Time after Time: A Dialogue between Chen Shaoxiong and Pauline J. Yao



PY: I’d like to start by asking about your earlier works. I am curious as to why all of your earlier artworks contain timeframes and numbers in the titles, such as Seven Days, 72.5 Hours and Five Hours. Why choose these specific lengths of time?


CSX: Those specific numbers are the lengths of time during which those pieces existed, and are objectively measurable amounts of time. Like Five Hours, that was a performance at the entrance to a bar, and the bar owner could only tolerate me being there making work for five hours. But then the police interfered, and the work only lasted for two and a half hours. All of my works from 1991 to 1993 are titled after units of time. At that time social life was very disappointing, and I wanted to take the concept of “reality” out of temporality through my work. But really, what I wanted to express was a kind of temporality outside of “time.”


PY: If these works represent time outside of time, then do they also on some level function as artworks outside of art? In other words, at that time, how were you defining art?


CSX: There was a period of time when I was very sensitive to this question, “What is art?,” when I was very doubtful about the established definition. At that time saying something looked like art was just another way of saying I despised it. On the other hand, I’ve always felt that this activity of defining something is like an assigned topic, in that it can be directed toward any particular attribute.


PY: Movements like happenings and Fluxus also addressed these ideas, the boundaries between art and life or the definition of art. They also produced works with deep relationships to time. How did you respond to these movements?


CSX: At that time I was very interested in the idea of happenings, but I don’t think I shared the desire of those artists to create a theatrical relationship with a non-art audience. I want my result to be a “nothing-happening,” devoid of content, independent, just empty time. I see the Fluxus artists as a complementary inverse of my work. One of them, Ben Vautier, thought that art was like dogs marking their territory by urinating over something, and I think this idea is almost coincidentally related to my desire to cut the connections between time and reality. And John Cage’s meaningless games were very influential for my work at that time.


PY: How would you relate these influences to the particular context you were facing at that time?


CSX: It allowed me to effectively escape a lot of practical questions.


PY: I suppose I am thinking of the context of China during the 1990s, in which time became fractured, sped up, and multiplied as a result of changes in the urban environment. Is this related to why you chose to deal with time in your art?


CSX: Yes, living in Guangzhou in the 1990s it was possible to sense drastic changes in our social environment wrought by the process of urbanization at every minute of every day. But in terms of time, my feelings there come more from memory. The changes in the structure of Chinese society have also been accompanied by a shift in value systems. In our middle school textbooks we had Mao Zedong’s political theory of three worlds, but then after graduating from college we had Karl Popper’s concept of World 3. These two totally opposed worldviews make up a classic example of the confusion of theories and values we were facing at that time. It’s like taking all of these things mixed up in memory—the Cultural Revolution, the educated youth, economic reform and opening—and putting them all together in a short period of time but with the narrative destroyed, just like a movie preview. Albert Einstein made us see the relativity of space, but that era made us sense the indeterminacy of time.


PY: In addition to these thoughts about time and memory, you indicate an underlying question about the formation of worldview and perception. In your work, how did perception play a role? Works like Sight Adjuster seem to play with the medium of video itself, but also make reference to perception on a very human or individual level.


CSX: I made several videos before Sight Adjuster, like Seesaw, where I attached a video camera to my chest so the lens moved up and down with my breathing. Sight Adjuster is something of an extension of this video, related to the question of perception or observation. Between reality and video, I always feel like one of them must be deceptive. These works are intended to force the viewer into an alternative state of vision. Perception is always marked by error, and the style of perception determines the object perceived.


Big Tail Elephant Group


PY: Your early performances and some installations were created in the context of the Big Tail Elephant Group; who was the audience and what was their reaction?


CSX: Hou Hanru has described Big Tail Elephant as a group of urban guerrillas, and it really was like that. All of the exhibitions could be considered very underground, and the audience was naturally limited to a small circle of friends. Our activities often took place at the entrances to bars, in the underground parking lots of office buildings, in abandoned old houses, on newly constructed roads, and in construction sites. If you count the people walking by as part of the audience then I guess the number would be much higher, but other than feeling that we were quite strange they really didn’t care about what we were doing. So the audience really was just our close friends, our comrades in arms.


