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Temple of Vowels
Xu Tan, Vangjush Vellahu and Antje Majewski.
Guangzhou, China 2014
Sternberg Press, Berlin, Germany 2015
VV: On this photo that I took here in Guangzhou, there’s an old part, almost destroyed. Then there is a new part, this high-rise building. And there’s a third part, the sky. Since I’ve been here, I haven’t seen the sun.
XT: It’s the season. Today, the air in China is not very good, but this is the rainy season. If people want to argue with you, they say, ‘Oh, it’s the rainy season. Sometime in January, we saw the sky.’ But the sky is not so blue… If you go north, it’s more serious.
VV: So, how has Guangzhou changed over time?
XT: Guangzhou was among the first of the open cities in China, almost the first. China's innovation began in the south. When I came to Guangzhou for the first time, at the end of the 70s, it was very clean, the trees were very green. On the streets and roads, there was no dirt. It’s a very hot place, people have to wear sandals, and their feet are exposed. Then, you could walk all day and your feet would still be clean.
VV: What about the architecture?
XT: At that time there were some so-called new buildings in the late 70s. Things have developed very slowly. For many years there were several big hotels. These were official hotels, because Guangzhou is thought of as the Southern Gate, as China’s southern doors to the world. There were special Product Expos every spring and autumn, Industrial Product Expos for the entire world. Many business people came. Now it’s still the same with the very famous Canton Fair. At that time, this was the only place to which western people could come inside China to buy Chinese products. This is why Guangzhou was very important; and why there were high-rise buildings in Guangzhou at the time. You couldn’t see high-rise buildings in the other cities. Things changed only slowly until the middle of the 80s; then things began to develop faster and faster. After 2005 or 2008, the speed has decreased because the city’s shape had already come into existence. The shape is made. But if you go today to central China, it’s terrible. The government spends a lot of money on building up new cities. For example my hometown: online I’ve read the news that the government has put 1000 billion Chinese Yuen for one year to make everything new inside the city: subways, tourist areas… If you want to go to central China, you’ll find that just stay in a construction site. But in the 80s in Shenzhen, people felt, ‘If I’m in Shenzhen, I’m in a construction site.’ Now here it gets slower because it’s already been made.
VV: When you look at the old part of the town on this photo, I don’t get it - all of the buildings are somehow destroyed, but at the same time people are living and selling there.
XT: This old building is not really old, maybe from the 90’s or 80’s.
AM: But what about the people who are living there?
XT: It’s very difficult to say. The low building could be their property. They have no choice; they have to stay there. Sometimes, if the developer wants to take the land, they will trade with the people, “You leave, you move out and I pay some money to you.” Sometimes people try to bargain to get a higher price, but maybe the developer doesn’t want to. In China there are a lots of events like this. Maybe most people already moved and still, if one or two families feel not satisfied, they will stay on. Sometimes, violence will happen. Here it’s better, because it’s an open city, with many foreign newspapers, everything is very developed, so if something happens, all of the world will know. So here the developers are very careful; they cannot just drive you out. But in central China, especially in the countryside, if they need your land and you don't want to move, sometimes-big machines will come and just destroy everything. Or some hooligan will catch you and throw you out and beat you until you lose consciousness, and when you wake up, you find that everything has disappeared. This kind of thing happens more and more in China, because land is very important. Land is a very important fighting point - everybody wants it.
VV: If you don’t want to answer this next question, it’s okay… I can speak a little bit about Communism, but only from my memories of what my parents told me…
XT: You are from Russia?
VV: Albania; which was almost comparable to China for a while. My parents said that communism was somehow ‘equal.’ People should be equal: there is no low, there is no high, everyone is equal. There are no poor people, no very rich people, and in China for example...
XT: Yes, it changed. Maybe 40 years ago the contrast was not so huge, the gap was not so wide. The communists always say, ‘We represent people’s interests, we are part of the people, the masses.’ Actually now these are just words. Nobody thinks they are still communists. And before, of course we also didn’t think that the communists were communists, that China was communist. In Chinese history, we had a lot of peasant’s rebellions. They always had the goal, “We should be equal. So kill the landlord! Kill the official, kill the emperor!’ But only a short time after the rebellion, they built a new dynasty, and the people started again to become rich and poor. Communist China is the same as historical China. Now we call them not communists, but dictatorial capitalists. Nobody thinks they're communists.
