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 based on excerpts from these 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 several phases of Yu Hong's creation and her reflections on some key issues.
| Yu Hong, Shanghai
Xⁿ: On the occasion of the opening of your solo exhibition The World of Saha at the Long Museum, we take the opportunity to have an extended interview with you, hoping to review the changes at different stages of your art career over the past thirty years and the thinking behind your works. You have mentioned that you developed a liking for painting at an early age. Could you please tell us more about that?
The World of Saha, Exhibition View at the Long Museum, picture provided by the Long March Space
Yu: I didn’t draw for specific purposes when I was young, but 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. By tearing the skins of packaging off, breaking them into pieces, and soaking them in a paint box filled with water, they would be softened overnight, and ready for use the next day. 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 learning painting. I drew children's paintings, then I began to learn basic drawing, still life and portraits. In the 1980s, when I was 14, I was admitted to the high school affiliated with CAFA (Central Academy of Fine Arts). From then on, 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.
Half-Hundred Mirrors No. 13, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 100x90cm, picture provided by the Long March Space
Xⁿ: When you were in college, many western art theories and catalogues of western art sprang up in China. Western art at that time was very different from the art education you were receiving at the time and the definition of an artist in Chinese society. Did it impact you hugely?
Yu: 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 also came to realise that the Western definition of 'artist' was not at all the same as the 'painter' I had imagined myself to be as a child. However, in class, we learnt the painting skills developed from the Soviet Socialist Realism in the 1950s, but these painting skills were completely separate from my free art creation. At that time, I felt that these new trends 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. It would be difficult to imagine such a state of painting nowadays. The David I drew when I was in college gained lots of attention. Some even said that it had never been surpassed since. In fact, I think it has little to do with painting skills, but rather with the fact that society has changed, and students have all sorts of thoughts and anxieties in their minds. 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 the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Although you didn’t participate in the art movement, did the ’85 New wave art movement affect you in any way?
Yu: 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 also adopted by many students in the college, and these works had a significant influence on me. However, I still chose to be an 'active observer' and remained focused on the study of painting.
Green And Pink Lady, 1989, oil on canvas, 130x97cm, picture provided by the Long March Space
Green Portrait. 1989, oil on canvas, 130x97cm, picture provided by the Long March Space
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?
Yu: 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, depicting a kind of crowded state. 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 painted in 1988 after I graduated from college. I was looking for a more explicit direction for my art creation at that stage, so I chose some close friends 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 looked surreal, and the figures seemed like travelling between reality and the flat world. At a time when computers and Photoshop were not available, it made this kind of art creation very challenging. Peili and Lao Geng, they specifically chose this style more of political purposes. On the contrary, my works were 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”, more concerned with things around them and the details of life rather than political ideals. You said, “In the time of the Cultural Revolution, people only talked about ‘us’, and there was no ‘me’. ‘We’, as a collective, as a nation, as a country, ‘we’ should do such and such. An individual was 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?
Yu: It’s perhaps because I grew up in the late period of the Cultural Revolution. I saw the grown-ups attending various political campaigns and demonstrations, and for that reason, I was more repulsed by such high-profile 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 sensual things. That’s why I created the above-mentioned portrait series of my peers. That was the earliest series of mine. Then I started the ‘Witness to Growth’ series.
Deng Xiaoping’s Tour in the South of China, China Pictorial, p. 2, no. 6, 1992, and 1992, Twenty-Six Years Old, A Still of the Film The Days, 2001, from Witness to Growth, 1999 – Present, Two parts, left: inkjet print, 68x100cm; right: acrylic on canvas, 100x100cm, picture provided by the Long March Space
Xⁿ: You initiated the series Witness to Growth when you became a mother. You shifted your focus to the intersection and parallel path of individual life and the era. In this series, you documented the growth of you and your family, as well as other people’s life paths in the same era; as you grew up in a transforming era, you studied, worked, got married, had a child, and witnessed your child’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 about the time back then. For me, even though I was born at a different time, some of your paintings are still very touching. For example, the painting of you cutting your bangs 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 while the news is broadcasted on the radio. The whole picture was marked by that 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 ?
