Personal Tradition

Uli Sigg  VS  Peng Wei

Uli Sigg: I find your stones very interesting. I found very interesting how you prepare and how you do the process in your description.also the technique of yours is extremely skillful.I also understand you want to be part of the tradition,this is why the form including the calligraphy (with one exception) seems very important to you.I am interested in the question of how this stone relates to contemporeanity - or more to timelessness in your intention?Can there be no character,or one character only or why not?What exactly would be the place of your work in a collection like mine?
Peng Wei: About those Stones, I cannot but honestly tell you that, when I paint stones or any other work of mine, I have never attempted to be traditional or contemporary. I haven’t made any kind of choice. As you know, I paint works one after the other, never exhibiting or selling them. This always sprang from my delight in this process of painting and my indulgence in technique. Stones were truly the beginning of my artistic road. From them, I found my own language and a technique that was different from traditional Chinese painting and different from other artists. I discovered that I could use this technique to alter the stones. Traditional Chinese things such as these have been painted by countless people, but this alteration is very personal, very present. For me, the present is not only the process of painting a stone from the first stroke to the last. Once a work is complete, it is past.

However, from 2001 to 2010, I continually departed from the stones and returned to them. In those ten years, I’ve seen changes, and stones are the same way, but the stones seem to look like me, and at the same time, they are slowly changing. I think this is extremely interesting. I discovered that stones are old things that I can paint outside of my other series. For me, painting stones is like recharging a battery. When I have worked on a series until I am very familiar with it and my enthusiasm has waned, I return to the stones, and they give me new enthusiasm.

I think that contemporariness has a different meaning for every person who takes art seriously. But this term is certainly not a set limit or an art form, such as video, installation, painting, or photography. Contemporariness is not even a conceptual game. Contemporary art has been opened to any experience that has not been expressed before, but this experience can only be realized through an artist’s own artistic mode. Therefore, in my view, the privacy of these stones is contemporary. Even though others also paint, their narrative mode is not at all individual.

I really don’t know. What place do these things have in your collection? I am unable to explain this for you. Only you can know.

But I also want to know,From a Western perspective, what exactly is contemporary art? When one paints stones in the traditional Chinese manner, does it appear to Westerners as a repetition and continuation of tradition? Does this repetition oppose the core values of Western contemporary art? Overall, do you think that contemporary art that is entirely consistent with that of the West is impossible in China?

This is what I think:

First, Chinese contemporary art can be, and has already been, Sinicized. Indeed, Chinese contemporary art has carried on as before, attempting to follow Western logic, but it has been self-consciously Sinicized nevertheless. Thus, the Chinese contemporary art you collect is in fact the contemporary art of China, and not of The West.

Second, among Chinese-style contemporary arts, ink painting is a genre that does not exist in the West. However, ink painting possesses a few similarities to the latest in Western painting; it is becoming more personal, not oriented towards a particular school. It no longer follows the logical formulas of Modernism and Postmodernism, but combines the resources of every past era, including the classical period, to elicit a variety of responses, but not feelings of nostalgia. Finally, it emphasizes the sensations of the body and movement without regard for concepts and theories; it is not only a brush and ink game in the traditional Chinese sense. Meanwhile, classical designs have become symbols, not just brush and ink systems, and entered today’s Chinese ink paintings.

Third, you must already know that China’s respect for and practice of tradition was interrupted during the 1970s and 1980s. In the search for the new, abstract ink paintings appeared. After the rise of contemporary art in the mid-1980s, from new literati paintings to the ink paintings made by young people today, the most sensitive and revolutionary artwork was not made in the continued pursuit of the new. Rather, this work was a reconnection with tradition, a return to classical sources. Therefore, compared to paintings from 1920 to 1980, Chinese paintings made in the last twenty years that imitate classical style are considered innovative. The most radical of these works, including my stones and painted garments, are categorized by Chinese society as contemporary art, rather than as traditional Chinese painting.
Fourth, this phenomenon reveals an internal paradox. Why are there still young people who continue to paint classical designs in a culture that has long been separated, and even cut off from, its traditions? How does this happen in the context of attempting to Westernize and modernize? This question in itself is a contemporary phenomenon. I emphasize classical designs because, when a Ming dynasty artist paints stones, it is the embodiment of a series of spiritual metaphors, a personal proclamation. When, in the 21st century, young Chinese people paint stones, they completely ignore those spiritual symbols, and focus on the painterly and playful aspects of the medium. In other words, ancient people painted the meaning behind the stones, whereas I paint the form of the stones on paper. 

