Conversation | Tu Hongtao and Heinz-Norbert Jocks
A Dive into a Maze of Impressions: A Conversation between Tu Hongtao and Heinz-Norbert Jocks
Heinz-Norbert Jocks: What caused you to express yourself through painting? Has something about your understanding of painting changed over time, as you became a professional artist far from your beginnings?
Tu Hongtao: My earliest motivation was rooted in my personal experiences. The education I received in my first years was quite unique, in the sense that there were few sources and barely any possibilities to learn. I only came into contact with very few material things I could relate to, and I chose painting because I had the feeling it was the medium I could truthfully be myself in. This combination of necessity and freedom presumably drove as well as stimulated me. It seemed that through painting I could express the social or psychological distance I observed around me. This was my state of mind until the early 2000s. I find it difficult to date when exactly something occurred because everything has changed so rapidly in China.
HNJ: I would like to know more about your personal experiences.
TH: I graduated in 1999, so around the turn of the century. On the one hand, the great historical upheavals also caught up with me on a personal level, in that, in the early 2000s, I suddenly had no money. That was strange, as the gap between rich and poor, that had been quite small in the 1990s, suddenly became bigger because of the market liberalisation. In 2001, I opened a small clothing store, hoping to earn some money. During that period, I travelled to Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Chongqing for purchases, and I witnessed the means by which the industry brings so many people together. In 2003 or 2004 I developed a strong interest in describing these people, and on these trips, I encountered those who inspired me to make my first paintings.
HNJ: What experiences do you particularly remember?
TH: One experience is connected to the so-called world amusement parks with world wonders like the Eiffel Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge. There are ones in Beijing as well as in Shenzhen and Chongqing. These are places where Chinese visitors can view world wonders reproduced in miniature, so that they have the impression they are travelling around the world without leaving their country. That was a strange inspiration for me, as, at the time, I was constantly wrestling with these extremely complicated social relationships. I found this simplification and miniaturisation of structures into a touristic spectacle interesting. Around 2003, my work in Guangzhou made it apparent to me how close together the different buildings stood and how small the distances between them were. One day, towards noon I noticed a group of workers, who suddenly appeared for twenty minutes in order to eat in a space between two buildings. After they disappeared, they left behind their trash, consisting of plates and containers. This inspired me to make a painting. At the time I lived with an old classmate in a tower block. When we were not working, we reminisced about our childhood. In the morning he went to work while I sold clothing. In 2004, when I told my friend I had bought my first house (subsidised partly by my university), he said he had thought I lived on a building site. His words reminded me that, in a certain way, I lived in a giant, constantly changing industrial or urban space.
HNJ: You spoke about reminiscing with your friend. Are there memories that you have never forgotten and always carry with you?
TH: Yes, especially memories that have to do with death, like the death of friends. They create new conflicts and raise new questions. At the time, many Chinese, especially those of my generation, were obsessed with the idea of a social spectacle and that caused a lot of anxiety for me.
HNJ: There are “inner movements” in our consciousness, that the French writer Nathalie Sarraute wrote about. We are not aware of them. Nevertheless, they are effective in us and also become manifest in our works.
TH: Different mental ways of processing and arranging images run through my head. They can be visual memories but also other mnemonic incentives that I put together or that form connections in my mind. I avail myself of different methods of reacting to memories, connecting them associatively or placing them next to each other. This way of handling memories makes itself felt in my kind of painting. Between 2007 and 2008 in particular, I drew on these techniques in order to process the enormous amounts of images in my daily life. At the same time, I had the feeling that even news had suddenly lost its sense of reality. Even when pictures of food like eggs or milk appeared on the news, a strange feeling of unreality overcame me, as if the links between the images had been lost. All of a sudden, the connections and associations that I had formed before had something unsettling about them and confused me in an inconceivable way.
On the Sudden Incursion of Unreality
HNJ: What do you attribute this incursion of unreality to? What happened there?
