Xu Tan (artist)
Xu Tan | If I reflect on myself and find myself to be right, then even if it be an army of one hundred thousand, I will go forward
Interview completed on June 3, 2022
Editor: Emma Lee Images: provided by interviewee
*The title is a quote from Gong Sun Chou (part one) of Mencius, translated by A. Charles Muller
In August 2020, Shenzhen Xiangshan Art Museum invited Duan Jun as the curator to hold the "Brain Drain in the State of Chu – Hubei Contemporary Art Exhibition", discussing Hubei artists and post-pandemic order. As an exhibiting artist, Xu Tan took part with a double-screen video work "New People's Garden”. At the time, I was the media director of Xiangshan Art Museum, and I had just moved to Shenzhen from Guangzhou almost a year ago. As I used to focus on individual artists in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, I was not familiar with Chinese art jargons like "Southern China" and the art groups it referred to. When compiling the WeChat promotional articles of the 18 participating artists in "Brain Drain in the State of Chu", I combed through Xu Tan's recent projects and realized that he belonged to the category of "artists of social studies" – it was a process of gap-checking of concepts of contemporary art for myself.
It wasn't until this year, before relaunching The Beacon, that a scholar researching the Chinese art self-organizations introduced me to Xu Tan's latest project, “Depression Studies”, and recommended me to be part of it. I happened to be exploring the possibilities of art therapy in China in recent years. I added him on WeChat, and using the depression project as the entry point, we had further discussions, and he became one of the first interviewees for The Beacon's inaugural column – “Ten People, One Hundred Questions”.
Q1: Do you believe in Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism or Christianity? What books are you reading lately? What music do you listen to?
A: I don't have these religious beliefs, but I'm not an atheist – I'm a "non-theist". There is a difference between "atheism" and "non-theism" – I think dividing only by "theism" and "atheism" is problematic. And what is the difference between the two terms that I use? An "atheist" is one who believes that God or gods do not exist; as a "non-theist", I am not sure that they exist or not, because I have not received some kind of message from Him, or I have not felt God's "calling" – I am not sure of God's existence or non-existence. Just because I am not certain does not mean that I think God does not exist. One cannot conclude that something has not been confirmed does not exist. If one day in the future I get the calling from God, I may convert to him. But now I do not think, nor would I say, that they are absolutely non-existent.
The above views were formed after I conducted social studies for several years recently, and, I think that most people in this world must think like me, and I think that complete atheists or complete theists are in the minority. I would like to explain here that with the Chinese people believing in “God" and "religion", they often have the attitude of "believing in something rather than nothing", which is a long way from pure religious belief. A "complete atheist" would be a "complete materialist", and should be a minority.
Q: What about animism?
A: Animism is another kind of thing similar to a religion, which has certain relevance to religion in some way. If we follow the Western view of religion, animism is not included in the three major religions and is not considered a religion. As a Chinese, I think animism should be a form of religion. My strongest experience of animism is when I was conducting “Socio-Botanic” studies in Kyoto, Japan, and I felt that Japanese Shintoism and animism were very close. I think this is different from Chinese Taoism, where everything is a manifestation of the "Way of Heaven", rather than a specific spirit or god within each individual object. A Japanese botanist I interviewed believed that science is the future of everything and at the same time believed that everything has a spirit.
Another situation is that in China – especially in the south, there are many different local beliefs. In 2018, I was conducting research in Huangji Village, Jiujiang County, Nanhai District, Foshan City, and learned that the village has a belief – not in Buddhism or Taoism, but in a "Marshal Wen"; it is assumed that at the end of the Ming Dynasty, Marshal Wen passed the village with remnants of the Ming army after fighting the Qing army, and then something happened. The village put this marshal in the position of a God from then on and the whole village started refusing to eat duck until today; the villagers told me that if they ate duck, they would have stomach cramps, while the village next door does not believe in this “God” at all and eat duck as usual. I call this type of beliefs "Local Belief". There is another type of belief, like in the stories of “Liaozhai zhiyi (Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio)”, which is neither Buddhism nor Taoism, but still has a general influence in today's society. In the "new society" (post-1949 China), the dominant social ideology would consider the two types of beliefs mentioned above to be "superstitions”. I believe that "superstition" is too conceptual, too broad in scope, and too strong in its negative connotations. I call these types of beliefs that emerged at the local, grassroot level "Sub-faith", which has a religious-like nature, but are weaker, more random, multi-directional and fragmented, compared to the integrity, typicality and intensity of large religious beliefs.
Q: Are you reading any books lately?
A: I haven't read any big books for many years, and since 2015 have been reading more articles, such as those in some journals, especially when I've been busy lately. I used to read articles from two journals I subscribed to, "World Philosophy" and "Social Science Abroad". However, in current environment, things written in these two journals are not quite the same as before. Nowadays, I sometimes read articles on the Internet, such as those written by philosophers and anthropologists, especially the voices of philosophers and thinkers in current affairs – for example, Jürgen Habermas and Slavoj Žižek on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In general, I read more articles than books; I would like to read books, but I don't have time.
Q: Do you listen to music?
