Ellen Zweig’s interview
Ellen Zweig’s interview
Date: March 5, 2013
Location: Swatch Art Peace Hotel Ellen Zweig’s Workshop
Interviewer: Zhou Guojing
Translator: Zhang Hangya
Zhou Guojing: Hey, Elen. Since when are you interested in the "wind", and start doing your work about "wind"? What about the cultural area of the word "wind" and your understanding?

Ellen Zweig: This whole project started because of the Dutch filmmaker, Joris Ivens, and his last film, which is called – it was made in 1984 – and it was called Une Histoire du Vent, the French title, which means A Story of the Wind. Ivens came to China three times – he made three films about China – this was the last one. In the film, he is trying to film the wind in China, so it’s really his idea to film the wind. But he and I are very different people. So, I got interested – because I was starting to learn Chinese – and because, originally, I was a poet – I got interested in the word “wind” – Ivens doesn’t – he’s not interested in the word – he’s interested in the actual wind. I’m also interested in wind and, you know – I’m interested in the idea that you can’t see the wind – you can only see the effects of the wind – or hear the effects. But I’m more interested in the word. So, that’s how it started. And then, as I started to look in my dictionary, and to ask people to give me phrases, I found that wind opened up a whole – um – like a door into Chinese culture.

Helen: how much do you know about this cultural background of the wind.

Ellen: I have been doing some reading. I read an article about ancient ideas of the wind. These ideas of the north wind, of the south wind, the east wind, the west wind, the evil winds and the good winds. You know, all those kinds of ideas. I haven’t worked with that in my work yet. But then, you know, every time I tell someone - like the story from 三国演义 (San Guo Yan Yi) - that story, somebody told me, because he knew I was working on the wind. And he said “well, do you know this story? This story is about the wind.” So, you know, as I….and then, one day I was looking on the internet and I found this stuff - I really love it – it’s called 风油精 – (fengyoujing) you know, Guojing laughs and when I say it to people, everyone says “oh (laughs) yes, of course, I know what that smells like, I know what that is.” You know, so I’ll just find these things and then I’ll think, oh, what could I do with that? Could I do something with风油精? It’s green, it’s beautiful – it’s in these beautiful art deco bottles. You know, there’s something about it that’s very attractive. And then, you know, people say – one friend told me: well, she has a bottle in her medicine cabinet, but she wouldn’t use it because it’s for children – it’s for babies and old people – and if she put it on, her friends would all say: “Ew, you got that on.” So, I think that’s how I’m learning about the cultural background.

Guojing: First, you’re a poet, and later on you expressed your ideas through visual works as an artist. In the project "This is my landscape", you let each participant telling in a foreign language, what is landscape in their hearts. And you said: (the gaps between) words are your landscape. What do you think is the difference between poetry and visual arts? How do you express your feelings of words through the visual way?

Ellen: Well, let me first say that because I started as a poet, language is sort of the way I think. I don’t think like a visual artist. I think like a poet. So, when I started doing this project, because it was a project about translation and about people speaking languages that they didn’t know, that’s when I started to think about the “gaps between words.” One of the things I was very interested in as a poet was the rhythms of the language. So, for me the language was a kind of sound or a kind of music. English is a language that’s very concerned with stress. It has a certain kind of stress patterns in it. And stress is important – sometimes if you stress a word in a different way, it means something else. Not all languages are like this. So, if I say: “reCORD” or “REcord” it will mean something else. So, I’ve always been interested in the stress patterns, the beat of the language, the rhythm of the language. And when you’re speaking a language you don’t know – all these people who were in the “This is My Landscape” project who were learning right there in front of the camera, learning a language they didn’t know and trying to speak it - that’s where there were these gaps between words. So, that’s sort of what my statement was about. Thinking about that, the problems of speaking another language. And even trying to think in another language or knowing that your statement – something you said – was being translated - you know – who knows whether it really means what you said. Because meaning is so slippery. So, you know, for me, I - maybe I’ve left the question a little bit, but for me the – because language is central to my work, it’s often a word or a phrase that will suggest the vision, the thing that comes through the eyes. Which is very different from most visual artists because mostly it’s the image that’s first. I don’t know – does that answer the question or did I mis…

Helen: How do you use vision to express this language?

