HONG KONG – In anticipation of the forthcoming selling exhibition Crossroads: Wei Dong at Sotheby’s Hong Kong from 29 July to 8 August, Sotheby’s sat down with the artist for an interview.
ARTIST WEI DONG IN HIS STUDIO. HORSEBACK RIDER NO. 1 SHOWN IN THE BACKGROUND.
Thank you very much for this opportunity to have you speak about your work and this exhibition. It is an honor for Sotheby’s to host an exhibition of your paintings that spans nearly two decades. You have just moved from New York back to Beijing, which means that Crossroads indeed represents an important transition for you. This exhibition begins with early ink artworks from the late 1990s and includes large paintings on canvas from the late 2000s. Can you tell me a little bit about your transition between mediums and painting styles?
Wei Dong: From 2003 to 2010 my works were impulsive and emotional – my newer works are quieter and more intimate. My earliest works on paper employed a lot of traditional symbols. Back then I still lived in China, and the symbols I used were those that I saw everyday in old photos and magazines. I intended for those symbols to be ironic and critical; they reflected my dissatisfaction and discontent about what was happening around me. Then in 1999 I moved to the States and was bombarded with a completely different culture and all sorts of new things. I hardly knew what and how to create. Eventually I picked up the same style again on canvas, using the same symbols – traditional Chinese landscapes, Chinese robes, etc. – yet somehow the irony and criticism faded, and were replaced by a sense of nostalgia. The longer one stays in the States, the farther away is China and its symbolism; For me, the urgency of the fading symbols evoke something inside, rather than needing to be revealed as an impulse on the canvas. This is very important for me.
Whenever you look back upon your own works, do they remind you of a specific story or moment in your own life?
WD: Many of my works are inspired by personal experiences. For example, Assembly reminds me of a period in my childhood. That room reminds me of my primary school. Everyone sat in the dark – the only light in the room came from sunlight that peeked through the windows. A teacher or some students stood at the front of the room, and everyone else sat there in their dull green or grey uniforms. The atmosphere was always dull and grey.
This work always reminds me of an old photograph and immediately brings me back to my primary school days. The people in the painting are of course different from the people in my childhood, and obviously such a scenario couldn’t have happened in reality. But I enjoy inserting interesting themes, such as humanity and eroticism, into familiar childhood memories. The combination creates an uncanny effect – these are ideas and themes that I couldn’t have understood as a child, and the fusion of such adult themes with my childhood memories results in a special outcome.
I was a very lonely child. In a composition for school, I wrote that whenever I walked alone I would often imagine another boy walking in front me. I would walk with him and listen to him tell stories, because no one else would talk to him. When I grew up I asked myself: What kind of job was suitable for a boy like this? Aside from painting, I could think of nothing else.
WEI DONG, MY MEDITERRANEAN, 2011.
Do you have artists in your family? As a child, did your parents encourage you to pursue art?
WD: My parents and grandparents were not really involved in artistic pursuits. They loved art, and perhaps even wanted to become artists, but their dreams never materialized due to various reasons. They loved art for their whole lives, though. My father never earned much but always set aside money to buy books about art. When he failed to purchase these, he would borrow art books and magazines from work so that I could read them. He had friends in Hong Kong who would pass him newspapers, such as Takungpao, and he would cut out illustrations and paste them in a scrapbook for me. My father’s books and scrapbooks served as my introduction to art and I have always kept them with me. They might not feature the best masterpieces, but they taught me about oil painting and classical Chinese painting.
My father loved painting too, but he stopped the day he realized I painted better than he and then he passed me his brushes and tools. Later, when I was grown up, I once went home to find him secretly painting. I wanted to see what he was painting, but he wouldn’t let me, covering up his work and blushing like a child caught in a wrongful act. At the time I laughed at his embarrassment. Afterwards I regretted laughing at him, and wondered if I should have said some words of encouragement. But then he died, and there was no chance to say anything anymore.
