Interview with Chen Ruo Bing by Liu Libin
L: (Liu Libin) Let"s start with your biography.
C: (Chen Ruo Bing) OK!
L: When did you start to learn to paint? Did you begin with writing or painting?
C: I started learning calligraphy when I was about eight years old. Because my parents were transferred back to the Academy of Art to teach in Hangzhou, I had exposure to art when I was very young.
L: Family of artists? Did they all teach painting?
C: Strictly speaking, we are not all artists. I was in a favorable position and enjoyed an artistic environment growing up. My father majored in oil painting and my mother majored in arts and crafts. They graduated from the Academy of Art in Zhejiang.
L: Were you exposed to Western shape painting at that time?
C: I did not learn Western painting when I was young. I was not very interested in shape training, especially the Western painting which was popular at that time. There were several painting and calligraphy teachers living in the teacher"s dormitory. Perhaps they influenced me to start learning calligraphy and poetry.
L: Well, it"s interesting! Whose copybook did you practice? Which kind of poetry did you learn? Classical or obscure? The obscure avant-garde poetry was popular at that time.
C: I had access to the obscure avant-garde poetry when I was about fifteen years old. I first read poems of the Tang and Song dynasties. Unlike many students of calligraphy, I did not begin with Yan style. I did not like the Ou style either. I started by learning to write the running script of Su Dongpo. Intermittently, I studied the calligraphy inscribed on steles of the Northern Dynasties.
L: You learned from a poet at the beginning. Su Dongpo wrote elegantly and naturally, while the calligraphy on the Northern Dynasties" steles was plain.
C: I liked both of them, elegance and plainness.
L: In Hangzhou the society was actively attempting to restore China"s dignity at that time. Did that influence you?
C: Generally speaking, I had little awareness of that activity.
L: You chose ancient art, poetry and calligraphy. Did you do this intentionally? Does it suit your temperament?
C: Maybe I did this subconsciously. I must have been influenced by the educational system and the expectations of my parents. It should be said that the Chinese were comparatively traditional in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Traditional was not necessarily conservative, it was mainstream.
L: Whose poetry do you like best?
C: The poetry of Li Bai and Li Qingzhao. They are good poets who are hard to come by. I tried to write "lvshi" when I was ten years old. I was affectionate, ambitious and curious about everything. In 1985 I lived alone for a half year. During the summer holiday, I went to Xinhua Bookstore and read many books about literature, aesthetics and philosophy. I stayed in the bookstore all day every day. Those days freed my mind and I learned a lot. I think it was very important to my growth.
L: What did you learn?
C: I read Chinese classics, of course, some Western aesthetics and philosophy.
L: You entered the ancient world like a traditional scholar when most intellectuals were looking to the future. Maybe you are empowered by an understanding of the past.
C: Maybe, from today"s point of view. Like a sponge, I was eager to absorb knowledge and ideas when I was fifteen years old. I did not have any idea of the "modern" at that time.
L: The most revolutionary people living in 1920s were most familiar with the traditions. Did you have any "revolutionary" inclinations at at that time?
C: I think we need to thoroughly appreciate our traditions. We have the ability to blaze new ideas only when we know the traditions.
L: One can be nourished by traditions?
C: From the point of view of an artist, tradition gives nutrition.
L: In the 1980s, artists in Hangzhou were striving to find a new language/style.
C: Yes. I often saw Gu Wenda walking on the campus. I did not understand his calligraphy.
L: I like what you wrote in your picture album about your understanding of art.
C: It is not poems, but notes. I do not like theory, so I record my feelings and thoughts.
L: Like other true artists, your creative process transcends reality and theories. In others words, art, by nature, defies definition. Your ideas come from your creations and reflections. You catch the meaning and forget the words.
L: You took the college entrance examination in 1988. Did you apply to the calligraphy program?
C: I did not want to take the examination of the Academy of Art, which was my parents" wish. I wanted to study literature, so I did not learn drawing and painting.
L: Maybe it was good for you. How did you prepare for the examination? Did you apply for the landscape major?
C: I decided to try to study Chinese landscape only one year before the college examination. Landscape painting is connected to classical poetry and calligraphy. Because of my calligraphic background, I was admitted. At that time the program enrolled four students every two years, and I ranked fourth.
