Xⁿ Talk | 喻红 Yu Hong

Xⁿ Office has been connected with the world famous female Yu Hong for several years now, and we have been looking for an opportunity to do a more in-depth interview with her. While her solo exhibition is showing at the Long Museum in Shanghai, we took the opportunity to visit her and had three relaxed conversations with Yu Hong. This interview is sorted out based on those three conversations. We believe that Yu Hong’s perpetual sensitive feedback on her personal experience and the era make her a significant figure in contemporary Chinese art history. In this interview, led by her works of art, we review Yu Hong’s different periods in her creation of art and reflect on some key issues.

Xⁿ: Your solo exhibition ‘The World of Saha’ just opened at the Long Museum in Shanghai. We take the opportunity to have an extended interview with you. We want to review how your different phases of art creation have changed in time and reflect on the ideas behind your works. You have mentioned that you develop a liking for painting at an early age. Could you please tell us more about that?

Y: I didn’t draw for specific purposes when I was young. My parents didn’t want me to run around outside, so they prepared paper and pens for me to paint at home to kill time. Painting was luxurious at that time. Everything was so scarce that it was very difficult to buy six pastel pencils in different colours. My mother worked in a publishing house. There was leftover paint at her workplace. If no one used it, it would dry out. Therefore, I got to take the paint and use it. Preparing the paint for my paintings was the most exciting moment for me. I tore the film at the top, picked up part of the paint and soak it in a paintbox with water. The paint would become soft the next day, and I could use it to paint. For that reason, painting also brought me an extra sense of achievement, which lasts long in my life.

When I was eight or nine years old, I started drawing at the Children’s Palace in Beijing. I went there every weekend and spent an afternoon there to study painting. In the beginning, I did child art. Then, I learnt basic sketching and drew still-lifes and portraits. In the 1980s, when I was 14, I got into the high school Affiliated to CAFA (Central Academy of Fine Arts). From then, I received proper art training. After spending four years in that high school, I finally got into the oil painting department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts.

Xⁿ: When you were in college, many western art theories and catalogues of western art emerged in China. Western art at that time differed from the education you received in college and the definition of artist in Chinese society. Did it impact you hugely?

Y: It was not long after the reform and opening when I first entered college. The Central Academy of Fine Arts was one of the most active art institutes at that time. Artists and art teachers who came to Beijing all stayed at the dormitory of CAFA for a few nights. In such an environment, everyone talked about art and discussed art concepts actively and passionately.

There were many seminar groups and societies, which were enthusiastic about trying various artistic experiments. We were of full curiosity about the new ideas, and we attended seminar groups and participated in many small and simple art exhibitions. We even copied a lot of catalogues at that time and taught ourselves plenty of things. Eventually, I found that the ‘artist’ defined in the west was completely different from the ’painter’ I imagined when I was a child. However, in class, we learnt the painting skills developed from the Soviet Socialist Realism in the 50s, but these painting skills were separate from my free art creation. At that time, I felt that these fashionable concepts were too far away from me. Even though I actively learned about new things outside of class, I calmed myself down and painted quietly when I went back to the class. That state of calmness I was in when I drew is very hard for people today to even imagine.

The ‘David’ I drew when I was in college gained lots of attention. Some even said that no other paintings can surpass this one. In fact, I think it has little to do with painting skills. Society has changed, and students today have countless thoughts and huge anxiety. Only few people can draw as calmly as there is nothing left in mind.

Xⁿ: When the ’85 New wave took place, you were already studying at Central Academy of Fine Arts, but you didn’t participate in the art movement. Did the ’85 New wave art movement affect you in any way?

Y: At that time, there were two main paths in the creative field. One made the provincial and local nature the major theme. The other was the new trendy art movement. The avant-garde art with progressive concepts was adopted by students in the college. It had a significant influence on me, but I chose to be an ‘active bystander’. I still put my focus on studying painting.

Xⁿ: Your graduation works were portraits of your friends, and you pursued a relatively flat and pop style. Similarly, we can see this style in Zhang Peili, Geng Jianyi’s works, and other Cynical Realist works. Why did you switch from academic art to another expression of art? How long did it last?

I want to correct one thing here. The work you mentioned wasn’t created for my graduation. My graduation works were two portraits and two groups of figure paintings. During that period, I was still in a studying mindset. The two portraits were quite exquisite and flat, and I adopted the Expressionist style for the other two groups of figure paintings.