VV: I have a lot of memories of my mother telling me that during communism in Albania there were no classes; no high level, no low level, everyone was in the middle.
XT: That’s not true. Also, at that time it was not true.
VV: But for normal people it was quite true at the time, my mother believed it, because all the people around my mother were at the same level. You didn’t really see rich people all the time.
XT: China was a poor country; even the communists at that time didn’t have a lot of property. But they owned the country, you know. They had power. They were the owners; they controlled everything in the country. They could rule the people, even if they were not having a luxurious life like they do today.
VV: Do you have any idea how this rich people became rich? In Guangzhou, in China?
XT: In two ways. One way is personal hard life, to be hard working. Especially in Guangzhou, because Guangzhou is different from the north. In Guangzhou the people have a very common citizens background, not like in the north, were you can be from a powerful family. If you’re hardworking - Chinese people are always working very hard - you earn money. Another way is to have a background; then you can get money in a very special way. Like for example, you want to sell guns, you want to send a tank to Afghanistan, so who can do that? You need permission. One says, ‘I can get the permission for selling this thing for you’, and the other one says, ‘Yes, I will pay for it’. This happens in the dark. It’s the way of power, the way for officials. In this way you can make a lot of money, huge money. Much more than with the first way. My knowledge is limited; I think there are at least these two ways.
VV: I saw your last presentation was about nature, about plants. When I see that so many people are working on constructing buildings, there is so much noise, so much smoke; do you think that is bad for nature? For the plants?
XT: Of course. In China, there’s a huge smog problem. In Beijing, Shanghai, people always have to wear masks. People can only see ten meters around them. Maybe next year it will come here (laughs). It develops very quickly. Last year, Shanghai was ok. Only Beijing and around Beijing was affected, but this winter Shanghai has a problem. Also, they have cut down the woods in the north, so in the spring sand storms come from the west, northwest - the Gobi area - to Beijing. All the sky is full of sand. At first, that happened to Beijing, then to Shanghai. Some people say that will go across the sea, to Taiwan. It just goes further and further. But Guangzhou is very much in the south, so here it can be better, just for geographical reasons.
Antje Majewski: Why are you interested in farmers?
XT: There are two kinds of interests for me. First, they are people who plant. That’s a form of labor. Although, that’s a modern kind of labor, not like in the old times. I like the painting by Brueghel, the Belgian artist. Farmers working in the countryside. Also, for me as a Chinese, staple foods are important for everything. For the social, the political, everything. So, how do they think about staple foods, how do they think about labor, and how do they think about plants? I ask them about their daily lives, their work, and what they feel about this. What the changes have been in the last 20 years. China is changing so much, very quickly. The farmers are the so-called common people. Their feelings about social life and personal life are very important for a very basic social consciousness. I would like to know about this kind of consciousness. I think that’s very important social knowledge.
Because I always interview people, they think my way of working is kind of sociological. I say no, it’s different, because sociologists wouldn’t care very much about people’s consciousness, because you cannot get the data. But I am an artist and I think that is very important to know how people feel.
AM: Can you tell me what they think?
XT: Several of the farmers said they feel free. They feel a kind of freedom. At first I felt this was very strange. Because in China the farmer has always been like a slave. People treat them like slaves, people don’t respect them, but now they say they’re free. I said, ‘What’s this, what is this word?’ My work is called ‘Keywords.’ This is what I do; I analyze keywords from people’s consciousness.
AM: You said this freedom for you is a sort of animalistic freedom. Like animals.
AM: A herd feeling.
XT: I don’t mean that animals are not good. In our nation, a lot of behavior in our culture is close not to the political animal, but more to the labor animal.
AM: Taoist philosophy says that you should be like a child, like a small child who hasn’t yet learned culture. But would you say that the farmers are like this?
XT: Actually, from my childhood to now, I don’t agree with Taoism in this land. Because Laozi said that people should not learn.
AM: Yes, he was always against culture.
XT: I think, personally you can choose this way, but if many people stay together, they will need knowledge. If all of the nation would think that’s good, it would be the soil of dictatorship.
