A Zero Degree of Writing and Other Subversive Moments
What made you come to Holland?
People always assume that I was repressed in China, but in fact I just kind of followed gravity. People are moving all the time. I think there should be a free flux of human beings on this planet.
What is the most popular, the most important, or the most frequent
question put to you as a Chinese artist living in the West?
It's precisely that question: what does it mean to be a Chinese artist
in the West. And more often than not it's put in a suggestive sort of
way that reminds me of Samuel Huntington's book 'The Clash of Civilizations'.
That book creates a kind of artificial combat structure, as though civilizations
are fixed traditional givens that don't change,
What is the difference between being a Chinese artist in China and
being a Chinese artist in the West?
To Chinese artists living in China, 'Chineseness' is not a valid concept. Just as it would be ridiculous and totally unnecessary for a Dutch artist living in Holland to question 'Dutchness'. But for Chinese artists living in the West it's almost a daily question, put to them not only from the outside, but which they confront within themselves, within their own inner world. This is the only fundamental difference. All other differences are not important.
Are there other cliché questions concerning Western notions
of Chinese identity or tradition?
I am always being asked how making work in the West is related to my
unique (they always say 'unique') Chinese identity, as though they are
desperately seeking 'Chineseness'. However, identity is constituted
of many things, not just past but also present.
Are you often asked whether your own cultural tradition is an obstacle
to artistic self expression?
This is another one of those problematic questions, because it interprets
tradition as a hindrance. It implies a kind of backwardness. Those who
judge traditions from elsewhere in that way, should look at their own,
Western tradition, which at times can be oppressive as well. At the
beginning of Modernity for instance, the existing classical
How is the notion of 'otherness' or 'difference' experienced from
the point of view of Chinese artists within China?
I think there are many levels of perception of differences. The artists
who have been participating in international shows abroad are mainly
trying to overcome these. They try to find the common denominator of
humanity. That is their biggest ideal. They don't want to be confined
to being a Chinese artist. They want to be first of all an artist,
This is where you yourself come from: the 'Generation of '85', so
called because it was the first generation of artists to graduate after
the Cultural Revolution, after the art schools were reopened. It was
the exciting moment when contemporary art was created in China.
I studied at the Zhejiang Art Academy. At that time almost everybody
studied there, almost everyone who helped to create that moment of contemporary
art: Geng Gianyi, Zhang Peili, and many others. We originate from a
really mixed tradition. We can't say that we have only been formed by
Chinese classical tradition. A lot of things came
Conceptualism, avant gardism, Dada: a revolution in art in China. But
initially there were only very few, perhaps some fifty contemporary
artists amongst a billion people. How much can you achieve when you
are so few?
But the government also stopped you from being known by closing down
exhibitions, by forbidding certain forms of contemporary art. It forbade
nonsense calligraphy, all kinds of developments that you could perhaps
have achieved organically or gradually, anything that could be seen
as a critique of Chinese contemporary norms or society.
Are there different social functions of art in the West when compared
Art in the West, I think, has its own proper space or place, it has
its institutions, its audience. Art is not very important here. It's
always some sort of by product. And all these critical ways are heard
only to a certain extent, as long as it is within an allowed space.
Art here is very much commonplace, whereas in China it is still a rarity.
How to create a subversive moment?
I'm talking about creating an empty or zero moment, an instant of no gravity, something like a core, like the axis of a wheel, an in between moment or a moment of insight. If you achieve that, something results that is really a kind of joint, a pivotal moment in time. The moment of joint is a moment of reinventing the classical. Its reinvention with the help of things that happen elsewhere, like Modernism for instance. As an artist you create these moments as a reconfiguration of the constituent parts of a tradition, like reshuffling a deck of cards. These particular moments are so completely denied or ignored by art history, because they defy the power of interpretation. Words, logic, have no real power there; the whole system of interpretation loses its power, too.
If subversiveness is so closely connected to language, can Chinese
subversive methods for instance be transported into a Western context,
or can they be understood in the West?
