situation…
So you make both sculpture and videos, do they together manifest a visual conclusion of your ideas?
My ideas and my different forms of expressions are in dialogue all the time. It is important for me to work in different media. I really can’t say that one happens before the other or that one is more important than the other. But there is the dialogue between them. This is also why I do not think that I will ever reach a final conclusion. But the videos in this exhibition and this sculpture definitely constitute a conclusion of an intense working period for me and during this process I have approached the same questions from many different angles.
I like a story that you told me, because it made me think about the potential power of art. You said that a Chinese worker had said that foreigners have a funny smell and that you have funny smell. Should art have a funny smell? (Laughter)
Yes, art should have funny smell. I think that’s a very good definition of what is art should be and why it has the ability to affect peoples’ lives. If I didn’t believe that art could change peoples’ life, I would have stopped a long time ago. It is the goal of human existence and what I am doing as an artist: we all try to influence peoples’ lives in a constructive way. But affecting peoples’ lives in a positive way often means that the process is difficult and painful. Change is hard and when we work hard we sweat and when we sweat we smell. So yes, art should smell. It probably even smells like a foreigner. (Laughter)