Ellen Zweig Interview
I think the first one was putting the water into the sea – that was a kind of beginning. And taking the drop from the sea, it’s just the next step. I always think, in my work, in a way I don’t know what’s next. I have a lot of ideas, but it’s like I’m always on a search, so each work is a -  almost like an experiment.
Date: Dec 15, 2009
Place: FCAC Shanghai
Interviewer: Li Xiaofei
Interpreter: David Xu
Type-in: Zhong Yi
Translator in English: Yu Jing, Zhong Yi
Proofreading: Ellen Zweig
Xiaofei: I know that before working as an artist, you were a linguist (or a poet. So what I’m interested in is if you could talk about what caused you to become a professional artist, with your educational background? and to continue as a linguist or poet.
Ellen Zweig (hereinafter as Ellen): So in the late 1960s, early 1970s in America, a lot of poets were interested in the poem as an oral medium, as something that you said out loud. You performed the poem. That was true in Europe, too. I don’t know if that was true here. So we started to read our poems out loud and to perform them. And because I was performing the poem - I didn’t publish the poem, I didn’t print them. I only performed them; I thought that they were only oral. Because of that, I became aware of my audience, at the same time, in the visual arts world, people were starting to perform. And so a lot of different people from different places, poets and painters were all performing on the same stage. The poetry world didn’t like this performance so much, they were a little more conservative, the old poetry world – my generation wanted to do this. But the visual arts world opened its door, so I went in. And so almost by accident, I became a visual artist.
Xiaofei: Maybe the fact you chose visual art is also due to what you just said about a larger context. Because there are many ways to express yourself, like writing novels , travel logs, or poems. Or perform in a play. Because I find that it seems you particularly emphasize memories of travel or this kind of conception of performance. But why do you choose “performance ” not others ways of expressing yourself?
Ellen: Because there was this excitement about performance in America, there were a lot of opportunities to do performance. My performances were always language based, because I started as a poet, but because I was in the visual arts world, and I think of it as this “world” , I started to think about visual things. That’s not my training, but I started to think about images. So I used slides and Super 8 film and objects in my performances. So even though I was still a poet, I was still performing my poetry, it became almost like a theater piece. Or a film with a text, all those different things, and it was definitely a stage of experiment for me. I was trying different things to see what would be the best way. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that I started to make video. And when I did, I realized that this is the perfect medium for a poet, because I could have images and language all together. So it took me that long and many many many years to find the right thing.
Xiaofei: Now we go back to the first question, because there’s something more important inside…which is your educational background. I do want to know if your educational background had any influence on your choice to become an artist? What did you study as your major in the university?
Ellen: I studied English literature, and when I  - I have a PhD in English Literature - and when I wrote my dissertation, I wrote it about performance in the contemporary American poetry world. So it was what I was doing, but it was also what I was writing about.
Xiaofei: What’s the starting point of your art? How do you understand art?
Ellen: Well, with each piece it’s different, but very often it begins with language, with something like the word “tongue”. I actually feel two things: the first is that we shouldn’t separate – I don’t want to separate the visual arts and poetry and theater, all the different arts, I want them to talk to each other. And the second thing is that it’s my life. I mean it is something that Xiaofei said, something he wrote recently. And this is not an easy life because it’s hard to make living, but it’s a life full of happiness, really. Because when I’m doing my work, I get so excited, I love it so much. I have a story I can tell. I have a friend, she went to work to make money, from 9 to 5. And then after work, she went to her studio to make art. She thought everyone did that. So one day she was talking to the other people at work. She said, “what do you do after work?” They said, “oh I’m so tired, I just go home and watch TV”. She was so sad for them. So I think that’s really a story about how happy it is to be an artist. Even though it’s hard.
Xiaofei: In these several years, you’ve been to China for several many times, and also have done quite a few works about China. Is your affection for China due to your understanding or lack of understanding of China?
