I haven’t had much time to write anything lately, but I don’t want to go too long without a post so I have to reach into the vaults a little bit. This is an interview with the Chinese artist Yang Shaobin. I originally met him while I was researching an article on Beijing for Art Review magazine. At the time I was trying to put together a kind of oral history of Beijing’s contemporary art scene, so most of the conversation points in that direction. When we met I wasn’t very familiar with his work, but since I’ve learned more and I have to say he’s become a personal favorite. The photos were taken at his house/studio by Charlie Koolhaas.

One thing I’m trying to understand about art in Beijing is the concept of collective action and groups that organized themselves into, for lack of a better term, movements. There’s of course a big difference between an art movement and a political one, mostly because art movements are often identified after the fact by people who may not have been involved in the first place. But before we talk about your new works, I’m curious if you consider yourself part of any artistic movement.

I took part in the protection of the “1989 Movement”. It was a collective activity. Many artists created similar works starting in the early 1990s. At that time, everyone felt somewhat lost after the 1989 Movement. They couldn’t find their ideal pursuit. I can’t help thinking of my friends and recalling my old thoughts.

How were these feelings channeled through art?

There were two influential artistic styles, Political Pop art and Cynical Realism. Both could be described as successful in the world. At that time, there was a feeling of being cheated after the June 4 Movement. It could only be felt by artists in Beijing. I was not in Beijing but in my hometown Tangshan. As Beijing is the center, it exerted its influence to every corner of the country. And the influence was considerable.

What was the atmosphere like among artists prior to ’89?

Before 1989, the whole cultural circle was filled with ideals. How to save the world… In fact, it was just a slogan, not practical. Those movements before 1989, including 1985 New Art Movement, were just slogans, making no impact on the art of China. It took less than a decade to repeat the history of western fine arts over a century. It was a crazy age, but it was very important. I think it enlightened us.

After moving to Beijing, you lived in an artists’ community in the old Summer Palace with several artists who would become the leaders of the Political Pop and Cynical Realism styles. What was that experience like?

When we lived in Yuanming Yuan, we were very poor, no money, not enough food, and sometimes we were arrested by the police. It could be said that we were under great pressure; there was no safety just violence, actually the whole society was flooded with violence. During that period, I made many red paintings, very large, like blood flowing. From then on, my pressure began to release. You know, it is a tough job to work in art. Art describes the artist’s psychology.


What happened to the movements that sprang from the post June 4th unrest?

The special period changes. It isn’t about the conflicts of 1989 anymore, it is new issue. Every person experiences differently. So Cynical Realism ended basically.

What caused those changes?

After 1995, artistic creation was no longer a collective action. It is individual action, reflecting individual language and individual style. Yes, that is it.

But, as far as I understand, the Political Pop and Cynical Realism movements were still going strong in 1995.

Actually the year of 1995 was the peak of Political Pop art and Cynical Realism. What it needed was not to popularize but to develop in depth. Actually China retained its artistic model from 1985 to 1989, i.e. history overweighed the resistance, so the historical view continued. After 1995, contemporary art was changing with the reform and opening up. There was no fixed model, so you could make experiments to find a new direction. New arts like Radio Art, Digital Art, Installation Art began to rise. The painting no longer had its conventional role. It is not a collective creation. Every one began to pay attention to his or her own world.

One criticism that’s often said about the newest generation of artists is that they focus so much on their own experiences and fascinations and have kind of turned their backs on the more social interests of earlier artists. Do you notice this distinction between your generation and the young artists currently emerging?

The generation gap is just like the relationship between parents and children. What parents think is important is not thought so by their children. The children have their own thoughts. They should find their own ways to express them. It is important, yet it also needs some time.


What is your impression of the work of the so-called ‘80s generation?

I think they charge too much for their work – it’s unbelievable. Yet it is the truth. It is just the market economy. There is foam. Maybe the market will get better when the foam breaks up one day. Now many people are buying artistic works, but they know nothing about them, it’s just for investment. It is not good. If they don’t think there is benefit left, they will undersell these works. Actually there have been some changes. If it goes on, artists will have no way to develop, and the market will fall.

For how long has this investment-based art market been influential?

After 2005, last year actually in my opinion.

And prior to that the only available market was international?

Yeah, there was some international market, but not as hot as today. It was tough indeed. Many works failed to be sold even when considerable discounts were provided. Now it is getting better. But it won’t last a long time.

Has that change influenced your work? Are your new works market-oriented?

Market-oriented? Absolutely not. It is just what I have long wished to do.

Let’s talk about “800 Meters” the exhibition you’re working on. I know you’re drawing on your experiences growing up in a coal mining community for a lot of the material.

I was living in a mining area until I left when I was 18. The project came up when I chatted with friends from the area.

Did these neighborhood friends contribute to the project?

Yes, they were a great help. One friend who works in a television station helped me to produce some mining video. My boarding and lodging in the mining area was also arranged.


What are some of your strongest impressions for that period?

Different persons have different understandings. To me, it is a special world. The miners put their clean shoes in rooms every day, with the assumption that they may have no chance to wear them tomorrow for their possible death in the mine. The mortality rate in the mines is high, far higher than the rate in the official report. Heroism seems somewhat solemn and stirring, right?

Did you talk with some senior miners about the long-term impact of working in mines?

My father was a miner.

How many years did he work there?

A long time.

Are you trying to send messages about these dangers through your work?

If it is just propaganda, the newspaper acts better. This is art. It may contain more issues, more imagination and more feelings. Because it is art, it can make use of lights and so on to impress the audiences – the majority or some intellectuals. Most people can’t get the mine information in person. It is required to have some “relationship” to do so.

[This exhibition] is thoroughly different from the posters in the Cultural Revolution period. At that time, artistic works were required to advocate high yield and whom to beat down. They were kind of “correct” pictures. But my paintings may be not so correct. What impressed me most is the miners’ minds and their living environment.


If you’re interested in reading some more about that ’90s period Shaobin mentions, check out this interview I did with Brian Wallace, the owner of Beijing’s oldest gallery…

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