Xue Ruozhe: You can’t pretend to be someone else
Originally published in Da Bian Lu
Interview and editing: Yang Meiju, Li Ao
As we were standing in Xue Ruozhe’s studio, which is not really decorated but more practical and functional, we talked about the many small paintings hanging on the wall, and he explained the light, the expression, the technique and the concept behind each painting in a detailed and painstaking manner; and for a few moments, I saw a kind of intoxication in Xue Ruozhe’s face, and a desire behind this: he wanted to shrink himself as much as possible, and even disappear from the world. Conversely, these paintings of his that are inspired by tradition but constantly doubt and challenge this tradition, are pushed to the forefront, becoming more and more striking and unique.
This is also the idea that Xue Ruozhe repeatedly conveyed to us during the interview: how unimportant he is compared to painting, and how those trends and linear changes that come and go do not stand up to scrutiny compared to his adherence to painting. As a young artist who still tries to broaden “the meaning of painting” and believes in “the will of painting”, but at the same time “deeply doubts the existence of painting”, Xue Ruozhe had many opportunities to leave painting in favor of those seemingly more avant-garde, experimental and contemporary practices, but he finally found that he “couldn’t leave”. He preferred to stay in this enclave, attempting to rebel and change from within, but at the same time, he hoped that he could gradually become invisible and fade away from the canvas, like some increasingly diluted ink, dense and permeable, until he would become one with the painting itself, and with the figures he was obsessed with.
When confronted with Xue Ruozhe’s practice, many questions naturally arise: where does a young artist’s “fundamentalism” towards painting come from? How does an artist who is wary of symbolism look at the times in which he lives? In addition, we are attracted to Xue Ruozhe’s references to gender in painting and his acceptance of feminism, which he has mentioned more than once in past interviews.
Our conversation with Xue Ruozhe, on the other hand, grew out of round after round of arguments and repeated mutual disagreements. And it was at the end of the interview that we realised how defensive each party was before the interview, and how deep the understanding that was eventually reached.
Perhaps we should thank Xue Ruozhe who took on our offensive prejudices and attacks with the resilience of a marathon runner. Throughout the whole process, he did not seem proficient at arguing, nor did he intend to testify for himself, like a soldier who sees the futility of resistance early on in the cold weapon era and vainly holds up an almost laughably small wooden shield amidst the siege of words.
In a sense, what Xue Ruozhe shows us is a choice that is both arrogant and prudent: as a “long-termist” on the road of painting, he demonstrates how a young artist decides not to be “avant-garde”.
Life or Death 生死
My recent exhibition, YYYY-MM-DD, incorporates temporality as an explicit topic in the themes of my works. This expression is firstly related to the inherent temporality of painting, and in this series, I see painting as an act of compressing time on a plane. The other origin of this series is related to the tradition of still life in the history of Western painting. In a large number of still life paintings, the juxtaposition of life and death, elements such as flowers, lizards, and skulls are very common. And this juxtaposition of life and death can also happen within a bouquet.
In this body of work, I don’t hide my condition in everyday life. For example, I usually paint before I leave the house, so if I have to leave early one morning and only have 20 minutes to finish a flower, I will paint it in a more schematic way. But if I have an hour or two that morning, I’ll add more details. I don’t try to hide my state of mind on that day to pursue a perfect picture; I paint in whatever state I’m in. There was a time when I was in Guangzhou with the school locked down, so I couldn’t go out to buy flowers, and therefore I had to buy flowers that had already been arranged and packed by Meituan, the online shopping service. I couldn’t choose the bouquet, so I would paint it as it was, even with the packaging. Through the action of painting, I face life as it is.
When I look at those works later, I can recall the feeling and state of that day even though I don’t remember the specific events; for example, a certain period when I had a lot of things to do and was feeling very anxious; or a period when I was in a very peaceful state. I don’t expect the viewers to recognize my change of state from this group of paintings,: it’s more like a personal history.
