Shared Rhetoric: A Dialogue between Wang Tuo and Vajiko Chachkhiani

Wang Tuo currently lives and works in Beijing. He employs various mediums and a process that combines interview, reality show and the theatre of absurdity to construct a maze of melodrama, thus examine the unreliable relationship between the contemporary human status, myth and cultural archive.

Vajiko Chachkhiani (b. 1985 in Tbilisi, Georgia) lives and works in Berlin and Tbilisi. Chachkhiani’s work includes films, sculptures, performances, photographs, and large-scale installations. In his work, he seeks to address psychological conditions such as loneliness, violence, and angst, weaving them with topics from religion, politics, literature, and poetry.

Wang Tuo, Wailing Requiem, 2021, two-channel 4K Video, color, sound, 30 minutes
Courtesy the artist and WHITE SPACE

Vajiko Chachkhiani, Shivering Heart, 2018, single channel 2K video, color, sound, 10 minutes 7 seconds
Courtesy the artist and WHITE SPACE

In their respective long-term practices, the artists Wang Tuo and Vajiko Chachkhiani both focus on the microscopic traumatic experiences of a specific subject that speaks cryptically for a particular history. In their artistic expression, reconstructed life experiences synergize with concern for the structural issues and the suspended matters of history that lie behind the rhetorical curtain, and which are intertwined with scenes of violence, mourning, and surreally tinted day-to-day life. In the following dialogue Tuo and Vajiko explore the underlying logic of reconstructing individual experiences with historical doubts, a strategy that could touch on larger political-historical-geographic structures. They have been attempting to apply such comprehension of “shared rhetoric” to the treatment of a variety of figurative and abstract materials (including archives) in their work, with the aim of releasing the aura of historical objects and allowing them to be projected onto the most urgent local and universal issues of the very moment.

Wang Tuo: I’ve been interested in retrospecting a broader relationship, for instance between the individual and the state, through an internal one, such as kinship within a family framework. This pairing suggests a rhetorical relationship: the ontology is the individual and the state, and the metaphor is kinship. The emergence of this rhetoric is not arbitrary but inherent in our culture: a device for understanding an abstract relationship from a concrete personal life experience, a biological instinct to arrive at an informed ideology. Ultimately, and imperceptibly, this device performs its actual function, which has been implicit from the beginning: domination. For example, motherhood is the rhetoric for the motherland, or sometimes the state is personified as the family. If everything is political, can you help us unravel the rhetoric of matricide and Oedipus complex or the intricate manifestations of intimate emotions within the family structure that keep appearing in your work?

Wang Tuo, Smoke and Fire, 2018, single channel 4K video, color, sound, 31 minutes 18 seconds
Courtesy the artist and WHITE SPACE

Vajiko Chachkhiani: I believe that everything is political, to avoid or hide out from politics is a political act too, and an individual is a bio-psycho-social being. As mentioned in your question, state and family both are structures, let’s say macro and micro, and I believe these systems share many principles and functions. From my understanding, there is a main difference in the core of both structures: The family system’s primary principle is an emotional sentiment. Any political or social decision within the family structure is digested within the emotional framework. The state structure is based on constitution and regulation, and there is no space for emotional sentiments, it is purely technical. Some principles are based on morality, with origins in religion.

To break down the theme in a simple way: in the state structure, there are no bad or good parents, just parents who obey the law and parents who do not. In between the laws and principles of both family and state structures, there are shadows and peripheral areas. I see the protagonists of my films navigating in those areas. In the world that I try to build, the rhetoric of matricide is reversed. Women take responsibility. Sometimes they kill, and sometimes they are violent. But there are always intense emotional and psychological preconditions in any action they take. The actions serve as their urge for “historical revenge.”

 I will try to explain the term “historical revenge.”

