BLUE HOUSE VOICES: Interviews with four Chengdu painters

Allan Harkness

The following piece is based upon conversations with four artists from Chengdu’s Blue House Studios, which now accommodate around thirty artists. Discussions were conducted whilst on a residency with Red Gate Gallery. The four, Yang Mian, Shu Hao, Yang Liming and Zhou Chunya, have in common their primary practice of painting, though there are differences in affinity with the medium. In lesser or greater degree, they also share a commitment to place and local culture – Chengdu. The development of a supportive artists’ network and organisation within the city, ongoing since the 1990s, is a common aim.

Shu Hao, No.1 (Teen)

Zhou Chunya trained at the Sichuan Art Academy before postgraduate studies in Kassel in the 1980s. With exhibitions in Germany, the Netherlands, America and Singapore, he offers a model of  experience and professional practice for younger  Chinese painters also following the path between two art traditions, eastern and western. Yang Mian has held foreign residencies and has shown work in Austria, France and Switzerland. He is, like Zhou, serious about raising expectations within a loose federation of artists in his home city. If Zhou Chunya and He Duo-Ling (fellow graduate of the Sichuan Art Academy) began things in the 1980s, Yang Mian represents those who picked up the challenge. Yang Liming and Shu Hao (the youngest of the four) represent yet another wave of Chengdu painters.

My interest was to explore each artist’s reckoning of the material practice of painting in terms of historical and psychological forces, prompting each to speak on contemporary life in China; how they felt in relation to  traditions (both eastern and western); how painting fared in the technological society; whether history had been ‘forgotten’ under the impact of consumerism; whether normative painting had critical strength; whether the Chengdu group of artists  sought to be a ‘movement’? Interview as such sprawled into spontaneous discussion.

My questions were rooted in the assumption that art and artists in the liberalised, market-driven China faced complex problems, given rapid shifts in both social relations and qualitative aspects of consciousness. I mean the problems of artists making their own material infrastructure or ‘artworld’, the problems of  engagement over values and issues of lived culture, the generally shared problem of  ‘painting’ as a non-discrete art practice, the problem of art reconfigured from one set of alienating conditions to another. Granted, problem always opens onto opportunity.

Chengdu is one of only a few cities in China targeted for special government development funds: it has a history of modern development. This shows in an extensive motorway and communications network, regionally and nationally, its new airport at the heart of such developments. It has welcomed international manufacturing corporations of the postindustrial kind and has extensive commercial developments across the city. New, wealthy, themed suburban apartments abound. Professional lifestyles have emerged with a robust middle class, in this process of change. Street culture is lively and fashionable, exuding an air of confidence and openness. Much of the latter comes from the city’s strength as the centre of a distinctive Sichuan culture.

Contemporary art in Chengdu has national and international attention; it ranks as a major centre, alongside but dwarfed by the scale of the Beijing and Shanghai artworlds. The Little Bar, The UpRiver Gallery and the Contemporary Gallery all figure in debates over experimental art in China since the Cultural Revolution (see Wu Hung’s collection of essays and interviews for the best documentation of such developments and issues).[i] The Blue House Studios and occupants appear, momentarily, as an island of painting in a torrent of contemporary Chinese art. In fact, the temporary flux of its gallery – in transit – in an era of  experimental exhibition spaces (private, commercial, urban space sites) allowed time to consider the force of the works themselves, the pieces for critical debate elsewhere in the publicly managed arena of visual culture, as studio works not overwhelmed by curatorial strategies, however necessary these appear to be. The studio can be seen as always the origin of catalyst artworks, works as holding spaces for consciousness and event. Often inadvertently, the work becomes an historical index, intimate but social, and the first stirrings of this potential are in the studio encounter. The solitary zone of the artist’s studio, rather than a retreat, is more like a dismantled social space. Rather than see the works tightly organised for discourse, they exist in an earlier condition, one closer to listening than to clear questioning or provocation. Wu Hung remarked of new art in China recently: ” An exhibition of experimental art in present day China is therefore always a complex social and artistic phenomenon. Instead of simply displaying a group of art works in a public or private space, it is a heavily contested social event and brings a nexus of social relationships into play, and it offers advocates of experimental art a powerful means to expand their influence in a rapidly changing society.” A work in the studio is in a detached state, yet within a rich stream of cultural and historical forces, coming-into-being in an experimental zone par-excellence, one with room for failure and adjustment as well as planned execution. This is studio workshop as the laboratory of material production and thinking space combined. It is also an individual space created and maintained within a complex social order and political economy for the development of art languages which, by definition, challenge limits. Studio, the Blue House cultural scene, appeared also to be the space of painters’ dialogues, friendships, sparring rivalries and casual exchanges. These are crucial aspects in contextualising the often slow time of the making of art. The four voices or articulations of contemporary Chinese painting to follow arise from the studio.


