Xu tan interview
Date: July 31, 2008
Location: Liberia Borges Institute for Contemporary Art
Interviewer: Man-yu, Liang Jianhua
Editing \ Recording: Lang Feng Zhang
Translator in English:Angelina Lu Zhou Boiten
I think that art is independent and about awareness of human beings. It has a structure which is built on human awareness. We could feel this structure through vision, perception, time and space. The structure is related to the real world homogeneously and metaphorically; therefore, by doing art we make a metaphor for the real life through arrangement or creation of the structure.
Man Yu: What is the standpoint of your present works?

Xu Tan: An important consideration is what art is. As for me, when I began to learn art, I thought that art was about appreciation of beauty; it was aesthetics or (aesthetic) construction, and a process of perfection. Recently, I have been thinking that art for me is about awareness and perception of humankind. It has a broader meaning than aesthetics, which is a part of human consciousness. Thus the so-called construction of a new aesthetic taste, new aesthetic ideas and so on is rather one-sided in my opinion. I think that art keeps testing and comprehending the current situation of human consciousness. The Chinese saying ¡°in the eyes of the lover, his beloved is a XiShi (a beauty in ancient China),¡± describes the relationship between aesthetics and consciousness. In fact, aesthetics in return has an impact on one¡¯s judgment over the so-called reality; for this world, we are lovers and the world could be a beauty of one sort or another. The key is how we look at the world, because aesthetics falls into the structure of human consciousness. In this sense, ¡°aesthetic¡± is not independent. This is what art means for me.
The second point is I always feel that art is not equal to reality. The material of reality cannot simply be used on canvas, videos or live in a so-called realistic way of creation. I don¡¯t think it is an appropriate way, because I think that art is independent and about awareness of human beings. It has a structure which is built on human awareness. We could feel this structure through vision, perception, time and space. The structure is related to the real world homogeneously and metaphorically; therefore, by doing art we make a metaphor for the real life through arrangement or creation of the structure. If you directly imitate reality in the creation without constructing the structure, then you will be a dwarf, a little man. Well, I think Chinese contemporary artists are mostly dwarves in this respect, because we have no more and richer structures of this kind. This is my opinion about art.

Man Yu: How did your own work develop a style? You have partly touched on it when answering the first question. Can you talk about it concretely? If you think this issue cannot be approached abstractly, you may elaborate on it with a specific piece of work.

Xu Tan: Speaking of awareness and perception of mankind, surely I will talk about a most basic form of consciousness. For example, we think someone is very emotional or very logical. In my opinion, consciousness consists mainly of these two aspects. Since I want to explore the activity of consciousness, I would certainly deal with these two aspects. For on thing, it is very interesting to find out the relationship between ¡°I¡± and the ¡°self¡±. I have never thought that art is either emotional or rational, because it is impossible to differentiate between them. There is no purely emotional and irrational distinction in the world.
Man Yu: That is a conceptual division.

Xu Tan: Yes. One aspect may be particularly emphasized. As for me, the most interesting way of creation is to strengthen both aspects instead of emphasizing one of them. For example, if I work on emotional art, it is not right to oppose conception. At least I would not do that. It may be all right for some people, but I would stress all kinds of logical, mad, emotional and rational things, and how they are connected together by a special joint structure in my thought and perception. This is the most important thing for me.
Talking of my work, I created in 1996 a piece of work called Problem, also known as Twenty Cubic of Soil. The process of creation directly displays a logical deduction. First I studied all points of the Raman Law and the International Law. Of course, my knowledge is limited, especially about justice, logic, requisites of justice and so on. Problem is visual, together with pictures and other things. Later, in the course of inference, I found that any human group or individual occupies a piece of land and then claims it as their own soil or territory, was incompatible with justice. Nothing could account for the problem. There was a logical line through the whole piece of work, and many slides were inserted into it. Later, we also worked on it in some other places. In the nineties, Problem still didn¡¯t come into being; we had only a concept. The well-known "Twelve Tables" of the Roman Law are like twelve monuments. I mixed the dust and the minced meat of various creatures with earth, and made the monuments out of the mixture. Through Problem I wish to create a process describing how logic develops into an emotional conflict. The process of logical deduction raises questions, for example, about the necessary theoretical foundation for a nation¡¯s occupation of a land. We cannot find such a general theoretical foundation in the International Law. Thus, it is a colonialist excuse to claim a land by occupying it for 30 years. For example, do the Jews or the Palestinians have a claim to Jerusalem? The two peoples have lived there for thousands of years, so that both of them think that they have a right to own it. In the end, the law has no dignity any more. The law used to be considered sacred, or law of nature. It is from heaven, developed from basic rules of nature, but you find out later that it does not meet the truth at all.
In fact, the law has become a custom, a tradition and an agreement. People are accustomed to such as to recognize the reality and reach an agreement. Problem was created for this reason. As for the piece of work Keywords, it went through plenty of investigation and so-called rational study of words and languages, worked together with some emotional elements of sound, and finally put up a platform, a platform of creation. Keywords is actually only a platform of creation. I will develop this aspect in a new direction.
Man Yu: I have heard that you said your art is a test instead of an expression. Is it true? Why do you think so?

