Painter and VJ
Interview on October 21, 2015, on Wechat waves somewhere nondescript between Beijing and France
JF: You're in France at the moment.
Chai Mi: I'm participating in a month-long residency project in a monastery in southern France in the Loire Valley region, and is a new art piece of mine. I'm using black and white ink and paper to draw circles that morph into squares while painting and back into circles, and in between there's a multitude of possibilities that could take place.
JF: I like the idea, it could be an infinite (∞) process, sort of a meditation, where did the inspiration come from?
ChM: Last year, while making an animation about creativity for children, using wooden blocks, I discovered the fact that, for instance, squares, rectangles, and triangles can be endlessly joined together to form new shapes. It made me think of an old, maybe even 1000-year-old Chinese proverb: 方圆之道 (fang yuan zhi dao), which means that we should be "squared" inside, trying to be a good human being or a citizen, sticking to moral rules etc. and we should be "round" or “smooth” on the outside, while interacting with other people, because this way the "damage" is smaller. But then it made me think again, that it's actually quite the opposite, a circle is more of an "independent" kind of shape, and a square links more easily with another square. Since many of us want to be independent but at the same time interact with other people, then maybe we should change the order of the words in the saying. Later, it turned into a thing I was thinking of all the time, and I immersed myself into drawing or painting these circles and squares constantly.
JF: Are you often influenced by things like literature, proverbs or common phrases etc.?
ChM: I think the things that influence me are multi-layered, it could be literature or the environment, some things I am currently interested in, things that come up while reflecting. These days, I am more into designing and finding logic in projects I do. The two ways of thinking, either square/circle on the inside/outside or the other way round, could both be correct and both make sense, so I designed or planned this painting and drawing process, from square to circle and forth and so on, so it's as if I was making an experiment, testing these ideas through painting every day the same thing.
JF: It reminds a lot of meditation, do you think it's the monastery?
ChM: The monastery is indeed a very tranquil a place, very good for creating, all of the residency participants stay in one place to work on their pieces, we can all see what the other is doing and talk about it or discuss more complex ideas that come up, I like that. Some artists, who prefer more intimate space they just go to work in the room where we sleep.
JF: Are there any rules, or a timetable you have to respect? Do people in the monastery prepare any activities for you?
ChM: No rules, it's all up to you. There are some seminars and conferences, which people from outside of the project participate in, there are workshops for children, master classes on animation, talks about art works that is being created here etc.
JF: Any monks there?
ChM: There are no monks here anymore, it's a cultural organization now. It's a huge place, including the buildings and the terrain surrounding it. There's many small exhibitions and big art installations within the premises, there are workshops for children organized here every now and then. There's a river nearby, it's the Loire river area, where there's many old castles and other pieces of architecture around, so at the same time it's a very popular tourist destination.
JF: How many times have you participated in a residency program so far?
ChM: It must be my fourth residency program. The one before it was in Vienna, before that in China and yet before in Quebec city.
JF: Which one did you like most?
ChM: Can't compare, really. Each time it's a short period of living and experiencing a different environment and every place has its special, particular character, and in every place I encountered/did different things, too.
JF: Do you think residency programs influence you in a good way or in any way?
ChM: I am not sure how participating in residency projects influences me, it's probably not about any direct change in the way I draw or paint, it's more about the opportunity to travel and show my works in different parts of the world, about interacting with people with different cultural backgrounds. It's also an affirmation of an artist by culture and art institutions.
JF: When did you start being interested into art?
ChM: Maybe since I was 2 or 3 I started messing around on the paper, drawing just like kids do, and since then I always sketched and drew. There was a period of time, just before enrolling into a fine art academy, I went through many prep courses and this made me stop painting for a while. I started painting again in 2011.
JF: What do your parents do? Did they encourage you to follow the art path?
ChM: My mum is an accountant, my dad works in a trade company. They did actually support me and encourage me to paint.
JF: After graduating from CAFA (Central Academy of Fine Art), you did go to work in a corporation though?
ChM: Yes, it was the time when I got to dislike art somehow, and I lost interest in pure art, so I just followed my heart and learned some design. I spent three years in a big computer-selling company. While at work, I realized I can't really control my need for drawing and painting, so slowly I decided to try to become a freelancer and continue with my own art ideas.
JF: The time you spent at work was actually good to boost your creativity.
