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Interview with Li Shan

Interviewer: Davide Quadrio/BizART 2007

MC: How did people around you react to your calling yourself an artist?

Li Shan(LS): Well, I guess the answer to the question will have to be traced back to a long time ago, since I have already reached such an advanced age. When I made such a choice about 40 years ago, a lot of things happened. Actually, when I was a 11th grader, my friend, also my deskmate and roommate at that time, and I always did maths and physics exercises all day long. The lowest goal we set for ourselves was to enter Harbin Industrial University. Among the higher level universities that we wished to go to were Tsinghua University and Beijing University. So we worked really hard. Later, I had a conflict with my class teacher due to my personality. Looking back, the conflict just arose out of some improper words I said, and today it really seemed insignificant. But back then, my reaction was really strong and prompted me to make the decision of suspending my studies for one year. This sort of thing could really only happen with kids. That year, I did nothing else but read novels at home. And this inspired me to make the drastic transition from science to arts when I returned to school the next year. Actually my class teacher was still the same one who had the conflict with me before. Having switched to the arts stream, I later went to Heilongjiang University. I did not feel very accustomed to the university, so I dropped out. Again I took the college entrance examination and was accepted by Shanghai Theatre Academy, where I chose this major. After quitting Heilongjiang University, I didn't consult anyone on what I should do. The whole decision was made by myself. When I first quitted school and went back home, my mother was extremely sad and remained silent for a long time. I felt I owed her something when I chose to pursue art. She was the only person who made me feel this way. Now that she is long gone, I hope she would be proud of what I have turned out to be. But I'm not sure about that. This is the story about how I became an artist. To make it short, my choosing to be an artist is all because of the  friction with my class teacher in senior high school. That really changed my life.

MC: During your career, when did you feel special, different, frustrated - and why?LS: Let me see. Well, I had a whole list of frustrating experiences in my life. You know we went to university before the Cultural Revolution. The revolution really started with art and literature. At least that was what they said. After the revolution started, many of us were ready to switch careers despite the fact that we hadn't graduated yet. We just didn't want to study art anymore. The friend I mentioned earlier was accepted by Harbin Industrial University and, after graduation, was assigned a technician's post in a factory in Chongqing. I wrote him a letter right before graduation and told him that I didn't want to be an artist anymore. He asked me, "What do you want to do, then?" "I would like to work in your factory," I said. "What can you possibly do in our factory?" he asked. I said, "I can compile the black-board newspaper for your factory." This just showed how depressed I was at that time, working in the field of art. And that was followed by an endless list of frustrating experiences. Even today, I am still depressed, not because of any external factors, but because of myself.

Davide Quadrio(DQ): Why?

LS: Because many of the things I would like to do could not be realized due to lots of obstacles. There are currently two major obstacles I am faced with, my limited understanding and imagination and some technological issues in practice. I may have to collaborate with scientists. But finding such a scientist could prove extremely difficult. So I'll have to say that, from the beginning of my career up till now, I have come across too many frustrations.

DQ: Then, when did you feel special? And what is your understanding of being special? Or to put it another way, in what ways do you feel different as an artist?

LS: You mean "Is there a difference between me and others?"

DQ: Yes, right.