Xu Tan: Yes, because I said by answering the first question that art for me is an activity of comprehending awareness and perception of humankind. The act of comprehension is in itself a test and a prerequisite for so-called ¡°expression¡±. However, the problem is that in every period we cannot be sure that we know anything about our time at all. In fact, it is the case that what we are doing and what we know is an outdated concept. That is, we know (some things of) the present, but it means nothing to me. So I think that test will always be a way to detect human consciousness and perception. It is a way of detection, including aesthetics, perception and other things.
Man Yu: Well, we have the impression that you are an artist with profound knowledge. How do you convert your knowledge into your works?
Xu Tan: There is no doubt that the structure of knowledge is rooted in consciousness and is a part of human consciousness. Well, I put emphasis on logical and crazy (way of work). Work on logic will certainly involve knowledge, but I won¡¯t simply use ready-made knowledge to do art, which is only the starting point of craziness. I think what differentiates Chinese contemporary artists and western artists is that we do not construct our own platform of creation; our artists all start their work at ground level. In my opinion, any subject in the West, not to mention art, philosophy and other social subjects, has a path derived from history and tradition, and the path becomes a working platform. That is to say, creation is impossible without background, knowledge and comprehension of all things. I think all subjects in the West are evolved from the tradition. As Sir E.H.Gombrich said, matching before creation. The tradition or the knowledge you comprehend is your foothold and your platform. Sometimes we see Chinese scholars criticize academic viewpoints of some Western scholars, such as the theory of consumption and semiotics of Jean Baudrillard. A few Chinese scholars think that his theory is biased and apart from truth ¨C the so-called authenticity, which the Chinese always wish for. I think for Westerners any realistic description has a position. If you take a position, you cannot avoid bias. If you are not biased, you will not take the position, and you will not get the knowledge and the achievement from taking the position. Since you want to step on a platform, you cannot reach the so-called authentic platform. You have your reality, and so you have no access to the so-called ¡°authentic¡± reality. In fact, we should narrate the world from different angles, and readers have the right to merge the narratives. From the perspective of independent creating direction and method, that is, from the viewpoint of ¡°platform¡± as I said, I think Chinese contemporary art has its limitations, and its contribution to art is limited mostly to a kind of symbols of social reality and applications like that.
Man Yu: Your answer related to the Chinese context. How do you understand the context? Does the context have an impact on your work? If it does, what kind of influence is it like?
Xu Tan: I think the so-called Chinese context is a kind of living experience in China. Surely I am doing art about this kind of living experience. When I was abroad, I had difficulty working on things belonging to that society, because I draw concepts or feelings from my own living experience, which I think very important. Chinese contemporary art is of great importance, because our society is so unique in the history of the world that it provides human beings with many unprecedented possibilities. However, they are simply possibilities; how to make use of the context is quite another matter. I talked about realism, for example, it could as well work to use materials or symbols directly for art, because those symbols sometimes also relate to social and cultural focus which happens to be of general interest. Nevertheless, it is far from enough for me, because doing art is a kind of creation, that is, we shall create some independent awareness and approach in the context. Your idea or approach to dealing with materials in the context is unique for world civilization. It is a contribution, a so-called aesthetic contribution. I think this kind of contribution is very important for art. If you are accustomed to realistic approach, you will never make that kind of contribution which demands your whole self and a great deal of energy.
Man Yu: Actually the following question is, what kind of universal significance your works in the context have, but you have partly answered the question.

Xu Tan: I don¡¯t think that my works make a great contribution in this respect, but I am working in this direction ¨C at least I have been aware of it. I think that many artists probably haven¡¯t realized this, and they don¡¯t achieve much either. It has much to do with our cultural tradition, and support from contemporary art is also limited. I think only by doing so can we provide people with a possibility in future.

Man Yu: I think we have an exact clue to the topic. What you said is just my following question: What is the difficulty in your work at present?  

Xu Tan: The difficulty is, as far as visional, perceptional, rational and emotional expression is concerned, I feel I am rather naive, although I am not a young artist In other words, considering our experience, training and work with nature, language, voice, video and things like that, we know little about the work which human beings have already done in these areas. Thus I often feel unsure of myself. I have to work hard, but I do not know what comes out. In addition, standing on the platform of contemporary human society, from a cultural point of view, I know little about artistic accomplishments as well as various achievements in the areas of awareness and perception. In China we have few opportunities for good communication. In Western countries, scientists are often put among people of different disciplines for several months, so that they can communicate with one another. Why is it necessary£¿Because it provides an important source for artistic creation.  In China, however, artists take mostly one-way activities. Their circle is very small. So this is the difficulty. We could go into more details though.
Man Yu: The last question is, what do you think or wish art should be? Can you talk about it systematically?

