We must salvage what remains of the past: Interview with Johnson Chang

The guru of avant-garde Chinese art in the Eighties and early Nineties talks now of a return to tradition


Five years ago, Tsong-zung Chang curated a show on Chinese art at the São Paõlo Bienale, and Political Pop was provided with a world stage.

It may come as a surprise, however, to learn that Political Pop has never really found an audience among the Chinese of the so-called “diaspora”, the highly successful communities scattered across South East Asia.

Mr Chang says, “The old rich in Hong Kong can’t stand the sight of Political Pop; my parents were quite shocked by it.” However, he goes on to say that it has now become a part of the fabric of Chinese culture, although “its language is no longer relevant”.

Surprisingly for someone who has been the most active exponent of the Chinese avant-garde (his 1996 exhibition in the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, “Reckoning with the Past” included no artists working in traditional techniques), Mr Chang now says, “I’ve always tried to wheel Chinese culture towards more traditional forms of cultural expression; that is my raison d’etre. I’m very keen on the new creative work but actively looking for a more traditional culture.” But Johnson Chang the realist admits, “Market forces are always rather stronger than one’s intentions.”

The reality is that the traditional (guohua) painting market had bottomed out in 1990 but has now recovered since collecting has gathered momentum in Mainland China. This type of work has, therefore, become more expensive in China than in Hong Kong.

“What is really worrying me,” says Mr Chang, “is art training. If you speak to oil painters in China today, ninety percent don’t know anything about guohua. Even when they do teach guohua, as in Beijing, the work still looks like Western painting; it doesn’t have the flavour of ink work.”

An example of ink painting which is clearly not Chinese in flavour, he believes, is, “guohua during the Cultural Revolution, when it was narrative-based, ideological and essentially Western.” This type of painting has transformed itself into the urban narrative ink painting you see today, loosely termed dushi renge (urban character).

Although it seems that is still possible to retain a Chinese flavour while employing Western techniques such as perspective and oil paints, and indeed add useful ingredients such as psychological expression, these are clearly not the issues for Mr Chang. “The reason I want to turn attention to a traditional medium is because I think it is an endangered species.”

The essence of monochrome guohua seems to confound European-style academic training. It is, according to Mr Chang, a craft which has been taken to the point of perfection and metamorphosed into art. It is for this reason, he believes, that it was regarded by the Chinese as superior to colour painting, because it is closer to the written character. “It makes art possible in real life while at the same time bringing to real life a vision of the sublime; but it never loses touch with reality”.

With reference to the academic art training schools in China, Mr Chang comments obliquely that the old apprenticeship of student to master prepared the novice for real life, even for the market place, whereas today’s art school students are conscious that they live in a make believe world. This is truer in China perhaps than anywhere else, since so many of the artists either rent studios and even living quarters in the Academies long after they have graduated, where they continue to produce work in a rarefied world.

But if there is to be a revival of guohua it is unlikely, Mr Chang believes, to come from Taiwan, despite the island’s strong and traditional education system. “I find the spirit of Taiwanese culture is not congenial to guohua, because the Taiwanese never rise above the ordinary. In China at least you can expect a genius to emerge out of Hangzhou or somewhere. The Zhejiang Academy in Hangzhou is the only one in China which does not demand that students of guohua first study Western oil painting”.

“The landscape on the Mainland is so much more conducive to guohua. In fact, the archetypal Chinese person is someone from Shandong province, righteous and upright, and closely tied to the land and culture. These people are not prone to affectation and, importantly, have clean hearts. This is not the case in Taiwan.”

Modern Chinese cities do not lend themselves to the traditional arts. They are fast moving, chaotic pockets of pollution, filled with brash corporate towers and bulldozed tracts of land where once there were traditional houses. The ancient Long Hua Pagoda in Shanghai is separated from its temple by a main road, with trucks practically brushing its exterior walls. Chang laments, “The way they have demolished buildings in the 1990s is really the saddest thing, because they had great opportunities to do something fantastic, just no imagination”, says Johnson Chang

However, even here there are the seeds of hope. In Shanghai the city temple, beside the ever popular Yu Garden, is filled with worshippers. In Chengdu, Du Fu’s Garden is crowded with visitors.

The educational art establishment can only do so much to rehabilitate a tradition. “The real work is in creating an environment which might inspire an artist to pursue the guohua path and this is down to government legislation and policy. With the political will so much harm can be reversed,” insists Mr Chang.

He is concerned that China is at a cultural crossroads and that its way of life might in one generation go the way of Ancient Egypt.