LS: Well, in my mind, basically, there is no difference. Let me take the scientist again as an example. Scientists are constantly exploring the world and mankind. Just like them, today's artists are also exploring something, focusing, of course, more on the issues of human life. And I, with no exception, am also looking into such things. So in this sense, there is no difference. Sometimes I ask myself if some artists try to make themselves seem different on purpose. For example, artists in Shanghai don't like the artists in Beijing, so they call them "pizi", or rascals. The artists in Beijing also dislike Shanghai artists, calling them the petty bourgeoisie. But I feel you should be who you really are. If you are a rascal, you are a rascal, always using vulgar language, behaving in an improper manner, knocking over chairs, all of which are okay for a rascal. If you are a petty bourgeoisie, it's fine for you to have a little bourgeois sentiment and a noble temperament, to talk in a more refined manner, and to dress neatly. Both are acceptable to me because they are real. What really make me uncomfortable are those fake rascals or fake petty bourgeoisie. I really cannot stand them. I talk about this issue just to tell you that if there does exist something different about artists, it must be the fact that some artists are faking things. They shape themselves with plastic; they have a smell that is sprayed on, not the smell they are born with. They are made of sheer plastic, not copper, iron, wood, or soil. I don't know what others think of plastic, but I simply cannot stand it. Take sculptures for instance, I never have a liking for those using fiber glass as materials, even if they have good styles. This just shows if some artists are in anyway different, it must be because they like to fake. Or we can simply, like many people do, compare these artists to plastic flowers, plastic roses for instance, with their fragrance sprayed on. This may really be the only difference. But I, personally, do not appreciate such a difference. I hate plastic, or anything unnatural.

MC: What is the most important contribution of art to social life / society?

LS: Inspiring people's imagination. Our society is in urgent need of imagination, without which it is doomed.

MC: As an artist, do you feel you have responsibility in a social and cultural context? In what ways?

LS: Well, I used to have a strong sense of responsibility before. And because of this sense of responsibility, it was difficult for me to paint well. The responsibility was too heavy on our shoulders, and it was the same for all of us. You know, before and after the cultural revolution, and at the beginning of the opening up of the country, there were art exhibitions, like the Exhibition of Chinese Modern Art in Beijing, which really gave us a burden so heavy it was beyond description. Our works were tarnished by such kind of responsibilities. When we were freed from such restraints, we created good artworks. An artist's responsibility is not towards other human beings, but towards the artwork itself. If you create good works, then you are already responsible to society.

MC: Have you ever been doubtful of your identity as an artist?

LS: Yes, I have. Let me think... I think I should have. For example, I will question myself whether what I am creating is art or not art. It all depends. When I try to turn some of my works into living things, I always wonder if it will still be artworks, or just something created by a biologist. The things I design are called art because I am defined as an artist, so if I am not an artist, they may not be viewed as art at all.

MC: Do you find it necessary that a creative / artistic person have a belief? What do you believe in?

LS: I don't think so. I think one's creativity comes from his consideration of his surroundings, the world at large, different problems and mankind. He is thinking about a lot things. Because of the depth of this thinking, he may have a different level of understanding for different issues. Also, artists have inspirations. We focus on inspiration because it is what artists think about.  I have always been thinking about this: when Dadou says something to me, when you raise a question, or when something occurs around me, it happens to have some relationship with my thoughts, thus comes what I would like to create.

DQ: But you probably cannot call such a relationship spiritual support.

LS: Right. Such things don't seem like spiritual support.

DQ: Don't you think so?

LS: I think it's hard to categorize them as spiritual support.

DQ: Well, spiritual support doesn't necessarily have anything to do with religion. It is not always connected with religion.

LS: It could be something related to ideal. f so, each artist has ideals and so does everyone.

DQ: Then how do you think a creative person will achieve his ideal?

LS: It may become one of the driving forces behind the creation.

DQ: But is it necessary for a creative person to possess such ideals?

LS: Such an ideal is, more practically, a wish. An artist who doesn't even have a wish won't turn out to be a good artist. He needs to have such a wish.

MC: Do you think that people should understand your art? Do you need people to understand your art?

LS: I never thought about such things. Many people do not understand my art now. When a philosopher comes up with some new philosophic thinking, it is impossible to make everyone understand or get to know it. It may take 100 or 200 years for people to really know about and understand his philosophic thinking. Hence I never think about stuff like this when I create. I take all these questions off my mind.

MC: Do you still keep reading now? Is reading important for an artist?

LS: Yes, I do read some books. But recently, I switched to reading biological textbooks.

DQ: Then do you think reading is good for art and artists?

LS: Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. I'm telling you, sometimes, it can do no good at all. Too much information and knowledge is not good.

DQ: Too much information?