Let’s look back at the history of Georgia during the 1990s: after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia became independent, which was followed by economic collapse, civil war, and invasion by Russia, who annexed strategically essential western territories of the country. As when any other doctrine collapses, the generations who live through this process are doomed and lost. Most of the families were left without economic and other vital resources. That was a point when somebody from the family had to take responsibility and act. Maybe men were too adapted to the Soviet state’s principles, and therefore did not know how to act. In the end I witnessed women––mothers and grandmothers––taking responsibility, taking action to ensure that their families got through this harsh period in history. This was a heroic action that remained invisible.

Wang Tuo, Distorting Words, 2019, three-channel 4K video, color, sound, 24 minutes 38 seconds
Courtesy the artist and WHITE SPACE

In my artistic practice, women protagonists, most of the time mothers, are tired of empirical injustice in the family structure, in the state, and in the educational system. Any act from them is political, even most personal, emotional decisions they make within the family framework, because they try to modify history in order to reveal cracks in the present life of family, state, and so on, while men protagonists try to erase history and liberate themselves from it.

These are the questions that haunt me, and I try to understand them. The difference between modification of history, meaning analysis, and understanding the empirical impact on life. Or the possibility of erasing history in order to liberate the individual from their personal and collective memory.

These are the questions that motivate me to understand the dynamics of history and individuals. Trying to understand these questions through a family prism that resides in a bigger structure, the state.

Vajiko Chachkhiani, Cotton Candy, 2018, single channel 2K video, color, sound, 13 minutes 42 seconds
Courtesy the artist and WHITE SPACE

WT: In many of your works, you don’t present historical facts so much as personal memories that reveal a vast and overshadowing history, their compelling presence disregarding the spectator’s experience or knowledge background. For me, the ultimate return to the individual is genuine authenticity. A scholar once said that true interculturalism is not located between cultures but is a universality that can be shared within a single culture. He identified universality in the protracted confrontation between the people of Okinawa and American troops stationed in Japan in the 1970s. During the Vietnam War, Okinawans stormed local U.S. airfields for reasons that included the universality of struggle: that is, my struggles are in yours, and if the Okinawan people could stop U.S. military planes from taking off for even one day, that was one more day the guerrillas in Vietnam had to prepare for resistance. For me, this principle of universality is a critical reference for creating meaning. When I look at your work, our memories will corroborate our experiences. I know little about Georgia’s history and recently looked it up to write this questionnaire. I see something familiar in Georgia’s handling of its trilateral relationship with the U.S. and Russia. In other words, your practice based on Georgia’s unique geopolitics in the post-Cold War era inspires an understanding of future situations, and perhaps this is a common problem we face.

Wang Tuo, Tungus, 2021, single channel 4K video, color, sound, 66 minutes
Courtesy the artist and WHITE SPACE

VC: Georgia is a periphery in the global political economy, because of its geopolitical location and size. Historically Georgia was a transit hub between Asia and Europe. Afterwards it was part of the Russian empire, and later still of the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1989, the strategically important Abkhazia region was occupied by Russia. The Georgian government was still under Russian patronage, but in 2003 came the Rose Revolution. The new National Movement – Democrats became the leading party. The new government was more closely allied to the U.S. than to Russia. This was the first occasion Georgia tried to cut ties with Russia, but it caused another war, in 2008, and another Georgian territory, South Ossetia, to be occupied. Recent history has resulted in a generation in constant fear of conflict.

 I think the geopolitical location of Georgia does affect my work. Recent instability and the country’s transitional nature informed my point of view. In my practice, the transitional and/or performative aspect of sculpture is important. For instance, in my work Living Dog among Dead Lions [2017], it is constantly raining inside a house, permanently changing and deforming the interior. The piece is constantly transforming and for me works as a rite of passage, the transitional moment in an individual’s inner life. I am interested in the themes of fear, violence, death, life, and they originate in my observation of recent history. On the one hand, as a kid, I was a silent witness of instability, violence, and so on, but I also felt intense emotions, love. In dark times, family and neighborhood function differently––they are more united, and because of the contrast with what is happening, positive feelings are more intense than in normal times.