Fifth, you have touched upon a key question, that of inscriptions. In ancient times, inscriptions were part of the meaning of an artwork, but I turned them into components of my designs, cancelling their meaning. They are undecipherable. I even invented inscriptions on slips of paper, and then mounted them onto the rice paper. In ancient times, this was not permitted; it was an offense. However, to Westerners, inscriptions have become questions; they are required to be understood, but they cannot be. Thus, an inscription is superfluous, yet still appears important. But I should tell you, ancient people would also feel alienated by my stones and the inscriptions; they would also be unable to decipher them. Furthermore, what I write in the inscriptions has no relation to the stones. They are not even sentences; they are only words.
Sixth, I believe this is why my stones can be given a contemporary value. The stones are a past style that proves the present. They are deprived of all classical implications, leaving only designs to be transformed into a kind of historical memory. They remove cultural meanings and thus gain the possibility of a new culture. I know that there was a movement in the West named La Pittura Colta during the 1980s and 1990s. The movement spread all over Europe and America, fusing widespread influences ranging from Caravaggio to Poussin, but this movement was even more original than abstract paintings around the time of World War II. I would also be happy to share with you a Chinese experience. Why is Dong Qichang so important in Chinese ink painting? Because his work in the 17th century completely involves art from the Five Dynasties of the 9th century, the Northern Song Dynasty of the 10th century, and the Yuan Dynasty of the 12th century. This made him the most avant-garde Chinese contemporary artist in the 17th century.    

Seventh, I believe that this is an established historical context. The Chinese are possibly more “advanced” than Westerners, in that the Chinese are more consciously learning from classical sources in a consistent manner, searching for new changes. These changes have been confirmed by the various motivations behind Western Postmodern art in the 20th century. This is also why so many Cultural Revolution-era symbols are found in Chinese contemporary oil paintings, and why so many ancient symbols appear in contemporary ink paintings. I do not want to prove my contemporariness, because the concept of the term “contemporary art” came from the West. However, I do want to prove that Chinese ink paintings are games with established rules. In particular, I want to show how Chinese people’s concepts of time, the past, and the present are different from those of Westerners. Among ancient Chinese painters there existed a very philosophical turn of phrase, “I loathe that I cannot behold the ancients, and I loathe that the ancients cannot behold me.”  
I hope very much that you understand what I mean; I further hope that you will come back with even more interesting questions. I am happy to respond to your letters, because much of my inspiration has also come from the West. I suddenly think of one quotation: The true understanding is up to the dialogue, and the sensitivity to the consciousness of past and what is happening now.
True understanding relies on dialogue and a sensitivity to past consciousness and current events
In these ten years, I have used more than 300 pieces of paper to paint stones. Because of the exhibition you’re looking at, Reshaping History, I pulled them all out and rigorously selected from among them. I think that there were nearly 15 successful ones. A few didn’t have inscriptions. If you don’t like inscriptions, they can be left off. However, when I see people in the exhibition trying to decipher my inscriptions, I’m always especially excited. These kinds of tricks are a lot of fun.
Uli Sigg: I appreciate this kind of discussion and need it for my decisions.I understood from you that your rocks are actually experimental art within Chinese painting (I should have used the word experimental,not contemporary in our discussion) and could then also judge with my own art thinking .as such they would have a place in my collection,as an enlargement or enrichment.and of course they are beautiful paintings which also helps.and your artist personality is also important to me.this is an important aspect for my collecting when I must make decisions.In my collections,I don’t care of good or less good too much,I care of whether the work break or resist certain rules and traditions.Whether it build something?I hope you can understand my thinking.

if there is anything useful about my questions it is only that they come to you at the right seems all this clarity in your thoughts and feelings has been there all the time under a thin surface you just needed someone to have you brush that aside yourself.acttually you have a deep knowledge about art creation .You have given me such clear description of your inner painting self and how it was and is makes your current position so interesting (particularly for the stones!).there your inner impulse and flow to give form seems to me represented the purest and this attracts me most,probably because I do not have any of that..actually I am proud about my decision to collect your work sensing your art before I knew so much about it - but now this knowledge greatly enriches my experience with it.

