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Big Tail Elephants: Liang Juhui, Xu Tan, Chen Shaoxiong, and Me

Big Tail Elephant was a four-member artists’ collective active in Guangzhou, China, from 1991 to 1998, the first such group in South China to employ multimedia art forms, photography, performance, installation, and video. While maintaining their individual artistic practices, the members—an advertisement designer, two teachers from the Guangzhou Art Academy, and a TV station worker—gathered regularly to talk about art and to organize annual group exhibitions.

Of the six group shows they staged between 1991 and 1997, one was held at a local bar, another in a private home, and still another in the basement of an office building. Big Tail Elephant’s predilection for challenging the official state-run art system by mounting exhibitions in alternative spaces earned them the sobriquet “urban guerrillas,” a title bestowed on them by curator Hou Hanru. Their retrospective at the Kunsthalle Bern in 1998 was the group’s first exhibition in a Western art institution and also, quite unexpectedly, their last show as a collective.

Today the three surviving members continue their individual art practices: Lin Yilin is a renowned performance artist; Chen Shaoxiong works with photography, video, and ink animation; and Xu Tan is recognized for his socially engaged projects. Their portfolios constitute an important case study in the development of an artists’ collective and give valuable insights into the little-known history of time-based art in South China.

This meeting of the Big Tail Elephant Group took place in 1993, after Lin Yilin had returned from six months in Germany, France, and the Netherlands. The discussion reflects the artists’ sensitivity to the rapid changes in the city as well as their anxiety about their position in the global art world. Looking back at themselves twenty years later, the Big Tail Elephants admitted that they were young, passionate, and a bit naïve about social and political conditions in general. But as is observable in their work today, their interest in being connected to and involved in society through art never changed, and that is how the Big Tail Elephant Group was tied together.

Introduction by Yu-Chieh Li

Author

Liang juhui photo

Liang Juhui 梁钜辉

Liang Juhui (born in Guangzhou, China, 1959; died 2006) was an artist who lived and worked in Guangzhou, China. Liang was the Art Director of Guanggdong TV in 1982 and... Read more »
Chen shaoxiong photo cropped

Chen Shaoxiong 陈劭雄

Artist Chen Shaoxiong was born in Shantou, Guangdong province, China in 1962 and lived and worked in Beijing until his death in 2016. Chen graduated from the Print Department at... Read more »
Xu tan photo gtom kunstforum

Xu Tan 徐坦

Artist Xu Tan (born in Wuhan, Hubei Province, 1957) is an artist who currently lives and works in Guangzhou and Shenzhen, China. Xu attended the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts,... Read more »
Lin yilin photo

Lin Yilin 林一林

Artist Lin Yilin (born in Guangzhou, China, 1964) is a performance and installation artist who currently lives and works in New York and Beijing. Lin graduated with a degree in... Read more »
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Big Tail Elephants: Liang Juhui, Xu Tan, Chen Shaoxiong, and Me

Big Tail Elephant was a four-member artists’ collective active in Guangzhou, China, from 1991 to 1998, the first such group in South China to employ multimedia art forms, photography, performance, installation, and video. While maintaining their individual artistic practices, the members—an advertisement designer, two teachers from the Guangzhou Art Academy, and a TV station worker—gathered regularly to talk about art and to organize annual group exhibitions.

Of the six group shows they staged between 1991 and 1997, one was held at a local bar, another in a private home, and still another in the basement of an office building. Big Tail Elephant’s predilection for challenging the official state-run art system by mounting exhibitions in alternative spaces earned them the sobriquet “urban guerrillas,” a title bestowed on them by curator Hou Hanru. Their retrospective at the Kunsthalle Bern in 1998 was the group’s first exhibition in a Western art institution and also, quite unexpectedly, their last show as a collective.

Today the three surviving members continue their individual...

Show More

Big Tail Elephant was a four-member artists’ collective active in Guangzhou, China, from 1991 to 1998, the first such group in South China to employ multimedia art forms, photography, performance, installation, and video. While maintaining their individual artistic practices, the members—an advertisement designer, two teachers from the Guangzhou Art Academy, and a TV station worker—gathered regularly to talk about art and to organize annual group exhibitions.

