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"Fate in Waiting - Origin of a Painting" – Shu Kewen’s Interview of Song Yonghong

 "Fate in Waiting - Origin of a Painting" – Shu Kewen’s Interview of Song Yonghong


Shu Kewen (abbreviated as Shu from hereon): In terms of your recent "Shower" series, what people have discussed most, apart from the meaning on the images, is the drastic change compared to your earlier work. What’s the thinking behind this change from extreme detail to simplistic images?


Song Yonghong (abbreviated as Song from hereon): First of all, simplification is not my goal, it’s only a stage.  The paintings I did previously were also a stage. One needs continuation, but my earlier works lacked this continuity. Thus, I wanted to change my speed and pace so that each finished painting would have continuity. My previous works over-emphasized plot, one painting would have to be worked on over and over again; at times, I would feel inspired, but the inspiration soon died. Now, when I start I can finish, the feeling is continuous, and the connection to the past is not lost. Plot can be fully expressed in novels or films, but in an image it seems too fixed; I searched for poetic imagery, imagery that did not necessarily have to depict motion and expression, or be close to reality. The narrative of a painting is not the same as that of novels and films, the ambiance created is different.


Shu: Your working attitude has always been sentimental, is the change really so rational?


Song: My working attitude is quite unique. When I was at school in 1985 and 1986, I was excited about the new trends in art—anything that did not agree with what I learned at school, no matter how awful, was exciting to me. For our graduation piece, we all had to go to distant places like Tibet, Xinjiang, Shaanbei, our winter coats all became ragged from painting. But I didn’t want to paint what I saw there. I wanted to paint what I was familiar with, and the life I am familiar with is fluid, detailed, and rich. Once I arrived in Beijing, I painted "Sudden Wind", a work which was received acclaim. I didn’t know why it was good, but I thought it was interesting. Later on I realized it was my path of thinking. At the time, I wanted to join together the figurative with absurdity, to express something bad. I would imagine those sentiments everyday, and could often think of a painting from an episode in my life. It was really exciting! After 1989, I also did some abstract paintings and participated in some installations, but I didn’t feel right about it. When I did these works I didn’t feel I could let things out. So I returned to those absurd paintings—I painted everyday absurdity, its relationship with the environment, and the absurdity of relationships with people. I did it all . . . for almost ten years. But then I got bored with it. In 1995, for "Yesterday’s Reality" in Hong Kong, I painted a whole batch of works, and I felt I had been sucked empty, I didn’t know how I was going to keep on painting. In 2000 I was dazed and exhausted. The other external reason was that people’s attention had gone elsewhere. No matter what I painted, it would not be considered bad, but it would also not be a cause of excitement. Gao Minglu said later that my change was a result of mistakes made by critics; the failure to get critical response pushed me to change. He felt I should continue with those rather personal subjects. But Lao Li (Li Xianting) thought differently, he said, "You are not realism; you can’t let yourself get mixed up with reality."


Shu: I have also heard about these two assessments. The positive comment was that your work was becoming abstract, and therefore clear. The other one was that you had gone too far— why paint so abstractly that the richness in composition is lost. Nevertheless, you have emphasized the importance of personal experience before, and one can always find traces of life in your images, the images now are indeed no longer confused with reality.


Song: I still emphasize personal experience. In fact, the focus in painting these for me is not so much the images, but finding a method—the image is showering, but it could have been a bottle of wine, a landscape. This method expresses a goal, it is my secret weapon, and everyone has their secret weapon. But, I couldn’t repeatedly paint the image of a sleeper-car in a train, repetition would only become copying. In the end, my transitional objects were painted with such a sense of desolation. When I painted my first "Shower", on the contrary, I felt really excited by it. Using a new method to revive a dulled feeling, using something completely new to find excitement. Painting showering, first of all, would have continuity; the relationships of the elements can be constantly changed. From my own feelings, I gained an escape, an escape from the past, a new feeling which really excited me. My painting relies on my instincts, it’s not rational, and I am not interested in historical responsibility. So, I do not plan a structure, and even when a structure is drawn out I will try to avoid symbolism. Instead, I try to search for a feeling of estrangement in the water, the subject, and the other elements. I am not one of those artists who begin with philosophy or a concept, those are not my strength and if used as a basis for my painting would not be right. I think it’s good for an artist to maintain a "superficiality", a lightness and mobility, to use this to help oneself fly. My method is to consider the structure first, not to think of meaning right away, possibly starting on the fingers or legs, without knowing what it will look like once it’s completed. The structure and muscle arrangements are all invented. This strangeness is very shocking, somewhat similar to stream of consciousness narration. The time used for one painting, and the dimension all seem to be fixed by destiny.

Shu:  Do you think Gao Minglu’s explanation is also feasible, do critiques indeed influence you?

Song: When one is really creating, one certainly has to discard superstition—this means discarding the superstition of critics, of large scale exhibitions, of the international community, and affirming what’s within oneself. In fact, even now, when my work is progressing well, different thoughts are often mixed in. I’ve been working on this group of works for three years, and have no idea what will come next. But I am definitely somewhat hesitant. Like I just said, at the beginning one feels really excited, and very self-assured, but once this feeling is released I become hesitant. To focus one’s feeling at a point is very important, and can bestow the image with continuity, but by focusing on one point, many other things will be lost. Hesitancy, in fact, is that moment after you’ve released your feelings, when the excitement has died down. This is when you will pick up from where you have left off. This is also a way of storing power. But everyone’s method is different, I depend on fate: suddenly the light of enlightenment turns on and collides with my thinking. When this happens I paint it. It’s impossible to paint in the same way that a product is produced. Many things need time, the time for the destiny of a painting to appear.


Shu: So many artists are gathered at Huajiadi, are you influenced by this to a certain degree?


Song: Definitely, there’s an influence on my methodology. But methodology is only like yeast, it brings something into a certain state of being. In fact, sometimes art revolves around very basic issues, because in the end, whatever you want to express has to be through the brush. After many years of painting, sometimes, a color can get you stuck, artists need to exchange these simple foundational techniques—like the standing position in martial arts—it’s not like any topic can be made into a large motion. Previously, because of my immaturity, I produced some simple-minded works, but the immaturity in technique was covered by familiarity. Now, my techniques have matured, many previous issues are not longer important, techniques and sentiments can be improved simultaneously. These works allow both matters to come into harmony.

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