On the occasion of his second solo exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery, Black Paintings (May 4 – June 23, 2012), Yan Pei-Ming sat down with Charles Schultz to discuss his recent paintings, his preference for visual rather than verbal communication, and the difference between the deaths of Bin Laden, Gaddafi, and Mao. Justine Durrett translated between Schultz and Ming.
Charles Schultz (Rail): The opening of your exhibition, May 4th, resonates with the subject matter of your recent work. Not only is it the 93rd anniversary of the May 4th movement in China, but the Goya painting you’ve reinterpreted is “The Third of May, 1808.” Osama bin Laden was killed on the second of May last year. Did you intend to establish all these connections?
Yan Pei-Ming: History is written this way. I can’t rewrite it. That’s how it is. It was already written.
Rail: Your stutter prevented you from entering art school in Shanghai, so you went to France. When you moved there at 19 and the language barrier became absolute, did that affect the urgency you felt towards drawing and painting?
Ming: I’ve always had a stutter. Since I was a young child. So I’ve always, since a very young age, imagined a different language I could use to express myself. I hate expressing myself through words. I was always afraid; I’ve always tried to express myself through speaking as little as possible. Painting is perfect. I’ve found refuge in silence since childhood.
Rail: This is an ideal phase of civilization for someone who would like to communicate in a visual language. We’re in such an image-saturated culture. After all, images can be universal, whereas language, even right now, has its limits. For example, you and I couldn’t have this conversation without Justine.
Ming: Yes. That’s why I never learned English. My pictorial language communicates for me. But it is also a great source of anxiety as well as a drive in its own way. I don’t want my paintings to speak in Chinese. My work is not “made in China” and I don’t want it to speak that language. My paintings don’t need explanation. They just communicate; there is universality to them.
Rail: You mean “made in China” as in mass-produced, made with many assistants?
Ming: That is a superficial distinction, but it is part of it. I want my paintings to be seen beyond the Chinese context. I don’t think of myself as a Chinese artist, even though I was born in China. I don’t think of myself as a French artist even though I live in France. I am an artist, that’s it.
Rail: Your paintings have a very personal and individual language. When you see a Ming painting, it could be of anything, any person might be portrayed, but you know it’s a Ming painting. Perhaps it’s the pronounced individuality of your mode of expression that enables your work to be relatable on a universal level, not as Chinese art, or French art, but simply as art.
Ming: That’s my world. It’s my universe.
Rail: I understand that in the late ’80s you studied in Paris under Daniel Buren at the Institut des Hautes Etudes en Arts Plastiques in Paris. Were Sarkis and Olivier Mosett teaching there at the time? Did they have an influence on your thinking at all?
Ming: I was—I am very interested in the conceptual artists like Buren and Sarkis. But each artist has his own vision of the world. They were teaching there, yes, but I understood that if I make work that looks like theirs, I’ve already lost. Out of the 20 young artists invited to the Institut, I was one of the only ones to actually work in painting.
Rail: Did that make you feel isolated?
Ming: On the contrary, I became very close to them and I am still very friendly with them. I’m much closer to artists like them, conceptual artists, than to other painters. We each have our own way of expressing ourselves. For me, it’s painting. For them it’s video installations, sculpture.
Rail: You also had a group of Chinese friends too, didn’t you? Weren’t Huang Yong Ping, Chen Zhen, Yang Jiechang, and even Hou Hanru living in Paris as well?
Ming: I was the first to come to France, the first to go into the art scene of France. But yes, I’m very close friends with all of them. And we see each other frequently.
Rail: I think that’s important to know because, from what I understand your personal style is very independent, a bit like a loner. You live in Dijon, away from the big city, working alone without any assistants. Do you feel it’s an important balance, to have your isolation as well as a community of friends?
Ming: Yes, but most of my Chinese friends arrived in France 10 years after me. When I first came I was alone, and I established my practice during this time. It’s how I work. I needed time to develop my painting. It takes a whole lifetime to learn how to paint, how to construct a painting. It takes a long time! If I lived next to the Louvre, it’d be useless. If you’re not good enough, you’re going to constantly be discouraged.