The understanding of something as simple as colour seems to have vanished from the built environment. Nowadays, chrome porticos jut out from multicoloured tower blocks, which remind Chang of Taiwan in the 1970s. “In the Ming period” he goes on, “colours were muted and the materials natural, and even in the Ching, despite the rich and varied palette, colour tones were tasteful. Today everything is at the very least a shade off and is therefore vulgar.” Red has been most abused: “Hong, guang, liang—red bright and luminescent—a Communist colour,” he muses.

So, Chang believes, as with the fine arts, why should we not preserve the architecture of the past and enjoy it in a contemporary way rather than change the built environment to make it contemporary.

In the crafts, he is considering organising a competition to encourage skills. He would like to see something develop along the lines of the Mengei movement in Japan at the end of the last century, so that people might hold the crafts and their traditional family home in as high esteem as the Japanese.

Mr Chang is also keen to see the wood block print revived, and indeed he has been busy adding to his own substantial holdings. Artists such as Li Hua (b.1948) and Stars Group artist, Ma Desheng (b.1952), now sell for thousands of dollars. The high prices, he feels, will deter potential collectors, and it will take a while to nurture the market, but he says he is interested for reasons other than commerce: “They are an important part of our cultural history and enjoy equal status with the other fine arts in our academies, so they are often high quality images.”

The secular order of Chinese culture, from the carpenter’s ruler with its lucky numbers to feng shui, is slowly being eroded, according to Mr Chang, and the situation is exacerbated by the dissolution of the extended family through the one child policy. In its place is something which has always been an anathema to Chinese people: nationalism masquerading as tong yi or unification.

There is no doubt that Mr Chang believes passionately that China worked well under the dynastic system, when it was governed by a mediator between man and God. “I’m more of a royalist than an imperialist, and I think it’s about time we had a woman at the helm, to put an end to all this macho, Three Gorges Dam-type, bravura. But I’m very suspicious of democratic reformers. China has had a century of such people and as a result we have plummeted to the depths.”

The Dynasties were also a time he believes, “When the regimes were obsessed with historical truth and intellectual integrity,” which is why he is delighted that there has been a revival of interest in Chen Ying ke, “a great twentieth-century etymologist and philologist.”

There is a glimmer of hope in the fast changing China of today. Young students are taking to guohua and learning to play traditional musical instruments which they perform in renovated tea houses. There are also a lot of students, Mr Chang assures me, who have “clean hearts and are learning classically metered poetry.” Perhaps from among them will emerge the new literati, or at least an appreciative audience for classical culture.

A view from the East/West

Western Modernism defined itself by breaking with the restrictions imposed by tradition. Have Chinese artists also renounced their artistic tradition? Our sister paper, the Journal des Arts asked three Chinese artists living in France whether the traditions of their ancestors still constitute a useful frame of reference for them.

Yan Pei-Ming proclaims himself still interested in Chinese art but says, “It has not developed as quickly as Western art”. He explains: “There are two kinds of artists in China. One is very conservative and extremely attached to tradition (brush and ink drawings, small landscapes), while the other is more contemporary—ink wash and mountain scenery do not satisfy him. There is a stable official kind of art and there is also something more avant-garde”. He quips: “Nowadays, if you want to launch a rocket, an abacus is not enough to calculate the speeds; you need a computer. Art like man himself or, indeed, trade, has become more international. There is no point in clinging to an unchanging pictorial tradition”.

Mr Yan admires the Tang period and declares himself a fan of the “magnificent Song landscapes”. What is he himself producing at the moment? “I am mainly painting landscapes and they are identifiably oriental: a cottage, a tree, a small lake, a mountain and sky. I also love pottery. I’ve tried making pottery portraits, but it’s very difficult. I need to go back to China and get some technical assistance”.

Zao Wou-Ki also emphasises the relative stagnation of Chinese art, claiming that “It has been in steady decline since the fifteenth century”. His special admiration is reserved for Chinese bronzes.

Huang Yong Ping makes no use of traditional forms or techniques, but says that his work is inspired by Taoist philosophy. His “Bridge” was shown last summer in the exhibition “Etre Nature” at the Fondation Cartier and consisted of nineteenth-century Japanese bronze dragons and toads which he mixed with live snakes and turtles. Mr Huang explained that in Chinese mythology, “the image of the serpent encircling the turtle represents harmony, the fusion between Yin and Yang which become the prime movers of the universe”. In its hybrid of Eastern art with Western conceptualism, it does, however, arouse memories of Orientalism.