On Floating Pavilions
He Duoling: My love for architecture basically began with Luis Barragán (1902–1988).
Shui Yanfei: I went to Mexico twice when I was studying in America, first to Guadalajara, and later to Mexico City. I saw a lot of work by different architects, and on a spiritual level, especially when it comes to homes, he represents the highest realm for me. I have a model of Casa Luis Barragán in my office. I really like it. Another, corresponding figure has been quite hot in recent years, the Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa (1919–2003). Both of them are very interesting figures, in terms of their life experiences, their middle class backgrounds, and how both came to architecture as non-professionals.
He: I first saw two small photographs of that building, just partial views, and I was immediately enamored. I remember bringing it up with Liu Jiakun at the time. I think what draws me to Barragán is that he has an Eastern air to him, and he expresses it with the bare minimum of elements. For instance, a wall, a water surface, facing the sky. These few elements are enough to summarize his architecture. He left a very deep impression. There was that thing about him repeatedly raising the height of his garden wall, and turning it into a single unit. He said that as he grew older, he cared less about his surroundings, that he should belong to the sky and to the birds. When I finally saw his residence, it struck me to the core. That’s because his garden is an ancient garden. It’s quite different from our concept of a garden. The place he lived was filled with elements of mysticism, like a monastery. It’s amazing.
Shui: Some people have said that your early painting What Night is This touches on the question of spatial depth. Those of us who work in architecture tend to focus quite a bit on space.
He: At the time, I guess under the influence of Liu Jiakun, certain architectural elements began to emerge in my painting. Painting and architecture cannot directly intersect. To paint architecture is quite demanding. Eastern architects, especially in Japan, are quite skilled at using the compression of space as a key technique. My deepest impression of Mexico City is that Barragán is everywhere. His mode and colors of architecture can be found at every turn. A building with colors like Barragán’s would really stick out in Chengdu. The skies in Chengdu are generally gray, and the best colors for gray skies are black, white and gray. Those colors wouldn’t fit in Chengdu. I think those colors blend in very well in Mexico. There is no sense of transgression at all. We also visited the homes of Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) and Diego Rivera (1886–1957), a blue house and a white house. They were great.
Shui: In my own analysis, he has several distinctive traits. First, color is a very sincere form of expression. Second, though the ceilings are very high, there are many different steps and divisions, while the whole remains continuous. There is what I call a serial space from room to room. The other thing is that the garden has rather different feel to it. The garden was inspired by his favorite building, Alhambra Palace. It has a surreal feel, dense and complex all around, with lots of texture. The garden is very clean, very relaxed, engaged in a dialogue with the sky. He talked about this kind of state himself. Actually, something quite surprising is that Barragán has sparked discussion in our profession about a major difficulty we face, which is that it is very hard to find a carrier for his kind of interaction with the body, with the spirit, with private space, because we can’t build buildings like that.
He: I think his commonalities with Chinese gardens is his use of intersections between walls and water surfaces, and also the narrow fields of vision. Mexico City is also quite a crowded place. When we visited his house, it was in the middle of a poor neighborhood. Our driver almost couldn’t find it. He asked a lot of people for directions. Our bus could barely even turn around. Everyone was complaining, asking where I was trying to take them, because we had all come together to paint. When we got inside, it was amazing. You go through a small entrance, and you’re in his garden. It left a deep impression. I think the Pritzker Prize jury really has vision. He only has a dozen or so works, and his most famous one isn’t very big, but they chose him anyway.
Shui: I also really like what he said during his acceptance speech. He said we never talk about beauty anymore, we never talk about mystery, or other such things. From his perspective, he feels that this is really what matters. I think it’s a lot like that symbolic power you think about.
He: Right. It’s just like this power of space you were talking about. It is manifest in symbols. Walls are sometimes constraints, but they are also elements that can turn large spaces into small spaces, and link small spaces together. When I was in Luis Barragán’s house, it was like a labyrinth.
He: I once made a small architectural model. I then did a study of the model, a very large one. I used just a few elements, just a wall in a garden. It was a room and a window, and then a long, very narrow pool, like in Barragán’s stable, with a tree on the side, and several stones at the foot of the wall. I think these are the most fundamental elements of architecture.
Shui: I studied at Princeton, which in the American education system is actually not a very profession-oriented school, rather a theory-oriented one. The core thinking in our department was a school of thinking called hermeneutics. What you were just saying about symbols is something that is being debated in our field right now. It is said that our architecture today is entirely about modeling space. It is all instrumental operations now. The symbol aspect has been completely removed.