Ellen: Ok, yeah, ok…So, when I first came to China, everything was surprising. And I pointed my camera at everything that surprised me. After coming a couple of times, those things weren’t surprising anymore. They were just China. So, I started to do – and This Is My Landscape was the first one – I started to do projects where I would have a concept and I would think about how am I going to make this into a video, so how is it going to become visual? Because the concept started with words. So, often I’m filming people speaking. But also, I’m going out and just, not so much looking for things that surprise me anymore, but, if I have this idea of the wind, for example, I will go out and look for things that are blowing in the wind or things that somehow have to do with the wind or I’ll look for the character “wind” on the signs. And there’s all sorts of different ways that I make it visual. In the This Is My Landscape project (I made a mistake here – the banners are in Wind Words) I also had those banners made and I had people stand out with them. And that was a kind of a little experiment because I thought - “whoa, you know, I’m in China, I wonder if people will be allowed to stand out with these banners because – the banners were not political – they had kind of poetic phrases on them – but they were standing there in public with these big red banners. You know, that look like political signs. Nobody said anything to us, nobody bothered us. But that was interesting to me…

Guojing asks: writing?

Ellen: what’s on the banners? Well, I would have to look at it – a couple of lines from poetry – actually, there’s one that has this phrase: 风风雨雨(feng feng yu yu) and then some other phrases – all the lines from poetry have to do with the wind. I just looked at old, ancient poems – old Chinese poems – and tried to find lines that had to do with the wind. So, people were standing outside with poems about the wind – it’s not political. It was interesting to me that nobody bothered us, nobody told us to stop, we didn’t get arrested, nothing bad happened. And we could do that, so it’s sort of like what are the limits of – in some sense, what are the limits of freedom in China. I was a little bit testing that.

Guojing: Because Chinese understand what it means

Ellen: Right

Helen: It’s poetry

Ellen: It’s just poetic. It’s just a poem. It’s not important. Not criticizing the government. But anyways, that’s how I find the visual images.

Guojing: Why have you done the documentary film for Z’EV? How do you understand the three different art areas of poetry, music and visual arts? Are there any similarities between yours and Z’EV work?

Ellen: Well, first of all, when I was a poet, I thought of my poetry as music because I was interested in the musicality of the language. I’ve known Z’EV for 30 years, so I saw his – I heard his music in the early days and I’ve heard his music now. I started - He came to New York and he played a concert. I knew he was going to do it and I said to him, “how about if I record it for you. I’ll bring my video camera. I’ll record the concert for you.” And he said: “Great.” I recorded it and then later when I looked at it I thought “oh, this looks kind of interesting, you know, it’s kind of fun to record his concerts and he’s a very interesting guy. And also he feels that he doesn’t get the attention he deserves. He’s not as famous as he would like to be. And I think he’s an incredible artist. So, I thought, well, you know, maybe I’ll make a documentary about him. I asked him if that was ok, and he said yes. He, also, was a poet when he was young. You see that in the documentary. So, we share that. And he does sculpture and also music, so he does all those three things. And I do all those three things. So we sort of understand each other and the kind of attitude we have towards art, which is really living your life as an artist and what that means to commit yourself to that and to make things, using any media that serves the concept.

Guojing: Z’EV said, Fluxus artists influenced him in the early time. Have you done anything with Fluxus?

Ellen: Actually, first let me clarify – the way Fluxus influenced Z’EV was the idea that everything in life is art. That your life and art are together. And also the idea of performance, because he’s really a performance artist as well as a musician. For me, Fluxus was an interesting movement, but not a major influence on me. I think I was maybe influenced by knowing about some of the things that Fluxus artists did, but my influences come from other places, more from poetry and from film, probably more than Fluxus.

Guojing : Z`EV works is in my opinion heavy metallic, sturdy and vigoroso, but your work is always mild and sensitive. How do you let different styles intersect?