I think my observation of these two counterpoints––violence and love, fear and unity, cruelty and poetics––comes from personal experience. And in my practice I try to integrate these two opposing points.

In general I have an interest in the peripheries, whether of the psyche, history, or the global political economy. I think peripheries have a charm similar to that of an individual who is charming without realizing it, which makes them even more charming. When I travel around Georgia and look for a material, I see so much raw material that has been witness to a long history, and I can just use this material, as it has been dumped in dark corners. My studio is full of objects of local history. Local can be universal. Any human-made system: culture, science, law. Religion is built on basic human needs. When characteristics of the local are respectfully unfolded and communicate a question through basic human needs, it is universal. You mentioned the quote of the scholar who said there is no need for multiculturalism in universality, and that locality is universality if the locality is organically unfolded.、

WT: I have a question that has haunted my practice over the years. When we deal with history as an object, how do we, as creators with a critical distance, shift our identity while reconstructing our relationship to it? What potential does such a relationship generate for the future in the changing reality of the present? You often adopt a romanticized way of dealing with history and personal memory in your work. This approach creates a way in for spectators by offering indescribable emotions without analysis, from which we experience emotions to access the legacy that another time and space have left us at this moment. However, in my creative process, I have found that many specific objects, emotions, or romanticizations are often my obstacles, perhaps because the embedded historical issues in particular objects are yet to inspire or enlighten, but are left unresolved in the present or even become more complicated at this moment from their accumulation over the years. The urgent presence makes any emotional approach seem to be an escape from reality or a softening of the conflict. Have you encountered similar situations in your work, and how do you balance emotion and reason? How do you deal with history in flux?

VC: The reason for my interest in objects is the aura of their history. An object is a silent witness of personal and collective history that records memories. We can feel this in the aura of the object and read the constant changes of history. Normally when I find an object I place it in my studio and live with it. I wait until I develop more feelings and then modify it. I try to not make something directly out of it in order to better understand what type of emotional oeuvre the object has. I think time helps to develop a certain emotion in the object, because the aura communicates its history, and offers specific emotional direction for the further phase of its life. 

I think that piece of art can cause an intellectual process. But the access point to the viewer is emotional intelligence, which can cause the analytical process of articulation. I believe that art cannot communicate new knowledge. I think it can offer a new articulation of already existing knowledge in the individual. The task of articulation is one of the main questions in my practice. Sometimes my ideas can be romantic, because of their emotional dimension. But hopefully there is always indirect criticism in them, and it balances reason and emotion. 

For me direct criticism is not art’s task; art can trigger analytical processes through emotional impact and form questions that contain criticism, as hidden and indirect as possible.

There is always a danger of getting lost because of emotional attachment to an object, that point when reason and emotion become separated. Because of one detail, the piece could lose integrity and unbalance reason and emotion.

It’s similar to when you like everything about a shot––mood, emotion, and strength of the image––but it still does not work. You have to edit that shot out because it does not work with the others. By taking it out you respect the integrity of the film and detach yourself from amazement over a particular shot or object.

WT: An absurd aspect presents itself in the disturbing relationships between the many characters in your films. In other words, the final solution always falls unexpectedly or with anticipation into the specific body of the structure, whether it is a house, a person, or a statue. The final exit points to a reliance on the concrete body as a means of resistance. The plot offers an unrealistic and alienating sense from the third-person perspective, as if viewed in a theater, and an extremely microcosmic impulse. It reminds me of the individual position vis-à-vis the invisible and helpless power system in which one resides; the only solution available to these souls haunted by memory and trauma is to regain life in a way that destroys it. What does violence or cruelty mean to you?

