Dialogue with He Wenjue - A solid creator and a real thinker

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He Wenjue VS Wang Yinbo


Date: April 9, 2014

Location: He Wenjue’s studio at Songzhuang, Beijing

Interviewee: He Wenjue





In the Chinese contemporary art circle, He Wenjue, an artist born in 1970, is undoubtedly among the hard core in the prime of their lives. The diversity of his creative themes and the peculiarity of his presentation are exceptionally impressive. His works are full of spirituality due to his special intuition on beauty. On issues like life experience, painting language, unique visual language and creation state, He Wenjue gave us perfectly logical and reasonable answers from the aspects of creating experience, styles and techniques and aesthetic psychology. We may say He Wenjue is a solid creator and a real thinker who keeps thinking in practice and keeps practicing in thinking.


WANG: The themes of your "Water" series, "Watch Movie" and "Daily Images" appear to be rather diversified and vary from each other, but in fact, they embody the inevitable conversion in your representation of your own past life. I presume that the selection of these themes must have great relevance with your life experiences and thoughts development, and could you talk about it specifically?


HE: The themes did not really come out of a conscious choice, but from unconscious inner needs. For example, "Water" series was started when I was seeking a subject matter for my graduation creation. I grew up in the south and have developed a special love for water. As a child, I spent almost every day playing with water and used to make boats with foamed plastic, and therefore my perception of water is rather figurative. I could not say how deep my feeling toward the image of water is, but it is indeed a result of my life experience. I think the motivation of my art creation at this stage of life was consistent with “Art as Game”, a theory on the origin of art.


The reason why I shifted my focus away from the subject of water was that after so many years of creation, I felt that I went to the edge of the subject. The limitation of the subject confined me from expanding. During this bottleneck period, I've done a lot of programs to try a lot of new subjects. One day when I was watching TV, I tuned to a movie channel by accident and was suddenly appealed by the pictures of the film. At once I recalled my experience of watching movies in my childhood when I used to watch a lot of movies because my mother was working in a theater. Thus there came the "Watch Movie" series, which has always included my deep feelings for movie. The creation was made very smooth by my specific perception of the subject matter.

"Daily Images" is an extension of life as well, the subject matter of which touches the life experiences of myself and my friends. I record the gatherings or travels or other scenes of life just as keeping a diary.


WANG: Oil painting is a visual art. In addition to the subject matter, personal experience, the collective experience and psychological imagination, the visual language of the images is closer to the art of oil painting in itself. Could you tell us how a painting is created from the perspective of visual language?


HE: Firstly you have to observe the object of creation, and then go on creation with the impression resulting from observation. The techniques of my painting came from the rigorous education I received in the Central Academy of Fine Arts as well as the constant widening of my horizon. As in other art categories, the polishing of techniques is the basis of art production. Oil painting has 500 years of history from the Renaissance, and it is more than 100 years since it came to China. During this period, all the possibilities on this two-dimensional bound-confining canvas have been explored by generations of people. The Europeans have tried out all the applicable techniques from Classicism to Cubism and then to Impressionism. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to be innovative in the field of contemporary painting, and so even a little something in concept is no small achievement. If you overturn the visual effect, then you become a master. Throughout the art history, if we take a look at the transition from classical to impressionism, we may find Cezanne is a genuine master and he subverted the visual experience. Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism and Fauvism, with their subversion in art history, occupy a very important position respectively. In this larger context, how to make innovation on my works is what I keep thinking in my daily practice and keep practicing while never stop thinking.


WANG: Both painting and film are formative art based on visual language. Then what is special to use painting to express the movie scenes?


HE: The conception to reproduce movie scenes with painting is not exclusive with me. It is the individual re-creation that makes it special. This re-creation is a re-combination of the pictures with one’s own preferences and feelings. For example, the color and mood of an image shows one’s aesthetic taste on an object of creation.


The moment I started painting movies, I’ve already had a clear idea on what to paint first and what else should I paint after that. As a Chinese, I certainly hoped to show Chinese characteristics in my oil paintings. The scenes of some movies directed by Wong Kar-wai and Zhang Yimou just fit my aesthetic sentiment. Film is an all-encompassing world, and on the trunk of it grows different types of branches, such as documentaries, literary films, martial arts films and feature films. Each branch could also be subdivided further. So, in a period of time, I would choose war as a theme and at another stage I would choose the characters from documentaries for my creation. The reason why I chose these films was that many movie plots coincide with my personal experience or are within my expectation, which is the very uniqueness of art creation.


WANG: Then in "Watch Movie" series, are you telling stories or marking your aesthetic identity?


HE: You could say both. Painting shows mostly the mind of a painter, but it also has the same effect with narrative art. A painter may use a brush to record and to express his everyday life.


WANG: How should we interpret a work if it is telling a story?


HE: Interpretation is a multi-angle matter. Your interpretation of Van Gogh’s works might completely differ from those growing up in different environments. Interpretation is not controllable and there is not a standard for it. For sure, there are some exhibitions with specific themes, in which the meaning of the works are quite clearly presented.


WANG: Why do you adopt for some very realistic themes a creation method similar to Impressionism?

HE: The collection of works of the Louvre immediately turned to impressionist painting after the Barbizon school. It is not the fact that future generation cannot go beyond the previous ones in terms of techniques, but that times are changing. If you trace the art history, you may notice, with the change of the times, the context in which the creators are and their state of mind is never the same. It is quite natural to see changes on the painting techniques. Of course, there are some contemporary artists working on pseudo-realism, but it is difficult for them to achieve the profound conception and temperament that Classical Realism once achieved in its time.


WANG: Why do you use metal scrapers to scrape the undried screen in your "Daily Image" series? Did you get the idea by accident or with intention?


HE: There were painters before using such treatment on screen. I was just inspired by such a way to generate new ideas for my works. This approach gives the works a new meaning in terms of form. From the perspective of content, the everyday life is concrete but also superficial as we see with our eyes. When numerous specific details present themselves in front of us, we tend to focus just on part, and thus are unable to perceive and grasp the whole. I did not intend to destroy the perfect image or make innovation for innovation by using such an approach. When we no longer pay attention to just the details but see things as a whole, it becomes easier for us to see the true features of them. It is with time that we develop the capability of watchor thinking. The pigments have not been completely scraped away from the canvas, but remain on one side of it. This visual accumulation is the very visible witness of the invisible passage of time. The blank canvas of pigment accumulation areas also arouses different thinking from different viewers.


WANG: In you painting "Burma Impression - Monk," the treatment of the legs of the monk gives a feeling that the monk is just about to stand or about to walk, or is just between them. This overall and dynamic sense resulting from vagueness is perfectly in line with the gestalt effect that works bring to viewers according to Gestalt psychology. Have you ever considered the reception psychology of the audience during your creation process? And what is the reason?


HE: The creation of an artist is entirely self-centered aesthetic appeal. The appreciation of the same work, or even the work of a master, is not the same for different people. The difference is quite similar between art films and commercial films. The former is produced entirely to cater to the audience and to get the maximum benefits. While the latter, like the French New Wave, is utterly a personal expression of the director.


However, we cannot say absolutely that we never consider the viewers in our creation. I am a creator, but meanwhile I am a viewer as well, just like an actor supervising his own performance while he is acting. Among these there are rational and controllable factors, but more artistic rendering of spirituality comes from the emotional and uncontrollable ones.


When we summarize a series of creation from an academic perspective, we shall find this fuzzy processing of everyday scenes indeed create a distance between the viewers and the theme from the point of view of the aesthetic appreciation of the audience. And it is in this distant and unfamiliar process of appreciation that beauty grows out.