Conversation with Liu Dan

Liu Dan in Conversation with Jane DeBevoise and Colleagues

Asia Week, March 25 2010, New York
Transcribed and revised by Ali Van

In celebration of Asia Week New York, AAA’s Chair Jane DeBevoise sat with artist Liu Dan and several art colleagues to engage in a conversation about Liu Dan’s work, creative life and experiences.

Jane DeBevoise (JD): Thank you very much for agreeing to answer some questions this afternoon.  I am excited to be sitting here with you in front of this wonderful painting, first exhibited a few years ago at an exhibition called ‘Shu 書’ (Book), organized by Wu Hung at the China Institute.  This painting was the centerpiece in the gallery and made Book a wonderful show.  Many people think of you as one who makes landscapes or mindscapes, or rocks that are mindscapes in the traditional Chinese sense.  What compelled you to do a book?  Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Liu Dan in conversation with Jane DeBevoise, in front of The Dictionary, 81 x 121 inches, watercolor on paper, 1991

Liu Dan (LD): Well, this work was done in 1991, the year I finished the Ink Scroll painting, which is now in the San Diego Museum collection. It was a turning point in my artistic practice. Then, I wanted to do something different. I had just had a break, and thought about doing my first watercolor piece.  There was a book in my family – a tiny book; a little dictionary.  I chose it for no particular reason, but thought it would be a good object to use for this watercolor – a new frontier, a new subject.

Michael Knight (MK): So the model for this work was a pocket dictionary.

Mee-Seen Loong (MSL): Did you choose that page for a special reason?

LD: No.  Actually, that’s the way the dictionary naturally stands and it just so happens to open to a page about artists I like! There is the Tang Dynasty artist Wang Wei and the Northern Song Dynasty chancellor Wang Anshi, and then there is Wang Xizhi, the Giant of giant-calligraphers.  And on the other page, all the information is water-related; all the characters contain radicals that evoke water.  There is also information on Jiang-su province, where I was born, as well as information about the area where my grandfather was from…and Napoleon is there too!  There is a lot of interesting information on this page.

Howard Rogers (HR): Where were you living when you painted this?

LD: Hawaii.

Mike Hearn (MH): When you painted the work at this enormous scale, did you actually photograph the book to enlarge it so you could see it more clearly?

LD: No, I actually made a little pencil drawing which is now in Mr. Flack’s art collection, and I made that using little squares; a grid system.  Then I enlarged the image.

Preparatory drawing for ‘Dictionary’, 1991. 8.9 x 5.7 inch, color pencil on paper. Courtesy of the artist, Debby and Marcus Flacks, London

LD: I found out the dictionary was made in Taiwan around 1937.  I liked this dictionary because it was published before 1949. No communist-related content is present in the definition of the characters in the dictionary.  It was pure in its explanations.  No ideological references in its definitions!  That’s why I like it so much.  It represents pure knowledge and to me is a key to acquiring knowledge. At some point, everyone has to start with a key.  Also, whether you like the words or not, these are printed equally on the page, according to stroke order.  There are also other aspects of this dictionary that fascinate me too.  Firstly, it is an indispensable tool for academic study and literacy. Secondly, the making of this particular dictionary is quite extraordinary; from its textile cover to the typeset and so on.  It’s really an aesthetic experience.

MK: How interesting.

LD: It is very interesting, indeed.  This side of the book was all hand-woven with a handmade cover, and this side had decorative red sheets of paper, which brought contrast to the two sides of the book.  The book is so small that all the pages stand upright.  If the book were bigger, the papers would flop down and it wouldn’t be as nice a visual experience.

MH: There is also one word in English inserted in the work.  Let’s see; I think it says…water…

LD: Waterloo!

MSL: Oh, that’s why you mentioned Napoleon earlier, right?

LD: That’s how I felt when I was in Hawaii…

MSL: (Jokingly) In exile! But you’ve returned as an Emperor, so that’s very good!

MK: It was completed in 1991?