What will be so interesting to see is how the virus of my questions will affect your work direction,if at all.
You point out so well the difference in eastern and western thinking.I stll have many western questions to you,there is no limit to my desire of understanding.
Peng Wei: Our discussion really let me think lot.I never met a collector who gives me such happy and inspirational experience pushing me to say something and do something.

When you talked about breaking or resisting certain rules and traditions, I thought that perhaps a wall already exists in your mind. This wall marks the boundary between the contemporary and the traditional. For Westerners, perhaps this wall is the idea that the contemporary must break certain traditional, existing rules, or push something forward. But how does this breakthrough occur? How do you think it happens? Is it through content, form, method, or technique, or is it the synthesis of all of these elements? 

The word “resistance” is almost non-existent in my being, because it seems that I don’t have this wall in my mind; I don’t have a boundary between the traditional and the contemporary. I don’t have this definition in me. For me, the question is, what approach can I use best or what can best help me arrive at my destination. For example, Cai Guoqiang sets off gunpowder, but he can’t paint works in oil like Liu Xiaodong. Every artist yearns to break boundaries or cast off certain pre-existing restrictions, but often the result of these breakthroughs is the discovery of a boundary. So, you must return to those boundaries and begin again. 

In addition to surpassing traditional Chinese painting, I have done some other experiments, but, as a result, I discovered that what I do best and what best develops my talents is still traditional Chinese painting. Sometimes, certain rules and limits of traditional Chinese painting make my work take on characteristics that other people are unable to replicate. These limits can be a technical maturity or individuality; they could also be parodies or games of the rules of traditional Chinese painting.
There is a high wall between the contemporary and the traditional, as between the East and the West. The wall seems to be clearly visible, but it is hard to describe accurately. Some people can naturally pass through this wall, but some run into it until they are bruised and bloody.
What artists do every day in their studios is build walls. As you said, artists all yearn to smash something and develop something, but their final goal is to establish something.
We have overturned one wall, and gone to build another, hoping that other people will be unable to scale this new one.

The most successful wall builders I have ever seen are Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. Today, we are almost unable to scale the walls they built. What we do just seems to be continually plastering these two walls, making them thicker and more solid. Who can say that his installation surpasses Duchamp’s urinal? And the increased contact between business and art makes Andy Warhol ever more relevant.

However, in my view, the most interesting things in art are not limited to these things. What I think is most interesting are questions such as, what kind of wall will stand for centuries? What supports these walls, so that later generations can worship and remember them? Also, why has the mark of those who have painted or reinforced existing walls either disappeared or become preserved? I think that most artists nowadays belong to this latter category of wall painters.

I often think of this issue when I enter a museum or flip through a catalogue. It is because of this that I like some works whose names I can’t pronounce or those without titles. Perhaps it was the sincerity of the work’s tone, or a certain technical exquisiteness, or the humor of an idea. Sometimes, the artists who make these kinds of works greatly inspire me, even if they do not advance an idea and are not recognized by history.

I also often think that perhaps sometimes I have an excessive obsession with technique; I focus too much on detailed changes, and forget conceptual development. But sometimes, my experience as a viewer tells me that technique and concept very much complement each other or that technique can overcome the high wall that concept builds, becoming a symbol of yours that no one can change.

In the same way, I seldom like Chinese contemporary ink painting. While I have always respected experimental creations, these attempts are distant from ink painting.

In my eyes, the hard work of contemporary ink painters has a certain meaning, but this meaning may be very localized, transient, and superficial. The tools that they use are so readable; they are the materials of traditional Chinese painting and the concepts of the West. Their intention to break tradition is so obvious, to the point that they simplify the definition of tradition, which becomes monotonously unified. They have imagined tradition as an enemy, so they must break through it again.

In my eyes, there is no unified artistic concept; there are only personal concepts. Tradition is private and not to be found in a textbook. It is living, and still slowly developing; it is not past and lifeless.

Therefore, I very much admire certain works by Ai Weiwei, Xu Bing, and other artists. In the Republican period, there was a famous saying in China, “Chinese learning as the essence, Western learning for practical use.” The work of these artists has pushed this idea forward or changed it. Their works are “Western learning as the essence, Chinese learning for practical use.” But in my view, this principle is true of the work of many contemporary Chinese artists. So, why are they the only ones who have been successful on an international scale and caused such admiration in me? I think it’s because they work with “essence” and “practical use” so uniquely, such that there need not be any clear interpretation of their work. I once saw some of Xu Bing’s earliest Books from the Sky; he cut the blocks himself. I was immediately drawn to them for their handmade beauty. Many of Ai Weiwei’s works are like this; I very much like his clever carpenter. In certain works of theirs, the concepts of “essence” and “practical use” are used so freely.   

