Conversation with Yang Jiechang, Martina Koppel-Yang & Zheng Shengtian
March 31, 2011
Museum of Chinese in America
215 Centre Street
New York, NY
On March 31st, 2011, as the concluding event to Asian Contemporary Art Week (ACAW), Asia Art Archive (AAA) presented its 1980s film From Jean-Paul Sartre to Teresa Teng: Contemporary Cantonese Art in the 1980s to an animated audience at the Museum of Chinese in America (MoCA). After the screening, Jane DeBevoise (Chair, AAA) moderated a Q&A session with artist Yang Jiechang, art historian Martina Koppel-Yang and critic Zheng Shengtian. The event was recorded by online radio station ArtonAir.org as part of ACAW’s Dialogues in Asian Contemporary Art (DACA), an online initiative launched by ACAW’s Director, Leeza Ahmady. The following document provides a revised transcription of the event and includes images from and of the 1980s.
Leeza Ahmady (LA): It is wonderful seeing so many of you today. Thank you for following Asian Contemporary Art Week (ACAW). Tonight is the last of our series; as many of you may know, this program concludes our 7th edition to ACAW, a collaboration of a number of galleries, museums, curators and collectors who first came together in 2001 with a vision to create critical public programming to highlight the best and emerging within contemporary Asian art. My personal goal has been to broaden the conversation as much as possible, and I feel that perhaps this year, we were quite successful at doing that. We had over 90 artists participating, 35 galleries and museums, and I think we covered almost every corner of Asia! Asia is not just represented by its geography – it is a territory that is incredibly vast with histories and philosophies that continue to give us the creativity we experience through artists today.
I want to take this opportunity to thank you for following us through all the openings and also thank all the participants who worked with us to make this possible. I too would like to thank all our sponsors, interns and of course, Asia Art Archive for making tonight’s event possible. I am very grateful.
Jane DeBevoise (JD): Thank you Leeza. Leeza has organized ACAW for many years, and it is incredibly complicated to have multiple organizations come together to present quality programming within a specific period of time. Thank you Leeza, we really appreciate this. I also want to thank Alice Mong, director of the Museum of Chinese in America, for taking a leap of faith with us. The Museum of Chinese in America is an old organization in a new space, and we greatly look forward to seeing how the museum progresses. Thank you for making this venue possible.
I will be brief with my introduction because we have a film to show and guest artists and critics to talk to you about the 1980s and their work. Asia Art Archive is a non-profit organization based in Hong Kong, with a small office here in New York, and acts as a library, research and educational platform for the study of contemporary art of and from Asia. We think of Asia not as an adjective but as a location. This project, Materials of the Future, is an archiving project focusing on the art activity and material collected about and of China during the 1980s. As many of you know, the 1980s was the period just after the Cultural Revolution. It was a transitional era, a period of sudden awakening and a period with a lot of intellectual movement, with an infiltration of ideas from the West, and a period of political change and economic reform. But for many reasons, it is still a complicated and vulnerable period in the history of China, with too few people investigating, discussing and debating it. So, [in order to address this gap] we decided to focus on the 1980s. Out of the archiving project came a number of issues – issues which we wanted to open for further discussion. For example, we realized little has been written about art in Guangdong. Remembering that we are an organization in Hong Kong, where the primary language is Cantonese, we decided it would be good to focus on art from Guangdong, from the southern region. It is rarely talked about, but some of the most interesting artists and critics have come out of this area – Hou Hanru, Chen Shaoxiong, Wang Du, Xu Tan, Yang Jiechang (whom we have here tonight), to name a few. Is there something about this region that makes their art the same or different? China is a country of regions, and we wanted to focus on this one. Now, we are not filmmakers – this is very DIY! – so if there are filmmakers in the audience, please be generous. We would love to have you at our archive as we have some incredible footage and primary materials.
