JIA Bu: You had your first solo exhibition at ShanghART Gallery in 1997 and then in 1999, 2002, 2004, 2005 and 2006 respectively. I noticed that after that you didn't have any solo exhibition till now. What did you do during this period?
WU Yiming: I also asked myself that question. In the past few years, I've experienced some significant changes not only in my mind but also in my outlook and values. Previously, I used to have a solo exhibition every two years, which was a normal pace. In the past, I created art out of personal interest. I wanted to express my understanding and ideas of Chinese art and Western art. I felt it's an interesting thing to do. But I didn't think much about what kind of message my works would convey or what my works would provoke collectors and viewers to think about.
JIA Bu: What do you mean by "in the past"?
WU Yiming: That should be before 2004. I had two shows abroad in that year and hence got the chance to see a lot of works. Back then I was wondering: why other artists painted that way? What did they want to express exactly? It's highly different from the way I did art. You know, people like me with an academic background put much emphasis on skills and visual effect. Since I was very young, the art training I received always focused on this kind of stuff and didn't pay much attention to philosophical or critical thinking. In a word, it put formalism above everything else. I kept reflecting upon these things in the past few years.
JIA Bu: I saw your early works, those you created around 2001. For instance, in one of your paintings a mobile phone was put beside an ancient Chinese court lady. Today if you look at it again, you may think it is a bit immature. But the ideas and the way of thinking revealed in those works are quite contemporary.
WU Yiming: Back then I was quite into such an approach. First of all, I thought art hereby created was quite good-looking. Moreover, it was easy to understand. Everybody could get the idea. That's what I was concerned about back then. Now that I look back, certainly I think it was too simple and too symbolic.
WU Yiming: As far as I'm concerned, it is the non-visual elements of contemporary art that differentiates itself from traditional and classic art and makes it intriguing. In other words, the philosophical meaning and critical thinking that contemporary art emphasizes gives the impression of intellectuals.. It's the concept of Western modern intellectuals, focusing on intervention, interaction and feedback from the general public and the society.
JIA Bu: My view on this is quite the opposite. As I've intentionally kept a distance from the art scene in recent years, I feel that I've become more open-minded when looking at art. In the past, when looking at art, I felt I had this kind of social responsibility. It was like the instinct of a media person. The sense of responsibility made things heavy and gloomy. Now I'm purely a looker-on with no burden in mind. I think with a looker-on's perspective, I see most of the game.
In my opinion, the problem of art now is that people all believe it takes thinkers to get the work done and pay little attention to visual effects. In other words, is contemporary art an ideological issue or an aesthetical issue? I was not an art major. For quite a long time I firmly believed that art was about ideology and only concepts mattered, because everyone I met talked about concepts.
Nevertheless, when you look back, you would find in addition to concepts, what touched upon people's heart-strings had to possess enough visual power. It is a basic criterion for art. Without visual power, an artist could just write an article or book to elaborate his/her profound thoughts. Almost all that artists want to express has been expressed before by philosophers. Then why bother to say it again by artists, not to mention that many are expressed in an extremely abstruse way?
Only by expressing in the form of visual art instead of words, can the unique intensity be revealed. And only in this way the necessity and value of art are demonstrated. Therefore, artwork must possess a sense of formalism.
WU Yiming: I don't quite agree with you. You said skills were important. But without skills, will there be no art?
JIA Bu: We are both too obsessed with it. I think I know why. You're an artist with excellent skills. You don't think highly of what you already have. That's why you don't think skills are important. But I used to be a layman of art. When I entered the art scene, all kind of "concepts" were implanted into my head since day one. Hence, for a very long time I thought art was about concepts. But now I feel that concepts are easy. What's difficult and valuable is to express concepts nicely and powerfully in the form of art. I don't think our views on this issue vary significantly, but our ways of expression may sound a bit extreme.
WU Yiming: In my view, your role is beyond an artist. Works of artists who focus more on so-called ideas don't seem much interesting. The philosophical thinking conveyed in their works has already been clearly stated by philosophers, and words tend to be more powerful than art.