TH: The reason why everything in my life suddenly appeared so unreal and this feeling of unreality became so strong in me was no doubt occasioned by societal upheavals. I suddenly found myself confronted with the mass production of things like mobile phones and cameras as well as with the emergence of new technologies that allowed everyone, simply all consumers, to take photos incredibly quickly, easily and in large amounts. This inflationary photographic tendency was strengthened by the emergence of Photoshop and other picture-editing software on the Chinese market in the 90s. With them, images could be manipulated, which meant that pictures became uncoupled from reality. This detachment made me very afraid and occasioned a kind of anxiety I had not previously known. Due to this, I began to contemplate what kind of pictures I can contrast them with and asked myself what it means to make art today. I thought about whether it might not be better to forget these digital pictures, in order not to run the danger of just adding to the multitude of images being disseminated en masse there. In order to exit from this dead end, I reflected on my personal experiences and they led me in a different direction.
HNJ: Due to art that is experimental and makes use of new technologies, the Western discourse on the end of painting is also in full swing in China. Does this affect or touch you?
TH: I am not particularly interested in these discussions. The medium itself is not the central thing. What is important is what you want to express, and not necessarily the form it takes. Painting has taken over diverse kinds of knowledge from its historical practice. These can also be useful and relevant in the context of new technologies. Let us take Mickey Mouse as an example: it began as a drawing. When you translate it into another medium, perhaps a sculpture, it still features traces of its historical origins and carries its knowledge, inscribed in itself. A possible problem is that painters like me have to wrestle with the question of whether we are capable and good enough to express these new realities we live in, and whether we are in a position of conveying these new perspectives and ways of seeing to people through painting. Painting will survive as long as artists find ways to react to the new realities. You wanted to know why I paint? It is certainly also because of the connection between the body and painting. When I paint something, I have the feeling it is real. You can neither counterfeit nor fake when you paint. This feeling of immediacy, that painting conveys, can bring about many small, complex emotions and reactions in people.
HNJ: Can it be that painting has its own memory, in light of the fact that it is one of the oldest mediums and therefore also passes down also all the memories and experiences of humanity? A painter, who utilizes this medium, is always simultaneously in all three dimensions, in the past as well as in the present and future.
TH: I feel the same way about it as you do and am completely in agreement with what you are saying. In the area of painting there are two kinds of experiments and innovations today. There are the technical varieties of innovation thanks to advances within the framework of science and technology. These innovations, that are becoming increasingly mechanical, possibly function differently than in the past. However, the way painters experiment with emotions nowadays, is based just as much on intuition as it was at the beginning of painting and that is what connects us painters today with those in the past.
HNJ: Now, you attended the Sichuan Fine Art Academy in southwestern China for secondary school and studied at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou in southern China. Each place teaches a different appreciation of art. What did you take from them for yourself? Is your understanding of art possibly situated between the two?
TH: People say the Sichuan Fine Art Academy is a giant factory for producing new pictures and there is a pipeline for analysis there. Perhaps it is not the case, but the Academy is imputed to be a factory for the production of cartoons. People even speak of a cartoon factory. This argument is too simplified. In fact, the Academy possesses a rich tradition of painting which reaches from Gao Xiaohua up to contemporary Chinese artists. In contrast, The China Academy of Art is informed by a deeper connection to Chinese traditions and traditional painting. At the same time, it has a conflicted relationship to Western styles of art. It strongly engages with tradition but, alongside this, also offers departments like film and photography. The style of the China Academy of Art is strongly determined by its geographical location. Intellectuals and important government officials have come from there ever since the Ming and Qing dynasties. To sum up, one could say, the Sichuan Fine Art Academy has always had a strong interest in modern painting and subjects like alienation and defamiliarisation. If you study there as a real traditionalist, you are looked down on disparagingly. On the other hand, at the China Academy of Art you are belittled if you do something too avant-garde. I myself always did the opposite of what my fellow students did. When they imitated Giacometti, I tended to paint very bright, almost fashionable pictures. This occurred due to a mistrust of or skepticism towards stylish trends. It is a rebellion against every kind of schematisation or a refusal to blindly follow others and abandon my path.
The Discovery of Holbein and Dürer
HNJ: How did you reach your understanding of art beyond what was taught at both academies?