He: I think that Chinese architecture was too function-oriented in the past, and the voices of the clients and officials in charge were too strong. Now it seems you have a lot more freedom, and in comparison to the previous generation, including Liu Jiakun, your generation is struggling to free yourselves from their influence, and to find new directions. Young Japanese architects today are also stepping out from under Tadao Ando’s shadow. I think this is a good thing. There are all kinds of ways to do architecture, especially in contemporary times, like that very light-weight roof you made.
Shui: That was an exhibition pavilion. That was a project at Tonglu, a two person hot spring pool. We researched it, and it was somewhat connected to that spatial depth issue you were talking about, the intersection of time and space. There was a pond there before, and we planned to make one above it, in acrylic, a 13×9 meter sphere above a two person hot spring pool. It resembles the work of Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida (1924–2002). His work is like a labyrinth. He often employed negative space. We made positive and negative space below. This is the final model. It is basically like this. In terms of spatial depth, I think your painting has this, despite the thickness of paint and the overall plan.
He: Its spatial relationships are very complex. The spatial relationships of the painting are more complex than before, more multidimensional. The single perspective from before has given way to parallel perspectives, multi-point perspectives, incorporating certain Chinese painting techniques. My goal in these paintings is to create an effect like that of a painting scroll. People can read them from right to left, or left to right. In theory, this kind of arrangement can keep going on forever, stretching on for dozens of meters. I have also incorporated touches of architectural perspective techniques, because when we view buildings, our line of sight is actually fluid.
Shui: It looks a bit like isometric drawing.
He: This series of my paintings is influenced by this. I painted this kind of thing before, influenced at the time by Liu Jiakun. I didn’t paint it again for many years, but then I recently saw an isometric drawing. It was of a public building in a Dutch park. It was just three triangular walls, but the isometric drawing was beautiful. It was a watercolor. Just like you said, all the people were the same size, laid about the painting like the scattered perspective of Chinese painting, but this was an isometric drawing of a building. That got me thinking about using isometric drawing in my painting again. I have a big room, so I am able to draw it out very long. I think this is a factor behind the scroll paintings. When you were talking about that just now, I immediately got a picture in my mind, a lot of ideas. I also left blank unpainted space along the top. I plan to place a wall with a parallel perspective. It won’t have any connection to what’s below it. I am rather interested recently how people flow through space, as well as in multiple perspectives. Photography has only a single perspective, so painting should have multiple perspectives.
Shui: But you are not only using composition. You are mainly working with color itself.
He: Right. I paint quite thin these days, with a very smooth surface. I used to like making textures. Now I use the brush to experience space. Why do I like to paint so smoothly now? First, I do it to reveal the brushstrokes. Second, I do it to give a kind of misty effect to the space, with all of it taking place within the same expression, the same skin texture. I am very interested in the sense of texture in architecture. When I went to Tadao Ando’s house, I kept feeling the walls. They were soft as human skin. They are hard, yet soft and supple. I think this is something my paintings should have, though of course it would be achieved through the physical and optical thickness of the painting.
Shui: Do you treat the canvases in a particular way for these paintings?
He: There is a special process that I have technicians do for me. The canvas is covered multiple times and polished, until there is no more fabric texture. I don’t rely on the fabric texture of oil painting at all. I entirely treat it as skin texture, a smooth skin, and then there’s the picture itself. I create all of the texture through the paintbrush and the paint. I also use certain light paints, or watery paints, to leave traces. I solve this issue entirely within painting itself, rather than relying on the canvas. I have already stepped away from the presence of the canvas. For this reason, my canvas can be applied in any manner. It does not necessarily have to be applied on a canvas. In traditional oil painting, the canvas is very important. For instance, if you use a rough canvas, then the thin paints will sink into it. When you paint thick, a spatial relationship forms with the earlier paint. I think this is more of a physical relationship. Now I would rather use something psychological, producing this effect through psychological space. This is an insight I have gained this year. In any case, I feel I will not become an architect in this lifetime.
Shui: You already are an architect.
He: I am not, but I do feel my painting has benefited much from architecture. For instance, years ago I showed Liu Jiakun a painting of mine in which I turned one horse into two, cutting it along part of its body and moving its head to the back, rearranging its body. Liu Jiakun said this was deconstructionism. I did not know the word deconstructionism at the time. He was obsessed with a book by Charles Jencks, and recommended it to me. That is when I learned what deconstructionism is, and that was when I began to come in contact with architecture, and to realize my ideas are somewhat connected to architecture. Also, influenced by my daughter, I came to like painting architectural elements, such as a wall, some pillars, or a single pillar that doesn’t really turn into anything, just stands there alone and casts a really long shadow. The shadow is very sharp. It’s almost like it’s not sunlight but an artificial light. There’s no real light. In architecture, I quickly went beyond interesting shapes to enter into space. I think this is connected to the guidance from Liu Jiakun. He was designing my house, and we discussed about the nested layers, and the pathway, a spiral that turns around and brings you back to the lowest point. This was a big influence on me, and I wanted to use it in my paintings.