Chinese people have a favor for slogan-style or quotation-style language, for it's simple and clear. People think in the form of language. If artists are not able to do it well, at least they should try to give it a comforting form. But personally I think if the form of artwork appears to be too comforting, viewers' attention would be attracted only by the sense of formalism, which makes it a failure as an artwork.
In the past I would've agreed with you. I'd think that it's not bad to put a painting up there, and I probably would also spend a couple of minutes looking at it. But nowadays this is an era witnessing an explosion of images. The importance of the sense of formalism is no longer prominent.
JIA Bu: The image per se reflects taste.
WU Yiming: The sense of formalism belongs to one of those small tastes. Let's take WU Guanzhong's painting for instance. If now he draws the same things again, it won't mean much. Only in a particular era those particular works could be deemed as meaningful and inspiring.
For example, I draw a line and I feel quite good. So do some other art practitioners and collectors. Not everyone can draw a line like that. It takes years of practice and experience. So I feel good about myself. However, it only means something to myself. It's the same case for many other artists. They are good artists and I think highly of them. But such recognition is based on a somewhat open and diverse outlook of art.
But as a modern intellectual and in the face of the status quo of contemporary China, I think I should choose an alternative path to truly return to personalized expression. For instance, if I draw a portrait of a friend and you can sense something sympathizing with the life in contemporary Chinese society through the composition, brushwork and overall ambience of the painting, then I think that's something more open-minded and humane.
As a matter of fact, the so-called traditional art, or classic art, tends to keep a distance from grand subjects. It puts an emphasis on skills and humanity. When talking about Chinese painting, people like to mention the phrase "the spirit of ink art". However, it is a means rather than a goal.
JIA Bu: Then what is the goal?
WU Yiming: The goal is to express what you think about the society through your work. When we want to express something, we need to state it clearly and logically rather than resorting to shouting or even cursing.
JIA Bu: You majored in Chinese painting in college?
WU Yiming: Yes, and also in secondary school. But I seldom painted during college years. I found it boring. I didn't think landscapes, flowers and birds had anything to do with me.
JIA Bu: You looked down upon those things, but didn't know what else to do.
WU Yiming: That's right. But some of those top students at school, those who were good at oil painting or classic painting, are now nowhere to be found. I think their talent in a way turned into a kind of hindrance and burden that was hard for them to get rid of.
To people now in their fifties, the 80s were the most exciting era. It was pure and not money driven. When you painted, you didn't think about if it could be sold at all. Nowadays artists would think about this kind of stuff, more or less. They would think about whether they should make the work more delicate or use better materials so as to help the selling of the work.
My thoughts back then were also pure and simple. I just felt that I wanted to express. Certainly I was also influenced by the 1985 New Art Movement and felt it's necessary to express something in my own field.
JIA Bu: Which field was that?
WU Yiming: It refers to the field of traditional Chinese painting. How could we reflect upon the tradition from a contemporary perspective? That was a starting point for my practice back then. That's why the images of the ancients appeared in many of my works created during that time. I put some of the ancient elements and patterns from classic paintings and sculptures into my own work, but I didn't portray them in a purely classic style. For instance, in ancient times lines and brushwork were highly emphasized. I didn't think that fit the modern era. I wanted to use tools that were related with my era to sort out the tradition.
People engaged in the study of traditional Chinese culture tend to miss the good old days, for ancient China was so great. Chinese culture matured very early, making us who live in the declining era so envious. No wonder we would think that way. People all wish their culture is at a commanding height. They want to relive the good old days.
JIA Bu: Let's go back to the question I asked at the beginning of our dialogue: What did you do from 2006 to now?
WU Yiming: To me it was a quite painful period.
As I mentioned, it was around 2005 and 2006 that I realized what I'd painted was quite superficial. People liked them sometimes because of the skills and sometimes because they were good-looking. But I didn't think those kinds of things mattered to me anymore. During the past few years, I figured out the direction for my art. Now I would choose a more personalized perspective. Originally, like many other passionate young guys in the 80s, I thought I could make achievements in the realm of art and change the old thinking mode.
JIA Bu: You wanted to change the world?