PY: I find Big Tail Elephant Group is unique in that it is a collective, but at the same time works were individually produced. How would you describe your collective identity?


CSX: Big Tail Elephant never had a manifesto or declaration of any kind because we always thought of creation as a process. Fixing our principles would have limited the space for change and self-criticism, but we did pay a lot of attention to the relationships between works in exhibitions. We got together and had conversations almost weekly, so we didn’t feel that production had to be a format for dialogue and exchange. Big Tail Elephant used the single veto format of the U.N. Security Council whenever we made important decisions: the bill at dinner was always split strictly equally, and the place was always right in the middle of where we lived, a bit like international negotiations. Basically, Big Tail Elephant is both a method for considering the issues we were commonly interested in and a democratic attitude towards life, but it was not a creative collective.


PY: So, it was a thinking collective rather than a creative one, and yet you did create something in the end, perhaps not a single artwork but instead a context or platform that didn’t exist before. Could one see it this way?


CSX: Yes. We faced a lot of difficulties in the 1990s. Conceptually, we were trying to get out of the Western cultural orbit, but at the same time artistic production was under pressure from the environment surrounding official culture and we wanted to avoid mindlessly falling in line with the styles of art coming out of the center of power in Beijing. So building a healthy creative atmosphere was essential.


Everyday Life and the City


PY: Works like Landscape 2 draw upon the relationship between public and private space in the urban context. What attracted you to these ambiguous spaces?


CSX: The word “landscape” is full of poetic and painterly sensibility in traditional aesthetics, but it has an entirely different meaning for residents of the developing southern cities. Urbanization definitely changes our sense of space: the tension between our idea of landscape and the actually existing landscape, or between public and private space is strongly related to ideological contradictions. I am intensely interested in the difference between “what I want to see” and “what I really see” for urban residents.


PY: How would you explain the difference between “wanting to see” and “that which is seen”?


CSX: By “wanting to see,” what I mean is the active wishes and dreams of the people; by “that which is seen,” I’m referring to the passive experience of what actually appears in the landscape.


PY: In the late 1990s your investigation into the city took the form of photographs and installations based around the street scenes of Guangzhou. Can you tell me how this series began for you and how it developed?


CSX: I started the Streetscape series of photographic installations at the end of the 1990s. I was trying to invent a method of photography that could be adapted to urban life. Better yet, we could say that it was a direct response to the conditions of existence at that time. The observations drawn from personal and bodily experience of such fast-changing urban scenery is entirely different from that of the passive onlooker. observer of art. I wanted the viewer to share my experience of making the photograph when they view the work, so I made this piece in which the viewer has to have the experience of walking along a Guangzhou street to see the photograph. Then when Streetscape was shown in Western museums I felt it resembled a kind of tourism, a sort of reverse urban tourism. Or to be a bit lighter, a bit like “takeaway” or delivery food.


PY: “Takeaway” makes me think of something portable and on the move, almost like an inverse mode of tourism because the city not only travels to different places, but it also appears to be about encountering the familiar instead of the unfamiliar.


CSX: Right.


PY: The Streetscape series makes me think of the city as a tableau, a sort of stage or theater in which daily events take place or unfold. Regular everyday patterns of places, people and events are given heightened meaning and drama. How do you view the role of the city in your work?


CSX: The city is really a lot like a stage, and the windows of our own homes are like our seats at the theater. Urban architecture is the stage backdrop, so when there are suddenly new tall buildings in your neighborhood it’s just like the shifting scenery of the play. Everything is temporary and a little bit fake. When you walk down the street you’re both an actor and the audience. Every character has a lot of stories, as long as your lens is focused on him. In the city you have to work hard at earning money in order to keep on living, and all your work is just to get this ticket to the drama of the city. Streetscape is made so you can review the drama again after you get home.


