by Karen Smith
“Who is Alone Now Will Stay Alone Forever,” solo exhibition by He An. Curator: Colin Chinnery (Qin Siyuan).
Location: 1st Floor, Building 5, 18 Wuwei Road, Putuo District, Shanghai. April 26 to May 25, 2012.
Karen Smith: The first question relates to when we initially met. You were in the process of preparing a work for the Third Shenzhen Annual Sculpture Exhibition. It was of a form that was tied to the nature of the moment, especially in its content which reflected the zeitgeist. How did you conceive of the work?
Second, from that time to now, you have always produced works of a particular type that are in many respects different from those of other artists around you. Many of those works have been progressive, conceptually and in terms of content and form. None was easy to realize; most were expensive to produce. So what compelled you to keep going? What ambition that sustained you through the process of producing so many difficult and complex works?
He An: Missing You [the title of the work for the Shenzhen Annual Sculpture Exhibition] came about completely by chance. I was lucky that it came at the right time. It was a truly important, catalytic work for me as it had a wide impact. It was part of the Shenzhen Annual Sculpture Exhibition in 2000, curated by Yi Ying—I was put forward by Pi Li—but it wasn’t like the organisers were very impressed with my proposal at the time. They were looking for proper sculptures. There was no concept of installation at that time: I didn’t really understand what “installation” meant.
Also because we were just learning about the Internet then, just beginning to use it to communicate, we’d often say “missing you” when sending messages. From then on many of my works used language from the internet. So the inspiration for Missing You was tied to this language and means of communication.
In form, the work was a huge light box made of Perspex, shaped into the characters “Missing You, Please Call” and my phone number. It was 170 cm tall, six and a half meters long.
I felt that I didn’t really understand anything about Shenzhen. The first time I went, I had a feeling similar to the first time I went abroad. It was night; all I could see were the neon lights. It was amazing. It was like a real discovery. Apart from street lights, Beijing at night was nothing compared with Shenzhen, to the variety of those bright lights. Today, there is barely any difference between the lights in Beijing and Shenzhen, but back then there was a tremendous difference between north and south. It was 2000, after all — twelve years ago. The light in Shenzhen was different from anything I had seen. I wanted to try to capture that, to imbue it with my personal emotional response. That’s what Missing You was all about: I had no idea of post-modern, of installation; I just followed my instinct.
KS: Is it correct to say, as you just suggested in describing the inspiration for Missing You, that personal intuitive instinct is an important element in your work?
HA: It was certainly important for this debut. Missing You; Please Call Me had a big impact. People still remember it today: they tell me that they don’t have much impression of anything I did after that, but that first work they’ll never forget. It doesn’t matter if they understand art or not, this was a work that everyone liked.
KS: What about this year’s solo show in Shanghai, Who is Alone Now Will Stay Alone Forever?
HA: That was inspired by a line from a poem by [Rainer Maria] Rilke. I used it to establish an emotional atmosphere. Most educated people have read Rilke, especially college students, but these works in the exhibition also made use of existing elements on site. The form of the patch of oil covering the floor was determined by visible scars of the building structure. This had some relation to the format used for the  Tang Gallery show, I am Curious Yellow, I am Curious Blue.
All the elements that visitors could see within the space, including textures on the floor, were created by me — like composing a painting. It felt like being in a ruin. Looking back, I have always tried to create some kind of an atmosphere in a space. I work from my own emotional state, and try to translate or transpose that personal mood into a public one, or to give it a social context.
Missing You had some relation to the [photo-based work] Fifteen Reasons for Fashion, which was also inspired by my day job. I had just moved to Beijing and was working in an advertising company doing design work. It was a natural [visual) progression [to bring the imagery from the design culture world] into my art: working with it every day made me very familiar with this type of image and language. It was surprising how satisfying it was to use it in art that first time. It worked out really well for Missing You, which led me to continue in this fashion in works that followed. At the same time, I was always trying new materials. But whatever I tried, I kept returning to “light.” I was really fascinated by it. Still am really, as you will see in the new piece I will present at the Guangzhou Triennial in September. I insisted on doing a piece related to light [in direct relation to an object]. I will use a line from the Bible… I can’t tell you more than that as the organisers asked me to keep it secret until the event, but it’s a work I am very pleased with.
