By Liu Jingjing
Zhu Gangqiang, Published by White Cube and Zhang Huan Studio, 2009, China
A Conversation about the Exhibition of Zhu Gangqiang
Liu Jingjing: What was your original plan for this exhibition?
Zhang Huan: At first I wanted to send Zhu Gangqiang to London, but later realized this was impossible. It was even difficult to find pigs in London. The UK laws regarding pigs are complicated and strict. It even surpasses their treatement of humans. Young pigs of a similar age and the same species are allowed to be together. Every pig needs a living space of 36 square meters which needs light, and the ground needs to be covered with grass and dirt. Finally the officials consented to allow the pigs to go on display in the gallery. It was a very long process. I’ve had this idea for a long time, but it wasn’t until July that the proposal was agreed on.
LJ: In the very beginning, you just thought this pig was interesting but hadn’t thought to use it in an exhibition, right?
ZH: Right. The earthquake in Sichuan Province was last May. When I saw the news about Zhu Jianqiang, I thought it was miraculous. I immediately contacted the media and the local site. I wanted to bring him back and raise him. Later I found out that he had already been adopted by the committee established to build the Sichuan Earthquake Memorial Museum. I contacted them but they were unwilling to sell and said they would raise the pig themselves. Our conversations ended there. At that time we were focusing on trying to obtain the train. It was the cargo train that caught fire in Tunnel No 109 at the border region between Gansu, Sichuan and Xi’an. It was carrying mostly grain for livestock, but there were also several oil tanks in the back. It was derailed after coming out of the tunnel and crashed into a giant boulder that had toppled down from the mountains. After one hour, the oil tanks caught fire. The flames engulfed the tunnel from end to end. Luckily no one died, but the conductor was severely injured. We recovered both ends of the train and brought them back from Xi’an. At the time, the local government was a complete mess. I’m convinced they didn’t want the wreckage to remain there, it wasn’t good for their reputation. Nor did they want to sell it off and allow it to be reused as this was bound to bring problems. What they really hoped for was for the refuse company to sell it to the steelworks so that it could be melted down and made into steel. When we arrived, the train had already been handed over and we bought it from the boss of the refuge plant. We looked at the wreckage of the train near the site of the incident. They had pulled it to a small side station. Although it was completely burnt-out it was still recognizable. We went inside and saw that the glass and electric fans were completely deformed, the aluminum framework looked like icicles. We had to cut it open and break it down into pieces in order to prepare it for shipment. Every section weighed several tons. In total it was 150 tons. Bringing it back wasn’t too bad. That was around June, and Zhu Gangqiang had just come out. Right away we took the initiative to find out information about Zhu Gangqiang and his whereabouts from a local reporter and immediately dispatched someone from the studio to meet with the owner of the pig. Finally, after a town meeting the local government agreed to sell him to us. The wife of the owner of the pig was killed in the earthquake but it was the owner who brought Zhu Gangqiang to Shanghai. We gave him a little extra money to allow him to rebuild his house. Even though the background to the exhibition is that of the tragedy of the earthquake, I hope to jump away from this, to turn it into something uplifting and humorous. Actually, it was the train that inspired me following the earthquake. Then Zhu Gangqiang, touched me because it was something so impossible, something that experts say has a life-force far stronger than man. After hearing that the pigs in the earthquake could live for 36 days, and then 49 days, my initial thought was that they deserved to be called "Artists".
LJ: The pig itself is an artist?
ZH: Exactly. In that experience, that process he was an artist. He was me! [Laughing]. That persistence and forbearance...he had no choice. The artist takes his own initiative, this pig was passive. This really moved me and I started to become very interested in pigs. I think they are very human. Zhu Gangqiang survived on rainwater and damp wood. His owner returned home only after his wife had passed away. He saw that there was nothing left to salvage; then he heard Zhu Gangqiang’s oink and looked in the crack to see the pig alive.
LJ: He’s like you in your early years.
ZH: Like me in my early years in Beijing’s East Village. I thought it was great. I thought, "It’s me!" Later, a pig named Zhu Chaoqiang appeared online. It had lived for 80 days. But people rarely mention this pig. The most famous pig online is Zhu Jianqiang, then Zhu Gangqiang. Did you see online the letter that Zhu Jianqiang wrote to Zhu Gangqiang? It’s pretty cool. He expresses doubt about whether Zhu Gangqiang is real or fake.
