Traces of the Sacred: Interview with Xu Xiaoguo


_ Interviewer: Deng Fei (hereinafter referred to as Deng) 
_Interviewee: Xu Xiaoguo (hereinafter referred to as Xu) 
_Venue: Xu Xiaoguo Studio, Black Bridge 
 _Time: November 2009

Deng: When we were discussing the English title for your November 28 solo exhibition "Shengji" which literally means "the Holy Traces", we forsook the word “Saint” for its Christian implication. I see most of the signs in your paintings hardly refer to Christianity. 

Xu: By this Chinese character “Sheng,” I mean “divine”, “sacred,” and "extraordinary," which is a personal interpretation of the standard understanding. When an individual develops into a model of perfection of value standard, he ultimately would be put to the end of the spectrum and be glorified. The common and the sacred exchange their roles to complete the transformation from a human being to a spiritual being and then back to a human being again. Thus, "The Sacred Traces " is more exact, better than "Traces of the Saint," which is superficially defined and implies mythology and religion. 
Two years ago, I formed the framework of this exhibition. As for the title of the exhibition, it’s just a name to me. My works in this exhibition do not necessarily refer to mythical stories or religious events.

Deng:  At present, many artists like to put a conscious emphasis on a dubious character in their works. While infact, they intend to make their works open to more interpretations. 

Xu: In fact, artists do not need to resort to distortion or misleading. I, myself, do not emphasize this ambiguity in my works. If such is the case in everyday speech,  it might be particularly interesting. But in the process of artistic creation, I just do not have such an attempt to orient the semantic and symbolic signs towards ambiguity, or to hold that art cannot be said. Some dedicate to avoid openness or straightforwardness of form and content in their works, but I am just the opposite. I am now working in the field of setting up a self-construction process of painting. I’m fully aware of the emotions conveyed in the process of painting. At present, many artists use ambiguous language; I do not reject that each one may use his or her respective way. Some artists are firing towards artistic issues. Some others are merely playing tricks on the viewer, by manipulating them and causing them to  even misunderstand the artists.

Deng: I remember walking into your studio, seeing those huge paintings with a strong sense of comedy and tension hanging in front of me. My initial impression was that these works have a particularly strong "Chinese” disposition, both from the symbolic aspect and the subject matter. My impression is that you work as a classical Chinese intellectual, the kind of person who advocate literature carrying over Taoism. You definitely take a separate path from those experimental artists who play a pure language game. In other words, artistic works should have a hidden meaning or value, a value, though is, different from moral standards of right and wrong, good and evil, but rather one that carries with it the unspeakable mystery of mythology and history, the bewildering complexity of stories that cannot be stated. They display many emotions entangled together, leaving the viewers confused. Reflections on history, culture, and psychology are jumbled together as if human desires and ideals formed an inseparable being. One can obviously detect the dramatic factors in your handling of the relationship between symbols and images, and is able to see your attempt to stop at a certain level. I would like to ask you about the motives behind all these factors? 