KS: Through the twelve years since 2000, can you talk about any works which represent breakthrough points in your career?
HA: Missing You for Shenzhen was definitely one. It took me five years to digest what I had learned in that process. During that time I did lots of experiments, with photography, sculpture, etc. In the course of experimenting, it was like learning anew. As I said, I had no idea what installation meant, but that was a good thing as it allowed me to use any kind of material or media in any form. In the end, I realized that installation is not a visual language per se; it’s a way of processing thoughts. You have to establish your own world view. At the end of those five years, in 2005 I participated in an exhibition curated by Wang Jianwei in Shanghai.
That exhibition, Interval, [Hi-Shanghai Creation Loft, Yangpu District] was held in an office building in a small compound. All the works produced were collaborations between an artist and an architect [He An worked with the architect Wang Hui]. In the course of discussing the project I discovered a particular interest in words/text, not just their form. You can see by the fact that the titles of all of my works are long, deliberately so. The work we produced was titled 1mm. Wang Hui used 1mm-thick steel wires; I used ants. The words created by the ants [Note: He An sprinkled sugar solution in the formation of the text; when the ants were drawn to the areas marked out by the solution, so the words were given form through the dense mass of the ants’ body] came from the internet language [Note: the log of a conversation held in a chat room] that I used to flirt with girls online.
When I gave the proposal to Wang Jianwei, he liked it very much. It was only after it was done, that he told me other artists had used ants in their work. He said he didn’t bring it up because he felt I needed to transcend the impact of Missing You; that the first step to achieving this was there in 1mm.
After that, in 2006, I began working with neon text; you know, like the neon installation project we did in Birmingham in 2008 [Note: this was titled “I talked to Ah Chang on the way to work. After work I ended the relationship, I stood by Paradise Circus and cried for hours…”, and was a sixty-meter-long neon installation located on the roof of a car park in the center of Birmingham that was produced as a special commission for the China Now festival in the UK, facilitated by Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery]. That’s really when I began to think deeply about direction and approach. From 2000 to 2005, I was learning anew. Then from 2005 I found an approximate direction. An artist’s agenda cannot be too precise or fixed. The more precise it is, the worse the artist is. But you need to have a thinking model and direction. In my view, the first neon [which was done in 2006 in Zhangjiang, Shanghai, again curated by Wang Jianwei. It took the form of the text “I ownership and possession” and “An instant of my purity is worth a lifetime of your lies…”] was also one of my more successful pieces.
In that sense it is similar to Missing You. You could put Missing You anywhere in China and it would work. It’s the same with all the text works.
In 2007 I started to give serious thought as to how to transcend Missing You. It took about a year [to complete the next work] which was Stolen Words. It needed 70 characters in total. To acquire them took ages and much money at a time when I had little to spend. [Note: this work comprised a sentence from the Internet “Brother, please can you help her?” It was He An’s goal to acquire all the individual characters needed by having people steal them from the public realm, wherever, however.] In 2008, I was able to show Stolen Words for the first time.
KS: It has also been shown in other spaces [it was first shown at T-Space when Fu Xiaodong was there; then at Pace in the performance exhibition], but in the process of showing it, was the history of its origins, that of the individual characters, made public?
HA: It’s public now.
KS: So it’s ok to talk about it?
HA: It was nerve-racking at the time, but it’s ok to talk about it now, I can’t be arrested now. I’ll just say I’m making it all up. But when we were doing it, searching out each piece, gathering them, it was a tense time. It’s impossible to imagine doing this abroad. In Europe or in England, it couldn’t happen. All buildings are private property. You can’t touch them. You could only do this work in China where nothing belongs to anyone. The content [of the text] also came from the Internet. This kind of text pushes social buttons, so this kind of topic can only appear on the Internet because the mainstream media cannot touch them. That’s why China’s internet is, today, for me an indispensable tool for connecting with society.