Yu: In the Witness to Growth series, on the right-hand side, there are photos I selected from my family album. I keep them the way they are, using black and white for black and white photos and colour for colour. 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. So, they constitute the same background and social atmosphere of the time, from both personal and social clues.
Golden Horizon, Shanghai Art Museum, 2011, picture provided by the Long March Space
Three Parts, Left: Neweekly, Issue 361, December, 2011, pp. 254-255, 100x67.83cm; Middle: Yu Hong's solo exhibition, Golden Horizon at the Shanghai Art Museum, when she was 45, 100x100cm; Right: Liu Wa 17 Years Old, acrylic on canvas, 100x100cm
Xⁿ: Witness to Growth is like your album of creation. But at the same time, it is such a valuable archive for a researcher. For example, in 2011, the exhibition Golden Horizon opened at Shanghai Art Museum and 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, were there any other reasons that led to the creation of this series?
Yu: The idea originated from a sketching trip to Dunhuang when I was a student. Later on, before I started the series, I went to Dunhuang again with my students. The cave painting gave me a strong and immersive experience, which was different from my experience with flat painting. Cave painting occupies all four walls, and the ceiling 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, which forms a new dialogue.
Dunhuang Cave 285
Atrium, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 500x600cm, photo provided by the Long March Space
Three Parts, Left: Neweekly, Issue 327, July, 2010, p. 48, 100x151.07cm; Middle: Yu Hong was drawing on the ceiling in Shanghai when she was 44, 100x100cm; Right: Liu Wa 16 Years Old and Pigeons, acrylic on canvas, 100x100cm, picture provided by the Long March Space
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. What kind of opportunity was this? What did you paint on the ceiling?
Yu: That was after I created Atrium. That mansion was the earliest British Consulate General in Shanghai, and artists were invited to participate in its art creation 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 has a golden background, and the theme is related to music. It took me about 2 months to finish.
She - Artist, acrylic on canvas, photography, 150x68cm, picture provided by the Long March Space
The Shot, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 250x300cm, picture provided by the Long March Space
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 and were of a documentary nature. 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 of capturing their achievements, experiences, and changes over the years in a confined space?
Yu: 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 were almost the same. I asked them to look back on their childhood, adolescence and recent lives and talk about some details in their lives. Although most of them are my close friends for years, we don’t talk about such serious and in-depth subjects in our conversations in real life. Hence, these interviews were very significant for the subsequent making of 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 for my portraits, it is a combination of many elements and information to present a picture of them in my mind. The social changes they experienced were also something I experienced in the past. We are like mirrors, reflecting the trajectory of the times.
Purple Portrait, 1989, oil on canvas, 130x97cm, picture provided by the Long March Space
Weight, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 250x300cm, picture provided by the Long March Space
Xⁿ: Compared to your early works, the compositions now seem unstable and more dramatic.
Yu: I used a lot of diagonal structures in compositions, which bring 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 and people jumping on the trampoline. I found it very interesting the first time when trampolines had just appeared. 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 motion. 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 state of being.
New Age, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 250x900cm, picture provided by the Long March Space
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. Unlike your previous works, your focus shifted from personal memories and experiences to broader subject matters.
Yu: 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 relatively broader. 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 can also respond to the quintessential questions.
Heaven on Earth, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 750x300cm, picture provided by the Long March Space
Xⁿ: You depicted a fictional dramatic composition, different from the portraits you created based on your family and friends.
Yu: 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 like 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. Everyone in the painting is a figment of my imagination. I switch my works between these two types, and the two types of works nurture each other.
艳阳天, 1993, oil on canvas, 165x133cm, picture provided by the Long March Space
Two Parts, Left: China Pictorial, Issue 1, 1994, p. 25, The Three Gorges Dam Migration, 88x100cm; Yu Hong was pregnant when she was 28 in 1994, 2001, acrylic on canvas, 100x100cm, picture provided by the Long March Space
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 standing naked in the wilderness, 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?