WU Yiming: I was not that crazily ambitious. Gradually I came to understand that within the framework of a powerful social system and thinking structure, art practitioners like me were as insignificant and powerless as an ant. That's why I wanted to change my perspective, trying to pay less attention to grand narratives.
JIA Bu: In your early works, such as the paintings featuring both ancient court ladies and mobile phones, the signs you chose were all very symbolic. They showed that this artist had a grand desire to have a conversation with the world. But now your paintings feature a wider range of subjects, including still life and friends of yours. Do you ever worry that it's a kind of retreat and you're retreating into a kind of small taste?
WU Yiming: I know what you mean.
The way I see the problem is that we would never relive the 1980s. Back then liberation befell abruptly when the overall environment was desperately depressive. Many people wanted to make their voices heard. They wanted to speak for the society, for the nation.
As the society keeps progressing, a significant change is that people are getting more and more private. Nowadays what they say and what they do doesn't have much to do with the so-called aspiration. LI Na the tennis player is a typical example of that. She emphasized twice on media that she didn't play for the country but for herself. Do you think it's a retreat or not?
The question you raised show that you have a stereotype in your mind. You think if it's for the sake of the country, it's lofty taste; and if it's for oneself, it's small taste. But that's not the case.
JIA Bu: Haha…You're alert to be linked with small taste. Let me rephrase it. We can resort to concepts such as grand narrative and personal narrative. I find your work gets to focus more and more on small things. You shifted your focus from the grand era to you and your friends.
WU Yiming: That's right. Now I don't want to discuss too much about the so-called public topics. Instead, I want to explore further in some personal and private topics. I think a specific case is far more meaningful than general and blank talks.
JIA Bu: I can understand what you mean. When we're young, more or less we all want to change the world. You make a voice and want to be heard. And in order to be heard by a wider range of people, you tend to choose topics that can attract more attention.
The shift of focus from public topics to private topics may have something to do with age. Take myself for example. The older I grow, the more mediocre and powerless I realize I am. So the desire to be heard by a wide range of people starts to fade.
WU Yiming: That depends, I think. For instance, CAI Guoqiang is no longer young. But he seems to be more and more energetic.
JIA Bu: CAI is always very energetic. Success is a constant stimulant to him. But his case doesn't apply to the majority. Generally speaking, the older one gets, the more private one is.
WU Yiming: You are from the media, so you tend to pay attention to things that shine and to ignore those in the dark. That's how the media works. Spotlight has to be on the minority. Nevertheless, can we say that the minority represents the whole society? I don't think so.
JIA Bu: I feel like being criticized by you. But I don't get what I am criticized for.
WU Yiming: You, like others from the media, tend to emphasize on generality and neglect individuality. But my stance is that the private and the individual should be respected. Things that are individual and personal may not be able to lead the zeitgeist or of representative significance, but they help demonstrate an independent personality. People do something personal and private. Probably others don't like it or don't get it. It doesn't matter. They are doing what they want to do in their life, which builds a life philosophy of their own. If the media takes such a stance, China will be much more interesting. In this regard, there's some grand loftiness in my recent work.
JIA Bu: From late 1990s to at least 2008, all the human figures appearing in your work, including the court ladies you painted in 1998 and 1999, the ancient ladies with mobile phones, the Statue of Liberty, Beuys, man in black suit and trendy office ladies, were faceless and didn't have any background stories or details. The intentional erasing of individuality was an act of highlighting generality.
For instance, the man in black suit, is he a friend of yours?
WU Yiming: That series was mostly painted before 2008 and contained several dozens of paintings. They represented the image of white collars in my mind: men wearing suit and women dressed in an elegantly trendy way.
JIA Bu: They were not any specific people but abstract images, right?
WU Yiming: You can put it that way. I'm not good at abstraction. In terms of concept, what I painted was quite abstract. I wanted to reveal a certain truth rather than to portray a specific person in my work. For instance, the image I created tilted a little bit and some figures were portrayed as if they were in anguish. It's not common practice.
I have some white collar friends. The so-called middle-class life doesn't enhance their sense of happiness.
JIA Bu: That's why the figures in your paintings looked like in great pain?