The group of paintings that you mentioned was started in 1988 after I graduated college. I was looking for a more explicit direction for my art creation at that stage, and I chose close friends around me as my theme. I rendered the paintings with a flat, pop and monochromatic style through which the subjects of the paintings could be detached from reality. Therefore, the paintings look surreal, and the figures seem like travelling between reality and the flat world. Computers and Photoshop did not exist at that time, which made this kind of art creation very challenging. Peili and Lao Geng, they specifically chose this style for political purposes. On the contrary, my works are personal and life-oriented from the very beginning, and I tried not to talk about politics in my art.

Xⁿ: Indeed, many art critics and art historians regard you and Liu Xiaodong as the opposite of the ’85 New Wave. Instead of political ideals, you focus on the things details in daily life. You said, “In the time of Cultural Revolution, people only talk about ‘us’, and there is no ‘me’. ‘We’, as a collective, as a nation, as a country, ‘we’ should do such and such. An individual is like one drop of water in the ocean, and it just disappeared. One’s individual values could not be fulfilled.” Is it why you are more interested in personal experience?

Y: It’s perhaps because I grew up in the late period of the Cultural Revolution. I saw the grown-ups attended various political campaigns and demonstrations, and for that reason, I reject those high-key and conceptual things, such as ‘empty words and bogus speech’ and the ‘red and bright’ aesthetic style. Instead, I became more interested in intimate, delicate, direct, and sensitive things. That’s why I created the above-mentioned portraits series of people of the same age. That was the earliest series of mine. Then I started the ‘Witness to Growth’ series.

Xⁿ: You first started the series ‘Witness to Growth’ when you became a mother. You shift your focus to the intersection and parallel path of individual life and the era. In this series, you document the growth of you and your family. It also signifies other people’s life paths in the same era; you grew up in a changing era, and you studied, worked, got married, gave birth to children, and witnessed your children’s growth. I visited the Long Museum with my father, and we both saw the ‘Witness to Growth’ series. Sometimes, he pointed at one of the paintings and reminisced the time back then. For us, some of your paintings are still very touching, even though we didn’t have the exact same experience. For example, the painting where you cut your fringe reminded me of the movie ‘The Days’. It felt like I entered into the painting, and you were there in the steaming room, trimming your fringe and listening to the news on the radio. The whole picture was marked by that old era. The way images from the ‘Witness to Growth’ series are juxtaposed with the images from the news provokes the fresh memories of beholders. It can capture moments that were long gone in the past. Is this one of your standards when you choose images for ‘Witness to Growth’?

Y: In the ‘Witness to Growth’ series, on the right-hand side, there are photos I picked up from my family album. I keep them the way they are. If the photos are black and white, then the image will be black and white. If they are multichromatic, the image will be multichromatic too. On the left-hand side, I put photos from the news published by the authoritative organisations. The right-hand and left-hand sides do not necessarily have a direct relation, but they were produced in the same year. The individual life and the society at that time are two hints. Together they compose a historical background and social climate.

Xⁿ: ‘Witness to Growth’ is like your album of creation. It is a handy archive for a researcher. For example, in 2011, the exhibition ‘Golden Horizon’ opened at Shanghai Art Museum was also recorded in the ‘Witness to Growth’ series. In ‘Golden Horizon’, you exhibited a work titled ‘Romance of Spring’, which referenced the structure of ‘Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk’. The works, ‘The Ladder of Divine Ascent’ and ‘One Hundred Years of Repose’, were influenced by altarpieces. In addition, ‘Atrium’ was based on a blueprint, the ceiling mural ‘Triumph of Hercules and Four Seasons’. Expect your long-term interest in classical paintings, is there any other factors that make you create such a series?

Y: The idea originated when I went to Dunhuang and made drawings there as a student. Later on, before I started the series, I went to Dunhuang again with my students. Cave painting gives me a strong and immersive experience, which is different from my experience with graphic painting. Cave painting occupies all four walls and the ceiling and blends in with the environment, and therefore, it creates a unique immersive field for viewers. Cave painting is also the origin of all paintings. I want to trace the origin of paintings through this series. It signifies that paintings should not be only constrained in a bordered flat surface. They should form an integrated space for audiences to immerse themselves in it through which the art would have conversations with audiences.

Xⁿ: During the time when you were creating ‘Atrium’, you were also invited to paint the ceiling of a mansion in Shanghai. This event was recorded in ‘Witness to Growth’ too. How did that happen? What did you paint on the ceiling?