TH: It presumably has something to do with my personality. When I studied at the Sichuan Fine Art Academy (a secondary school) in the 1990s, everyone around me painted in the same way. This compulsion drove me crazy, and so I bought two poorly printed catalogues with works from Holbein and Dürer, in order to learn from their use of lines and their understanding of composition and I drew one line after the other. At the beginning there was a lot of resistance towards what I did on the part of my teachers, because their knowledge of different styles of art was limited, and they marked me accordingly poorly. [Laughs.] Over time, their attitude towards my works changed. They recognized their worth and gave me correspondingly good marks. That encouraged me. At the China Academy of Art, which I attended in the late 1990s, everyone made realist paintings, while I was interested in Pop Art. I received further confirmation that I was on the right path when, in 1998, the Chung-Sheng Li Foundation in Taiwan awarded me an art scholarship because my works differed from those of the others.
HNJ: Let us now come to your new pictures. What do you associate with the landscapes? What constitutes your connection with nature?
TH: Half of my thoughts circle around subjects like the expansion of the city and the process of urbanisation. Earlier, the phenomenon of agriculture and life outside of the city were important to me. If I should describe in a few words what nature means to me, I would say, it is as reliable as it is safe, always there and as real as an animal, like a dog or a bird. Nature conveys to you the sense of a reality that you cannot escape from. Nature can neither mislead you nor does it try to do so. When it is angry, you notice it just like you notice when it is beautiful.
HNJ: What experiences do you remember with and in nature?
TH: When I was three years old, my mother went on a business trip. When I noticed that she was gone, I threw a fit. I cried and screamed. At the time, one lived close together with large inner courtyards, and colleagues of my mother also lived in our neighbourhood. They took me with them to search for her. For the first time in my life, I travelled to a different city on the train, to Jialing Jiang in Sichuan. Looking out the window, I saw herds of sheep, a large lake and a wide stretch of trees. I have never forgotten these views of nature.
HNJ: Any other memories?
TH: The most intense ones date from the early 1990s. I was bored with the classes at the Sichuan Fine Art Academy, because I had the feeling, I was not learning anything. For this reason, I cut classes and was suspended because of it. I was not allowed to leave the campus. At that time, the school was located directly next to a train station, and every weekend, together with a few classmates, I rode the train south, towards Guizhou. We got off at every stop, in order to explore the area, and spent the entire weekend travelling. On Mondays, we would take the train back. Once, we made it all the way to the mountain pass between Sichuan and Guizhou. There are high, vast mountains there, and we saw many wild animals like turkeys and rabbits. The area was barely inhabited, yet we did meet some locals. Another time we stayed away from the school without permission for more than 100 hours of class, in order to enjoy the scenically beautiful, picturesque area around Sichuan and Guizhou. We hardly needed any money. A few of us did not spend more than 100 RMB. We went from house to house and knocked on their doors in order to ask whether we could sleep on the sofa or the floor or wherever. In this way, we almost made it to Shaanxi province. In connection with this, I remember the patriotic education we received at school that was meant to teach us to love our country. I did not find it particularly believable. Outside, in the beauty of nature, I had the feeling that what we discovered with our eyes and ears was true. An even more recent memory dates to the year 2009. I wanted to take a break from my life and travelled to where my wife lived. When I was not too busy, I would visit her, and the more often I visited her, the more familiar I became with the smells of the place. Due to it being extremely humid there, you can smell the soil and the moisture in the air. Because it is an area with a lot of water and the humidity is extremely high, the soil there is very varied, richly coloured and unique. I still remember very well how I suddenly stood in front of this giant waterfall and climbed up the winding path right next to it, which was so steep and almost vertical that you cannot walk up it on two legs but have to crawl up it on all fours. On one of these journeys I had the feeling that the correct way to be and to move there is sideways or diagonally, but not upright. When, in that different postural position, you set your sights on the distant mountains, you recognize that they too point in a different direction. Through this, it became clear to me, that the usual orientation of the mountains is subjective. It was important to me to express all these feelings that I just described through my work.
