Bring creative experiences to 25 community members who can’t come to us. Donate today!
Effective January 1: Masks are Optional in VisArts’ Classrooms and Studios
Empathy Zone: Interviews Part II
同感地带 | Empathy Zone
采访–: 苏 x 安东尼奥 Interviews III: Su x Antonio
采访二: 少锋 x 索比亚 Interviews IV: Shaofeng x Sobia
Facilitated and Translated by Althea Rao
Forewords Written by Yuzhuo Mark Zhang
采访–: 苏 x 安东尼奥 Interviews III: Su x Antonio
耶苏和安东尼奥都生于–九八三年。二人同岁, 并且都与对方所在的国家和文化存在对话关系。耶苏近期在美国洛杉矶的 East West South North 参与了–个群展, 由于疫情的限制无法亲自前往, 只能依靠线上和艺术品运输。安东尼奥 在研究生时期曾随校到访过北京。视频会议上, 他向我们展示了他保存和展示的文献资料, 包括考察团队–行造访北京时参观–个展览 Bridge Projects 的纪录照片。虽然二零二零年出现逆全球化现象, 各国的旅游和往来很受限制, 但线上交流还是可以把来自五湖四海和各个国家的人在虚拟时空中拉到–起。本次“同感地带”对话就是对“东西南北”这个词的最好诠释。这类集结不同地缘人的线上和线下的活动及展览在全球范围内可能是未来的新趋势。
Both Antonio and Ye Su were born in 1983. They are the same age, and have both engaged and formed conversation with each other’s cultures in their own ways. Ye Su participated in a group show at Bridge Projects in LA. Because of the pandemic, he would not be able to make it in person, and has resorted to international shipping and the internet to complete the exhibition. Antonio once visited Beijing with his class when he was in graduate school. During the Zoom meeting, he shared his documentation and archives of that trip, including photos of the group visiting an exhibition called East West South North. Although in 2020 we are observing trends of deglobalization and domestic and international travel is heavily impacted, online exchange can still provide a virtual platform where people from different corners of the world can gather together. Empathy Zone series is a good example of the concept East West South North. This kind of cross-border online and offline exhibition might be a new trend for future art activities globally.
Accidents and Foreignness 意外和异乡
What did you learn at school that you feel you have to let go of to make the work you want to make?
This is a very important question. Perhaps you have to let go most of the things you’ve learned at school–personal influence from professors, mature thoughts and theories you’ve heard from different artists, I think one must stay really alert to and skeptical of these established authorities. As a male artist who pays close attention to social trends, I feel extra skeptical about power and authorities. Another thing that one has to let go of is the habit of not paying attention to the occasional and accidental. The education one receives at school often tells you in theory how things should pan out, but they rarely count in the impact of accidents and chances.
I know at least one or two people that have gone to CAFA and they both repeated the same thing–it’s very traditional. I was educated in a very traditional way in a dark room, photography in college. In grad school I started doing more multimedia stuff. Even though I was educated very traditionally and found ways to do photography very traditionally, I still realized that I had to forget some of the things I learned. From undergrad to grad school, it was an important phase of re-education. Going from grad school to not schooling it was another level of re-education. I have to forget what I learned, have to forget, exactly like what you’ve talked about, through life and circumstances.
I found a photo blog I did when I was in grad school. My class went to Beijing for Spring break to do a proposed project. I did a lot of self portraits throughout the two weeks. The hotel was close to Temple of Heaven. I took all my portraits in parks–Temple of Heaven, Sun, Moon, Earth–I tried to go around to different scope and spaces to take self-portraits. The first portrait I took was on Bei Da’s (Peking University) campus. I had a Bei Da student as my assistant, I stood in like–a part of the campus that was old abandoned faculty housing. So I stood on the side of the street where a tree is missing, you know there should have been rows of trees, and I was naked and I put flour on the bottom half of my body, like the trees that have white bottoms for parasites and worms so they don’t eat them, the student was across the street, taking the picture and getting set up, and there was this old lady was walking by, she saw me, and she screamed and ran away the other way.
The title of the work is “Foreign Component”. It’s about us being foreigners interjecting through self-portraits in different places. Doing these awkward things to fit into the environment even though it stood out quite clearly. I got into trouble taking off my shirt at a Buddhist temple. It was Yong He Gong Lhama Temple.
It is indeed quite crowded in Yong He Gong Lhama Temple. However, I don’t think it should be too much of a problem in the eyes of the Buddha. All the four elements are void. We cannot dwell on forms or concepts. The Buddha should be ok with you taking off your clothes.
