Silkscreen Printer/Mixed Media
Interview on 11th July at Wagas, Tai Koo Li, Chengdu
KL: Let's start by you introducing yourself, how you came to be here and what you do?
B: What do you wanna know? I’ve been here now for almost six years. I came here from Vancouver where I was working construction, overseeing projects in the city. Just by chance I met a guy from Chengdu and he invited me out here, and I was kind of at the time just done with Vancouver. I’d spent four years there and I felt it was time to move on, though I didn’t really know where I was going to go to so I just went with the flow and thought, fuck it, why not?
KL: Tell us about your art.
B: When I came out of the contract which was middle of 2013 I decided to set up a silk screen studio. I'd always had an interest in it but I'd never really got my hands to it and I just started experimenting really. I found a studio, and got a little bit of equipment in. By sheer chance, it just happened to be at the time that a guy who was working for Takashi Murakami was here in Chengdu just bouncing around himself trying to take in a bit of the culture. He was looking at calligraphy, actually. I'm not sure how I got in touch with him. I think it was through Chengdu Living, and he came and helped us out when we opened the studio. That was awesome because I didn't really have a clue what I was doing. As a side note I should also mention Gregor Koerting of 'Idle Beats' Shanghai (check out idlebeats.com). A great guy whom I was lucky enough to spend a day with back in 2012 at his then silk-screen studio. He's since moved to an expanded location (Shanghai) where he continues to run open silk-screen workshops, alongside creating his own print works. I love the accessibility of what he does, opening up the creative process of printmaking to the general public. I was at the opening of his new studio last year, and everyone in that place was smiling. It would be great to see more people doing the same. After my own studio opening I eventually realised the reason why silk-screen talks to me is that it's a very hands-on, accessible medium, and you can make mistakes with it and those mistakes can actually end up in the work. It can be a part of the work. Some of the mistakes I have made have ended up bringing great effects to things that I've done. It's like a happy accident, you know. I love that, I think about things very visually so I'm always thinking about process. When I'm working and when I'm not working, most of the time I'm generating images in my mind by thinking of the process and trying to think of things that haven't been done with silk-screen printing. If you could see my notes for images it would be literally diagrams of process with an image in mind and that’s the way it goes.
KL: I think there is something wonderfully Chinese about that. We spoke before the interview about when you are actually trying to get a project done, often it’s just brick wall after brick wall but so many things happen easily in China as happy accidents. It’s almost like the only way they can work. Do you think there are other ways that China or Chengdu influence the work that you do?
B: Definitely the freedom of structure here. You know yourself, if you've been here long enough, that sometimes to get things done here is just infuriating because there is no logic at work, so when you're expecting a thing to go a certain way and it makes perfect sense that that's the only way that it can go, it won't go that way. But, there's a freedom to that too because you're always having to circumvent those situations, and that forces you to think outside the box. It's the same for me with the artwork. This isn't the first time as well. When I was younger I was very much into graffiti and illustration and a bit of photography. I can tell you what actually happened was when I left university and went back to my hometown for a short time, everything that I owned effectively, including my artwork, my materials, my tools, all went into storage. When I got myself sorted back home I went to go pick everything back up it turned out to have been stolen. Everything. Everything basically that I'd held onto. So for example with the graffiti when I would do a piece, I'd shoot what I'd created to transparency because part of what I was doing when I was younger was making backdrops to warehouse parties and underground squat parties that my friends and I were staging. We would go into the property every time and decorate it out. The only way to keep a record of that work was to photograph it. Basically, the record I had of all the work that I'd done was just gone and I was fucking devastated. So, for the next 15 years, I pretty much didn't create anything artistically at all, with the exception of a little music production. Nothing visually though, I just didn't know where to begin. Again, answering your question, being in China, that looseness, that openness, it gave me the space to get back into it.
KL: Do you find that now with the artwork that you do, I’m sure a lot of passion goes into it, but at the same time, have you got that Zen feeling that once this is out of me that you can cope with the feeling of losing it again? Or would it break you?
B: No, I don’t think it would. I’m usually really heavily invested in my work, mentally, physically, spiritually, whatever you want to call it, often to the point that when it’s done, I just want rid of it. I’m so expended by it. I want it to be gone so I can free my thoughts of it. Going further I’ll even end up hating the work, very often, more often than not I’m so displeased. People will say 'we love it' and it’s great but it means nothing, I’m like, just get it away from me! Some of that is left brain thinking, too, because I am quite left-brain. I like things to have a certain order if there was a picture in my space that I wasn't happy with it would be buzzing at me and I'd have to get it out. I've actually destroyed a lot of work under the same basis. Looking at a finished piece I'm still looking at the process, and seeing where I could have improved upon it. I'm not sure I'd want to change that approach though now I think of it, it pressures me to reach further creatively. And while it might be nice to be prolific in terms of output, I'd be fearful of that becoming somewhat generic, and that's the last thing I want to be.
KL: It seems that you were very fortunate to have Murakami’s assistant coming to help you when you set up your studio. Is that reflective of what it’s like in the scene here in Chengdu as far as being able to infiltrate the scene? Do you think it’s easy to make connections and get respect in this environment?
