|Zhu Qi: How did you start to get interested in the gardens in Southern China?
Dong Wen-Sheng: I think it’s because of the environmental surroundings of my life and the educational background before my views on the world and the art had been developed. I live in a small city in Southern China, named Changzhou, which is an easy and comfortable place. An old city of Jiangnan as it is, Changzhou is neither a typical one like Suzhou, nor one that has been well protected.
In such a context of construction, it is difficult to appreciate the
beauty of Jiangnan by appearance. Only several small gardens built
during the Ming and Qing Dynasties remain, and become a geographical
and spiritual resource through which I could explore the traditional
Dong Wen-Sheng interviewed by Zhu Qi
Zhu Qi: How did you start to get interested in the gardens in Southern China?
Dong Wen-Sheng: I think it’s because of the environmental surroundings of my life and the educational background before my views on the world and the art had been developed. I live in a small city in Southern China, named Changzhou, which is an easy and comfortable place. An old city of Jiangnan as it is, Changzhou is neither a typical one like Suzhou, nor one that has been well protected. In such a context of construction, it is difficult to appreciate the beauty of Jiangnan by appearance. Only several small gardens built during the Ming and Qing Dynasties remain, and become a geographical and spiritual resource through which I could explore the traditional aesthetics. These small gardens hide in some quiet corners of the city, and too small to become tourist attractions, so they had never been visited much, which made it convenient for me to conduct my projects. In the past few years, I hardly left this small city and led a rather sluggish life. Usually I put aside those films that I had just finished, and it was only after one or two months since I developed them. Also, the printed samples would be randomly placed on my desk, so that I could often see them, and again, it was after one or two months that I finally made my choice to carefully make some of them into art pieces.
Zhu: Why do your works often implicate your interest in mysterious and transcendental aspects?
Dong: I’m interested in exploring what I do not quite understand. But certainly, I’m always content with superficial understandings, and that’s why I cannot be a scholar. On one hand, it helps me a lot as an artist, as with this kind of interest I could get close to various unknown experiences. On the other hand, this kind of mysterious and transcendental aspects could encourage different interpretations among viewers, and somehow confuse them. That’s what I want.
Zhu: In your opinion, what does a garden represent? Some kind of private obsession and indulgence, or some place to express freely one’s physical desire?
Dong: It is rather a spatial territory, as well as a spiritual one. I hope that I could portray the soul of the excellent traditional culture, instead of indulging in it.
Zhu: In some works, the body and the subject of sex have been inserted into the garden, and formed a strange scene. The body and the subject of sex, however, have no temporal definition. Is that what you would like to express?
Dong: Exactly. I’ve tried to avoid the evident temporal definition in the Chinese Garden series. Nietzsche says that there is more wisdom in your body than in your best wisdom. This is an eternal law.
Zhu: Some garden works present two naked boys. Do they hint at any particular experience?
Dong: As a matter of fact, it’s a manner where I mix the illusion and the reality, to break the usual empirical way of thinking. It is purely formalistic!
Zhu: Some of your recent works, such as the Water series, have further enhanced the importance of the surrealist and transcendental characteristics, implying a kind of mysticism. Is it an aesthetic that you pursue?
Dong: The last words of your question are particularly important. The mysticism is the only aesthetic form that I would like to create, and that’s all. I’m not a mystic. The photograph The Missing Person’s Back and the video Crystal Ball share this particular quality. I conceived these two works almost at the same time. Though they’re of different media, they share the same connotation and spirit. In this surrealist manner, I’ve been tracing the human spirit of different periods and different cultures. Through experimental practices, I am trying to find a way toward the philosophy and the sociology.
Zhu: What’s your opinion on the rampant use of performance in photography?
Dong: We could recall the first performance at the very beginning of the history of photography. The French Hyppolyte Bayard photographed himself as a drowning person, in order to protest against the government for ignoring his invention of photography. So, from the very beginning, this technique shows an attitude rather than tries to please the eyes. Such a manner (performance) is particularly common in conceptual photography. I think it depends on the artist’s way of thinking and working: some artists prefer searching for and capturing what they want, while others plan everything before photographing…
Zhu: Although you’ve chosen to do performance in your photographic works, it seems that we can hardly consider them as conceptual photography. They emphasize the experience, which creates a mysterious and unfamiliar picture. What do you think of this visual preference?
Dong: I consider them as some icons used to compose my work. In fact, it also shows that I’m confused by life itself. I cannot express a clear concept, so there are just some doubts and confusion.
Zhu: Your photography includes many cultural characteristics of the South. Is it something you would like to emphasize?
Dong: My works, as you said, show some cultural characteristics of the South, but they’ve occurred in a natural process. I’ve no idea whether or not I want to emphasize them, but I’m sure that I won’t avoid them. It is part of my destiny, and also the fascination of these cultural characteristics over a generation. I’m a fan of Mizong ideology and I like to mix different cultural elements!
Zhu: Does the cultural identity of the South persist? If it’s fading away, are you trying to rebuild it?
Dong: With the rapid development and the globalization, it’s almost impossible for the cultural identity of the Southern China to persist. We could only say that it hasn’t disappeared yet! It’s not only about the culture shock, but also a question of social system. The cultural differences, nevertheless, could reflect the regional identity, and our belief in the necessity of its existence. The cultural identity of the South that we’re talking about here represents indeed the situation of the entire Eastern art in today’s society. It offers some possibilities to retain our own roots, with its humanistic and aesthetic sense. I don’t think “rebuild” is a pertinent word to use here, as “rebuild” is not an ideal manner. Instead, how could the philosophical characteristics of traditional culture be retained in the present? I think that’s what we should try to figure out.