The creation of Antonio’s McAfee’s Foreign Component, Yong He Gong Lhama Temple
Beijing is a very crowded place and sometimes you have to take creating street art like fighting a guerrilla war. I’ve done this kind of work–painting big text slogans on the surface of public buildings–the police, the law enforcement and sometimes property owners and civilians often chase after us, so we had to run away as fast as possible. When we had to confront the police, we would try to negotiate. We can wipe off all the letters we wrote, but please do not continue to blame or punish us. The police could be friendly actually–all they wanted was for us to restore the space to its original state. But one time a friend of ours took out his phone and started filming our interaction with the police for his record. Then the police were agitated–they were worried images of them being uploaded to the internet causing unwanted consequences.
耶苏, 美术字: 你干什么的, 2012 北京 Ye Su’s ongoing group project: The Art Word: “What do you do,” 2012, Beijing
Filming is saving us in the US. It is so important to have things on tape–great deal for changing public awareness.
I primarily am a portrait artist. Everything that’s happening this year–the pandemic, protests that’ve been going on in the US–I’ve been making work during all of that that is personally and emotionally unresolved. I don’t know how I feel about them quite yet, but pieces I’ve been making have been wrapped up in emotions that I haven’t quite figured out. This brings some changes to the way I create works–I am still based on my research in American history but it’s a bit more visceral and rougher and unresolved. As a result of my work being unresolved, my portraitures become more about the inside of a person. The inside of a body, feelings, unresolved emotions.
I agree with what you just said–art should be closely related to its reality but cannot be simple representations of it. Perhaps the work itself should be part of that reality, it should open part of the reality. This is not easy to do. Through studying the history, we can make lots of connections–including your research about black history, it all ties back to the current moment. It is history research, but it connects to the current reality. They feed off one another.
These are all photo transfers rooted in research about the history of women who went on strike in 1801 in Atlanta. They are rooted in American history, but also stuff that’s happening in the summer when a lot of things were burning. I couldn’t help but make things that look charred and burned over the summer. It’s a mix between learned history of African American history and my family so it stays personal and organic.
My process is–I print out inkjet print. I put glue on the prints. The glue dries and I peel off the glue. It has a copy of the image on the glue and the print. Then I coat the ink side of the glue with Acrylic medium, then soak that piece into water, then that brings down the glue and leaves the image on the medium, and dry it, and collage all the pieces together. Acrylic medium is often used to make copies of records and vinyl. It starts off as liquid but when it dries it becomes a piece of plastic.
安东尼奥·迈克菲 Antonio McAfee: WWS 6 (有远见的) (The Visionary) | 丙烯材料及彩墨 Acrylic Medium and Pigment Ink | 79.375cm x 221.615cm (31 ¼” x 87 ¼”) | 2020
Image has to be transformed in order to become art. Many works of art that are research based or social based will need visualizations through some kind of image. In our day-to-day world we are already used to understanding our surroundings through consuming mass-produced images such as news, video, film. Artistic ways of approaching images can include these mass-produced forms, but have to go beyond that. A challenge I face in creating work is–how can I turn the images of some social events that I am following into alternative images? At the same time, these alternative images appear to be more precisely, more directly intersecting with the points I want to make. So I find using images in my work a challenging task. The challenging part is, that images take on different forms and expectations when perceived in different contexts and mediums. You can’t simply take the same formula and expect it to work the same way under different circumstances.
When we perceive images of a certain form, for example if it’s about black history–perhaps different people would interpret the same images differently. In my work 07.2017, I presented images of people with black skin but didn’t explicitly frame them under any agenda. Among these images there was prominent political figure such as Former United States Secretary of State Condoleezza “Condi” Rice, some athletes, as well as young black women from African tribes and the Middle East who had to marry a young age–what I wanted for people is that they can situate themselves in this field and come up with their own agenda and interpretation. What are the themes in common and why?
Many conversations about race on a variety of levels–there seems to be either a conflation or negation or–just like um, a total kind of absence of the biological scientific base of this. We only have dark skin because my ancestors grew up near the equator. We needed the black skin to–as an evolutionary trait that evolved to protect us from UV2 rays from the sun so we don’t get skin cancer so easily–as we spread across the planet away from the equator, some’s skin got lighter and so on and so forth. I think people often negate / conflate the practicality of having black skin, to cultures applying meanings and perceptions to that. Literally an evolutionary sunscreen against meanings of this fucked up culture.
A lot of people in the US don’t know much about black American’s history. That’s done on purpose. It is intentionally not told in a certain way because quite often it wasn’t black people writing those histories. American history is quite curated and crafted. One thing to keep in mind is that we can’t take anything for granted. And we better off to do our own personal digging in American history that we want or that we are curious about. So I see the activity of other people researching and making work about black history depending on the motivation in doing this work–empathetic or research or knowledge gathering type of activity.