A: When I was young, including when I was attending Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, I liked to listen to music very much; but after I became a contemporary artist, I didn’t listen to music as much. I liked to listen to orchestral music since I went to GAFA, but after I started working in contemporary art, I didn’t listen too much orchestral music – I listened to it, but much less, and I didn't listen to big sections, but certain movements. Before 2010, I listened to Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg. Also, I like to listen to Frédéric Chopin on long plane rides and sleep while listening. And the biggest problem about me – I like to listen to Wilhelm Richard Wagner. When I was in Germany, I said I liked to listen to Wagner, and many Germans said they liked it too, it was great; when I went to New York and told Americans that I listened to Wagner, they didn't think so and asked me why. From 2000 to 2010, I listened to fragments of music, and I especially liked to listen to Wagner, and till recently I would occasionally go back to it and listen to it; it contains old and ancient, but lingering indefinable things, touching on a certain energy deep inside one's heart – an energy that is sometimes torn and even evil.
* Wilhelm Richard Wagner, German composer and theatre director, until his final years, his life was characterized by political exile, turbulent love affairs, poverty and repeated flight from his creditors. His controversial writings on music, drama and politics have attracted extensive comment – particularly, since the late 20th century, where they express anti-Semitic sentiments.
Q2: How has the pandemic changed the way you work?
A: I should say that it has not changed in essence, but it has interrupted my travels and kept me away from many of the work sites that I have to visit. Before the pandemic, I started the "Shunde Studies" project with a few young art friends, and the basic approach was the same as before: research and study, and social practice. The project on depression that I am working on now is part of "Shunde Studies". I am also involved in the "Socio-Botanic School", a practical activity initiated by our artist partners as an observer.
I have been working on "Socio-Botanic” for almost 8 years – from 2012 to 2020, with a lot of time spent on out-of-town research. Due to travel restrictions in the past two years, there has been less research outside. One change is that, during the pandemic, giving interviews and attending lectures are more frequent, and more time has to be spent on interviews and writing.
Q3: Can the pattern of "Animalistic Freedom" be broken?
Q: In one of our past conversations, you talked about "Animalistic Freedom", and at that time you talked about our nation's tendency to forget about history. When the lion is sleeping, the zebra will go back near it to graze; it's like the government and the people; the people will forget the history of being hunted down when the lion doesn't attack and will still go back near the lion; once the lion goes to attack them, it's too late to run, they remain the lion's prey.
A: Let's take a practical example, many people in Shanghai today expressed their discontent and anger about the very rough control; I also remember the "gong-banging woman" at the height of the pandemic in Wuhan. Thinking further back, the memory of the Great Chinese Famine 1959 -1961 – I could keep track of things as a kid at that time, and my two grandfathers died during those three years of diseases caused by starvation. According to many memories and records, the number of people who died of starvation at that time is a large number. Also, I recall at the end of the Cultural Revolution when there was already a lot of discontent in society.
Coming back to our topic, how do lions treat herbivore? Zebras are herbivores, and the moment when the lions hunt them is thrilling; and after the lions' predation is over, everything returns to a peaceful state, which lasts until the next predation. After the pandemic in Wuhan was zeroed out, the "gong-banging woman" changed her attitude completely. Likewise, people were not alerted to the causes of the three years of starvation, nor did they hold anyone accountable. Decades after the Cultural Revolution, people began to miss the person who started it and was directly responsible for the famine. We can wait and see if the people of Shanghai will soon forget the lockdown. Since things like this have been happening time and again in the past, and humans are a mammalian species, it reminds me of the relationship between lions and zebras. It's a revelation. We often see how a lion treats a group of zebras, but assuming that these zebras are united, the lion would actually have no way out, because the zebras’ hind leg kicks are very powerful, the lion may be kicked half dead. But such a thing did not happen, the predator is still there, intact.
*The "gong-banging woman", i.e. Wuhan citizen Li Lina, who banged a homemade gong on the balcony of her home to call for help for her sick mother during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan, Hubei, China. Some resident shot a video of it and the video went viral on Chinese social media. Chinese writer Fang Fang reposted the video on her Microblog in solidarity; but Li Lina later attacked Fang Fang on Microblog for some reason and caused controversy, with some netizens accusing her of being ungrateful.
Q: So, can the pattern be broken?
A: I mean, firstly, there must be a general awareness; and secondly, we must remember.
Q: On this matter, my starting point is: Is there any salvation for this nation? My friends in the media circle always tell me I'd better give up my illusions in advance, so it gives me the feeling that it can't be changed, don't even think about it.
A: You can't think like that: do we just do nothing and wait for the bitter end? Making a change is a very difficult job, it takes quite a long time; just do it.
Q: Some scholars explain it in terms of genes: we are a Small Farmer Society, ruled by tyranny since the Qin dynasty, and with the complicity of the Confucian hierarchy idea of “let the ruler be a ruler; the minister, a minister; the father, a father; the son, a son”, it is very difficult to break this gene we inherit from the Qin dynasty, and a change of dynasties is the consequence for us.
A: Changing dynasties is like changing one lion king to another lion king. First of all, this gene theory mainly refers to the genetic differences between Chinese and Caucasians, and the differences in politics, beliefs, behaviors, etc. they bring about. I did hear some Western culture experts call our civilization a "rice culture" decades ago (it is said that Chinese scholars came up with this concept, but I first read about it in an article about Edgar Snow). In 1970s, I heard of a Japanese researcher who found that the total length of the intestines of Asian people is on average 3 meters longer than that of Westerners, which apparently has something to do with diet. It is said that the physiology of the "rice" population is different from that of the nomadic, meat-eating Westerners, who are said to have more individual independence. So, this is a genetic impact. Assuming this is a possibility, are Chinese people and Westerners genetically the same as herbivore and carnivore?