Y: That was after I created ‘Atrium’. That mansion was the earliest British Consulate General in Shanghai, and artists were invited to create art there after the mansion was renovated. I already had the experience of making ‘Atrium’, which was hung from the ceiling in the exhibition space. Beholders needed to look up at the ceiling to view the work. I was thrilled that I had the chance to create an actual ceiling mural. That mural also had a golden background, and the theme was related to music. It took me about 2 months to finish.

Xⁿ: We talked about that you drew portraits of close friends decades ago. In ‘The World of Saha’, you recreated these portraits. I heard that you had interviews with the people portrayed in these portraits and talked about their recent experiences these years. Did you interview them first and recreate the portraits? For example, in the first portrait, you drew portraits of Jiang Jie and Xiao Lu together according to their photography, which documented the two people at the time. However, there is less documentation in the new portrait, and instead, there are more designed elements. You put some of Xiao Lu’s performance art in her new portrait. Why did you combine interviews with paintings? What is the most challenging part when you show their recent achievements, experiences, and changes in their portraits?

Y: The ten portraits in ‘The World of Saha’ are based on the video interviews I had with these ten people. The questions in every interview are almost the same. I asked them to look back to their childhood, adolescence and recent lives and talk about some details in their lives. Most of them are my close friends for years, but we don’t talk about serious and in-depth subjects in our conversations in real life. Hence, these interviews are significant in my creation of these portraits.

I got to know them again and understand their lives and their worldviews through these interviews. Then I could recreate the portraits according to the information. Therefore, instead of taking them as models of my portraits, I rearranged information and elements about these people to present their images. The social changes they experienced were also something I experienced in the past. We are like mirrors, reflecting the trajectory of the times.

Xⁿ: Compared to your early works, the compositions now seem unstable and more dramatic.

Y: I used a lot of diagonal structures in compositions, which brings an unstable visual experience. Eventually, I realised that artists would put things they want to talk about the most in their earliest works without realisation. In the 90s, I painted wire walkers, people jumping on the trampoline. I found it very interesting the first time when I saw a trampoline. Now that I looked back at it, maybe I was more interested in the moments when humans cannot control themselves. On the one hand, it is challenging to capture and draw people in movements. On the other hand, they have natural facial expressions and body language when they are weightless and cannot control their bodies. In classical art, portraits of people or deities are meticulously designed to shape the character from certain angles. On the contrary, I want to capture the natural status of a person’s existence.

Xⁿ: In this exhibition, there are a couple of new paintings depicting the anxious reality of society. Their sizes and compositions are very dramatic and astonishing, and they differ from your previous works. Your focus shifted from personal memories and experiences to broader subject matters.

Y: When I got older, I gradually found a level of anxiety lain in the relationship between people and the world, so I started drawing something focused on broader subject matters.

I have been very interested in religious paintings since ‘The Gold Series’. I think that religion or religious paintings are philosophical discussions of people, and they respond to the most fundamental questions of people. I hope that my paintings also respond to the most fundamental questions of people.

Xⁿ: You depicted a fictional dramatic composition, different from the portraits you created based on your family and friends.

Y: There are two types of works in my art creation. One is made based on people around me in real life. The other is created according to the stories that happened in my imagination. I am a movie director, and I imagined a scene, a happening. Though the scene and the character look real, they are not based on anything in real life. All the characters are fictional. I switch my works between these two types, and the two types of works nurture each other.

Xⁿ: I want to talk about the ‘body’ in your painting. Unlike other female artists, who used ‘body’ as a symbol or media, you pay attention to the ‘in-between state’ of a body, like a temporary moment or a transition. Your own body appeared in your paintings several times. Sometimes, you are naked, standing in a large field, and sometimes, you are trudging through the bush. In some other paintings, you are having your daily moments. I think it is very cruel yet honest to show your own body in the compositions. What do you think of it?

Y: I drew my nude in ‘Witness to Growth’ and in other series. I try to find a natural state of myself when I drew my own body. In school, we practised drawing with carefully positioned models. However, I want the body to go back to a natural state rather than an artificial one in my art creation. My body in the painting illustrates a moment when I can be honest with myself and get along with myself. It is also a natural appearance of a human.

Xⁿ: The ‘Half-Hundred Mirrors’ series also looks back to your past. The compositions make viewers feel like they are standing in front of a stage to view these works. When did you start this series? Why did you choose such a style?

Y: The ‘Half-Hundred Mirrors’ series was created for Virtual Reality works. I had been painting since August or September in 2018. All the characters I painted in this series are presented in VR. VR is an exciting form. Through the VR set, audiences are led to a dark space close to the dark environment of a movie theatre. It makes audiences feel like they are waiting for a movie to be played, full of excitement and expectation. Hence, I adopted that atmosphere to create such a series. ‘Half-Hundred Mirrors’ displays the condensed lives of people. Life itself is theatrical, and I dramatise the composition even more to highlight it.