HNJ: Viewing these early landscape paintings I have the feeling that they radiate something meditative and still. The new ones bear witness to a greater restlessness. How would you describe the leap between the early depictions of landscapes, which are even more strongly rooted in the Chinese tradition, and the most recent ones, in which one can notice a certain allusion to a Western style of painting?
TH: The earlier paintings, created five or six years ago, are based on my views of the landscapes surrounding me, overgrown with grass and trees, and from the side of the road. At the time I thought about my relationship to these sights. After 2015, I was still strongly inspired by traditional Chinese culture and painting, and I searched for a different way to express my perceptions, because I wanted to change my painterly gaze. I wanted to expand my sense of time and space in the paintings and convey more of a feeling of movement. In contrast, in the last two years, I tried to incorporate historic reality into my pictures. All in all, I am interested in letting my conversations with friends or my relationships with people, and possibly also how I imagine scenes from books I read, flow into my paintings. This explains the transition from the earlier, more still compositions to the movements visible in the ones today. My later works arise from my desire to expand time and also because I would like to create other visual effects. I have not thought much about the stillness that you feel gazing at the pictures, but it corresponds to what I feel.
Closeness to Cézanne
HNJ: What exactly moved you to create the landscape paintings? Why are you unable to stop approaching landscapes through painting?
TH: When I was younger, I loved Cézanne. For me, he was the embodiment of an anti-literary or non-literary kind of painting and that is why I wanted to remove the subject. Cézanne was the first artist I discovered who had done something similar to me. In 2014, I read David Hockney’s book about art theory, which had just been published in China. In it, he speaks about the different traditions and painting techniques and he specifically mentions Cézanne and Picasso. Reading the book was a great incentive for me to experiment more. He also mentioned Chinese painting. Like many Western critics, he has a completely different understanding of it. Despite my interest in Western painting I have not forgotten to continue thinking about traditional Chinese art and applying those considerations to my work.
HNJ: Could you speak about this in more detail?
TH: The central perspective is an invention of the West. The post-Impressionist revolution, led by Cézanne, was a revolt against the central perspective. Since such a painterly perspective was never invented in China, there was also nothing for later painters there to rebel against. It is probably due to this that the concepts of traditional art are completely different in China than in the West and more strongly related to the history of their own country. Some of what Hockney wrote in his book resonates strongly with me. In it, one also discovers echoes of traditional Chinese art. He does not just speak about Picasso, but also occupies himself with many other perceptions and ways of conveying different perspectives in painting, as well as with the special treatment of the object by Cézanne and Picasso. Cézanne wanted to abstract the object. As soon as this form is elevated to a concept, everything can only ever become more abstract. In contrast, Picasso draws on many different pictures in order to compile them in the form of collages. It appears to me that he has had a strong influence on the present-day proliferation of images, and I think it has always been the desire of Chinese artists to combine these different ideas.
HNJ: What does Cy Twombly mean to you?
TH: It is difficult for me to speak about him, as he was so reluctant to explain his own abstract paintings. He leaves so much for the imagination of the viewer. We can only guess what his motivations were. In any case, the musicality in his painting has influenced me.
HNJ: If I am not mistaken, although your new pictures appear to have been painted spontaneously, they were researched in advance. I would like to know more about this and about how you approach a landscape.
TH: In order to answer this, I have to further expand the scope of the conversation. For a start, the landscape paintings reflect my character traits. That is the one thing. The other is that we have a different understanding of landscapes than people in the past. While in earlier times, one had to arduously walk, today one takes a car or a plane. I am interested in this compression or slowing of time, this phenomenon of the shrinkage of time, as well as in the richness of perception. Indeed, this is not just related to what we see, but rather also to what we smell and touch. I sometimes take photos in order to paint a landscape. However, I never paint and draw on location. In order to take in a landscape, I go for a walk and immerse myself in it. Only when I return to my studio do I complete a huge number of sketches, because through them it becomes possible for me to structure and organize the time I spent observing the landscape on foot and to process my experiences. It is difficult to explain, step by step, how I proceed while painting. I can not control everything that happens during that time and perhaps that is why some things appear improvised.
HNJ: They rather resemble inner landscapes than outer views.