Xu Tan: Art, as a matter of fact, is a kind of cultural industry of human beings. As for me, the industry of art includes two major functions: On the one hand, it meets the needs of cultural consumption of the society, such as hanging paintings at home, going to exhibitions ¨C the consuming needs; on the other hand, human culture of each period is a process of creation and development. Therefore, art also has a small but important function of creating culture. This is clear to me. I know my position and the function my works should perform. As for the other function, if someone has done a lot of prosperous and useful work, we cannot say that they have made no contribution to artistic creation. It is understandable, because they choose to create cultural consumer products for the society. However, the two aspects of art¡¯s function are related in some way. People like interesting cultural consumer products, but it does not work if people do not understand what you make. My works are always made for the second function. These two functions should not be mixed together, for example, we cannot say expensive paintings are surely good. They could be considered good in the category which they belonging to. We always pass a judgment in two different contexts. Paintings which don¡¯t sell well are not necessarily bad, because they are different from cultural consumer products for the society. Similarly, there are two major sectors of science: one is applied science, applying scientific invention to technology; the other is of no interest to the public. These two sectors cannot be confused. I have chosen the second way to go. This is absolutely my own choice, and I have a right to make such choice.

Liang Jianhua: Speaking of the piece of work Keywords, do you think that you have made an effort to take up your position in creating culture?

Xu Tan: I think that piece of work was an attempt, but I dare not say how much it achieves. Anyhow I tried it in that piece. Many scientists spend their whole lives doing research, but they do not always get results. That is mankind. You may discover something; if you miss it, you don¡¯t discover it.

Liang Jianhua: So you think that Keywords actually builds a structure in which a result will be produced, but the result is unpredictable. Is it so?

Xu Tan: Yes, in fact, the piece of work Keywords is like a scaffold. It looks good, but it is not built for the sake of itself. The process has touched on a problem with words. I have to make it clear that Keywords does not stand for my way of creation. For example, you don¡¯t study consumer culture or cartoon culture always in an animated way of thinking; you may have other perspective. In my works I use logic and emotion to refute the relationships between them, and keep testing things like Keywords. In this way I can discover the relationships between logic and craziness, logic and emotion, using language as a model, a living model.  

Liang Jianhua: If I did not listen to you explanation when looking at the Keywords¡­

Xu Tan: I think some explanation is necessary. Art used to be considered unexplainable. However, we cannot really appreciate a piece of work without interpretation. Art was required to be straightforward. Good art does not need interpretation, which is the old opinion. In present society many artists have a higher education. We often think. The Europeans go to exhibitions with the intention of comprehending what you think and being able to reinterpret your idea. They are not satisfied with things which are beautiful or easy to understand. People who like art go to exhibitions in order to find out the meaning of the works. They can look at other things, if they don¡¯t like art. It is different in China and in America. What kind of concept is this? There is no pure ground for mankind. All grounds are based on your experiential system in which there are your knowledge, your intuitive experience etc. You cannot tell what pure aesthetics is.
Man Yu: That is only a conceptual word. Actually it doesn¡¯t exist.

Xu Tan: In fact, anything that inspires you has its subtext.

Liang Jianhua: So such an ¡°aesthetic¡± thing is possibly used by chance.
Man Yu: Real aesthetics only exists as a word. Probably we separate it sometimes from others in our thought. As a matter of fact, such a thing does not exist in our lives.
Xu Tan: It has some reason if you feel touched. There are hidden reasons if you take this further.

Man Yu: There may be reasons of life, or of experience, or of emotion at some moment.

Xu Tan: In the West it is called context, which has an impact on aesthetics. It is what I have understood over these years.
Liang Jianhua: You think that artists need a platform for inheriting the context. What is your own inheritance?

Xu Tan: I think my inheritance is mainly from concept art and video art, and a few new methods.

Liang Jianhua: This just only refers to the field of art, right?

Xu Tan: Of course there are some other influences, such as philosophy, world outlook and so on. When I was in New York, I discussed with some Chinese students about the question of ¡°immaterial¡±, which is often mentioned in Buddhism. All our discussion led to ¡°immaterial¡±. According to Buddhism, ¡°The material is the immaterial¡±. If we regard ¡°material¡± as a kind of physical existence, ¡°immaterial¡± as present and basic things in everything, I think that our human culture is an ¡°object¡±, the ¡°material¡±. In other words, our existence, our lives and living situation can be interpreted as ¡°immaterial¡±. This kind of ¡°immaterial¡± is positive for me. Every day I try to do some ¡°immaterial¡± things. It is different from traditional Buddhism which puts emphasis on static ¡°immaterial¡±. From another philosophical viewpoint, we are also influenced by western philosophy, linguistics, and even ideological movements of this era. However, you cannot copy these things in your works, otherwise you have done nothing and you have felt nothing. You have to build a platform in your heart to truly understand these things first.
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