Xⁿ: The last work of ‘Half-Hundred Mirrors’ is imposing. When I compare it to the ‘Classic Portrait (1989)’, it is even more intriguing. In ‘Classic Portrait’, you are wearing a loose-fitting leather jacket, looking straight to the audience. In ‘Half-Hundred Mirrors No. 23’, you are holding a small mirror and looking at yourself, and in the small painting right next to it, the sightline in the mirror is looking at the audience again. Why did you have such an arrangement?

Y: ‘Classic Portrait’ is one of my early works, and it represents uncertainty and provocation in my puberty. After so many years, I have had a lot of disappointment towards the world. One of the last two works of ‘Half-Hundred Mirrors’ illustrates the scene where I am looking at a mirror. The other one illustrates a hand holding a mirror, and the mirror reflects me. This is me looking back at myself after I spent 50 years in this world. It is also the end of the series, and I introspect my past life in the mirror. I designed such a composition mainly for VR production.

Xⁿ: It is unavoidable to talk about your art without talking about feminism. In 1990, you had curated and participated in the first ‘female artist’ group exhibition, which caused a huge impact. Even though self-awareness of ‘feminism’ had not awakened in Chinese society, but you had accepted the label of ‘female artist’ without suspicion and didn’t question it. It is quite different from the politically charged concept of ‘feminism’ in the west. You observe the changes around you and other women and express their mentality and mind from your perspective. What do you think about that?

Y: I am often categorised as a ‘feminist artist’. I think it is perhaps easy for people to categorise artists like that. My creation, of course, has a clear female perspective, as I perceive and understand the world from a female perspective, but I doubt that the female perspective would be that different from other perspectives. In fact, I care about things that other people also care about, such as humanity and the relationship between people and the world. It also includes the relationship between women and the world, but it is more than merely a female perspective.

Xⁿ: There are numerous relationships between people and the world. There are people like labours, sex workers, and hostesses in your paintings. What makes you decide to put your focus on these groups of people?

Y: I painted many commoners in my paintings. They engage the most ordinary jobs in society and are the most marginalised members of society, but they are the majority of the people. Therefore, they are the subject that I want to portray the most. The subjects I want to render the most are their circumstances, current situations, and relationships with the surrounding environments.

Xⁿ: You have participated in ‘Bai Xian’ directed by Zhang Yuan for his graduation work, ‘The Days’ directed by Wang Xiaoshuai. How did you end up collaborating with them? One decade later, Wang Xiaoshuai produced ‘Days Gone By’ where you appear on the screen again. I felt like the time has been compressed when I saw that. What did you feel about playing the lead in the two films?

Y: I didn’t quite understand how filming worked at that time. The passion of my friends just influenced me, and I wanted to try something new. I didn’t actively participate in it. I just followed the requirements of the director and staff to act. After 16 years, I once again participated in the filming of ‘Days Gone By – Yu Hong’, and I travelled to the old place, which made me have mixed feelings about it. Time flies, and the world is changing too fast. The good times we had gone too quickly, which is very upsetting.

Xⁿ: Does your interest in movies bring any influence on your paintings or your ideas of graphic art?

Y: Movies does impact me a lot. The most major impact is the idea of timeliness. Painting is one type of medium on a flat surface, and its content is shown in a bordered and limited space. Hence, the information that painting can carry is limited, so I try to embed abundant information and more hints of time in ‘Witness to Growth’ and ‘Half Hundred Mirrors’. From my point of view, this is a possible development of painting.

Xⁿ: From the ‘David’ you drew when you were a student to your current art creation, what was the biggest challenge you face along the path? What was the ultimate goal in your art career?

Y: From my time as a student to my current time, my art creation always follows my life path. It changes because my life rhythm has changed. The biggest challenge I face now is how to create something new every day and how to create something different from what I created yesterday. The world is changing too fast that our ideas and cognition can only run after these changes, and we cannot predict much about the future. What I can do is to communicate and interact with the world and obtain nourishments from the world to motivate the courage and imagination I need for my art creation.

Xⁿ: You’ve been painting several works of art on a large scale and preparing for your solo exhibition. The workload is huge. What is your following plan?

Y: I don’t have a particular plan right now. After the exhibition, I might take some time off and rest and deal with some trivial things in my life. I will continue to adjust and enrich the VR work, so there is a lot to do.