AM: But on the other hand, Laozi also says that the person who governs should do nothing. He should let the people just do what they want, and that would be the best way of governing. Wuwei is not only for normal people, but even the head of the government should have the same principle.
XT: There are two sides. If the government does nothing, the people should at the same time also know nothing. The whole country would be very happy. They would be like a herd, very happy. If the people know many things, the government must do something. This is the situation. This is not good in Taoism. It’s not a good way to rule the country: to let the people have empty brains.
AM: But I don’t think that the idea of doing nothing means to be stupid and ignorant and just sit there and do nothing! Because it says that that at the same time, you do everything, nothing remains undone. So things get done, and change all the time. Somehow, they get done.
XT: Emptiness can be very high-level or low-level. High-level means you know everything. Buddhism is saying: you just sit there, you do nothing, but you know everything. It’s very difficult. I think that Buddhism and Taoism are very difficult for simple citizens to understand, because they are totally against the citizen culture. We have a word called street life. In China if you have a street life, it’s not good. You should do nothing on the street. You should not show up; you should keep to yourself, hide yourself. And the less you do, the better.
AM: I’ve just started growing vegetables about 2 years ago. If you have a garden, many things need to be done. You simply go outside and start working. You don’t even think about it because it’s clear what you have to do. You glide almost. It’s not like that today I make the decision to pluck all the beautiful ripe plums, and this is hard work. No, you go outside and you see, wow, the plums are ripe! Of course you can describe this as work, but it’s just what happens on your way. You see ripe fruit and you pick them. You see what I mean? But you still move, it is not like you’re just sitting in the meditation position.
XT: For the ancient farmers, it’s still very hard work, hard labor - so if you want to transfer this work into happiness, it is very difficult. That’s one of the reasons why this kind of culture is not for normal people but for intellectuals.
AM: But the monks in former times were always working, not just sitting in the monastery meditating, they were all working in the fields. As far as I know.
XT: They transferred the physical hard labor into something else that can make you happy. When I was in Taiwan, I interviewed a woman who said, ‘I always try to let myself feel free. If I am in jail, I can also feel free.’ You are in prison and still feel that you are free! In ancient Chinese Buddhism and Taoism there are a lot of these paradoxes. How can you have such a hard labor, and you still feel free?
AM: I was talking with the Kung Fu master of Xushian about this question. I asked him: ‘What do think is ziran – nature – can you describe this?’ And he said, ‘Well, nature is that you just accept everything as it comes. So, for example, if I am at home and someone rings my bell and says, ‘Let’s go to eat’, then I just go with him to eat. And if on the way someone else phones me and says, ‘I need help, please come here,’ then I will just go there.’ And then I said, ‘But if one day the government decides to say martial arts are forbidden, it’s against the law. What would you do?’ He said: ‘Well, then you also have to let it be. But even if you have only one square meter, you can still practice martial arts, because you can stand. And inside the standing, you can practice internal martial arts.’
XT: This is very typical, for thousands of years people would do something like this. But today there are very bad sides to it. You don’t need a democracy. The government can come and do everything. But I am also one of these kinds of people.
AM: I know. (Laughs)
XT: I always give up. I think, it’s a highly aesthetical way to treat things ziran – naturally so. But today this is why the dictatorship has been strong for such a long time. In many other countries changes happened, not here.
AM: If you have this inner freedom which allows you to practice martial arts even in an elevator or a prison - it doesn’t need to be Martial Art, but this feeling that you are autonomous – for me this is very important, it’s a starting point. As many people as we are today, we probably can’t live without a government, but I don’t have a concept of a good government myself. I can’t propose you one.
XT: I totally agree with you.
AM: But what I believe in is this sort of anarchist freedom, that each person is substantially free. This is maybe also the European thinking based on human rights.
XT: The substance.
AM: The substance, the substance is free. Because we are made out of free atoms, the same as plants or anything else. We are all made out of free materials. Everything is the same in the cosmos. The cosmos is free, this is so important to understand. If you live in an oppressive government, it doesn’t help if you also feel oppressed all the time. Don’t you think?
XT: In Europe and the world, you have a new wave of art called Engagement. Sometimes some artists come to lecture in our place, saying, ‘People, you should stand up, you should fight, you should engage!’
