Luc Tuymans in Conversation with Paul Gladston
The following conversation with Luc Tuymans took place in Shanghai on 31st October 2008 after the opening of a group exhibition at the ShanghArt gallery entitled ‘Involved’ which included one of Tuyman’s characteristically understated paintings. During the conversation Tuymans talks about his approach to painting as well as the background to his development as an artist. He also gives his views about the current state of contemporary Chinese art.
Paul Gladston: I would like to begin by asking you to give a general description of your working practices as an artist.
Luc Tuymans: Most of my work is based upon found materials, which means already existing imagery such as photographs. I rework this imagery either in an abstract way or by reducing it. The preparation of the imagery takes a large amount of time – making drawings, using photography even building maquettes and then filming them. It takes me at least a month to come to an idea. The imagery is completely formulated; it’s dead before I start to reanimate it through painting. The paintings are always made in a day; it can be a very long day. My work is not based on art history I’m not making a comment on artistic ‘isms’. I think that art is derived from the world. There is not one bit of irony in my work. For me the first conceptual art is painting. The first art that was not na？ve is painting. I’m sometimes asked the question: “Is painting dead? This is a question asked by art critics and art historians who want to give a direction to art because they can’t figure it out - they don’t see, they are blind. No artist working in a different medium would ask me: “Why do you still paint?” Painting is a specific medium; it’s a choice that you make. Painting is very physical; it leaves a physical trace. It’s also limited because it’s physical. Painting works in time - real time - and it has its own time; it’s an anachronism. Paintings are very difficult to remember. They are more difficult to remember than photographs because they are far more detailed. Painting is still the most powerful archetype and the most expensive one, by the way. What is also important to the work is that it’s completely understated; that it is silent. It should not remind anybody – this is my personal view – of music or sounds. My paintings are silent, they are mute and that’s why they exist because if I could explain everything I wouldn’t have the need to make an image to begin with. Mostly half of the work in a year is destroyed. In the days when I didn’t have money I painted over my work; so some of the really important paintings have eight, nine paintings underneath. Now I have the luxury, since I have more money, of throwing them away. There is a heightened element of control to the work. That doesn’t mean the work is fully emotionless. It has a certain tenderness, but the tenderness is a cloak, it is a mask, behind which there is another truth. In general my work is not jolly; it’s not work that will make you happy. It’s born out of a very pessimistic foundation, because that’s the best defence against being disillusioned. I tried to make a happy painting once. But apparently my mindset is so corrupted that it’s impossible. I didn’t succeed so far. There’s always this element of distrust; distrust against any imagery, including my own. I think this is healthy. I also think it’s important to make people think. Some of the paintings are much reduced. As a spectator we have to fill them in. Because what is important is not only the painting and the object that is depicted but also the distance between the viewer and the object of the painting. The viewer is the last person to finish the painting. Then there’s the element of intensity; intensity coupled to the idea of habit. Painting to me is like riding a bike, something which I do not cultivate. The brushstroke comes to me as self evident. If I cultivated my technique I would lose my intensity.
PG: How is your work perceived outside China?
LT: I’m perceived by some – and that’s actually on a global level - as someone who has given new life to painting.
PG: How did you arrive at your present way of working?
LT: I had painter’s block - like writer’s block - between 1981 and 1985. I stopped painting and I started to make films instead; films I’ve never shown. The films had a very decisive impact on the painting I made afterwards. There, for the first time, I found the distance to create imagery. The object became overpowering. I became fascinated by the idea of making an image like an object. While most people look directly into the lens while filming I actually shifted my eye so that there was no empathy, no sentiment between me as a spectator and the imagery. It became the most naturalistic, hardest imagery I could imagine and one that also missed the real completely.
PG: Could you say something about the social, cultural and historical context within which your work as an artist has developed.
LT: I come out of an artistic context in Belgium which is mostly perceived abroad for two things: the grotesque, which is the work of James Ensor; and Surrealism, which is that of René Magritte. This is a huge misunderstanding because Magritte’s paintings were by no means surrealist, and Ensor’s work was by no means grotesque. Belgium is also a country where we once had Jan van Eyck, who was the most powerful, the most immanent and the most brilliant painter in the western hemisphere. He was a person who started painting under the cloak of religious dogma, but he was also the first to disconnect the image from mimesis by heightening its realism. Surrealism is really a Belgium thing. Belgium is not a Romantic country. Belgium is a country of opportunism. Belgium is also a country of survival because of the various wars that have been fought there. Belgium has been overrun by every nation in Europe. It has no national feeling, which is crucial. It’s a country largely consisting of individuals. The organisation is very poor and its institutions are weak. This gives the artist a good climate within which to work. This situation exists before you are born; basically, it’s your destiny. One always works from a locality. This locality predisposes you and this predisposition informs the work. I think you can only respond to this situation by being very specific – by not being inclusive but very exclusive. My painting is also born out of and works with a range of historical events that go back to one basic event, which for me is the Second World War. As a result of two world wars; Europe lost entire generations; its power; all its colonies. After the Second World War we were economically colonised by the Americans and with the Holocaust we created our own psychological breakdown.
