As one shīfu ( 师傅 | “Yoda” in Chinese) once remarked, “In a world that pushes us to be perfect, we have a duty to be different.” It’s the time of new trending traditions.
Moral traditions versus trending tenets, therein lies China’s first-tier urban youth debate in the 21st Century. The concept of “xiào” (孝| “filial piety” in Chinese) means that the same devotion and selflessness in serving one’s family should also apply when serving one’s country. Or art.
Which one to obey, where to draw the line between pretentious and pragmatic, and, most importantly, where to seek and find one’s new Self — without over-inflating the Ego?
China Under The Radar (CUTR) gets its freak on as we enjoy a quick pop, bibbidi-bob, powwow with visually enigmatic Lao XIE XIE.
CUTR: What is the Lao XIE XIE style?
Lao: Picasso famously stated, “The world today doesn’t make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do.” Lao老| “old” in Chinese) XIE XIE style was born from the frustration to do things that everyone likes, clients, friends, and family alike. I am now trying to create something that gives me satisfaction. If onlookers like it, cool. If not, too bad. I like to mix it up by utilizing different media, which can range from just pure photography to adding some digital collage-ing when the photo needs that little oompf to pump it up to the next level.
CUTR: China in three words, subjectively speaking
Lao: PRAGMATIC, fast, messy.
CUTR: China in three words, artistically speaking
Lao: TRADITIONAL, emotional, closed.
CUTR: How do you approach the concept of (urban) photography?
Lao: Many photographers will tell you the rather tiresome tale of how they were handed their first camera, heard that shutter sound, and instantly knew this is what they wanted to do in life. Blah blah blah. Not me, though. Photography is merely a channel for me to physically paint what I can mentally construct. I didn’t even buy my first camera; I got it as a present. From a friend.
CUTR: From street photography to New Urban China. How do you envision the evolution of China’s urban scenery and society?
Lao: At this very moment, every artistic discipline is growing up very differently across China’s urban landscape. I do think photography possesses the stronger personality and passion, even, to convey what’s really occupying the minds of young urban China in comparison to the power of simply streetwear or some other urban fashion fad strongly influenced by western styles.
Within society, I feel the new trend is getting more nationalistic, even big brands are now selling the “Proud to be Made in China.” This is one way to redeem the “Made in China” stigma, but from coming in from another angle, this type of thinking includes the risk of closing oneself off to the ways of the outside world.
CUTR: Art versus arty-farty; where do you draw the line?
Lao: Defining art is hard to do. Especially after the revolutionary age of Duchamp. Nevertheless, what I can recognize is how visually strong something, a subject, is, and to be honest, not many photographers, not even the better-known ones, have this power.
Everything in this day and age is moving super fast, the piling on of images through social media is getting insane; you need to post on Instagram and the likes at least once a week, which means you have to shoot or paint or whatever every single day as to have sufficient backup imagery. To post. The quality, for this exact reason, is getting lower and lower. I say if you decide to print something, it’ll be better to wait and put out a book containing 30 strong pictures rather than some flimsy fanzine featuring 30 pictures, four of which are cool.
Respect your work. And the people who buy it.
CUTR: What makes the creative juices flow?
Lao: Where I live makes up for 60 percent of them. In China, what constitutes “aesthetic” is different from its definition in other parts of the world, and not many people can capture the essence. It’s just not that easy to explain. We are talking about a country with a very strong personality. Whenever a person or a brand comes to China, they or it will have to adapt the Self to this new world. If not, the nation will change you anyway.
Concrete example: IKEA. Synonymous with all that is “minimal,” and the same products on shelves across the globe. Try visiting the IKEA store in China. You will see people vast asleep in the beds or sitting on the sofas eating and drinking — as if they were eating and drinking in the comfort of their own home.
This makes for a completely different aesthetic feel of the shop. If you can follow my “brain twisted” reasoning here…
CUTR: What is the new crop of post-80s and -90s Chinese artists contributing to the world of art?
Lao: Chinese art can still be more influential, for sure, there’s a galore of strong Chinese artists out there right now, who still are not given their rightful props — either within China or outside of the Middle Kingdom.
If you ask somebody who [Chinese performance artist] Zhang Huan, they won’t know, but if you ask who Cattelan or Hirst are, they might be able to reply. Chinese institutions have a responsibility to push these local artists.
More exhibitions and fewer Sunday brunches, I say.
CUTR: How do you see yourself and your work evolve in the next five years?
Lao: Truth be told, I’m more of a carpe diem person. For now, I’m just focused on finishing my project and publishing a book — yep, a book.
Much like the concept of “xiào”, the original intention and definition of “art” has not changed in the intervening centuries, it is “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination,” typically in a visual form.
Its interpretation, nonetheless, changes by the brushstroke and shall continue to do so.
It never gets old. Or, better yet, “l.”