PY: These stories we encounter in the city also contain an element of violence, as your works Hero and Anti-Terrorism Variety allude to. One shows a petty, harmless act—wielding a plastic gun—and the other deals with the devastating events of 9/11, yet both employ a feeling of humor and playfulness.


CSX: The theater of the city also includes television. Sitting in front of your TV set you can see some classic stories about the city you live in, or some other city: demolishing buildings, constructing roads, commercial mythologies, successful people out to make their fortune, romantic soap operas, and so on. But there are also lots of acts of violence: burglary and robbery, murder and arson, traffic accidents, and brutal historical scenes. If you watch too much it’s easy to confuse reality and image. And because the TV is in your own home, you’re often within just a couple meters of these international news events. It’s easy to feel like they don’t belong to the space of the other at all. Hero and Cop and Thief were about acting out media events in the real space of the city, and then turning the real events back into media. Anti-Terrorism Variety was really a direct reaction to 9/11, a kind of refraction of the televisual image onto my own city combining the experience of reality and the experience of video.


PY: To me, Anti-Terrorism Variety signifies a turning point for you, not just because its controversial subject matter won you increased visibility and recognition, but because it finally manages to bring to light an underlying tension in your work, namely the relationship between everyday life and politics, or, we could say, the politics of the everyday. What were the effects of the controversy it stirred?


CSX: Anti-Terrorism Variety really influenced me more than anything else. After producing that work, my understanding of Edward Said’s concept of the “other” shifted. I had a more sensible manner towards making judgments and taking up positions. In questions of globalization politics, dualistic criteria in making value judgments weighed more on my personal conscience.  The work never ran into public controversy when it was shown, but there were a few people who privately told me that they found my position politically incorrect. Then there were others that said nothing, but I could tell they were very unhappy. Originally I just felt that that particular image on TV was repeated over and over, too much during a particular period, and I wanted to make a series of new images to cover it over, to let everyone come out from that place.


PY: When you say “come out from that place” what do you mean exactly? From inside the world of televised media back to reality, or from the incident itself?


CSX: I think both are valid, but the question of the media is more extreme. Those few shots were repeated on TV almost constantly for a year, creating a kind of physical confusion that affected everyone. After 9/11, every time my four-year-old daughter saw a plane in the sky with tall buildings around she would ask me “Dad, will the plane run into that building?”


PY: I think it is interesting, because from the looks of it this work deals with heavily political subject matter and international political issues, but in actuality it bears a resemblance to your other works. That is to say, it really has more to do with everyday life in that, for that moment, this scene was everyday life.


CSX: Yes, it even altered our visual experience, creating a new relationship between buildings and planes. That infamous shot has already entered the lives of everyone, just like any other element of popular culture. When the children started playing a new game—“I’ll be the terrorist and you be the anti-terrorist police”—the character of the whole event started to change. Under that background, when local governments everywhere started engaging in counter-terrorism maneuvers it became more and more like a game. So I made Anti-Terrorism Chess and the Zippo lighter.


PY:So in a way there is a connection between political reality and the virtual. Did your work dealing with computers begin at this point? I am thinking of your works BBS and Windows XP.


CSX: In the BBS series I painted some urban landscapes paired with hypothetical questions for the audience to answer during the exhibition. The situations included an American invasion and a terrorist attack. After 9/11, watching TV or surfing internet and seeing news like the bombing of Baghdad or terrorist attacks anywhere in the world always made me think that such events could be happening closer to home very quickly. A lot of things in reality seem to be coming to resemble fiction, while fictional things increasingly turns into reality. There’s nothing vague about it—if it is said they will come then they will come. In Windows XP I just used the Microsoft operating system name because it seems that terrorist attacks and counter-terrorism resemble the relationship between computer viruses and anti-virus software.


Artistic Medium


PY:Even more interesting is your switch from using computer media to using ink paintings for videos. It is as if you returned to a more traditional sort of creative process. In your view, how did these disparate media join up?


CSX: I feel much more relaxed when working simultaneously in all different media. I like the saying “the best rest is a new type of work.” After making those works related to international politics I felt that my own cultural position was reaffirmed, and I started paying more attention to local culture. These kinds of traditional methods and media are actually great. They’ve taught me a lot about what video can do.