In writing these things down, I find myself always intentionally evading directly explaining my work to you. That day, you asked me a question about ambition. Every time someone asks this question, I get a little shy. I immediately think of artists that I admire and what I am doing now. My works are so far from the high walls that I see.

I am truly too lazy to explain my work to people, so I avoid doing it; I voluntarily renounce the right to explain my work. Does truly good art, or as you have said, art that advances something, really need the artist to explain it?

Therefore, every time people ask me why I paint like this, I am perplexed and ashamed; I think that the reason they ask is because my work isn’t good enough.

When I see my own work, sometimes I am very happy and sometimes I think the pieces not worth anything. My works seem very distant from my ambition.

But I think I’ve already said too much; when I reread these thoughts in a few years time, I might laugh at myself. But I think that I should write them to you because it is our discussions that trigger the desire to share my thoughts. There has never been a previous collector or even a curator who with whom I shared my thoughts so freely and happily. I think that it’s your sincere and sensitive powers of perception and the interesting differences in our opinions that excite me. Also, I cannot help but admit that I like you and your wife very much. You both have the very pure, almost childlike qualities of curiosity, earnest energy, and a sensitive and natural sense of perception and influence based in intuition and the practical experience of age. 

I feel truly honored that my work has entered your collection. I was both surprised and very happy upon hearing the news. This has undoubtedly been a source of affirmation and encouragement for me.

For all Chinese contemporary artists, the collection that you have established has already become a high wall.

I'm honored that my work has entered your collection. I hope that my ink paintings can provide an added dimension to your collection. The collection that you have created has established a high wall for all Chinese contemporary artists.
In addition, I'm very happy that you have given me the opportunity to truly reflect on myself and express myself. I also hope to give you the same opportunity. I suppose that my confession is different from other self-explanations that you have obtained from Chinese artists. I should honestly tell you that Chinese artists do not only have opinions on what China should consider contemporary art. Obtaining different opinions is like collecting different works; they are more valuable and more interesting things for you. What do you think?
Uli Sigg: I am very happy about your long response,you are highly intelligent thinker,certainly now if not earlier!I am so happy my stupid questions can provoke so much clever thought in you and this will forever be part of your thought process and maybe in your least it will make your artist life a little bit more difficult...

Yes I have a wall in my mind,but am conscienscious about it,and it challenges my thinking and make it progress further.because art is also, but not only, about the human mind,and I agree there are many kinds of artmaking.there is art just flowing out of the artist personality without reflection.if the personality is deep enough an interesting work may result.other artists depend more on outside impulse and conscienscious (
尽责的,良心的)reflection,and an interesting work may questions are more to analyse the artist and the art,they are a provocation,they are not about good or bad art,they may not reflect my own judgment.but when to collect a work, which is not always my purpose in a discussion,then I am interested in an experimental kind of art.not because it is the best,but this is my interest is where can art go,not so much where art is..I do not have answers,just some assumptions about interest in this sense must be different from an artist's.I am a researcher.

Will be happy to continue our discussion because your thinking is very clear and said you never did it in the past,just did what the moment made you do and follow heart and I am curious if it is very easy to return to this or not,and if there is something good about it or rather not?

my last thought on this in response to you is that there is not just art,but good and less good,experimental and less experimental in every art discipline.the artist herself does not need to know when making it.but the collector must.
Peng Wei: You are a valuable interlocutor. I had never discussed these things with a collector before; I had never met a collector who truly gave me, a rather quiet artist, the opportunity to explain my work. Also, I have never met anyone who has such a passionate and honest approach to collecting.

I never thought that anyone would collect my art, because I don’t paint for collectors. For the majority of collectors, I am a marginal artist; I have a young woman’s face that does not look like that of an “artist.” I don’t belong to the contemporary world that they are accustomed to seeing, but I also don’t belong to tradition.

Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller divided artists into the sentimental and the simple. Sentimental artists shout at society, seeking redemption in art. Simple artists express themselves using innate and natural methods. I think that I belong to the latter group, but regardless of which kind of artist I am, we are all imprinted by our time.

You are a collector who is thus imprinted.