WU Yiming: Yes. But on the surface they looked quite beautiful.
It's a good method for modern society to function well. Otherwise we won't witness such a developed commercial culture. For example, the clothes you wear are worth RMB50,000 and mine is RMB50. Why is that? A system needs to be set up. Designers, craftsmanship, brand influence and public awareness all add value to it so that RMB50 can turn into RMB50,000. If you do want to go back to rationality, these are absolutely not necessities of life. Only when the society develops to a certain level will such a system be fostered.
But life doesn't always follow rationality, logic and knowledge. Life comprises of experiences.
JIA Bu: White collar lifestyle is frequently criticized for being ridiculous. But white collars also have their own life experience. In my case, I can work at home and don't need to go to any company. But I'm willing to go to work. Time at home is easily spent on idling. Sometimes I would plan to go to the library in the morning and meet a friend in the afternoon. So it is supposed to be a relaxing and casual day. But then I would procrastinate till almost the end of the day to rush into the library. Looking back, I would find most of the time I'm at home is spent in vain. So I think to go to work every day is a good thing.
WU Yiming: You suffer from some typical modern syndrome: anxiety disorders. You find it's boring at home.
JIA Bu: Not really. I have plans. For example, I don't need to watch TV when I'm at home. But if I turn on TV, I would keep on watching. It's out of my control. I strongly feel that time needs to be managed by certain forces.
WU Yiming: It's a paradox of modern civilization. Many of my works also cast light on this kind of paradox. When I draw water lilies, I'd erase the meaning in it. What I draw is a certain structure.
JIA Bu: You don't think time needs to be filled with stuff or meaning?
WU Yiming: Right. I think the so-called meaning is ridiculous. People often say that "an inch of time is an inch of gold" and "never waste time". These are some kind of conspiracies to promote social progress. You can see it from a different angle. If tomorrow there'll be a devastating earthquake or the earth will collide with another planet, everything will seem to be meaningless. My works tend to shed light on that. Most people are ordinary people. My friends don't experience much drama in their life. Drama is not normal state of life, but dead-pan look is. It's the same case for water lily. Water lily is just water lily.
JIA Bu: How about your life? Do you experience anxiety in your life?
WU Yiming: Of course. I'm an ordinary man with my own anxieties.
JIA Bu: You express your opinions on this matter, but you haven't figured it fully out yet?
WU Yiming: I just started to realize the problem. As to fully figuring it out, we should probably wait till we're 80 years old to talk about that.
JIA Bu: You feel anxieties, and you know such anxieties are based on a kind of conspiracy. How do you deal with it?
WU Yiming: It's difficult. As you are a social man, you can hardly break away from the society. It's neither smart nor feasible to try to escape it. I want to convince myself that there's another perspective to think about the issue. I can only try to do my best but cannot guarantee anything. But that's a goal of mine.
JIA Bu: Besides those white collars, you also painted some candlesticks. The western style candlestick didn't seem to fit your style.
WU Yiming: That one was interesting. I bought it in Germany. I found it very good-looking, and a German friend who accompanied me to visit antique stores told me in Germany every family had one of those. At least two Germans told me that they would never light a cigarette on a candlestick because that meant a sailor would die.
JIA Bu: What's the role of the candlestick in your painting?
WU Yiming: I think it was a ritual with God. I portrayed the candlestick in a very sacred way as if it were the Statue of Liberty. It's a kind of faith. Back then I drew candlesticks, the Statue of Liberty and white collars dressed in suit posing as Jesus on the cross. I was confused. What exactly did we think about? Why should people appear in the world in this way? I didn't raise these questions in an obvious way in my paintings. But it certainly didn't mean I didn't pay attention to them.
JIA Bu: Did such thoughts have anything to do with the New Religion series? It was a grand idea.
WU Yiming: Right. It was around three years ago that I made the Statue of Liberty and Joseph Beuys. At that time I was thinking about some grand issues and trying to find new faith.
JIA Bu: Find new faith for yourself or for this era?