What I am going to do tonight is show the 50-minute documentary film, and then we will have about twenty minutes for questions. Artist Yang Jiechang (whom you will see in the film) and his wife, art historian and critic Martina Koppel-Yang are here from Paris, as well as Zheng Shengtian who is here from Vancouver but who was also a professor in Hangzhou during the 1980s.
Last thing I want to say: we are crazy about books and so the film is structured like a book, with chapter prologues in text. So, you’ll have to read the chapter headings – I hope thy aren’t too fast or slow. We look forward to comments and questions afterwards, thank you.
For details regarding AAA’s 1980s project Materials of the Future and/or to view the trailer of AAA’s 1980s documentary film From Jean-Paul Sartre to Teresa Teng: Contemporary Cantonese Art in the 1980s, please click here.
For access to the film trailer on Youtube, please click here.
JD: Thank you again for coming and for staying for this Q&A period. I would like to briefly introduce our guests, and then I will start with one question before turning over to the floor.
Zheng Shengtian currently lives in Vancouver, Canada, but had previously been in Hangzhou for over thirty years. He started as a student at Hangzhou Academy in the 1950s, graduated in 1958, and then stayed on as a professor from 1958 through the end of the 1980s. He then came to the West and moved to Canada. He is an oil painter, but also an arts administrator, and in the 1980s was appointed Head of the Oil Painting Department as well as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Department at Hangzhou Academy, Hangzhou Academy being one of the most important art academies in China. It is great to have him here because he can provide some context to this film. One of the things I hope the audience was able to take away from the film was the introduction of books to China at the time and to the translations of books – which were new, exciting and transformative at that point in time.
Sheng, I’d like to ask you about books during the Cultural Revolution. What kind of access to books did Hangzhou Academy have, and what did that access do for those involved in writing and translating books during that period?
Zheng Shengtian (ZST): Let me start with 1950 – as you know, in 1949, China was cut-off from the rest of the world. When I entered the Academy, we had a very small library. Not just at our school, but also at the academies in Beijing and Guangzhou. We had a library of books dating from the 1930s and 1940s, so the only books we read were art catalogues published before WWII, and a few from the 1940s. For twenty years, the libraries in those academies didn’t have new acquisitions, other than books published in China, which were mostly originally in Chinese or translations with much information censored, due to Communist ideology. During the Cultural Revolution, books were taken away; even the small collection of books in our library were destroyed, removed, locked or burned. We weren’t able to read or engage new information for about thirty years. When the Revolution ended in 1976-77, there was a hunger for knowledge and books – people saw that there was hope and an opening of borders. As you watched in the documentary film – it was fashionable to have the new book in your hands. They were not easy to access– there was no art bookstore. Even in the 1980s, many publications were still government-controlled and not made available to the general public. If someone was able to gain access to a book, he would become quite popular – a bit like today, when someone has a desirable brand name item, becomes popular. We were the same with books. (Laughter)
The vacancy of our knowledge banks made us so curious about reading, about everything. I was fortunate to receive a grant to come to the United States in 1981. I spent two years here, and then traveled to Europe. When I returned to China, I brought many catalogues, books and slides back with me and was invited to lecture at almost every academy – I once gave a lecture for four hours, and even then, no one wanted to leave because people wanted to see more slides. I remember I had two hours before the lecture and then two hours after the lecture that day – I was so exhausted! That was the spirit of the 1980s. There was a fever for reading. For more than ten years [prior], we were taught only Mao’s thoughts and ideas. Books from the Soviet Union were not accessible during that time either. The 1980s was an incredibly important time in Chinese history. It prepared us for our future development.
JD: Can I ask another small question: if you could come up with one book that could be considered the most influential book for you, at that time, what would it be?
ZST: One book I remember quite well was a book by Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New. When I first came to America, I had pictured that modernism was everywhere and to be a certain way – and when I read this book, it stated that ‘modernism is over’. I thought, well, that’s really important! (Laughter)
I brought the book back to China and told my students ‘this is what we should know’. At that point I also invited several American art historians to come to Hangzhou to lecture too.