ChM: When you graduate, you're faced with many choices, you can continue learning, you can look for work or work part time etc. At the time I felt like I needed to go and find a job, to become independent financially, and become real part of society. But then after a while these motivations slowly diminished. I think it's a part of life experience and actually it did stimulate me to create art pieces connected to it, namely Outside World and Bird. It was a computer-selling corporation, where I was exposed to electronic equipment and software, things more virtual or fictional in a sense, and now I want to distance myself from this kind of work, I want something more tangible, creating things with my hands, which feels more natural.
JF: How long has it been since you've resigned?
ChM: It's been almost five years.
JF: Is it easy to make a living?
ChM: To make a living, it's okay [laugh]. Some income comes from commissioned work I get from people and friends, but there is more of creative work that comes from within myself, the ideas I realize myself or with others, for instance some live acts.
JF: What do you think about art sales?
ChM: It's rational, it makes sense - an artist has to live somehow.
JF: Is there any art medium you prefer?
ChM: Not really, I will chose it according to my liking and in link to my idea of whatever project I am working on, which will make me as close to answering some questions I am digesting through the artwork as possible. Sometimes it's animation, sometimes it's live performance, sometimes the clash of different media will result in bringing a new idea. I think I experiment constantly.
JF: Are there any particular questions you ask yourself?
ChM: It's all different, sometimes it's long-term issues, sometimes it's just something that affected me just a minute ago, it might be quite incoherent. Lately, I've been reflecting on 'contemporary' versus 'traditional' art and other ideas. Since I have had more opportunities to travel abroad these days, I noticed that there's a clear difference of art state or practice in China and abroad. In China we tend to prefer traditional art techniques. This difference ,or call it juxtaposition, gave me a lot to think about. For instance, last year I participated in a three-month project in Suzhou (NAME) where I learned a lot of traditional techniques of art making. In China we really love ideas coming from the West, but when I have the opportunity to leave China I realize more strongly I am Chinese, I come from this traditional background, and there's a huge difference between the two places. I think this has been influencing me a lot in the last two years, and even this project now, I think I use more eastern, traditional techniques or modes of thinking. At the same time I employ contemporary methods or ways of producing and designing. From this, you can obtain a new, different result.
JF: We discover our roots and identity the better the further we are from home, it seems.
ChM: Maybe. At least it is for me. Although I was obviously a Chinese person before going abroad and I knew it, but travelling or leaving the country makes you accept the fact of who you are even more. It also made me more curious about Chinese history and art but as well - I'm becoming more aware of what's happening around me now. I'm pulled by the two forces at the same time. And in this, I am looking for my own artwork and my identity, some place or relation between these two possibilities.
Chai Mi (柴觅) is a young female artist, experimenting with various types of media, such as painting, drawing, paper craft and visual performances incorporating the first three, and more. She’s fought the urge to continue the stable financial independence of 3 years experience selling computers and software, and switched to the free-lance mode instead (which served her well). She’s been engaged in VJ live acts with thruoutin, a sound artist from USA, as well as other artists of all sorts. Chai Mi currently lives in Beijing (at least most of the year).
Interview on 11th September in the extremely loud not-café-like-surroundings of Moka Bros in Sanlitun finding shelter from the rain.
JF: Niu Han, you grew up in New Zealand, but your parents are Chinese, where do you think you belong?
Niu Han: I think it did bother me some time ago, when I faced this cliché cultural identity question, but then from my own perspective it's always been out of the question: I am Chinese. My reading, the way I perceive the world, my history, in the end I think it has much more to do with China than it has to do with NZ. I have always maintained a deep interest in studying Chinese history, especially from late 1800s up till now, how things came about etcetera. I personally do not share quite the same fascination over the Colonial history of New Zealand. Of course, I really cherish the time I spent there, New Zealand is a beautiful country.
JF: Wasn't it the most of your life?
NH: I was born in Xian, but I moved to NZ at the age of ten. I also lived in the US for a bit, so I lived out of China some 10 or 12 years only.
JF: Do you feel at home now?
NH: Yeah, I think so. This is my homeland.
JF: The films you made - I've seen one feature film, the Land of Nobody, and a short, Melancholia I, were all made in NZ.
NH: So far, I've made one feature-length film, one medium-length and several short films, none of which have been released, which I've been making since I started attending art school. I was trained in painting. I was good at it, I was winning prizes in high school, then when I went to art school – the pursuit for good painting suddenly became irrelevant – post-modernism or avant-garde, the whole system was encouraging this kind of art. Which I didn't really find liberating, quite on the contrary: I found it quite limiting at times, because it's not art, it shatters my whole thinking of what art is. Of course thinking in retrospect, I think it was quite fresh and world-changing, but at that time I was confused, because I used to train to paint properly. In retrospect I think it was the abrupt transition for me personally to move from a pre-modernist painter to post-modernism that confused me.