So from Missing You through to Stolen Words it was like I had gone full circle and returned to the original point of inspiration, text/language and the internet. But with Stolen Words I had managed to go transcend Missing You. After all that time, I felt like I’d grown up.
When I was doing Stolen Words, [the Shanghai-based artist] Shi Yong said “I like your work. But what will you do next?’ You can’t keep stealing. So what will you do?” I realized that was an issue. It was a good thing: it made me think about trying other approaches. In 2011, for the solo show at Tang Gallery, for one piece, I threw the words/characters off the roof of a building as an experiment. The whole exhibition marked a shift in form and atmosphere. It was more confident and introspective. [Like Stolen Words,] the materials came from society and reflected the aura of the social environment.
It felt like a new beginning. You could see this in the 2012 solo exhibition in Shanghai, Who is Alone Now Will Stay Alone Forever. It pushed the ideas and forms of the Tang solo show a stage further. Who is Alone Now Will Stay Alone Forever was in a huge space—660 square meters. Every element and component was dictated by the original attributes and existing marks of the building. I was really satisfied with the atmosphere created in the space. Every aspect had a particular feel and presence. There were two especial elements. One portion of the space was closed off to public access. In the center, there was a vertical crack, created using an advertising hording. People could not enter that area, they could only look through the crack. [What they could see was the echo of] a triangular form, but not one I made. The shape was defined by an existing mark on the floor. I used the reflection of the shape to create a mirror image using concrete on the floor. Using the same form of the triangle shape, I also made a neon light. That light reflected the same shape into the space behind the hording. In this way, the elements present in the building were used to reanimate and reconnect the space. People had to look through the crack to see that part.
There was a big patch of oil too; a huge amount of oil, which made the floor reflect any light. I wasn’t doing this for a nice visual effect. I was working with what was there. I am still not entirely clear about why I did it this way but it really felt poetic. Like a great big poem I think.
The installation began with blackness and ended in blackness. Some elements had previously featured in the Tang Contemporary show, like the broken glass and the neon light. I want to stress that it’s not about the material but about the reflective qualities of the flooring. It was all about the use of light, in a more complex way than before. Using oil, something the audience might not expect, many thought it must have been there as part of the building. It was really a thin layer but via it I controlled people’s motion—they couldn’t go into the areas where there was oil or there might have been an accident. It was a great atmosphere. Now it has me thinking about where to go next. I want to set a goal for myself every year.
KS: So, you have a general direction that is related to language/text and to the internet, and to feelings and emotional state. You have used a lot of things that are related to or derived from youth culture: boys, girls, gaming, films, etc. These things converged in one of your earliest works, Fifteen Reasons for Fashion in 2001.
Even in these early works, there was a sense of Fate, that you were interested in the individual’s lot in life. After all, the sports ads used images of disabled people…. At the time, I asked if you were contrasting the meaning of the text “Just Do It,” with images of people who weren’t in a position to “do it” in order to show the callous nature of such statements. But you said it was simply about being cool with no thought of empathy at all. Yet after that, as I observed your work, there was a sense of fate at work. Take the performative video work that we commission for Tate Liverpool [a two-channel video work titled Thirty Minutes] which centred on Fate through the prisms of fortune telling as feng shui. You were examining things which happen beyond individual control. Your own meeting with a Daoist led you to change your life. How did this arise?
HA: That’s a good question. I am indeed Daoist now, completely vegetarian. Because of my family and background, for reasons of personal experience, I was increasing encouraged to explore destiny in my work. I think that was clear in the works in the solo show at Tang Gallery. The sense of Fate was strong: about a person’s past, their future, their present, how they connect, and how we perceive them. This is becoming emphatic in my work. You could see that in Shanghai [Who Ever is Alone Now Will be Alone Forever]. There was a strong aura of fate in the space. Something religious, like faith, but not specific because I don’t have a religion. It’s about the way I see fate, life; I am fearful of it. Take my own home life. I am fully occupied with one exhibition after another. I have no energy to take care of home. Things happen and then you can’t help but feel that this is fate taking a hand in your life. I like to accentuate this.