It is a pity that he is not here now to see how much you have accomplished so far in your painting career. In addition to your father, who inspired you to become a painter?
My first teacher only gave me a simple introduction to art; he showed me lots of paintings but didn’t actually teach me how to draw – at least not at first. He was the older brother of one of my classmates in primary school, and his nickname was “Pockmarked Xu” because his face was covered in pockmarks. Not surprisingly, he kept to himself a lot. He stayed home every day to paint, and I often went to his place to watch him, because I was lonely too. He didn’t mind, and eventually I was going to his place nearly every day after school. He would paint portraits of Mao Zedong with his curtains drawn tight and only one light on. Back then, I thought he painted quite well. He talked to me as he worked, explaining his methods and preferences. He didn’t seem to care whether I understood or not as long as he could keep talking. There was a time when I stopped going to his place because I had other things to do, and he actually came to look for me to ask me why I had stopped going. I replied that there wasn’t any point in me going – since he wasn’t drawing me, it didn’t matter whether I was there or not. But I’m teaching you, he said, and I replied, no, you’re not. He said that he was teaching me by telling me about his methods.
After that, whenever I went back to his place, he began to show me his work and actually teach me how to paint. It was quite a special relationship. He was seven or eight years my senior, but we were both lonely. Our conversations revolved around topics wholly unrelated to real life: how to draw a straight line, how to depict the reflections in a person’s eyes, etc. – these are things that artists normally learn at a later age, but he was already teaching me about them. Looking back, he didn’t actually draw that well, but what he gave me was an outlet to express myself – a way to get rid of the loneliness. I could be ignored and bullied in real life, but I could always turn to painting for comfort. It was because of this that I started painting, and painting in turn brought me other unexpected things.
Sometimes it is difficult to tell if the figure in your paintings is a man or a woman, and it seems like they are not meant to be beautiful. What do these figures mean to you?
WD: I guess you’re referring to the paintings in my first exhibition in 1994 at Plum Blossoms Gallery. They also asked me why I didn’t make my female figures more beautiful. If I have to choose between making something look beautiful and making something look realistic, I would choose the latter. Paintings that depict really beautiful women are rarely truthful representations of reality, because real people have flaws. Take, for example, the figures in classical oil paintings …
That echoes your teacher’s approach: figures don’t necessarily need to be realistic.
WD: That’s right. He focused on making his figures beautiful. I have a different approach – I think that beauty in a painting might compromise its faithfulness to reality. In reality, things can be ugly. That’s why back then I already disagreed with my teacher.
Your stunning painting Horseback Rider No. 1 features a nude woman riding a horse. But the arrows and gas mask protruding from her nude body paint a disturbing image in severe contrast to her serene facial expression. Can you talk about what you see in this image?
WD: She looks so peaceful, but in reality she’s trapped in a violent situation. It’s so alluring. A lot of my works during this period reflect such contradictions. Inspired by Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa where an angel prepares to thrust a spear straight into her heart, I attempted to capture the unimaginably great pain with an expression of sweet, orgasmic bliss. I found it strange that such erotic imagery is placed inside a cathedral! That’s art of the highest level. I think that’s what art should be like.
WEI DONG, HORSEBACK RIDER NO. 1, 2009.
A woman with a similarly calm expression is present in My Mediterranean. However this woman seems to be undergoing a controversial surgery and simultaneously is the focal point of a family feast in Lake Como, Italy.
WD: The Japanese call it nyotai-mori, which means to put food on female bodies and eat from there. You can also simply see it as a kind of sacrificial offering. But it is all more controversial with children in the scene. If there were only adults, the painting wouldn’t be so provocative; The children make it even more peculiar and exciting.
Speaking of children, you have depicted a child in Dance Lesson, a painting that seems less controversial. This painting is exquisitely rendered with a mysterious blue-green background and depicts a child staring confidently at the viewer with a cat at her feet. Do you recall a particular model that inspired this composition?