LJ: Right, because Zhu Gangqiang’s 49 days stole the spotlight from Zhu Jianqiang’s 36.
ZH: Zhu Jianqiang was saved by an officer in the military.
LJ: For this show, I’ve heard that you found a girlfriend for Zhu Ganggiang in England named "Oxford Flower" and that they have a child born out-of-wedlock.
ZH: Right. Here is the photo of Oxford Flower. She is an Oxford Sandy and Black Pig. They asked me what kind of pig I wanted and I told them to send me pictures and names of all species of pigs available in England and I selected this one. The gallery will design and decorate a luxurious, Victorian-style queen’s bedroom for the English girlfriend on the ground floor. Their love child will be there as well. And there will be a screen, just like a window, projecting Zhu Gangqiang in his everyday life. They will be having a conversation across cyberspace.
LJ: And this will be showing the life of Zhu Gangqiang at your studio?
ZH: Right. We will use a real time probe camera. During the exhibition in London, you will be able to see what Zhu Gangqiang is up to here in Shanghai. There will be a time difference - it will be a little late in Shanghai during the exhibition time in London so we will have lights, you will get to see him dreaming or being fed, talking to his neighbour...
ZH: We have a Tibetan mastiff named Heifeng. The ground floor of the exhibition space will house Zhu Gangqiang’s girlfriend and their love child, it will also display the video. As soon as you enter the gallery, there will be a written introduction about the background of Zhu Gangqiang and nearby there will be a small television showing a six-minute film documenting Zhu Gangqiang’s move from his old home in Sichuan to Shanghai. In the lower gallery the motif will be "Life and Rebirth". I will also exhibit ash paintings: skulls and the image of Zhu Gangqiang.
LJ: This is a very startling topic. The pig is replacing you as the performer?
ZH: Right. It’s very fresh and ferocious, lively but also fierce. Abstractions are unable to move me. I like things that are alive.
LJ: You once said that performance art is for small crowds, a feeble-minded art.
ZH: It certainly is. But the nose of the pig is not at all feeble, it’s very bright indeed. From the moment I acquired Zhu Gangqiang, I have wanted to do a show about him. For example, on the Shanghai Bund I could rent a space near Armani and allow the pig to be near all these famous brands. After 7pm, you could go and take him for a walk on the Bund. This was my original thought. Later, due to lack of time and other factors, we stopped and put our plan on hold, always trying to think of a way to connect him to contemporary culture. One year ago, White Cube asked me to do a solo show. Jay Jopling, along with Susan May and Tim Marlow came to my studio last year and I told them I wanted to do a show about Zhu Gangqiang. Time went by and the swine flu pandemic became a global topic. The outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease three years prior to this was sparked by pigs being imported from China. At that time they had to kill many pigs and it sparked fear over Chinese pigs. White Cube then told me that Zhu Gangqiang was impossible and asked me to come up with another proposal. One proposal was called "One Million Pounds," aimed at the current economic crisis. We contacted a farmer in Guangdong who had built a helicopter. The idea was to have him fly this helicopter in London during the exhibition and to drop one million pounds in cash over the city. Then in the gallery space we would have shown several other ’peasant inventions’. But now we have returned to the Zhu Gangqiang proposal¹.
LJ: Don’t you think that using a pig as the topic of your exhibition could be a bit too singular?
ZH: Well…. I just felt really strongly about this. Actually the fact that Zhu Gangqiang won’t be there is a good thing. It provides a kind of distance. Personifying the pigs and having Oxford Flower see the story online will be very moving. She loves him, it’s an internet romance, a kind of fictional presentation.
LJ: It has a social factor to it.
ZH: Yes. It’s focused mostly on life itself. Humans have human rights, pigs have pig rights. I had my assistants write two letters from Zhu Gangqiang to Zhu Jianqiang. Before the exhibition, I hope to make Zhu Gangqiang a little famous. In his letter, Zhu Jianqiang once doubted Zhu Gangqiang’s existence. These responses prove not only that Zhu Gangqiang is real, but that he has even crossed the seas and has a lover [laughing]. I also considered the fact that Anselm Kiefer will exhibit after me in October and wanted to increase the contrast between our two shows at White Cube.
