(Transcription and translation: Zhong Yi and Yu Jing)
Wang Dan: From looking your CV and your work I understand that you have been working internationally for a long time. How did that start?
Per Hüttner: It has always been my goal to work internationally. But it started to take off in the middle of the nineties when I lived here in London. I have travelled more and more over the years. For me, it’s very hard to say, whether I make the work I do, because I travel or if I travel to make the work I do. It’s like the chicken and the egg. It’s impossible to say which comes first. But one thing is for sure, when I sit still, in a studio or not, I’m unhappy.
WD: So how does travelling affect your art practice, does it broaden your perspective?
PH: I always felt that I was looking for something on my travels. You never find what you are looking for, but it is a direction and you find things that are more important than you could’ve ever imagined. I found something which has been very important for me in Chinese culture. I don’t know whether it’s Chinese or Asian culture or just Taoism.
WD: So, how is it different from other places like Mexico or Africa?
PH: I cannot tell you exactly what it is, but I keep reading Zhuangzi and the I Ching. I have found something in this philosophy, which has helped me to resolve certain issues in my life and practice. But just because you find certain answers, doesn’t mean that the process is finished. I keep finding new challenges and new perspectives. It’s also about connecting the dots, about staying in constant dialogue with people and the world that surrounds us.
WD: Your first visit to China was in 2002. What was your first impression?
PH: As a matter of fact, it was a little bit strange and magical. I was based in Los Angeles at the time, so I came from California to China and I had this image in my head of China being very exotic, and very different. But when I got there, I felt strangely at home. I have this recurring notion when I am in China that I must have been Chinese in my last life (laughs). I obviously feel like a foreigner there. I look different and cannot speak the language. But I remember vividly leaving the airport in Xiamen and entering the city. There was nothing strange or exotic at all about what I saw, smelled or heard. It was just very natural and that feeling has always stayed with me on all my visits to China, a sense of calm and serenity in all the surrounding chaos.
PH: At that time, I was invited by the director of the Chinese European Art Centre, Ineke Gudmundsson to make an exhibition together with some other Nordic artists. Since I had shown the work virtually all around the world and it was a big success, it felt natural to make a version in China. Around the time I also met Zhang Wei, one of the two directors of Vitamin Creative Space. She was in London at the time doing an MA in curating at Goldsmith’s College. We immediately got on very well, so we were also talking about doing things together in Europe and in China. I went to Guangzhou and met her there, and we started collaborating on what later became Xiao Yao You (逍遥游),at the Guangdong Museum of Art, which was co-curated by her and Guo Xiaoyan.
WD: The jogging project, as far as I understand, was realized in cities that have been colonized by foreign powers. I know a little about the history of Xiamen. After 1842, the opium war, it was colonized by Britain. It was the first city in China to be colonized at this time. Was this the reason why you chose Xiamen for your project?
PH: I read a bit about the history of Amoy, the old name for Xiamen. But the first thing that interested me in the project, was to look at places that appear truly exotic to western people and inscribe myself, so I am the one who is sticking out in the picture. Within the picture I am the alien. I play with different fantasies that people have: the fantasies that westerners have about faraway places and the fantasies that the local people have about foreigners. The project also plays with the whole documentary tradition which is based on the biggest fantasy of them all – the idea of the real.
WD: I saw these images, I saw you wearing the white sportswear, and that reminded me of a fantasy and memories from my childhood. I’ve always seen people, lots of people jogging for their enjoyment. That’s my first impression, but also, I feel it’s quite double. On the one hand you broke the fantasies westerners have because you showed real images of Asia, and that it’s not at all like Bollywood dancers, but crowded and dirty. On the other hand, what you acted out as an Asian fantasy was transformed into our reality.
PH: That is very interesting and from my point of view, almost our entire perception of reality is coloured by fantasies to such a degree that virtually all our lives remain a fantasy and that is not a bad thing. But it means that our quality of life is based on how we negotiate the relationship between fantasy and reality. A lot of my work is somehow playing on these fantasies and how they are created, maintained and crushed. The work is created with the intention to allow people to reflect on their personal relationship to their own fantasies and their own realities. So you see, I come back to Taoism again and the idea of a true inner nature that each person has. If we can understand our own true and yet changing nature, we can create loopholes of freedom in our personal existence and we do so by navigating between the fantasies and the realities that are both inside of us and at the same time surround us. It is about finding a good personal strategy to engage in a constant negotiation between the two, rather than finding or defining either of them.