WD: This painting is one of my favorites. It recalls a touch of Balthus, who always depicts a cat in his paintings. When I painted this I did not use a model. I discovered that my paintings are still good when I don’t use live models and rely solely on my imagination and my instincts.
WEI DONG, CROSSROADS NO. 3, 2015.
Do you feel more optimistic now about how your works are interpreted? When we began to talk about the idea of this exhibition at Sotheby’s late last year, you told me about the story of Shi Zi Po (“Crossroads”) from the classic novel Outlaws of the Marsh. You said that you’ve often thought about this story and its main protagonist Wu Song. How is this tale related to the transition in your painting?
WD: I first heard the story when I was still a child. I had just started to learn about sex, but didn’t fully understand everything. The story triggered tons of associations for me: for example, when Wu Song arrived at Shi Zi Po (“Crossroads”) and met a beautiful lady, I imagined a very sensual, sexy woman inviting him to a meal. Her purpose of inviting him to dine with her was to murder him – I then imagined everyone stripping naked and the lady striking the man with a knife. It’s a very exciting, stimulating scene. When the woman made dumplings from human flesh and showed it to Wu Song, he responded by asking what part of the human body the dumplings were made of. In my mind he was flirting with her, and when she tried to make him drunk, he feigned inebriation and started a fight in order to initiate physical contact. Thankfully, everything ended well – he didn’t die, and they even became friends. At the time this story represented violence and sex, and a way to imagine every aspect of the naked body both inside and outside. Its very importance inspired all of my early paintings.
The exhibition title Crossroads also refers to the fact that my works repeatedly fall on the intersection between Eastern and Western influences. I started out from the Eastern tradition and came across Western influences halfway along my artistic journey – such a Western-influenced oriental style can be detected in my works from around 1995. I arrived at another crossroads when I came to America: on the one hand I adopted Western methodology and Western art materials; on the other hand I never stopped incorporating Chinese symbols and motifs. And then in 2013 I arrived at yet another crossroads: I began pursuing Chinese landscape painting again, but in an unprecedented way. This time I chose to give up most of the Western elements as well as the vulgar, uncouth figures that previously dominated my work. As a result, my landscapes became more elegant.
Now at this crossroads, you have painted Western clothed figures in Chinese traditional landscapes. The results are exquisite paintings and quite beautiful; After many years of painting with such direct symbolism, was this kind of elegance your initial intent?
I don’t think it’s beauty – it’s a type of creativity. In the past I strived for beauty in my landscapes – each brushstroke meant to evoke perfection, just like in the works by the Ming painter Shen Zhou. If my works were ever able to reach the likes of his and his contemporaries, I would be really happy. But I don’t care about this anymore. What I try to achieve now is a kind of relaxed, unforced effect – that’s how you cultivate your own style. When a good artist reaches a certain level, his paintings correspond to his own breathing; everything is natural, relaxed, and unforced.
SHEN ZHOU (1427-1509), SNOWY LANDSCAPE SOLD FOR $826,000.
My current works are quieter – the figures blend silently into the landscapes, intent on appreciating the beautiful scenery. But this isn’t simply a traditional landscape. My figures are classical characters robed in Western-styled drapery. I am trying to convey a deeper meaning by inviting viewers to think about the relationship between the figures and what they might be quietly conversing about. Instead of portraying angry, shouting figures, my approach is now more subtle and layered.
I treat landscape painting like an experiment. If you disregard the human figures, the landscape itself constitutes a coherent painting on its own. The figures serve as a channel for me to say what I want to say – for me to express my sense of nostalgia for the past.
In this exhibition we present your works both on canvas and on paper that indeed demonstrates not only a range of your technically skilled painting styles, but manifests your personal journey. I want to thank you so much for taking the time to share your insights. We are very much looking forward to hosting Crossroads at Sotheby’s this summer. Your paintings speak for themselves and it will be exciting for our audience in Hong Kong to have the opportunity to experience the diversity of your works and recent accomplishments