LS: Yes, too much information is definitely a kind of interference. It can make you turn away from who you really are, distract you from your direction, and dispel your wishes. There is no question that too much knowledge is interference. I read textbooks because they are different from books in general. Every book is written by its author and the author has certain thoughts he wants to pass on to you. If you read the book, you will have to accept the author's thought, otherwise you just read for nothing. But a textbook will offer you an immensely open space. It prompts you to experiment, and does not give you a conclusion. It provides you with the condition as well as the room required for such experiments. It instructs you to undertake the experiments in a certain way, and the result is unknown. I have learned a lot from the textbooks.

MC: Have you anything to say about art and fear?

LS: Please explain the definition of fear.

DQ: It depends on how you understand the relation between them two. Let me see... well, focus on the relation, do you think there exists such a relation between art and fear, and what do you think of such a relation? Based on the fact that you are an artist, where do you think your fear comes from? You can try to comment on the relation from all these different angles. Do you think such a relation exists and does it have an influence on you artistic creation.

LS: I think it does have an influence on my artworks, especially those earlier ones. How do I deal with such things? Should I avoid them or conquer them? Or should I handle them strategically?Those are some of things I have been considering all the time.

DQ: For some of the questions, you can just try to tell us what you feel because they are really too abstract.

LS: OK. I see.

MC: Is an artist corruptible? / Are you corruptible?

LS: Yes, I will, 100%.

DQ: But, you know, the corruption of an artist is different from that of others.

LS: Perhaps it is different because of job-related reasons. But artists definitely have the potential to be corruptible.

DQ: You are telling me that artists can easily be corruptible.

LS: Exactly. For example, if there were a pile of money here, I would draw a picture for it. Is that not corruption?

MC: Is an artist powerful? Do you like to be so?

LS: My power lies entirely in the process of creation. I have to power to create this or that, but I have claim to no other power.

DQ: Neither do you have the desire to own the power?

LS: No, absolutely not.

DQ: All my power and desire are trapped in my works. I have put a lot of desire in my art and have used absolute power.

MC: How do you deal with critics and criticism of your work?

LS: I have never paid attention to any of their criticism.

DQ: Why? Are they not qualified, or you just don't want to listen to their words.

LS: Do you know how those critics who I am acquainted with comment on art? They simply asked for a picture of the artwork. The way they work has nothing to do with me. How they judge my works is none of my business.

DQ: Because you think the way they judge is...

LS: They are not able to see into who I am, what's my thought, my stories, my fear, my wish and ideal, how I started my career, and what I want to tell others through my works. They never care about such things, and one picture is enough for their comment. Even if those who do know me, they will have different angles of understanding, so I do not care about any of that.

DQ: Then, could tell me what kind of comment you would like, how qualified you require them to be and what's the comment like if it is to be helpful to your work.

LS: I think current critics should not subject themselves to privilege and authority. Nor should they make comments for money or for relationship.

DQ: Some people say that critics are simply writing articles instead of making comments. What do you think of that?

LS: Only few of the articles can be called criticism. The critics are just writing articles. So long as the article is good enough, it can sell for a good price. Besides, many critics are collaborating with art galleries. This is something very deplorable. I feel very sad to learn that critics are collaborating with art galleries.

DQ: Li Shan, I have come up with a question based on what you said. In china, people like me are doing such jobs, so we know little of the things you've said. This is their ability to comment. These works have all turned into careers. But there's no such a career... As you said a moment ago, the critics and art galleries together have formed a system. So can you say something on the basis of cultural environment.

LS: Those critics do not have independent personalities and thinking, nor have they lived up to the responsibilities of critics. Their responsibility is to point out those problems. They are not pointing out problems, but puffing up, for money, friends, and various benefits. There are also many different circles, regions to which certain critics belong. Beijing has its own critics, so does Sichuan. So you just see a lot of circles and groups, and they come into being because of interest.

MC: Dose art need loyalty? And is it a never ending need?

