By Stéphanie Pioda
You work on memory, on history, on power. Is your work a way of accumulating information, archives and in turn building up a memory that would not be manipulated by power?
This is a very good question. This question touches upon how I, as an individual, the basic unit of a society, and at the same time as an artist, form my own ecosystem. This ecosystem needs to be supported by a language system. For me, this language system not only records facts, but also examines and reflects upon facts. Recording itself is not a repetition or a reiteration of facts, but rather the process from facts to truth. Truth is not reality. The language of an artist provides truth, and this truth can confront with the reality provided by power systems.
For this exhibition at the Hetzler gallery, the title highlights materials, “Marble, Porcelain, Lego”, while your subject is a critique of authoritarian powers, of the migration crisis. Why this lag?
Materials that I use for my artworks, be it porcelain or marble or Lego, are just different materials that people use at different stages. Some were used in ancient times; some are traditionally used materials, and some are contemporary. The materials themselves are not important. It’s the content that these materials embody that is important. In terms of content, I examine the migration and refugee problem from a historical perspective once again and use the language of history to depict them. We could see that this is a problem about humankind and about human nature. This is what art should be mostly concerned about.
Do materiality and purpose form a whole?
Material has no intention, as I said. Through my hands, it is no longer material. It becomes a carrier of aesthetics and philosophy. So, they must be a whole. Without my ideology which is infused in the material, this material does not interest me.
Why is the artisanal dimension of the works important? Are arts and crafts two sides of the same coin?
This is a very good question. When we do art, or exercise our basic aesthetic judgment, or even our ethics, we are all based on humanism. We are based on our understandings of human beings, the boundaries of human beings, all the appropriate or inappropriate dimensions and proportions in relation to human beings. The purpose of art is to establish a kind of communication and exchange. When you express yourself, you must consider the receiving end of the communication, of course, and how they receive the information. So, I use a lot of languages from ancient times, ancient techniques, or a common understanding of craftsmanship, and lift them up to another level. So, by doing that, as a whole, always as a whole, I challenge our state of mind.
Can tradition be considered as a brake?
Traditions have many functions, historically speaking. By understanding traditions, we know how human beings have gone through these years, what the way of understanding is, what the language of communication is. Traditions also remind us how to depart from the tradition and how to form a language of our contemporary time.
Is it important to break the rules?
The most important criterion to measure artists’ artworks is to check if they break the rules. The meaning of break the rules is, first of all, to know what the rules are and then to know how to break the rules. If you don’t know what the rules are, you won’t be able to break the rules. If your breaking of the rules does not involve what the rules once were, then it is meaningless – what exactly did you break in this case?
What do all your artistic practices have in common?
The common ground of my art is to look at everything with curiosity and interest, and with insights that I didn’t have on the previous day.
Does activism increasingly require working collaboratively?
I don’t think so. An individual can be a world of its own. Their activism can be completely independent. If there are opportunities of collaboration, that is also very good.
You are now settled in Portugal, after having lived in New York, in China of course, and in Berlin. Do you plan to rebuild a workshop like the one that was destroyed in the suburbs of Beijing?
I am building a new studio in Portugal now. This studio is a continuation of the studio which was demolished. There is consistency, both formally and spiritually.
How does your position as an exiled artist nourish your work?
When an artist understands that they are in exile, it’s a kind of self-consciousness and self-awareness. Broadly speaking, human beings are all in exile. Our planet is a miracle of coincidences, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be like this. So, being in exile in the universe is probably an eternal topic.
The context in which you exhibit is important. How do you slip into the white cube of a gallery?
Galleries or museums sometimes look more like a scientific research center, as they try to provide some so-called standards. They are a neutral environment for things to happen and for the audience to see. But for artists like me, I don’t really care. I appreciate white walls and white-washed lighting, but I also appreciate the walls of a federal prison or a factory or a market.
In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, you said that it is living conditions more than works that make art. Could you explain to us?
For me, personally, without my living conditions, my understandings of life, my memories, my emotions and feelings, my art would not exist.
For several years, your blog has been an important part of your artistic project. Does the Internet remain an important tool for this social scupture of which Ulrich Obrist spoke?
Internet for me is an important place to receive information, but not the most important possibility of expression. My expression through films, exhibitions and interviews is stronger, I think. Internet gave me some opportunities to document instantaneous happenings. Responding to images is responding to reality. It must work in different levels and with different depths.
Why do you think that awareness of the inhuman situation is easily done at the individual level but not at the level of governments?
In the end, our understanding about good and bad, and fairness and injustice, must be grounded in everyone’s individual thinking. What governments are concerned about is power and a balance between political factions. When it comes to the issue of good and bad, correctness and incorrectness, governments cannot do anything.
Could you present to us ‚Rapture, your exhibition at the Cordoaria Nacional in Lisbon?
The exhibition “Rapture” takes place in Portugal. This exhibition is the biggest exhibition of mine to date, in terms of scale. It includes both the aspect of reality and that of fantasy. Over 100 artworks are exhibited, and some artworks are comprised of several dozens of components. In these artworks, material is not only material, but rather, it encapsulates the clash between history and reality, which cannot be compared to other exhibitions. It is a very complicated living being. I always see exhibitions as living beings. The exhibition in Portugal, “Rapture”, is such a living being.