To get close to this physicality, I paint in a very “primitive” way: I stay in front of the easel and I paint a flower every day. This is not quite the same as my former methodology. Previously I refused to do “en plein air”, but in this group of works I must paint, and the act of painting itself has become part of the concept of these works.
YYYYY-MM-DD will last until the end of my life.
Each painting itself is a unit of time “from birth to death”. Each painting is an echo of this unit, with the whole project placed on a decades-long time-frame from the birth of my youngest daughter to my death, and I hope to commemorate all trends and cycles. It may change a bit as my painting style evolves, but some basic structures will remain the same, such as the day-to-day manual work on the canvas, or the relationship between flower and date. By painting a flower every day, I hope to give myself, and the times we are in, a temporal anchoring.
This series is closely related to the state of my life. I do not paint large sizes or introduce a strong tension within the subject matter; its tension comes from time and life. In our struggle with the relentless passing of time, and our entanglement within the uncertainty of life, time never stops flowing. Whether in the present moment, or amid great uncertainty in the period that has just passed, this group of works brings peace to me: whether I am locked down or I can walk around freely, there is a task that I must accomplish every day, and this is the only certain thing.
Contemporary art presents a pluralistic juxtaposition rather than a linear, iterative relationship with the modernist era, and it is parochial to look at painting with a historicist logic even now. In this era, all elements, methods, and mediums have become something to be utilized or picked, and when faced with a multitude of choices, I will choose the way that has a closer relationship to me.
After so many years and generations, figurative painting has not been overthrown, but is still alive and well. I believe that a fortress has to be conquered from the inside: it is possibly more destructive to transform and change from within the figurative system. For me, this approach makes sense and is, of course, more challenging.
Whether I work from it or away from it, there is no way I can leave it behind, it’s inescapable, it is the way I think and work. I use this as a base point for thinking, transforming, resisting, and constructing, and from this point I can start other explorations.
At first I was incredulous towards painting and realism. I even considered giving up painting. But I then realized that the most powerful way for me to solve this problem was to do so from within: to bravely face this thing that feels difficult, instead of starting another route or pursuing something that is not related to the themes of my work and the logic of my thinking.
My practice did not begin with painting. When I was at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, I took two courses, one was Zhan Wang’s “Materials and Concepts”, and the other was Liang Shuo’s Materials course, which made me realize that I could start from the relationship between concepts and materials, or from the materials themselves. Therefore, when I started my painting practice, I used painting as a kind of material for organizing concepts – that is to say, I “instrumentalized” it, and felt that I had to make a gesture to express my radicalism: in the domestic context at that time, I always hoped that I could do something very avant-garde, very contemporary, and very unusual, and wanted to rebel against the academic system, which made me refrain from painting realistically for my degree show. Perhaps other people who have just embarked on a contemporary art practice in China will have this anxiety about whether they are “contemporary” enough.
Strangely enough, this anxiety disappeared after I arrived in the UK. I gradually realized what kind of person I was, what I wanted to do, and to see where my strength lay: returning to the origin, and playing with the figurative painting system. This is where my interest lies, and I am looking forward to making some changes to it. It’s a process of gradually recognizing myself through constantly painting.
I think we always need to look at ourselves outside the box. Contemporary art originates from the West, and when I was in China I would imagine what contemporary art was, but when I was in the UK’s contemporary art scene, all I thought about was what I wanted to do instead of pursuing a certain “contemporary look.”
Later in my works, I used figurative painting to look back at the system itself; this kind of thinking has always existed, while painting keeps developing. Some people think that only using new media is “new”, and that contemporary art should be “politically correct”. But for me, this kind of “correctness” is instead the epitome of a new conservatism. The real novelty lies in the core, in the questioning of the established system and in the renewing of the expression, in the fact that no matter whether it is a traditional material or a new medium, it can be dealt with in an extraordinary and unprecedented way, which will also give more impetus to art history. Some Chinese artists are anxious about keeping up with the times and trends, which is in line with the anxiety about modernity in China throughout the twentieth century. But what we need is to find our position and think about whether we can advance meaningfully in our practice. For me, if work has nothing to do with me, why should I make it?