PY:That saying is quite nice; I ought to change my own work method now and then. Except I suspect it is a bit easier for artists to change and adapt in ways that writers/curators cannot.


CSX: Haha. but don’t you move freely between curating, criticism, and teaching? You could also write a novel—Beijing must have a lot of stories.


PY:I could never write a novel. I fear I am just not cut out for that sort of writing. Writing art criticism and writing fiction are quite different, don’t you think? The language is not the same. One could say the same about artistic medium. Do video and ink painting employ different languages?


CSX: Seeing these two different things put together and then having to find a balance between them, it really makes me happy. For a while I would pick up a camera and not really know what to shoot. I felt like there was a lot of falsity in video because the cameraman only records what he is interested in. A lot of things are omitted, but video still repackages everything to have this superficial presentation of truth. Photography, similarly, is a kind of accidental documentation of things around us. Creating an ink painting from a photograph feels much more suited to memory, and the memories the photograph can evoke are more plentiful. When we recall a certain period of time, we generally remember it in a series of still frames, not as a real event. Sometimes the event becomes a commentary on the image, rather than the image acting as a documentation of an event.


PY: Sure, but photography and memory are always linked. To take the photos and make them into paintings is another further step, but couldn’t you have just used the photographs themselves to make the video?


CSX: Memory is always altered by the mind. A photograph presents an opportunity, but does not necessarily call up a memory. In the process of copying the images by hand even more opportunities come forth. The photograph is “raw,” and the painting is “cooked.” It’s best to give the audience something cooked to look at—the artist should be a chef.


PY: Actually, knowing what is cooked and what is not is not an easy task. It is an apt metaphor though, since I have always thought that the hardest thing in producing an artwork is knowing when it is finished, knowing when it is cooked, so to speak.


CSX: Right, it’s very difficult to judge when something is done, and it often takes someone from the outside to test it. That’s why we say that the concept of a work is a collaboration between artist and audience, or a community of taste.


Collaborations with the Xijing Men


PY: How did you begin working together with Tsuyoshi Ozawa? How did you meet each other? And how did you start to discuss the idea of collaborating?


CSX: We met early on, at the Bordeaux stop of Cities on the Move. In the summer of 2005, at a dinner in Tokyo organized by the Mori Museum, Ozawa and I were drinking and started talking about the relationship between Japan and China, because at that time things were a bit tense politically. We both thought that it might be interesting to collaborate. That August, he brought his whole family to Guangzhou and we discussed the details of our project, which started officially that September. The first project used a method we called qu shui liu shang [a drinking game transmitted from classical China to Japan in which participants drink cups of wine floating on a small canal before passing them on for good luck]. We would each be painting in our respective studios, then use courier delivery services to send our work to the other person, who would continue working on the same piece. Because we have different national identities and academic backgrounds, we often had completely different responses to the same question, which made the work very interesting.


PY:Had you ever collaborated with other artists before?


CSX: I had never done anything like that before. But the goal of this collaboration was similar to that of Big Tail Elephant—to strengthen our immunity to the epidemics of the art world.


PY: Do you like it? What kind of effect does it have on your artistic practice overall?


CSX: I do like it, and it has a huge effect on my practice. It’s like having a comparison for my own work, but nothing as simple as an opposition between China and the West. Chinese contemporary art continually commits a common error, which is the ideology of comparing China and the West. I think methods like that are sometime quite idiotic and naïve.


PY: Your first collaboration was the Guangdong-Tokyo project you did for the Guangzhou Triennial in 2005. The starting point for this work was about location and place, a dialogue between two cities; then later this shifted to become about two different households and family relations. How did this transition come about?


CSX: Guangdong-Tokyo was a reflection of our varying understandings of ethnic identity, shared history, and international politics as individuals living under divergent social backgrounds. This kind of project naturally developed into a more individual exchange on the register of the everyday, like the Summer Holiday exhibition at Boers-Li Gallery in 2006. In that project, my wife and Ozawa’s wife got into a conversation that turned into a denunciation of the two of us, and our children’s games involved their educational differences. We made a work each day for the 18 days of the project, and every object in our daily lives had the possibility of turning into a work of art.