I always think about this, of course - for freedom, that’s good. Fight for freedom. But it’s always a real problem. It puts me under very strong pressure. I really don’t want to take part in such a movement.
AM: (Laughs) I can understand.
XT: This is very right, very correct, politically correct. Especially in China we need this kind of thing, because we have no freedom. All the people enjoy their freedom in their inner world; they’ve given up on ideas like this.
AM: But that we sit here and talk, that is already a kind of freedom.
XT: But people will tell you, that’s limited (laughs). You have no political freedom. The police and the military police will come to arrest you. That’s worse.
AM: Why don’t they arrest you?
XT: I’m not so brave. I don’t want to go to…
AM: For example, this interview, if we now publish this and it gets translated into Chinese and gets published here?
XT: I don’t care… I really don’t care… Most people think so and for the government it’s not reasonable to react. People just talk…
AM: My students also asked me how it is possible that artists can do very critical stuff here, so China is not so bad? I try to tell them that as long as you don’t try to form a group or to change something, then it’s just talking. And for the government it’s even good. In the West we get the feeling that it’s open, that people can be critical.
XT: Much better than 40 or 30 years ago, during the Cultural Revolution.
AM: How old were you during the Cultural Revolution?
XT: About nine years old, until fifteen or sixteen.
AM: So you can remember very well? How was it?
XT: It was very special. I don’t want to say it was very bad… it was a very tough time, a very strange time. Very strange. The total opposite of today. People thought in a very strange way. At that time, people thought that certain ways of thinking were logical, but now they seem very strange. The situation here is more complicated than what people think from outside. The culture, tradition, the Eastern and Western systems are different. The Chinese way of thinking is very difficult to explain. For example a friend of mine, a highly educated young woman with a Master’s degree in English – but when I talk about concepts, she says, ‘I don’t know what is actually the meaning of concept. I have no concept.’ I said, ‘You have a concept, everyone has a concept!’ In China people have no idea what a concept is, because that word is Western. That means that for 1000 years, we’ve been thinking in a different way. We don’t need a concept. We just say ‘thinking’ - rational thinking, or a way of thinking based on sensations, like a stream, not cut. In China, most artists hate conceptual art. Very few artists still are conceptual. I am not a conceptual artist.
AM: But what would you call your art?
XT: I say I’m an artist with concepts (both laugh). So I make projects, it’s difficult… I’m a media artist. Here, many young people are well educated, but they still don’t know what concept is. They’ve got to check the dictionary. In ancient Chinese we have no word for it. In modern Chinese, you have to put two Buddhist words together. GUAN 00:45:00____ YEM. ‘Guan’ means wishes. YEM means ‘idea’ or ‘thinking’. This translates to ‘concept.’
AM: Wish thinking.
XT: But that’s a translated meaning. This is a very small thing, but you should know that many things have just been transplanted. People read and study Western science. Now we have science, mathematics, and physics. For example I have done some botanical research. I invented the term ‘Social Botany.’ I checked the Internet; there was no such word before. The professor said, ‘Many times I would have liked to create a word, but I can’t. Because we have no right to create the name of an academic field. The field must be named in the West, in Europe and America. The scientists there, they create new fields. We accept. This is the normal way.’ So they do study, they do research, mainly following the Western scientists. Maybe few Chinese scientists want to be creative. Mostly they think they’re not allowed to do that.
AM: Maybe one problem is respect. If I go to the village (Yang Wu Sha) and we have speeches, they are all about showing respect. You have to address things respectfully. And this respect can be very good; it can be very civilized, very gentle, that you have respect for the other. But sometimes it can prevent you from saying, ‘Ok, you have your opinion. But here, I have a different one that’s even more exciting.’ And I think that this can be blocking...
XT: Normally, in normal life, people can do that in China. But in the academic life…
AM: There is this basic kind of anarchist freedom that I find very important in Zhuangzi. This freedom doesn’t acknowledge authorities. In Zhuangzi you have for example a story about a wise, but dirty old man. The king wants to make him a minister and the dirty old man says, ‘I don’t care, I just prefer to live in the mountain’. What I especially like about these stories is the description of this dirty old man that is not even beautiful. He is not very attractive. Or the dirty old tree that is not very useful. The art of not being useful is for me in opposition to the art of making yourself useful in a system of hierarchies. And I think this system of hierarchies stops a free development of anything. Not just in the political, but in the educational, academic field. If the professor is someone to whom you always have to say yes – and if you have this internalized respect, it’s not only the oppression from the outside, but from the inside - then you cannot develop your own way of thinking.