WU Yiming: Both. Beuys was the faith of the art circle. Everyone knew that he influenced the whole art scene. The statue of Beuys I made was faceless, but people who saw it would immediately knew it was Beuys. I asked myself: why Chinese followed the lead of foreigners? If a statue of QI Baishi was put there, it wouldn't attract much attention. The statue of Beuys was a good example, and it highlighted my question: what exactly did we want? That's why I named the series New Religion.
JIA Bu: In this regard, this series would lead to many new possibilities.
WU Yiming: That's right. During that time I also portrayed Diana and some famous fashion designers. Same as the Statue of Liberty, they also represented what I admired and wanted to become. In a sense, it was like what the media always did: to establish a typical example.
JIA Bu: You once mentioned you wouldn't draw the portraits of LIU Xiang and YAO Ming in your paintings for they had nothing to do with you. But Aung San Suu Kyi appeared in your work.
WU Yiming: Yes. My mind has changed and is more determined. Previously I drew portraits of those people, the best and most influential artists, politicians and females because I thought they were great. Nevertheless, such influence was quite superficial and didn't touch upon the heart-strings.
I was painting Aung San Suu Kyi these days not because she was influential but because I truly agreed with what she advocated. She spent a life time fighting with dictatorship, practiced her idea with her life and never resorted to violence. For over 20 years she had always stuck to her belief. It was such great spiritual power that moved me deeply.
JIA Bu: I also saw the poster you painted for the film The Postmodern Life of My Aunt. What's the story behind it?
WU Yiming: I was severely criticized by netizens because of that poster. Actually that was an event curated by WU Liang. He wanted to add a flavor of culture to the premiere. So he invited several artists to draw something based on the film in the hope to catch some media attention. I hadn't watched the film and took reference only from some film stills. The appearance of Chow Yun-fat immediately reminded me of XU Wenqiang, a leading figure in the famous TV series Shanghai Bund. That's why I drew the image of XU Wenqiang, which was well-known to Chinese audience. WU thought it was OK.
JIA Bu: I like that work. Probably that's because the man didn't have a face. Otherwise it would be too specific and lose its fun.
WU Yiming: It depends on the influence power of the subject to be portrayed. For instance, if I draw a portrait of you and make it faceless, which I'm good at, everyone will get confused and not be able to recognize you. Then the portrait is of no avail. But it doesn't really matter, as long as I know it.
JIA Bu: Face, features, facial expression are the most direct reflection of one's emotions and other information. However, the human figures in your paintings are faceless. If viewers can still see what you want to say, that's pretty cool.
WU Yiming: Vivid charm is the vital and foremost principle of traditional Chinese painting. To put an emphasis on vivid charm rather than precise shaping is quite different from western methodology. The Chinese aesthetics and thinking mode emphasize on the ambience that painting gives out. So I work hard on that, highlighting the overall ambience of painting.
It is of great importance for me to make what I paint appeals to you at first sight. Specific figures and details are negligible.
JIA Bu: Now some of the portraits of your friends have faces.
WU Yiming: Yes. Now when I draw a portrait of a friend, I won't pay particular attention to their distinctive features. I don't care about that any more. What I want to highlight is that this person is a friend of mine. There's something about his personality that I am attracted to and admire.
I'm against some kind of individualism, which prevents an individual from reflecting upon himself/herself in a contemporary context. For instance, some people, because of their own life experience, would wish to go back to the past or go through to the future. I'm against that kind of thing. Can you understand that?
JIA Bu: Not really.
WU Yiming: I'll try to rephrase it. I appreciate the sentence "to think with common sense". What I do now is to try to get rid of so-called superficial "beauty" and get things back to the common sense level. That's why I would erase the facial expressions of my friends when I draw portraits of them. More or less, people have some stereotypes concerning how features and facial expressions should look like. Sometimes I find that very absurd. But it is generally accepted.
JIA Bu: Faces with no features appear in both your early works and recent ones. In your recent works, even when you draw portraits of your friends, you try to get rid of specific details such as facial expressions. Are you always trying to reveal some absolute truth through your painting?
WU Yiming: You're quite right. In the past, I felt confident when I painted. But now I don't feel so. The Statue of Liberty and candlestick I drew drifted a bit away from the absolute truth.