PY: It’s a shame that I was never able to see this project. But I know it had an element of collectivization, and that it drew upon facets of everyday life. In this context, what was the role of everyday life? Because usually everyday life is something we think of as quite personally defined.


CSX: To turn artistic production into a form of life, or to create another type of life inside art work, is to resist the challenges of real life. Real life—normal life—is extremely limited, functioning as a social relation without individual feeling or introspection. Creation is not an interruption of life, but rather a frame of reference developed in parallel with normal life. In Summer Holiday I brought my family into this kind of other lifestyle, and it was an unforgettable trip.


PY: Afterwards you and Ozawa started to collaborate with a third artist, Gimhongsok. How did he enter the picture?


CSX: Later Ozawa and I decided we needed more people to be involved, and we both saw Gimhongsok as the most interesting artist in Korea. During another exhibition at the Mori Museum in Tokyo in early 2007, we invited Gimhongsok to join our collaboration, and he gladly agreed. As we developed the Xijing project, we started calling ourselves the Xijing Men.


PY:Where does the name Xijing Men come from? Could you explain a little? Does Xijing have anything to do with “the west”?


CSX: Historically, Xi’an in China, the capital of Japan, and Seoul in Korea have all been known as Xijing [Western Capital]. Today, China has Beijing [Northern Capital] and Nanjing [Southern Capital] and Japan has Tokyo Dongjing, or [Eastern Capital], but there is no Xijing. We felt that a place had fallen into oblivion, so we decided to conceptually reconstruct the city. But I don’t think it’s related to “the West.” The “West” we use in reference to Xijing is a relative term, and doesn’t event exist geographically. It exists only as an unclear idea, feeling linguistically familiar almost as if it had been stolen from us, creating a sort of utopian homesickness.


PY: Did you think up the concept for Xijing Men at the same time as conceiving of this initial project? Do you think the people in the video believe Xijing is a real place or an imaginary place with the name Xijing? For me, this work is about location and place but even more so about issues of identity.


CSX: In our first project Ozawa went to Okinawa, Gimhongsok went to Yeongjongdo Island, and I went to Hainan asking the locals if they knew of a place called Xijing. The majority of people responded positively, describing places that, although separated by vast distances, shared some common memories. Do these memories come from myth or imagination? We have no way of knowing, but we can be sure that they don’t come from historical knowledge or personal experience. Xijing as a concept should act as a provocation of a universally shared outlook on humanistic values. As such, our second project was the Xijing Olympics, carried out on the same schedule as the Beijing Olympics. It was a direct interrogation of the traditional Olympics spirit.


PY: To be honest, Xijing Olympics is one of my favorite works in recent years. Perhaps this is because of its humorous elements. I feel much of the contemporary art I see in China these days truly lacks this lighthearted approach.


CSX: Right, because a lot of contemporary artists like pretending to be cool.


PY: I suppose it has to do with an overall attitude that I sometimes sense, where art is rendered as purely “serious” and humor is seen to detract from conceptual meaning or depth.


CSX: Haha, but if the seriousness is real then that’s good too. I think that the Xijing Men are serious, but placed in this very unserious environment the project of course appears quite humorous.


PY: We still have not touched upon your most recent project with Xijing Men for the Tate Liverpool. Could you explain a little for me?


CSX: For the exhibition The Fifth Floor in the Tate Liverpool, Xijing Men collaborated with a local youth theater group, making a shadow puppet version of Journey to the West. In the story, an old person, a strong but stupid man, a fashionable young woman, and a troublemaking dog meet by chance. After a conflict they are reconciled by a magic mirror, and then decide to go to Xijing together. At the entrance, they are refused entry for failing the interview at the immigration checkpoint. We started the story, but the resolution was determined by the Liverpool youth theater troupe.