Ellen: Well, you know, Helen and I were discussing this earlier that Z’EV - on the surface, it appears that the work is noisy and loud and people have accused it of being violent, which he doesn’t like – but, to me, because it’s very different when you hear it live – it’s an experience that’s very profound. It’s a very deep experience; it’s almost like a meditative experience to hear his music. The music fills the whole space. It fills you. And I find it very moving. When he was young, and he was like really tossing the metal, that was in the era – well, I was also younger – and it was in the era of punk music in America and I went to all the punk clubs and listened to all the very loud music and I really liked it. The music was so loud that when you left, your ears would be ringing. You could feel it in your breastbone. That’s how loud that music was. And you know, I think when you’re young, that’s very exciting. Now I’d like it to be a little quieter. Even now, although his music can be loud, but it’s much more tender, actually. And that’s – in a way, what my film is about - one of the things it’s about the change in his work and the change in himself. He used to be – when I first met him, I was frightened of him. He was like a really tough guy. A punk, tough guy. Actually, he really wasn’t, but he acted like that. Now, he’s the sweetest person – and, you know, maybe it’s because he’s more comfortable with me because we’re good friends – maybe he’s really changed. But that’s the person I know – it’s this very sweet, tender person. Now, one other thing I want to say is that although my work may seem tender and light, it’s often ironic so that my humor is – hmm, I think maybe in Chinese you might call it a “dry humor” – there’s humor but I’m not laughing at like funny things. I’m laughing at things that are – I’m standing sort of outside of something and looking at it and going “oh, wow, that’s strange.” You know, that’s kind of where my humor comes from. So, there’s a kind of part of the work that’s not so soft. There’s a little twist.

Guojing: Have you been to China seven times? Which one was the most impressive?

Ellen: Oh, well, I guess between 2000 and 2005, and that’s just because China changed so much. You know, when I came in 2000, there were hardly any cars. Everyone was on bicycles. When I came in 2005 – I mean, you know this – but – and Shanghai completely changed. I’m in this hotel – actually, when I came in 2000, I stayed in this hotel for three nights (note: it was then part of the Peace Hotel, but it’s now called the Swatch Art Peace Hotel) And it was an old, kind of faded, not – you know, an ok hotel. And now it’s so modern and fancy. Elegant. In a way that’s almost symbolic of the big changes. And, you know, of course, every time I come, it’s different. I’ve also traveled a lot in China, traveled to some smaller cities and even out to the countryside, so I’ve seen a lot of different parts of China. You know, I think that the – I don’t know how to explain this – in America, for people who haven’t been to China, they saw all these images of everybody wearing blue – you know, with the caps, very Communist images. And I had read and studied many things about earlier times in China. There were lots of things I was interested in, like, how people collected strange rocks or the gardens or things that are, to people here now, that are kind of old-fashioned. And I thought it would all be gone. One of the things that made me the happiest, when I came to China the first time, was that I saw old men take their birds in cages to the park and hang them in the trees. That’s something I read about in novels about China – that’s something I read about China in the 18th century.

Guojing: in 2000?

Ellen: In 2000, I saw – I mean, they still do this. But that was the first time I saw it and I thought - this culture is so strong, that no matter what happens – the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party – it can’t kill these small things that people like to do. And these small things, although they don’t seem so important - they’re not literature or art – they’re just little things that people like to do – they’re very much a part of the culture and I was very happy to see that, that those things had survived all these changes.

Guojing: I think, in the work “Waiting for the wind”, you sit and wait for the wind on the sand dunes of Dunhuang. But I also think, the grandmother from the song is you. You mixed with a lot of culture and information of the fragments in the wind, and spread these through the wind to others. How do you see that?

Ellen: You know my works are not linear. I’m not telling a story from beginning to end. They’re associative. So, the folk song I found in a book. And I liked it. And, of course, it was about this character, Grandmother Wind. But when I went to Dunhuang, that was because, going back to the first thing I said – the Dutch filmmaker, Joris Ivens – you see him in the film, actually. He went to Dunhuang; he was also waiting for the wind. In his film, the wind never comes. The wind never came to me either. I’m just sitting there, waiting for it – it was never windy that day. It was completely still. So, it was funny. My friend, (Leslie Thornton was behind the camera in Dunhuang ) who is shooting the video, she says: “you look like him, sitting there. “ Because we’re both just very calmly sitting, waiting for the wind. And the wind doesn’t come. And yet, in other parts of that film, especially when the artist, Li Mu, is standing by his tree, it’s very windy. And so, although the wind isn’t coming to me in Dunhuang, it’s coming to other places. I do think it’s very interesting what you say that it’s not just the physical wind, but it’s the cultural wind.

Guojing: (The subtext for me is like as, ) I need the wind. I wait for wind, because I need the wind. I need the wind, then I call the wind.

Ellen: Yes, and I am calling the wind. And Grandmother Wind, she makes the children comfortable. Right? So, that’s one kind of wind. But then there’s the wind that the man with the big whistle…

© Copyright FCAC 2007