LJ: Kiefer’s work has a sense of devastation to it, a beauty that lacks order. Visually it oversteps conventions.
ZH: Keifer could be called a firm and fierce artist. He’s fresh and alive.
LJ: You’ve also been on a quite a firm and fierce road.
ZH: I’m fresh and fierce.
LJ: Paul McCarthy is as well I think.
ZH: I really like both of them. But in recent years I try my best not to think about them. Paul McCarthy’s most representative work is the performance where he stood on a desk and pulled his pants down whilst wearing a pig mask, and a man wearing a suit with a round red nose came over to sniff his arse. My favorite is when he was in the forest with his clothes off, hugging a tree, using a machine to make love to the tree. This is a sculpture and an installation (The Garden, 1991-92).
LJ: How do you anticipate creating a contrast with Kiefer’s exhibition? Do you know the content of his show?
ZH: You should be able to imagine what he will do. All of his shows see him focusing on a single consciousness over a long period of time. I also wanted this to be very different from my show at PaceWildenstein last year in New York.
LJ: In the past you’ve done performance...
ZH: I don’t anymore. The pig lovers will do it [laughing].
LJ: You found a stand-in.
ZH: I have a stand-in.
LJ: You have always focused on bodily experience and self-operative nature. The Zhu Gangqiang exhibition could burst out suddenly from the existing situation. For example the reaction of Zhu Gangqiang, to his British lover But it could also be very tranquil, without any unforeseen occurrences.
ZH: When Oxford Flower sees Zhu Gangqiang sleeping on the big screen in Shanghai, I don’t know what her feeling will be. Maybe Zhu Gangqiang will be having a pleasant daydream! Ha! Their online romance could be very moving.
LJ: A live animal in a gallery - you want to see what reaction everyone will have, right? This is a living creature, quite different from the typical art that we "do". This is a piece that can actually biologically reproduce itself. It not only has a lively cultural and social meaning, but also a lively biological meaning. Love is a fictitious incident occurring in real time.
ZH: I firmly believe their love was predestined. Some day they will wind up in the same bed. Don’t you believe that is in their destiny?
LJ: The first floor of White Cube will be "this world" where we see the internet love of Zhu Gangqiang and his girlfriend, Oxford Flower. The lower level is like the "nether world" where you will hang the ash paintings of Zhu Gangqiang, the ash skulls and the Renaissance series. Here we will have a sense of contrast and mourning. Is that right? The physical properties of the incense ash is strengthened by this series of works. The technique used is also different from before.
ZH: This exhibition is about life, rebirth, and love for all. It is a collective rememberance of those killed in the earthquake and a blessing for those who have survived. We pray for all living things to be reincarnated: people, animals, birds, livestock, all living creatures have a mind and spirit. They have the seven emotions and six sensory pleasures. They know how to be ruthless and understand love.
LJ: Incense ash itself is very strong. It can often cover up the topic and content.
ZH: Right. Whenever we raise it up and then sprinkle it, the elemental properties of the ash come out. Just like oil painting and Chinese ink painting, today we have ash painting [laughing]. This time the ash paintings of Zhu Gangqiang have a lot of the paper money burned for the dead mixed in with the incense ash. A lot of the surface of the painting will be paper scriptures and money burned for the dead. Before there wasn’t much added.
LJ: Have you thought to dig up any other materials?
ZH: Yes I have. It’s actually very difficult. Just as Fang Wei once said: Picasso had 4 periods to his career. Zhang Huan has 10 a year [Laughing].
LJ: I think your show last year at PaceWildenstein was very like you, particularly similar to you as a person: strong, determined, devoid of any small guesses and conjectures.
ZH: Right. That show had a good reaction in New York: a Giant on 22 St. and the ash work "Canal Building" on 25 St. Two big spaces, one work for each space. It was perfect.
LJ: Very Zhang Huan. Now this Zhu Gangqiang nearly has no connection to your previous work. As a whole, the Zhu Gangqiang work at White Cube doesn’t seem very "Zhang Huan Studio". It seems to have become separated from your work at the studio, separated from your previous creative and visual practice.
ZH: I like your perception. It explains that I am trying to break out of and change my previous system. If you want to develop, then you have to transcend yourself, you must confront difficulty and challenge. I refuse to meaninglessly repeat myself, to take something senseless and do it to death. Perhaps Zhu Gangqiang is the beginning of something. Wait for the next step when I break into internet games. That will have even less of a connection. What do you think of the White Cube Zhu Gangqiang exhibition?