JD: Thank you, Sheng. Just to give a little background on Yang Jiechang, whom you saw in the film as well – he was born in Guangdong province, attended the Guangdong Art Academy, which again is one of the most prominent art academies in China, studied Chinese calligraphy and then later became a practitioner of experimental works, sometimes with other artists but oftentimes on his own in his studio, working on innovations in the ink tradition, making experimental works with ink on paper. Yang Jiechang was then chosen as one of three Chinese artists to participate in Magiciens de la Terre, which was a milestone exhibition Paris at the Centre Pompidou [in 1989]. After that, he started living in France and in Germany, and has been in many exhibitions and biennales since. His work is still rooted in Chinese ink tradition, but the works themselves are diverse and experimental. Perhaps to start, Yang Jiechang, could you tell us what your favorite or most influential book was during the 1980s? Was reading important to you? And while you are thinking about that, I’d like to re-introduce Martina Koppel-Yang, an art-historian and critic who has written one of the most important books on contemporary Chinese art of the 1980s [titled Semiotic Warfare] and whom also happens to be Yang Jiechang’s wife and our translator today.
Martina Koppel-Yang (MKY): Thank you Jane.
Yang Jiechang (YJC): Yes, I will still stick to speaking Chinese for now. I am grateful to Asia Art Archive, especially to Jane DeBevoise, for producing this documentary film. I was really very moved – especially by the last image, the memorial for Liang Juhui – it pretty much had me in tears. And Teresa Teng’s melodies too – I actually never liked her music, but it really moved me today.
The period in which I read the most was during the Cultural Revolution, from 1969 to 1976. I think many people often misunderstand the Cultural Revolution as a period of disaster, but for me, I learned a lot. As a leader of the Red Guard, my task was to read books – and to censor books. So for two years, I had no classes, but I had the responsibility to decide which books were to be censored and which to be kept, which should be burned or which should be distributed to manufacturers. So I learned classical Chinese during that time.
(note: this edition was published in 1970; Yang Jiechang read from an earlier edition at that time)
If Jane asked what I thought was the most important book, I would say it was ‘Ku Cai Hua’ – a translation of the title would probably be something like ‘Bitter Flower’ – because at the time, I had a hard time deciding whether it was a good or bad book. (Laughter) The book was about a young, beautiful and powerful Communist woman who, one night, was violated by a man, perhaps her lover or a traitor. I couldn’t decide whether it was a revolutionary book, or just an erotic novel. Now, looking back, I would say it was really post-modernist! (Laughter)
I think my experience is slightly different from other Chinese artists’ experiences, but the most influential texts for me were old Chinese literature texts, and today, I still rely on the Chinese brush.
JD: We don’t have much time, but if I may ask one more question before questions from the floor. This question relates to the theme of this movie, Cantonese art. When we came up with the title for the film, people were worried that there was no Cantonese art to talk about. But based on the documents we gathered, there seems to be a cultural characteristic of work coming out of South China.. What do you think about that?
YJC: Yes, there is something incredibly powerful there, I think. I think culture is not just a simple phenomenon – I think culture has to be dirty to be creative. I think Guangdong [the Cantonese region] is a place that allows for things to get dirty. (Laughter) If you look at recent Chinese history, you’ll see that many movements came out of Canton – the Opium Wars, Kang Youwei or Liang Qichao, or even the Heavenly Kingdom [of Great Peace] – these were all initiated in the Canton region. Later, Sun Yat-sen created the Huangpu Military Academy [Whampoa Military Academy], there was also Chiang Kai-shek and even Mao Zedong too, who initiated the peasant movement in the Canton region.