VC: Violence and cruelty are part of the present and past, and will be of the future too. Unfortunately, there is not a second without violence and cruelty. Protagonists in my films are inhabitants of the present day, they are the carriers or containers of endless information. They see violence on TV, in the media, etc. Nowadays they even watch wars in real time. The protagonists learn violence and cruelty. They represent people who see and witness violence. As a result they become violent, for there would not be any other way. For me the protagonists are symptoms, and they represent cracks in the value systems of society. They try to pose critical questions regarding the education system (with its wide understanding, including family, school, state, history, and so on).

Vajiko Chachkhiani, Heavy Metal Honey, 2018, single channel 2K video, color, sound, 14 minutes 14 seconds
Courtesy the artist and WHITE SPACE

I believe that when an individual is born, she/he does not have violence or cruelty in them. I believe the nature of human beings is not cruel, it is a property acquired in response to a violent and cruel reality. Lately I started to think about protagonists who would like to break free from the violence.

Even though my films have both real and unreal aspects, the problems the protagonists confront have been real and are sourced from the reality they dwell in. The question is: does the violent act improve life? I think it does not. Because violence most of the time causes absence, and the latter intensifies the presence of an absent figure, event or emotion. Take the father figure. The presence of a father figure and their effect on the psyche of an individual is intense and can cause damage rather than improve life. 

WT: Adopting a cinematic visual language and the logic of the medium to produce video works in the contemporary-art context offers the spectator a psychological hint of how to deconstruct the work. I have encountered some unexpected misunderstandings from time to time. On the one hand, one can exploit media momentum. On the other, I believe that the point of exploiting media is to destroy it without fulfilling the spectator’s expectations. That is, to use the language of cinema as an opportunity for the viewer to enter, but to convey an idea that lags in reception in an anti-cinematic way. What do you expect from the spectator’s viewing of your work? How would your approach and work be different from making videos if you had the opportunity to make a film in the traditional sense, given the idea you wish to express?

VC: My way of approaching exhibition-making is borrowed from the screenplay system. When I think of a show, two points are important for me: narration and catharsis. In the show, each sculptural element serves as a detail for furthering the dramaturgy, which culminates in a point of catharsis. In my practice, adoption of the dramatic system evolved on its own. First I used it in a three-dimensional way. Though I have made videos since I was a teenager, the urge to use narrative in the films came later. In 2017 I started to make narrative films (shorts); I felt that for the themes I’m trying to communicate, time-based media would be optimal. After working on several films, I still enjoy making artist films, but the urge to make conventional cinema grew over the time, and recently I have been working on my first feature film, BEES’ BUZZ. I am collaborating on the screenplay with Japanese writer Sakichi Saato. It is a suspense film about labourers. The movie starts as a social drama but evolves into a mystery. The story takes place in the west of Georgia, in a small miners’ town.

I have an interest in people’s life stories. In conversations I ask many questions regarding the backstory of an individual. Backstories of individuals suggest their actions, what actions they would make. Later I try to transform the backstory into a character. Cinema is a good tool for communicating characters and their backstories; their pasts suggest their futures. I find the possibilities of film multilayered and interesting to work in. Stage design, mood, environment, music, rhythm, film has so many properties that need to be synthesized to find the right pace. Using the environment as a mirror for showing the psychological condition of the protagonists fascinates me. An important filmmaker for me is Jacques Tourneur. In his film I Walked with a Zombie [1943] there is a sequence where protagonists walk in the forest. This is one of the most fascinating scenes for me, because the way the environment reveals the psychological condition of the character is very strong. It is important for me to communicate about people without them, to use environment, objects, burned forests, houses. This is what I do in sculpture, but in film I can have a character and use all the other properties of the film (environment, light, music, architecture and so on ) to show an emotional and/or psychological portrait of the protagonist.

VC: In your films, the synthesis of moving and still images, documentary, fiction, verbal narration, and music, along with many “counterpoints,” is harmonious and forms an uncanny world. Can you please elaborate on what kind of a world you intend to build in this process? Does the world you create have space for social and political critique?