You said that what you care most about is the future of art, not necessarily the present. But what I care about is not art’s future or present; I’m more concerned with art’s past. For me, all past art is located in the present, which includes the wisdom, memory, sorrow, and reality present in old works. Past works do not obstruct my perception of fresh objects. They(fresh objects) are vital, free, and contain a special ability to forget and a certain blind longing. My interests in past works and fresh objects can coincide and effectively enter my creations; they can become reconciled in my paintings.

But I must reiterate that this all occurred to me after my works were completed. It is only your questions or a certain special exhibition that make me examine my works, asking “Am I special?”

“What is the future of art?”is a very Western question. From art’s past I see the Utopian ideals that Dada, led by Duchamp, brought to art. Andy Warhol brought them into reality, into business. But art history tells us that art is the eternal mirror of an era. At any given time, the era and the art will not understand themselves clearly. I suppose that when you wonder about the future of art, is it that you wonder about the uncertainty of the present?

I have personally experienced this unpredictability in the process of painting; I was outside predictability from the beginning. I only see, but do not know, that this stroke is followed by another stroke, and in the time that remains, I must be careful to supplement it with a few necessary strokes.

After the painting is finished, I can only pray to God that it is the way I wanted it. In short, an author may not be clear on what he is doing. I think that this is the difference between artists and craftsmen. 

People often ask me what I am going to paint next. I never have an answer; I just wait for my next step. I only know that I should keep painting, keep looking, avoid being influenced by popular styles,( because I cannot see their future), and by those who do not accept my work.

What is most precious is the eternal preservation of the earliest and most innocent and unknown creative state.
I could create complicated works on a larger scale and in greater numbers for museum exhibitions somewhere. Art has greatly changed due to exhibition spaces. However, I discovered that, when I plan to change my work, my work is what truly changes me. It is stronger than me. It always preserves what I think I’ve changed.

This is also why I like you so much, because you saw this from the start, and others didn’t. This is so strange and real. Xu Bing made works that increased in scale and number, but we are still talking about the Xu Bing who made the Books from the Sky. Zhang Huan is still the Zhang Huan whose body was covered in flies.

I still have much to write about your questions regarding how tradition has been transformed in me, but I discovered that perhaps because I so wanted to find you an answer, my explanation was unnatural and had to be left out. I can only tell you that I do not want to change tradition. I am looking for answers in tradition, but I discovered tradition in the process of this search, which allowed me to link experience and learning. The relationship between ancient painting and my painting is an imitative one, but also one that has changed over time. In other words, as I create a wall, I cross over it. The fortunate moment is that, when crossing the wall is both natural and graceful, a good work results.

Perhaps you have forgotten the time we met at UCCA. You told me, “You’ve succeeded.” I was very surprised, “What is success?” Is it that many people buy your work, your prices rise, or that your work is everywhere? If so, I haven’t clearly appreciated these things or paid attention to them, though I have not rejected them.

For me, success is the ability to use my work to support myself, and then continue to create. However, I do not rely on the works you like, even though people recognize them because they’re in your collection, but rather, I rely on the works that you don’t like. I don’t want people to say, “Hm! She’s a stone painter.” The paintings that you don’t like are a record of my interests at a certain stage. Moreover, once that interest has become exhausted, I stop.

You asked me what the advantages of the state of impulsively painting are. I think that its advantages lie in whether or not a blank piece of paper reflects my most direct and exuberant interests, and whether it is more important than reflecting thought or experience. Picasso said, “When I paint, I leave my mind outside. I can forget all thought, including things I explain to you. I start to paint, looking for an unknowable result, like fishing in a pond. All delight and attraction come from this unexpectedness. Whether the result is good or bad is not important, because it is nothing more than the waste of an afternoon or a sheet of paper.”

I admire all artists who can skillfully and faithfully fuse the influence of thought and reality. I admire artists who listen attentively to themselves. These two kinds of artists are sincere about art, which is the most important criterion for judging artists. Like Susan Sontag said, “Be serious. Never be cynical(cynicism), but this doesn’t preclude being funny.”

Now we should turn to your questions regarding tradition:

I have my own private tradition, a tradition that is woven from my experience of observation, but I should first introduce my experience of observation. Although I was born to a family of painters, my father most liked the Impressionist painting to which their generation was introduced. They read about the Impressionists in Western art books. Although he painted in the traditional Chinese style, he most admired traditional painting from around 1949, not true ancient Chinese painting. Until I went to university, the art education I had received was almost entirely Western. So, when I went to university and started to see classical Chinese painting, it was strange, fresh, and curious. I discovered that old Chinese painting was newer and more worthy than post-1949 Chinese painting, because it was more accessible.