In the film, you saw the artist Li Zhengtian, who, during the Cultural Revolution, was one of three Chinese artists to speak out about democracy and the legal system in China. Even the economic reformations prompted by Deng Xiaoping or Ye Jianying were started in Guangdong. Ye Jianying voted for a federalist system in China, whilst Deng Xiaoping voted for a more centralized system. So, I think there is certainly a special contemporary Cantonese consciousness. It’s a dirty place! (Laughter)
ZST: I’ll give you an example. In 2000, I brought several western important curators to China. In Hangzhou, we had a meeting at the Academy – a well-organized, institutional event. In Beijing, we had our meeting in a governmental building – it was a surprise to the guards to see these foreigners coming. But in Guangzhou, artist Xu Tan took us to a mysterious place – I didn’t recognize the place when we entered – it looked like a restaurant, but it wasn’t. In the middle of the room there was a pole – it was a strip club! (Laughter)
JD: Politics, academics and pornography – there you have the cultural stereotypes right there. I would now like to open the floor to questions –
Audience: When did you first see images of modern western art?
YJC: I think it was around 1979 – images from Taiwan.
JD: There was a magazine from Taiwan called ‘Lion Art Monthly’ – the gentleman who published it was very interested in contemporary art and also did a lot of reporting on the ’85 Movement – the magazine itself was very well edited and managed and came to China through visitors, tradesmen and students.
Audience: What about slide presentations of modern western art, given at the Guangzhou Academy –
JD: …by Madame Cohen, the lady asking the question –
YJC: Yes, Madame Cohen, I remember her lectures and meeting her –
MKY: (As a whisper, in Chinese) You’re speaking to Madame Cohen right now!
YJC: Oh my goodness! Right, yes! Whoa!!
You gave a lecture in 1979 after which point many students followed you to America. So it was you!
JD: The person we are talking about is Joan Lebold Cohen, who was living in China at that time –
YJC: You are really a hero! (Laughter)
Audience: I noticed there were no women represented in the film; what was the placement of women in the 1980s?
JD: I knew that question was coming, especially being a woman and being very concerned about this. It is a complicated issue. Sheng, maybe you would like to answer this question? Zheng Shengtian was a professor at the Hangzhou Academy and actually had a number of female students.
ZST: I don’t know how many women artists in Guangzhou participated in this artistic movement, but in Hangzhou and Shanghai, there were quite a few very good female artists – many who are still quite active in the arts today. One example is Huang Yongping’s wife, Shen Yuan, who has remained incredibly active. Of course, in terms of the ratio, there are fewer female artists than male artists – it was difficult in the 1960-70s for women to be accepted into universities. It’s still not easy, but it’s better now.
YJC: I think in my class, there were only two female students. One followed Madame Cohen to America. (Laughter)
JD: This is an important question, and we are very conscious of this issue. One of the things we are doing is trying to find some of the women from the ‘80s to help answer these questions for us, and we are working on it. My personal feeling is that there were quite a lot of women practicing art, but over time, they have decided to do other things, for some, it’s been very difficult to continue their art practice, for economic reasons, but for many, there are some strong social reasons as to why they have not continued their work – and for whatever reason, have not been championed by the art historians who are mostly men.
Audience: Do you think there is a divide between northern artists and southern artists today – I feel there is a distinct group that is coming out of Beijing, for example?
JD: One reason we decided to make this film was because many of the art historians and spokespeople for contemporary art are from Beijing. Whether it is out of distance or ignorance or cultural difference, the history of contemporary Chinese art has been written and promoted by people from the north. And one tends to promote the people around oneself. This is natural. So – we felt this was actually something that needed to addressed and redressed. There was a lot of action in the south, but little illustrated in the history books.
But in all fairness, Beijing-today is a center for contemporary art. The economic and foreign community within Beijing was a stronger sponsor and supporter of the arts in the 1980s and still is.
YJC: I think the Cantonese are arrogant – the Cantonese just don’t care. They think they are masters, and even if money doesn’t come through, they still make art. I think in Beijing much of success is surrounded by art [monetary] value.