Of the six group shows they staged between 1991 and 1997, one was held at a local bar, another in a private home, and still another in the basement of an office building. Big Tail Elephant’s predilection for challenging the official state-run art system by mounting exhibitions in alternative spaces earned them the sobriquet “urban guerrillas,” a title bestowed on them by curator Hou Hanru. Their retrospective at the Kunsthalle Bern in 1998 was the group’s first exhibition in a Western art institution and also, quite unexpectedly, their last show as a collective.

Today the three surviving members continue their individual art practices: Lin Yilin is a renowned performance artist; Chen Shaoxiong works with photography, video, and ink animation; and Xu Tan is recognized for his socially engaged projects. Their portfolios constitute an important case study in the development of an artists’ collective and give valuable insights into the little-known history of time-based art in South China.

This meeting of the Big Tail Elephant Group took place in 1993, after Lin Yilin had returned from six months in Germany, France, and the Netherlands. The discussion reflects the artists’ sensitivity to the rapid changes in the city as well as their anxiety about their position in the global art world. Looking back at themselves twenty years later, the Big Tail Elephants admitted that they were young, passionate, and a bit naïve about social and political conditions in general. But as is observable in their work today, their interest in being connected to and involved in society through art never changed, and that is how the Big Tail Elephant Group was tied together.

Introduction by Yu-Chieh Li

This discussion was moderated and recorded by Lin Yilin in 1993. The Chinese transcript can be read here. The English translation is by Lina Dann; the footnotes have been provided by Lina Dann, Yu-Chieh Li, and Sarah McFadden.

Big Tail Elephant Group was founded at the end of 1990. It held two large-scale exhibitions in Guangzhou—one in January 1991, and the other in October 1992. In July 1993, Big Tail Elephants held a conference that was limited to the four members of the group, and so I took on the job of moderating the discussion. Our main topics included the characteristics and directions of Big Tail Elephant Group, the group’s cultural background, and the artistic concepts and works of its members.

Lin Yilin: Xu Tan, your artistic style is already fairly mature, and your works are hardly unfamiliar to your peers in China. An artist such as yourself could simply go on following his original path. What convinced you to join Big Tail Elephant Group?

Xu Tan: Although I’m new to the group, I have collaborated with its members for quite some time. I think Big Tail Elephants has a unique trait, one that I believe is found valuable everywhere in the world. In this group, every artist's individual creation is encouraged and supported, and you can feel the liveliness of creativity; it is a place of freedom, such that our collaboration generates a force—a lasting potential. The openness of our working structure is the source of our confidence in the future.

Liang Juhui: Besides what you just mentioned, is there anything else about Big Tail Elephants that appeals to you?

Xu Tan: This group has a mystic sense of cohesion, something that speaks to all of us. Many people have asked what in essence glues us together, and while none of us has come up with a definitive answer, we are all well aware and assured of its existence. The question is open for discussion. People talk about the South [of China], about the mystical currents that infiltrate everyday life, and I believe that it does possess a charisma and an inexplicable . . .

Liang Juhui: It’s been seven years since Lin Yilin, Chen Shaoxiong, and I started working together at the Southern Artists Salon,1 and just as you said, there is a mystic force that brings us all together.

Chen Shaoxiong: What brings us together is what sets us apart from other artists’ groups. For instance, there isn't a core leader in Big Tail Elephants; if any member were to leave the group, Big Tail Elephants would still hold up. It's kind of funny—it pulls us toward union but doesn’t have a core.

Lin Yilin: The core is the name “Big Tail Elephants.”

Xu Tan: This reminds me of Jacques Derrida's idea of a core. He said that a core can't be found within a structure, and it can't be found outside a structure, either. Take an orchestra, for example: who is the core? Some think the conductor is the core; others believe the first violin is the core; nonetheless, no one really is the core—only music serves as the core. From Derrida's descriptions, I got his sense of what a core is, and I think that is exactly the kind of core-structure relationship that we have.

Liang Juhui: In simpler words, it's like magnets in a magnetic field; complete opposites or complete compatibility cannot make a union.

Lin Yilin: Perhaps we can put it another way. “Big Tail Elephants” is a concept wrapped in a term, just like ancient Western philosophers used the term “gods” to explain natural phenomena. It demonstrates a leading concept instead of a particular person.

Chen Shaoxiong: Or instead of a concept leading us, it might be something that goes beyond individuals, a transcendental force that operates behind all this. This transcendental force leads artists to infinite possibilities in terms of thinking and creating art. This is where the energy and spirituality of Big Tail Elephants lie.