TH: Now and then I use photos as a reference. Yet what you say is true, what I paint is not the photos, but rather the deep impressions the landscape made on me. The reason I make many drawings and sketches is that I require time to think about how to structure my impressions.
HNJ: When you are out and about and in the middle of nature, do you already have the immediate sense that something could be the starting point for a painting based on what you see and feel there?
TH: This moment that you refer to feels like a dream although it is not one. Where and with whom I have travelled and what we have discussed en route are part of the first impressions and internalised scenes I transform and reconstruct in painting, without necessarily having directly understood everything, for example the sight of a body of water.
HNJ: We had spoken of Cézanne. There is at least one difference between his and your painting. The Frenchman sought harmony parallel to nature and painted in front of his subject. In contrast, while painting, you prefer a spatial distance to nature, in order to reconstruct it. Why?
TH: What you say is true. The questions of colour and light, which concerned Cézanne, could only be addressed by him directly in front of the mountain. A further difference is, as I said before, not only the view of the landscape or the mountain, but also the entire time that I am on the road and the conversations I lead during it enter into my painting. When, a month ago, I travelled with a friend in order to see the holy mountain Emei Shan, jutting out from the basin of Sichuan province to a height of 3,099 metres, we argued over whether the North Korean president Kim Jong-Un was dead or still alive. Like many people online, he was convinced of his death, while I was of the opinion that he was alive. The back and forth of our conversation became an unforgettable part of my experience and will be a component of a painting.
HNJ: Could you give me examples of how you translate such thoughts into a painting?
TH: I will try to do this on the basis of two paintings. The first is based on a journey that I undertook, accompanied by a Taiwanese film crew, to a distant area to film a documentary. During the shooting I was asked by one of the younger men whether there was any hope for the future of China. After that conversation I made the decision to use bright, white colours, because the documentary about me had this austere, very white characteristic. I wanted to compress this in my painting. Perhaps the choice of colour also has to do with my memory of the old Chinese tradition of sitting on a riverbank to drink or speak, which the conversation brought to mind. The structure of the painting looks like a collapsing house or a house rocking back and forth on unstable foundations. It could also be read as an allegory of the relationship between Mainland China and Taiwan. So it is as unstable as a house blowing in the wind by a river. The Taiwanese feature film “A City of Sadness” (1989), by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, about the “White Terror” also inspired me to use white.
HNJ: It seems to me like you fragment the landscapes.
TH: In this context, let us speak about the second picture, because it is a very good representation of my state of mind. It was made after a trip I took with friends to a Buddhist complex in Chengdu. There, we met a friend who is a poet. We spoke with him about poetry and got up early in the morning. In the distance one could see a mountain range, which I pushed to the upper left-hand side of the picture. On one photo that I took of it, there are so many trees standing in the foreground that they block the view of the mountains behind them. You have to zoom in on them to bring them into the picture. In order to translate this into my painting, I made the decision to distribute everything differently. I moved the mountains into the corner and some trees to the centre right-hand side of the picture. What mattered to me was expressing the emotion one feels on the mountain in the evening. In addition, I wanted to incorporate all my memories of the few days I spent there.
HNJ: Is it also the case that you only express all your feelings, thoughts, perceptions and impressions after the fact because this is only in this way that you can find a more abstract language, and otherwise the immediate sight would lead you to a more realistic language?
TH: I create so many sketches in the hope of being able to return to the strong impression or the actual moment of inspiration I had on location. The photos may show how the light and shadows were in the landscape. Yet they are completely different to my personal impressions and original feelings. During the implementation there are certain moments of chance and accident in the way the paint flows, drips or dries. I do my best to eliminate the coincidences in order to reconstruct the meaning of the true moment of being there on location.
HNJ: Your paintings bear witness to a melancholic atmosphere and the melancholy appears to me to be a source for the things you paint.
TH: My impression of Germans is that they are lonelier than we are. I spoke more about the feeling of being packed too closely together with other people. When you are forced to be too close to others physically, you start to form a certain intimate relationship to images in your mind. I do not know what the correct word is for this feeling, whether it is loneliness or melancholy. I certainly know that it is a strong feeling that I am trying to capture.
Translated by Alexandra Skwara.