Rail: [Laughs.] Yes. The 1989 exhibition, Magicians of the Earth, at the Pompidou, is generally regarded as a watershed moment in your progress as an artist. You returned home to China for the first time after that exhibition. Did you feel that being included in such a show was a validation of your decision to leave China in the first place? What was that experience like?
Ming: Historically, it is a very important show. The curator, Jean-Hubert Martin, had an original idea, to make a global exhibition. At the time it was completely shot down, but today the catalog is worth 3,000 euros.
Rail: Michael Brenson, in his review of the show for the New York Times, thought that it reinforced as many stereotypes as it subverted.
Ming: Martin had a vision. Before the Magicians of the Earth, every major exhibition was dominated by Western artists: Documenta, Venice Biennale, everything. His show broke this dominance, this idea that there’s one vision, or one unified whole, and today most of the curators of the world are happy to copy that exhibition. They continue to present the plurality that Martin had already understood back then.
Rail: It was the right show at the right time. It captured, or at least tried to, the zeitgeist of globalization.
Ming: Yeah. Today, it’s clear people are interested in much more than Western art, but Martin is the one who really saw that shift coming and was the first to make an exhibition out of it.
Rail: Speaking of globalization and large exhibitions, you’ve participated in quite a few. Your painting, “Self Portrait as Anti-Riot Cop” (2003) was a powerful contribution to the 50th Venice Biennale. What was the inspiration for this work?
Ming: Hou Hanru was the curator of that show; his project was called “Zone of Urgency,” and it continued with this theme of globalization and also explored the effects of urbanization. So that’s how I began to imagine these subjects: as police with clubs. They’re violent, but that’s part of human nature. You need violence to control humankind: Without cops, without the authority of the police, society would go crazy.
Rail: There would be anarchy.
Ming: Just imagine New York without police! [Laughs.]
Rail: Occupy Wall Street would certainly like to! [Laughs.] Let’s talk about your technique, your visual language. One of the most profound and telling aspects of your paintings is that they appear to be done very quickly. There is a sense of speed, a flashing intensity, and even an aggression in your brushwork.
Ming: Everyone imagines I work very quickly because, in my work, you can’t see the sweat. With many artists, you look at their work and think, “Wow, that’s so labor-intensive, so time-consuming.” I like that in my work you can see spontaneity. Even though I work a lot, I don’t want people to see a sense of labor in my paintings. I just want them to sense that spontaneity and impact.
Rail: I like the word “impact.” It makes me think of the American school of action painters, like de Kooning and Franz Kline, especially the strength of gesture in their work.
Ming: I love all of those artists. When I first saw “Woman” by de Kooning, I looked at it for hours. The only thing I really understood was that I liked it. What I took away from that was this feeling that to be a painter, to make a painting, you need total freedom. When you look at Francis Bacon’s work, for example, what you feel is the pain of solitude in a way. The anxiety of his individual humanity.
Rail: Like you, Bacon used photographs as source material for his paintings.
Ming: The photos only give me information. I don’t paint them anymore than Bacon did. With “Gaddafi’s Corpse” (2011), for example, all the source imagery had all these other people in it. Legs, people walking by. He was lying on a mattress and there were things strewn on the ground around him. I gave him back human dignity in a way. He’s alone with his death. Alone in his humanity. And he’s a victim of his own victims.
Rail: The victim and the aggressor switch places.
Ming: Exactly. He was the perpetrator of many crimes, and then he becomes the victim. If he had won this war, won this battle, there would be other victims in his place in the painting. Revolutions are always very violent. There’s always blood, and the winners always write the history.
Rail: Gaddafi’s corpse became a spectacle for people to come and visit, similar to Mao’s corpse. Except I imagine the people who visit Mao pay reverential respect, whereas the Libyan citizens visiting Gaddafi are not interested in reverence but something else, scorn perhaps.