LS: It requires us to be loyal to artworks, without doubt. If I just fake something when doing creation, that won't work at all. Nor should someone be distracted. He will have to fling himself into his work body and soul.

MC: How do you see the relationship between Art and Ethics?

LS: People with no ethics can be great artists.

DQ: Well, this, too, is a very broad question. So you can just...

LS: I think ethics is not related to art. For some people, art and ethics may be connected. Someone with virtue may well become an artist. Others who are not virtuous can still be great artists.

DQ: Then what about you?

LS: I can not call myself an ethical artist because I have no principles of morality to measure myself up to. This is a job for others.

DQ: But you do have the capacity to create your own principles of morality.

LS: Yes. I can work out my own principles, but, more often than not, they are not acceptable to the public. The general society does not understand the rules of the game for artists. One artist ate his own child. In this way, he created his own ethic. And he is o.k. with all that. Principles of morality and rules of conduct are actually are created by mankind itself. Can they be altered? Artists have a wish to change them. But it is quite another issue as to when the society will accept the principles created by artists. For example, certain artists have an ethic on eating kids, and the society has its own as well.

DQ: So ethic here is just a concept.

LS: If you take ethic as a concept, then there's no problem at all. Yes, it is a concept. But when you put an artwork in society, people always judge it with moral standards. It is quite contradicting. All artworks face the same problem. As you mentioned earlier about the difficulties artists and painters bump into, I would like tell you that all artists will be confronted with fears under such principles of morality, such social framework and rules of game. Don't you think so?

MC: Is "Decency" of concern for an artist?

LS: Manner should be reflected in creation. As to the manner of people and artists... I think rascals in Beijing and bourgeoises in Shanghai all have good manner. Such kind of manner is manner in terms of general sense or intercommunication. Artists have a sort of manner which goes beyond that. As to the nature of manner, it can be elegant, base, ugly, or beautiful. It can be different. What is that you want to ask me? Do you mean what kind of manner artist should have?

DQ: Right, what kind of manner and is it necessary?

LS: Well, the manner I want is genuine. Many types of manner are not real, especially the elegant one. It is fake to a great extent. I hate fakeness.

MC: Does Art open conflicts? Should it do so?

LS: Yes, of course. Art without conflict cannot be called art. If art does not open conflicts, it's just like a cellphone, a broom, or a chair, which can be used by anyone. So art has to open conflicts, and it needs conflicts.

DQ: All right.

MC: What is the relationship between Art History and Ideology History? Is Art History equivalent to Ideology History?

LS: That depends on what we are going to talk about. Art today is quite ideogenetic. It involves a lot of cognition. Art in the past was something visually pleasant, but it has developed a lot since then.It is perception and elucidation of problems. Art has entered a stage where it relates closely to the history of ideas.

DQ: Then do you think art is the same as the history of ideas?

LS: At least they are closely related. When we talk about art today, we won't just talk about it in terms of vision or language, instead, we are more focused on what's behind the vision.

MC: What is the relationship between Art and Culture?

LS: Culture is a broad concept. It includes a lot. Art is just a small fraction of it.

DQ: Then what is the relation between the two? Is art ahead of culture?

LS: Art is a major part of culture. Artists as well as people working in the field of art are taking the lead. Sometimes I compare artists with scientists.

DQ: Then what's their relation?

LS: Art is at the forefront of culture, serving as a shock worker and reconnaissance platoon. After mankind started its culture reconstruction, artists are the ones to break through the restraining culture framework..

MC: What and how should the relationship between Art and Politics be?

LS: Art is no different from politics. Sometimes politics decides art and vice verse. An art pattern is really similar to politics. Looking back on history, culture revolution has its own art pattern and its singular art language. It must be so, and it should be so now. If we go back in history, we can see an art pattern before culture revolution, during culture revolution, and before emancipation. It's the same with western countries.

MC: Would you like to use your money to support young artists? Just to sponsor them?

LS: Of course. They need such financial support.