LJ: It’s a very realistic, topical exhibition But it’s pretty absurd... I think you are doing a "destructive" exhibition at White Cube, a kind of extreme and direct destruction that hasn’t appeared in your work for some time. After returning to China, your ash, sculpture and silk woodblock prints all came about as the result of destructive experimentation with the use of materials,. But this time with the interaction between Zhu Gangqiang and his lover, there is a very primitive sense of destruction. Even though it’s absurd, I feel you are continuously trying to create a kind of logical visual effect lacking any absurdities. You once said that in art you had to go against common sense. The so called "obedient die and the rebellious prosper." This exhibition also contains a sense of destruction, that should be taken as a sign of your energy and power of control.
ZH: Well...it is absurd, doesn’t really seem like my work. I hope that every exhibition I do is different. Just like the book Wu Hung wrote for me, Zhang Huan Studio . It makes people feel that he is writing about the work of many men, but after reading through the volume, you realize it’s all the accomplishments of one person! [laughing] The pig is the smartest of all animals, but it appears very stupid. In fact its nose is very sharp. All the living creatures bustling about every day are climbing up a mountain, called the "Mountain of Eight Treasures." We can never let it go. We don’t understand that impermanence and death are drawing nearer every day.
LJ: The topic of Zhu Gangqiang seems a little warm and tender, full of social and human concern...
ZH: On the surface it is. The plan for "One Million Pounds" with the farmer’s helicoptor had a sense of primitive passion. Every show is just like a footprint. Or perhaps it doesn’t even leave a footprint. We shouldn’t take this to be too heavy [laughing]...
LJ: It’s not that serious, right?
LJ: But your ideas about Zhu Gangqiang don’t really seem that simple, or is it really that simple?
ZH: Actually, the show itself really is that simple. It’s a person. Just deal with it like a person. I saw the book and documentary from the Sichuan earthquake - it truly was tragic. Ai Weiwei’s blog has followed this closely. I picked up the phone and asked him: Are you still alive? He said: What do you wish to happen to me? [laughing]. The earthquake bureau in China and its entire way of doing things is different from Japan and the West. Outside of China, the authorities conduct preventative studies. In China, I don’t know what the authorities are doing, and afterwards they are nowhere to be found. The big question for me is whether the peasants will rebuild their homes on the original site or be moved somewhere else. If this piece of land has a lot of seismic activity, then they can’t continue living there. But the authorities haven’t provided any answers or solutions.
LJ: The local peasants joke and say the national earthquake detection system isn’t yet as sensitive as the local toads. Before the earthquake all the toads went crazy and moved. The Chinese traditionally call these animals "earth dragons", because they’ve been predicting earthquakes long before technical equipment. The seismograph invented by Zhang Heng in A.D. 132 was also made up of dragons and toads². Toads live in the earth, so they understand the information coming from it.
ZH: Yeah... Feng Xiaogang was filming "The Great Tangshan Earthquake", I don’t know whether or not this was because of the Wenchuan earthquake.
LJ: There was an earlier movie that described the Tangshan earthquake, it was called "After the Flash of Blue lights" (1979).
ZH: Oh really?
LJ: The life force of pigs is much stronger than that of men.
ZH: They have a lot of fat, its basically just a sluggish, lazy pig. Lying there, as long as you don’t put any pressure on it’s body its fine (to keep on living).
LJ: Pigs aren’t like people with emotions and feelings that consume them. Humans can be frightened, hurt, we loose hope and get knocked down. Pigs don’t use their mind, nor do they get carried away by their emotions.
ZH: Right, right. I told you before about when I was in the metal box and almost didn’t make it out. Before a performance I crawled into a metal box to try it out and ended up getting locked inside. Of course human rationality tells us not to panic, to relax and think of a way to get the box open. But no matter what I tried it didn’t work, or maybe it was just the fact that after 2 minutes I could no longer take it. I freaked out and wanted to use the most primeval method to shake the box. But because it was made of steel and so heavy, I used all my strength and still couldn’t get it to budge. I shook it until I no longer could and then started screaming, shouting for someone to save me. I was hollering and looking out of the tiny crack. The French window just happened to be slightly open and someone sweeping outside heard me. You see humans just have this fear. If it wasn’t for that person outside, I don’t know what would have happened next. Pigs don’t know when it’s raining or thundering outside, if you don’t make them move they won’t. They eat when they’re hungry. When humans confront danger, they panic and lose complete control of their judgement.