I think it’s good that people who are not black and from other cultures want to gauge in conversation and do the research to understand. It brings this Empathy Zone project to full circle–the root of it is empathy. People just want to know and understand, and a lot of people know and understand by engaging with the material. I think it’s quite necessary. It’s understandable that it’s fearful. But that’s part of why a lot of people don’t know about it even in America.
安东尼奥·迈克菲 Antonio McAfee: WWS 6 (有远见的) (细节) (The Visionary) (Detail) | 丙烯材料及彩墨 Acrylic Medium and Pigment Ink | 79.375cm x 221.615cm (31 ¼” x 87 ¼”) | 2020
Sobia and Shaofeng are both very critical conversationists. Their Empathy Zone exchange sets itself in the context of several global trends: the pandemic, deglobalization, the US Election, anxiety, and hope. The artists shared their anxiety, pessimism, and doubt, as well as the ways they see hope and opportunities to rebuild. This strong faith stems from the artists’ beliefs in being “positive pessimist”, accepting and allowing discomfort to drive reflections and creativity. They are extremely hopeful, as they are confident in dismantling what’s not working and inventing a brighter, more just future.
疫情, 当代艺术和全球化 Pandemic, Contemporary Art and Globalization
In 2003, there was a heated discussion around globalization. I was a high school student in China. That year, China became part of the WTO, our soccer team entered the World Cup for the first time, and we won the bid for the 2008 Olympics. To the generation born in the 80s, these three incidents are important collective memories. Another phenomenon that came with the era of globalization was the occurrence of pandemics. The discussions around globalization, in 2020 and 2003 alike, are against the backdrop of a global pandemic: SARS in 2003 and COVID19 in 2020.
What’s different this time is that people are actually anxious. One problem we are facing is deglobalization. This year it’s very difficult for people to “empathize”. Many young people in China applied to study abroad and were accepted, but now cannot travel. So their study abroad becomes an online remote experience instead. A friend of mine who was accepted at Cornell University was actually able to travel and live there. Even so, he lived a solitary lifestyle and almost didn’t leave his apartment for 6 months. For him, he lives the same exact lifestyle as he was in China, only on Cornell Campus. This seems absurd. The intelligentsia in China feels very pessimistic. I am curious to know, for artists in DC, especially those with an immigrant background, how do you view the new trends of globalization?
The pandemic has made us so aware of the ways that globalization has led to cultural hegemony. For me it’s something I started thinking about earlier in the pandemic when I was stuck inside my house in DC. I could only access the woods. Rock Creek Park was the only place I could go to and by myself. I was thinking: How long have I been here that I haven’t paid attention to the local area I am in? When I could face that reality personally in my life, then I started thinking deeply about how we are as individuals as a culture disengaged with our local culture, local economy, even communities? How are we developing that network worldwide but not always in a positive way?
Something as simple as not knowing that close by there was a farm where I could just go and pick up flowers, and bring it to my friends’ doorstep, when we were just used to ordering things from other cities, other states, other countries.
I think about how anxious we have become about our futures in that way. What are we missing that is right in front of us? It’s pushing this deeper in ourselves in a way. At least for me, the pandemic opened up global, political and social conversations; especially for the US it has been interesting to finally have its reckoning with white supremacy, and realizing that racial injustice cannot be escaped. People can’t make excuses about being busy, forgetting or not knowing. Because it’s right in front of us. I think there’s been both positive and negative, everything being in our face.
索比亚·阿马德 Sobia Ahmad: 你所在的任何地方都可以被称作这里 wherever you are is called Here | Community poetry reading and reflection circle
A few days ago, artist Xu Bing came back from New York. His studio in New York used to have an open floor plan. After the pandemic he put up a fence. Every day, he sits in his little courtyard, bathing in the sun, doing some writing. As he was writing, he became very interested in the trees in the courtyard, so he wrote a novel based on the history of that particular tree. This made me think of Sobia’s story in the woods. These examples are in conversations. Everything is alive, wanting to converse with plants and rocks–this is also the result of the pandemic.
Xu Bing also said, contemporary art is like a virus. At the beginning it throws society into chaos, and slowly becomes the mainstream and status quo, eventually becoming the classics. Our understanding of “classics” are summaries of the rebels in the past. This is very much like how a virus evolves and mutates. Slowly it becomes part of the system, becomes normalized. This has been inspiring to me: what we are doing now–creating art–has to be work that causes troubles and problems.
焦虑和存在危机: 艺术是什么？为什么要创造艺术？ Anxiety and Existential Crisis: What is Art? Why Create?