But now most important aspect of my work is the poetry the work creates in a space. That sense of fate has to be managed to the work does not become crushingly futile and simple. It’s a bit like the Punk movement in the West. That idea helped me a lot. I listen to rock music every day. It’s a necessity all day long. It’s about the feeling it gives you, about what your heart feels. In my works, aside from exploring concepts of destiny, it’s the essence of life, a kind of awe beyond fear. That is the core element of this work. My works need that kind of spirit to become great works.
In Shanxi I can really experience that kind of a feeling. As I travel around, I hardly need any money. I hitch a ride where I can. If there is no ride then I walk. That’s different from Europe. Europe is more fun. But in Shanxi it’s more spiritual. There you can discover so many things you never saw before. In the beginning I thought Shanxi was not a good place because of all the coal mines, so many coal mine bosses. But when you travel around the temples, and meet the people who live there, and have lived there their whole lives, I found that Shanxi was better than what I had seen of Europe. There I can eat and live with the masters, together with them and be totally accepted, which I found really astonishing. It’s impossible to say what impact of influence this has had or will have upon my work. But it has been profoundly helpful in helping me uncover a space in which to contemplate. In truth, from Missing Youonwards, with the exception of the text/words and thinking about words/text to make work, all have been done within the same kind of space. For example, a place in the heart of the urban environment, or outdoors. Or it had to be a rundown disused factory packed full of memories like that in Taopu [an art district in Shanghai]. Or like Tang Contemporary [in Beijing’s 798 district]. Almost all my work is about interacting with a space. The words become like a motif that draws attention to a space like life grows towards the sun. But if I wasn’t thinking about the space itself primarily, then the works would have taken very different forms.
KS: You have never been a prolific artist. As you said earlier, it took five years to digest what you learned from Missing You. There were other works produced in those five years…
HA: Yes, many: photoworks, sculpture, a sound installation in Shanghai. [He An replayed a speech by CCTV broadcaster Zhao Zhongxiang speech through a water pipe.]
KS: Although the works seem few, each one was carefully considered. But looking back are there any pieces you consider to be a failure?
HA: Many, too many! Those photoworks like Fifteen Reasons for Fashion and the “ad” works, none of them were really good. I met the girls [in Fifteen Reasons for Fashion] in bars. They were all prostitutes, a symbol of society at that time, but I think the way I used them in the work was too simple.
[He An only produced three of the initially envisaged fifteen “reasons”.]
KS: Sometimes the value of a work only becomes apparent after the fact. When you show this work in years to come, you might be surprised.
HA: I can only tell you what I feel about my work, but in that regard perhaps you are right. I haven’t given it much thought, other than it seems to me to be too simple. It is the abstract qualities of a work that I increasingly wish to highlight, not something so concrete. Before, I used to look at Cezanne, not like before. Now I enjoy the still-lifes of Morandi. That’s what I’m into now. I want to break away from a concrete thought pattern towards a social consciousness, and an attitude towards existence, towards a more abstract space.
I think my experience of society was the catalyst. When I take stock of myself today, that particular period, with things happening at home, including my family background which all made a deep impression on me, I find myself wanting to return to that moment. Looking back at the works I have made since, no matter good or bad, they all seem to be about trying to calm down, to sit down and contemplate. It goes back to my lifestyle, my family. I spent much time hanging out with friends. I kept telling them I thought my works were simple. It was like I wanted to remind myself constantly of the kind of person I was; where I came from, my social class. As If that was how I had to act as an artist. It was only by transcending those things that I could free myself. Otherwise I would be lost.
KS: You were born in Wuhan. You moved to Beijing where you spent several years, before spending long periods of time in Shanghai. How did that affect your view of art?