Put Down 放下
In my works, there are often explicit or implicit “parodies” of Western classics, and this methodology stems from a distrust of the figurative painting system, which is why I try to work with it, to deconstruct it from the inside. This distrust comes from the fact that in the many years during which I studied painting, many classic works have been engraved in my mind. Partly because they are so classic, and partly because of their continued presence in the current academic system, like those repetitive songs on the street that always linger in your head even if you don’t like them. It’s a pretty unpleasant feeling, and I always want to do something about them – I choose to do this through my work.
Is it possible to leave it after you’ve made a parody of it? Maybe it’s safe to say that I can let go in some way. A while ago I did a project about my grandfather, who died of a heart attack in 2013, after I had witnessed his struggle to leave this world. It hit me so hard at the time, and ten years passed by until I was able to let it go. I took a handful of soil from the small garden that my grandfather used to tend on the 6th of July, got on the old bicycle at home, and brought it to his grave. The road is over 50 kilometers, and after riding for hours in the burning sun, I hoped that this act would make me feel better and smooth out the knots left behind.
I’ve always been interested in breaking boundaries or in finding a middle ground. It’s the blurring, the ambiguity that’s interesting. Labeling myself or expressing a strong opinion is not only meaningless to me, it’s even harmful. In the long run, I tend to be more open-minded and not confined to a certain formal framework. It is probably because of this attitude that I don’t believe in what is taken for granted.
I was not a good student in the traditional sense and was often a headache for my teachers. I got good grades but particularly disliked being disciplined, I had no interest in authority or established patterns, and when some definite and certain principle was presented, I always wondered if there was something wrong with it, and whether there was a crack in it to mock and dismantle it. This was roughly my attitude from the very beginning.
The deepest resistance does not lie in what you say or do, but in what kind of person you are inside. I know that too many people are afraid that they are not “advanced”, and so they show a certain attitude: they make videos, installations, or performances, which is the sign of a lack of self-confidence that I despise. Whether you want to make such a move because you have been beaten up, or you just want to do something because you are in disagreement, there is a big difference. After all, today we no longer define whether we are “avant-garde” through specific materials or manifestos. Some people will label themselves as feminists just because it’s fashionable, but at heart they may agree more with the patriarchy. It is precisely this era that seems to have all kinds of choices and possibilities, an era where one can freely choose between photography, video, or painting. Why do I choose painting, which seems to be the most traditional and marginal medium in the contemporary art system, as the main line of expression? Why does it have to conform to a certain form to be considered contemporary? I am not sure.
我喜欢绘画并愿意相信绘画的力量，就像你选择从事文字工作一样，这也是一种信任，但具体说来为什么选择这个方式，也未必能清晰说出，可能是一个复杂而漫长的故事。即使我不能以绘画为生，也还是会继续画画。这确实是一种随缘的态度，但绘画是我的本能，是内在的需求。Painting is not a a profession, but an obsession（画画不仅仅是一种职业，更是一种沉迷）。就像烟民，每天不抽几口会感到不舒服，我每天不画画也会感觉少了点什么。为什么绘画被宣布死亡后这么多年后依然存在？在平面上留下痕迹本就是人类的本性，也许也是我的命。
I love painting and I want to believe in its power, just as you choose to work with words, which is also a kind of trust, but why you choose to do it may not be clearly stated, and may be a long and complex story. Even if I couldn’t make a living from painting, I would continue to paint. This is a really casual attitude, but painting is my instinct, an inner need. “Painting is not a profession, but an obsession.” Just like a smoker who feels uncomfortable if he doesn’t take a few puffs every day, I feel something is missing if I don’t paint every day. Why does painting still exist so many years after it was declared dead? It is human nature to make marks on a flat surface, and perhaps it is also my destiny.
When I was in high school, I entered the experimental class of a key middle school in Jiangsu Province, and it was reasonable to predict that I would go to a top university, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I only knew that I didn’t want to study, and that painting would make me happy. Then I dropped out of school and joined the high school attached to the Central Academy of Fine Arts.