LD: Yes and it took about five months – I did nothing else, just concentrated on this painting.

MSL: But this isn’t what ruined your eye-sight right?  It was Marcus’ piece.

LD: Ah, yes, it was something else, not this one.

MSL: You made a second one, right?

Liu Dan, Little Dictionary, 10 x 12 inch., color pencil on paper, 1989. Courtesy of the artist and Mee-Seen Loong

LD: Yes, but the first one has greater personal attachment, more emotion and love.  That’s how I felt at that time.  It was a special year.

MK: So why the same thing seventeen, eighteen years later?  This was made in 1991, and the one at Chinese Porcelain Company was made in 2008 right?

LD: I remember Khalil Rizk telling me before he died that if he ever wanted to buy another house in New York, he could just rip out a page!  Now that I need a studio in Beijing, I might remember his advice.  (Laughter)

MK: What a great quote!

JD: And after you finished your magnum opus, if we can call it that, did your work change?  You had done a body of work before this piece.  Afterwards, what were the results and the impact of this process?

LD: It was a great test of my ability to work with different materials, like watercolors.  And it was also a test of my patience; I needed to put myself in a completely disciplined position and needed to produce work that practiced this new discipline.  I couldn’t make mistakes.  It is my first watercolor too so it was the perfect subject and step for me to take.

MH: Since it is watercolor-based, was the black color painted last?

LD: The page, or the characters?

MH: Well, you probably first drew it lightly in pencil then enlarged your sketch.  Did you apply your colors in a systematic way?  Did you start with the yellows, then reds, or –

LD: I started from the middle.  I can find the book of photographs of me working on this piece.

MH: Yes, they would be interesting to look at.

LD: People have asked me: ‘When you painted the open page, how could you write the characters this way [in a slanted fashion]?’ They already find it hard to write Chinese normally because it is naturally quite difficult.  Because the page has several yellow tones and because the book is old, I found I had to paint the characters three times: first, the pencil line to put the character in the right position, then with a soft ink to write everything out lightly; the first draft and first level.  Then, I painted a yellow wash to cover the character, and then a darker color to do the last layer of character writing.  Once, some Chinese friends came to see the painting and read through the text.  One of my friends said ‘You made one mistake!’ and I said ‘Oh?  How?’  He pointed out one character and he was right!  I thought to myself, how could I have made that mistake?  I looked into the dictionary and I noticed it was actually the dictionary that had made the mistake!  It was interesting to have that mistake spotted.  Turns out, I decided to change the character in my painting to the accurate character; I didn’t want to be questioned about this mistake in the future, so I corrected it for my painting.

MSL: Was it HSBC that first had the painting?

LD: First Mr. Safra, then HSBC.  When HSBC took the painting out of their building, they had to block the road and use a crane to bring the painting out from the window.  They spent about 20,000 dollars just to get the painting out of the building!  They said not to bring it back, and told Sotheby’s to sell it immediately!  (Laughter)

Jay Xu (JX): Liu Dan, what does this really mean to you?  You could have chosen any number of subjects.  Why this one?

LD: It represents a key to knowledge, and we all need a key.  Also, I want everyone to be open to knowledge and to adore it too.  I liked this particular dictionary because it doesn’t have ideological references.

JX: But you said the lack of ideology was by pure accident.  When we spoke earlier, I found this had a lot of meaning.  If not this page, was there perhaps another favorite page you may have chosen for the project?

LD: Well, I just opened the dictionary and this was the page it opened to with Wang Xizhi right there.  Of course, there are probably a lot of interesting pages that I would have liked working with, but if I brought the dictionary in today, its natural opening would still be that same page, with Wang.  It has a lot of meaning in the sense that it represents institutionalized and cultural memory in a relatively pure manner.

JX: I see.  The page itself has a lot to do with classical allusions, and think it has something to do with you and who you are.

LD: It’s destiny!  Perhaps it is the energy that pulls on the threads, and well, I’m just leaving it as it is meant to be.

MH: Liu Dan, why did you use English to sign your name?

