Opening the Storehouse of Memory: Interview with Zeng Xiaofeng

Date: April 3, 2018, 3:00–5:00pm

Location: Zeng Xiaofeng’s Studio, Yunnan Nationalities Museum, Kunming

Guan Yuda: Reading is connected to memory, or in other words, books are a medium for storing memories. Artists born in the 1950s have tended to undergo major stylistic and formal changes. Your artistic style and form have changed little, but your thoughts have leapt quite far. Your painting has always had a narrative quality akin to that of literature. Such a narrative quality is rare in modernism, because modernity in art aims to root out precisely this narrative quality.

Zeng Xiaofeng: Very few of my works are purely formalist. I have always felt that I should cram some ideas into a work of art. If I could not do that, I would not be able to go on painting.

Guan: That is to say, you are not interested in pure form. Any language or medium in your art can be a receptacle, whether for emotions, or for imagination.

Zeng: Right. For instance, I never paint a pure landscape. I will always insert something behind the work. It is the same with portraits. I can’t bring myself to paint pure portraits either. I will always insert some “thing” into the portrait. This “thing” outside the portrait is what I really wish to express.

Guan: That is why even though you have painted so many portraits, it is hard to see you as a portrait artist.

Zeng: The portraits are perhaps just an “excuse,” an excuse for inserting ideas.

Guan: Why do you treat portraits as an excuse rather than as a special theme?

Zeng: A human face is perhaps better able to attract the attention of others. I also paint other subject matter, such as animals, but human portraits are more direct.

Guan: Your portraits are more than just “faces.” It would be more precise to call them “faces of humanity.”

Zeng: Yes. There is an element of serendipity to these “excuses” I use. I created this big spider artwork behind me after 9-11. In that same year, I took photographs of an infant’s head in a hospital. It was a deformed infant head in formalin. I combined the image of the infant’s head with a spider, and added a gun to allude to the spread of terrorism around the world. Everyone’s artworks and the “excuses” within have an element of serendipity. The same goes for the plot details in a writer’s novel. These things aren’t intentionally thought up.

Guan: I’m thinking of a writer now, Jorge Luis Borges from Argentina. You would probably be interested in him. His stories are labyrinths built completely from phrases. You rely on memories. You use memories to build labyrinths of the face of humanity.

Zeng: A person’s artworks are always connected to that person’s experiences, thoughts and readings. I really like Borges’ story The Garden of Forking Paths. His sense of the language and the atmosphere he conveys have a unique sense of the mysterious, as if shrouded in a gray tone. I have read this story many times. It has left a very deep impression.

Guan: Many important modern writers focus on this shared theme of “memory.” This was the case with both Kafka and Borges. They would sometimes even become mired in memory. I see this kind of narrative of memory in your works. In fact, there is a “red thread” of memory that traces through your works from the present back to the 1950s, an inescapable entanglement. Your art uses the act of seeing to construct a storehouse or labyrinth of memories. This storehouse or labyrinth is private in nature, but it is connected from behind to the base tone of upheaval of the times, so it is a form of public memory that sets out from individual memory.

Zeng: Yes. This idea of a “red thread” is very interesting. This “red thread” is some simplified thing that remains in our memory. For example, I have experienced many things that have been simplified into perceptions of being harmed. The harm brought upon me by the life of the outside world, the harm brought upon everyone, the harm brought upon all of humanity… these things are linked together to form a “red thread.” This harm comes to influence my artworks. Some people say my works have a sense of unhappiness, and that is true. I sometimes try to paint happy things, but I just can’t. I can sometimes force something out, but it feels fake, like something that isn’t mine. It’s because it is missing that “red thread” of memory.

Guan: The base tone of your painting has always been gloomy and tragic, and even carries a touch of terror, primal desire and violence. These are quite rare among artists born in the 1950s. The artists from that period have a deeply rooted collectivist mentality from the Mao era. Their individual narratives, rooted in historical reflection and living accounts, all share a common collectivist model. When we follow your painting into your storehouse of memory, we also seem to find ourselves in the shifts of the times, and hear the echoes of the era, but we cannot find any trace of actual events or signs from those times.

Zeng: That’s right. I am strongly averse to correspondence between the outside world and my artworks, to making my works just like the outside world, as that is just too simple. I do, however, consciously preserve memories and bring about a sense of temporal and spatial distance. Look at the masterpieces of the classical period. They are not limited in time or space, and they still remain relevant today.

Guan: Are you saying that there should be a distance between the artworks and reality, as well as between the individual and the times?