LJ: Your time in the box almost seems more dangerous than Zhu Gangqiang’s experience.
ZH: It was more dangerous... because the occupant of that room had left for over a month. At the time, I had planned to use the box the next day and wanted to try it out. I was planning to put the box on the mountaintop and do a 24-hour performance. This was actually my original idea for To Add 1 Meter to an Anonymous Mountain. After this experience I was afraid even to look at the box again.
LJ: Maybe you have claustrophobia.
ZH: A slight case of it. That box was too little, just 70 square centimeters. Sitting inside I had to cross my legs, I couldn’t straighten my body. It was a steel box that I had had welded especially. It was beautiful.
LJ: Is it still around?
ZH: I don’t know if they sold it or not. I put it in a friend’s house in Beijing, someone who is not an artist.
LJ: Are you anxious about this Zhu Gangqiang exhibition?
ZH: I’m not worried. Actually in these poor economic times, I really want to do an exhibition that is interesting. The worse the economy is, the more I want not to think about market influence.
LJ: Do you want to do a humorous exhibition?
ZH: It’s not humorous. For me it’s actually not funny at all. It’s really very tragic. All those people were lost and all that was left was this single pig. Moreover he was a witness to it all.
LJ: As a Buddhist, how do you view this problem?
ZH: There was nothing that could be done. When I look through this catalogue Photos from the 5-12 Sichuan Earthquake , it’s more than I can take. Human emotions always go with the wind. Even a high monk or a Buddhist master coming to look at the tragedy of the earthquake couldn’t help but be moved a little. These photos show the severed arm of a girl, in her hand she was still grasping Buddha beads. Another shows a teacher who walked into his crooked office to find a pile of his students’ workbooks. He flipped through them one by one. Looking at these photos really is devastating. The power of an earthquake is enormous. Look at the thick columns of a highway overpass, collapsed in a heap like firewood, reduced to nothing. The cement highway was so nice, but the whole thing was completely knocked down.
LJ: The heavens fell and the earth cracked.
ZH: The earth opened as well, collapsing just like the roof of a house. A father found the corpse of his son and made a coffin out of old wooden boards and gave him a pillow of cotton fiber. He buried him in the school. Later the government found places to bury all these corpses deep in the earth in order to avoid the spread of disease. Why do you think White Cube was interested in this proposal?
LJ: I think they are interested in China, and also because they are interested in you and your work.
ZH: There’s a lot going on in China. Why do you think they’re interested in this one?
LJ: Why do you think they like this proposal?
ZH: I think it’s the pig itself and the story surrounding it. Its experience is very moving, legendary. The story itself has a kind of charm. If someone else had used it, it would be equally interesting. I just used it...you can call it absurd or sentimental if you want.
LJ: Do you think there’s a logic to this exhibition?
ZH: What kind of logic?
LJ: Because you’re not doing an investigative report, you’re doing a piece of art. Art has to have an internal logic, even if its absurd, it still has to be logical...
ZH: Well... how can I describe this logic? For example, this lover, the English one, if she were to be a woman and Zhu Gangqiang were to be a man,... for example if he were to be a hot guy, or a heroic mountaineer who climbed to the top of the Himalayas and on his way experienced all sorts of hardships, his achievements would be very famous. And then after his British lover saw this online, she would fall in love and start to have feelings. Isn’t this possible?
LJ: Zhu Gangqiang didn’t climb the Himalayas.
ZH: But I think what he did was even greater. Without moving, he lived for 49 days. It’s miraculous. As for why this is not the case with Zhu Jianqiang or Zhu Chaoqiang I can explain it thus: I had no interest in Zhu Chaoqiang and I had no luck with Zhu Jianqiang.
LJ: Why aren’t you interested in Zhu Chaoqiang? He should be even stronger given the fact that he survived for 80 days!
ZH: The most interesting thing about Zhu Gangqiang is that he survived for 49 days, I really like that. The number 49 is very Buddhist. Did you know that?