I was obsessed with drawing throughout my high school years. I drew day in and day out, observing people and environments around me, making sketches a meter high on top of each other. There was a period when I drew sketches at McDonald’s every day, and while I drew, I drank coffee with free refills. I could drink about ten cups of coffee in an afternoon and still sleep well. I would also take my sketchbook to Beijing station to draw sketches and spend 10 yuan to buy a ticket to Fengtai the next morning so that I wouldn’t be driven away late at night, and I would draw all night long.
The very act of painting carries the feeling of a spiritual practice. When immersed in the process of applying paint on the canvas, it is as if I entered a state of meditation. This feeling is very special. Especially when you realize that you have created a magnificent draft, you suddenly feel “uplifted”, and this satisfaction is wonderful. You feel that everything has come together in an instant.
Women are often depicted in my work, and it’s hard to say how gender plays a role in that. What is certain is that what I depict may be myself. I don’t make a distinction between male and female artists. If you were a female artist, would you want people to introduce you as a female artist? You only want people to call you an artist. Art has its own will and has nothing to do with gender. Moreover, gender itself is fluid. Nowadays, we cannot define a person solely on biological sex, which is very superficial. In my hometown, Xuzhou City, the women who brought me up were all very strong and could hold their own. Wendi Deng, for example, is a typical Xuzhou girl. And the males around them were often subtle and understated. So I’m incredulous of gender stereotypes, and of ideas about what women or men should be like – shouldn’t the focus be on what a person is like in their own right rather than what their gender is? Of course, that’s just my opinion, and some people are willing to make a point about gender, and I respect that.
I like to paint my friends around me, although I borrow his/her image, what I paint is still myself, my state. It is difficult to describe this feeling in words. When people who know me well look at my works, they will often say, “This is you”. When Chinese people say that a painting is like a person, the word “person” not only refers to the physical appearance but also to the inner spirit. If you don’t know me, how can you say that this is me?
Painting itself is a combination of two basic human actions, seeing and mark-making. For the painter, all people and objects are things to be observed. But this kind of observation is not the so-called “male gaze”. It seems nowadays that “gazing” has become a negative word, but in figurative painting, gazing – intensely looking – is not only necessary but also ubiquitous. The object of the gaze is not only form but also texture, light, and colour. It is a looking with pleasure. I depict a person in the same way I look at a glass bottle, a potato. Viewing, the eternal subject of figurative painting, is a homogeneous gaze.
When I paint still life, I can experience the same pleasure of viewing as when I paint people. Yes, in painting everything is reified. Sometimes in the setting of the picture, I’ll let it have a reflexive point of view. For example, in “Her Backhands”, the girl turns around and takes a reverse shot of the viewer with her mobile phone – kind of like how we react when we realize that we are being secretly filmed. In this work, the girl is both observed by us and watches us in turn, no longer an unconscious object to be gazed at.
The inversion and ambiguity of gender are evident in my work. Previously on social media, when I didn’t use my avatar but an interior by Bonnard and didn’t explicitly label my gender, many people would leave comments praising me for being a good female artist. This kind of misunderstanding is fine with me. When viewers can understand the inner feelings conveyed by my paintings, it means that my paintings convey messages that are consistent with who I am.
In life as well, although my wife may seem petite, she is always very rational and reasonable, whereas I am the more emotional one. In a traditional sense, gender roles in our family may be inverted, but nowadays it’s stupid to still see people in terms of gender.
So I’m not trying to break the binary gender division; I am what I am. There’s no need to emphasize anything in particular: what is is what is, you can’t pretend to be someone else, and role-playing is not sustainable. In art, we have to face ourselves honestly first and foremost – it’s impossible to portray a false character.
I hope I can step away so that people can stop focusing on me and just concentrate on my work. Of course, the necessary condition is the unity of the artist and the work. If you have seen the real me through the works, that’s enough.
