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Yang Shaobin


Yang Shaobin is one of China's most famous Contemporary Oil Painters. Together with Fang Lijun And Yue Minjun he is a leading figure in the movement known as Cynical Realism. He belongs to the generation which represents the roots of Chinese experimental art.

Interview with Yang Shaobin

 Art is an integral part of a society. Art is a mirror, which reflects all aspects of people's spiritual life in a society. Art should be a spiritual product of a living era. Most great artists are seen as changers of their culture or ahead of their time. Their views are avant-garde and will become those of the dominant elite in the next generation.

In the early 1990s, freelance artists from all over China came and settled in Song Zhuang, a village in the eastern suburbs of Beijing, 17 kilometers away from Tian An Men Square. Now nearly 200 artists living in Song Zhuang have made it the largest art community in China. Song Zhuang is now seen as a synonym for the Chinese avant-garde not only in China but also in other countries. In 1999 three artists living in Song Zhuang were selected for the 48th Venice Biennial. Where are they from? Why have so many artists selected Song Zhuang as their living quarters? How can they make a living? Are they living there for art or for a life style? How do they live and love? What is their perspective on their own future?

I visited Song Zhuang for the Spring Festival this year, the year of the Dragon. In February winter still clings to Beijing with an icy maw. Trees like sticks line the city roads and the highways out of town. While driving eastwards to Song Zhuang from Tian An Men Square, the political and cultural center of Beijing along Chang An Jie (Boulevard of Longevity and Peace), I am impressed most immediately than ever before by large shopping complexes, hotels and high-rise glass towers topped with Oriental pagodas like bad hats. Some local youngsters jokingly call them 'glans). Coca-Cola and Motorola billboards.There are also political slogan signs of wu jiang, si mei and san re ai in large Chinese characters (Five Emphases referred to civilisation, politeness, sanitation, order and morality. Four Beauties to soul, language, behaviour and environment. And Three Loves to motherland, peoples and the Communist Party). These scenes encapsulated to my mind the transitional nature of Beijing from socialism to capitalism.

I interviewed several of the artists living here to discover why they have selected Song Zhuang as their home, how each of them makes a living as a Bohemian artist, and to reveal what psychological factors influence them as they face the transition of China. I am also interested to discover their present situation in relation to art creativity, living, love life and what perspective each of them makes on his own future. The interviews were intended to probe the artists, not the nature of their Bohemian art, since there is no criteria to examine each individual artist and art is egotistic.

Born in He Bei Province in 1963, Yang Shaobin was one of the three artists (the others are Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun) from Song Zhuang, who were selected for the 48th Venice Biennial in 1999. His house looks like a huge studio.

Q: When and how did you select Song Zhuang as your living place?

A: I moved to live here in 1995. Then a group of my friends wanted to find a place just for painting. We could not keep our former living quarters, in Yuan Mingyuan, during that period. Our minds were very uneasy. But also at that time, people were very funny. We were given a time limit to leave Yuan Mingyuan. So every artist there was busy with finding a truck and tried to move away, but nobody knew where to move to. Yuan Mingyuan is located in northern Beijing, about 10 kilometers away from the city center. In the late '80s, artists from all over China settled there. Most of them were deeply involved in Political Pop art which satirised the political realities of Communist power. In 1995, police crackdowns forced the evacuation and scattering of Bohemian communities like Yuan Mingyuan. Artists were retreating to far away suburbs like Song Zhuang

Wang Neng Tao was born in He Long Jiang Province in 1962 and completed his higher art education in Beijing, before he became a freelance artist. In 1997, he bought and rebuilt his house, which looks like a manor. When we walked in, it seemed that we have stepped into a fairyland. We sat in front of the warm fireplace, and were provided with French wine before the interview.

Q: How did you select Song Zhuang as your living place?

A: I went to visit my friend and slept there overnight. I also paid visits to other friends like Fang Lijun, who also lives here. I sensed the way of living in the countryside. When I woke up the next morning, I decided to buy a house here. As an artist living in the urban city for painting, I do not always feel like enjoying the city life. Since I moved here, I have had the life of an artist. You can do whatever you like, farm, plant trees or grow flowers. When you live in the city, you have to deal with concrete, very cold, no feelings. When spring comes here, you feel that everything is smiling at you. For an artist, the liberty of life means freedom of art.

He Daqiao is known in China as a mainstream artist for his realistic style. He might be the only realist who has selected Song Zhuang as his living place. All others are doing abstract, conceptual, installation or electric art styles.

Q: As we know, you are considered as a good artist in China doing a realistic style. Why have you selected Song Zhuang as your living quarters?