PG: How has your work been received in China?
LT: There’s a huge fascination with my painting in China. The element of minimalism within my work, the element of reduction and the element of reservation, the element of taking back emotion and going for understatement is a clear fact in this part of the world. The relationship between language and imagery is also different in China. Images are connected to the idea of literature and the text because they have always been combined; because, calligraphy and art were superimposed. Language is completely intertwined with imagery in China. Here, the work is validated on a completely different level, which for me is extremely interesting. In the West, they use superlatives like ‘sinister’ and ‘dark’ to describe my work. In the West, we think in ‘anti’ terms. In the West, imagery is completely connected to violence. Culture in the West comes with violence. Culture comes with destruction. In order to create the new, we destroy. Chinese culture is in complete opposition to that. It has an element of acceptance and it also has an element of balance. In China it’s all about the whole. This is very important. It’s not so important in the western world because there the imagery is much more disruptive - it’s much more dispersed; it’s compartmentalised; it’s more fragmented; it places more emphasis on fragment than the whole - whereas the whole in China is very important. Things have to be in balance here. It’s amazing to see my work in a less hostile environment.
PG: In what ways, if any, has Chinese culture influenced you?
LT: I’ve started reading like crazy about Chinese art; old Chinese art, which I think is really important because it’s so powerful. The portrait is not so important. The human figure is not so important. Shadow is not important. Landscape is predominant; not from a low perspective but from a distance. It’s the historical persistence of this landscape imagery I find interesting. It’s also the systematic way in which that imagery is put together and constructed. There is a different allegiance to depth. There is a different allegiance to colouring. There are some formal similarities between my work and traditional Chinese painting. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons they like my work in China.
PG: How would you assess the state of contemporary Chinese art?
LT: It’s an interesting time in China because there is the possibility of a different openness - but it’s very precarious. The recent development of China has taken place at such a speed and on such a scale that most people do not comprehend it. So you have sort of a solipsistic moment. Here, I’m talking about the empowering effects of the state as a money making machine; where reality is understood for the first time in a corporate way. This is having an appalling effect on Chinese contemporary art. This is where Chinese artists have a problem, and I understand the problem because the problem is a problem of identity. In the West we don’t have this problem in quite the same way. Our identity has not only been localised, it has been adapted continually as a result of the many wars fought there. Europe, of course, has clarity; after all, they instigated the current economic space; they created it. In Europe we already see that we live in a parallel economy. The Chinese don’t think they do. In China there’s a desperate attempt to figure out the current economic situation because in China, and in Chinese painting, every problem has a solution - even when the solution is bad. It’s a culture about pragmatism and it’s a culture about strength. The Chinese don’t have the sense of guilt we have in the West because there is a timeline, there is a historical agenda, there’s a solution to every problem. And these problems are thought of as real. All the problems are thought of as real. This isn’t the case in the West. The western point of view, especially in Europe, is very soft because we tolerate, we try to explain. We are an explanatory society with an intellectual resource that goes through a philosophical understanding of what science could be. Not that they don’t have that here in China, but nature is more predominant. The fact is that the Chinese are overoptimistic. I think understatement will eventually empower itself in this country too.
PG: What do you think of the way contemporary Chinese art is received in the West?
LT: There’s a huge misunderstanding about Chinese art in the West. A lot of western curators come here and choose works of art and then put together completely decontextualised exhibitions that don’t work because Chinese artists would normally show more than one of their works at a time. Like any other artist, they want to present their work clearly; especially when it isn’t well known. That is a source of huge misunderstanding. And this also creates the misconception that Chinese artists are just copying or just following the West. It’s not true. Personally, I want to know how Chinese artists really work, how they really think.
PG: Has your experience of contemporary China altered your view of the world?
LT: It has shaken up my perception of the world a little bit, particularly on a human level. It has moved me because I feel curiosity for a huge continent; an eagerness to learn. And I fear their desire.
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