Ellen: It’s a great question. I think it’s because it is something I don’t understand and that I want to understand. When I first came and again I came in 2000, I was struck by the energy here. I wanted to know more, why was there all this energy, why was there, there was a kind of excitement. It seemed everyone was excited, maybe they were just excited about making money but they were, you know, excited. Chinese people. 很热闹 I have read a lot about China, about the history of China, and about old China, and I’m interested in the culture. But now when I come, I can also learn about people, like you two, people who live here, what their lives are like.
Xiaofei: As a Chinese person, I feel that I don’t know China so well, sometimes even not willing to know it. Maybe that’s because when you are in it you get more confused. It’s like this - I haven’t been to America, so I will have fantasies about it, a kind of ideal image of America. Do you also have this kind of feeling?
Ellen: Yes, I did, of course, because my reading was all in the history, it was about the old culture. I knew that that wasn’t here. I had also read about the Cultural Revolution, about the changes from 1949, all the changes. So when I first came, I thought, you know, what’s still here? maybe it’s all gone, maybe China’s completely different from these things I’ve read. I was very interested to see certain small things like the old men who take their birds to the park, that was something, that’s so old, and it’s still part of the culture. I often think what’s really important in a culture? is it the big philosophy or is it just little things?  I like to look at the little things and see what they mean.
Xiaofei: In the exhibition “Bringing coals to Newcastle” at DDM, you said that you were bringing images of China back to China, like “adding water to the ocean”. Then can I say that the work about “wind” is to “take water from the ocean”?
Ellen: Yes, that’s a very poetic way of describing it. I like that - It’s true in a way. When I first did work here, I had been making these videos made using images of things that interested me in China. And I thought, well, but you’ve seen all those things. They’re not going to -  If I show them to Americans, Americans go, “Wow, look at that! Ooh, What’s that?! That’s so interesting!” ; but I show to you, you go “oh, another one of those”. So I felt very worried, and that’s why I was talking about bringing things back to China, bringing the images that I took from China and bringing them back to China. So now, I think rather than just taking images and bringing them back, now I’m more interested in a conversation. And that’s because I know a little bit of Chinese.
Xiaofei: And how do you think about these two concepts: adding water to the ocean and taking water from the ocean?
Ellen: I think the first one was putting the water into the sea – that was a kind of beginning. And taking the drop from the sea, it’s just the next step. I always think, in my work, in a way I don’t know what’s next. I have a lot of ideas, but it’s like I’m always on a search, so each work is a -  almost like an experiment. What will I do if I ask people to talk about landscape, like I did last year. I don’t know what will happen, maybe it’ll be interesting.
Xiaofei: Let’s talk about your recent project “Wind Words”. (Personally I do like this project, though I didn’t attend your shooting that day), but still from the project proposal, because I can feel it has the romance and passion of Chinese literary men as well as their freedom and distance from politics and worldly things, or the kind of sadness of the Hermit. Of course this work hasn’t been finished yet, but what do you think about this work?
Ellen: The first thing I shot was the “WindWords.” I had ten people, and they chose, each chose a word that had “风” (wind) in it, like 风俗,different kinds of words. And they stood next to a big fan, and it was blowing on them. And I gave them objects that were difficult to hold, like newspapers or something. I think it worked very well, I’m very happy with it. But also, I think, well it was -  Someone is translating it for me, I don’t know yet. I can only understand part of what people were saying. I don’t know yet what is, everything that was there. So when I know, then I’ll know what to do next. But also, these banners, like the banner that you two held up, I’m kind of playing with them. The one you held up had that quotation from Joris Ivens, but I have some others that have -  from old Chinese poetry, so it’s very related to what Xiaofei was talking about, that old scholar kind of. Look how magical this kind of thing can be. I come and say would you two hold up this banner about the wind,  - in the next room, Xiaofei is doing something with the wind, so it’s just like, I didn’t expect that, but it’s like the minute I say the word “wind,” wind is just everywhere.