Also, because of the relatively strong "collective consciousness" or statist beliefs in our society, we seem to be more of an herbivore with a strong sense of community. Herbivores in general tend to move in groups, while carnivores are more solitary. Even if there is the possibility that such genetic differences influence the tendency to think and act differently, it has not been verified. Are genes really so powerful that most people in our society will never have the day of awakening? If genes of different races really have such a strong influence on our values, beliefs, and behaviors, then the notion of "racism" is well-founded, and indeed, we Chinese are a very "racist" population.
I prefer to think of it as a matter of civilizational tradition. All human communities have experienced times of centralized authoritarianism, and even today, in those democratic societies, people are still constantly on guard against the return of authoritarianism. Through my observations of Western and Chinese societies, the differences between races and ethnic groups are not that great. I think it is possible for our civilizational traditions to be changed.
Perhaps civilizational traditions and genes have something to do with each other. Such a civilizational tradition has been established for thousands of years that a baby is brewing and soaking in the air and water of civilizational tradition before it is born from its mother's womb, so it doesn't need to be brainwashed, the brain is already infiltrated – you are also born in such amniotic fluid, but you are awakened. I would say, more importantly, that people have many behaviors or ways of communicating that are not limited to the use of language. A child is trained in the "pre-linguistic" period, and a lot of awareness is established before they understand language. In other words, education is not necessarily only through language. In 2019, I went to Guang'an, Sichuan to do research on "Socio-Botanic"; I went to a shaman's house in the village, where the shaman explained to me how to tell fortunes with a big picture, while his little grandson was making noises on the side – he seemed to be starting to understand, and his grandfather probably expected him to take over from him. I thought that perhaps the construction of a sense of belief had already taken place in such an environment before he understood his grandfather's speech. It would certainly develop further after he learned to read. Another villager said, "My children and grandchildren live and work away from hometown, they can be absent for the Spring Festival, but the Qingming (Grave-sweeping) Festival must not be missed.” When I was there, it was the Qingming Festival, and I followed the family to the mountain to pay respect to their ancestors; I saw several two-and three-year-old children kneeling and kowtowing reverently. I realized that they had already been shaped, and that this awareness would be so deep in their subconsciousness that it would affect their whole life.
Guang'an, Sichuan, 2019
Why is it so hard for us in China? When we were children, besides the family, the environment also played a role. I was in Shunde, Foshan a few weeks ago and a lively second grader asked me if I knew that a country had recently invaded another country. I asked who invaded whom. He said that Ukraine had invaded Russia and explained to me that the collapse of the Soviet Union and NATO's lack of compliance with the rules had led to today's invasion. I asked him: Who told you that? He said that his uncle told him. So, education starts in childhood and continues throughout life, and in fact, even Christianity and Islamism build the faith of the next generation in the same way. Here we are, very early on, faith is constructed in this consciousness scenario of centralized authoritarianism. I said earlier that I don't fully agree with the gene theory, but I'm not actually denying it completely; it's just that it hasn't been conclusively proven. For example, Taiwan has established a democratic society, and the youth in Hong Kong have a strong sense of democracy, albeit on a small scale, and established with the help and support of outside forces, but in any case, they have that awareness. We have more difficulty here, I think it's more a matter of a more solid civilizational tradition and a larger volume, plus a conscious effort by those in centralized power to perpetuate that traditional consciousness.
Guang'an, Sichuan, 2019
Why do I use the concept of "Animalistic Freedom"? Many people, especially my friends in the West, criticize this term. They think I have lowered human beings to the level of animals, which they think is undignified and negative. Some time ago, I was interviewed by self-publishing media "Water Elephant", who asked me if I was an anthropocentrist. I said that first of all, I should put human beings on the same level as animals; whether I am an anthropocentrist or not, first of all, you should go back to the level of the animal species from the level of a world ruler who is so high and mighty. In this sense, faith or reason is a biological mechanism of man, the species itself, and not a world ruler who transcends the ordinary species and is completely different from them, favored by heaven and God.
From another point of view, the movement leading the anti-anthropocentrism now comes from the West, while the territory where anthropocentrism was previously stronger, more concentrated, and older would also have been in the West. The pre-Christian ancient Greek era, the more primitive era of Western civilization, had a higher view of human beings in their minds as against animals, than what we Asian peoples did. Our earliest Chinese ancestors, Nüwa and Fuxi, were half-human and half-god, and we are not ashamed of that, while the ancient Greek gods are beautiful and handsome, like Venus and Helios. Aristotle thought that man was a "political animal", but that referred to Western (Greek) societies, whose citizens had a sense of citizenship and faith. The difference began to emerge when he saw man in Asian societies as a "working animal". But in any case, it is very interesting that Aristotle's conception of man is "animal".
By this I do not mean that the ethical rules for man can be lowered as his status in nature decreases, but that in the future we will face a wider coverage of ethical rules, because man is already the most brutal and badly-behaving creature in the world. We often hear people say that so-and-so is "worse than a beast," but humans can do more harm to the same species than any other beast – a war can result in the slaughter of millions to tens of millions of people, not to mention the harm to other species. But we still have to continue to try nurturing our consciousness with reason and ethical awareness. There is no choice.