Yang Mian, No. 4

Yang Mian: The problem with tradition is that it is ‘text-down’, the problem of literati. Whilst the speed of social change is fast, Chinese art is not fast in changing. We must look behind the image culture, question it. Why is there a changing aesthetic? What does it mean? There isn’t much that surprises me in the way things have gone, what is surprising is that we haven’t debated these changes. The prevalent widespread image-culture, what I term ‘ideal standard’, hasn’t been sufficiently debated . I take images of the advertisers’ world back onto canvas, into a different materiality, in order that it be questioned. This psychological order is manifest in poses and gestures (‘heroic’, ‘demure’, ‘happy’ and so on). A business corporate order: nobody seems to want to question what’s behind it all. There’s much carried in ‘the gaze’ of the current visual language. Look, here’s the 1950s heroic pose. Here’s the 1980s pose. [Laughter]

Art education in China tends to imitate an old western education system. The problem is one of academicism, sketches through to finished work. Truth and falsehood are contained within that framework, so students are limited by this. Modernism allowed students to find a personal way to deal with and to identify problems, but to my mind no single system is adequate for truth. In China, there’s no common moral standard. There are many, many groups, associations, networks. Chinese people have “no barriers, no boundaries”. The ethical formation of the subject is through varied forces but of these family is still strongest.

Yang Mian, No.3

The state of painting? I’m for active art forms: installation, video, photography. But I have an affinity, I admit, with what I’d call the complete aesthetics of painting. I’m for experiment and youth. My own work involves painting and installation aesthetics mostly. I think the artist must not insist on one thing, one way only. There is no certainty. We can not be sure in knowledge. We must be open to the potential of new media, even though  it is difficult to determine good from bad quality in the newest media.

On the question of the contemporary, I say consume History! Chinese people tend to use things as they are , yet we need to question everything. Youngsters need to discuss what is happening in the new environment crowded with consumer information. ‘Beauty’ seems to escape questioning, nobody wants this question. One could never be true to the qualities of the medium without questioning ‘beauty’.

I’m not joking: for Chinese viewers irony is not necessary. The naked truth or sexy clothes? Of course, if you kill a cow in the street in the West that might be sensational, attracting much media attention, but in China, in daily life, we see and have known it all. I am for art as a quiet catalyst. Artists to artists. Irony and ambiguity, this relates to the question of the medium, single or multiple truths, morality. Irony is not necessary.

In Chengdu, we want to build an art culture from living efforts. The group, whilst necessary, is an informal unity. There are no leaders. I like to organise and we have a pioneering spirit. There’s no common style, though there are many painters. There’s a shared commitment to Chengdu and Sichuan, yes.

Shu Hao:

My painting comes out of my own life experience, the images and the textures both. Toys, popular culture, my skin, the child-adult adult-child worlds. My sources tend to be the internet, newspapers, film and television. The technological environment and a biological reality, that’s what I’m open to, though I have found no stable philosophy yet. I choose what is most interesting from the culture I inhabit. If I ask why I am interested… they are figures for experience. You know, in school, I was mostly interested in geography, biology, animals. The gestures in my work and the wet, running paint communicate something lived: it’s the fear of hurt. The human being pretends all the time. Our will is drawn to covering up…hence my angry dinosaur. Personally, I find beauty where there is ugliness and pain. There are small and large canvases and I think my subjects are evolved and consistent over years, but I don’t set limits. If I think of the culture which I am part of, linking psyche and technology, I’d say it is easy to be addicted. For three years, I was once addicted to computer games, shooting games. Although I shared that condition with a generation, I saw that it bred division and harm. Maybe people looking at my work can feel some of that?

Shu Hao, No.2 (Party Shoes)

I don’t separate the Chinese and the western tradition. I gained from traditional Chinese painting, I gained also from the western graphic legacy. Fantasy elements inform my work. I accept new technologies like 3-d graphics in animation. Painting cannot be replaced but will be developed. That’s at the level of hand and eye. Photographs are part of my world too, maybe closer to the smaller paintings.