Xiaofei: In your works “This is my landscape” and “Wind”, why do you set up a text beforehand as a premise? Is that related to what you’ve said that “the world is limited by text”?
Ellen: I don’t think the world is limited by the text, I think that the world is opened up through the text. Because I’m a poet, remember. I often find this – that people think that words are limited, but for someone who, because my medium is words, for me words are very full.
Xiaofei: That’s quite interesting, because you think the text is an opening. It’s another perspective from which to explain the concept of text. Because for most Chinese, if presented with a text beforehand as a premise, then people will follow this when looking at the work. But in your understanding, this text broadens the audiences’ understanding, yes? Then what’s your original intention?
Ellen: Right. I think it was because, well, because I like words, I took the word “风”, and I looked it up in my dictionary, and I found all these other words. And I found that it didn’t just mean “wind”, that it meant a lot of different things, so I then I thought well, what is this character? What is this? If it can mean nature, the wind, or but it can also mean culture, the local customs. I began to read about it, about why, maybe why that was, why it was thought that the winds of a place, actually effected the taste of the place, the feeling of the place. So the word, the character became very rich to me. And for me, words suggest images. So that’s how I get to the visual from the words. So, if I see that “wind” and then the wind is place and the things that happen in this place, then I start to get all sorts of ideas about how I can show that.
Xiaofei: Maybe you like to research words and expressions, do you want to know more about it besides its literal meaning. Because this Chinese character already exists. Like the word “wind” in Chinese, it already has lots of meaning, but you as a foreigner, will you also add your own meaning to it?
Ellen: Of course. And I think one of the things that’s interesting is that I’m just beginning to learn Chinese. So when I look at words, it will be very different from when you look at the word. Maybe even the word, maybe even this idea that there’s nature and culture in “风” – that’s surprising to me, but it’s not surprising to you, it’s just a word. It’s just the way the words are. So maybe in a way I’m noticing something because I’m an outsider. But that’s also why I asked Chinese people to talk about the word.
Xiaofei: The art works aim to express, or to suggest the impossibility of those things that are “hard to express”. (I thought we both agree with this?) Then what I want to ask is : are your art works based on your individual expression? Or whether or not you express what you really feel?
Ellen: I think that all art work has a kind of a personal feeling in it. But in my works, it’s usually not explicitly expressed. In other words, I’m not telling my life story, but in a way I am. But in a very – I don’t know – disguised way.
Xiaofei: How do you think of the relationship between art and society, or the public?
Ellen: I’ve often thought of being an artist is a little bit like being a mathematician, that I’m in a very small conversation with other artists, like I can’t understand what a math person is talking about. So a lot of people can’t understand what artists are talking about with each other. So, that’s the first thing. In America, there are not very many people who understand contemporary art, maybe in New York more, you know. But if you go to a small town, people don’t understand. So one of the questions that American artists are always asking themselves is: do I make art just for other artists? or do I make art for that person in Iowa City, that’s just a small town? There is a movement in America called “community art”, and that art often involves the community, so the community makes the art with the artist. But I don’t do that.
Xiaofei: That is to say that art still relates to the economy, for example, in New York,or in every country art (develops more well) in where economic conditions are good.
Ellen: I actually think that in bad economic times, the art is better. That’s because people aren’t thinking about making money, they can’t, so they’re thinking about experimenting. It does have to do with education, definitely, and with a certain level of education and income that give people the time to be interested in art.
Xiaofei: In general, an artist has a linear type of creative thinking, in other words, it’s a habitual way to create, what about you? If so, then have you encounter difficulties with this way of thinking, things that make it hard to make a break through.
Ellen: I always have new ideas, but -  I never have what we call a “block”, I’ve never had that. But I don’t really think of it as a line. Because I’ll do something and I’ll do it again and do it again, and then I’ll think I have to something I don’t know how to do. And if I do that, then it will surprise me and I’ll  - so, it looks like, it sort of looks like I’m going like this. But then, really inside there’s a line, but I discover that later. 