Lin Yilin: We’re open to the possibility that a shared ideological ground will eventually form within the Big Tail Elephant Group. Maybe as we spend more and more time collaborating with each other, we’ll naturally share more in common, and eventually it might result in a strong credo for our group. Nevertheless, we’re not actively pursuing that, and we won't take any credo as a self-restraining standard.

Chen Shaoxiong: Speaking for myself, no particular concept precedes my artwork. It’s not like we have a concrete theory of “Big Tail Elephants.” As we go through the process of creation, we adjust our concepts. You could say that the birth of the artwork and the birth of the concept are simultaneous. And I think I speak for all of us.

Xu Tan: Surely each of us is taking our own artistic path, but undeniably, we’re heading in the same direction, which is hard to describe. If you look back at history, artistic creativity is always connected to strong individuals. I hope our group is a rare but peculiar union where several powerful individuals make up a powerful group. Here, each and every one of us can succeed as an influential artist, all the while working together.

Lin Yilin: There’s a trendy topic in the Chinese art world nowadays: the relationship between contemporary Chinese art and international art. This so-called international art follows the paradigm and criteria of contemporary European and American art. This is where the debate comes in. What makes a piece of contemporary Chinese art valuable? Is a work of art that reflects China’s current cultural background worth more? Or is more meaning to be found in a piece that conforms to the ideas of international art? This discrepancy actually paves the way for contemporary Chinese art that is more multifaceted. In fact, it is multifaceted essentially in a different way from international art. When critics consider an artists’ group like Big Tail Elephants, they might tend to see it as a collective guided by international artistic paradigms. Does this mean that the works of Big Tail Elephant Group are free from considerations of or references to the cultural background of contemporary Chinese art?

Xu Tan: This is a very interesting question. I think what makes observing international culture and Chinese culture so much fun and so delightful is the fact that we observe both of them from a certain distance. In Guangdong, things are quite distinct; unlike northerners, who are deeply rooted in the more established territory of Chinese culture, we are always observing traditional culture from a distance.2 As for Western culture, we certainly stand at a great distance from that as well. In the end, we can’t belong to either. There is no culture here—it's a cultural desert. However, I feel most elated when walking in this desert.

Lin Yilin: The only trouble is the lack of water in the desert. But this is why our work is so significant—we maintain the excitement where there is no water! Now, whether this excitement can last is something that will depend on us.

Chen Shaoxiong: In that case, Big Tail Elephants must turn into a great camel! And it truly has. From where we stand, it is true that traditional culture has little influence over us, political issues involve us only remotely, and Western paradigms are far removed. It is precisely from this position of remote detachment that uniqueness arises. On the other hand, international standards do insidiously restrict or influence China’s art. When the West comes across certain distinguishing features of contemporary Chinese art, it integrates these works into the international canon on the grounds that they are either part of the broad spectrum of human culture or have special value as regional art. But if we were to discuss this, there is simply too much to consider, and the subject is hard to elaborate for now.

Lin Yilin: Ever since the May Fourth Movement,3 Chinese art has been heavily diluted and weakened by the influence of foreign culture; generally speaking, pre-nineteenth-century Western art has probably been accepted best. If you ignore the content and focus only on structure, official art in China is basically a variation of nineteenth-century Western art paradigms. Over time, the West has evolved from an agricultural society into an industrial one, and from there into an age of information technology. Contemporary Western art is certainly a product of these societal changes. Europe and the U.S. are currently economically strong and culturally dominant, but as China catches up with these developed countries, it might be able to compete with them in terms of investment in culture. By that time, the division between the international and Chinese paradigms might disappear, or at least become less ambiguous or confusing.

Xu Tan: When it comes to international or Chinese paradigms, I don't think China really has a paradigm yet. If we try to make sense of the criteria used in national exhibition awards, we find they aren't significant enough to be called the paradigm of an individual culture. Whatever criteria we have now are all just imported.

Lin Yilin: In order to establish a real Chinese art paradigm, we must consider two factors: first, artistic quality, and second, awareness of the field of contemporary culture. Surely we are speaking not only of regional cultural awareness, but also of its comparison and relation to others.

Chen Shaoxiong: When Western scholars are evaluating contemporary Chinese art, they look into more than just the culture and quality of the art; they consider social issues, too. They view China’s inferiority in social and economic development and base their evaluations on these standards. This is why they see Chinese art as only ornamental instead of viewing it on a competitive level.