LJ: I know that when people die, they have to have 7 periods of 7 days each, in total 49 days of Buddhist rites to release their souls from purgatory. They say that even if the body is decrepit and damaged, after 49 days their consciousness will go through transmigration and be reborn based on good or bad behaviors in the previous life. This "seven-seven period" of 49 days is the Buddhist mid-life between death and rebirth.
ZH: Right. Because after we die, the soul doesn’t truly leave the body until 49 days have passed and then the individual is truly considered dead. Zhu Gangqiang reached the 49th day but his spirit never left - he lived on. Zhu Jianqiang only lived for 36 days.
LJ: 36 is an interesting number as well.
ZH: 36 was the best time to get out³. [laughing]
LJ: To get back to what we were saying, do you think that those who survive a conquest make an even more convincing argument that the conquerers themselves?
ZH: If we consider that for 49 days this pig stayed in the same location we should ask ourselves if he was confronting difficulty or just waiting? We don’t know what he was thinking. I think he’s even cooler than golf’s Tiger Woods. However, he was not passive. From a human point of view, he was confronting reality...
LJ: Confronting what kind of reality?
ZH: His reality, the same as the circumstances of humans. He took the initiative and didn’t passively wait for death. If he wanted to be passive, he would not have continued to eat and drink. I think that when Zhu Gangqiang was saved by his owner, his snorting was quite savage and he was crying, his emotions were very human. We have no way of knowing how stupid or smart he really is, but I feel that we can consider Zhu Gangqiang as a wise man, as a great sage. In those 49 days he might have come to understand 49 years or 490 years...
LJ: Then does he really still need an English lover?
ZH: He should have one! He suffered that much hardship, living in remote and backward Sichuan. Why shouldn’t he find a Western girl? Is he below everyone else?
LJ: His original fate was to be sent for slaughter and eaten.
ZH: This makes it even more interesting; not only was he not slaughtered, he also had luck late in life. This is what the Chinese mean when they say "Escaping death is bound to bring later blessings." [laughing] Or if we look at it from a Buddhist perspective, he must have accumulated merit in his former life by doing many good deeds. The symbolic meaning of the pig in Chinese history is also very interesting. I remember when I was young in Henan, my home province, every home had one or two pigs and they would take their left-over food and rice and feed them every day. At the Chinese New Year and other holidays, they would slaughter the pigs and not only have a delicious feast but also earn money from the meat. For people in the countryside, this is a lot of money. The pigs normally wander back and forth through the village looking for food, taking a long nap and sunning themselves in the summertime, daydreaming. They often wake up to find their body covered in flies. After getting up they rub against old trees to relieve the itching this induces. They don’t wait for the children to finish shitting before they wander over and start their feast. During elementary school, in order to receive the teacher’s praise, we would often go to the pig farm and catch flies. The Chinese say, in your previous life may have been a clumsy pig, good at eating but not at working. Pigs are just like people, unable to decide their destiny.
LJ: Compared to last year, are you more steadfast or more muddled?
ZH: More muddled. I have taken the Chinese concept of the human life and now changed it into, "At 20 I am illusory, at 30 I stand firm, at 40 I have no doubts, at 50 I know my heaven-sent destiny, at 60 I listen to others with a discerning ear, at 70 I don’t let go, at 80 I’m a rarity, at 90 I have difficulty in my old age⁴."
LJ: This year you’re also directing the opera Semele .
ZH: The western opera has a focal point and from it I will create a very rich piece. All of the possibilities will be harnessed. A Ming Dynasty ancestral family temple will be the setting. In this building a very tragic and moving love story once occurred. This is very rare on the theatrical stage. It is impossible to move this real temple on stage, as soon as you move it, it will collapse, it’s very dangerous. However, each act will hold surprises for the audience.
LJ: So this house is a background?
ZH: No, it’s the main set.
LJ: Do you like this opera? Handel operas are famous for being hard to stage. Why did you choose this one?
ZH: I don’t like opera, nor do I understand it. After I was commissioned for this project I had to be very decisive. At first I didn’t think I had the time or the experience but after taking it on I had to put my whole self into it. I then had to ask myself if it was interesting or not. My art director Liu Weidong said "let’s just do it, its a new territory with no connection to visual art." So we decided to give it a try. I have two assistant directors, one is a specialist appointed by the opera house, another is Su Jie from Beijing. But I make the final decisions.