Mess, chaos, extinction, pain, that’s what is real in what we outlined as bio-technological being. It’s important for me as a painter to bring things closer, closer to the sense of touch. There’s no real-unreal division. I accept dream and fantasy as realities. The political world is often full of unrealities. I try to live by my own conscience, for peace and cooperation. The paintings are a way of doing this, perhaps. Of course, I’m affected by the example of ‘masters’ and by others here in the group, and I accept what is good thankfully. Influence happens mostly through discussion, contact, and there’s no pressure to conform

Yang Liming:

There’s daily life and transcendence. Through colour and line, freedom and restraint, painting, like music, has a dialectical purity. This blue, this grey offer visual pleasure and mystical truth. These lines speak from and to the unconscious. Without confusion, they are for the environment, for society and meaning. They attempt to contain the world of modern feelings, they address the new feelings in contemporary life. These feelings are inspirational. Of course, there is the new space of the city, urban, technological, architectural. Even hyperspace is part of that new reality, but my paintings address ‘universal’ space, that of modern physics. The self in that universal space is an environment of feeling, of existence, of being. The physical space is a ‘spiritual’ one in the sense that the core question concerns the transfer of unstable realities: speed, rhythm, movement, matter and space, our scientific achievement has ushered us in to the beauty of the modern age. Sound, infinity, emptiness, universal space.

Yang Liming, No.5 (no.15 detail)

My work can be seen as a blend of western art and Chinese calligraphy. The brush is Chinese, the strong colour is western. The stance of the Chinese artist should be that of development. My sources are musical, music as a kind of wave physics. I listen to Mozart and Beethoven mostly, piano and flute concertos, not serial music or experimental music. Logic, pattern, order in time moves me when I paint. I think it may amount to a visualisation of sound. They seek interiority, and it’s an interiority which comes from an unstable physical reality, the unfixed reality of modern physics, indeterminacy. It is necessary to be open to new things. We take from the past what is good, from the present those already existing things, and we live with a future that is constantly under threat.

Yang Liming, No.6 (no.14 detail)

I install paintings in the sense that I have the will to control the exhibiting conditions: object, light, space, movement. That’s the post-minimalist condition of painting.

Zhou Chunya:

Yes, I returned here from postgraduate studies in Kassel, Germany in 1989. The long expressionist tradition, its passion and instinct in drawing, its violence in colour certainly made an impact. I learnt from Kandinsky and Kokoschka as well as Keifer and Immendorf in contemporary times. The Kassel years, the European museums and Documenta prepared my return home, where I began immediately to research in the Chinese tradition of animal, flower and rock paintings.[ii] I wanted to bring passion to that tradition, becalmed around one hundred years earlier. The Green Dog paintings began in 1997, existential metaphors perhaps, not direct reflections of contemporary realities. They may well embody ambivalence, estrangement and loss as they are rooted in very personal experience, individual difficulties of a literal kind concerning dogs, animals generally. My own dog was lost, suspected stolen, in a culture of disrespect for dogs. Respect is the key. If animals were treated in such ways, what then of the human relations? For ten to twenty years previously, it was a culture of disrespect. Things have gone in the opposite direction since then.

Zhou Chunya

In commencing things here, He Duo-Ling and I  had the intention of raising expectations, to show what was possible. I never taught in art schools, but offered guidance in the usual ways. We learn from each other in open exchanges. If I read  and learn from other artists, I pass it on. For instance, I bring back catalogues from art shows in Europe, not just painting, photography and new media are included. Critical evaluation assumes that painting develops in relation to other media in a broad visual environment. Although I explore the tradition, I can see that it is also necessary for some to abandon it. Keep the good elements, but create a new aesthetic and visual culture.

Looking at the changes in the city, its architecture especially, the contrasts and the presentation or facades, I think that it is important to remember harmony and compromise. These have always been  important in the character of Chinese people and in our perception of nature. Competition has controlled the speed of change, an excessive speed of change.

Aesthetic experience is not just visual pleasure, it carries an ethical force. The system of art production, the artworld, is not a suitable system or infrastructure for Chengdu. Art is best free of the institution. In Beijing, for instance, the situation for artists is over-competitive, positively harmful. That explains the kind of group we have here in Chengdu. Not only place and culture make for meaningful art. Humanity is uppermost. I travel often outside China, which has suffered from lack of communication, but I do not sanction exile as a condition of modernity. Home, Chengdu, Sichuan is a positive choice.

Zhou Chunya II


[i] Wu Hung, Ed., Chinese Art at the Crossroads, New Art Media/IVA, London:2001

Essays by Martijn Kielstra since the late 1990s have helped bring Chengdu painting onto the international scene; see The Chengdu Movement published by the Canvas Foundation, 2000

[ii] My own favourite reference work, still, is William Willetts, Chinese Art (2 Vols.) Pelican, London 1958. His section on the picture categories in painting and calligraphy is a good starting point.

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