WD: So how do you feel the term “chance” is involved in your art practices?
PH: It is very double. I really believe the Freudian idea that nothing we do is a choice and that there is no chance. At the same time, I am getting more and more obsessed by the work of John Cage, who suggests that it is all chance. He used the I Ching, just like another hero of mine, Phillip K. Dick to create his work. I can see the contradiction between the two philosophies, but it is such a fruitful contradiction between them and I keep living my life according to both. Maybe one day when I understand the I Ching better I will be able to answer your question.
Having said that, I’m very open. My eyes and ears are always open to improvisation. This is often a point of positive friction with the curators that I work with. They seem to feel a kind of mixture of frustration and fascination, because I always change my mind about my projects up to the very last moment. And that is all part of my philosophy of life. For me, making art is a form of research. So if I stop researching, I stop living. So I have to keep the interest alive to the bitter end and question everything. But it also makes life difficult.
Also, it doesn’t stop there either, because all the work that I’ve done always remains in the back of my head. Most of the work that I have produced keeps coming back to me. So I might wake up in the morning and think about a piece that I made 10 or 15 years ago and I find a different way to interpret it. So all the works that I’ve made, live with me. At a given point in time, some of the work interests me more or less. Right now, I’m very much reflecting on the work that I presented in Xiao Yao You.
WD: Coming back to the jogging in Xiamen, I’m curious about the reactions of the local people when you were running.
PH: Well I think the Chinese people are very controlled. They always make sure not to lose face.
WD: So, there was little interaction? Did it affect your actions much?
PH: Very little, I mean because there were some particular people walking whom I saw every day. I said hello to them, sometimes you can get people to smile. (laughter) But Asians are very different from Africans who are very direct. They approach you without hesitating, especially if you stick out.
WD: Some people just came up to you and asked, “can I join you?”
PH: Yeah, exactly. I think in that respect Chinese culture is very similar to Swedish culture. It’s a lot about self-control and retaining a social calm. African culture is the opposite, a bit like south European culture, more direct. People respond to you immediately. So I think in my life and in my work there is a dialogue between Swedish culture or north European culture, African or Mediterranean culture and Asian culture.
WD: And all these different cultures affect your process and the projects?
PH: Cultural difference allows me to discover different aspects of life. It uncovers social stereotypes that lead to social conditioning that stops us from unleashing our potential as human beings. So, what I’ve learned in Africa, or in Spain, can be used in my interaction with Chinese people. It’s not only about the similarities, but also about the differences. Human beings are attracted by things that are different and exotic. It arouses our curiosity. But the unknown can also scare us. So an important aspect of my work is to see how fear can be turned into curiosity.
WD: After 2002, you also had a lot of exhibitions in different places in China. One that you’ve mentioned already is Xiao Yao You from 2006 where you collaborated with Zhang Wei and Guo Xiaoyan. Tell me, how did it start?
PH: The project very well exemplifies my working process. I have a lot of ongoing dialogues with different people at the same time. Each dialogue that I have with each person, I see as a journey along a road. An exhibition or another public presentation is like a point on that trajectory. We have to stop. So we find a hotel, have a meal and meet other travellers. This is very important, since it allows us to meet the audience and to evaluate how our journey corresponds to other people. There’s a beginning to the journey, but there’s no end, it’s forever ongoing. However, making exhibitions is one of the most frictional things that you can engage in in life. It is really chaotic, but chaos and conflict unleashes the potential that we have inside ourselves.
WD: In the pictures for the project Xiao Yao You, there were so many cities from all over the world. Can you describe how you feel about these cities?
PH: I have a very special relationship to each city that I travel to regularly. It has less to do with the city itself, but is more connected to the people that I interact with. For the moment I go a lot to London, Rome, Stockholm and Beijing. I’ve always been fascinated by different levels of simultaneity. Being in dialogue with this shifting rhizome is both like a vitamin and a drug that I thrive on. So it’s very hard for me to talk in general about cities. But we can talk about how I feel about the individual places.
WD: But just when I look again at these pictures, I feel the cities are unusually clean, and very sentimental. It is as if there is something invisible and painful hidden in each image. Can you talk about what potential emotions are suspended in these pictures?