JF: You were a little bit lost in this freedom?
NH: Yeah, lost, people would make art with cardboard or with trash, and conceptual stuff, like running around naked, and I felt 'oh god', I tried to struggle, and then I started experimenting with video in that. I lost interest in video art very quickly, I just thought it was random dots and blurry stuff, but then my interest in narrative film grew. I wanted to construct something solid, meaningful, and which at the same time has the aesthetics of a classical painting.
JF: You made it: the frames in the films you created, are quite painting-like.
NH: Thank you, I take it as a compliment. Land of Nobody was originally a story of a kid, who's running away from school in NZ. But at the time I had suddenly lost the interest in making the film to only illustrate the story – I felt that a film can be more than that. So during the shooting, I pretty much discarded the story line, I started with nothing, rebuilt it from the ground up.
JF: Is that why there is a parallel story of the two guys who seem to come from a different era and lost in time wandering around the melancholic plateaus? It could be a parallel reality, it could be a dream.
NH: Yeah, it's supposed to be a dream. You saw the first preview version we screened at Penghao Theatre [and just a few months later] the China Film Archive version screened was totally different and better. But the film is never officially finished, I'm re-cutting the film again and making changes and enhancements to the sound track.
JF: I think you're a perfectionist.
NH: I just want to reach the solid structure that's kind of perfect. But anyway, I've moved onto new projects and I have three films I've been pushing forward, all Chinese this time. One of them will soon be presented at the Venice biennale, so we are going to Venice for pitching. Wang You (王悠) was also involved in the creative process. Shen Wei (沈巍), my friend [the director of first Chinese staging of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi], he's helping me to produce, so we've formed a team. We hope to get this funding next month [this month, actually] in Venice and then shoot next year. It's about a man turning into a cube.
JF: That is going to be something quite abstract then...? Is it a feature film or an animation?
NH: It's a feature film with live effects, too.
JF: What's your motivation behind it?
NH: I wanted to make a film about a self-made monster, an outsider who fails to conform - he becomes the crazy one who deforms. You see we are made of an unlimited number of shapes and are made of endless amount of cells and sides, which break naturally into crazy organic shapes, whereas, computer games, for instance, they're a construction made of a limited number of polygons, I was wandering whether somebody can turn from the infinite human being and number of shapes into a limited one. But that's not the core of the film, I guess it's about being outside and coming to accept inferiority or superiority, I don't know which one exactly.
JF: I guess if you are able to sum up the whole idea of the film in one sentence, that's already it, you've got it. Often times, artists cannot really say what is it what they're doing.
NH: Well, I think this is probably the charm of contemporary art. I'm now doing a PhD under Professor Xu Bing (徐冰) at CAFA [Central Academy of Arts in Beijing] , and I'm trying to figure out what contemporary art actually means. And I'm thinking that for me now the whole art system is somewhat based upon celebrating the boredom of the bourgeoisie, we/they need boredom. Boredom is a noble thing.
JF: Exactly. Child psychologists say that boredom is considered crucial for children to develop creativity or interest in the world.
NH: Could be a cool name for a bar. Boredom.无聊. I think the whole art is probably based on this notion and a play on that. Bourgeois boredom to me is that people think they're so cool that everything else is boring. If something is exciting, that's probably not art.
JF: Reflection (more likely to be associated with art) is slow.
NH: So yeah, boredom. I hate boredom.
JF: I don't think you're ever bored, I would say you're quite hyperactive .You're always doing things! What were the two plays you prepared for Nanluoguxiang Theatre Festival this year?
NH: I had co-written and directed three plays , together with Shen Wei, but one of them was canned by the censors. That play was meant to be the last scene of Romeo and Juliet, the last scene of their departing, the suicide scene. The dialogue was to be taken from a random document. So we replaced the lines but kept the emotions. That was the idea. But the document we chose was some non-related government document about football, so the censors didn't accept it. It's actually quite hard to put it together, our actors tried, it's not too easy, to perform the roles of Romeo and Juliet and talk about random stuff.
JF: It's as if you tried to input text to a computer and expected it came up with emotions.
NH: Yeah, something like that. We want to play more with this juxtaposition. The other two plays, one was called Mania and the other one was West. We showed the latter one already last year at Wuzhen Festival . It got into top three in the competition.
JF: Who are your actors?
