XB: I first encountered Andy Warhol through images in a magazine showing three silk screen-prints, each depicting the same portrait image of Mrs Jackie Kennedy. What intrigued me was the use of repetition in printmaking. I was interested in why Andy Warhol would create three identical prints.
XB: I don’t think I would say he directly influenced my work, but I was struck by the repetition, and I then wrote a paper on the study of repetition. Seeing his work influenced me to explore the subject of repetition, and to intellectualise it.
I was interested in Andy Warhol’s investigation into the relationship between fine art and contemporary culture. One of the key characteristics of contemporary culture is the use of duplicates. We use the same icons and symbols across cultures – every plug symbol looks the same, for example – and it made me aware of the universality of such things. So from his work, I saw an extension from the concept of repetition to this concept of universality.
XB: As an artist, I still feel I am the same. My interest in expressing contemporary life has remained the same. What has changed, and this is relevant to why my work has changed, is community, society, and culture. My art is always speaking to contemporary life, so my art has changed as contemporary life has changed. An artist is always adapting what he wants to express as the world around him changes.
XB: Yes, I do. The changes in our culture have changed the work. When a work is made it relates to a specific emotion at a specific point-in-time, so from my perspective it changes each time it is made. From an audience perspective, it also changes – because the audience’s context has also changed over time.
[Yeewan Koon joins the conversation]
YK: Good question. One of the things is that everybody knows Xu Bing for his interest in words and language, and also his interest in systems of knowledge; that is reflected in this exhibition and it is a crucial part of who he is. But I also think there are a lot of other things that people don’t know about him (or pay attention to as much) – well the story certainly hasn’t been told in Hong Kong – and it is a story about process and about making. Very much of what he does is about having a very intimate engagement with material and that was something I wanted to make sure people took away.
I also think he has changed as an artist in some ways, not in terms of who he is as a person, but the way his art has expressed different things. There is more humanity – a greater sense of human presence in some ways – so using things such as rubbish or things that people have handled. And I think that is a more intimate engagement that people are not so aware of.
YK: We certainly thought about our audience. We wanted to have a variety of artworks that would engage people at different levels. Many people will know classical Chinese paintings, for example – so his work exploring that aspect will be interesting to them - we wanted to make the exhibition accessible to as many people as possible.
YK: Well, yes. Each of the rooms in the exhibition is designed to convey something about Xu Bing personally. So the first one with the silk worms are relevant to Xu Bing’s own description of his approach to work – he has described himself as being like a silkworm in the way he simply diligently goes about working each day.
The next room includes the office, and is intended to act as a reminder of the actual process he undertakes to make the work.
The third room is relevant to print – showing a more recent work – but acts as a reminder of his artistic roots, which were in print.
XB: A lot of people think I am very creative, and the new works come easily. But I worry all the time about what I will create next. I just try to stay focused on the times and the changes in society, and I aim to form a new understanding of the world – and if I do this, then the ability to create a new art language is easier. ― [O]