DQ: How do you do that? It doesn't have to be financial support. Just tell me how you will help them.

LS: They need to talk with me, realize some problems, and discuss some problems. But if they lack money, I certainly will give them a hand. I think this is  

DQ: What about in the sense of concept?

LS: Yeah, the key here is concept. If his notion is very interesting, good enough to be shared and pursued by other artists, of course I will sponsor him.

MC: How do you arrive at a price for your art? And how do you value your work?

LS: Every artist considers his work excellent. I think so too. The reason for this is that when my artwork is immature, I think it's the best. Ten years from now, when I look back on the artwork I make today, it still seems immature, yet the best. And the question of how much the work is worth is left to those collectors and art galleries. It's none of my concern.

MC: Is your art a product?

LS: Are my artworks products? By products, you mean industrial products, agricultural products or art products? If you mean art products, of course, all of my works are products. But if you look at this from an industrial or agricultural perspective, they are not artworks because they are manufactured.

MC: Is art a mass product? Should it be?

LS: In our age, this may not be acceptable, but it will be some day, because we can not predict the future. Maybe in the future, artworks are no longer independent, personal, handmade, or half handmade works owned by artists. The artists just need to provide a concept or a manufacturing plan, and the rest of work will be done by some specialized organizations. Although it can not be done today, it is possible in the future.

MC: Is a curator a facilitator or an artist-user?

LS: At the moment, all of them are using artists. Most of the exhibition planners are performing on the stage, while artists are doing their work off the stage. When people go to an exhibition, they are not going there to appreciate the artworks. Instead, they are more concerned about who is the planner of the exhibition and what's the issue he proposes. The exhibition is no held for artists but for the planners.

DQ: Then, what do you think the relationship between them should be?

LS: They should both perform on the stage.

DQ: Do you think we need such planners?

LS: Yes, we do. Many artists are scattered, and we need someone to gather them together. But the exhibition must be meaningful, not like those annual, biennial, and triennial exhibitions we hold nowadays. I can tell you that every day, a biennial, annual, or triennial exhibition is being held on the planet. It's a brand. So long as it's a brand, there will be someone to imitate it. Eventually, it will turn into a symbol of bad products. The biennial exhibition is initially intended for consideration of mankind's frontier issues: what the ideologists, the leading brains are thinking about at this stage of the society. Those are meaningful issues at the forefront. But no such issues are ever heard nowadays. So many meaningless issues are brought forth in these biennial exhibitions, turning them into exhibitions displaying the variety of art, like architecture and design; into regional exhibitions, like shanghai exhibitions; into material exhibitions; or into media exhibitions, like video, equipment and graph. How deplorable and intolerable! Artists should make an alliance against this. We should reconsider these issues. We should rebel and overthrow it.

DQ: It's just an initial idea. Maybe you should bring it forward.

LS: Yeah, we artists should unite together to protest against it. It's not right. It should be overthrown or called off, no such things should be held anymore.

MC: Luxury and Art, Art and Luxury? What do you think about this relationship?

LS: Art itself is luxurious. In medieval times, art was used to serve religion. Art as a luxury was best represented by those Dutch painters sitting at home, enjoy their own paintings. Until the times of Martins, people were all hilarious.

DQ: What about the tradition in china and how does china see this?

LS: Well, the perception of the Chinese has not reached such a level. Many of the current collectors and buyers consider their artworks stock shares.

DQ: Yes, we all know that. What about before?

LS: Right, in the past, art was luxury. Those rich people and elites in academia would open a scroll of painting, sip some tea and enjoy it. That was really sumptuous. Such luxury far outreached that in western world. It is luxurious to an infinite extent. Those rich people would put the paintings in their sleeves and withheld it from others so that they could enjoy it all by themselves.

DQ: Now...

LS: Now the rich ones in china take artworks as stock shares. There is no sense of luxury now. The capitalistic nobles, landowners and magnates in the past were really luxurious. Nowadays, those who call themselves noble, landowners and magnates are really far from being able to enjoy luxury. They cannot really enjoy the pleasure that luxury brings them. Their taste and ability to appreciate art fail to enable them to be luxurious.