JIA Bu: Do you think this is a kind of progress or retreat?
WU Yiming: It doesn't really matter. It's all spontaneous and changes as my experience and my mind change. If I force myself to make progress every day, it contradicts my original intention.
JIA Bu: Your original intention is not to make progress but to let it be?
WU Yiming: My original intention is more human oriented.
JIA Bu: Desires are also human oriented.
WU Yiming: I didn't exclude desires.
JIA Bu: Progress is also a kind of desire.
WU Yiming: So is retreat, isn't it?
JIA Bu: If that's the case, then nothing really matters.
It seems we reach a dead end. Let's start over, shall we?
You abandoned your previous way of expression due to the pursuit of absolute truth?
WU Yiming: Correct.
JIA Bu: And you started to adopt a more private way of expression?
WU Yiming: In a way, yes. I admire artists who keep furthering their exploration in a consistent way. But I'm not one of them.
JIA Bu: So you change your methodology constantly but the ultimate goal remains the same.
WU Yiming: That's right.
JIA Bu: As an artist, the truth you're after is abstract and conceptual, even to the extent that you don't quite know how to describe it.
WU Yiming: What can be clearly described is not absolute truth but absolute concept.
JIA Bu: Your works are always on rice paper, aren't they?
WU Yiming: Yes. I never create any works on canvas. It's not a rule. But I do feel that there're many possibilities of rice paper that can be further explored.
JIA Bu: When I interviewed you in 2001, you were not married, right?
WU Yiming: No.
JIA Bu: You and your wife are still married?
WU Yiming: Yes. You make it sound like it's weird that we're still married. Nowadays it seems the weird is deemed as normal and vice versa.
JIA Bu: Either way is normal, in terms of human nature.
WU Yiming: But it would be a retreat in terms of civilization.
JIA Bu: You criticized the principles people followed, saying it was a conspiracy of the society. And then you talked about the retreat of civilization, saying that the principle everybody followed was basically truth. It seems your principles change from time to time.
WU Yiming: It's complicated. I stick to different principles when dealing with different realms.
The one absolute principle I stick to is that "there must be problems with things that are in trend". Let's take the marriage thing for instance. If one day getting divorce is not as common as it is today, then I probably would think that to spend your whole life living with only one person is problematic.
JIA Bu: I see. You're full of contradictions.
WU Yiming: Yes, you're right. I want to sing a different tune.
JIA Bu: During this conversation you criticized me several time. Now that I heard this, I feel relieved.
WU Yiming: I need something to disagree with.
JIA Bu: We can also put your word in another way. We have to establish something for us to disagree with?
WU Yiming: That's how the world works.
JIA Bu: I remember I was also full of contradictions in my adolescence. But it's hard to imagine that you are still so at your age.
WU Yiming: I always label myself as old cynic. I want to maintain such a state. But of course the way I act has to be civilized.
WU Yiming: The man in this painting is SONG Haidong. He participated in the Venice Biennale as early as 1993 and was one of the pioneers engaged in installation art in China. Now he leads a life as a monk. He studies traditional art and is definitely a man of wisdom. But many people don't see it that way. They think he goes backwards and his influence increasingly diminishes. As a matter of fact, it's just that most people don't get him. But instead of trying to understand him, they tend to negate him. I drew a portrait of him because I thought highly of his value.
JIA Bu: Your recognition determines the subjects of your paintings?
WU Yiming: Certainly. That's very important.
JIA Bu: And there's a tricky problem. For instance, it would take just a few sentences to give people a general idea of SONG Haidong's story.
But how could I do this by means of painting? It's hard to let viewers see the whole story through a painting.
WU Yiming: Visual art is not good at that. The image of JIA Baoyu is so vivid in The Dream of Red Mansion. It's hard to do the same in painting.
My work features not only my friends but also my own state. These friends share something in common with me. For instance, we all stick to our own opinions, whether they're right or wrong. Personal insistence, no matter it represents progress or the opposite, is of value. By portraying these people, I want to highlight something that is eternal in human nature rather than the dramatic ups and downs. So I wouldn't show in my paintings that they got married or divorced. That's what I wanted to avoid.