By emphasising language only, we miss out on the kind of meaning that
is attached to, or carried by, forms, images and things, because they
are basically part of language, although not a written or a spoken one.
The methodology I applied in China can be applied in a Western context
as well. You don't have to deconstruct the whole language; it's enough
to keep a critical distance, by which I mean to doubt meaning carried
by language. The written word as well as the phonetic sound of a word
is an image too. Whether word or image, they are all part of language.
This zero moment is not uniquely Chinese. In fact, the number zero is
not customary in Chinese, it is not customary in the Chinese language
either. Actually the number zero was an Indian or an Arabic invention.
Through certain philosophical notions in Taoism or in Buddhism, we may
You can never actually reach that zero point because if there would be such a point, existing in a fixed place as it were, it would become meaningless too. You have to go around it, encircle it, suggest it. To put it simply: when all the elements of language stop functioning in their habitual way, or stop producing meaning, or the meaning we usually gain from them, then what you do, both as an artist who is destabilising the habitual production of meaning and as a spectator who tries to find meaning, is to find new meaning by stopping to produce the habitual meaning. I tend to refer to two types of meaning one that is habitually produced and one that is new. A new meaning is what has not been habitually referred to before.
Is this a description of a process of deconstruction, or of something
far more fundamental?
In China, language never had such a great importance. It has always
been something to be doubted, to be wary of. This is why we don't have
meta narratives as a central point of truth, or a central point from
which all other narratives can be generated. Living in between two languages,
I have a very acute feeling of the possibilities and the
Nonsense calligraphy was so important because of the importance of
calligraphy itself, both historically and within actual society. First
of all calligraphy isn't just writing. It has always been an integral
part of painting. Calligraphy has a very important role in classical
Chinese brush painting. On the other hand calligraphy exists as painting
in its own right. It is important to understand that in former times
the classical Chinese arts were not just some kind of art practice.
They were extremely important, integral parts of both intellectual and
literary life, which could assume very radical forms. This is among
the reasons why traditional calligraphy was given such a pre-eminent
role in contemporary China as one of the official State arts. Nonsense
calligraphy used traditional calligraphy as a target, because of its
historical importance, and because it is no longer applicable today.
The hidden truth is that life in China has modernised, and it can't
sustain the kind of life or art of ancient society. Calligraphy as it
is being taught today is fake. It is no longer part of a living tradition.
It wasn't invented by any one person. It happened spontaneously across
the country. We all had a strong sense of invention and claim. Nonsense
calligraphy was ambivalent, subversive, but at the same time the artists
were also reappropriating calligraphy itself. I don't think however
that it can be called a new legacy within Chinese
One of your earliest works was to paint mathematical symbols, numbers
and equations on the rocks of the island where you grew up. You literally
covered the actual landscape in writing.
Painting my island was a conscious act. It was also a subversive act, in order to influence the perception of the viewer, and to undermine preconceived ideas about how to see a landscape. It was a way of destabilising landscape. Taking the 'real' landscape apart is to take apart a fictitious landscape which has been created through representation, through the classical image of brush painting, for instance, through photography, literature and so on. It has created or shaped a sense of reality, our knowledge of reality, or what we think we know as reality, or take for granted as reality. Landscape connected to words like 'elsewhere', 'longing', 'infinity'.
Is that why you used the mathematical symbol of infinity so often
and why the equations don't make sense? I also read somewhere that the
number five, which you used a lot, when phonetically transcribed means
both 'Nothing' and 'Dirt' in Chinese.
What I wanted with the number five is to repeat it so often that it appears more like an empty sign. It is impossible to deconstruct a language completely, because words, however much deconstructed or fragmented, somehow retain a suggestion of meaning. Therefore the use of numbers was logical for me, because I looked for a really meaningless language, a zero language. I then further reduced the mathematics themselves into something even more useless, into nonsense equations and fragmented symbols. Numbers and symbols can be part of a language; they can even form a separate language, but once the boundaries of all these languages are broken, the result is a form of chaos. Meaning is no longer produced through logic or reasoning, but differently, in another dimension of meaning. The landscape is presented anew, fragmented in the writing. To the onlooker an actual reading of it becomes impossible; it becomes a 'meaningless' landscape, and that in turn creates the possibility of reading landscape as a text, as multiple texts, as multiple landscapes.