Yu: I have painted my nude in Witness to Growth and in other series. I try to find a natural state of myself when depicting my own body. In school, we practised drawing with carefully posed models. However, I want the body to go back to a natural state that does not exist for the sake of viewing. 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.
The Half-Hundred Mirrors series, Exhibition View, picture provided by the Long March Space
Xⁿ: The Half-Hundred Mirrors series is also a compendium of your past. The compositions make viewers feel like they are standing in front of a dimly lit stage backdrop. When did you start this series? Why did you choose such a style?
Yu: The Half-Hundred Mirrors series was created for Virtual Reality works, and all the paintings were directly applied to the VR work from August and September 2018. 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.
The Half-Hundred Mirrors series, Exhibition View, picture provided by the Long March Space
Half-Hundred Mirrors No. 23, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 120x100cm, picture provided by the Long March Space
Nostalgic Portrait, 1989, oil on canvas, 130x97cm, picture provided by the Long March Space
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 at the audience. In Half-Hundred Mirrors No. 23, you are holding a small mirror and looking at yourself, and the gaze reflected in the mirror on the small painting next to it turns back to the viewer. Why did you have such an arrangement?
Yu: 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.
The World of Female Painters, CAFA Art Museum, 1990
Xⁿ: It is unavoidable to talk about your art without talking about feminism. In 1990, you 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, you had accepted the label of ‘female artist’ openly and were not surprised. However, unlike the Western concept of "feminism" which has strong political overtones, you observe the changes around you and other women and express their mentality and spirituality from your perspective. What do you think about that?
Yu: 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 don't think the female perspective is necessarily different from others'. In fact, I care about things that other people also care about, such as humanity and the relationship between people and the world, which of course 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 prompted you to focus and scope your observations on this aspect?
Yu: 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.
The Days, 1993, Movie Still
Days Gone By - Yu Hong, 2009, Movie Still, picture provided by the Long March Space
Xⁿ: You have participated in Bai Xian directed by Zhang Yuan for his graduation work, and ‘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 appeared 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?
Yu: 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, but 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 influence your paintings or your ideas of graphic art?
Yu: Movie has influenced my painting in many ways, the major impact is the idea of timeliness. Painting is one type of medium on a flat surface and is limited to 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.
Old Man Yu Gong Is Still Moving Away Mountains, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 500x900cm, picture provided by the Long March Space
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?
Yu: From my time as a student to my current time, my art creation always follows my life path and changes along with the rhythm of life. 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 and stimulate the imagination and courage to create.
Xⁿ: You’ve been painting several large-scale artworks in preparation for your solo exhibition. The workload is huge. What is your following plan?
Yu: I don’t have a particular plan right now. After the exhibition, I might take some time off and rest and take care of some chores in my life. I will continue to tweak and enrich the VR work, so there is a lot to do.
Born in Beijing, China in 1966
Currently working and living in Beijing，China
| 喻红, 上海
Xⁿ：的确，许多批评家、艺术史学家把以您与刘小东为代表的“新生代”艺术家形容为“85新潮”的反面，更关注周遭事物、生活化的细节，而非政治理想。您曾说：“文革那个时期大部分谈论的都是’我们’，没有 ‘我’。 ‘我们’作为一个集体，作为一个民族，作为一个国家， ‘我们’应该如何如何。个人就像大海里的一滴水，消失了，个人价值难以体现。”这是否也是您的对个人体验更感兴趣的原因？
Xⁿ：《目击成长》也像是一本关于您的创作的“大画册”，一个对于研究者来说很有用的“档案库”。例如2011年，您的个展“黄金界” 在上海美术馆开幕，展览现场也被记录在了《目击成长》中。在展览“黄金界”中展出了以《捣练图》的结构为参考的《春恋图》，受到祭坛画影像的《天梯》和《昏睡百年》，还有与以意大利天顶画《大力神和四季》为蓝本，需要仰视观看的《天井》。除了对古典绘画的长期兴趣之外，还有什么原因促使了这个系列的诞生吗？ 您在当时的采访中说道：“我希望这种展示和观看方式能重拾绘画在过去时代的荣耀。”当时是什么引发了您新的思考？