NH: Those who are wiling to play and able to perform are my actors. I like to work with talented actors from any background as well as non-professionals. Good actors – no matter whether or not they are trained, can bring so much to a film or theatre play.
JF: How much one can do with your time... Do you ever sleep?
NH: I do sleep a lot.
JF: In the meantime you're also doing PhD, do you have to deliver lectures?
NH: Not yet, I am still relatively new to CAFA – I’ve been asked to design a moving image course syllabus for undergraduates and am still working on it.
JF: You're engaged in so many different types of media: film, theatre, painting, which one of them do you fancy most?
NH: I would like to start painting again, it's fundamental for me, straight from the heart. What do I feel at most at ease with... I think it's film. Cinema is my medium. I don't really like video, I'm still trying to figure out what it is. I dug out an old camera and tried to make a video film, just to see what video really is. Film, a good and well-constructed moving image, that's something I feel good with.
JF: You said you were bored with story-telling though. Would you like to go into something more abstract then?
NH: I was bored with story-telling, but that was some dead-end. Now I'm back on that perch. There are certain modes of story-telling I don't believe in. I want to do some human-stories that build deeper experiences, as opposed to tactical story-telling in trying to get people hooked, where you set up a protagonist, you get all these events that obstruct the character - I want to rise above the gimmicks – when you can see the whole "game", it gets boring. Storytelling has been there for thousands of years and I guess being told stories is a part of being human, abstraction is not necessarily anti-story.
JF: Yes and now. We are looking for ways to free ourselves.
NH: But I realize that even dreams are not abstract, they're stories. We're not abstract. It's more sophisticated to be a realist than to be an abstractionist.
JF: To be loyal to the reality? I come across this obstacle when I think something and then want to transfer it into a written or spoken word. It usually doesn't come out the way I am thinking it. Do you like writing?
NH: I like writing but I realize that I'm so limited in it, it's so bad, you don't want to read it.
JF: You write scripts.
NH: I know, but scripts are just blue-prints of what I mean, what I want to do. I change them all the time. I do believe in shooting it though. The next film I want to do I want to shoot on celluloid film. It's much harder to get and it's much more limited as a medium. You can't shoot so much and you can't see what you've shot. It's kind of scary, but I want to work with this limitation.
JF: Do you know where your creative force [creative juice, says NH, laughing] comes from? Your parents, your upbringing?
NH: I think humans can't really create out of nothing, we're only re-interpreting our own experiences, I don't know about creating. Some things come from dreams.
JF: Motivation then?
NH: Just the fact that I want to do something, I want to get it made.
Niu Han (牛涵), is a born-in-the-eighties filmmaker (Melancholia, Freedom Hills, Land of Nobody), playwright (West, Mania) and a restless perfectionist. While contemplating what is the meaning of contemporary art at his PhD course at CAFA, he's actively seeking the ways of expression through the means of painting, participation in theatre festivals and also (mostly) independent film undertakings.
More info: niufilm.com
Watch the play West (西), please click the sixth video clip from the top
Interview on 21st August 2015 at what friends refer to as "the cockroach restaurant" in Guomao/Jianguomen
JF: Have you been interviewed many times before?
Lei Lei: No, not many.
JF: Do you like to be interviewed?
LL: Actually, I do like to be interviewed because, as a lonely young man, you don't have that much chance to tell people what you think. As time passes, you have some updates in mind and you just want to have an interview to tell people what you think.
JF: Do you have a website where you, for instance, write, instead of talking to someone?
LL: A few years ago we had a blog, but then we stopped after two years, because Weibo and WeChat appeared, so we started using those to share some photos and ideas. But these media are too brief, the message is too short, I don't think it's enough for us to talk about ourselves. Sometimes I write something if I come up with a new work, I write something about it if public or a festival needs a statement or a project introduction but that's it.
JF: You used words "us" instead of "me" or "I", who do you mean exactly?
LL: "Us" means "the Chinese" perhaps, young Chinese people.
JF: For a moment I thought you mean Thomas Sauvin with whom you collaborate a lot or some other friends you used to cooperate with.
LL: I probably mean a group, such as young Chinese artists as a collective.
JF: When was your last interview you had?
LL: I remember the last interview was by an art student, who interviewed me through WeChat and it was about our project with TS called Recycled. I think now she works as an assistant at TS's studio. It was part of her study for her dissertation.
JF: Please elaborate a bit about the project Recycled.