B: No, I think there’s a huge problem with that here. I see a lot of really, really talented artists suffering on account of that.
KL: What are the blocks? What prevents that happening?
B: I think there’s a lot of adopted attitudes that have been around for a long time and a lot of that has to do with tradition, and what’s deemed to be correct Chinese culture, authentic Chinese culture, whatever you want to call it. There’s a real resistance to anything that’s truly unique or new and I don’t think that’s universal because people are definitely open to what’s new, but it feels like there’s always this expected conformity. You know, you’ll hear people say that an oil painting is worth more than an acrylic or something like that. It's like, why!? That sort of thing deeply frustrates me because I’ve personally made many visits to studios of artists in the city, and some of the work is fucking mind-blowing, it really is, but it doesn’t get out. No one sees it. These artists are being told, even if they're not being told directly, they're being told by the market or the environment that their work has no value. Then you'll see artists in this situation forced to sell their work by measuring it and selling by price per square metre. This is just absurd. I know that serves a purpose and helps put money in their pocket but it doesn't do anything for getting the work out there and getting it the credit that it deserves.
KL: How can that be remedied in your opinion? You spoke earlier about the project that you’re doing with Martin.
B: People need to start looking at the artistic merit of work first and thinking about monetary value second.
KL: But where does that come from, an artistic education?
B: No, I think there needs to be a certain amount of altruism from people in the city who maybe have a position themselves already, be it business owners, real estate owners, I don't know. I was saying to you earlier, one of the things I've been doing here is approaching owners or managers of properties where there is available space and trying to encourage them to make, at least a portion of that space available for something co-operative where they can create a focal point for artists to be able to come together, and for people to see that coming together - to create unity. There's a lot here, that's the thing, there's a lot in the city but it's very disconnected and spread out. There are these little pockets. You have apartment buildings with artist's studios that you'd never guess. They're just apartment blocks on the street and there's no indication or direction, there's no promotion of that anywhere. It's invisible. No one sees it but there are people in there working and creating.
KL: As far as the value of art, with silk-screen, how is that viewed?
B: Very cheaply [laughs]. Yeah, it depends. I mentioned to you earlier the Blue Roof [art gallery and studios], there is out there a master Japanese silk-screen and lithographic printer who was brought out to Chengdu specifically by the owners of the Blue Roof compound, and he is producing phenomenally high standard work. He has a huge space, great equipment, and a very, very clean environment. He's checking humidity and air quality in the space constantly and he has a team working for him. Some of the people working for him, their job is just solely to reproduce colour. What he's doing is producing really high-level reproductions of famous work from Sichuan artists for the Blue Roof. Some of those prints will sell for 80,000 RMB and up. But he's in the upper echelon of that. He's something like 70 years old and has been doing it for most of his life. His studio makes me very envious. I'm at the other end. It's worth noting actually that Silk-screen as a medium has produced two of the twenty most expensive artworks of all time, both works by Andy Warhol ('Eight Elvises' at $109.9 million USD, and 'Silver Car Crash' at $107.1 USD). Takashi Murakami has himself sold prints at $1 million USD and above.
KL: I hadn’t realised humidity was such a problem and, if it is, it definitely would be here in Chengdu? How does it impact on the technical aspects of getting your print to work?
B: It impacts on the viscosity of the inks, the drying time. That’s essentially it. He’s looking to achieve as much control of the printing process as possible.
KL: Are you doing the same?
B: No, I can be sitting around waiting for two, three days for ink to dry sometimes, literally. I might be able to do it with a fan or a hairdryer but it's not the same. My working process is very different though, I want there to be 'live' elements in my work, I'm not looking for perfection in reproduction, and I'm generally making single unique pieces, not editions.
KL: So, is Chengdu just not the greatest environment to do silk-screen printing?
B: I think that’s more a question of money. If I was to sink more money into my studio, I’m sure I could achieve an environment that was perfectly acceptable for working. I mean, with me, firstly, when anybody starts talking about my work, I say I haven’t done that much because I’m not very prolific because this has been a purely personal experiment for me. I’d like to be more prolific but I can only do that if I have the money to throw into it because it hasn’t really made me any return so far, it’s cost me. It’s been a purely personal project. The fact people have liked what I’ve done and I’ve had a bit of exposure is just a bonus.
KL: Is there anything else you want to say that we haven’t covered?
B: China has been one of the most awesome experiences of my life. I'm 44 now and though I've travelled to, and lived in many different countries/cities, coming here has really taken me out of the bubble of my own bias, my own cultural regimen, indoctrination, proximity even. It's really allowed me to look back at all that and see what's wrong with it actually. On a deeply human level what I see saddens me, and worries me for the future. That drives a lot of what I'm doing. If there's any remote opportunity to make a difference to even a single person's perception, even for the briefest of moments, that might be worth my efforts. Perhaps they then take that out into the world as their own, with an idea or sentiment that resonates as positive change. Pushing further if we're luckier still, this translates to disrupting social norms and the conformity these norms are tied to. Conformity is going to be the death of us all.