Zeng: Correct. But there must not be psychological distance. Psychological perception must be true. In fact, you could call my works a form of “psychological realism.” They are more about psychological perceptions than surface appearances.

Guan: Actually, whether it’s “psychological realism” or “magical realism,” I think these are just shortcuts. Your works have always stubbornly retained the magic of image, which is one of the things that really moves people about them. Your works are very discerning in everything from material and technique to painting language, and you have a very distinctive personal style, one unmoored from any particular era, but one which retains an essential sincerity towards life. This approach to painting, which focuses on psychological experience and concrete language, results in a more abstract atmosphere, because there are no marks of any specific events in your works. Take, for example, this artwork about 9-11. If you didn’t say anything, no one would have linked this work to the events of September 11.

Zeng: All tags like this are a stretch. There are many things which cannot be defined. When you define something, that definition turns into a tag, into some semiotic thing. Actually, everyone should return to individual thinking and resist collective modes of thought. Collectivism causes great harm to art. If everyone were to consciously return to individual perception, then their expressions would all be different. Chinese people today have formed collective discursive habits. Individual discourse is increasingly rare.

Guan: Let us return to the appearance of people in your works. Whether it is the appearance of the people in your works, or the appearance of fish or spiders, when we gaze at them, it produces a sense of terror, as if these gazes are coming to us from a great, ancient distance. This gaze is like the sorcerer’s power in anthropology, a belief that all things are imbued with a spirit, and in a connection between life and nature. This cabinet, for example, seems to be a thing for storing the soul. From this perspective, you are not just the manager or watchman of the storehouse of memory, but you also play a role akin to the “sorcerer.”

Zeng: There are many ways to interpret this cabinet, the Black Box series, but here is what I think: on the surface of the cabinet, I have painted a portrait and wrote signs that resemble text. The viewer may think this text has meaning, but that is an illusion. What I want to convey is the inside of the box. The inside cannot be seen, and the outside is an illusion. It is like this with life as well. For many things, we often only see the surface, the illusion presented by life, while the essence within often remains invisible.

Guan: But, in fact, when this cabinet is placed before us, we all want to know what is inside. It provokes a desire to investigate. That is to say, the illusion you have produced does not block us off, but instead drives us to want to open this cabinet even more. This is actually a form of “strategy” at work in your art. When we gaze at it, it produces an illusion, perhaps a delusion about memory. We look into the eyes and the face in the painting hopes of finding the meaning behind. Instead, we find a bottomless abyss, a form of emptiness. This is also where the tragedy of the artwork lies: when you produce an illusion that lures people in to look, it provides them with a pessimistic, nihilistic answer.

Zeng: This layer of meaning you describe isn’t actually something I consciously place in there. It is just that everyone views things from a different perspective, which of course leads to different interpretations. Different people will perceive different things when they face my artworks, which is allowed. Actually, all of my works can be summed up as forms of psychological perception, a recollection and perception of life. It is just that everyone has different views, and considers things from different perspectives.

Guan: That is why “memory” is a very important topic. Memory can truly be preserved or stored through painting, poetry or music. This is something for which humanity is very fortunate. But if we place too much blind faith in technical or scientific methods for preserving memory, then mankind may go extinct.

Zeng: In fact, people’s memories are constantly evolving. The artworks in this exhibition are also memories. They show gradual changes from my previous works, slowly shifting towards brighter colors. It is just like how people’s memories also “transform.” This is the case with all things. They can all transform. The root stays the same, but the face can change.

Guan: This era is an era of false flourishing, an era that employs all kinds of methods to produce illusions. Thus, it is the responsibility of the artist, and the raison d’être for the work of art to uphold and preserve visual cultural memory. The preservation of memory cannot rely entirely on scientific and technical means, but must place hope in those inspired people, those people who believe in the undying soul, those artists and poets.

Zeng: Yes, you are right. What are your thoughts on my works in this exhibition?

Guan: I don’t think these works count as a completely different phase from your previous works. These paper works, however, see the addition of serious “play” or “satire” elements. This is a Zeng Xiaofeng style of humor. It is not relaxed at all. It is like those fine, sharp teeth in the fish’s mouth. When we look at it, it gives us a joy and pleasure in the details, but it is also a sensation of abuse.

Zeng: These works are all on paper. Shifts in technique and material lead to shifts in language. This is a very important point. On the other hand, it is very difficult to change the language if you do not change materials or techniques. For this reason, I place a lot of emphasis on discovering and changing techniques and materials. To use the terms of the scientist, it is “research and development,” developing new methods.

Guan: Yes. Are these your inventor genes at work? Your father had a very innovative spirit.