PY: From the sounds of it, this different approach is different from your previous collaborations. Would you agree?


CX: Yes, in this project there’s a certain relationship between creation and education. And the collaboration was not restricted to the three of us, there were also other people participating. In October we started the same project in Seoul with a group of Korean students, but because of their different educations and imaginations they developed a different ending. The medium was also a bit different, and the production took the form of a puppet show. This project also involves the question of nationality and identity, which make up the most important problems for the Xijing Men. I’m very interested in the divergences in performance and method of creation, and I’ve learned a lot from these differences.


PY: In your previous works Xijing appears as a totally fictional idea, but this time it seems to have become something real. Was this your intention?


CSX: We’ve gone from asking questions about Xijing at the beginning to organizing an Olympics, and now to the Xijing immigration office—it really is getting more and more real. I’ll tell you, we’re also planning on buying some property, and then developing a farm there. Because of the global financial crisis, we’d like to raise our own food, and turn our artistic production back to the most primitive form of physical labor.


PY: You plan to grow food? Do you even know how? Where will the location be?


CSX: We want to find a small island somewhere in the Pacific, but we haven’t even found funding yet. We’ll pick up some agricultural knowledge. Do you want to join too?




The Art Market


PY: I would like to change the topic a bit—let’s talk about some of your non-Xijing works. The BOCCA project began in October 2008, right? At that time the economy was still doing alright, wasn’t it?


CSX: Not really, the economy had started having problems even then, but it was not then apparent that the crisis would influence the art market as well. In the last few years Chinese contemporary art has demonstrated a value equated to currency and a highly favored method of investment, but the art world has buried its collective head in the sand and refused to explicitly link these elements together; with this work, I want to make everyone see the results. I did the project in Hong Kong, where there are banks everywhere. BOCCA, the Bank of Contemporary Chinese Art, is supposed to equate art, monetary currencies, and gold. But before the exhibition ended the financial crisis had already begun to affect the art market, and I don’t think my bank managed to find any interested investors.
PY: Was there a big difference between this project and the reality of the Chinese art market? I am referring to that particular moment when the market was active, not necessarily the current situation.


CSX: If I had done the BOCCA project two years earlier, found investment, registered as a company, and gone into business, we might even have been able to save the market. Haha.


PY: Perhaps! But is saving it necessary? I have always thought that observing the market in its ascendant phase is interesting, but watching it fall downwards has merits too. The question is, who can weather the storm, so to speak, and afterwards, what will the situation for contemporary art in China look like?


CSX: Right, but with the market falling so quickly, you barely have a chance to observe it before it’s gone. To make a joke, this is called freefall—it’s all coming down because of gravity. I believe everyone can make it through the financial crisis, because artists can and should become accustomed to all kinds of living environments. What will Chinese art be like afterwards? That’s a difficult question to answer. I only know that, whatever the conditions are like, I’ll keep making good work, just like over a decade ago with Big Tail Elephant.


PY: You sound quite optimistic.


CSX: I’ve made my preparations for a long and bitter struggle.


PY: We should all strive to be that way. I heard from someone that artists in China were no longer making work because there are no exhibitions. That sort of mindset is troublesome; producing work only for the sake of exhibition opportunities reflects that something in the system has gone awry. Art is something that one should continue making no matter what, even if there is no chance to show it.


CSX: That’s right, and to only make work for commercial exhibitions is even worse. Artistic creation is a part of life, or maybe I should say it creates a more interesting version of life. The joy of creation is already the greatest reward for an artist. We need exhibitions to foster exchange between work and audience, and we also need money to support ourselves and keep making work, but I really don’t like seeing the market as the primary force pushing art forward.


PY: Yes, I agree. One last question: when you are making a new work, what is the most enjoyable part for you?


CSX: First and foremost is the process. The process makes me forget time, and then the work comes out of that—the work itself is what I want to see most, and I love the surprise of finding out that a particular piece can exceed my own conscious intelligence. I think only creation can make us discover that we know how to mess around, and I think only messing around can prove to ourselves that we’re still living.


March 2009, Beijing