JIA Bu: It's hard for art to tell a story. To people who write, to say something clearly is of much importance. But to art, that's not necessarily the case.
WU Yiming: It's ridiculous to ask art to be clear.
JIA Bu: Right. The thinking systems behind art and writing are different. I'm eager to say something clearly, but I know it's not quite possible to do it by words. The power of art lies in what words cannot fully convey.
JIA Bu: Last time you said "whether or not my art is of value depends on if tomorrow I can hold on and am still an artist. If tomorrow I quit art and become a business man, then everything I do with art is meaningless."
WU Yiming: Did I say that?
JIA Bu: I've got the tape. I didn't really figure out the logic of your words.
WU Yiming: Well, I'm not a man known for my logic.
JIA Bu: But you still need to try to work on your logic. We have this conversation in order to figure out the logic.
WU Yiming: And also to figure out future direction.
JIA Bu: As to the value of your art, do you see your work as art or your life as art?
WU Yiming: I value attitudes. I don't want to reflect on the problems and on the society from a too materialistic angle. Just now you mentioned the word progress. Actually I don't quite like the word. I don't like to measure life from the perspective of whether it's a progress or not.
WU Yiming: I think we need to go back to the fundamental and try to keep life simple and pristine in order to not be ruined by the dazzling distractions of the era.
JIA Bu: To remain vigilant to the era? I feel that you always keep this kind of vigilance. I read the interview I did with you ten years ago. Back then you lived in Xinzhuang and you said you were not willing to feel like being successful. You still have such vigilance now?
WU Yiming: Vigilance is an indispensable part of a modern intellectual.
JIA Bu: What exactly are you vigilant to?
WU Yiming: To the development trend of the society as a whole.
JIA Bu: Can I say you are vigilant to success and sense of success in general?
WU Yiming: In a sense, that's true. If you are successful, it means you're recognized.
JIA Bu: Right. But the degree of recognition varies. For instance, a cleaning lady sees your painting and she thinks it good. This is also a kind of recognition. But most likely such recognition won't generate value or far-reaching consequences. But if your work is recognized by some authority in the art scene, it's highly likely that such recognition will lead to something, something big.
WU Yiming: If an artist doesn't make art for the sake of gaining success or recognition, then s/he doesn't need to participate in any exhibition. S/he can just share his/her works with friends and families. The fact that you want to be presented in exhibitions and to enhance your influence power shows that you want to pursue success. In this regard, if your work can influence a wider range of people and provoke them to think, I believe such success is worth pursuing.
But on the other hand, such success will also bring you money and social status, to which you need to be vigilant. Otherwise you would easily be trapped by this kind of stuff.
WU Yiming: Some people say that I look young. But I think that's because I'm still quite naive and not good at socializing. Sometimes my words just fail to convey the meaning I want to express.
JIA Bu: Does it have something to do with your ability of expressing?
WU Yiming: Ability of expressing refers to being able to say proper things in proper occasions.
JIA Bu: Not exactly. Ability of expressing means to accurately express your thoughts. What are your major networking channels?
WU Yiming: I mainly communicate with some good friends. I want to narrow my social sphere a bit. I still have the ambition. But as I grow older, I feel time is quickly running out. I want to spend my time on more effective communication.
JIA Bu: I understand.
WU Yiming: I have many friends of my age. I find that as we grow older, many of us show certain inertia. I'm alert to that.
JIA Bu: By inertia you mean sticking to some fixed pattern?
WU Yiming: Right. But it's not necessarily wrong. Everyone has his own lifestyle.
JIA Bu: That's why you want to narrow your social sphere?
WU Yiming: To make a change to my social sphere, to be more specific. In the past, I didn't have much contact with artists from outside Shanghai. Now I try to communicate more with them. And I also want to communicate more with people like you. Our conversation toady is very informative. You mentioned the word vigilance, and I find that quite interesting and I never thought about that before. Laziness is part of human nature. Our body will get lazy, and so will our mind.
JIA Bu: Have you ever experienced some kind of social anxiety?