DQ: So, let's move on. What's your opinion on those questions?

LS: Are you having a good time talking to me?

DQ: Yeah, I do.

LS: Me too. It's also a kind of luxury. And I am telling you what I really think.

DQ: And I feel comfortable talking to you.

LS: At the moment, we are not luxurious. But we are developing the ability to enjoy luxury. Hahahhh

DQ: I think so. And such things are needed in the society, otherwise it will be too plain and dull.

LS: Right. The commercial tide has greatly damaged the art circles.

MC: How do you believe the relationship with gallerists and artists should be?

LS: It should be a relationshipt of collaboration. Gallerists should give artists freedom in terms of creation, while artists working for a certain gallery should be responsible and provide it with good artworks, not just making creations in a rough and slipshod way for money. The key to this relationship is trust. The two sides should trust each other,

MC: Do you find it agreeable to share your money with your gallerist?

LS: Of course to divide it in half. I think it's mainly decided by the market, the society, economic relationships and commercial operations. We can not ask for what we want at our will. It has to be in accordance with the social standard.

DQ: Do you think it's reasonable?

LS: Well, that's what we can do at the moment according to the standard because the value of paintings will be different in the future. For example, van gogh's and Picasso's paintings were worthless at the time they were alive, but now, their works are worth hundreds of millions. If an artist is to collaborate with a gallery in agreement on sharing such an extremely high income, he will think it's quite unfair. The times has changed, paintings and their values from decades ago has changed, and so have the operation of the galleries. So we can just conclude that at present, dividing the income in half between the artist and the gallerist is still reasonable.

MC: After you sold your art, do you miss it? Do you know where it is? Always?

LS: Actually, I miss many of the works I have sold because artists always think their works are quite good.

DQ: Will you miss them?

LS: I miss those works which have a strong impression on me, those that are important to me, and those with lots of stories.

DQ: Have you ever flown to somewhere just to take a look at it?

LS: Actually there was such a story. A period a time ago, one of my works called Paradise was being auctioned in Beijing.

DQ: Which one?

LS: The one with two people in it, my mother and my father. And there are two halos behind them.

DQ: Oh, that one.

LS: That painting carries a story of mine. My parents are gone and I miss them, so I just painted this painting. And this painting fell into other's hands without my knowledge. I was informed of the news by the notary office during the auction. The person who had my painting left. I hope he can bring it back, or at least put it on display in the art gallery so that I can take a look at it from time to time. But he left, and in no way could I find out to whom the painting was auctioned off. The painting is really very good. It's like a short article, involving a lot of religious, or rather, Chinese traditional elements. It has something in common with religion. And the painting technique used in the painting, namely painting with feathers, is a mix-up of both Chinese and western cultures. My parents were very good-looking when they were young, so I really would like to see them.

DQ: O.K. Now we've reached our final question, or more specifically, a quote. You pick one and read to us.Creativity arises out of the tension between spontaneity and limitations, the latter (like the river banks) forcing the spontaneity into the various forms which are essential to the work of art or poem. —Rollo May

LS: Does limitation refer more to art forms or the process of creation? I personally think that more issues are reflected in the process of creation.

DQ: Then what's your opinion on such a quote? Or you can just find fault with this saying and point out the mistakes.

LS: Could you read it for me so that I can get a deeper impression?

DQ: Creativity arises out of the tension between spontaneity and limitations, the latter (like the river banks) forcing the spontaneity into the various forms which are essential to the work of art or poem.

LS: Based on my understanding, I think the quote "creativity arises out of the tension between spontaneity and limitation" will stand out in the process of creation. But I think the origin of creation comes from thinking. It is a desire, like a desire to do something. At the beginning of creation, an artist will run into these problems. Such problems will lead to further problems of conflicts in terms of language patterns, rather than something notional. There will be some language problems, I guess.

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