XT: The reason they say something like that, is that they are not able to build this kind of an academic field, in which we could use their name. For artists it’s o.k. to invent a name, for example my work is to make the keywords. But if you are a scientist from an academic field, you think, ‘I can do nothing besides following.’
AM: But then you don’t even take the liberty to say, ‘This plant is growing here in China.’ Latin language is a dead language from Italy. So why should it have a Latin name? It’s a Chinese plant, so it can have a Chinese name!
XT: So for example, Mr. Huang is an art historian. If you say to him, ‘Hegel is nothing.’ He will ask, ‘Have you read him?’ You say, ‘No.’ He says, ‘So how can you say he is nothing?’ This is the situation. You cannot say Plato is nothing, you cannot say Hegel is nothing, you cannot say Derrida is nothing, because they worked a lot to build their philosophy.
AM: But we are talking about two different things here. One is the respect that you can have for true knowledge or for something that is really interesting.
XT: The government is not knowledgeable. They have no knowledge. The economic system is full of knowledge. What China needs is long-term knowledge.
AM: But if you respect the long-term knowledge of say, a botanist from America or England, and he comes here. He knows a lot about Chinese plants, but maybe he can meet some old person from the mountain and this old person has an even longer knowledge about Chinese plants. And the old person from the mountain will have names for the plants that he knows. Then the Botanical researcher from England will meet him and give the plants all new names. He will say, ‘This plant has now no longer has this name, now it is called this.’ For me, this is the limit of what you should respect; you can respect the knowledge of that Botanist, but you should not respect the power of giving the name. In the Christian mythology God created the earth and everything that is on the earth, the plants and the animals, and then he said, ‘This is your name, this is your name, this is your name.’ By naming, god brings them to life and brings them to order. So the person who makes the order is the one has the power over the knowledge. And I think you shouldn’t allow someone from America to give names. You can use his knowledge, but the name should be Chinese.
XT: But I also think that when that professor says something to me, of course I think that he has a lack of creativity, of course I think he should do more. But this is the situation. What’s the situation in China? In the Chinese scientific field, the situation is like this: we cannot go over (Western science).
AM: But this is what I think your work is about! You create names, you create new names…
XT: But for them, that’s a joke!
AM: That’s why I’m insisting so much. What you are doing is extremely important, because you are naming, you are naming the important…
XT: I name many things, but for many people, that’s many jokes. I like making these kinds of jokes. But many people think nothing of me.
AM: I don’t think so. I think what you do, the scientists should also do.
XT: Yes I hope, but most of them…
AM: You do research about keywords - can you tell me what are your own personal keywords?
XT: It’s very difficult to talk about… I would like to talk about the truth, the real situation in my inner world. I think I will always stay in a controversial condition as a man, as an artist. I have a different role in my inner world. As a normal human, I would like to be everything - to be a hero, to be famous - but as an artist I think I should do something really good. But these two things always conflict.
AM: And what is ‘really good?’
XT: The really good is very difficult to describe. Something that is really true, for me. Many years ago, I made art just following the career way. You can choose the style in which you produce, you have several possibilities, you just choose. But now I want to concentrate more on the things that I like very much.
AM: And can you say what this is?
XT: For me just to express something beautiful, to make an aesthetic expression, to do nice things, for me that’s not enough. I’m a living human being; I’d like to know something at the same time as making an expression. Know something. Not just, ‘Look at this, I’ve drawn this, it’s very nice and I want to show you.’ I don’t want just to show. If I make something to show, then at the same time I want to know something.
AM: And what do you want to know?
XT: Many things. Look, the way we’re sitting here, we think that the world is so familiar to us, but familiarity is a problem. People give you a concept of the world, and you accept that concept of the world. So you think, that’s familiar, ‘Oh, this is a window; ah, this is a door.’ Actually, if we describe the world in a different relationship, we can get a total unknown world. This unknown world is the world I want to know.
AM: It’s the same with me.
XT: It’s not so far. The unknown world is not so far. Just the neighbor of the thing you know.