Ming: One is a winner, one lost. The winner calls for reverence from people. Mao’s mausoleum in Tiananmen Square still has as many soldiers there guarding his body as when he was alive. Whereas Gaddafi, the loser, when the people were done looking at his body, he just gets buried anonymously. Who knows where.
Rail: Like Bin Laden’s corpse—buried anonymously, no pictures. The aftermath of his death is the opposite of both Gaddafi and Mao in a way, and I think this is an important point with regard to the power of the image. The absence of any images of Bin Laden’s death makes me think of your Invisible Man series. After 9/11 the face of Bin Laden was everywhere. Everyone knew what he looked like, but no one could find him, not even the most powerful military on the planet. And then when they did find him, they didn’t release any photos! His death was invisible to the public that supported the war against him.
Ming: I’m convinced there are many pictures of Bin Laden’s death. The American military must have photographs as well as video. But yes, visibility is always shifting. What’s invisible now will become visible at some point. If something happens, there is a trace and it will become visible. These figures of Gaddafi and Mao evoke very different emotions. We can still see Mao; we can still pay tribute. For Gaddafi it’s different. That’s why my painting is contemporary history, or painting of contemporary history.
Rail: That description implies a sense of speed, different but related to what we were discussing earlier. This idea that what happens today is already history before tomorrow even arrives. Would you agree?
Rail: Let’s talk about your palette. You’ve been painting in black and white and red for a long time now; these colors carry a great deal of symbolic weight in Eastern and Western culture, as you’ve discussed in past interviews. It’s also on record that you consider yourself a “valuist” more than a “colorist,” and that you feel that restricting yourself to these colors is a way of separating yourself from past masters. There doesn’t seem to be any precedent, however, for using colors to make an art historical reference. Is this show the first instance in which you’ve done so?
Ming: I’ve always been very comfortable using black and white. For me it’s a very sufficient palette to express what I want to say. And for me it’s become a very direct way of painting, using black and white. In this exhibition the term “black paintings” is both a reference to the formal qualities of my work as well as to the subject matter. And of course it’s a reference to Goya and the horrific subject matter depicted in his Black Paintings. Goya appears in a sort of homage. So it’s sort of a cohesive reference to all of those things at once.
Rail: You’ve described yourself as a pessimist more than once. This makes your choice to reinterpret Goya’s Black Paintings seem fitting: When Goya painted those works his sense of humanity had become quite bleak, full of tragic vision, as a consequence of the atrocities he observed during the Napoleonic wars. What drew you to this particular series?
Ming: For me, Goya’s “The Third of May” is a painting that is still extremely contemporary. This was the first Goya element to come into the show.
Rail: You titled your version “Exécution, Après Goya” (2008), which detaches it from a specific point in time and makes the subject matter more universal. It also connects it with your painting of Gaddafi.
Ming: Of course. He was executed, the means were modern but the outcome is the same.
Rail: The sense of tragedy in your work is quite pronounced. I find there are many artists whose work confronts their own personal tragedies, but far fewer who attempt to express a sense of the tragic in larger terms, on the scale of humanity rather than on an individual level. The Acropolis of Athens is represented in the show; for me, this calls to mind Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, a work that came out of his own reflections on Athenian tragedy.
Ming: The birth of democracy coincides with a strong sense of the tragic. Maybe there’s no way it could be otherwise. Life is a tragedy in itself. We’re all born to die.
Rail: The murder of crows—that’s an old expression for a group of crows—in flight above the Acropolis seems especially foreboding. The title of that piece, “All Crows Under the Sun Are Black!” is a Chinese proverb, is it not?
Ming: The Chinese proverb is: “The crows in the world are all black.” It refers to the sense that wherever you go, they’re all the same, they’re all black. I worked in a Chinese restaurant when I was younger and although the conditions were terrible, I never looked for a different job in a different restaurant because wherever I went, the bosses would have all been terrible. So again there’s an almost fatalistic sort of approach.