LL: I think it's changed the way I do my animations. Before I used to use a lot of colour and I used to know what result I was aiming at while making the film, but with Recycled we just set up some rules and we followed them without knowing exactly what we were looking for. It's totally different than how I usually work. Also, my animation would usually have a story I wanted to tell but this time it was more about asking myself some questions, like what is the relationship between me and the photos. While movie-making I try to find the answers.
JF: You think it influences the way you approach your own, individual work now?
LL: I can't say it changed things, I think it just opened another door. I don't think I will do my work in the future much differently. I still like the story-telling, but it may be more different than it used to be and also different from Recycled, it really just opened a second or a third door. The film's logic is more important to me now, not how the film looks. Same for Recycled, the most important for me was the logic behind the film, and I feel I can't really control what the film looks like. So I think the biggest change (in me) is not about the aesthetics but about my trail of thoughts, the logic I am using.
JF: Do you think you used to pay more attention to the aesthetics?
LL: I studied graphic design, so when I started doing animations I wanted to make every film beautiful and tried to make the story line clear. Right now, I think more about what the purpose of the document/work is, what is it for, and what my aim and rules are to make it happen. The rules may be tight, although I try to give it space for them to grow. We just finished a new film, it's called Hand-coloured and we set up some rules before we started, but obviously something can happen during the process and it can change the rules. For example you are colouring and your hand slips and the rules are automatically "broken" by accident. But I love the change, too, the accident, the exception. It's beautiful. More interesting than knowing what is going to be the outcome.
It's not only about the rules, though. For example, for Hand-coloured we hand-coloured 1200 photos. It was mostly about using your body and its memory repeating the same thing each time. If you do something once, for instance pass a place only one time, maybe nothing will happen, but after a thousand times, there will probably be some feedback. Just like monks in the temple, who are very focused on walking or meditating, the thing you're doing becomes your flesh. I used my body to make that animation.
JF: When will we be able to see the result?
LL: First we will have a talk about it and show the film at Minsheng Art Museum, in Shanghai next month (took place 13th September - JF). In Beijing, I'm not sure, because perhaps together with Thomas we will try to submit the film to some film festivals abroad. I hope it can be selected by some oversees festival, because then people will know it there and eventually they will notice it here and screen it in China, too. It happened with Recycled, which was selected by the Holland Animation Film Festival and the Annecy International Animated Film Festival and then it was screened in China.
JF: How long did you work on it?
LL: One and half years. Hand-coloured - almost two years. It's very hard work. Within one afternoon we were able to finish 10 or maximum 15 hand-coloured photos, and we used 1168 photos in total, huge work.
JF: Where did you find the photos?
LL: There's a website called kongfuzi.cn, where Thomas bought many pictures, they mostly come from some second hand markets. A lot of second hand photos. What we did was we would chose 50 photos from different person, from different times, some maybe even a hundred years ago, but we connected them into one story, all of the photos, as if it was one person's story. One guy we see first as a kid, who's growing up, practicing kung-fu, he then fights in a war during Mao's reign times and after he meets a girl and falls in love, it’s a very romantic story.
JF: It's a story that could happen pretty much to anyone.
LL: Yes, we're not trying to piece together or make it resemble China's history, we made the story up. It could be one person's story or it could be all Chinese people's story.
JF: I'd say that Recycled could be a tool for analyzing China's recent history. There are places shown in the film which repeat throughout history and stories of thousands of people - they all took pictures on Tiananmen square in the exact same place or they all had the same brand of bike and photographed themselves in certain positions. Maybe even you yourself found the same or similar photos in your family albums.
LL: Yes, my grandfather also took photos in Tiananmen Square. In my opinion Recycled isn't about finding similar photos but about restoring the memory.
JF: Because it was thrown away onto a dumpster [literally, TS went to a rubbish dump to look for films - JF].
LL: In Recycled there's also a plot you could say, there's let's say one person who lives in nature, by the sea and in the mountains, and then he walks into the city. He sets up a family and there's interaction with and pressure from society etc. and at the end of the film you see Tiananmen square, which is in a way the centre of China, a place with a lot of political weight. So I think we also feel this pressure and the story-telling and imagining is the way to release it. In this sense Recycled is similar to Hand-coloured, where we use other people's photos and some kind of narration to find something common in different people's lives.
JF: When did you start making animations?
LL: About 2007. It was my graduation piece. After that it became more and more absorbing, telling a story, many things incorporated into one medium/piece, an interesting language.
JF: What was your motivation to start doing it?
LL: At first I was doing book design, and at the same time I was interested in photography, skateboarding, and hip-hop music so I realized design isn't enough for me to express myself. Animation is more interesting.