WU Yiming: I'm never closely related with the contemporary art circle. Neither am I a center of focus in this field. The relationship between my friends and me is never too intimate.
JIA Bu: I also found this sentence in the interview we did ten years ago: "You have the face that I've seen several times at several exhibition occasions." It shows a sense of self-complacency of a young man who just made his way into the art circle. I've always been alert to such kind of self-complacency. But you see, sometimes I just couldn't help revealing it.
WU Yiming: Really? But I feel like being mocked by what you said about me. It seemed you were saying I was a familiar face to you in the art circle. As a matter of fact, I also feel such kind of self-complacency from time to time. I often tell people that my childhood experience was quite special. I've been telling people dozens of times that I never attended any painting classes when I was young. When saying it, I guess there was some kind of self-complacency. But the reason why I said all that stuff was to stress that education back then was not as dogmatic as it is now. I think thanks to such educational environment, people like me got the chance to come to the fore.
JIA Bu: It has something to do with one's narrative method and skills. I hide my self-complacency well. Even you, the person I was writing about, didn't notice it.
All men have the desire to speak up, to express and to show off. Just a couple of days ago a stupid microblog entry caused a stir. A girl wrote "My godfather threw me a birthday party during the 2C season (note: the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference). I felt so happy." Netizens were indignant. But I feel that in a way I could understand this girl's behavior. The desire to show off was just too irresistible. As one grows more mature, one knows better about how to conceal it. For instance, you wanted to boast about you being a genius kid, but you pretended that you were criticizing the educational system. Such wisdom is gradually gained from life experience. Deep in our mind we all know that self-complacency is not welcomed.
WU Yiming: Yes, it's an instinct of a civilized person. It's not hypocrisy but etiquette.
JIA Bu: Do you feel the urge to extinguish desires?
WU Yiming: Probably. I intentionally foster such kind of urge. For instance, if a friend comes by and says he likes something of mine, sometimes I will just tell him to take it, pretending I don't care at all.
My generosity is not because this person is one of my best friends. I just don't want myself to pay too much attention to the material level. I try to restrain my desires in this way. But certainly I don't do it all the time.
JIA Bu: If you feel the urge to extinguish desires, then do you try to lead a kind of ascetic life? I know it's not possible to lead a truly ascetic life in this modern city. But do you try to do this in your mind?
WU Yiming: I don't feel it's particularly necessary to restrain myself. Certainly we don't need to show off or to lead a luxury lifestyle. But we don't need to go the other extreme to torture ourselves for the sake of some idealism. You can do what you want to do. I encourage people to enjoy life. If you buy some luxury clothes, what's wrong with that?
JIA Bu: But I do feel you try to lead a somewhat ascetic life. Why is that? Last time we met you rode a bike. And the clothes you wear are always quite pristine. And the sofa you are sitting on now cracked ten years ago. All of these seem to send out some message.
WU Yiming: That's another problem. Sometimes I do this kind of things intentionally. It's my own problem. It shows there's still a great gap between me and the genuine grand wisdom.
Once I overcome this problem, you'll see it won't make any difference even if a king's throne is to be placed in my house. Probably that's the day you'll see me sitting on the throne, watching my feet.
JIA Bu: People were born with the desire to attract attention. It's our instinct to find a sense of superiority in ourselves and to prove that we are special. Let's take myself for example. When I just graduated from college and became a reporter, I felt so good about myself. I was a man who could make a living by writing and thinking. But gradually you find that the world is full of writers, reporters, editors and chief editors. There's no big difference between them and an ordinary white collar. It's mediocre. It sounds pathetic to spend your life time like this, but you'll have to accept it anyway.
WU Yiming: It's a good thing. That's life. If you are like the chief editor in The Devil Wears Prada, you'll look like a monster.
Under normal circumstance, we're all mediocrities. There's nothing wrong being mediocre. In a sense, it's too idealistic and even dangerous to pursue so-called "non mediocrity". In reality, mediocrity is normal and to pursue mediocrity is the right thing to do.
JIA Bu: "To pursue mediocrity is the right thing to do", that's so well said. I'll use this as the title of this interview.