Xiaofei: Chinese and Westerns have many differences in modes of thinking, behaving, and in systems of representation . In art, what has recently had a deep affect on you? 
Ellen: I’m sure there are differences, but in the international art world, which is where I see most of the Chinese art - I see a lot of Chinese art that’s dealing with Chinese culture, and they’re trying to present that to the West. Some of the more famous artists, like someone like Xu Bing who works with calligraphy, or Gu Wenda, or Cai Guo-Qiang who works with fireworks, so they take something which is very Chinese, that the West thinks is very Chinese. And then you  present that to the whole world and everyone says “oh that’s very Chinese”. I think it’s a kind of like a cultural diplomacy to present these things to the world. So what I’m wondering and I think I’ve heard Chinese artists talk about this too, is what’s really Chinese about this art? If you’re making your art to present just here, would you use those same things ? What would it be about ? I haven’t really seen art that’s not looking outside. If it looks outside, then it’s not so different than what any Western artist might do.
Xiaofei: In your twenty years of artistic work, what’s your deepest feeling? Is it that you’ve been looking for a theme (a creative direction) or that you gradually find a theme? Is this theme the accumulation of your works or is it always what you want to do?
Ellen: I think it’s a little of both, sometimes one, sometimes another. But I think the most, maybe radical thing that I do is that I try to do things that I don’t how to do. Then I think ok, I don’t how to do this, and I’m gonna do this. and then I’m very frightened, because it could fail. So it’s a kind of a risk, a challenge. When I do that, those pieces are  - they’re pivotal – they’re like the most important ones, then maybe I do that more times. But the ones where I first do something I don’t know how to do, those are the most exciting pieces for me.
Xiaofei: For you, is it that the more complex the work is, the more you want to know about it? In addition, how do you understand the complexity of art works? This complexity, certainly, comes from every aspect, each work has its own background, visual or ideological…In your opinion, how do you manage to control or balance this complexity?
Ellen: Well, my projects are usually pretty complicated. I mean they usually start with a lot of ideas. I also go through a stage that I call the stage of “bad ideas”. There are always ideas and they’re kind of stupid, then finally I find the right thing.
The work has to represent all those things, it has to communicate those things. So when I’m just searching and thinking, that’s one thing. But when I actually edit the video or make the installation, I’m thinking very directly. Things are  - what’s the word I want, they’re  - not reduced – they’re getting almost purified, they’re getting – things are getting very clear.
Xiaofei:  Is there any artist whom you like particularly? And how do they influence you?
Ellen: I am mostly influenced and affected by some filmmakers, and strangely they’re all French. Just by accident. One is Chris Marker, Agnes Varda, Chantal Akerman who’s Belgian. I’m interested in the filmmakers who use real time. Things are very slow, the camera is just looking at something, somebody doing something very slow. It’s very different. We - There’re a lot of young filmmakers we call them the “mtv generation”, because the editing is really really really fast. I’m interested in – well, another filmmaker is Marguerite Duras, who’s also a writer, another French filmmaker. I’m very interested in her works because she’s a writer as well as a filmmaker, she often has something where you see an image and the talking is off screen, so nobody on-screen is talking but you hear all these voices. These are some of the things I want to play with in my own work.
Xiaofei: If we need to classify your art, how would you define/classify it ?
Ellen: Through my life as an artist, I’ve I always called myself different things. First I was a poet, for a while I called myself a text-sound artist. Then I was a performance artist, then I was an installation artist. Now perhaps I’m a video artist. So, this is what I’m talking about, sort of having to keep having to invent yourself, because there’s always a different name for it and you’re trying to describe what you do to somebody else.. You don’t have to call ... I’m just an artist to myself.
© Copyright FCAC 2007