JF: When I saw your work presentation in UCCA a year ago, I really liked the way you interacted with people, very laid back and open for ideas exchange and 'know-how' sharing. Do you like to give lectures?
LL: I can't say I like teaching or lecturing, but this is really the only way to show my films and meet people. I don't do commercial films, so there's only a few people who can see what I do, and that's during an event such as lecture or a seminar etc. Then the people can tell me what they think of my films. Right now I think more about the logic, so the film is really only one part of what I'm really thinking. When we have a meeting with people I can introduce another part of the same project/thinking. For instance with Recycled I can perhaps hold a performance or an exhibition or more. Lecture is a good way to share thoughts and get in touch with people.
JF: You have been invited to a few animation festivals to serve as a jury member (Croatia and Holland? Do you like to judge other people's work?
LL: I like it because I can travel for free [laughs], and judging itself is not that important. I think most of the works which are shown in festivals are already pretty good, so for me being a jury member has a different benefit: I can understand how jury members work together. Which doesn't mean I will be then creating things that a jury might like, but I get to learn how a festival happens. Usually only animators and filmmakers are part of the jury, no musicians or architects are invited, and, although it might be good, I sometimes find it too narrow. Just because a film wasn’t selected into an animation festival doesn't mean it's not a good piece of work, it probably belongs to somewhere else, such as an exhibiting space or a different kind of festival (music, architecture) whatsoever. So I think, participating in a festival as a jury member [in contrast to participating as an artist] will eventually lead me to more independence and freedom in creating.
JF: Can you talk a little bit about residencies you've participated in? There have been quite a few of them. What do you like or dislike about them?
LL: Last year I got an ACC [Asian Cultural Council] grant and I stayed in NYC for three months this year. It was an artists' residence project, and it was not limited to animators or filmmakers. In New York I met artists from different art backgrounds. What’s more, there were so many events happening in the city: I went to music performances, film screenings, theatre plays and exhibitions during my residency, and it pretty much kept me busy every day. After experiencing New York, now, when I am back in China, I think I should have more time to think about who I am, and not just copy what I have seen in New York, I should do things myself. I believe that my experience in New York will expand my animation language.
It’s good to have a residence project. It’s opened my eyes, but on the other hand, since I’m back in my city, I still need to worry about my income, about my life… it’s like coming back from a dream to the reality.
Lei Lei (雷磊 léi lěi), a.k.a. Ray Lei, is an artist born in the eighties in China. This jovial boy - rarely without a hat atop his cheerful face - drew my attention at a talk organized by UCCA Beijing’s auditorium during w/s season of 2014. The division between him as an artist and the young crowd, curious about his artwork, was rather invisible, no more than that of his standing and talking in the “stage area” and the listeners sitting in their comfy chairs. Lei Lei works mostly with 2D cut outs and collage techniques, and has undertaken the tedious work of colouring thousands of pictures in together with frenchman, Thomas Sauvin, his friend, colleague and collaborator in Beijing.
Interview on 14th August 2015 at his home, Xiaoxitian
The temperature outside is about 35 degrees Celsius, but the scorching heat doesn't bother us; we're at Jiamin's one-piece apartment, sat just next to the easel and the big window; a few steps further into the apartment, Marine is making a cake for their friend'; Panda the cat is stretching lazily nearby on the floor; we're listening to very delicate French style contemporary piano music.
JF: I know you're a big fan of films and photography, do you think these media influence your painting in some way?
HJM: I haven't thought about that. Apart from film and photography, I am also interested in literature and music, and maybe they have an even deeper influence on me, because when I paint I always listen to music. Film is film, photography is photography. I think those are art forms in themselves. I have a plan to make films perhaps. I never thought about taking photos seriously, I don't think I understand photography well yet. It seems everyone can do that, whereas painting is more limited, at least I think so. I like to make art with having this limitation in mind.
JF: Do you think the paintings are also a sort of diary for you or totally the opposite?
HJM: No, not a diary I think. I'd thought about making series of some moments, but you have to paint fast. I paint with oil paint, before I also did some calligraphy, I tried acrylic, but I never tried watercolours. For a diary it would be better to use watercolours or drawing. Since I'm now still more interested in colours and I enjoy textures it takes more time for me to paint.
JF: How long does it take you to finish one painting?
HJM: It's really hard to say, because sometimes I work and rework the same painting for long time. Sometimes I don't do anything or wait until I feel the painting is finished, until it has convinced me by itself that it is. It is hard to decide when to stop. I don't think there is this problem with writing a diary.