WT: Although I adopt the language of film in my work, it is challenging for me to dive into it from a cinematic perspective. Each piece takes a long time, and sometimes my goal is vague, which brings many surprises. For me, this process is often like writing a novel. Sometimes I already know the end, but I have to go back and sort out the story; other times I have a vision and then I am pushed forward by an obsession with the unpredictable. Sometimes a thread requires several perspectives, and I realize that all paths cross where I stand. In many of my works, specific subjects are time and history, so I naturally adopt a nonlinear narrative from the get-go. At times I want to address the contradictions in reality through its dialectics and inferences in my work. At the same time, in other cases, it seemed more important to allow the contradictions to surface. At times, the structure’s beauty comes to the fore; at other times I am only concerned about whether there is anything to be said.

VC: In your practice, you juxtapose ancient tales and rituals with still images (historical) and moving documentary citations of tragedies. In your video works and especially in Smoke and Fire [2018] and Distorting Words [2019], the question of personal tragedy feels to me that it indirectly refers to the historical or empirical problem of power and the state, which modify history. In case of a personal tragedy, the state tries to label it as just a personal tragedy and does not allow it to become a collective one, which is a social problem and needs to be resolved systematically by the state. In your video works, I feel that personal tragedies are open and have potentials of being a collective one. What do personal and collective tragedies mean to you in both geopolitical and cultural context?

WT: I agree that, in many cases, individual tragedy and collective trauma suggest an interchanging origin. Even within an individual’s tragedy of a particular nature, it is often possible to abstract a universal, collectively shared narrative model, an abstraction that points like a dagger directly at the invisible system causing the event. For example, my work Symptomatic Silence of Complicit Forgetting [2019] addresses the scars of the times through the story of a writer haunted by a ghost. On the whole, it is a classic approach in the literature that draws connections from moments on the spatiotemporal trail based on causality, by which to trace the origin of things. But in my “The Northeast Tetrology” [a series of four films, including Smoke and Fire and Distorting Words, as well as Tungus, 2021, and Wailing Requiem, 2021], the idea was to narrate tragedy that transcends such grammar, with resonating signals flickering in the plot. The tragedy becomes an index and the first hurdle to jump over. The blurred connection between the deaths of Zhang Koukou, a migrant worker turned murderer in Smoke and Fire, and Guo Qinguang, a May Fourth martyr in Distorting Words, resonating a hundred years apart, is for me the new grammar. Zhang Koukou’s avenging his mother’s death and Guo Qinguang’s martyrdom are seemingly unrelated but share the same dark currents. Rather than presenting a narrative of tragedy, I am more concerned with the contradictory and complex experiences of their actions and the connection between the unseen objects (a set of concepts deliberately left blank in both works) they point to––the mother and the state. In reality, people are more interested in the relationship between the two. To a large extent, they are brainwashed to show ingrained emotions––an intuitive feeling for blood relatives as a substitute for the abstract notion of the state––converting relationships from blood relatives to state/subject, so that structural justice is accomplished through rhetoric. These two deaths do not ultimately point to individual tragedies or systemic atrocities, but to how we have been manipulated and exploited under this structure, often righteously. In a way, this attempt to feed the structural roots of reality through the filter of distorted history is dangerous, because it is difficult for such discussions to be practical for the viewer after the layers of obstruction and the author’s subjectivity in narrating factual history, which may escalate into an ethical issue at some point. Given the current conditions, it’s necessary to determine the role of the artist facing history, and my choice is to draw inspiration from history about the present, a process that is tantamount to merging the author and the historical subject into one, rather than discovering ways to recognize the historical experience and appropriating it for the present. Especially when confronted with other specific objects in the future, I think it is good to have such awareness.