It is characteristic of the times that we often interpret many things through the lens of identity politics and so on. However, as an artist, or at least as myself, it may not be necessary to respond to these issues in my work even though I understand these topics and am aware of their existence. But the necessity to incorporate them into my works should remain a question mark.
But the awareness and consciousness that are not inserted into the painting are not put aside, but conveyed in different ways. For example, I also make installations and performances. A painting that is designed to express a certain attitude can easily be reduced to a propaganda tool. This is very dangerous. It turns the painting into a poster. Painting has its own will and logic.
When I was teaching at the Oil Painting Department, students would often show me sketches, and I would first ask them: is it necessary to use painting to realize this, and apart from painting, is it possible to address this in photography, collage or video, and what is the necessity of painting for this subject matter?
By the same token, if you want to express strong opinions on certain topics, why not speak out and get involved directly? Why not express it in a more impactful way? Why paint?
I certainly have a particular attitude, but this attitude does not necessarily have to be expressed through painting. For paintings, the specifically strong symbols or attitudes that appear on the surface relegate other elements to the background.
I’m personally quite wary of strong symbols because once you frame yourself into a certain symbol, you inevitably end up in a self-consolidating situation where it’s difficult to move further. For example, during the 2012-2014 Virtual Life Series, my time in the UK made me realize that the symbolism of this series was a bit too strong even though some scholars later said that I was probably the first painter to explore the hard-edge 3D effect. Of course, as a work in itself, the symbols hold up.
Due to their strong recognition, some symbols can even bring rapid, material success to an artist. However, from the perspective of an artist’s career plan, being tied to symbols is equivalent to restricting oneself and simplifying one’s rich and complex practice, making it difficult to move forward. So later on, I intentionally turned away from it, took a step back, and slowly and naturally tried to grow something more lasting. If you retract your fist and then throw a punch, it will hurt, but if you extend your fist straight out, it will look good, but there is no way to knock down your opponent. This is also a return to the origin: to think about how to make painting a lifelong endeavour, rather than just pursuing the success of a certain series. From this point of view, I am a long-termist, and I don’t want certain overly-strong elements to damage my artistic career.
有人会觉得，如果这些符号我不去占的话别人可能就拿走了。那没关系，如果他们喜欢占那个位置，那就去好了。对我来说，当绘画走到某个阶段，总会意识到自己已经不再需要那个符号。这不是占坑不占坑的问题，毕竟我曾经到达过此地，已经成为无法绕过的部分，但这并不重要，因为这股风潮很快就会过去，就像曾经大家都觉得坏画很叛逆，实际上这都是西方早就玩坏了的东西。站在一个更长远的历史维度， 风潮只是小小的一朵浪花， 很快就会淹没在历史的长河中，而真正历害的人，能够把这条河流打开一个个分叉，乃至令其改道。
Some people may think that if I don’t take these symbols someone else may take them. That’s fine, if they like to take that place then so be it. For me, when it comes to a certain stage, I realize I no longer need that symbol. It’s not a question of picking up the gauntlet or not – after all, I’ve arrived here before, and it has become a part of me that can’t be bypassed; but it doesn’t matter because the trend will soon pass, just like once everyone thought “bad painting” was rebellious, yet the West has long since moved away from it. From a more historical dimension, the trend is just a small wave that will soon be submerged in the long river of history, while the great people can open up the river all at once and even divert its course.
For a painter, the primary problem is to establish his own coherent visual system, which is not an instantaneous decision on what style to adopt but is formed through years of continuous exploration, practice, and reflection. This is especially difficult for artists who come out of the academic system in China, where the accumulation of techniques over the years seems to make it possible to master any style but not enough to change the look. Therefore, we can see in the art system all kinds of derivative versions of academic paintings, whether they are hidden in “bad paintings” or in the popular “hard-edged paintings”. But this kind of skillfulness gradually obscures one’s own heart, and it becomes more difficult to find oneself. To a certain extent, I can understand those artists who have switched to other media, because painting is indeed difficult. But it’s only exciting to make the impossible possible, isn’t it?