Zeng: Changes in material do not necessarily imply a change in values. I don’t see any difference in the values imbued in my works on paper, canvas or metal. I do feel, however, that there are still possibilities for paper. That is because when I was copying murals in the past, I would use paper, so I have more experience with this material. Also, I visited the United States in 1994, and after I returned, I stopped painting in oil for quite some time, because I felt it would be very difficult to surpass the language of the West. Drawing from my memories of paper, I created paper works for quite some time. I carried out many experiments, and went through a lot of changes, eventually creating works that differed from the West. I eventually realized that I shouldn’t consciously place so much emphasis on materials, and that I should return to individual feelings and psychological perception.

Guan: There are these unique markings on the paper that seem like scratches. How do you make those?

Zeng: I usually don’t explain these things to people, because I worry they will focus too much on the technical level.

Guan: Technique is a very important issue in the preservation of “memory.” Your artworks, from your early oil paintings, to your recent works on paper, have a tragic undertone that feels like concern for the fate of humanity and a sense of emptiness. You are a serious artist. I always wondered how you found joy in painting. Then I saw the satisfaction and joy you found in drawing, in shaping faces, in blending and stacking the colors on paper. I realized you find a joy and pleasure in pure craftsmanship in the concrete process of painting.

Zeng: The artist is half craftsman and half thinker.

Guan: As a thinker, you are pessimistic and suffering, but as a craftsman, you are joyful. You are a happy craftsman who has invented many painting techniques. This is a contradictory unitary whole, a balance of life.

Zeng: I have noticed that many artists tend to treat paper works as something transitional, rather than complete works. This is especially the case with art dealers, who treat paper works as incomplete. I don’t feel that way, however. All materials are the same, and all can be done quite thoroughly. This has led me to carry out a lot of experimentation in paper. I’ve failed a lot, and destroyed a lot of experiments, employing many different methods before presenting this effect you see here now.

Guan: For that reason, I don’t view these works as studies or uncompleted works. Instead, I see them as another invention of yours. This term “invention” is a very precise one. Your father was an engineer without professional training, and he made many inventions and innovations. Sometimes I think that the meaning and energy of art are inventions of the artist. Sometimes the meaning of the artwork is the artist’s invention.

Zeng: Every artist finds joy and fun in completing a work of “craft.” If it is just an idea, it only takes a few minutes to come up with one. The craft, however, can carry on forever, and the artist can find joy in the process. This joy is what allows them to continue. For example, you can make endless changes and inscriptions on this box.

Guan: But this box is something you “invented.” You “invented” a new form for viewing, a new medium. Making things on a steel cabinet, or even on paper, is a form of “invention.” The tragic tone of your works is very true and sincere, but your crafting is very exquisite. You have philosophical thoughts, but you don’t view yourself as a philosopher. Indeed, if it weren’t for the joy of painting and the pleasure of craft, how could we withstand the emptiness of philosophy?

Zeng: If you play too many roles, people will be unable to recognize you. In this information age, people’s recognition abilities are growing increasingly narrow, rather than broader. If you do too many things, people can’t recognize you.

Guan: You find endless joy moving between paper, steel, canvas and wood, and you find this joy within great precision, resulting in a rare balance. You are a reserved, soft-spoken person. Your experiences are highly individualized, and they are expressed in a very precise, controlled manner.

Zeng: I don’t think I could use Expressionist methods, or anything that’s too broad. It just doesn’t fit with my personality. I always pull the meaning of the painting in and turn it into a sharp thorn so it can penetrate the right pressure point.

Guan: When you pierce something with this thorn, people feel pain, and you feel it as well. When the artist sets out to ponder sweeping human themes, he must not view himself as a philosopher. The artist’s greatest source of energy comes from his ability to use concrete labor to resist nihilism and the tragedy of destiny.

Zeng: Scientists have made a lot of inventions recently, such as a hand that can paint in the style of a particular artist, painting things that are just like his works, and doing so very quickly. But machines cannot quite imitate very complex things. Artificial intelligence will never be able to replace the artist’s craft.

Guan: Humanity today possesses technical energy on an unprecedented level, and will unleash even more in the future. But the core of humanism is still “humanity” and “human nature.” Painting is a place where you can lay down your soul, and language is the home for existence. Machines will never truly be able to create an individual, poetic labor.

Zeng: The reason I have always stressed this return to the individual is because it is a return to human nature. The individual is the human. Machines do not possess human nature. They can only receive control and influence from external forces. The individual’s perception of life, of the outside world, is human nature.

Translated by Jeff Crosby