Between Poetry and Politics: A Conversation with Le Guo
‘My life and art practice inhabit the dichotomous worlds of conflict and balance, proposing solutions within flux, generating fluidity within the fragmented mind,” Le Guo tells us. ‘I conjure a sense of an internal, intuitive, shifting reality attempting to respond to a physical world.’
I first became interested in Le Guo’s work because of his life experiences, having lived in the interesting times of the late ‘80s in China and since the ‘90s in the UK. According to the artist himself, his work bears influence from both Western thinkers and Chinese philosophies and classical art. On a Tuesday afternoon, I met Chinese artist Le Guo in his studio over a cup of coffee to chat about some of his concerns about art, politics, and the poetics. Using what he describes as ‘momentary suspension’, Guo’s paintings continuously pulse and absorb the viewer within their own complex dimensions.
Le Guo was born in Gansu, China, in 1964, and now lives and works in London. He studied at the North West Normal University of China in the early 1980s and received his MFA in Fine Art from Central Saint Martins. He first visited London thanks to the invitation from the Arts Council of Great Britain to exhibit his experimental ink paintings at the Barbican Centre in 1990, and has been living and working in the UK ever since. Apart from delivering lectures at Birkbeck, University of London, the British Museum, and Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts in China, Guo has been exhibiting his work at Asia House, the Rag Factory, Greenwich Heritage Centre, Hua Gallery, and many other UK and international institutions. His most recent exhibitions include the Asia Pavilion at the Milan Design Week (2018), and Changing China: Contemporary Ink Painting in New York, 2017. In 2016, Guo collaborated with the writer and curator Stephen Baycroft in publishing Balancing Different Ways of Seeing and the Art of Le Guo, a book investigating the ways in which Guo’s work is revalued in relation to their discussions conducted in Western and Asian cultures from ancient times to the present day.
Le Guo in his studio (12 November, 2019)
ELLEN: You graduated with a BA in Fine Art in China during the 1985 New Wave current, an exciting period that has now been called ‘the birth of Chinese contemporary art’. How did you situate yourself against this broader art historical background marked by a kind of explosive answer to the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s?
LE GUO: During the Cultural Revolution, the art scene in China was not only cut off from the rest of the world, but was also forced to eschew its own traditions. Thus, in the 1980s, the post-Cultural Revolution generation became a generation hungry for knowledge and ideas. Many say that the 80s was an incredible time filled with idealistic and romanticist spirits. I had basic art education during this period when many young art students were engaging with modernity and experimental practice. I studied traditional Chinese painting under the Soviet Union-style education system, which taught us to paint in an exceedingly realist style, although it was also around this time when I was in university that everyone was reading works by renowned Western thinkers such as Schopenhauer, Nietzche, Hegel, and Freud, regardless of whether we understood them. [laugh] Young and hungry for knowledge, we were reading these books on a very superficial (似是而非) level. Nonetheless, these contacts have become the foundation of my later research on Western philosophical ideas. Yet, the ideas we were reading about were by no means contemporary to the West -- It was mostly from Modernism, abstract expressionism, for instance. I was not fully aware of Western contemporary art movements until I found out about artists like Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys in the late 80s.
ELLEN: Is there an artist that has influenced you during this period?
LE GUO: Robert Rauschenberg. He had an exhibition at the National Art Gallery (now the National Art Museum of China, NAMOC) in Beijing in 1985, which included a series of his collages made in collaboration with papermakers at the Xuan Paper Mill, where Rauschenberg spent two weeks after travelling throughout cities in China, including Tibet. I didn’t make it to the exhibition in person, but a friend brought me the catalogue -- which was shocking to me. At the time in China, when the artistic norm was still traditional media and methods, Rauschenberg’s use of alternative materials and techniques was mind-blowing. When I was looking at Rauschenberg’s work, I was amazed but also baffled. After this encounter, I was reluctant to follow the traditional approaches being taught at university -- I started to experiment with ink painting, using gouache paint on xuan paper and Korean paper.
Le Guo, Uncanny Memory II (2019), 100x140cm, ink and pigment on paper (image courtesy of the artist)
ELLEN: I’ve always been interested in your experience studying at Central Saint Martins from 2008 to 2010 after having studied at a Chinese Art Institution. How did the two kinds of educational systems contrast each other? And how has the MFA influenced your practice?
LE GUO: By the time I went to CSM, I had already been living and working in London for almost two decades. What was lacking at the time was feedback, thus I went back to school as a way of re-evaluating and contextualising my practice. I was the only Asian student in a class of sixteen. I learned a lot from going out for drinks with my classmates and tutors. We read and discussed a lot about thinkers like Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari, Derrida, etc., and I remember we often critiqued them. The postmodernist discourse formed in the past was not as applicable to the situations now.