Shui: As you know, Barragán had a favorite artist, the one who painted the yellow painting hanging in his home, Josef Albers (1888–1976). He focused on color. He also hung a sketch in his studio, drawn by a local painter. It features several block forms, and the shadows don’t look real, like you described. That house does not really exist. It is lit up by sunlight from all directions.
He: Right. There is a certain element of danger to his light. I had a painting that was collected in Japan which used that kind of dangerous light. For example, when I paint now, I place great emphasis on a special form of light. It doesn’t come from any particular place; I paint it wherever I want to paint it. I think this is interesting. It brings something unexpected to the painting. I went to see the Teshima Art Museum in Japan. It is a round shape, like a teardrop, with many teardrops forming out of it. It is amazing. I think this is something only the Japanese could do. It turns what would otherwise just be a museum into a work of art. I think architecture can enchant people with space much more than painting can. We have two generations of architects in our family, in America and Europe. I went with them to Japan to look at architecture, and we visited Tadao Ando’s Chikatsu Asuka Museum. The entrance is very interesting, very hidden, and it leads to yet another door. It is a bit like the Chichu Art Museum, where you are sent down a long path in the opposite direction, then you turn around and enter. I thought that was awesome, and so I turned my own entrance into a very small one, sending you through a narrow staircase, breaking all the rules of public architecture. This obsession with limited space comes on a spiritual level from the yearning for the mazes of childhood and the desire to decode certain aspects of space. I think that in painting I am also solving some of these issues about how to bring light into space and into the picture. For instance, the leaves in that painting occupy completely different spaces. In regard to clarity, it is not like the relationships of distance we learn when we study painting. This completely breaks it, painting the distant as near, and the near as distant. I use the lighting and relationships between emptiness and substance as techniques. These are techniques employed by many architects today, as opposed to the rather uniform logic of the past. Using these elements of painting language, architecture can make many interesting things, including the incorporation of musical elements.
Shui: I started studying Eastern and Western culture under a teacher of mine a decade ago, and when I studied abroad, I augmented that with reading from China and other countries, giving me a rather direct interpretation of the cultural differences we have been discussing. One approach is crude, the reduction of cultural differences, where I have everything you hope to have, and have it before you. The second is simple, to emphasize differences, to reject globalization, where we have cultural confidence and follow traditional forms. The first is something everyone uses directly. As architects, we all study images of landscapes and gardens, and directly transfer them into design images. This is a lot like what you said, a rather formalistic operation. It is removed from the perception and experience of real space. But you are using this to completely cancel out the thickness of the painting and to work in the thinnest, almost non-existent space.
He: I don’t want to use the relationships of physical arrangement of the past, all that thickness and stacking. I remove all of that. To touch it, it feels like it has been completely covered in a layer of skin. I use the chromatic relationships, clarity and water to control the painting. There are also very strange, abnormal light lines appearing in the painting.
Shui: So people need to view your paintings up close.
He: Right. Most oil paintings should be viewed from a distance, but I like people to look at mine from up close. When you look at them up close, or perhaps take a picture of a portion of the painting, it becomes an abstract painting. I think it is very interesting. I think it is very interesting how abstract elements turn into a space at a particular distance. These days I often look at the paintings from a distance, and then move up close to look again, because I’m very close to the canvas when I paint. I want people who view my paintings to feel the same things. Then there is the element of chance, because I find chance very interesting. Modern painting is done vertically, and there is always dripping. The paint drips down to a certain place and then is stopped, where it dries or is broken by a new brushstroke. I think that the textures formed in that process are entirely serendipitous. They are not actively painted at all. I find those things fascinating. Since these backgrounds are all architectural walls, I find these things like the process of a building aging over time.
Shui: You are making use of temporality.
He: Yes, it is what is brought by the erosion of time. It is like Chinese painting, those ancient paintings that have an element of time’s erosion. I think this stacking, the stacking of time, is something powerful. In a sense, it is more powerful than painting itself. For instance, when we look at some ancient paintings, if we were to view them when they were first painted, they would perhaps look faint to our modern eyes, as if there was little there. But in the intervening years, the hand of time has added so many elements. It is fascinating. I think it’s also the case with the aging of buildings.
Shui: Right, I can actually see that with your house, where on the one hand, you are allowing the climate to intrude, but you are also maintaining the house at the same time.