Audience: As a follow up to your statement about the histories of contemporary art being written in Beijing, I am very interested to know about the books that were being translated into Chinese, as represented in the film. Were the translations that were done earlier (like Hegel and Sartre) simply re-circulated in the ‘80s? Were they originally translated and published in Beijing or were new translations of these books published in Taiwan or Hong Kong? When were they made?
JD: That is a very good question. Sheng, perhaps you would like to answer?
ZST: I think very few books by western philosophers and writers were translated before the Cultural Revolution. But after the Cultural Revolution, when the ban was raised, people were allowed to translate. The decisions made (regarding what to translate) were first made by scholars, by those who had access and knowledge about these books.
Of course, these scholars were from major universities- Beijing University, Fudan University… the centers for Chinese intellectuals – they had the opportunity to choose books for publishing. I think the choices made were pretty random at the time. There wasn’t enough time to translate all books, and it was hard to give time and space to pickiness because of the inflow and demand. Even now, we still don’t have a complete list of most important western books.
YJC: I think it was also through political needs – because translating a book takes a long time. You need a group of people behind the process to help promote it too – there must have been a direct relationship to the central government. The books that I could read in the early 80s were already in the works to be published during the late 70s. Maybe it arrived during the period of the struggle between Deng Xiaoping and Hua Guofeng. But, when Deng Xiaoping was really in power, he prohibited these things and always talked about ‘Spiritual Pollution’. Maybe it was like this – this is only my opinion.
ZST: We have to remember that China had some very good translators and scholars, educated in the 1930s and 40s. During and after the Cultural Revolution, some of them were still alive but they were not allowed to publish anything publicly. Some were hired by the government to publish ‘internal publications’, which were only books available for high-ranking cadres or a small elite group. Those books, after the Cultural Revolution, were re-published to the public.
JD: This is actually a dissertation topic that I hope some of you will take on! Just to note, many of these translations were not full books, but digests in translation, and they were coming out quite fast. And, like what Zheng Shengtian was saying earlier, there were all these scholars who had been sitting around and maybe working for the internal press [neibu duwu], but [after the Cultural Revolution] they were really excited about getting the material out there. If you look at those books, they were thin and they came out in digest-series. So – for students out there, this is an incredibly interesting project, and Asia Art Archive has also collected most of these books/digests, as published during that time.
Audience: I would like to ask Yang Jiechang, how is it different to work in the diaspora? As you said, the Cantonese art practice was and is very much linked to everyday life.
YJC: I like the answer as given by an artist and friend of mine, Michael Lin. When Michael was asked whether he was an ‘Overseas Chinese Artist’, he said ‘Yes, I am Chinese and I’m flying overseas most of the time’. That’s how I feel about his situation too. I think we shouldn’t always think in terms of nationalities – this is rather old-fashioned. I think artists should go further to be more free in this respect and to have these aspects of practice fade out, to overcome notions like nationality, religion, ethnicity and gender.
JD: Well, on that note, I want to thank everyone for coming, and most importantly to Yang Jiechang, for coming here from Paris having just flown back from Beijing two days ago – so he has done a round-the-world trip. To Martina, for coming from Paris too and for her wonderful translations today, and to Zheng Shengtian, for joining us from Vancouver.
Before we end, I would like to introduce Yishu magazine, the most important English language magazine about contemporary Chinese art of which Zheng Shengtian is founder and managing editor. There are a few copies here which you can peruse. Also, we have a few catalogues of Yang Jiechang’s work, which we didn’t talk about today, but which you can take a look at. Thank you very much.
Recording courtesy of ArtonAir.org and ACAW2011
All images courtesy of AAA-A, MoCA and ACAW2011 unless otherwise noted
Responses given by Yang Jiechang have been revised from the translations provided by Martina Koppel-Yang (as translated during the event), courtesy of Martina Koppel-Yang
Transcribed and revised by Ali Van
For more information regarding ACAW, please click here.
For more information regarding MoCA’s programs and events, please click here.
For more information regarding AAA’s 1980s project ‘Materials of the Future’, please click here.