I am still a non-theist, and I tend to believe that all human consciousness and activity is based on biological mechanisms. If I don't use the term "Animalistic Freedom", I would say it is "Biological Freedom", and there are many examples in history of centralized societies becoming civil societies. So "zebras" can still be united, even if the workload is huge and the time is long.
Q: Does civilizational tradition have anything to do with your "Animalistic Freedom"?
“Socio-Botanic: Endurance, and Animalistic Freedom”, video screenshot, 2013
A: Western democracy is based on freedom, democracy and human rights, but here is it that we don't need freedom? No, we need freedom here, but "freedom" here is not the same as "freedom" in the West. In the course of my “Socio-Botanic” research, through talking with farmers, I found that people have at least two dimensions of freedom; one is the freedom to live: a living person must have a certain sense of peripheral security, the right to acquire food, the right to have a spouse and produce posterity – these are the rights of freedom of survival and the security of the immediate space. The other dimension of freedom is spiritual freedom and the freedom of choice of human behavior that it brings, namely the freedom of faith and the confirmation of its influence on action. We may only have the need for the freedom of existence, not necessarily for spiritual freedom and the related need for action. In China, you can see that people care a lot about the right to claim the freedom to live, and this is especially highlighted in the pandemic. Any species needs this fundamental freedom, which is directly related to life. That's why I call it "Animalistic Freedom".
During the pandemic, we hear Westerners say "Give me liberty or give me death", which is not easy for most people in our society to understand, as we would say, "What good is your freedom when you are already dead?" Beyond the basic security of survival, there is a need for important beliefs/values that most of us do not feel – and that is the case in China at the moment. For example, let's say someone in Shenzhen wants to start a union on his own and when the police come to arrest him, everybody around him is indifferent; but if a garbage incinerator is built around their home, that's when a lot of people in the neighborhood would go on a march to protest. What is the difference between these two things? In our society, when you have to defend something related to survival like food and safety, many people will join forces with you and the government will consider your demand reasonable; but if you want to establish a self-organized union, it is not reasonable. This kind of demand is related to the Western freedom, to citizenship, which is more distant from the immediate needs of the body, and is a little bit higher up. This shows that there are two dimensions of freedom.
Q4: Chinese people don't have faith. In the West, for example, love is a gateway to God; but in China, love is unilineal, material, and unrelated to spirituality. As the propaganda goes, "The nation has faith", how should this begin in the current and visible future context?
A: I think human faith is also a biological mechanism of life and organisms, and faith has a very broad scope. Religious faith is only part of the faith in a certain period of time, and it is also a consciousness that comes from the biological mechanism of our species. In contrast, the West cares about both dimensions of freedom. In fact, their belief in human rights and freedom has its roots; the West used to believe in Christianity, although the concepts of human rights and freedom were not as strong as they are now. As society developed, when they began to criticize Christianity, what they built up was a belief in science, freedom, and human rights, which should be seen as the same thing – faith. When "God is dead," human rights, freedom, and science are exactly what replaced Christ, for example, and the belief in knowledge; although these beliefs have different internal logic, faith cannot be in rotation void, especially in a highly developed social environment of civilization, and the intensity of this faith is the same as the previous faith in religion. That is why they say "Give me liberty or give me death" – it is possible to die for the sake of God, and it is equally possible to die for the sake of freedom – the two are similar in way of believing. Our religious belief, however, is to ask God to bless our survival, to "live a better life" – still at the most basic level of survival, which reflects the difference from the West in internal logic.
“Anachronistic Language Games”, installation, 2020
Of course, we can't say that we don't have that dimension of needs at all, but it's relatively weak and uncertain. And there is a great deal of "Sub-faiths"; even we believe in Buddha, we believe in his blessing to make us better off. In Western civilization, faith is something that needs to be dedicated to and sacrificed for at any given time, and the faith in freedom and democracy is a conversion from the faith in Christ; one must have faith, whether it is a religion or not. Why do we always feel that the West is "imperialist in its desire to kill us"? In the case of Taiwan, for example, for them it is the unshakeable faith in democracy, while for us it is more important to have sovereignty. Why is it so difficult for us to build a liberal democratic structure? Because we have never had that way of believing – our belief is to live a good life, our values are very pristine. People have food to eat, our income is getting higher and higher, our lives are better and better off, so why don't you embrace such a good ruler, right? You say it's not democratic and free – what do we need that for? Isn't that a redundant need? Aren’t you ultimately hoping to get fed and live longer? So, faith is a fundamental mechanism of consciousness for our species, but we are more vulnerable in this regard.
In short, my views above on the issue of the relationship between faith and freedom in the West are those of an onlooker, because I cannot see the issue through as a member of a Western society.
“Anachronistic Language Games”, installation, 2020
Q: And what are the roots of our lack of those?
A: Finding the roots, I think, is very difficult, and I believe it is also related to the generation and development of our civilization. In a very different natural and living environment, the development of human beliefs and political consciousness can be very different, and I believe it has to do with the geography of China, and the earliest living environment.
Q: This should be a question for historians.
A: I don't know. Maybe the scholars we have in our environment couldn't answer this question, or would answer it not as well as I did. I said some time ago that Marx's "socialism" has never existed in any human society, but scholars have been talking about socialism all the time, haven't they? This is probably about the study of the emperor's new clothes: the design of the clothes, the material, etc.