I am sitting with a lot of personal uncertainty about the role of an artist in a moment like now. Also thinking about what are the ways we artists have participated in the very system we wanted to challenge with our works. I am feeling a lot of anxiety around how art has become commodified and a part of the capitalist structure that doesn’t really value community or ethics as much as we would like it to.
I have anxiety around personally engaging with art institutions moving forward. And collectively we are all sitting with so much uncertainty, because we know that it’s not working. I personally feel that that’s not the art world I want to be part of.
The community that I want to be part of is one where they understand art as a way of life, not as a career or profession only that perpetuates the oppressive system. Is this a shared anxiety? What is your anxiety?
I can very much relate. Sobia, you are dealing with a lot of self-doubt and frustration. As artists, we have to experience states of desperation and hopelessness, but we also have to be able to depart from such states. We cannot dwell on them. As Foucault said, we all have to be positive pessimists. We can feel pessimistic, but we have to act proactively. If we try to outline a map of pessimism in human history, we will find out that most great artists and literaturists, of the East or the West, are all positive pessimists.
We are different from the previous generation when talking about the future–we are still young, we have time and endless possibilities. The problem of anxiety is closely related to the uncertainty we feel towards our future. Sobia’s situation reminds me of my first two years out of art school. Because uncertainty perpetuates anxiety, my way of dealing with this was to be more and more faithful. There’s nothing wrong with setting the tone of one’s life with pessimism and anxiety–pessimism and anxiety prompts one to reflect on fundamental questions related to art. Artists are bound to live in uncomfortable zones–this discomfort drives them to create new works. In fact, many great artists peaked at the age of thirty. That indeed is the most anxious and unsettling age for many people. I want to view pessimism and anxiety in a positive light. I want to cherish the time when I can still be bothered by them and think about unusual things. Many established artists, when they have secured the “established” pedestal, would stop making contributions to the field.
Why do we make art? How do we make art? Once we enter this field, it’s easy to have anxiety like this. But later I have conquered this problem. When I can’t find answers to it, I will simply ignore it. I no longer seek answers for it. I even don’t want to use the word “persistent”–there’s nothing persistent about it. I am creating art simply because I want to.
I really like what you said about “ignoring” as a way of pushing through. Push through the doubt. I tend to stay in that place if I can, but honestly it’s been a lot like a roller coaster this past few months. There was this wild sense of hope at times for possibilities for the future, and incredible sense of anxiety and doubt. I think that was brought on by the US election for a lot of us. That really pushed us all in a place of fear and I think anxiety and fear are different in the situation. But I am actually hopeful about the future because I think we have an opportunity to rebuild a lot. As artists we get to expose that to the public in a creative way and maybe not explicitly but poetically. I really value that.
段少锋: 天边公益艺术计划 | 服刑人员一同参与绘制 图片来自艺术介入 Duan Shaofeng: Tianbian Charity Art Project–incarcerated folks painting together. Picture from Art Intervention
When I share about my anxiety, I am actually coming from a place where this sense of anxiety guides us towards a more just world. As artists, we see what’s not working. We know that the dominant systems are falling apart. We are imagining a way to dismantle that. It also gives me a sense of hope and companionship with people that are like-minded who are thinking that way, of knowing why we do this and what this means to us. I am curious about how hope is playing a role–what are you hopeful about? What is a source of hope for you right now?
This year I conducted field interviews with more than 100 Chinese artists. When I asked them about the future, they were overwhelmingly pessimistic. Perhaps this is a bit emotional. Earlier I read a book. It was Hans Ulrich Obrist’s interview of 19 artists, including Damien Hirst. Damien Hirst said that in the future, the “we” are different versions of we. In fact, we are inventing the future. I was really struck by this.
When we inspect our current moment, we must view it in the linear context of history. We have to look at the people who are dictating the directions of the world’s development–what are people born in the 60s like? The fact that they have experienced the 50s and 60s, and how does that experience contribute to the social structure they invented for today? It’s not a very hard question to answer. In the western context, they were anti-war, hippies, and wanted sex liberation. In China it was collectivism, cultural revolution, and so on. The so called pillars of our society today, what they have experienced when they were young has foreshadowed what they are doing now, and what they will be doing in the future. In a similar way, our situation will decide our future. Therefore I am extremely confident about our future, as the generations from the 80s and 90s are very logical, realistic and opposed to extremism. To anticipate what will happen in the next few decades, we really need to focus on us, right now–we will invent that future, we are that future. Sobia, if you can look at the future from this angle, I’m sure you will see hope as well.
I am feeling excited about your feeling hopeful about the future, about your strong belief in that.