NEW YORK – Practitioner and connoisseur of traditional Chinese ink painting, Arnold Chang is known for his delicate and sweeping landscape paintings that echo and build on the techniques of great masters. In 2007, he started working with photographer Michael Cherney, whose film photographs are often characterised by their resemblance to Chinese paintings. Defying conventional artistic boundaries, both artists and their collaborative pieces have been exhibited and collected by institutions such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Asian Art Museum and the Princeton University Art Museum. Ahead of their contributions in The Literati Within at S|2 Gallery this March, Sotheby’s sits down with Chang to discuss his collaborative process, ink painting and what it means to be a contemporary Chinese artist.  


Tell us a little bit about your collaboration with Michael Cherney. What motivated you two to collaborate in the first place?
We found that our individual pieces had been selected by different curators to be shown together at separate exhibitions, in Hamilton College, at the Chengdu Biennale in 2007, where we met and at the Princeton University Art Museum, when we decided to collaborate. It was interesting because even before we discussed collaborating, curators found a relationship, or at least symbiosis, between our works even though he’s a photographer, and I’m an ink painter. Michael sent me a group of small images printed onto larger sheets of paper, and then I painted around the photos. That’s how it got started.    


What is the collaborative process like?    
He spends a lot of time on the front end. He has to go take the shots, get them developed, use a magnifying glass to find the little sliver or section of a slide, and then he blows that up, digitises it and prints. So that’s a very long process. My process is the total opposite — I work fairly quickly. Once I find the image, I just expand it by painting around the edges and deciding whether I need more or less painting to make an interesting image. However, if I blow it, it’s over — in other words, I have to start over. I can’t make multiples. So it’s an interesting collaboration on a lot of levels, different medium coming together, different geographically — ironically he’s the American who lives in China,[and] I’m of Chinese descent living in New Jersey. If it weren’t for the technology of digital imagery, printing and also FedEx to send these things back and forth, it would be very difficult to do this process. So it’s a very 21st century process.    


What sort of parallel are you both trying to draw between Chinese painting and photography?  
I think on a deeper level, what we’re producing is something that’s neither a photograph nor a painting — it’s really a combination of both. Sometimes it feels like his photographs are trying very hard to become paintings. In some ways it also reminds us that historically in Chinese landscape painting, certain motifs and techniques developed, and it’s an art form that gradually became more about the brushwork and the way the lines are put together. Working from Michael’s images reminds me that those original techniques, the so called cunfa (texture strokes), are actually based on nature.   


As you mentioned, Michael Cherney is a New Yorker living in China, and you’re of Chinese descent living in the USA. Given that there is so much cultural crossover in today’s world, what do you think it means to be an “American” or a “Chinese” artist today?    
People like to find categories to put you in — it’s easier for the curators, easier for the collectors. But we’re challenging a lot of different stereotypes not just about our own identities but also about art — is this a photograph, or is this a painting? Is this Chinese art, or is this contemporary art? In this day and age, with the World Wide Web, you don’t necessarily have to categorise the same way; there are all kinds of overlap, and all kinds of different contexts in which you can place things. I think that in a way that’s also what we’re doing — we’re challenging the audiences and the curators and the gallery owners and collectors — how should this be categorised, and does it even need to be categorised?  

When we use the term “contemporary Chinese art,” what do we mean by that? Are we talking about contemporary art made by Chinese people? Or are we talking about Chinese art made by contemporary people? How do you define those different terms? Is it necessary to define them, or is it kind of a moving target in which there are gradations? It doesn’t have the be black and white — in fact, we’re talking about ink, and the whole point of ink is that there are so many grey areas, so much nuance, that I think we’re part of that process of trying to create art that crosses boundaries. Just as we are multicultural people who try to cross boundaries. I think somehow Michael and I have come up with this kind of expression that is an ideal form of expressing these kinds of 21st century realities.