Talks between Li Zi and Wang Meng 

Li Zi & Wang Meng

Wang Meng: Last Year, we took part into a co-exhibition of 25 artists at our age, “The Idea and Language Taking Place in Painting”. How do you look at the exhibition which helps to clear out the developing process? What problem, procedure and tendency do you see out of this exhibition? Li Zi: What I see from this exhibition is that the young artists’ ranges are very wide, and their works tend to be more conceptual and philosophical. Those young artists seem to have been tired of topics on sociality and criticalness, and few of their works concern about the reality of the society. Instead, they care more about the expression of their self-consciousness, and think more about their own problems. That’s why I say their works convey the sense of spirit and philosophy.  

Wang Meng: Your painting does not follow the current art trend, like laying the fulcrum of painting on the copy and adjustment of the popular text and image from art history, but pierce directly into the original point of art instead. It has long been laid aside to explore the relationship between painting and human soul in the ideological trend and development of the art history of painting, especially after the movement of modernism during which everything in the past with any trace of classism would be denied immediately. Things changed when it comes to contemporary painting era. Modernism not only emphasizes the avant-garde, which puts painting under a new linguistic context, a cross-cultural state to explore remodeling, rather than returning to classism. This state leaves painting under a brand new linguistic context. Your works seem to have entered this process. All right, after my theoretical prologue, I would like to hear your interpretation of painting and your story of the spirit-piercing power in your paintings? Li Zi: I think painting is still a classic way of art expression even in contemporary context. Nowadays, the ways of expression are pretty multiple, such as video, device, act, which are all more direct than easel painting. Besides, modern life tends to be more broken and internalized. That is , when we are to understand an artistic idea or thought, we need to make our works more direct, even though this might mean a rough expression, because modern people wouldn’t linger long in front of a work or a text. This requires the work to be very attractive in form and language, which are better to be brief and violent slogan. Anyway, easel painting and literature in contemporary society are actually very classic expressions. It has long been heatedly discussed as to the question whether easel painting is going to die or not. As far as I am concerned, this worry is completely unnecessary. Take classic opera for an example, it has been deeply impacted by popular music or rock and roll or electric music, but there are always people who would like to appreciate opera and deem them unsurpassed. Easel painting is like classic opera, whose audience tends to be the elite group, who occupies the minority part of the population. Therefore, I don’t think it is a problem whether the mass can accept the easel painting or not, or whether the modern net or science technology would impact the easel painting and make them vanish ever. Easel painting is a form which cannot be replaced by other artistic forms. But up to this day in the development process of easel painting, the painting language has been completely different from that in classism and modernism. As an old form, it still develops its own language at this current time. The language is based on the artist’s thought and cultural root, and specifically speaking on the books that he reads before and the information that he accepts before. The point is how he expresses it in the process of seeking for the language. In 1980s and 90s, the socialized topics are considered avant-garde, so that spiritual exploration are neglected. Until today, people don’t turn to concern more about the spiritual topics. This is what the young artists do, who do not care much about the current society. Instead, they care more about their inner soul. They deem all the social events as occasional cases, which are none of their business. They trust more about their own fates and the supernatural power. These are all out of their disappointment to the society, and their faith that they are powerless and that they would be hurt. Therefore, they wouldn’t rebel against the social system with their own power. They choose to dwell in their own space. Their artistic expression tends to be more inward and delicate. This is why the contemporary art emphasizes painting language, though which is actually kind of returning to the classic expression. To pursue the feeling of painting is to seek for the painting language of one’s own.  

Wang Meng: Whether in the works 160 Decibel or Prometheus with heavy themes or the works Lost, Floating or Forest: The 5th Category, themes has its certain position throughout your painting, which is different from traditional painting patterns which emphasize on the conceptual language or the visual image. Making “theme” the possibility of contemporary painting is what I see from your paintings. This is very inspiring and distinctive and reflects the independent feature of your works. But how do you realize the themes of your works? Li Zi:  Conceptualization is very important in contemporary painting. But I think it should be inferior to visual expression. The work is not a good one if it cannot excite people at the first sight, even if it has a pretty good concept. And this is the difference between the artists and the philosophers. My works, to large extend, express my thoughts onto society, mysticism, and religion. Whether they are 160 Decibel or Prometheus or Lost, Floating or Forest: The 5th Category, they all reflect my thoughts on the society as well as the world, and they all accord with my cognition of this world. This is why I think concepts should be secondary in my works. I choose only the ones that answer my inner voices and the themes out of my own interests. Moreover, I emphasize more on the visual shock that the artistic expression of the concepts can create.