PH: The work that I’ve done over the last ten years has been dealing a lot with grief and sadness. But you are right, especially the pictures in Xiao Yao You and Democracy and Desire are particularly sad. The work I’m doing now is much more in dialogue with the world. If I’m critical about my own work, I can say that it has been slightly narcissistic in the last ten years. But it is also through this process that I have been able to open myself to communicate with the world in such a rich and rewarding way today. Narcissism turned out to be a tool to become more generous and to deepen the dialogue with the world. It was a necessary phase in my own personal and artistic transformation.
WD: I feel there’s a connection between you as an artist, and the places and people that surround you, but I cannot put my finger on what the connection is.
PH: For making the work, it needed a reference point. In one of my favourite pictures from the Democracy and Desire project, you can see me sitting fully dressed in a Chinese rural river. People are washing their clothes, cleaning their bodies and playing around me. Nobody seems to notice me while I sit in the river with a long white piece of cloth attached my foot. In another picture, I have the same wet, white cloth, which is connected to my foot. The second image is taken at night and in Paris.
The two images are central to this work that I’ve been developing for the last ten years. Because the river is about a communal space, the space that we share, like the city. I somehow become the representative for the individual and its sometime conflicting and sometimes enjoyable meeting with larger social, economical and political structures. Both the river and the people around me represent this “other” which is not a person, nor an institution or a system – but something bigger. The work is asking questions about the possibility for the individual to find freedom within this very complex situation, where there’s so many expectations, so much social, economical and political pressure to act in special ways.
WD: That reminds me of the title, Xiao Yao You and one of the most famous chapters of Zhuangzi. In his theory, he talks about that life and freedom a bit like you did before. I feel the Zhuangzi’s philosophy encourages complexity, but that it opposes the idea of the metropolis. Especially developing Chinese cities like Shanghai.
PH: Yeah, the Taoist texts are generally very romantic about nature. They see nature as an expression of a truthful direction. But you also need to consider that these texts are thousands years old. To me the city, because it has such a high level of complexity like you say, is another form of nature. The city hosts beauty, but a different kind of beauty from the beauty you find in nature. If you read Laozi or Zhuangzi, you need to reinterpret it to fit it into our day and age.
WD: In 2008, you did a performance called Filling the City with Dreams that was a part of project 365 Art and Life. So what is the significance of dreams in this project? Is it a utopian idea?
PH: No, I collaborated with a Chinese artist, Yang Zhifei who is living and working in Holland. Virtually all her work is based on her dreams. She gave me a selection of her dreams to me in Chinese. During 24 hours, I walked around Shanghai and I copied her dreams in chalk on walls, pavements and architectural elements. The idea was that if I copied them enough times, I would eventually understand what she had dreamt. Every time I had a vision in my head of what she had dreamt, I made a drawing. I obviously I had no idea about what was in the text. But when we cross-referenced the drawings with her texts, it was really remarkable to see how well they corresponded. So some form of knowledge was transferred to me via the repletion of these incomprehensible pictograms.
WD: Have you ever read the sentences that you copied for example “do not scream.”
Per: No, I still have no idea what I wrote. But people were very curious about what I was doing. They asked me lots of questions and tried to improve my calligraphy and it was very sweet because they kept repeating “you write Chinese like a child.”
WD: Last month I attended a conference about Chinese contemporary art and they talked about censorship. Do you think the censorship is still problematic in your art practice? I mean when you’re in China, did you ever have any problems?
PH: We met something very interesting during my performance on the underground in Shenzhen for The Invisible Generation. They could feel that we did something subversive. But they could not express what. It’s the fear of the unknown that comes back.
WD: Did you negotiate with the local company or did you just do it?
PH: We just did it. It was too inconspicuous to ask permission for. There were four actors talking on the phone, saying nothing out of the ordinary. They repeated the same action, so it was a real life “déjà-vu”. The only thing that was special was that all four were dressed in identical clothes and it immediately caught the attention of the guards. But it was really interesting because they said we were not allowed to “work” on the underground. But they couldn’t say what we were not allowed to do and in the end, it was agreed that we could do the performance. However we were not allowed to film or take photos, which we did anyway. In the end the discussion with the guards was by far the best performance.
But it was never my intention to be critical of the Chinese system, I really do not see the point of being critical towards the Chinese government or any other government. But if I can make people see things differently, so that they become critical of their own system, their own leaders, then something important has happened.
WD: For your forthcoming exhibition at FCAC, I was wondering how you came up with the concept of shooting the videos in English and Chinese?