LD: To me, watercolor is a Western medium, so when I feel like I am using a Western manner I will use English to sign my name.

MH: I see.  And it almost looks like it is printed too.

LD:  Yes, but if you look closely I painted the ‘A’ wrongly; one line should be thinner and the other thicker…but I didn’t know this at the time.

HR: This work somehow relates to hyperrealism, like your rock paintings.  Is this something you’re consciously pursuing?  Like Chuck Close maybe?

LD: To me, this is not hyperrealist at all.  Hyperrealism is more about objectifying; you don’t feel the artist brings passion out of the painting.  But in this painting, I think everyone can feel it through the brushstrokes.  Hyperrealism to me has more to do with modern photography.  Hyperrealism demonstrates how an object can be portrayed when it is seen through a camera’s lens. This painting, like all my paintings, is about an object being viewed through human eyes.  A small object is enlarged to an exaggerated scale to give an ordinary object monumental attention and status. Unlike Pop Art, this work portrays an institutionalized and cultural memory, not a fleeting societal icon.

Copy of Ingres’ Mother and Daughter, 1972. Graphite on paper, 10.6×7.8 inch. Courtesy of the artist

JD: Maybe you can talk about your experience and your studies, prior to coming to the U.S.?  What were some of the things that informed this project?

LD: Ah.  Well, when I was a child, the first genre of painting I enjoyed was Western painting.  I liked all Renaissance paintings and old masters drawings; those were always my favorite.  Later, when I was sixteen, I started using the Chinese brush and began studying the Chinese manner.  I love both manners and always try to keep the two with me.  In my life, I always try to bring these two legacies together; to have them reflect and complement each other.  I think that is one goal in my life.

MSL: I remember when you were young you copied drawings by Ingres.  You once showed them to me.

LD: Yes, I did, when I was nineteen.

MSL: Which ones did you copy?

LD: I based the drawings off of small black and white photographs of his works.  For example, I once copied from a photograph of Ingres’ A lady holding a child.  Later in life I had a chance to compare it to the real Ingres drawing with the help of a drawings dealer-friend of mine. We compared the two and he said everything was pretty much exact, except for one difference: in the Ingres drawing, the child looks loving and sweet.  My child is much more nervous about holding its mother.  He suggested that perhaps it has to do with my reaction to the Cultural Revolution!

JX: I have a different question.  There is an earlier painting in the next room and it looks very different compared to this one, almost as though made by a different artist.  But you are the sole creator.  What is the connection?

LD: At that time, I was still in an experimental stage, trying to blend Western drawing techniques and Chinese brushwork together.  It was harder for me back then.   The paper on that piece was also really sensitive and absorbed ink differently.  The brush was hard to control and I struggled. I had not yet achieved the maturity I have today.  But that piece is special and important, because it represents vigilance and innocence; the kind of precious innocence only present at the beginning of a new artistic exploration. It was a landmark.

MH: Was that piece made before San Diego?

LD:  It was made after the San Diego piece. The San Diego piece was made in what my friends call ‘a suicidal way’; every brushstroke was made utilizing the middle point of the brush [中鋒].  It was risky and no one had done it before.  It was described as suicidal because I was pushing myself to a technical extreme, to a point of no return.  But only in that place of mind is there a chance of creating something completely new.  The paintings I do now have achieved a level of maturity, but that innocence discussed earlier is no longer there.

JX: Yes.  I remember, in that painting, you added an inscription to it.  That was very appropriate because you quoted Du-fu’s poem ‘hui da ling jue ding, yi lan zhong shan xiao’ [会当淩绝顶, 一览众山小], which means: ‘When you reach the peak (of Tai Mountain), every other mountain looks small’.  I think this is very appropriate for you.

LD: No, I don’t think the quote applies to me; I would be too bigheaded if I said so!