Vajiko Chachkhiani, The Warm Winter Sun, 2022, single channel 4K video, color, sound, 18 minutes 7 seconds
Courtesy the artist and WHITE SPACE

VC: It is evident that you are deeply interested in history and politics. In Tungus I find interesting the form you choose to reflect on the historical dimension. The connection of military and spiritual reminded me of the myth/story of Joseph Beuys, healed by shamans after he was shot down over the Soviet Union while flying for Nazi Germany. What is meant by the term “Pan-shamanism,” and can you elaborate on how your practice connects historical and psychological conditions, military and spiritual dimensions, and how this affects your artistic practice?

WT: “Pan-shamanism” is not so much a self-generative concept as it is a device. It is not about actual shamans but the ways in which, like shamans, we adopt various vantage points in observing history and reality. On the research trip for Smoke and Fire in the Northeastern provinces, I discovered that in the process of becoming an intangible cultural heritage, traditional shamanic stories had been gradually reduced to the antagonism of the supernatural through state intervention in the Jilin region. It became an illustrative cultural form, a kind of identity politics that could be manipulated between the government and corporations. At the same time, civic society did not give up on worshiping this primitive power. Due to various impacts, shamanistic rituals are broken in the preservation process, and while some parts are destroyed, new forms emerge in broader realms. This ritual-based dialectic is the basis for “pan-shamanization.” After this, when I researched Distorting Words, I had some unusual spiritual experiences that led me to grasp a new understanding of the “Hanged Ghost” story from Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. The story, characteristic of the Strange Tales style, is replete with details describing a scholar who witnesses a woman hang herself in an inn in the night, without explaining what caused this scholar to have such an encounter. My experience tells me that he must have come to the inn ready to hang himself, and his deathwish resonated with similar events in other times, summoning ghosts to his presence, which led him to realize that he would also become a ghost to be summoned again and again once he committed suicide, entering a new space–time relationship. This is the framework of pan-shamanization, a new spatiotemporal relationship that allows us to apply its mechanism in locating our viewpoint in times when our perception does not allow a panoramic view, or at a distant point in time, or in a specific human body. At the same time, your body could serve as a pan-shamanic medium for other past spirits in history to enter and possess you, allowing voyeuristic views of the present. In Tungus, an elderly scholar trapped in the siege of Long Liechun in 1948 hangs himself in the illusion that he is escaping extreme hunger. Although his death by hanging coincides with his death by starvation, in reality, the death occurs in an ideological realm, effectively summoning the spirit of Guo Qinguang, who killed himself in Distorting Words, into a cross-temporal dialogue. In The Second Interrogation, a work I completed this year, I embedded the same arrangement: an artist commits suicide out of despair for his country in decline, summoning the ghost of Datong Dazhangjang, an artist who committed suicide in 2000, into the present and into a dialogue with the first artist. These figures summoned from history represent their times and appear in other times via this mechanism, so that they can resolve problems with multiple temporal and spatial references. These are scenarios in which the mechanism of pan-shamanization is applied in my works. These scenarios concern neither shamanism nor historical objectives, but are about how an individual becomes a medium that channels them to another time and place when trying to answer questions about the present. They do not simply rely on the experience of different times and spaces; rather, the process of dialogue and integration between the here and now and the other time and space produces new inspiration.

VC: In your paintings from 2017, I see a connection to western art history. More specifically, I found references to Dutch Golden Age paintings. When I looked at the pictures of your paintings, I started to think of Frans Hals. I think the reason for this is related to the aesthetics of the paintings and the knowledge behind your artistic practice. Hals painted portraits of the ruling class, but when we look closely at his portraits, we see that the men are either drunk or defaced. Hals could not directly criticize power, so he indirectly mastered the dark sides, the rotten satisfied souls. The portraits manifest their inner conditions and psychological states. Frans Hals’s practice can be seen as a social criticism or indirect criticism of power. How does western culture affect your work? How do you reuse history, and is there a conceptual layer in your practice that contains indirect criticism?