The art scene in China around the time had a lot of semiotic characteristics, although it was still living in the postmodernist context of the West. Art is always subject to the social, economic, and political environment of its own time, as well as our perceptions. The Western history of art has had a stronger voice throughout the past, but it has a symbiotic relationship with the Eastern narrative. It is a result of the early development and change of social, political structures, which led to modernity. I am critical of Eurocentrism; however, modernity in China has not been developed enough to gain the power of discourse.
Le Guo, Gestural Diagram I (2017), 300x200cm, mixed media on canvas (image courtesy of the artist)
ELLEN: A lot of contemporary Chinese artists are creating works that are politically engaged. What is your attitude towards what has been happening in China lately and would you consider your work political in any way? How do you consider the position of your work between poetry and politics?
LE GUO: My concern with poetry largely derives from the personal status of existing within a liminal space between two cultural systems. Since I have broken away from one condition, but I’m yet to enter another, I am suspended in a status that is detached from either. When I was working in China, I’ve always tried to look at the art from afar with a critical eye, although I was also closely embedded in it. At the same time, I do not agree with the linear development of a narrative of art centred on the West. Accordingly, my relationship with the East and the West has become an ambivalent one - a love-hate relationship with both of them.
One important source of creativity for artists is the sensitivity to our environment. When I was living in China in the ‘80s, I felt a strong need to be critical; now that I have settled in London, I no longer feel confident enough to comment directly on contemporary issues in China -- thus, my work has become gradually internalized. I’ve turned to a more poetic and spiritual language. I have a strong interest in the artistic language of the contemporary conditions in which there are no boundaries.
Regarding contemporary Chinese artists who have a stronger political voice, it is the situations that they live in that force them to adopt such a type of language. The key for any artist is to be true to themselves while being sensitive to their surroundings.
Le Guo, Multichrome - Magenta, Purple, Chinese Rouge and Prussian Blue (2018), 70x100cm, ink and pigment on paper (image courtesy of the artist)
ELLEN: Your work is often described as having a dynamic, emotional and spiritual impact on the viewer? It reminds me of the title of your 2013 solo exhibition at Hua Gallery: ‘Momentary Suspension’. How does the title reflect your paintings’ relationship with you and that with the viewer?
LE GUO: Going back to the psychological concept of ‘liminal space’, which refers to the status of being in between the ‘what was’ and the ‘what is next’, the organic elements and fluidity in my paintings try to both formally and conceptually visualise this moment betwixt two certainties. This is the condition wherein I have chosen to situate my work such that it signals broader possibilities for a new structure, and at the same time, questions the current condition in a subtle way. I refused to be categorised. This is the self-awareness that is the necessity of being an artist.
About my viewers, each person is an organism in which emotion and rationality coexist. Geometry makes it easy for the rational part within the onlooker to establish a logical order. I consider the forms in my work to be a kind of organic geometry, a kind of diagram that exists between the known and the unknown, just like our cognition of the world around us. As a result of the rapid technological development of the past few decades, our perception of the world is becoming increasingly obscured. In 2017, I had a solo exhibition at the Field Art Centre in Beijing titled ‘Unknown--Known--Unknown’, which represents the triadic dialogue that forces an artist to think through his or her specific medium. Our environment is becoming more and more complex and fragmented, due to what is happening right now around the world, for instance, moments of harmonious discord and discordant harmony are part of the reality artists have to confront.
Le Guo, Forbidden Zone I, II, III (2019), overall 140x300cm, mixed media on paper (image courtesy of the artist)
ELLEN: I’ve observed that the few paintings that you are working on at the moment incorporate intense visions of colour through gestural body movement and layering. What is your relationship with colour?
LE GUO: I describe the colour we see now as ‘contemporary colour’. Just a few days ago, a friend commented that my work gives him the feeling evoked by Huaisu’s autobiography, a kind of writing imbued with life force. Nonetheless, Huaisu was a Buddhist monk who lived in the eighth century; the nature that he sees and transcribed in his calligraphy is different from the nature that we see now. How often do you surround yourself with nature, the mountains, and waterfalls? The ‘nature’ we see now is rendered on digital screens. This new type of nature comes from advertisements, packaging, and video games, which I often watch my children play. [laugh] The contemporary colour that I represent here is a metaphor of environmental issues, an implicit commentary from the perspective of perception and sensation.
ELLEN: Can you tell us where you see yourself working towards next?
LE GUO: The major issue for me now is the constant development of my practice. Painting still has potential. I am hoping to work on a bigger scale so that it may stimulate some new cognitive development.
ELLEN: In the same spirit of your early experimental ink paintings.
LE GUO: Art should be experimental. Painting is like singing or dancing, in the way that they are all meditation on human’s fundamental emotions and mode of thinking. I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of possibilities might come out of my painting, and what kind of possibilities it might bring to our time.
Originally conducted in Chinese, this interview has been translated and edited for clarity.