Ink Handscroll, 1990. Detail and Installation View, ink and color on paper, 37.6x7inch. Courtesy of the artist and the San Diego Museum of Art

HR: On another note, one of us wants to know – when you were fourteen, did you have a ponytail? (Laughter)

LD: When I was fourteen, no; it must have been impossible because that was when the Cultural Revolution started, I believe, the second year into the Cultural Revolution.  I couldn’t have had one then.  They even cut boys pants if the style was considered too fitted.  Girls skirts were also altered too if they were too loose or tight.  I think I started having the ponytail right when China began to open up.

HR: Sorry, we realized too late that this was a dumb question.  (More laughter)

JX: Maybe you can tell us a bit about your classical training.  One thing you present is allusions to the classical tradition.  How did you acquire all this depth and wealth of tradition?

LD: Well, you know, Chinese painting requires calligraphy as a foundation, and my grandfather gave me serious training when I was young.  Every step was important.  Training for calligraphy didn’t mean that he wanted me to be an artist; he really wanted me to be a gentleman of sorts.  He didn’t believe art could save China at the time.  But since I had this brush training when I was little, it was easy for me to get into classical Chinese painting training.  I had serious training of painting styles from different historical periods. If you ask me to do Ni Zan style or Wang Meng style, I can still do a visual demonstration.  It is in my blood.  But to have all this training is not enough to be an artist.  You have to add a new page to history; otherwise you are not making a contribution. But making history is not easy.  It is not about surpassing the masters who preceded us but more about opening new artistic vistas.  It is about doing the things they didn’t have a chance or the time to do.  We may have a chance to succeed and turn a new page in history, so we should never stop exploring!  Landscape painting affects and transforms an artist’s relationship with nature and the cosmic world.  The masters of the past always looked outwardly – what is it called…?

MK: Macrocosmic?

LD: Yes, a macrocosmic way of looking.  In 1987, I created a piece with seven panels, with the middle panel extending from the wall onto the floor.  From that painting I started to work on my own style; I shifted my vision from macro to micro. This is something the ancient masters didn’t do. The fact that I am doing it is not a coincidence as it refers to the age we live in and its scientific advancements. I hope this work and way of looking is a new page of the history of Chinese landscape painting.  I hope to bring ancient philosophy and new scientific thinking together, to provide a new perspective of nature, especially the relationship between nature and man.

JD: You have now moved back to China, having worked and lived in the US for a while.  How do you see the responses to your work from friends and colleagues in China, and are their responses different from those received in US?

LD:  They are different in some ways.  The Chinese know my background and training in both Western and Chinese classical styles.  In China, I haven’t really been showing my work in public places. I am not interested in climbing onto an ideological bandwagon.  When I first came to the United States, the purpose was to be an individual artist, and I refused to involve myself with any other ideology.  Today, in China, art is still mixed up with ideology and politics.  I could be touted as a good example of a modern Chinese man who has lived in the West but continues using highly traditional methods. I am not interested in serving any potentially ideological purpose.  I only believe in the integrity of art. I will continue encouraging younger generations in China to study Chinese artistic traditions and restore their connection with the past because this connection has been broken too long.  And of course, I will encourage them to learn from Western masters, to further broaden their artistic vision.  Personally, I don’t have any wild ambitions for China.  People are still stuck in the euphoria of China’s new material wealth. There is no real attention paid to culture and history.  When I’m there, I stay in my apartment and continue to do what I have been doing.

HR: Why Beijing?

LD: The reason I like living in Beijing is because it is easier for me to do research and find materials for my work, like papers, inks and brushes.  I can have any kind of brush made in Beijing.  I have done a lot of research on Chinese paper too; how Song Dynasty paper is made, Yuan Dynasty, or Qing Dynasty paper…how old masters used certain papers to achieve a particular result; Beijing allows me to maintain my method of painting.  There is opportunity for me to further my study and research in Chinese philosophy, literature, and Chinese artistic heritage.

JD: Well, unfortunately, I think we have to move on to our next event, but on behalf of everyone, I want to thank you, Liu Dan, for this compelling conversation.  Thank you so much for your great answers to all our questions.  We all look forward to talking with you again soon.


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