LJ: Directing can be quite satisfying.
ZH: I wouldn’t say satisfying, there’s a lot of pressure. Even though so much money was invested in this project, we still went over budget. If we have the funding, we will have a stage outside the theater and the main one inside, both will be a version of Semele . For the outdoor stage, we originally wanted to invite a small theatrical group from Tibet to perform a folk drama in the Tibetan style. Inside will be traditional opera. Outside we will not sell tickets, all people walking by can stop and watch. There will be interaction between inside and outside. It’s funny, a country bumpkin like myself has nothing to do with opera. How can a person from the Loess plateaus of northern China direct an opera? [laughing]
LJ: I think you fit the energy of this story quite well.
ZH: The composition of our story is 70% real beauty, 15% surreal beauty, and 15% beauty that you can’t endure - surpassing beauty. The finale of our show will blow your expectations. I think directing one opera is enough; I won’t do a second. But I really want to build a permanent theatre.
ZH: The entire theatre will be part of the production and the show will run continuously.
LJ: That’s quite extravagant.
ZH: As for the structure, I want the audience to be lower than the stage and to go underground. There will be a mechanism to allow this. It will allow the audience to change positions and move around. The most exaggerated theatre I saw was in Las Vegas where I saw Cirque du Soleil.
LJ: How have your circumstances changed over the last year?
ZH: I have been in the process of setting up the new studio, working on many things including landscaping the garden. To plant the trees I had to take full-grown trees and transport them in from other locations, it’s a very particular process. For example, with the giant camphor tree, we had to take all the beautiful branches and chop them off, from the trunk to the very top. The more you chop it, the faster it will grow back. This is like coming out of a death trap. You have to maintain the trunk in order to preserve the life of the tree. At first, I liked trees with lots of branches and leaves, left just the way they were. But after several days, the trees gradually began to wither, some, like the ones I brought in from Beijing, need a dry climate and you can’t bury them too deep. Many nurseries just place them directly on the ground and pack some dirt around the base. Its hard to believe, in the holes where you stick the trees, you have to pack a lot of large stones and boulders around to support the tree and make it stable.
LJ: Last year when I visited you, we titled the piece ’Reckless’. Do you think this term still applies?
ZH: I am still using this attitude and style for the big things, including Semele for the Royal Opera of Belgium and my project for the Shanghai Expo next year. I still want to do things that are not rational and not standard, but such ideas are often not accepted. During the first round of discussions, they committees and galleries often take my ideas and strip them down[laughing]; this is my favorite way of doing things. With the remaining ideas, we have to take them and think about how to turn them into something that public art should be. When working on the proposal for the Shanghai Expo, I heard that the selection process was quite intense. They voted to determine which work would sit at the entrance to Expo Boulevard.
LJ: What is your work?
ZH: I gave several proposals; the best were not selected by the committee. They picked the ones most suitable for public art. My earliest idea was "Return the Tiger’s to the Mountain". I wanted to create a structure at the entrance to Expo Boulevard and allow people to see many live tigers on the stage. In the center there would have been a freezer full of dead tigers. Guilin, in Guangxi Provence, and the northwest region of China have the two largest tiger reserves. Both have eight or nine hundred tigers each. Because they lack money they can’t afford to buy cows and other meat to feed the tigers. For the past 10 years, the tigers that have starved, died of disease or been killed in fights have all been stored in a freezer. So I wanted to take this and bring it out, return it to the mountain. Chinese law doesn’t permit the sale of any tiger products so they are waiting for a new law to be issued. But because so much time has passed, a lot of the skin is already unusable and the bones that could have been used in medicine have gone bad. You could call "Return the Tigers to the Mountain" an environmental piece. The committee will be selecting from three other proposals I submitted. A Sichuanese Sanxingdui Mask with Giacometti’s walking man, a marble rising sun from Tui Bei Tu , and the pair of pandas "Hehe, Xiexie." In the end that is the one they are pushing for. Imagine the propaganda: this pair of pandas sitting at the entrance to the Expo Boulevard, a Jeff Koons work on one side, a Sui Jianguo work on the other.
LJ: This idea is very clever, in conformance with the situation at hand.