Q: So, can we still build faith?
A: Yes. Utopia, perhaps, but worth the effort.
“Anachronistic Language Games”, installation, 2020
“Anachronistic Language Games” (diagram of a program that failed to be implemented), 2020
Q: But we aren’t doing anything, and they suppress religions.
A: I think that suppressing religion is not the same as suppressing faith. I just said that the world today has mostly shifted from religious beliefs to science, human rights, democracy and freedom. There is no need for us to go back to the Christian faith or other religious beliefs. The times have changed for all human civilization, and a new faith has been established, namely, science, human rights, freedom, and democracy. And, more crucially, in China, this new value has been severely controlled and suppressed. It is a crackdown on contemporary beliefs.
The most scaring question now is, what does our party believe in? Do they believe in “Core Socialist Values”? Are those values true? That is the predicament. They don't believe in freedom/democracy or communism, so what do they believe in? They believe in living a good life, and they believe in holding onto power. This goes back to the old tradition: when we believe in Buddhism, most of us do it for the Buddha's blessing to get promoted and get rich. I interviewed a botanist who said that there was a very precious Bodhi tree in Guangzhou, and many high officials would go to worship it, believing that the tree would bless them with continuous promotions. We are perpetuating this way of believing, but we all know that this belief is powerless and false.
There are still many people in the US who believe in Christianity, but the intellectuals in Europe basically don't believe in it anymore; they believe in democracy, freedom and science. For them, it's faith, it's strong, it's the so-called universal values. But for us, it is redundant. As I said earlier, faith may have to be nurtured from childhood. I sometimes see adults with children on the street and hear the former say: If you don't behave, the police will come and arrest you. I would feel helpless – what kind of faith is this way of education fostering?
On this issue, we should be "monists": survival is everything. In the West, I think --- to use my own word – they're "dualism": faith is one, survival is the other; survival is also important – these two are both separate and connected. What about "Give me liberty or give me death"? Here, survival and faith are not separate, it is one or the other; whereas in China, we only have one: survival is the most important, and we can forget everything else. That's why we say: Better a bad life than a good death.
Q: My friends in the media always ask me not to predict things for my country, because I always ask when we can do something and when we can achieve something, and they say you'd better give up your fantasy in advance.
A: I think it's hard, but we are artists, we try to do something. If you think the free and democratic political system is good and we don’t have it here, you try to work on it, but I am unable to tell you whether it will be realized in 30 years or 100 years. This is not to tell you not to do it, because in the process of this work you can gain strength – this is a kind of self-salvation.
Of course, there are times when self-consistency fails and suddenly you collapse. I was talking to a very good friend yesterday and he made me feel that I was going to collapse. He said he was a nihilist and he thought when he was dead and gone, he wouldn’t care about the future of humanity because mankind is a bad species. I said, aren't you the same as King Louis XV of France who said “After me, the flood”? I said, I really don't think so, I really think we should let our species live longer, even though there is a lot of evil in this species; assume that your parents happen to be not so good people, will you try to convince them to be more benevolent, and keep them healthy?
Q5: Tell us about your depression project?
A: To this day, I still don't know exactly what the project is about. First of all, I think there is not enough attention to depression in our society; there are so many things happening around us, so many people suffering, but because of their special situation, they don't show their sufferings to other people; I believe it's because they belong to the disadvantaged group, they are too shy to ask for help or deliberately even close themselves off, and the people around them seem to lack awareness of their pain. I think we should care about them, and this is one of the earliest motivations. So, when I interview people with depression, I always say I want to learn and pass on what I have learned about depression to society.
Interviews with people with depression, 2021-2022
Secondly, you have to learn how to help others. As some friends with depression told me, some supposedly normal people go to help them, but it's the same as giving them the push to the edge. This means that caring has to be done in a certain way, or at least you have to know and understand them. That is the motivation for the project, but I think it should be more than that, because when I was working on the “Keywords” project, I was understanding the consciousness of social people: the consciousness of the individual and the consciousness of the society. The consciousness of people with depression is part of the consciousness of human beings. How has this consciousness developed to what it is today? I think first of all, we need to treat them like brothers and sisters; I think they are normal, just like I have asthma and high blood pressure – can you say that I am a sick and abnormal person? I think people with depression are exactly like us: they are also creative, they show a different perspective and vision of the world and of life for human beings. And because of the cognitive distance, it is quite difficult for us to understand them. They suffer more than we do – I suffer when I have asthma, so we can’t treat this population differently in the first place, but see them as ordinary, normal people like us. Also, there is a certain depth in this that I have not discovered yet because, as I said earlier, this study of individual and social consciousness is important to me.
Q: Do you currently know in what way the final result of the project will be presented?
A: It could be research and writing. Writing means using visual arts as a comprehensive media to present it, mostly with a lot of videos.
Q6: Last year, there were many cases of women writing small essays on Microblog to crusade against men, and school faculties are also quite sensitive. In fact, this form of writing small essays is inevitable under the legal environment in China, but in a rational person's opinion, it's similar to tyranny. Especially when this kind of thing happens to male celebrities, public figures, including school teachers, basically his career is over. I don't think this is the right approach, but there doesn't seem to be any other way. The most recent hot topic in the entertainment industry was Johnny Depp's lawsuit with his ex-wife, which Depp won, and a friend commented that gender is not the original sin. I think this issue is very complicated.