L: Being at the bottom of the class motivated you to work hard. It is better that you did not choose the figure drawing program, because you would have been restricted to figurative painting. Landscape drawing was good ground work for your development.
C: Yes. The experience of landscape drawing was essential to my entire artistic life. Because of that, I did not lose my bearings when I studied abroad.
L: Was Mr. Lu (Lu Yanshao) the best landscape painter at that time?
C: He was the master. I observed him painting several times and I learned a lot from him.
L: Let"s talk about your experiences during those four years" study.
C: I stayed in the Academy of Art for only three years. During that period I lived in a leisurely way, but studied carefully. I learned a lot from Mr. Pan who developed a series of study systems. The most important thing I learned was the value of copying: copying enables a student to understand the minds of ancient men and to learn their techniques. We did not do it only for that reason. Our goal was to connect what we learned to sketching. Sketching is the beginning of creation.
L: Sketching provided you a spiritual connection with nature and methods to explore many ways of painting.
C: Unlike Western academic painting, Chinese landscape sketching requires more subjectivity. Observing is much more important than painting. The objective is to comprehend nature. From this point of view, Chinese landscape painting is an idealized creation in the mind of the artist. Sometimes we walk a long distance without finding a destination. However, the journey is not fruitless. Most things of value require patience and persistence.
L: You have experienced and remembered; a well-thought-out plan is deeply embedded in your mind.
C: Seeing without thinking is the truth.
L: Zen lays emphasis on understanding thoroughly. What do you think of that?
C: Although I do not understand Zen, I think I know what it means. Seeing does not necessarily mean rational understanding, but also comprehending with feelings.
L: Why did you abandon your studies?
C: After the event of 1989, the government proscribed that college graduates could not study abroad without first working in China for six years.
L: So you did not graduate?
L: It was difficult to go abroad.
C: I obtained countless seals in order to go abroad. I left China, at my own expense in March 1992.
L: Why did you choose Germany?
C: For no particular reason. It was a long story. However I had a half year of free time after I left the Academy of Art before I went abroad.
L: Did you stop creating art?
C: It was a golden half-year because I was able to create freely.
L: At home? Or in school?
C: At home, of course.
L: You began a process of introspection?
C: At that time my family was my studio.
L: It seemed that you gave free rein to your work. Did you question yourself? What did you paint?
C: Mainly ink paintings. Later I added some pigment to the paintings. The content of paintings was taken from stone rubbings of bas-relief sculpted on bricks and stones from Han Dynasty tombs. I also drew some big and small masks in ink.
L: Were they from the Han Dynasty as Li Xu said?
C: The themes of the paintings on brick relief were from the Han Dynasty. I combined my images with them, or recomposed them.
L: Which images? Visual or conceptual? What was the source of your Mask paintings?
C: The painting was built with forms.
L: Did you use forms to open space?
C: I never pay attention to perspective space. I am interested in creating free space.
L: It is interesting. Did the structure come from the composition of ancient brick reliefs or from landscape drawing?
C: I used some images of the brick relief to create my imagined space. I paid attention to the free forms of the Wei and Jin Dynasties.
L: Those forms were the sources of your pictures.
C: The composition of the forms resulted in the displacement of space.
L: Was time a factor?
C: Both time and space.
L: Good. Was it the relative static time of the Chinese style, or the dynamic time of Western style?
C: The two concepts are inseparable.
L: Were you exposed to Western painting?
C: I had seen photos. In the elective courses I took I created still-life paintings. I created some free style oil paintings, which have been lost, unfortunately.
L: It is interesting. Two different styles paved the way for your study abroad. Did you continue ink painting in Germany? Did they understand your paintings?
C: I was interested only in ink painting at that time.
L: What difficulties did you encounter there?
C: At that time, I was young and not afraid, but did not know how to function. I transferred to the Düsseldorf Academy of Art.
L: Düsseldorf is the center of contemporary art of Germany.
C: It is one of the important art centers now. It was very active in the 1960s and 1970s.
L: Did you meet your teacher there?
C: My teacher is Gotthard Graubner who was also a professor of Hamburg Art Academy. I met him in Hamburg. I asked to take his class at Düsseldorf Academy of Art, because the atmosphere was better there. I gave him my ink paintings when we first met.
L: What did he think of your "black-and-white paintings"? (For him, the ink painting may be the "black-and-white painting".)