Xu: I can use a daily example to explain the kind of Chinese symbols and moods you mentioned. For instance, you are imposing a definition of me, Xuxiao Guo as a Chinese. If I do not acknowledge, if it does not set up barriers to such a symbol. If, on the other hand, I acknowledge, if this obstacle came into being. So in the latter case, using Chinese symbols is an obstacle. Put it in another way, I was using Chinese symbols to produce Chinese symbols, and to forge Chinese symbols into a common international influence. I am, by nature, one of the human race, so if this obstacle does not exist, whether I am Chinese or not does not matter. If perceived from another point of view, I am Chinese, this is a reality I am powerless to change, and then it’s natural that Chinese culture finds its expression in my works. I do not view it a problem, and there is no need to reject such expression for the attempt is meaningless. I suggest not wasting time on this issue and efforts should be focused on artistic works,   themselves. 
China's current situation makes me doubtful about certain standards. I do not doubt the properness of the standards, but rather, the evolution or the change of thestandards. The evolution of standards, in my opinion, reveals the true state of things. I found it particularly interesting, for the process is like a chemical test, adding certain chemical compositions. The result completely changed. Adding other ingredients, the process starts to change. Such a process is comprehensive, and is the outcome of a combined effort both from socialization and human endeavours.I’m interested in studying cultures of different regions I’ve read extensively. At the same time, I’m also interested in religion and like to compare regions of different regions. I think artists cannot feed on books to perceive of the real world. I do not study as a scholar. I experience to find what is particularly interesting. My recent exploration goes into the textual research method of cultural anthropology, particularly on the myths and legends of in different regions. What intrigues me most is that these myths and legends of different regions in the world are very similar in the ways they are told, minor difference occurring in just proper names. One may think about Chinese county or local annals. For example, in Hangzhou there is a myth of a girl who fell into the water, and turned into a ghost or a goddess. Similar story is also told in Nanjing. In other places, the same story is found with a slight difference that the girl turned into a bird before she fell into the water, and later metamorphosed into a goddess. Legends as such also appear in Europe,including the United Kingdom. The story might be told differently, but the inner core is the same. These myths and legends have been changed somewhat to the different geographical ideologies. The change makes people think. If we go one step further, we may ask whether the emergence of the so-called regional ideology is caused by individuals or groups. The answer is unknown for now. Suppose such ideology is generated by one person, and develops into group values, and further expands to a huge system standard, it becomes a true story. Conversely, the huge social system can also cause changes in personal values. I think no matter who changes whom, who is true and who is false, many cultural issues require our serious reflection.      
Ahead of the works of "The Sacred Traces", I have chosen the stage to express my cultural reflection, and my question about the evolution and change of standards. Stage in my eyes is an appropriate media. There are five spatial relationships: the background space, theater space in front of the background space, the audience viewing space, space outside the theater space and the space between the real world and the virtual world. Suppose the background space is "false", then the performance in the theater space in front is true. If the two merged into one, then the viewing space of the audience is real in comparison to stage play. The first three, when considered as a whole and compared with the space outside the theater, they are also a fake. The most interesting is that the reality is already very real, why create a fake theater reality? I believe there is a need for its generation. I adopted the director’s role and adjust relationships as I began my stage series. I did a dislocation arrangement, disrupting the established logic of the existing relationship, and hence leaving space for audience to reflect. If I were powerful enough to change more, I would transform a real world into a virtual one and a virtual one into a real one, which is even more interesting. At that time, my overall ability failed me and I did not solve the problems I wanted to solve in the stage series ultimately.

Deng: So would you bring those unsolved problems into the exhibiting works of “The Sacred Traces”? 

Xu: I chose the name of this exhibition with the theme "The Sacred Traces".  Everything you see seems to be created by me. Using myths or Chinese symbols is of little concern, and the importance is that I magnify such an issue. I went back to the relationship between reality and virtual reality. At this time, I can only one give up the stage, because the stage could not enable a deep study of the issue. Stage series just change a normal logical relationship. They cannot spur audience’s reflection on artist’s works and deeper thoughts. So I broke up the stage, leaving no stage and no stage images. As a matter of fact, in " The Sacred Traces " series, there is a notion of a larger stage, one without limits of stage arrangements or performances. It is a real world stage, a wider arena of expression. There are more opportunities for me to work inside it, more things to play with in it, and more to be controlled inside it.  

Deng: Do you want to show your ideas in these years via this exhibition? 

Xu: The works of Stage Series will not be exhibited this time. I don't want to present paintings in an ordinary order, as other exhibitions. I hope that the space in the exhibition hall will be specifically divided, which will guide the visitors to follow the artist's ideas. Visitors will understand the artist’s clues and research direction. 

Deng: Looking at a few series of works of yours, I think you are telling stories, stories that can never be explained clearly. You are somewhere between telling stories and declining to tell stories. I wonder what your real attitude is. 