A: First of all, gender inequality in our society is a grave issue. There are many things we don't know, like the Xuzhou chained woman and other mentally ill people being used as sex slaves and reproductive tools before they were exposed by media. Why are we turning a blind eye? The fact that people turn a blind eye or even take an "understanding" attitude towards such bad things shows that there is a consensus among many people. Our inequality here is not the same as in the West, it is hidden very deeply. Now the inequality is very clear, so we have to support the oppressed side and let them stand up. Some people think this is too much politics, and I admit that some of the actions in this "stand-up" process may be too radical, but in general it is like a drug that has side effects: you have to take it, and some of the radical actions are just a side effect; the point is you must take the drug. In this process, some men find it unbearable, and there are a lot of different opinions in it – maybe these are the macho men. Also, most people in this society feel nothing to do with this awful act towards women and have this attitude towards the Xuzhou chained woman. Now, we are not saying that we want women to be superior to men and overpower them, but to support them to a position of equality with men. The problem is that there is too much of a difference between, a discrepancy; the feminist movement is just saying that they want to acquire their rights and get the same social rights as men; this process may sometimes lead to radical actions, but these actions may not be "radical" in the first place, because those men, and even many women, have a male-centered attitude, who would feel "radical" about any feminist action. I think both are possible, and it's a process. In another 100 years – I'm using a big scale here, when mankind really achieves equality between men and women, maybe these things will be gone, and people will not care about these things anymore. So, about the phenomenon of writing small essays that you just said, I think there is no other way around; in this society, you can only do this, I don’t think there is a problem here, and we also do not have a very sound legal system or media environment; there is no place for justice, this is very sad.
Q: But this issue is really too complicated. At the end of last year, I drove across half of China with friends; on the way back through Heyuan – I think it was in Heyuan – I saw a genderless restroom inside a service station: this thing has come up. Last year, there was a big issue about an actress who turned herself into a genderless person, and in fact many Westerners scoffed at it, saying: why are you complicating things while gender issue has not been fundamentally solved? This is some of the ridicules he/she got. Is the world progressing or regressing? Actually, I still think from the perspective of personal choice. I think everyone has the freedom to choose.
A: Yes, I agree, the choice of sexual orientation is of course your own business. As long as you make your own choice without hurting others, there is nothing wrong with that, and there is no reason for mockery.
Q7: Does the Big Tail Elephant Group still exist?
A: No, as two of the four members have already passed. In fact, we did not publicly announce its dissolution; it just ended without a hitch. In fact, around 2000, the Group became unsustainable, because we didn't live in the same city, and at first, we came together because we all lived and worked in Guangzhou, and our views on art were very similar. Big Tail Elephant was first established by Liang Juhui, Lin Yilin, and Chen Shaoxiong, and later I joined to create art and exhibit together. In the 2000s, we all moved to different cities and our workplaces were scattered, and many of our projects needed us to go to local residencies, so it was difficult to work together as a group. So, in fact, the activities of Big Tail Elephant stopped at the end of the 90s.
Big Tail Elephant Group, 1994
Q: Is there a systematic compilation of your past work?
A: Yes, but we didn't organize it ourselves. Cai Yingqian of the Times Art Museum has done an earnest job, and there is another album in the process of publication, which was organized after Hou Hanru's Big Tail Elephant exhibition at the Times Art Museum in 2016, and this album is still being edited today, headed by French-Chinese lady Yu Xiaohui. It is quite a complete record, but even if it is complete, it is impossible to make many things completely clear.
Q: Is it possible to publish it elsewhere?
A: It is difficult to publish it in China, at least my name can't be used. Last year/this year there was an exhibition that said, "The Big Tail Elephant Group was founded in 1990 by Lin Yilin, Chen Shaoxiong, Liang Juhui and X.T.". See? I have a new name now.
Q8: In the current context, our consensus is that there is still need for international exchange, right? How do we go about it? Didn't the China Pavilion of this year’s Venice Biennale get a bad rap?
A: I never care for the China Pavilion. It is hosted by the Ministry of Culture of our great Motherland, and I had hit a nail there before. In 2009, I exhibited in Venice Biennale with the “Keywords School” project, and Lu Hao was the chief curator of the China Pavilion. One day, he called me from China (he had already returned home after the exhibition opened) and asked me to collect the catalogues of the China Pavilion for him – because the China Pavilion did not accept the catalogues of the China Pavilion. The catalogues were printed out and sent from Beijing to Venice, but the China Pavilion did not accept them, saying that there was something wrong with them. Lu Hao asked me to receive them for him, I agreed and there I went. The Biennale has an office at the entrance of the Arsenale, and several boxes of the catalogue were put there. After I signed for the acceptance, I went to the China Pavilion, and a female staff member was sitting there. I said, "I am delivering the catalogues on behalf of chief curator Lu Hao. Can I bring them here?” She said, "Don't bring it here! We don't want it!" I said, "Well then, I'll take care of it." She said, "You can't distribute it outside." I said, "Since you don't want it, why do you care what I do with it?" Then I took all the catalogues to the entrance of the bookstore next door to the Arsenale office and to the entrance of the Hong Kong Pavilion across the street from the office, and distributed them free of charge, and within two hours’ time, several hundred of catalogues were all taken out. Nothing like that will probably ever happen again, because at that time they probably realized that having Lu Hao as the chief curator was probably a mistake.