The view of history expressed by ancient painting that has no agenda or doctrine. It makes history living, present, and one with me. When I look at these works, I’m not doing scholarly research; I’m browsing, like when I shop in a fashionable store. Ancient painting does not require that I understand it; I simply need to like or dislike it. Viewing ancient painting can be compared to you visiting a new city that you don’t understand, but immediately you are able to decide whether or not you like it, whether you can establish a relationship with it, and what kind of relationship that will be.

So this may not be the transformation about which you asked, but this is how my interests developed. When I become infatuated with a single design or a single object, I take from it directly, like when I buy fashionable clothing. When I wear a garment, it changes me, and I instantly change that garment.

Is this transformation difficult? I don’t know if it is; I only know that it happens very naturally. If I hadn’t chosen that “garment,” I wouldn’t have had a relationship with tradition. Therefore it can’t be considered a transformation. For me, tradition is defined, so I do not need to be conscious of that tradition.

In ancient China, there was a man called Bo Le who was very good at determining the quality of horses. When he judged a horse good, he was still unclear on the horse’s sex. My selection of traditional sources is like this.

This can be said to be an attitude towards life. Why are my paintings unrelated to the present? Why do they maintain a distance? I think it is because the present separates me from them. Contemporary art is already too fashionable; it has been explained too clearly. Presently, tradition and those old paintings have become a heresy, a strange thing.

I am willing to say that it is certainly the uniqueness of my mysterious China that guides me to naturally make this kind of choice. Chinese people have never asked the same direct questions that Westerners have. “Why? Who am I?

Where did I come from? Where am I going?” Chinese people walk directly towards the moments and things in front of them. This happened to my father and it’s happened to me.

Chinese people enjoy things; they do not inquire into things. This is also the reason why, landscape painting has become the largest specialty within traditional Chinese painting in the last thousand years.

It’s like the process of samsara in life, and then nirvana. I long for the process of samsara in painting and then the eventual nirvana. This is not an escape, but curiosity and fantasy about nirvana. I think that this is already close to meditation.

But in my view, what Duchamp did was very Zen. He used a Western way to visualize a partially Zen thought. He said that his best work was the time that he existed.

Duchamp and Andy Warhol did not debate with art and art history. They completely shook off the philosophy of art from the 18th and 19th centuries. This philosophy caused art to deviate from the truth. It is also, as you said, an issue of intuition or sincerity. I agree. Lastly, honesty is the most reliable standard for judging art.
Uli Sigg: You need a background or a design, such as a garment or a stone for example, to express your internal impulses. But why have you yet to use a car, a Gucci dress, or things like that in your work? I ask this, not because these modern things are necessarily better, but because of my interest in broader questions, such as why ancient things have a greater influence on you than these modern things. However, I recognize that you have been influenced by these two sets of things in different ways.
Peng Wei: Cars and Gucci dresses have only truly entered our lives in the last ten years. Actually, more than two decades ago, when I was 10, I often painted things like little cars and dresses. Today, these things have actually entered the daily lives of Chinese people, but at the time they were distant from us, distant to the point that they only existed in our imaginations. They represented modernity (the future), imagination (the West), and a certain longing, childlike and very primal. Twenty years ago, the average Chinese family was unable to imagine owning villas, cars, and beautiful, expensive Western dresses. But at that time, want forced us to obtain satisfaction from painting, just like 1980s Chinese art. You could see that there was so much longing for all things Western in the art of the time because the West was so distant. At that time, a few words from Western thought and art or a small picture made some people feel like they were finding rare treasures. It was immediately and endlessly imitated, utilized, elaborated, and even misused, in very Chinese ways. Many artists, such as Ai Weiwei and Zhang Xiaogang, and even a traditional Chinese ink painter like my father, all had a period of fervent longing for “modern” characteristics.  “Distance produces beauty.” This seems almost cliché today, but is it possible that this is still the case? Due to globalization, today we have the internet, passports, cars, and brand names. All Western things are attainable, but we see a different reality; countless Chinese contemporary artists are increasingly interested in collecting antiques. Creatively, these artists use traditional resources with increasing frequency. Of course, this is not simply a regression. I believe that this is because of distance and a certain longing, a similar distance and longing to the material want of the 1980s, which makes us produce very personal appeals for closeness.