Xu: Actually, I am exploring truth behind the surface of things. I believe my works are not used to solve problems, but to provoke questions. My attitude is not simply to find the answers. 

Deng: From your paintings, one gets the impression that you are very good at painting and at shaping things. Your paintings are real, filled with strength and indigenous vitality, and there is inherent passion and spontaneity inside. Nonetheless, when examining the composition between the symbols, you seem to be unable to escape the pursuit of "meaning", and to wipe away the expression of a sense of history. In the dislocation of the symbolic logic, you create a visual confusion of history for the viewer. The effect, however, seems not entirely  generated by the distance between the symbols?     

Xu: Yes, it is not entirely created by the distance between the symbols. For example, in order to make the painting thick, one heaps up the paint on the canvas, which is wrong. In so doing, one may never show the construction of a painting. In the painting process, the artist amends step by step, the painting itself becomes increasingly thicker and thicker, and the interpretation became more abundant. This is the right way; such thickness makes sense, for it shows the construction process. This is just one example, one point of the structural complexity of painting. What I am doing now is more than simply finishing a painting. I put a lot of consideration  self-reflection into my works. Now my major job is to amend, amending for sake of amending itself.

Deng: You mentioned the amendment involves several levels. First, the choice of symbols. Why not a Donald Duck, but a seal, and so on. Secondly, to what extent a symbol is used? For example, in background construction, why do not use the whole symbol? Is it not better? However, I am interested in the question: when is the critical time to stop? Where you stop surely shows values, attitudes, such as cultivation, taste, etc. Is the standard of where to end also changing?

 Xu: It’s not a change of degree. In each step I have had a research purpose and subject, and the starting point has to be decided. This painting of seals is a starting point. I name it "2009", I do not want it carries too much meaning. It just means the end of 2009. Maybe the next step starts in a different direction. It is a declaration of my moving on to the next chapter, or a start of an in-depth construction of painting. In the next phase, I may examine the deeper semantic meaning of image. For example, I drew a flower pot, and others suspect that I’m returning to the theme of the daily life?  Or not? It does not matter. As for when I stop and complete the work? My answer is simply that only when the work finishes my prior research questions, I will stop and let it end. In this process, I would not consider whether the painting is nicely looking or not, whether it meets public aesthetic standard or not. 

Deng: I can understand that, which is why your works look very natural. 

Xu: The painting "2009" has been amended four times. You may ask why stop here.  I feel that if a painting can not fully express your values, it is possible to rely on a series of studies to illustrate. Under the influence of research direction and starting point, an artist's creation can generate a large structure, and a painting is just one phase of testing. For example, you see the trees in this painting, some look like animals, some like geometric shapes, and there are many negative shapes. These all came out of my amendments. The tricky part is that they have no hidden meanings. They are the natural results of my amendment process, representing part of the construction, which necessitate them to exist. 

Deng: Does this mean you have gone back to the ultra-realism path taking by Magritte, Chirico, etc. in their youth? 

Xu: It’s not the case. Because it is the experimental results in the painting process, the products out of my great excitement, the hunch from repetitive amendments. There is no burden in the process of painting. This painting is the best one in my eyes. I can see in it what I am to do next. There is no humour, no fun in the painting. Fine with me. I put my research directions together, and form several key points: First, the artist's conversion. Second, the construction of self-painting process. Third, the need to address the unsolved painting issues. 

Deng: So you think painting is an ancient tool. What is its prospect?   

Xu: Now many people think that art should carry human values, or art should reflect  ideology, narrative, politics, or something else. In fact, painting became the subject to be exploited. Painting should return to the meta-problem to find its way out. Is a painting is good or not? It will tell you by itself, there is no need for extra explanation.   

Deng: I understood the semantic problems of painting as, bluntly put, painting should be like a "good drawing"!

Deng Dafei
Assistant Curator of Li - Space, Beijing, China