He: Yes, I like white houses, but I don’t set out to maintain them. If it gets bird droppings or other stuff on it, I just leave it there. It’s because i was reading some monographs on Álvaro Siza (b. 1933), and saw that many of his buildings are quite heavily aged now, and no one is maintaining them. Many of Ando’s buildings are also heavily aged. I don’t see the point in restoring them. For example, when working with a rather large project in the natural environment, something on the scale of, say, a village, it touches on the question of how to use fewer reproduced materials while creating a sense of serendipity and natural growth. Some processes just need time. I place a great deal of importance on time in painting, and hope that people can see time in my paintings. For example, when I am outlining shapes, I don’t consciously set out to remove those outlines later. I sometimes leave in things that I didn’t end up fully painting. In the past, I would even jot down phone numbers right on the paintings. I want people to see the entire process. In the end, I present a complete picture, but they can also see something fragmented. I think this is also very interesting. It embodies a form of temporality. This temporality is not just the expression of the picture; one can see the entire painting process. Of course, I am a bit impatient. Some temporality takes hundreds of years to accumulate.
Shui: What do you think we should call this Kunming exhibition?
He: I haven’t thought it through yet. We can discuss that. Of course, I think it might be better coming from you. Shi Jindian works in installation, you in architecture and I in painting. We were just speaking about how architecture has influenced us. I think it will be really interesting to create this holistic, integrated exhibition, while also incorporating the building of the museum itself. You have to take the reins on that, because you are the architect. In fact, a lot of exhibitions today are put together by designers, not just the exhibition installation team. The designer is there to give it a sense of depth, of three-dimensional space, rather than just simply hanging the works on the walls. My works are flat, while Shi Jindian’s are like sculpture. There can be communication between these professions. I think that through this communication with architecture, the architecture of the museum itself will take on a new logic. I’ve seen many exhibitions by architects that are great because the exhibition is at once an installation and a work of architecture that fuses organically with the paintings.
Shui: There is actually a very deep background to the discussion of this very thing in the West. When there is no definite perspective, space is not described as a geometric volume. The system of coordinates that describes length, width and depth requires a precise experience of space, so its spatial depth is low-dimensional, what we describe as depth-of-field. Basically, you have powerful abilities to manipulate space. This manipulation is an experience in which you can participate, something through which subject and object can interact. It is not an objective object.
He: I no longer use focal point perspective. The focal point is the essence of Western perspective technique, but the East does not use this. The biggest difference is in terms of focal point perspective, but now, we have completely discarded this. What has actually happened is that we have been constantly changing the focal point until there is no longer a vanishing point. There is no longer a vanishing point anywhere. I think this semi-transparency you use here also serves to blur the perspective. It may produce illusions. I think it’s really interesting how illusions can arise from certain light conditions. Paintings used to be hung on the wall and viewed from the front, but now these various techniques you’re using can bring some new ways of seeing that could be very interesting. You have also produced a lot of spatial changes in the museum itself, some of which are sure to contradict focal point perspective. Exhibition layout methods are growing increasingly important. In the past, it seemed as if the artworks were more important, but now, exhibition layout is becoming very important, almost just as important. Sculpture needs exhibition layout as well. I’m wondering if there can be a new method in which an exhibition of paintings begins with paintings and ends with exhibition layout, in ways that improve the architecture and our ways of seeing. I am very much looking forward to seeing your exhibition layout. It is great to have this done by an architect, and to include installations.
Shui: I think the key is that you also understand architecture, and you also like Barragán. His flat surfaces are not the dull flat surfaces people imagine. I think the reason his buildings are more touching than Paul Zumthor’s (b. 1943) is that you can participate in them. This is very Eastern. In terms of exhibition layout, it comes down to what I said before, with the first thing being space, columns of different sizes, and fragmentation, including the ceiling. The other thing is to get people to view your paintings. I use these things to encapsulate many gap spaces, forming a state much like that of the landscaped garden, which gives the viewer a layered experience.
He: I don’t really care about what is painted as much as how it is painted. As for the exhibition method, after all the discussions we have had, an image has begun to emerge in my mind. The exhibition line will have a kind of labyrinth effect, with the lighting and layout providing a unique view of the paintings. Amidst all of that, the paintings will suddenly blur, disappear and reappear. I think this is great. I want my paintings to appear in this manner, rather than being fully revealed at a glance. Also, this time many of my paintings will be pieced together, and can change in other ways. Your architecture will make this very interesting. It is different when an architect does this. No one does space better than architects. My paintings are spaces from my own imagination. You can turn these spaces into a reality.