Lin Yilin: When artists consider art, they should disregard geographic distinction and focus more on the art itself, because everyone is, in one way or another, trapped in and confined to the society in which they live. For example, considering current productivity in China, artists don’t have the privilege of utilizing art forms involving higher technologies, such as computers. The medium you use might be intimately tied to the surrounding social conditions, and this is one way that art can reveal those conditions. The problem with contemporary Chinese art is that both the artists and the critics are more concerned with expressing worries about society and venting their own emotions bluntly in the images. This is permissible, but it shouldn’t be the sole focus. Another group of artists, those who focus on essential artistic issues, is often neglected. It’s not that these artists don’t reflect on society in their works, it’s that they do so in a more introverted, subtle way.

Chen Shaoxiong: Speaking of social issues, there are two problems that we must consider separately. One is the problem of the social system; the other is the problem of developing productivity within society. If the creation of an artwork relies on a certain technology, we would certainly fall behind; on the other hand, from the standpoint of the social system, China possesses some unique characteristics that might interest Westerners. Here in Guangzhou, the advanced state of economic development brings us closer to the developed countries, and political influences rarely truly affect us; therefore, artistically speaking, we are free from social restraints and problems when trying to present a so-called indigenous art.

Xu Tan: For now, when we concern ourselves with the international paradigm and the Chinese paradigm, while we sound as if we are promoting Eastern culture, we are also just trying to explain the opposite influence: that of traditional Chinese culture on contemporary Western culture. For various reasons, Westerners welcome this influence, but truthfully speaking, they probably don't understand where the merits of Eastern culture’s traditions lie. They come to China, select artworks, and exhibit them back in the West; all this amounts to a superficial exploration of Eastern culture. Unfortunately, what they’ve explored are political and social issues. Of course, this can serve as a start, and it’s all right, because the rest takes time! It takes patient dedication. As for international criteria, they do exist; many artistic issues are issues to be studied as a discipline—visual arts and vision, the relationship between art and society, the extent of society’s impact on art—all these issues have been explored by many people. It would be impossible for us to sum up all this laborious work in a term as simple as “Chinese criteria.” Let me provide a concrete example. Lin Yilin had an artwork back in the Netherlands, one with fruits hanging on the wall. I believe this is a fairly straightforward idea, but it is indeed one that doesn’t come easily to an artist. Visual, biological, and psychological effects are all in play, and anyone who saw the piece felt an intense imbalance, one that is hard to capture in words. It is a matter of vision and discipline, not just implicit commentary on society, political issues, or Eastern culture. We were raised in this society, on Chinese soil; we developed into ordinary human beings, and especially those of us who have our abilities, cannot be indifferent to this life and this society. Our lives are inevitably fueled with passion nourished by this land and its resources. But in our day and age, if artists wish to have long artistic lives and make a cultural contribution through their work, they must concern themselves with international criteria and cannot stand to one side. Because of where we stand, and because the resources we employ are so regional, I hope that our ideas are in sync with the most advanced ideas of the day.

Lin Yilin: Chinese art is marked by the exigencies of the social environment in which it is created. Such limitations are not necessarily harmful. For example, the materials each of you sitting here uses reflect this society’s material foundation and economic development. And now, I wish to move our discussion to the artists and their works. Let’s talk about Xu Tan first. Initially, Xu Tan worked with a traditional art form—easel painting. He then moved to combining easel painting with the readymade, and now he’s working on multimedia installations. In 1992, he used fluorescent plastic tubes, a common material found in almost every karaoke nightclub4 in Guangzhou, and glassmaking techniques used in the local production of handicrafts and sculpture. This illustrates how a glimpse of Guangzhou society is captured in Xu Tan's works, although that has never been his artistic intention.

Bte4
From left: Chen Shaoxiong, Liang Juhui, Xu Tan, and Lin Yilin at their meeting in 1993

Liang Juhui: Xu Tan’s works also relate to the food culture of southern China, for example, its local restaurants and dapaidong.5

Lin Yilin: The organizer of the Berlin exhibition China Avant-Garde was especially interested in Xu Tan’s new works.6 He had never before seen an artist use fluorescent plastic tubes in an artwork. I think Western society disdains this kind of entertainment culture, and so it’s no wonder that no Western artist has ever tried to use such material. This also reflects how great the discrepancy can be when it comes to the materials that each region provides for its artists. In Xu Tan’s works, you can see how he cares for popular culture. In this regard, you might compare him to Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Kenny Scharf, although regional, economic, and racial differences lead them to focus on different sorts of objects. The significance of Xu Tan’s works might seem even more complex than theirs, given that his works reference a wide variety of cultural factors.