Wang Meng: Theme, language, media, approach, conception and the mental aura reflected on your works make up the basic artistic context of your paintings. You concern about not only one of the element but the interaction and operation of all the elements. What’s your opinion about this aspect? And how do you deal with it?
Li Zi:  As I have mentioned, my primary focus is on the visual expression, visual form and visual appeal. This is the aggression of the paintings that I have urged upon. Paintings should grow a seed of impact inside watchers’ minds, while media, approach and painting language are all to serve the seed, and concepts and themes are merely theoretical pillars.

Wang Meng: The physicality and thickness of your works play an important role in the three-ordered impacts from the physical to the visual and finally to the spiritual reaction. And how do you go through this process step by step in this aspect? I believe these all happen naturally in your creation rather than follow some advance plans. Li Zi:  It follows the call of what the feelings you are trying to express. If I want to express aggression, then naturally the materials and the thickness of the backdrop are all to be strengthened. However, if I want to create a sense of mystery and illusion, I may not make the canvas too thick or heavy. These all, to large extent, relate to the purpose of my painting. In this case, everything should be in order rather than being random or aimless. But I still conceive that good work grows out of the canvas. Thus I merely use drafts when I paint. Instead, I’ll firstly paint the backdrop and put the colors on the canvas. Then, I’ll sit in front and observe it, until the thing growing out of the canvas hits my head.

Wang Meng: How do you think the temperament of the artist affects the painting? Will artists’ spiritual level become deeper and broader with the further development of his paintings and was it an experience full of wonders and gains? Would you please summarize a bit on this aspect? Li Zi:  I think the temperament of the artists and that of the works are coherent. The artist’s painting and spirit promote each other. For example, if I learn something, I’ll reflect what I’ve learned on what I paint. Thus the artists’ temperament will become thicker and heavier, especially for those who care about spirits, take me as an example.

Wang Meng: What role has painting played in the context of contemporary arts? When “conceptual art”, device, new media and behavior arts prevail, the “painting-is-dying theory” hit the previous period from the west to China. But with the development of art, the vitality and strength of painting is brought into a new climax by the global artists around us. Nevertheless the climax is beyond the boundary of previous art history and artistic theories and cannot be interpreted by the existing simple notion. It seems that the painting has entered a new exploring process, and its vitality is spreading around us. Li Zi:  I think painting is a little marginal in the field of the contemporary arts, because its manifestation is comparatively classical. Consequently, at the relatively pioneering art exhibition, such as Kassel Documenta and Venice Biennale, painting does not catch the attention of the curators. But there is always a contradiction here---the sale of paintings is always greater than that of the videos and devices. Therefore, lots of pioneering artists and curators regard painting as an artistic form which sends out the stink of money. For sure I think such comprehension is very partial. A good work will not be noble or backward because of its artistic form. What counts is the work itself. In my opinion, nowadays, artists who engage in easel painting are not the majority globally. Most artists choose images, multimedia and other forms which are easier to interact with the audience. The easel painting inclines to be more individualized, which does not emphasize the influence of the interaction and feedback of the audience onto the art works. So the easel painting always gives people an impression of upper class and elite.

Wang Meng: Simply speaking from the spirituality of painting, which erstwhile artist do you like? Which ones do you dislike? Li Zi: Too many. Lots of artists make me obsessed, such as Michelangelo, Pierro, Francisca, Bernini, etc. I like Keefer in modern times, but certainly the one I appreciate most is Kapoor, he is such an artist who expresses the feature of aggression the best. I like the ones who are determined to pursue the essence rather than the grandstanding of art. I do not like the ones who’d like to use pioneering art form to show off.

Wang Meng: How big is the gap do you think between what you have painted and what you want to paint? What is the gap? What else are you going to explore further? Li Zi: I have only realized a very small fraction. I think my current painting is still at the primary stage of my expectation on easel painting. I do believe my future creation would be better. Certainly I do not deny that my present works have the mood that I cannot achieve in the future, because the mood in different period of life cannot be duplicated. I think the golden age of an artist ranges from 35 to 50, because this is a period that the thought, technology and view of life of the artist are all getting mature and developing. Most good works are created at this period. For me, I have a long time to create better works.  

Wang Meng: We have talked a lot about the issue of contemporary painting, such as the context and trend, concept and language, medium and method, innate law and spirit. These topics about art are very inclusive and extensive. So my last question is open, ----is there anything special that you would like to say? Li Zi: I hope that in the future I can express my artistic view through video works. It might be in the form of film. I think film is the most comprehensive form for art expression. In my point of view, films can be divided as good ones or bad ones whether they are commercial ones or artistic ones. Because the good films are always good whether it is commercial or artistic, but someone may employ arts to cover up how bad his films are.