Back to your question, I think what you said about international exchange is appropriate, but I haven't been abroad for more than two years due to the pandemic. Yesterday, at the Big Tail Elephant seminar organized by Zhao Bandi at Foshan He Art Museum, critic Feng Yuan talked about why Guangdong artists like those of Big Tail Elephant could "thrive and flourish". (I think Big Tail Elephant was at best at the edge of "thriving".) He gave some reasons, which I basically agreed with. Our generation of artists "thrived" and acquired the so-called influence from the 1990s to 2010 – two or three more years at most after that, and afterwards it was a new generation of artists. We sometimes go to some events today, but they are all history-related activities.
I think as an artist, you should dive into your own work; like the “Keywords” project I worked on, after it finished, I launched “Socio-Botanic”; all these years I have been just doing my own work, as to whether it could be successfully shown in any place – although it did exhibit somewhere internationally, “Socio-Botanic” is still far from the “success” of the “Keywords” – because it belongs to me personally and to the future, is a kind of concern of art people for socio-ecology, this kind of thing is bound to fall short of the capitalized mainstream of contemporary art, which have their needs. That is their business, and it has little to do with me. In this sense, it inevitably leads to a change in my concern for the "international" issue. What I see in the media is all that kind of art: the "flourishing" art, many of which I don't care about or feel much for when I see them. Of course, as in my recent speech at Yixi Forum, my topic was questioned – why should an artist do research? Why do research instead of "visual arts"? I said I was combining the two.
It seems that I have led my focus to a corner, and I want to continue to split hair, so international exchange is not the thing I care most. I want to do my own thing first, because it is full of uncertainty, and my attempt may even fail, but I still want to do it. I think there should be such a group of artists – a small number of artists who do their own experimental work, and it's not your business if you want to be "international" or not. Of course, I think international exchange is very important. When we were younger, for example, back in the days of Big Tail Elephant, I was very concerned about my international reputation and status: I had to participate in this and that exhibition, and I cared a lot about what people said about me; but this phrase soon passed, and it stopped in 2009. But I still care about being international, even that I am less and less concerned compared to before, but it does not mean that I think international exchange is not important. It is important, but do your own research and practical work, it is more important.
Q9: Recently, I've been following the lockdowns in Beijing and Shanghai, and we've been talking about "hope in the south", that is, when we talk about the south of China, it gives a lot of hope to our friends in Beijing and Shanghai. Do you think the discussion of this concept is meaningful for the future?
A: I don't think so. It was like that in the 90s, Guangdong was more open, not because the people in Guangdong were more liberal and democratic, but because there was less imperialism here, and everyone was more equal – there was authoritarian control, but it was weaker than in the north. But if everybody starts focusing on this, the South would pretty much be toast soon!
This social situation is such that authoritarianism in China may be stronger and more powerful in some places, where a person is born and immediately feels the presence of power and knows how to adapt to it and how to resist it; while in the south it may feel less and opposition is less, i.e. the south is on the edge of the magnetic field of power and is more distant from the magnetic line of manipulation, so it cannot keep up. But I still have a crisis in my heart, if authoritarianism is further strengthened, no place will be spared. Although it may be a little better here, a little better may not mean much anymore. It also doesn't mean that wherever is better, you have to escape there. Rather, you will be wherever your arena is; if you have a problem there, it is your own fault, isn't it?
Q10: From the several conversations I had with you before, I feel that you are more concerned about individuals. How does your work promote civilization towards individuals? You once talked about a widow in Shunde, how she was discriminated against or ostracized by the people in the village, and then you went to the village to do some work to make her feel that there was finally someone who understood her. But on the other hand, there seemed to be a feeling that you were not doing enough. Your work to me is an advancement of civilization on individuals.
A: First of all, to straighten the facts, the woman you mentioned is not a widow, but a divorcee; besides, she didn't see me as anything, I was just a listener.
Perhaps because I come from an artistic background, I always feel that each individual is the real public, and this may be related to the era we grew up in. We were against "grand narratives" in the 1980s and 1990s, but now I don't simply oppose grand narratives, but emphasize how to connect individuals with grand narratives. It is not possible to have an individual without a grand narrative, because where is the individual going? It is precisely because you have some grand, so-called ideals inside you that you go out to deal with others and society. When the grand narrative is related to the individual, it can be a real description. For example, we are now criticizing "Putin's brain" Aleksandr Dugin, who talks about "the geopolitics of Eurasia", but he fails to mention any individual in it, as if for the sake of this geopolitics, all people are a sand; to achieve this geopolitics is like making a building, each person's life is reduced to a sand in the concrete. This is very bad. Any collective must first of all be based on the value of each individual.