After all, I was born and raised in China. After tasting Western food many times, what I miss most is still traditional food from when I was small. In China today, those local roadside snacks taste funny or have disappeared. 

Early on, I certainly thought about painting Western luxury goods from Gucci or Louis Vuitton into my work, but that was only a passing impulse; when this idea returned, I laughed at myself and that frivolous idea. Whether I am more imprinted by the ancient or the modern, I hope that these elements aren’t presented flippantly in my work, to the point that I work hard to avoid this kind of flippancy in my creative process.

But, this is not to say that I definitely won’t use these contemporary Western things in my art. Who can foresee that? Perhaps one day, I will actually paint a car or a Gucci dress.

But I know that I would paint them not just because the items are made by BMW, Gucci, or Louis Vuitton. It would also be because I found these things useful for deeper reasons, a kind of intrinsic connection and longing; these things would need to make me unable to resist and hope, or they would need to be very much like me.

Once the motivation for our creations has been considered in this way, we discover that that motivation is both pure and complicated and I think that’s a good thing. Simple, planned motivation produces only simple, superficial work.
I’ve seen luxury goods’ logos used to create works, and the majority of those works are created by very young artists. I don’t know why the majority of this stuff does not make me jealous. It’s like seeing rich Chinese women wearing Western brands. The brands wear them, and they aren’t more aristocratic for wearing expensive labels. However, I am still happy to see young artists making these works. If it continues, interesting works or individuals will certainly appear if their instincts are good enough.

Art is not a news report; although it has a relationship to reality, art is more closely related to the artist’s education. Perhaps, this self-education is what we call tradition, personalized tradition, truly specific to each artist. I am often asked about tradition, but tradition has been over-analyzed to the point that I find it nebulous. Compared with the word “tradition,” I think it is better to use “the past.” Countless pasts make up our present, but only this present is rich and authentic.  

Returning to my work, I think that although my paintings are not as rich as I would hope, they at least stem from self-education. They reflect choices rooted in my past viewing experience; at least they are not immature like my childhood drawings of dresses and cars.

I admit that there is certainly something in me that makes me reject “painting a Gucci dress.” On the surface, it looks like I always return to something that has vanished. In fact, whether clothing or stones, all these things arrived in my life, I didn’t need to go out in search of them. They arrived in a very special moment; because we lack a complete context for the past, these objects have lost a lot. At present, we clearly understand certain meanings (for example, the meanings of a stone for the human spirit), but these so-called meanings are already utterly different in our current context. I directly quoted these past images, and this places my work in a very delicate place. I don’t interpret; I don’t ask for their meanings, but I also know that refraining from interpretation is unacceptable. So I am often willing to have people explain them for me, the more the better; I accept all interpretations. Isn’t this more amusing than a “Gucci dress?”
Uli Sigg: I’ll be organizing a contemporary landscape exhibition next year at the Museum of Art Lucerne in Switzerland. Do you think that China’s rich tradition and conception of landscape can have an impact on or a life in contemporary artistic creation?
Peng Wei: China’s classical tradition of landscape is static, past tense, and one could even say dead, because the scholarly identity, lifestyle, and life philosophy of classical landscape painters is not present in modern artists. This tradition can’t become living. However, a contemporary artist using any material, concept, or method can still obtain inspiration, embezzle, or borrow from the infinite designs of the past, which causes classic designs to appear in contemporary art in a new way.

But it is unlikely that this will happen, or rather, it is hard to predict. After all, the cultural symbols of classical landscape designs are too clear and fixed. If a given design is used without changing materials or models, it is still only a copy of a classical landscape. But the usual appearance of classical landscape is too beautiful, with a value that is hard to approximate; it can be continually broken apart, transformed, enlarged, and altered. How the design is used must be decided by the kind of clever and practical methods a given artist uses to positively and creatively distort classical symbols.

This in itself is one of the intellectual games of contemporary art. The tradition of classical landscape is only one of the high-level bargaining chips in this game. Any Chinese artist can be presumed to have a natural cultural identity, using an unimaginable method to give classical tradition a new future, in order to prove that a cultural link and a new lease on life still exists and is still possible.

Any tradition is static. If it isn’t given new eyes and ideas, it is just tradition; it only belongs to the past. So what is important is not whether or not classical tradition has vitality, it is whether or not contemporary artists still have vitality.