C: They do call Chinese ink painting black-and-white painting. He said that no matter what happens, Chinese are Chinese and Germans are Germans. He is very straightforward.
L: You had met a good teacher.
L: So you began to use oils and pens.
C: That happened later. As soon as I got there, he gave me a place in the classroom to paint. At the beginning I continued to paint in ink. He did not speak to me during the first six months I was there. But he observed my behavior closely. Unexpectedly, he displayed my works with others" works in an exhibition. The exhibited works were ink paintings, 4 works 140cm by 140cm. Because of them, I was awarded a scholarship.
L: You began to distinguish yourself. In fact your work impressed them in the same way that their work impressed you. The difference was there were many Germans and few Chinese.
C: I thought I would have a difficult way to go. And external pressure came later. My teacher said: You may draw this way until you are sixty; however, you are here. Is it possible for you to find some material from the West to incorporate with your own art?
L: He was far-sighted. It was he who made you discover the West. You could not remain a stranger. What did he suggest to you then? Abandon the way you were accustomed to paint?
C: He did not give any specific instructions to me. I made the decisions by myself.
L: You were searching for a turning point.
C: I started trying other painting materials.
L: It is most likely to be abstract when changing materials.
C: But I asked myself whether it is possible to paint the same things using different materials?
L: You still wanted to work using forms from Chinese ink painting?
C: Yes, in the beginning, but then I found they were not available. After that I read a lot of books. I read some books about American abstract expressionist artists, especially the articles of Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman. Their works influenced me. There were many "art for art"s sake" discussions among my classmates.
L: Was it the beginning of your contact with Western art system? Did you have any reason to choose abstract expressionism?
C: I never had an interest in academic realism, so I chose the pure abstract way of minimalism spontaneously and gave it a try. I read many books during that period. After knowing some modern Western artists" views of art, I found, the core ideas of contemporary Western art were not too different from the spirit of traditional Chinese art. After all, art cannot be divorced from concern about human conditions and human aspirations. I realized the art of the East and the West were not opposite to each other. Although I was not clear about how to proceed, I seemed to have a direction.
L: You had to begin with imitation to find your way. How long did it take?
C: I drew many abstract paintings, some were experimental and purely geometric and some contained images. I even tried sculpture. This phase lasted for more than four years.
L: Very long.
C: Yes. Initially, I felt I had no future. After experiencing failure many times, I returned to the creative style of Wei and Jin Dynasties.
L: The work you created during the free period before you went to abroad became important after you found your way.
C: The drafts that I painted freely appeared.
L: You used the drafts to present a living state?
L: You found the content from life.
C: The content was the living state.
L: It was an desire for a kind of living state. Did your creativity develop during those four years?
C: Yes. I recollected after four years. The stories and experiences gave me insights.
L: This sudden change must have established your confidence.
C: Without searching during those years, it would have been impossible for me to look back now. After the comprehension of style, I perceived the colors.
L: What was the interval between these two comprehensions?
C: It was probably one year, between 1996 and 1997.
L: The gate to the color welcomed you warmly? Was your former use of ink an obstacle?
C: I am always interested in color. I even cherish my desire of color. Initially I made some attempts, but I could not find the right direction. I believed that it would appear one day if it belonged to me. I had never studied color theoretically. Color is a kind of phenomenon, which is without limits. Ink and the so-called color should not be confrontational because ink is a kind of color. "Color" is a deep concept.
L: The color in your recent works is subtle. You know what you will do when you are painting after the two breakthroughs.
C: I find the painting feeling after the two breakthroughs.
L: You come into working state?
C: I really strode into art at that time. It was in 1997. Therefore I formally published works from 1997. I did not paint too much. I emphasized the feeling I had in the painting process, not the quantity of paintings.
L: The importance is achieving the right creative feeling, not speed.
C: I used to paint in a comparative gray color. After 1999, my works started to diversify.
L: You began to talk with your works. (I feel it from your picture. )
C: They are my "children".
L: Your paintings are elegant.
C: The paintings were small at that time. I held an exhibition in Paris in 1999, called The Red in Winter. Another breakthrough happened in 2000 when I went to America.
L: You received the visiting artist award from the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. It was an opportunity to paint in America.