I sometimes say that I am a populist, for example, when someone tells me how great Mao is. Once when Mao was in Europe meeting with the leaders of Eastern Europe, he said that we should unite to defeat U.S. imperialism, that we China are not afraid of losing 200 million lives. You see, so many lives, so many individuals were reduced to a grain of sand for his political purposes. His statement scared the hell out of those communist leaders in Eastern Europe. It was very bad. First of all, you can't use the people as a tool. This also puts me in a very awkward position: I am a proponent of freedom and democracy, but in China so many people don't support it, and these people are all flesh and blood, what should we do? We do social practice, and I say I have to love these people, and if someone says these people are stupid, what do you do? You still have to think about their interests. There are a lot of people with extreme ideas, they all cursed Hong Kong people on the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests. Even if they're all wrong, they're living, breathing individuals, and there's a billion of them! So how does your work relate to them? I use a word called "spring wind and rain”, i.e. the long-term influence of a solid education. Even the largest collective is composed of individuals, for example, the 200 million people just mentioned, their relatives and family members add up to 700 to 800 million people; just think of these people's family in the occasion of the loss of a family member: how would other members of the family feel? I don't agree with capitalism, I criticize capitalism, but I strongly agree with democracy, freedom and human rights. First of all, it is much more progressive than centralism in its attitude towards individuals, in its respect for human life; although you may say a lot of it is false –at least their philosophy has been established, whereas here it doesn’t even have anything close to the false stuff in the West yet! We are so much more primitive and so much more backward than they are.
Q: Friends in the media are more pessimistic, thinking that these people are undeserving; how you work yourself to death, they won't be grateful, much less listen to what you're saying. The media circle is more realistic.
A: I sympathize with them, just like I sympathize with a person in my family. For example, one of my family members hates Hong Kong people's movement, I can't help it, I can only reason with him very gently. I have a concept called "gentle resistance". For example, in the “People's Garden” project, the garden we made at Fei Arts Guangzhou was demolished. Of course, we had to fight back, but I couldn't say to the old ladies who maintained the garden: Let's fight back – they definitely wouldn't care. Instead, I said, "We are here to make art, we are here to rebuild a beautiful garden, come and talk about your feelings.” They started to talk about their feelings. They said, this place was such a small garden; the authorities shut it down because it "bred mosquitoes", then why not cut down the trees in Baiyun Mountain? Isn't that the biggest hub for mosquitoes? That is a gentle rebellion. Not until people have a real kind of empathy do they come to realize how they have been hurt. If you don't do this, the matter will be forgotten forever.
Q: I think most of the work still lies in education, but the education system is no longer working, so it's still pretty grim.
A: Pessimism is true, it takes time, it takes generations. I’m afraid that a few generations have hardly passed, mankind is already gone. Also, there is the chief of capitalism; they are sometimes good and sometimes evil, it is hard to say. The point is that the desire for power is animalistic; if a lion wants to be the lion king, it will fight with its own kind, and it may bite another lion to death and become the lion king. The desire for power is not the result of rationality. Many animals have leaders: sheep have a head sheep, and lions have a lion king. Today, these people who want to gain power always take those very good values, like "Make our country more powerful", "Make America great again" – do you think they really think that way? Do you think they really believe that? He wants that power, and any good value can be used as a tool. Anybody who wants to fulfil an inner desire – the power in animal nature – he can use a lot of good, rational, very valuable things to describe it. At this point, we don't even know if he is sincere or not. Trump, for example, some people say he's fake, some people say he's real, and as long as he doesn't tell you the truth, there will always be 70 million people or 140 million people arguing about this, and it's a very troubling thing.
In any power system, whether democratic or centralized, the ruling power system is like a living individual, the same as an animal, which first has to maintain its own survival and existence, and then implements its social commitments or operations. Society has to feed this animal first, whether it is benign or savage.
A highly intelligent species like humans uses the concept of human values to justify its power. To this day, the social focus boils down to a question of power that has transcended the focus on survival and money of Marx's time. Who acquires power? Who acquires power through what means? Some through institutional operations, some through money, some through high technology, and some through some kind of relationship with those who have power. This is the greatest reality we face today.
Xu Tan's works involve various media such as text, image, video, performance, installation and internet, etc. He is sensitive to the changes in social life and culture, constantly asking where the boundaries of contemporary art are. In the last decade or so, he has been emphasizing art and social research for practical integration, considering the knowledge production of social practice, aesthetic consciousness and synthesis practice of rational cognitive as inseparable and exploring the force amongst them, and in the last few years he has started to devote himself to social collaborative art practice.
Since 2005, Xu Tan has been conducting research and survey projects on "Searching for the Keywords", through audio-visual interviews, surveys, and collections of active people in active regions of China. He continuously compiles and searches for "keywords", placing them in new conversational contexts. In 2008, the "Keywords School" project was launched to create a public space for the discussion and communication generated by these keywords. In 2011, the "Keywords Laboratory - Socio-Botanic" project started a series of special studies on social and cultural issues, exploring the combination of social research and aesthetic activities, to create an integrated, practical and cross-disciplinary series of cognitive production activities. In 2019, he invited several artists and started a collaborative experimental project "Shunde Studies".
Individual projects in recent years
2019 " The Road of Nonglin, The Hill of Zhusi – A Research and Field Project on ’Planting in Community’" (initiator of the collaborative exhibition project), Fei Arts, Guangzhou
2014 "San Francisco Chinatown Keywords School," 41 Ross Alley, San Francisco
2013 “Xu Tan: Question, Soil and ‘Socio-Botanic’”, Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou
International group exhibitions and biennales
2019 "The Island of the Colorblind", Art Sonje Center, Seoul
2018 "Starting from the Desert – Ecologies on the Edge", Yinchuan Biennale
2018 "How to Talk with Birds, Trees, Fish, Shells, Snakes, Bulls and Lions", Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin
Video Interview of Xu Tan | From Jean-Paul Sartre to Teresa Teng: Cantonese Contemporary Art in the 1980s (Source: Asia Art Archive; Language: Chinese)