Xu Tan Interview to Sun Yuan & Peng Yu

You just mentioned the public perception of your works and the natural influence thereof, I have the feeling that most of your early works are not as socially-conscious as the newer ones.

(Sun Yuan)Actually all the materials come from the society, it¡¯s just that some of them come from the relatively private aspect of social life, and some are better-known materials, such as news subjects, social topics. Actually all topics are social topics, it¡¯s just that the attention they draw are of different levels. Also, I don¡¯t think I would go with the idea that currently all subjects derive from the society, I think a lot of them can still find roots in ourselves, but when they are confronted with the society, you¡¯ll need an appropriate translation and conversion system, and then you¡¯ll end up choosing relatively typical materials. It seems to me that you just can¡¯t take the problem separately.

(Peng Yu)In the early days when we were young, our relation with the society are not so complicated, or, shall we say, we were not yet an integrated part of the society, therefore the works we did and the materials we used are not so socially-conscious. But I reckon that anything could be used as material, and you are going to engage in the society more and more as you grow up, eventually you¡¯ll choose those materials in the society that interest you. So I don¡¯t think that subject is the key issue here.

A lot of your works in the exhibitions are focused on the relationship with the society. Do you perceive any differences in China and the West in terms of the audience¡¯s acceptance and feedback?

(Sun Yuan)Yes, but I think the differences were more typical a few years ago, before and around 2000. The opening-up of China was still in its early phase back then, and most people did not accept what is called contemporary art, they were too impatient when watching. Now there seems to be a unified consensus, western and Chinese audiences are aware of this (Chinese) contemporary art thing, they know there is a bunch of people doing weird stuff , and their first reaction towards them is ¡°Ah! Another performance art!¡± Thus art is reduced to a term, when someone puzzles over something; he would call it performance art. He has this category in his mind, and can group it, and then it¡¯s easy for him to him to take in.

(Peng Yu)At that time the West was more interested in the political confrontational aspect, it has something to do with the whole Chinese ideology. The country was not open enough back then, and the biennale still didn¡¯t emerge in Shanghai¡­ all the western audiences would interpret your work from the political perspective. There were two kinds of Chinese audiences, and this is particularly interesting, the first kind is artistically-informed people, or people some-what related to art and culture; and the other kind is people who have no relationship whatsoever with culture. As it turned out, the culture-savvy part happened to find our works incomprehensible, they even made a lot of protests or accusation against them. On the other hand , those who have no relationship with art or culture, including policemen¡­ one of my exhibitions was banned, and I chatted with many ordinary people like policemen and persons in Residents¡¯ Committee, you know, ordinary people, they all went to see the exhibition and found it super interesting.

And now governments are organizing biennales, contemporary art has become a card in their hands, something that everyone can and should take advantage of. So it¡¯s like a slogan, a presentation used to impress the international community, and here¡¯s when the game with the official starts.

In the ¡¯90s, before 2000, when something happens, you can calm down to observe your surroundings, to perceive the changes of everybody in detail. But now, especially in recent years, the whole atmosphere in the art scene is volatile. It has become difficult for me to try to understand the changes outside, and the situation is complicated now¡­ take our studio in 798 for example, this place is so touristy now, it¡¯s hard to position yourself. But we do work here as of today. Now the government is into contemporary art too, a lot of opportunists are into this, and there¡¯s the gallery frenzy, a dozen new galleries would turn up here every day. You also witness the price of Chinese contemporary art skyrocketing on the international market, I have the feeling that many artists have lost themselves, they have become less pure in the old days, underground is underground, the artists make art, and that¡¯s it. Nowadays everyone collaborates with everyone, and you participate in their game more frequently, the game is getting more and more complex, Stage Two!

So do you think that members of the general public have become better connoisseurs of contemporary art?

(Peng Yu)I think maybe they do find it easier to accept, but what art offers them, on the contrary, has decreased. Back then they would try to understand why these people do what they¡¯re doing, now they get themselves a concept, like I tell you this word, ¡°performance art¡±, they go ¡°Ah, so this is performance art!¡±, and there it is. Something is missing for the general public, the minute they are given a safe explanation, they are deprived of the thinking process.

(Sun Yuan)There are actually two sides of the coin. For the artist, I think they are also trying to figure out what kind of audience they have. In the ¡¯90s there was this cynic group, you may want to call them early contemporary artists, they were the enfants terribles, going to the extreme when rejected by the public. By now, however, many artists have come to realize that in order to play the enfant terrible card you need to first have the endorsement by the audience. So both sides were moving towards each other, when the two reach a point of coordination, by which I mean they can work together seamlessly and feel free at the same time, that¡¯s what you may call the harmonious society. Back then reform and opening were everything, people would do anything for a breakthrough. Things have changed, now the overall structure is fixed, it¡¯s a matter of coordination. This is in sync with the general situation of the country, the concept of harmonious society has posed a big question to art as well. Of course every era has its own issues, but the issues we are facing now in a harmonious society are of not much difference than those in the western countries. This is because harmonious society is commonplace in the West, and artists there feel free and suffocated at the same time. This is gonna happen in China at some point in the future, we¡¯ll see.