Would a work like this, which is so connected to Chinese landscape
painting, also function let's say in a Western context?
It might appear differently because Western references to landscape and landscape tradition are different, but the numbers I used are Arabic, they really are universally recognisable.
Mathematics is still a meta language. How do you see this in connection
The meta language no longer serves its own purpose because in my use of it, it too has become nonsense. In Chinese philosophy this is an old practice: to add more is to reduce. By writing a lot of things, by piling one definition on top of another, one word on top of another, at a certain point they become nothing, meaningless, reduced to zero. To write is not to occupy an empty space, but on the contrary to reduce a previously invisible grasp on things. The grasp that is being exercised by THE definition, so to speak.
Is that also true for another work of yours, Self-Portrait as a
Part of the Porcelain Export History ? That work shows photographs of
your body tattooed with motifs from Dutch colonial chinaware.
That work is a piece of 'body writing' based on a similar principle:
by adding to the body it makes the already existing invisible inscriptions
apparent. It depicts my own body covered with porcelain patterns and
texts related to the history of porcelain. It portrays myself as part
of the production of that specific history. The texts and the patterns
When I first saw that work, I somehow assumed that those tattoos
were real, because I saw them as related to the pain of colonisation.
I associated them with a novel by Kafka, in which thousands of needles
inscribe an invisible but detailed text into the subjected body.
The inscriptions I used are not actual tattoos, but paint that can
be washed off and put on again and again. They show the body as a palimpsest.
They're not there to expose the pain caused by colonisation, but to
reclaim the lost body in order to name it again, in order to redefine
who you are. I always think of history as a kind of writing. It is constantly
being erased and rewritten. In this piece I rewrote history through
my own body. It echoes the stereotypical images of 'The Chinese'. It
is a kind of parody, a self mockery.
I presume that any new environment will change your work. It's a new perspective on your creation after all. That is very natural, and one can't stay fixed on carrying on a tradition. However, that change in my work already took place well before I came to the West. I wanted to stop what I was doing, because I was afraid that otherwise my writing would become something like a style, something rhetorical, which would just grow bigger all the time without basically changing. I decided to work in a limited space and to find out whether I really needed a physically unbounded space to make my work seem limitless or unlimited. I also had a strong sense or internal urge for change, of evolving forward. I think I had accomplished the things I wanted to in my work, and I didn't want it to become stylised, because if I would have continued it would have become a formal ritual. A commodity.
Around the same time, I believe that's around 1992, you started
making installations in which you use ropes and knots a lot, tying or
binding things, like stones for instance.
The tying is also a form of writing. What I reduced the writing to is physical labour, which is very much like tying knots. What I wanted to propose is that when we lose language, or shatter language or no longer have a language, we should be able to confront things without an a priori meaning, or a meaning other than produced by a structural language. This was already essential in my work way before I came to the West it has nothing to do with being far away from home, or not speaking my native language. This explains why in my work From Human to Humbug, where I burned the word HUMANITY, I wanted to reflect on 'human', or 'humanity', or related issues as other than already defined, and to question the meaning of humanity that language gives us. The use of a boat in that work symbolises transportation and cargo with which I can express a metaphor like 'overloading'. I like the boat, because the overloading of boats is more dangerous than anything else cars, trains and it implies the sinking of all it carries, going under, vanishing, being swallowed up.
The appearance of boats, earth, geographical maps, ropes and knots
in so many of your works seems to me to imply just as many intimate
references to growing up on an island.