ZH: You could call it clever, you could also say it’s at once vulgar and refined. You could see it as conforming or satirical. When coming up with it I thought, amongst the 40 artists exhibiting at the Expo there must be one who has also thought of this topic, but surprisingly no one had dared to. So I was really quite fresh and fierce. [laughing] I also wanted to install fog machines around the 1,200 x 80 meter boulevard. During the opening, we would fill the entire area with mist and have a fountain in the Huangpu River. The piece is called "Mirage" and it would engulf the area. They said that this was a great idea, but if they did it the other artists would become my enemies. [laughing]. They felt it was too eye-catching.
Liu: The feeling of fog is great.
Zhang: In the first half of the year, the public art proposals for the Expo and for the Toronto Shangri-La had me tired for two months.
LJ: How are things going with your multi-media studio?
ZH: We are currently constructing the studio.
LJ: You talked about this plan last year, why were you so mysterious?
ZH: Because at that time I hadn’t decided whether or not I was going to go through with it. I am very afraid of IT. If you can’t grasp something firmly, then you won’t do it well. Now this fear is gradually subsiding. I have met many small groups of about 30-50 people in order to investigate this area. I have also participated in all their gaming conferences.
LJ: Do you plan to use this to make artwork?
ZH: No. I am taking the visual sense I have grasped and am using it for commercial purposes. Last week I participated in a networking meeting that provided a chance for small and medium sized gaming firms and investment companies to meet. We were considered investors. Think about it, the gaming industry in China has only been around for 10 years and only began having its so called "own products" 5 years ago. Companies like Shanda, with Chen Tianqiao and Shi Yuzhu, try and imitate Blizzard Entertainment, but they lack the plots and visual style So one day when I met the head of the Blizzard development team, he asked me if I could go to Blizzard to give a talk. I asked that Shi Yuzhu come and look at my work first and then I would get in touch. A lot of friends know that I am doing internet games. They say: "Old Zhang, is that really okay? You can’t use a computer, you used to be a complete fool, you have no connection to IT [laughing]. Are you really okay to do this?" I ask them what’s not okay? You don’t require a person to completely understand something before actually doing it. Look at the boss of Louis Vuitton, it’s not completely necessary for him to understand design, he doesn’t need to. As long as he can find good designers then he can develop the brand, and do it well. We are currently designing the space for the IT studio. The design should be finished by the end of the year. At that point we will have built our team. It will be a team completely separate from the studio. This is an industry with money. To do good work it takes ten years to come out with good stuff.
LJ: Do you play computer games?
ZH: I want to play, but I don’t have time. I want to learn. My driver and several artists at the studio play. They’ve made it to level 70 of World of Warcraft , the very top. I always ask them about it, but to this day I haven’t had the time to go get into it.
LJ: How is your film coming along?
ZH: I hope next year to come up with a script that I am happy with, it won’t take a huge investment.
LJ: How is the Tibetan manuscript coming along?
ZH: A while ago a European magazine asked me, after you finish Semele , what other ideas do you have? I want to do three movies. One is the Tibetan one you mentioned, another is about Mao Zedong, and the third is my memoirs. It will take my own story as background, but I might change the setting to Shangri-La or the Himalayas.
LJ: Will you be acting in it?
ZH: I won’t act. At present I don’t have that desire.
LJ: Well who will play you?
ZH: There’s a lot of people who could play me... if we can’t find someone, then we’ll have Zhang Yimou play me in my later years [laughing].
1. Recent years in China have seen a great number of ’farmer inventions’ (also ’peasant inventions’ or ’rural inventions’). People in rural provinces have taken traditional farm equipment and turn them into very simple but usable helicopters and other usable inventions. The motivation often is the desire to escape the rural lifestyle.
2. Zhang Heng was a Han Dynasty scientist who invented the world’s first seismograph in 132 A .D. During this era earthquakes were particularly common.
3. From an ancient parable found in <The Art of War> by Sunzi. In the ancient book there are 6 sets of plans, each set containing 6 plans for a total of 36. The final plan stated that when the enemy proved too strong and resistance was no longer a possibility, the smartest option was to retreat.
4. Adapted from an ancient saying in the Analects of Confucius:
at 15, I had my mind bent on learning;
at 30, I stood firm;
at 40, I had no doubts;
at 50, I know my heaven-sent destiny;
at 60, I I could listen to other’s with discerning ear;
at 70, I could follow what my heart’s desire within reason.