PH: From the beginning I wanted to have lots of different languages. I shot scenes in Italian, Swedish and Norwegian. But it got too confusing, or rather confusing in the wrong way. So, in the end I decided to keep it strictly English and Chinese. I’ve doubled two scenes and recorded them both in Europe and in China. It was fascinating to re-shoot the same scene in two locations, with two languages, different actors. The films come out totally different, but the words are “the same”.
WD: The installation of the work will consist of screens that are connected to wires, like the exhibition Do not Go Gentle that you showed in France last year?
PH: Yes that was the idea, but I changed my mind. (Both laugh.)
WD: Tell me.
PH: The show in France was looking at how we relate to knowledge and trying to find a broader appreciation of what knowledge can be. The videos included portraits of very eccentric people who are engaged in strange research about the constitution of their reality. All these videos were connected with wires that converged into a thick bundle and that entered into the library which was on the second floor of the art centre. Here individual wires were connected to books that I had made and that we inserted among the library books. These were re-makes of books. For instance, I took one of Descartes’ books on rationality and turned it into a version of Alice in Wonderland.
The starting point for Imminent was similar. But as the project has developed. It has veered towards dealing with issues of transformation and how fear of change can be turned into curiosity and how any problematic situation can either be seen as an obstacle or an asset for development and self-empowerment. So the ideas of a network seem less pertinent in this context.
WD: The installation in France made me think about Deleuze and Guttari’s ideas about the rhizomes and I was curious to see how you would develop that in Shanghai.
PH: My philosophy of life has always been greatly influenced by Deleuze and Guttari. But in this case, there is such a strong connection between the different videos already. The characters, the actors, their clothes and the stories are so intimately linked, that they create an invisible rhizome. So, adding a visible network on top of that felt superfluous.
WD: So you’ll get an idea when you arrive at a space?
PH: The ideas are already there. But it is more how they will manifest themselves in the space; I’m debating with myself, I’m also discussing with Cecilia Canziani who is the curator, about the different solutions.
WD: What’s her opinion?
PH: She’s more interested in something with a less immediate connection to the videos. So a great deal of our discussions have been “how far away can we go” and still allowing the audience to make the connection between the moving images and the sculpture. It’s a little bit like a rubber band, or a chewing gum. You can pull it, the more you pull it, the tenser it gets. But at one point it also breaks. So what I want is to stretch the rubber band to the point just before it snaps.
Wan Dan: So one more question about Imminent. You have said that there’ll be five people in this video. Will they wear the same white clothes as in your photography projects?
PH: No, they wear normal clothes. There are two main characters in this piece; one wears a special white shirt and the other a special and black shirt. These denote which character you are seeing, since the same character is played by many diverse people speaking both English and Chinese. There’s another character in the films who wears a white jump suit. Maybe that person is connected to the white person of my previous work. I don’t know. This white person is very mysterious; I don’t know where he came from, and where he’s going.
WD: And the last question, your work deals with the city and urban space, but your practice is unlike other artists’ research into these questions. It seems to be related to your personal experience. What does the city mean in your practice?
PH: I have to start by talking about my cultural background. Because in the Nordic countries, we have very cold climate and long winters, and traditionally it’s very hard to survive. This means that our tradition stipulates that you start by negotiating your relationship to nature rather than culture, other people or the city. I don’t know whether it is because I’m Jewish or because the roots of my family come from all over Europe. But I always knew I was different. I was always interested in people. I’m not so interested in nature. I always felt that the city is the place where I am at home. This is where people meet and it allows me to be a part of a social network, and having a meaningful dialogue.
WD: So you’ve met different people whose perspectives affect you?
PH: Yes, totally and that is also why I see the question of identity differently from most people. But my philosophy is very contradictory, on the one hand, I see each human being like a blank page. And when I meet that person I leave my own traces on that white paper. This means that we are the sum of the meetings we have had in our life and based on that experience we make choices. On the other hand, there is also a true nature within each person and life is a journey to find and develop that nature. The former is a very psychoanalytical statement and the second is very Taoist. The two are fundamentally opposed. So my philosophy of life is trying to live in-between the friction of these incompatible theories.
It’s also very interesting what you ask me about the city. Because it’s not a city, there are lots of different cities and each city presents us with something which is different and unique. So London gives us something which is different from Shanghai, or Osaka, or Paris.
WD: So they are like different people?