Man: When hearing the name “Xiao Lu”, people naturally think of the gunshots of that year (1989). “Xiao Lu” has also become an indispensable name in art history. In fact, even though we try to get away from those gunshots, to get away from Dialogue when we talk about Xiao Lu, we ultimately cannot escape, because these things have had a unique effect on both history and on your personal life. Now that more than twenty years have passed, would you still fire that gun if you had the choice today?
Xiao: To see the problems clearly, you have to view in the dimension of time. “More than twenty years” is quite a lengthy stretch of history for an individual, but in terms of art history, it may be quite short. I spent fifteen years avoiding discussions about Dialogue, in an attempt to get away from this work and just live life, but ultimately I couldn’t get away. There are no ifs in life, nothing that happens can depart from its moment in time. It is like my last-minute decision to jump into the canal at the Grand Canal Exhibition in Venice. There's a saying that “your personality determines your fate”. Perhaps this applies to me too.
Man：As for the over-interpretations of Dialogue at the time, and their subsequent lingering influence - like the sequelae of an old injury, what was your frame of mind at the time? Why didn’t you strike while the iron was hot, instead of choosing to live that kind of life afterwards?
Xiao：Because of the sensational effect of Dialogue at the time, with reports in four of the great news agencies in the world, Associated Press, Agence France Presse, Kyodo News and Reuters, and because people didn’t have time to pay attention to this work itself and the creative intention of its author. The collective consciousness of society pushed this work into an apex in history. The interpretation of multiple meanings that belonged to the gunshots in that specific era is the cause of the sequelae of lingering influence. As for my state of mind after I had finished shooting and why I didn’t ‘strike while the iron was hot’ at the time, the iron must indeed be hot when it is worked, but if the tempera -ture gets too hot, it will melt. I was only 26 at the time and had no awareness of needing to do something with this reputation. In retrospect, I had just graduated and was quite immature. Although I had created Dialogue, I lacked a body of accumulated and settled work. After 1989 I went to Sydney, Australia, and was busy surviving, and in addition, deep in my heart I was psychologically confused about having made Dialogue. There were a lot of things I didn’t dare face up to. All I wanted was to escape into so-called love. After a while, there was no way I could create any works. This lasted until about 2003, when I seemed to wake up from a deep sleep lasting a number of years, and from the work Fifteen gunshots…1989 - 2003 until today, whatever has happened in life, I have never stopped creating works.
Man: In the scales of contemporary art it has always been hard for female artists to achieve equality with male artists, including in art criticism, where there has always been a lack of an effective and appropriate system of discourse. So in the world of contemporary art, fully redolent of male hormones, enshrouded by sociology and realistic reflection theory, what are the advantages and predicaments of female artists?
Xiao: Female artists’ innate grasp of business matters often relies on intuition and perception. Just as my state of mind when making works sometimes relies on a mood to push me to a particular point, and I experience that the joy in the process of creating the work is greater than my grasp of the result. Yet in the discursive system of contemporary art, how a work is talked about is more important than how a work is created. In recent years I have experimented with using my own format to interpret my works. I wrote the novel Dialogue (Hong Kong University Press, 2010) to talk about my work in the format of a story. Although there were also many places in society where my work was not understood, I did not evade the places where these problems were lurking, but went to face them. This was my first step.
Constructing a discursive system in contemporary art in which male and female mutually understand each other is not achieved overnight. It requires the hard work of several generations. The feudal thinking of several thousand years permeates our blood and our genes, forming a collective subconscious thinking. To change the status quo requires first of all the self-awakening of female artists. They must participate in this contemporary art that is redolent of male hormones, and it also requires, even more so, the efforts of the male element of society to provide women artists with even more opportunities to participate. In the discursive system of contemporary Art in China today, the balance between male and female is seriously out of kilter, and only quantitative change can bring about qualitative change.
Man: Your works have always explored the passive character of the female in contemporary social life and in the life of the emotions. Is your rebellion against regular social relationships between the sexes and against emotional relationships, and your deconstruction of pre-existing ethics, an awakening that you have arrived at from personal experience? Do you believe it has a general application?
Xiao: Lu Xun says somewhere: “If you do not erupt in the silence, you will perish in it.” I once almost perished in silence, so ultimately I erupted in the silence. The difference between these two is that in the latter, there is still a glimmer of hope. There is indeed a feeling of passive resistance in my works, but this is all due to my former silence. Almost all of us receive an education of general validity when we come into this world. It is like a fig leaf, rendering us unable to confront many problems, or even making us evade them. When most of our lines of defence have been destroyed, our way of looking at problems changes too. It is like the saying about the three realms of existence in Buddhism: “You see mountains are mountains, you see water is water; then you see mountains are not mountains, you see water is not water; finally you see mountains are still mountains, you see water is still water.”
Man: After your 2009 work Wedlock, your works seem to have changed somewhat. They seem distinctly milder. There is less fierceness and more introspection, and there is more warmth. Are you trying to let go of something?
Xiao: I must say that until 2011, the internal clashes within my works largely had to do with emotions. They were closely linked to my situation in life. This line changed somewhat in 2011. I remember that in that year there were great changes in both my biological state and in my psychological state. All I could do was to force myself to calm down. At the time I was taking Chinese medicine, and one day I copied out a Tang Dynasty poem using Chinese medicine for ink. It felt good, and I continued to copy out poems. My original plan was to spend a year copying out 360 Tang Dynasty poems, but after four months’ work, my condition slowly improved, and I stopped copying out the poems. That year I responded to some invitations to take part in exhibitions with these copied Tang poems. Later I made a record of this process for my 2011 work: Change of life. After 2011 there was a huge change in my approach to creating works. Things that I had been unable to see until then became apparent to me. The social subject matter that male artists pay attention to, works involving cultural problems… I suddenly became capable of creating them. Examples are: Scientific Democracy (2011), What is Feminism? (2012), Purge (2013), Black Household (2014), Open Close (2014), Money Laundering (2015). These works had to do with matters ranging from politics to economics, from feminism to religion. Other works had to do with Chinese culture int he contemporary setting: Toxins (2013), The bark paper Room (2013), Yin-Yang Calendar (2013-2014) and One (2015). Hardly a single one of these works had to do with emotion. You might say that I had let go of certain things, but I am not the sort of person who can ever really let go of anything, and it was simply a matter of my producing many things which I had previously been unable to see, and which were now becoming visible to me. These changes meant I could barely recognise myself. My misinterpretation of men, or perhaps men’s misinterpretation of my works…it was time for reconciliation! The possible root cause of all this could be that neither side has ever seen the fascinating rainbow in the other person’s eyes? ! To return to your first question, if I were to fire the gun again today, I would definitely not say that that work had anything to do with emotions.
Man: For several decades, your life experience has been closely bound up with art. What does art mean to you?
Xiao: Perhaps it is because I studied art that you say my life has been closely bound up with art. But for me, art is what I have written about it in my CV: “Xiao Lu, freelancer, lover of art, design and literature.” Why do emphasise that I love art? It is just like my love of design and of literature. I never studied these things, it is purely because I like them. If art means anything to me, it is that in my life experience, I have discovered that I am not at all someone who particularly loves art, because for a long time after 1989, I made no works. To a certain degree, I love life more, which is why I wrote in my biography: “Her understanding of life and her angle of viewing the world form the trajectory of Xiao Lu’s life. From it, some traces remain that are called works, whose forms include: performance, installation, comprehensive materials, calligraphy, writing, architectural design, furniture design and so on.” By making works, I know myself and the world. Their manifestation in various generic forms is the dharma of entering the realm of my perception of the world. It comes and goes without trace, but it exists in the world.
Man: You always give people the impression of being sharp and avant-garde, but in recent years you have always kept up a cultivation of Buddhism and calligraphy. What is the connectionbehind this apparently contradictory surface?
Xiao: The impression that I have always given people is misleading. The fact is that deep down I am a fairly traditional person. It is only because of certain matters in my experience of life that there is a match between the expressive format of contemporary art and something deep inside me, which joins my destiny with contemporary art. The symbolic interpretation of contemporary art makes the images of contemporary artists symbolic too. However, people grow up through change. The angry gunshots and glances of youth were a few flashpoints in my life. That work was created in a state of mind that I just happened to encounter. I couldn’t have made that state of mind happen deliberately. It is just like the changes that occurred in my works after 2011 that I was just talking about. Their sharpness and avant-garde character was no longer as direct as before, but was moving towards a deeper level of context.More recently, while editing my own personal website, I discovered that beginning in 2001 I was writing stuff on my computer in a free and spontaneous way. These things were disjointed fragments that I am just now collating, but I did discover a continuous thread, which was that since 2001 have kept a written record of my cultivation of Buddhism and calligraphy. Well, actually I began when I was in fifth grade in primary school, when I studied calligraphy with Madame Chen Peiqiu, which is quite a stretch of history from then until today. However I still seem to be only on the way to awakening to the Way, let alone to achieving it. Nevertheless, having recently moved into the studio I designed for myself, I every day practise yoga, write some calligraphy and read various books. I have gained more peace and less trouble in my life. I have a feeling of spiritual clarity and bright energy, a state of mind I have never enjoyed before.I know the past, perceive the present, face the future. As I wrote this year in an essay: “If Heaven has a soul, is it telling me through the experience of half a life to persist, to follow the will of Heaven, and to let the dharma be its natural self.
Man: Could you tell us about your two new works this year, Money Laundering and One?
Xiao: Once the work is completed, it is up to the critic to criticise it. A few days ago I sent my new work One to Gao Minglu for him to have a look at it. In his reply he wrote: “This work is very good. Its language is simple and clear, its meaning deep. On the one hand, the materials used, water and ink, become one with the action of ‘washing’. On the other hand, there is the dialogue between paper and clothes. The two put thing and man (mind) in a reciprocal relationship. Even more importantly, the character of your own expression retreats behind the scene, allowing a dialogue between things and washing. This increases the visual characteristics of the work and its associative character.”
Man: Can you share with us your favourite film or piece of literature?
Xiao: Recently I have seen very few films, but a few days ago I watched Wang Jiawei's The Grandmaster, which I liked. In it, there is a saying by Miss Gong Er: “There are three realms for people who practice martial arts: first there is seeing yourself, second there is seeing the universe, third is seeing all sentient beings.” I remember adding a coda to this saying at an international architecture seminar at the School of Construction at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts: “There is a saying in Wang Jiawei’s film The Grandmaster, that there are three realms for people who practice martial arts: first there is seeing yourself, second there is seeing the universe, third is seeing all sentient beings. If art lets me see myself, then architecture lets me see the world. Gong Er in the movie says of herself that she has only seen the first two realms, while she hopes that Ip Man will make the third come true. Does this suggest women’s inability to achieve certain social attributes? Perhaps this is because this is a work by a male director. It is difficult to choose a favourite work of literature. I read a great variety of books. I tend to pick up a book at random. If I find I can keep on reading it, I read on. If not, I just put it down. But as for literary language as such, I feel that the pithiest language is still that of Lu Xun.