Xu Tan: Chen Shaoxiong and I were discussing an issue—artworks can have provocative intentions. From Marcel Duchamp to Joseph Beuys, our lives, all the things in our world, everything can be turned into art; there is nothing that cannot become art. But here comes the problem: if everything can become art, then art loses its meaning. I think Jeff Koons is truly amazing; he was able to find something in our society that wasn’t yet art. I heard that 50 percent of Americans don’t consider his work to be art, while no one dares to deny that Duchamp’s works are. My hope is that if one day I can find something that isn’t art, I’ll rush to do it. Unfortunately, I just can’t find it. I created an artwork that refers to restaurants, and while people think a urinal is art, they don’t seem to think that restaurants [count as art]. . . .7 Take those shiny colorful lights in restaurants as an example. Many of us are willing to accept filthy trash as art, but somehow when we look at clean, beautiful things, we see ornament and not art. I have spent my life upsetting my artistic peers, and I find it very exciting.

Lin Yilin: Your goal might be to upset your contemporaries, but perhaps future artists will be thrilled by your work.

Xu Tan: The problem is, once I do it [a work that seems to be non-art], people turn happy.

Chen Shaoxiong: But you have to know, people are happy about your work not because it is art, and this is a very intriguing kind of happiness; their happiness might actually come about because they don’t think it’s art.

Lin Yilin: I find a paradox in Xu Tan’s works. On the one hand, we see your engagement with Chinese popular culture, and on the other, even deeper, your contemplation of mankind’s survival issues, such as wars. On your canvases, we see references to the war in the Middle East, Yugoslavia’s civil war, and variations on classical war paintings.You have two lines of thought in a single work.8 Do you think such dissonance gives your mind a kind of consonance?

Xu Tan: Our era has produced this condition—we are used to accepting dissonance. Human brains possess the ability to smooth things over. In the past, once an idea entered the system, whether it was harmonious or not, it was processed until it reached a state of harmony, and then it was accepted and we felt more comfortable with it. However, I’ve noticed that this is no longer so. Things have changed: we have become unable to process dissonance in this way. This is something our era has forced on us. Our living condition gives us such a sense, and I feel like what I did in that work is truthful. Recycling and reconfiguring used materials [found objects] creates a peculiar and especially thrilling feeling. The bamboo in Liang Juhui’s work is coated with a layer of light-green paint and is assembled in association with lamps. A visual-psychological analysis of the materials suggests that the bamboo is hard to swallow, and the work seems so vulgar! Such mediocrity, such handicraft. . . . At the time he first showed the works I was envious of him, because many who didn’t appreciate them claimed they weren’t art but handicraft, and I thought to myself, “Great, how I wish someone spoke of me in this way!” What I find best about it is precisely the fact that it doesn’t seem to be art, that it seems more like craft. By the way, it is that thought again: urinals can be art, while handicrafts cannot? Liang Juhui’s artworks illustrate this problem perfectly. You see people collecting rotten bicycles from vacant lots and then calling it art, but such art has no appeal because ever since Duchamp, we’ve all known that this can be art. Now handicrafts becoming art— that is something that proves Liang Juhui’s brilliance. His works are very characteristic of Eastern culture. A material such as bamboo is especially devoid of the sense of being an art material. Just like Lin Yilin’s comments [above] about how Westerners are particularly sensitive to material, I think bamboo is an exception to such sentiments because it is so hollow! It is very different from the materials favored by Westerners, such as steel or concrete; bamboo is especially Eastern, and it gives off such a feeling and generates particular cultural associations. Therefore, this work has it all covered. In the 1970s, people emphasized the purity of form and the aesthetics; if you take away the cultural connotations, bamboo serves this exact function.

Liang Juhui: In my first artwork, the mirror and the “cabinet,”9 there was what appeared to be a cabinet; I painted it neatly, placed small mirrors in its tiny square holes, and combined it with a big mirror to create a very ordinary space. It was the labor of a handyman. In my second piece, I used bamboo, lamps, and wisteria to create a large handcrafted work, that’s all.