(Peng Yu)For instance, I¡¯m initially excited upon learning that a certain large foreign organization is coming to Beijing to open a museum, because it means there will finally be a decent museum show-casing contemporary art in Beijing and in China. But soon I come to realize the potential crisis; I don¡¯t know whether this thing would do Beijing and Chinese contemporary art as a whole any good. Will it help pushing the scene towards the good or bad, healthy or unhealthy direction? There are two sides to these things. What the foreign museums try to do is to import the whole prestigious western museum system to Beijing, but if you take a look at exhibitions in the West, you¡¯ll see how the corrupted museum system stifles the whole art scene. This explains all the buzz about the whole lot of Chinese artists participating in the Venice Biennale that year; they witnessed the potential of Chinese contemporary art in the West. But is there really any potential? Granted, you can¡¯t say there¡¯s zero potential, but the point is westerners realized that they could find new possibilities in China, and these possibilities are potential, energy, frightening stuff. While in the West, the whole system has provided a, in Sun Yuan¡¯s word, harmonious society for everybody, people have to play by the rules and to strive for breakthrough in between. After some time, everybody ends up playing tricks, for me this is really not the ideal way of life. So I think the western museum system¡¯s coming into China will be a double-edged sword for the artists. Wouldn¡¯t you kill a lot of possibilities if you bring in something lifeless? It helps us to operate under the rules and procedure, that¡¯s for sure, and of course an oft-heard criticism on Chinese artists or the whole Chinese art market by western museums is the lack of rules and procedure, but this is precisely the characteristic and charisma of China. I prefer a lifestyle with lots of accidents, if Chinese contemporary art is drifting towards a completely expected, accident-free direction, I think it¡¯s time for the artists to think about what they can do to stimulate the scene.

Economic changes will have an influence on art and the relation between artists and the audience, but there are a lot of artists who seem to ignore the audience, aren¡¯t there?

(Sun Yuan)This is about knowledge being in sync with the government, in other words, a harmonious society is the end result of a peaceful evolution process. Commercialization and the participation of economics contribute to the realization of a harmonious society. There are rules, economic rules, that you would want to follow and to refer to as a kind of artist who cares not only about yourself, but also about the audience. One can¡¯t deny the fact that all people regard economical success as the measurement of success in general, even artists themselves, so do the audiences. It¡¯s a point of reference. So economics actually works as the coordinator and thus triggers the peaceful evolution. I¡¯ll say that artists and audiences are not the sole driving force of the harmonious society, there must be some other interfering factors. So how to maintain consistency? How to reach the same coordinated point? Economics is being used as a reference point in many cases.

(Peng Yu)Market and academic studies call for different approaches. Marketing guys take care of the market, scholars take care of academic studies, about issues without our range.

(Sun Yuan)Sometimes people say ¡°academic is itself¡±, I¡¯m not sure I agree with them on that: do you think about the question of success when doing academic works? If the question crosses your mind, then there shall be a point of coordination somewhere. When all the factors are mixed together in the optimized proportion ,it will appear to be something successful and will generate some momentum for your academic studies. Here, the word ¡°successful¡± means not only commercial success, but success in every dimension. Without this all-dimensional success as the point of reference, academic studies will be of no direction or value-it has no coordinated platform. Actually academics all work on a platform, there is the standard for measuring success, which is effective commercially or academically. There¡¯s a certain value in it.

Do you care about the negative part in the audiences¡¯feedback?

(Sun Yuan)The audiences¡¯ feedback is exactly the thing I care about.

(Peng Yu)But it¡¯s not important how they respond to our works, as long as there is response at all. We don¡¯t really care whether they are positive or negative, we care about the fact that they do have reaction.

(Sun Yuan)Or shall we say the best case is that we have mixed response; rape mixed with adultery, if you will. Being raped and yet reaching orgasm, committing adultery but with a bit of passiveness, that¡¯s a good mixture. I¡¯m not into pure compulsory stuff, but reaction is a must.

I think one of the major differences between Beijing,Shanghai an Guangzhou is the different level of consciousness towards power. It¡¯s the strongest in Beijing, weaker in Shanghai, and the weakest in Guangzhou. Do you have anything to say about this?

(Sun Yuan)I don¡¯t particularly feel that way, this power thing you mentioned. I don¡¯t know if there¡¯s power or not, but the way I see it, power is of no relevance as long as you feel comfortable and happy. Because you are in the lower tiers of others¡¯ power mechanism, you are not the top guy, you feel good being here, and you stay here, I think that¡¯s enough. It¡¯s not necessarily the same thing as the farmer¡¯s corporation, in which power is above everything, even daily meals are related to power, if you cannot get hold of this power, you are not able to survive¡­ by power I mean a kind of dominate/subordinate relation, not necessarily political power.