WT: ​​I referred to classic Western paintings in my previous pictures because they were the materials I became accustomed to and was familiar with when I first encountered art. Before I entered this discipline, these images only represented the stories, not the medium itself. Because most of my works are “picture”-based, rather than “looking at” something, one has to read into them how the pictures are presented in relation to the stories that need to be told. This also has to do with the way in which Western culture entered our lives in the first place: we saw an outcome, a surface, without fully understanding the culture itself. Even now I am still trying to figure out how to answer the question of the extent to which Western culture has reshaped our lives. Or the question itself might be a pseudo-proposition. My personal experience informs me that it is difficult to understand, let alone solve, local problems by relying exclusively on an existing theoretical system. This approach does not deny external forces; these abstract, metaphysical “truths” are often frustrating when confronted with subjects of various textures. Similarly, whether it is the classical image, the language of cinema, or deconstructive art paradigms, there is, to some extent, a metaphysical inertia embedded in them. The significance of adopting such inertia lies in constructing its opposite, in the same way that practicing art can be used to confront real-life issues, taking a concrete attitude to “discuss the matter” and “analyze specific situations.”

In my practice, negotiating distances with the subject generates a sense of urgency; in addressing its various degrees, my creative approach and demands are flexible. Sometimes indirect, sometimes direct. For example, in the case of distant subjects, the necessity of exploring them may lie in evoking a particular collective memory or emotion that inspires an understanding of our reality. In this process, the work becomes the alternative structure of this subject. It is challenging to create such an intermediate alternative structure for other urgent issues because the goal of the discussion is resolution. Neither is there a time or emotional output that could resolve it, mainly because emotions should not be the outcome but one of the motivations. Of course, you can still use rhetoric in the process. After all, we must build resolution on actual confrontation with the problem, with debates and analyses, which might even evolve into real struggles. Although it might not solve the problem, the goal remains the same. I think this is the meaning of art in China, where discursive spaces are sinking; one should promote change, or at least be prepared in spirit for the fundamental transformation that may come in the future.

Wang Tuo, The Second Interrogation, 2022, three-channel video installation, 4K, color, sound
Courtesy the artist and WHITE SPACE

Wang Tuo, Symptomatic Silence of Complicit Forgetting, 2019, single channel 4K video, color, sound, 26 minutes 15 seconds
Courtesy the artist and WHITE SPACE

VC: Contemporary art has become increasingly popular since the 1970s, and the market is growing. The market of the 1970s couldn’t regulate artistic positions because it was too small. Artists could practice their art outside the market and still reach audiences with their work. To put it bluntly, they weren’t dependent on it, whereas now their careers hang in the balance. What do you think about the overall tendencies of art in this context? What is the difference between the positions of the 70s and today? How does the market affect artistic positions?

WT: Contemporary art didn’t emerge in China until the 1970s, and the Chinese art world has become very polarized since then. My sense is that, given the current situation and its projected future evolution, artists may increasingly be divided into three types: those who depend on/serve the market, those who do not rely on the market or even on the art system, and those who are actively complicit with the mainstream ideology of the system. There may be some who try or will be capable of maneuvering between two or even three camps. For some, the art market is a game of Monopoly that makes one want to go all in; for others, it is the support that keeps creativity alive; and there are also those for whom the art market never existed. At the moment I am ashamed to mention the art market. I know many in my circle whose art practice may have started as a hobby or on an impulse, but unknowingly has become a responsibility that needs to be carried forward. During the Cultural Revolution, underground poetry, literature, and painting refused to submit to the dominant ideology. Without those hand-copied manuscripts circulating underground, China might have lost its soul long ago. At this point, it would be a personal choice whether one feeds the art market or serves the system. For some people, many artistic aspects critical in the western discourse and context may no longer be relevant. Future subjects may be none other than survival and struggle. Regardless of the form it will take, artistically or not, we might have to give up on the few existing discursive spaces and turn underground, as I mentioned earlier, so that we can preserve our soul for the future. 

Translated by He Xiao