Lin Yilin: If you look from Liang Juhui’s first piece, with mirrors, to his second piece, with bamboo, you might think there’s great gap between his works. It would almost seem as if he is fickle or leaps from one idea to the next, and it makes you wonder: is he trying to affirm the original subject, or deny it? From what he has just told us, we can see how rare an artist he is. We don’t find any specific message in his work; all we see is passion to complete something. In the process, he remains true to his understanding of the world and what he wants to do—an interest in handicraft itself. This makes the artwork especially genuine and free of unstable factors introduced by superficial changes.

Chen Shaoxiong: The gap between Liang Juhui’s two works lies in the lack of consistency or continuity in the materials used; instead, there is a coherence in how he explores new material, and this itself is the consistency.

Lin Yilin: The way he turns materials vulgar might be something he is unaware of, and yet this lack of awareness is invaluable. If not for this lack, he might have just repeated what contemporary Western artists have been doing, such as Jeff Koons’s interest in vulgarity as well as photographs by Pierre et Gilles, which all express sensitivity to the world. Liang Juhui’s works, on the other hand, are not products of his awareness of vulgarity.

Liang Juhui: I like to transform ordinary material into a crafted work, a work of completion, not in the sense of pure artistic beauty, but of crafted perfection.

Xu Tan: The insight Lin Yilin just offered makes complete sense. In Liang Juhui’s bamboo work, I see corruption. This corruption is different from that of Jeff Koons. Koons acts as if he set out to be corrupt, making him somewhat affected or as if he is trying too hard, whereas Liang Juhui brings corruption into his art with a pure and innocent heart, as if he is genuinely elated and excited about following that path. In this sense, I feel like it’s almost an innocent corruption—perhaps you won’t like my choice of words!

Liang Juhui: Nonsense! I like it! I like it very much! Art is like when a person buys paint for a cabinet in his home, and he brushes and paints until it is smooth—I like this job!

Chen Shaoxiong: From the bottom of your heart.

Liang Juhui: It’s like when your shoes are dirty, you must wax and polish them until they shine.

Chen Shaoxiong: How corrupt! Polish them until they shine in a corrupt way, ha!

Lin Yilin: In my opinion, Liang Juhui’s works are the opposite of Jeff Koons’s and Kenny Scharf’s; he stands closer to the ideas of Joseph Beuys.

Xu Tan: Exactly! Except that Liang Juhui won’t express it by washing the feet of others, but he will polish his shoes until they shine.

Liang Juhui: Shoe polishing is an art itself.

Lin Yilin: This is how an artists speaks.

Xu Tan: True! And this kind of language threatens most Chinese artists. Many artists are frightened by the sight of Liang Juhui running around doing a craftsman’s work, and with a spring in his step at that! He runs around collecting payments, too, and I’m not sure that he’s not some kind of loan shark. Anyway, artistically speaking, this is a total massacre, and Liang Juhui, the killer behind it all, is a great artist to me.

Chen Shaoxiong: Ha!

Xu Tan: The differences among members of Big Tail Elephant Group can be huge. Chen Shaoxiong is very different from Liang Juhui. Chen Shaoxiong is a scholarly artist, very thorough and serious. His works express time with a particular sense of conscientiousness and logic. Time is still an enigma to humans; time and life, time and the essence of the universe, these are things we cannot elaborate. What do you think? Please share your thoughts.

Chen Shaoxiong: When I express time in my works, I’m not looking to discuss serious philosophical questions; I wish to treat it in a simple, concrete way. I treat it as if it had nothing to do with life or the universe, unlike the way that most scholars view it. Moreover, my interpretation of time serves a more intriguing role in its relationship to the whole piece of work. That is to say that this “time” is irrelevant to our being and daily lives; it is like time that exists in a vacuum and bears no relationship to air. Our usual conception of time is that it is continuous and has no beginning and no end, but in my work, time does have a beginning and an end; time is confined to spans of several hours or several days, and these are fragments extracted from my personal life.

Xu Tan: In Chen Shaoxiong’s works, I sense discordance between the perception of time and the characteristics of the colored fluorescent lamps. Would this be taken as not so ideal? Personally, this is my favorite part. Why? Because I always feel as if we live in discord; perhaps you didn’t have this concept in mind when you were creating the work, but I believe these things enter your subconscious. This discordance is a regular part of our lives, and so after you realize it in art, it disturbs the psyches and the senses of others. After seeing the lamps, viewers have to look at the time on the boards. Colored fluorescent lamps gives off a hint of luxury, and when you add that to a certain element of time, together they generate a sense of destruction or transience, even a hint of crisis.