JF: What about the commissioned work you've done, such as book covers, which in your case are usually paintings turned into a digitally editable piece of work, do you take it seriously? Do you like this kind of work?
HJM: I don't think it's anything particular. I love reading. Doing this work actually just gives me more reasons to read, despite the fact I don't necessarily have to, but I decide to read the books before. So I take my time. I don't think I take design same way like professional designers do. For me designing a cover may be more a reflection of my thoughts or feelings, I design a cover I might like myself.
JF: When did you start drawing or painting?
HJM: As long as I can remember I liked to draw. It was very spontaneous and natural for me. My parents told me also I liked to draw with a piece of chalk, which I have no recollection of, I was too small.
JF: Then you continued on your own?
HJM: I attended some classes for primary kids where we learned some basic techniques, but I can't remember what my teacher told me. I just remember I enjoyed, like every kid, staying and painting together, same things or different than others. I couldn't experience this again later in my life because I never went to an art school. I hold onto these good memories.
JF: Did you have any particular picture you liked to draw and redraw?
HJM: I think my parents lost a big amount of my drawings when my family moved apartments, but I found a drawing of a small cat I probably did in kindergarten. I like cats and I realized recently that I paint them a lot. I don't think it's an obsession, it's more like the spirit somehow fits the painting. Sometimes the cat might already be in the picture [in the composition], but sometimes when it isn't there I feel some spaces are calling for cat.
JF: Do you think most of your paintings have some stories behind them?
HJM: In the past I tried to invent some stories, but now actually I feel I paint kinds of strong impressions or memories, so I try to remove the trace of invented stories, it may leave more space for the viewers.
JF: I remember seeing one painting, which is almost a direct copy of a photograph, right?
HJM: Well, yes (and no). [pointing to a painting] This one, I visited a friend in France, she's a Vietnamese immigrant, I found this photo in her family album and she told me she didn't know who they [the people in the photo] are, and that this photo [of her father with them] was taken by mistake (her feet and head are out of frame). For me, this matter of chance can be resourceful for art. I especially liked the composition of this photo This painting is almost like a joke, the photo was black and white originally, and both the painting and the photo are partly about my first experience of Europe and I wanted to mix that in. Yes, it is a copy, but I changed to colours and I changed the faces, I painted Marine [HJM's wife] and her brother two times in it, as children and as adults. You see, memory for me is a vague thing, it is quite abstract, it either exists purely in your mind or you write it down (as a diary), we are used to re-imagining everything. Nowadays photos replace your memory, everything is "intruding" each other and interconnecting. In this sense you can also walk into others' memory. That's how I feel: I stole my Vietnamese friend's memory, and yet it's not really her memory, it is her dad's memory, everything is so vague, in this sense I was playing a joke on this. Later, my artist friend from Nicaragua, asked me to participate in his project of Latin-American art so I sent him the photo of this painting, I explained this story - the photo was actually taken in Cuba, when the father of my Vietnamese friend was studying there. That's the only link of this painting with Latin America.
JF: For me your paintings, although they seem quite realistic, they retain a sort of magical reality, they are surreal and dreamy. I remember seeing the mural you did in Lijiang Studio, which is quite vast and the elements of it are painted realistically, but the whole result is quite surreal, diego-rivera'esque.
HJM: Sure. I think surrealism is probably something that attracts people's attention easily, so when I was a kid and I first encountered Western art I got really attracted by Dali's work, despite them being just very small pictures in an art album. They would arouse real excitement and boost my imagination. Later I started getting bored with the same Dali, because I felt like he's repeating himself and his work seemed easy to do. Yet later, when I saw his retrospective in the Centre Pompidou in Paris I somehow regained my respect for him, because his most famous paintings were just a small part of what he really did and they were done in his young age and after that he made other stuff and he was never satisfied with his artistic pursuits. So he influenced me very early and maybe twisted my world's perception. I was a dreamer when I was a kid. When I started painting on my own I didn't think of making surrealist paintings, but it seems to be a basic ground for me.
JF: The type of surrealism in your works I'm talking about is here on this painting, we see rooftops of some old Chinese buildings and the skyline and a naked person on a rooftop watching the landscape, a mountain range.
HJM: People sitting in clothes on roofs would remind us of tourists too much, because I painted a touristy place, so maybe this was the initial motivation. I just had a look at one painting recalling your words about surrealism and to be honest, for me the most surrealist in this painting [a Chinese gazebo, with a cat walking on the wooden barrier and a CCTV camera hanging off the roof] is this camera. And that's actually the fact. That's why maybe my paintings have this sense of surrealism, I think surrealism is sometimes the reality. I think I'm honest to record the reality.