C: The chance to go to America was very important. I deliberately chose to go there in autumn. The foundation is located in a forest in northern Connecticut State. The autumn there is called "Indian Summer". The forest was a natural haven and wild deer lived there. The forest was green when I arrived, then it turned yellow, red, dark red and then the leaves fell. It snowed heavily before I left. I was absorbed in the beauty of the nature.
L: You really become the character of Wei and Jin Dynasty. At the end of 2000, you had another chance to stay alone. It had been fifteen years since 1985.
C: I created nearly 30 works in that year.
L: All things were in the right place to facilitate your success.
C: After returning to Europe, I had my second exhibition named Color Walked In, in which the colors in my works got bright and elemental. Ultimately, colors and shapes determine a painting.
L: It makes me think of Han Dynasty clay figures.
C: Actually, I usually choose two basic colors when drawing. The relationship between them plays an important role in the painting. I am certain that the painting process is related to the practice of calligraphy.
L: So that you can maintain a constrained rhythm.
C: Controls are needed to mediate a subtle relationship between color and shape, but accidents are more important. I often rely on my intuition to choose colors. And the Yunran technique surfaced from my studies in Hangzhou. Now I used it in oil painting.
L: I can feel in your paintings that you are careful not to let others influence your thinking.
C: I like solitude. Maybe it is my habit, and it is necessary for artistic creation.
L: This creative process also shapes your lifestyle. You deliberately maintain a delicate relationship with the outside world.
C: It is my most happy moment to perceive luster the first time I look at a painting. And the splendor must be dazzling.
L: That is the conversation and understanding between your heart and your painting.
C: Sensitivity is indispensable to artists. I wish to solidify an instantaneous moment in my pictures. The picture comes into independence when it shines and has a life of its own.
L: Yes. The moment your eyes touch it, the painting becomes your world.
C: Dynamic and static are relative. And so are the distance in space and the length in time.
L: We can observe it, but we need to calm down.
C: Yeah. It takes time to look at a painting. When you look at a painting, it looks at you as well. Drawings challenge viewers; they test the views" perceptual abilities.
L: Only when art comes into its own, does quality have its meaning.
C: Abstract artists shoulder social responsibility in their creative process because their works directly or indirectly affect the spiritual life of the artistic audience. Careful thinking is required.
L: Yes. You are supporting an another taste in art. Many artists in China only know to P K (Play Killer) to show themselves. Your attitude about art benefits people. There is no appreciation, only indulgence in China, for China does not have a well-functioning aristocracy. So I think that the existence of abstract painting must be related to the people"s daily life.
L: You returned to Germany in 2000.
C: Yes.L: What was your career plan then？
C: I felt free to paint when the gate to colors opened once again. Artists surely must look into themselves when going from one process to another. Sometimes it takes long time to reflect, and the artist may create nothing at all. The whole process is one that fluctuates from suspicion to affirmation and then goes from affirmation to suspicion. If an artist is a serious, this process is perpetual.
L: So did your teacher approve of you?
C: If he said nothing, he approved.
L: Yes. And were your works accepted by the German art world?
C: They were accepted gradually in 1998. I returned to Asia at the beginning of 2003 and had an exhibition in Japan. I had my first appearance in China in 2004, when I participated in the Shanghai Art Fair. And in 2005, I was invited by Shanghai Art Museum to attend the Metaphysics 2005-Black and White group exhibition. But generally speaking, it was difficult for the audience at home to accept my works. People had their own preferences and expectations when they went to see the art. They found my works intellectually challenging. If they were able to put aside the need for a rational explanation, and allow themselves to sense the work, gradually they might experience the warmth, beauty and meaning of the painting.
L: I think so.
C: One-to-one communication and one-to-one care. And that is what a painting can give to people. As an artist, I hope to do my work well continually. There is no way to "create " artists and their works. The Chinese people must rediscover this concept slowly.
L: Right, I agree.
C: I always try to keep clear, which is to find the useless things and throw them away.
L: If you stow useless things, you become old. However, your habit keeps you young.
C: When looking at my works, it is wise to evaluate them as others might. Judge them harshly. This is a good method to self evaluate. Only in this way, I am able to part with the bad works.
L: (Smile) It is not easy for parents to discipline their children.
C: I learn from comparison, my works with works of my own and with work of others. Attitudes and judgments of art change with time, but the work itself never changes.
L: Toast the moon. The moon is very bright in Beijing today !
C: Art is art.