I think they are there unconsciously, and they may be based on the memories I have. Living on an island, boats and ships are an essential and important part of your everyday world. A knot is a metaphor. It can be an end or a beginning. I like to use ropes and knots a lot. They appear in many pieces still today, like in the piece Hanging Garden, where a pallet loaded with plants and soil is hanging above a dining table stacked with wine glasses. The pallet is held only by a rope and its weight is balanced by a set of old suitcases. The feeling of danger in many of my works is intentional. I always like to play on the unstable, the unpredictable, to create a sense of precariousness.
What does the work you made around 1995, a kind of destroyed table
and chairs covered with rice, refer to? Is it somehow connected to what
you mentioned earlier, the notion of an invented home or an imaginary
one, or of exile as a voluntary escape from a fixed place and of becoming
I'm always obsessed with coating and covering things with something
else. In this case it's rice. I didn't particularly have a notion of
home in mind with this work. It's really about construction and deconstruction,
about the displacement of things, or the merging of things, more precisely
of those things that are seen as existential, like rice, like food.
Rice, which has such a profound importance in China, almost greater
than life itself, now appears as nothing more than something scattered
and displaced on the surface of something else, which is also scattered
in its turn. It's a vanishing piece: in Western terms you might call
it a vanitas or Still Life more associated with the ritual of eating.
The Buddhist notion of all material things as transient in this case
seems to me to be
The context of those photographs is the modern Utopia and its image
of power and technology as reflected in modernist international architecture
and urbanism. I took them in Madurodam, which is a famous miniature
replica of the quintessential traditional Dutch town. I didn't photograph
the old houses there, I didn't want anything in my photos to be recognisable
as Dutch or even historical. I took pictures of all the modern anonymous
places: harbours, airports, some of them against the background of a
rather grand but anonymous modern apartment building nearby. There are
no inscriptions or overlays in that work because the inscriptions are
already a given, but they are contradictory, and put together they make
no sense. The distinction between sense and nonsense here is so close,
I have a feeling that this work is intimately connected to Self-Portrait
as a Part of the Porcelain Export History. In the case of the Madurodam
photographs you're referring to the neat, clean image modern or Western
society presents of itself. In other words, the lies society uses to
dissimulate, to mask perhaps even from itself, or especially from itself,
what it takes to maintain its might. Let's call it a decontextualised
happiness, or even idealism. The body work on the other hand shows what
the real cost of that power is: the subjugation of other cultures, other
peoples, the exploitation of natural resources,
You have just made a very interesting link between both pieces, and
you are right. I especially like the words 'lie' and 'dissimulation',
which remind me of how false the truth can be, or how difficult it is
to distinguish one from the other. The meticulously constructed lie
of Madurodam is almost a truth. Perhaps the same could be said about
the construction of notions like 'Humanity'.
This reminds me of Kafka's novel again: the man who knows that he will be killed by the needle machine is also really in love with it. He is waiting with an almost exalted joy for it to reveal the final secret or the final meaning of his life to him as it performs its lethal writing. I guess that from reading Bataille I realised that this sado masochistic delight in deadly submission is really what colonial power, what capitalist power produces.
From that perspective there will always be an association between the peripheral body, the colonial body and the female body.
This is why I think that subversion is the most difficult, the most
intimate, and sometimes perhaps even the most tedious of dealings. In
the context of your artistic practice, what do you think of subversion?
Why is it so important to destabilise meaning?
Because your secure feeling of meaning is lost, and you have to deal with a very different question: what is that which I see? It makes you question whether you should believe everything that you are being told, or whether you even can believe your own habits of thinking. It alleviates a burden. Maybe it's like a traumatic cure.
Do you mean there's a kind of feeling of exhilaration or of freedom as a result? And that to achieve this is considered to be the ultimate goal of art? On the other hand that would imply that the individual artist is being burdened with the impossible responsibility of making his life and his art the embodiment of 'freedom'.
Once you assume that role, you are deprived of freedom in a much truer
and deeper sense. In the same way I don't want to force people to feel
excited or exhilarated. I think it is a personal feeling or necessity,
really like an everyday exercise for me, to reduce meaning in my production
of art works, or to try to find meaning in a different way. What I want
to do is to forever destabilise without creating a stable state of meaning
in my work or even in life.