JF: You usually paint at home (small space). Changing the space would have any influence on you? Do you crave it?
HJM: I think I'm very adaptable. In Lijiang studio I had big space and took advantage of it, it was also possible for me to paint a mural. Big space can give you motivation because it's too vast, there's too much emptiness, so it somehow pushes you to fill in the blank. Here (at home) it's already too many things. I think this space also influences the size of my works, here I can't make big paintings. Right now I don't think I care too much, as long as I have some space.
JF: When I see a blank page I am scared of doing anything to it. I'm too scared of the result.
HJM: Well yes, exactly, even a small blank canvas at first point always scares me before I start, but then once you start there's no return.
JF: When you start a painting, do you have an actual idea, a scheme, a sketch, which you stick to?
HJM: I change the idea a lot. I think the final result is quite different than I'd originally thought. That has to do with the space, too, once you mark some points in the space you change it, everything has to speak for itself, the relations change.
JF: That's why I think that many of your paintings are similar to the aesthetics of photography. Which brings us to the beginning of this conversation. What do you think about selling artwork? How do you feel about it?
HJM: I haven't sold much, I sold some smaller pieces to people who appreciate my work. There were others who wanted to buy but I didn't feel like selling it yet, so I didn't. I would like to be selling my paintings. I don't think I owe them as long as I finish them - they're there. I possess too many things, you can't have so many things (books etc) at the same time. Since I am quite productive in painting I should get rid of the work to empty the space. That's my more personal approach to it, I don't think about the market. It's not my business. Of course, I wish people who really appreciate it had it.
JF: So you're not emotionally attached to your paintings?
HJM: I generally think that being attached to objects is not a good idea, the best would be to sell or give away things, when you're moving for example, because you know that people who take them somehow need them. Same with paintings, if at some point I sell a big amount of my paintings I will be happy.
JF: What about exhibitions?
HJM: I didn't have many, the recent one was at my friend's house. I never had any solo exhibitions, I'm working on it though. A Shanghai gallery contacted me but I've been too lazy and postponing it, partly because I need to make myself convinced that I see the links between those paintings. I want to have an exhibition of my own for real instead of based on curator's choices. I know I am being very unpractical here.
JF: One could say memories and intangible thoughts become real objects through your paintings, a little bit like furniture, which you can then get rid of.
HJM: Yeah, sometimes perhaps it's not that good to have that many memories. I used to recall my dreams, but then I realized I already have so many thoughts and memories and they seem vague and dreamy enough already. It's better to keep more space for your current and future life.
JF: What do you think about artists who make repetitious paintings, like David Hockney for instance.
HJM: Sometimes it is necessary, it may help you mature or become perfect. I do have a lot of respect for DH, although maybe he's made too much. If you look at traditional Chinese artists they paint the same subjects time and time again, to an untrained eye you will perceive all the landscapes or birds as similar. Back then the concept of painting was different. Nowadays you repeat a painting for market reasons, before it was a kind of meditation. Painting is not meditation for me.
JF: Why do you paint then?
HJM: First of all I have always been attracted by images. And since I was little I always knew that I have a talent for painting. Other media than paint don't give me the satisfaction. To me, painting is similar to cooking. The good thing about those two is that once you start you don't want to stop, you know you have to pay attention, no matter what. If you stop you know a lot of material (whether paint or food) will go to waste. I am a person who doesn't like to waste things. Painting as an art form gives me limitations which are necessary for my art creation. Also, as I said before, I knew I had a talent for painting, and I don't want to waste this talent. Maybe that's the reason why I paint.
Hu Jiamin (胡嘉岷) comes from Yichang but currently lives in Beijing. Belongs to the so-called “八零后” generation (born in the eighties), a graduate in science, he is perpetually falling in love with art; since young age Jiamin has developed an inveterate fondness of cats, cinema, photography, literature and music. He attends different kinds of art and cultural events around the city quite often to widen and strengthen his knowledge and criticism on art. Jiamin paints mostly on canvases and has made a few mural paintings before; he developed a style of his own which I would describe as “magical reality”.
More artwork by Hu Jiamin:
2012-2015 paintings: http://www.douban.com/photos/album/1616776306/
2009-2011 paintings: http://www.douban.com/photos/album/15222348/
the Lashihai murals at Lijiang Studio: www.douban.com/photos/album/36380762/
Book covers designed by HJM: