Host: Claire Roberts
Artist: Xiao Lu
Theme: Art + Courage, CoVA Creating Futures Seminar series
Sponsor: The University of Melbourne
Mode: Online from Zoom Adelaide / Sydney
Translator: Liu Wanling
Coversation video online link https://sites.research.unimelb.edu.au/.../dia.../art-courage
Claire Roberts: Hello Xiao Lu, it is great to have this opportunity to talk about your thoughts on art making and the future, particularly from your vantage point now in Australia and at this time during the global pandemic. Can we start by talking about your return to Sydney earlier this year and where you are now?
Xiao Lu: Thank you for your invitation, Claire. I’m delighted to attend the Art + Courage, CoVA Creating Futures Seminar. And thank you Wanling for your interpreting.
I started from Shanghai on 6th January 2021 and had a layover in Auckland and arrived in Sydney on 7th January. After being quarantined in a hotel for 14 days, I rented a place in Elizabeth Bay. It was an unfurnished place, so throughout March I spent most of my time buying stuff. Being away from Sydney for 23 years, it felt like starting all over again. I would open Google Maps, enter what I needed to buy, and some addresses would be available for me to choose. Then I would take the subway or a taxi to go to places. Sometimes I just walked to nearby places. That process allowed me to gradually get to know the city again.
I am living in a one-bedroom unit, but what attracts me the most is the huge plane tree in front of my window. I was born in Hangzhou in China. Along Nanshan Road in Hangzhou, there are huge plane trees on both sides of the road. So this place reminds me of my hometown. After breakfast every day, I would take a walk to Elizabeth Bay and sit by the sea for a while.
I’m from a country where there is strict speech control. What I was most excited about when I first arrived in Sydney was that I can surf the Internet freely. In China, you have to use VPN to access Google, YouTube, Facebook and other social media, which is a risky behaviour. I know people who got into trouble for that. Here, it is really satisfying to have access to so much news! During the first few months in Sydney, I spent hours on the Internet listening to the news every day. Sometimes I would walk while listening to the news. This experience prompted me to want to create a work related to listening to the news.
During this time, I also participated in some online seminars and met some friends in Sydney. I didn't expect the city to suddenly go into a lockdown on 26th of June. On the second day of the lockdown, I went to take a look at Kings Cross and there was barely anybody there. The shops were closed. Only supermarkets, hotels and pharmacies were still open. When Sydney first went into a lockdown, there were only 29 confirmed cases. At the beginning, it was meant to be in lockdown for two weeks. I thought it would pass soon. I didn't expect it to get worse and worse. In the end, the lockdown lasted for over three months.
With the lockdown restrictions, I could only move around within 5 kilometres. Fortunately, I live not far from the city centre, so sometimes I would walk to the opera house and the city centre, and take photos and videos. The bustling city centre in the past became an empty city. When I took a walk on the street, and when someone walked on the other side, we would walk around each other. The sense of distance between people made me feel sad. I went to the supermarket occasionally and learned to shop online. For Chinese food, I mostly shopped online.
During the lockdown, the number of COVID cases and deaths of the previous day were announced at 11 am every day. I took notice of the numbers, and wrote them down on Chinese xuan paper using brush and ink. If there were deaths, I would record them in red. There is a big long table in front of the window of my room, covered with felt for painting. Sometimes, I would write or paint something and use brush and ink to record my thoughts, just as people from earlier times used brush and ink to write; it was a daily practice. Every time I looked at the numbers, I felt sad. They were not just numbers, they represented the existence and disappearance of lives.
During the lockdown, I applied for an Australia Council grant for a new art project. Regardless of the grant outcome, I have started working on the project. After 107 days, the strict lockdown in Sydney was lifted on 11th October. It has been ten months since I arrived in Sydney. How time flies.
Claire Roberts: When did you first come to Australia?
Xiao Lu: I came to Sydney at the end of 1989, following the gunshots that I fired into my art work at the National Art Museum of China in 1989. After obtaining Australian citizenship, I returned to China in 1997.
Claire Roberts: What words would you use to describe the ideas behind your artwork – what motivates you?
Xiao Lu: In terms of what motivates my work, sometimes it's a fragment drawn from life, or something that grabs my attention. It comes from bodily perception, and from nature. When motivation appears it can take the form of excitement, entanglement, passion or courage. It changes with the years and grows with the seasons.
My failure in personal relationships prompted an awakening in me. Curiosity prompts me to continually seek to discover myself and get to know the world. Over time my concerns shifted from myself to society, from unconscious and passive resistance to making conscious decisions and letting go. The experience of artistic practice makes me realize that the right to express my own free will is as important to me as the air I breathe. If a project impinges on this I will forsake the opportunity.
Claire Roberts: You trained in oil painting, your graduation work back in 1988 was an installation, and you famously fired a handgun into that installation when it was displayed at the China/Avant-garde exhibition in Beijing in February 1989. Since then you have become known as a performance artist. Why performance art?
Xiao Lu: When I fired a gun into the telephone booth that was my art work ‘Dialogue’ in 1989, I didn't think of myself as a performance artist. At that time, all I wanted to do was to express myself. I remember when I was in the second year of art school, I had a conversation with Maryn Varbanov, the Bulgarian artist who taught at the academy, and I asked him: what is art? His answer was: "It is to use all means to express what you want to express." I am still inspired by his words to this day.
I remember that when my installation "Dialogue" was published on the back cover of "Art" magazine, it was described as a “mixed media” artwork rather than an "installation". I became known to the public because of the gunshots in 1989, and was often invited to create performance art, and so quite naturally I became a performance artist. There were many opportunities to work on projects and develop experience in this area. I had had four years of training in fine arts at the Central Academy of Fine Arts high school, and four years of training in oil painting at the art academy in Hangzhou. Performance art is something that developed out of personal experience, learning and understanding with each art work. Although it is different from oil painting, the underlying aesthetics are interconnected.
Why performance art? Performance art is an academic term! Just like a person needs a name so that they can be easily identified. Performance in English means to perform or to act, however there isn’t much performance or acting in my work. The term “Action Art” is probably more accurate, or maybe we need to invent another term. That is a job for a theorist. In my work, I focus on the real experience of the process, and regardless of the result, I will never repeat a work. A performance is generally something that can be repeated continuously. In fact, with each performance I have done, I have had some misgivings, and have had the urge to do it again, but then I think, life is actually a performance work, and it is impossible to repeat what you have experienced - the regrets and accidents, excitements and losses. These are all real experiences at certain moments in one’s life.
Claire Roberts: Your first performance work in Australia was Tides created in 2019 on a beach outside Sydney in which you planted 30 bamboo poles into the shoreline at high tide. What was your thinking behind the work and the form that it took?
Xiao Lu: This work was created for the exhibition at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Sydney. Because it was a 30-year retrospective exhibition, the thirty bamboo poles represented the thirty years since the China/Avant-garde exhibition, and my arrival in Sydney, Australia. Why did I choose a location by the sea?
When I conceived the work in China, I was thinking that the space at 4A was limited, so I decided to make an outdoor work. From 1991 to 1993, I lived near Bondi Beach for three years. I often walked along the beach, and remembered the high and low tides of the sea. Of course, there were many other ideas that I worked through in the conception phase, but in the end I thought this was the best idea for this project.
From 1989 to 2019, the ups and downs of my life and art have impacted my fate like the tides. The lives of individuals and history are intertwined, just like the performance of "Tides", you fall down and you get up again, and then you rush towards the depths of the sea, to battle with the treacherous tides of life.
Chinese literati painting is known for the depictions of the 4 gracious plants, also known as the 4 gentlemen: plum, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum. These plants represent qualities of pride, seclusion, strength, and simple elegance respectively. Looking back on those 30 years, it is the word "strength" that guided me through many difficult years. Choosing bamboo poles to be inserted on the beach in Sydney has a certain cultural meaning for me. Preparation for this performance also involved the design of my dress and my hairstyle. The dress was designed by the artist Feng Ling.
Claire Roberts: Today, how do you think about Tides in the context of your oeuvre?
Xiao Lu: I usually focus on my work and leave the reviews and judgements to others. But from my perspective, I was pretty happy with my first performance art work in Australia, it had an Australian touch.
My long experience practicing calligraphy and writing in brush and ink has taught me that skill is required to use the brush and that the spirit and strength of calligraphy is determined by one’s temperament. No matter how my work changes, the inner spirit or temperament will not change. Tides was an outdoor site-specific performance. I first started this type of performance in 2015 with “Money Laundering”. For performance outdoors, I need to consider how to make use of the scene without being overshadowed by it, and how to integrate with the scene. This is what I need to consider when conceiving the work. "Money Laundering" was created over three days, and its imperfections could be remedied by editing the film footage. In “Holy Water”, I drank a lot of Moutai liquor, and the outcome was achieved through a state of unconsciousness, whereas “Tides” was a one-off performance conducted in a conscious state. The tricky part was, before I did the performance, I was not sure about the momentum of the high and low tides.
When I first started, I waited for the tide to rise while I was performing, but halfway through the performance, the tide didn't come up as far as I had expected and I was a bit frustrated, so straightaway, I started to insert the bamboo poles into the sea. Contact with the waves allowed the feeling of the work to come out. From this perspective, the performance involved rational intervention. But why did I want to do that? This is perhaps what I seek in performance art, to push the work to a critical point that is close to the limit.
Claire Roberts: What are the challenges and opportunities of making artworks outside China, the country of your birth?
Xiao Lu: I remember when I was preparing to come to Sydney earlier this year, some friends told me that I might not be able to create the kind of works I created in China when I am in Australia. Because of the insecurity of the living environment in China, there is always a sense of struggle and resistance, which is often reflected in my works. For example, "Polar", "Skew", which all involve an enclosed space where one fights to break out of the plight. Without that environment, the layers of the work will change: China will move into the background, reality will surface, and where and how they intertwine becomes the problem I have to face. Currently, I have a new work in progress, which is just at that stage. It will be a challenge for me.
In China Chinese contemporary art is not recognized by mainstream society, so funding is always a problem. If I want to do a solo exhibition in China, then I have to work out the funding for the exhibition and catalogue myself. Some private art galleries and institutions will invest in contemporary art, but it depends on the commercial value of the work and the scale of political correctness, because they will not take risks for you. My work often fails the censorship system for exhibitions and publications in China, and my unwillingness to compromise has resulted in no solo exhibition and no published catalogue in China.
As for the solo exhibition in Sydney, I didn’t have to worry about the funding, and there are plans for a publication. So from this perspective, research on my work has really begun in Australia. There are many arts funding programs to apply for in Australia, which is very attractive to me. In the face of the opportunities and challenges, it is only by fully connecting with things here, physically and mentally, that it will be possible for me to take advantage of the opportunities and develop as an artist.
Claire Roberts: What impact has geographical displacement had on your thinking as an artist?
Xiao Lu: Everyone has their own pathway in creating works. Going with the flow may be my state of making art over the years. And this so-called being natural is the inevitable result of the union of knowledge and action. In earlier years, my work mainly focused on emotions, and the motivation was internal. Geographical displacement had little effect on me for that type of work. In recent years, my work has become more socially engaged; external factors have had an impact on me. Since coming here, I have been dealing with so much more information. I still need time and a process to adapt and let it all sink in. When you look at things from a distance, your emotions settle down a bit more.
These days, I am working on a project related to the pandemic. Dealing with multiple contradictions has caused me to fall into many cognitive blind spots. I remember a teaching from Master Hong Yi, (Li Shutong, the artist turned Buddhist who died in Hangzhou in 1942) "Attend to worldly matters with an unworldly mind". I found myself understanding that sentence in the context of geographic displacement. It takes a sense of distance to understand the relationship between the worldly and the unworldly. I sometimes find myself too involved in and attached to my work. When entering a black hole, how to find a ladder is the key to the work.
Claire Roberts: To what extent do you think art can make a difference, prompting viewers to think about complex ideas and imagine things differently? Is that something that motivates your work or is it driven by other concerns?
Xiao Lu: When doing a live performance, a lot of the time it involves interacting with the audience. For example, my works "Sperm", "Drunk", "Human". My experience is that once audience members enter the work, they participate in the perception and interpretation of the work. Some of my works are quite controversial. For example, the controversy over my early work “Dialogue” continues today.
The online debate after "Purge" was something unexpected for me. But these reactions are not the driving forces of my work, they are only objective realities that emerge after the work. An artist's work is very personal. The effect it produces is often controlled by another system. As an artist, you can only be responsible for your own words, actions and works.
On 23rd April, I created Facebook and Instagram accounts where I post some of my works and some photos. In China there is no such international social platform, there is only WeChat, and the speech control of WeChat has caused my WeChat account to be blocked ten times! Here, I can post freely, and I can read and interact with information provided by netizens all over the world. It feels good. The Internet has become a part of our lives, and most of the activities during the pandemic have also been carried out online. Therefore, art not only exists in art museums and galleries, but also in everyday online platforms.
The driving force that motivates me to create art comes from my perception of myself and society. Sometimes, people are not self-aware. After creating "Dialogue", I was unable to face the inner sense of fear that was inherent in my work, which made me lack confidence in myself. It wasn't until 2003 that I really addressed the issue of the authorship of "Dialogue". That gave me confidence again and made it easier for me to create new works.
I went to Hong Kong in 2019 and witnessed the struggle and resistance of Hong Kong people. This unforgettable experience of being there in person completely shattered some of my previous illusions and strengthened my belief in universal values. When I edited the video clips of "Skew" with the video clips of the Hong Kong protests, I found that the tension arising from the juxtaposition of the two spaces was absent in my previous performance work.
During Sydney’s recent lockdown, I went out walking with my camera and took videos and photos collecting material for my new work in progress. When there is a crisis, I cannot remain indifferent to what is happening around me. Art should not only have an aesthetic value, it should also have a certain social responsibility. To record this era, so that it will not be forgotten in the future.
Claire Roberts: How has the experience of living here affected you thinking about your own artistic future?
Xiao Lu: Facing the pandemic and the fall of Hong Kong, I often feel helpless and hopeless. Humanity’s attitudes towards crises are often formed at the cost of life. When the mind is wrestling with things, one’s perception of the past can be rather personal, whereas one’s sense of the future comes in the form of the establishment of belief, and this ideological basis requires a long-term process of thinking. Writing is the most direct means of expression, whereas art is a visual presentation of thinking.
The process of applying for a grant from the Australia Council has changed my pathway of creating works. In the past, prior to creating the works, especially performance works, I would have lots of ideas in the conception stage. Generally, the plan was not finalised until one month before the performance, and sometimes the plan was changed at the scene. The plans were mostly sketches, with few texts. I have never written so many words before creating a work - more than 10,000 English characters, and a 1-2 year plan. This practice breaks the randomness of my previous works. Something deep-seated will come out, between the finite and the infinite, between the rational and the emotive.
The psychological and spatial distances between people caused by the pandemic has forced me to consider the possibility of completing my work alone at home, so I chose to use video to create this work. I believe that all these different ways of creating works will have a gradual and subtle impact on my thinking about the future.
20/10/2021, Sydney, Elizabeth Bay