A: Most artists living in Song Zhuang have left me with a feeling that they are proactive in thinking. Regarding their work, I don't know clearly. But through my conversations with them, I feel that they are very active and that I can communicate with them.

Li Tianyuan is a full time lecturer at the College of Fine Arts, Qing Hua University. In the mid-1980s, he was one of the leading artists involved in the "'85 Movement"

Q: What is the advantage for you to buy a house here, since you have to spend a lot of time each day to teach at the other end of the city?

A: The advantage in purchasing a house here is the cheapness and location to Beijing center. Therefore, a lot of artists have flooded into this area. Since my graduation, I have changed my painting studios seven or eight times in the city. It is like a worldwide phenomenon. When artists build up a community in an area, that area would be developed rapidly. Finally those artists have to move away.

Both Wang Gongxin and his wife Lin Tianmiao are artists. The former is doing electric art while the latter makes installations. This couple has been living in the United States regularly for some years (they are citizens of the U.S.A.).

Q: Why have you chosen to live here?

A(Wang): Ten years ago, almost all artists had to have an employment. Who dared to say that he or she had no employment? At least, he or she had to work for a publishing house. Nowadays artists upon their graduation from college may become freelancers. If they had resigned from where they had been employed, it would be quite natural that they would select such a place as this to live in. The transactional nature of desire in Beijing is made everywhere apparent. Even in the countryside, the beauticians and hairdressers coo and curl their fingers towards you through narrow road-front windows. That's why so much of the contemporary art scene is obsessed with the body in some way confrontational nudes in oil, pornographic art, installation art pretty in pink-stained period blood, painting on the subject matter of violence by using images of wild red and white skulls and babies. All viewers are thrilled with a hysterical desire while aiming at these images. Pornography and art are confused as a matter of convenience. Money seems to control everything. In Song Zhuang, the enthusiasm of creation has made interaction among artists, but poverty has at every moment brought trouble to most of them. Every freelance artist has had to rely on their own efforts to survive awkward situations.

Lu Lin from Shang Dong Province is a very emotional artist.

Q: How do you consider your art and living condition here?

A: For artists living now, the period of Van Gogh has already gone. My paintings are of loneliness and I personally feel very lonely and isolated as well.

He dislikes the crude capitalism of the local art market, and gives the example of a particular auction house.

A: This auction house is located inside Cheng Xiang Trade Center (one of the biggest shopping complexes in Beijing.), which makes people feel good. Once at auction, one hundred yuan was paid for an excellent piece of art. This has been sold out without the bottom line. When it was almost my turn for my work, my friend said that he would make a bid for my work. I told him directly that my work should be taken out of auction. I think that the practice of art is a by-product of our living period. If he assisted me to win the bid, it seems quite inappropriate. When I walked downstairs from the auction house, I felt that it was a sea of people buying all sorts of disposable goods, e.g. computers and cosmetics. I really felt embarrassed, very embarrassed.

Born in He Bei Province, Liu Guo Qiang went to live in Song Zhuang since he separated from his first lover, a policewoman, ten years ago.

Q: Are you married? How about your living here?

A: Never. I have had almost ten times, experience of true love including once with a prostitute. Since I moved to live in Beijing, all the works sold have all been painted ten years before, no recent works have been sold. I do not want to relate this awkward circumstance to others. This is me.

Q: How can you make a living without selling your work?

A: I can say life is very hard.

Q: Where do you get money?

A: Money? I can make a decent living, though I have a very simple standard of living.

Q: How much do you need for a basic living standard?

A: Three to four thousand yuan (A$800.00) a year, about the equivalent of the cost of a rich man's dinner. But I feel comfortable in spirit.

On the first day of the Year of Dragon, we walked into another Bohemian house to say "Happy New Year". There we met several artists with their wives or partners. Because of the importance of this festival in traditional Chinese culture, it is very rare for these artists not to enjoy the Spring Festival with their parents, families and relatives. Maybe they cannot even afford a train or long-distance bus fare, or to buy any gifts for their nephews. Maybe some of them left home after a divorce, or they are alienated from their hometown. At one point, a wish by one of the artist's wives that her husband may sell some paintings during the coming year causes half a dozen of them to break down crying. I can imagine that their time spent in Song Zhuang these recent years has reminded them of their sadness. Their future is uncertain in the transitional nature of China into capitalism under socialism with Chinese characteristics.

When I leave Song Zhuang that night and drive past Tian An Men Square, I cannot hesitate to sing one of the most popular songs for Chairman Mao:

Arrive at Tian An Men Square from the wild grassland,

Holding a gold cup highly in hands;

Sing a paean of national solidarity;

All brothers of different ethnicity gather together for celebration;

Let's pray for the longevity of China



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