HA: Shanghai was really buzzing at that time. I first went in 2004. From 2004 to now, I spent time there every year. With that gang [of artists around Xu Zhen], they don’t mess around. No karaoke, no girls, no drinking; just everyday drinking tea and talking art almost 24 hours a day. They get up early, and then start with philosophy and art. Their attitude makes you feel art is active, not an outcome, a result. It’s a very idealistic way of living and producing art, especially now we are all approaching middle age. We need something meaningful, something alive, not just the appearance of liveliness. It becomes a way of mutual support. Back then Beijing was not that way. In Beijing, everyone thinks themselves so smart, making smart art with a big price tag. They eat together but never talk art. It’s getting better now and people are gradually returning to normal. There are so many more opportunities to go abroad these days, which is easier too. It’s also easier to talk about art because people are more confident. At least, it seems like we are still quite passionate about art. We talk about it a lot. Like Shanghai, Beijing is now becoming increasingly layered, enriched, as Chinese art becomes more mature. We are not so blindly enamored of Western art these days either. I feel we are much more equal. I think all of this is reflected in the work.
KS: As you explained, you tailor the concept of your work to the space. So how do you choose where you show? Or do you wait to be invited and then develop a project?
HA: In truth, if there is no pressure on you to do something, by the age of 40 it’s
really easy to become disillusioned or to give up. None of us can act as we did when we were young. There are so many more things we have to deal with in life, which can’t be avoided. Your relatives are aging and you have to take time to take care of them. Your duties increase. So what do you do? You have to step up to the task. I think that men are different. They need to have some kind of spiritual drive or mission to deal with all of this. Something that tells you every day I have to get up at what time, then what it is that I do, and then what it is that I do after that, when to rest. That’s partly why I became vegetarian. I needed to give up completely given up my old way of life. I don’t intend to return to that way of living, so I am vegetarian. But it’s also about attitude. I am preparing to give up my evening meal too. In the evening I have only water and fruit. I want to have this control for myself. It is about demanding something of yourself.
Last year I was very thin because I was doing martial arts every day. I was living in Tongzhou, but chose a martial arts school that was far from my home, so every day I had to take the bus. There was only one bus every 20 minutes. The practice room had no heating, so if I was cold then I had to work harder. I really needed it to be that way, or I would easily give up. It is the same for my art. I always say to Xu Zhen, if we don’t constantly keep each other on our toes, with honest opinions, then we are finished. That’s what’s great about art. If you take away fame, take away the accolades you receive, the platitudes from others, if you take that all away there is no real hierarchy in contemporary art, nothing that endures through the ages except the work. I increasingly feel that art is like sport: you need to be very fit to do it, to have stamina. Especially for installation art. You also have to work alongside the workers, and you need stamina to keep up with them, as you do for thinking clearly. If you don’t have these things then you’re finished. Even if your works are great, they will not endure. They will only be of this time, this decade.
Take Huang Yong Ping. Such a great artist, but when I look at his works, I feel disappointed. It’s not that I am disappointed with him, but that the moment has passed. His grasp of art, his ability to think, all are perfect, but it feels so dated. We will also become outdated, passé. That is an issue of contemporary art. Why? Well it’s the same in sports. No one can continue in any sport forever. When you get to 40, you are all facing this problem. If we don’t keep each other on our toes, if we have no fixed routine in life, we are finished. I think my way is fine. It’s already been a year. I have ironed out my issues, and set my wake up time as 8:30, so every day I get up at 8:30. Although I was late today because I was drinking last night.
KS: I thought you had given up drinking!
HA: No, in fact I drink rather a lot. More than before even; but no liquor [baijiu]. Drink that and you can’t get anything done the next day. Right now I’m hooked on whiskey. You don’t need to mix it with anything, just sip. I had a skinful last night, which is why I didn’t get up till ten this morning. This is something we all have to deal with. From next year, I intend to step up this discipline. I have to think about my work plans. As long as nothing needs taking care of at home, then I want each year to do a solo show, each year to reveal a new development.