Rail: What inspired you to juxtapose an image of the birthplace of Western democracy with an ancient Chinese proverb?
Ming: I don’t really see it as a Chinese proverb, for me it’s more of a universal truth. The crow is a way to look at the whole world, the universe, through the lens of the black crow. The title in itself, if you just read it, you probably wouldn’t know it’s taken from a Chinese proverb. Unless you know the proverb, you probably wouldn’t guess it.
Rail: A Chinese poet I admire, Zhai Yongming, used the same line in a poem titled,“The Black Room.” I originally thought you were referencing this poem. Later I realized you were alluding to something much older. Here is how Yongming’s poem opens, “As a rule all crows under heaven are black, and this / intimidates me, they have so many / relatives, their numbers are legion, hard to resist.” This idea of a terrifying legion that’s hard to resist seems echoed by the birds that make the sky appear to boil in your painting. It also seems relevant to the painting directly across the room, “Moonlight” (2011), in which a boatload of refugees is being tailed by what might be the coast guard. There is a sense of latent fear in both works, but also in “Moonlight” a sense of hope, too, that what these refugees are getting into, even though it will be a struggle, is going to be better than where they came from.
- Yan Pei-Ming, “Moonlight,” 2011. Oil on canvas 110 ¼ x 157 ½”. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York.
Ming: People escaping are always only trying to save their lives, you know. That’s the most primal sort of hope, in a sense, just saving your own life. The only reason they’re in the boat is to not die.
Ming: Exactly. They’re trying to hang on by the last string. It’s a human instinct but also an animal instinct.
Rail: The boat in the background of the painting, which is very hazy, strikes me as the predator.
Ming: That’s why it has the lights. It’s far away, but it’s there. And you don’t really know what kind of boat it is yet, it’s left open-ended. You could be calling for help and actually getting in more danger as a result. So you don’t know if the other boat is coming for help or if it is a predator.
Rail: I find “Pablo” (2011) to be especially touching. Pablo—is this a reference to Picasso?
Ming: It’s an interesting question in an art context when you use that name, what one will imagine.
Rail: You’ve painted portraits of Picasso that were not ambiguous, but this is quite different: Here he’s painted as a boy in a penitent position, as if he’s mourning or possibly in prayer, as if he is humbled, almost.
Ming: The common representation is always, of course, of a great painter and that he’s important. It’s hard to imagine Picasso in this configuration.
Rail: This portrayal is particularly interesting in light of our discussion earlier about how your highly individualized style enables your paintings to become universal. By painting Picasso as an unrecognizable figure with a first name only, a personal name, it’s as if you strip away his individual greatness and without that he becomes a universal figure, just another tragic human.
Ming: That’s why I didn’t call it Picasso, why I called it Pablo, because it has something personal. He’s just a man and you can imagine anything.
Rail: His shoes are clearly out of proportion, as if this boy is wearing men’s shoes. Is there metaphorical significance to this? Such as the boy stepping into the shoes of his father too early, as if his father had died before the boy could become an adult?
Ming: It was more a formal decision, to be honest. As I was painting, I wanted to anchor the figure in these larger shoes otherwise it would have felt that he was falling over. After I was done looking at the painting I felt that this made perfect sense, this disproportionate gap between his shoes and the rest of the figure. But it’s not a direct reference to a father figure, there’s more a sense that the child will grow. All children put on the shoes of their parents at some point, as a game to play, you know, we all did that.
Rail: He doesn’t look like he’s playing a game. [Laughs.] I know in the past you’ve said that showing in New York was very important to you, and now that you’re having a second solo show here, do you feel your expectations have been met?
Ming: Since I was a young child I’ve always dreamt of showing in New York. But even with a second show I don’t feel like I’ve “made it,” and in my career I’ve never felt that I’ve made it. It’s just a stage in life, you know, a stepping stone.
Rail: On your way to death.
Ming: Unfortunately, yes, we don’t have a choice.