Chen Shaoxiong: Time as Roman Opalka depicts it is objective, but I refuse this objectivity of time in my work and choose to enter a different “time.” Say a person goes into a coma for a week. If he went into a coma on the tenth and woke up on the seventeenth, then subjectively he should think he woke up on the eleventh and not the seventeenth. The blank or void in his conscious experience is irrelevant to objective time. In my work I have created an environment and system for escaping from mundane, structured time, so that when you’re inside, you recognize the gap between your life and your objective life. Which one is more truthful, I cannot say.

Xu Tan: Are you suggesting that this “time” of yours is stripped of eternity?

Chen Shaoxiong: Inside a given, limited, concrete time frame there might actually be another kind of eternity. This kind of eternity is like something that has frozen in the refrigerator.

Lin Yilin: People can observe the changes in their own biological system and in the natural world and feel the presence of time. But I’m thinking that animals cannot possibly be aware of the passage of time. How long have you existed in this world? This is a question reserved for humans, which differentiates humans and animals. Out of practical necessity, humans established the concept of time and invented means to calculate it. It was only then that humans became aware of limited, structured time.

Xu Tan: Animals have no awareness of time even though humans do, and so time does not necessarily exist; instead, it is only the awareness or perception of a certain thing. The upshot of such an understanding of time is splendid, for if you wish to freeze it or even cut yourself off from it, it is your cognitive right to do so, and also your sensory right.

Lin Yilin: Your works’ lives coincide with the duration of the exhibitions in which they are seen. Their titles are “7 Days” and “72 and a Half Hours.” After these periods of time elapsed. . . .

Chen Shaoxiong: Then the artwork becomes a corpse.

Liang Juhui: Chen Shaoxiong has compressed time in his work and clarified his thoughts and concepts on time.

Xu Tan: Everyone endows the time they spend working on the creation of an artwork with great meaning. Any minute or second I spend on a piece is a piece of positive life, because it entails agglomeration. However, for Chen Shaoxiong, it is just the opposite: it is negative life, a meaningless period of time, a time with no time, an exhaustion and halting of time. For others, time spent creating art is time meant to capture the world’s attention and create meaning, but for Chen Shaoxiong, this sense of time and this meaning are precisely what he wants to annihilate. When he worked on this piece, he was in a state of “non-life” and recognized a “non-time,” which led him to observe time and life from newly discovered angles.

Liang Juhui: Now let’s hear Lin Yilin talk about his new works in Europe.

Lin Yilin: In the few short months I was in Europe, I realized that my perspective on art had been freed from my previous passion for form, such as the form of architecture or the form of sculpture. I don’t mean to say that I am indifferent to form; I only mean to say that I now treat it as a structural part of the artwork, and I have come to focus more on the thing itself and its essence. This is a shift within me. Ever since showing my work Wall Itself (1993) in Rotterdam, I have expressed these changes accordingly.

Xu Tan: I talked about this piece of yours earlier. The title of your work is Wall Itself, but I get a different meaning from it; I feel like there’s a subtext: art and art itself. They are interchangeable and the title makes the perfect allusion. From what I remember, you have produced a lot of work expressing this recurring idea about art itself. You have made it clear that what’s more important than art is art itself.

Chen Shaoxiong: How would you feel if the title of your work were to be Wall’s Material Itself? A wall is made up of bricks, and bricks are a material, and so Wall Itself and Wall’s Material Itself, what do you think?

Lin Yilin: When I was working on Ideal Housing Standard Series in 1991, I was already very intrigued by materials. The resonance between materials is something that interested me. A material collides with another material to form a new object, meanwhile the resonance that takes place can have a great impact on the audience’s visual perception. A wall is the form that bricks come together to create, and the meaning of bricks lies in their making of the wall. Wall bears another implication, which is to elevate things, even if it is not the main purpose. So when we speak of walls, we are also talking about bricks. I am even more intrigued by the bricks, but since the bricks are constructed into a wall, the title I choose will be of no importance. For instance, if you consider the building blocks of human beings, they include cells, water, organic materials, and so on. But when we talk about a specific person, we can all look beyond those shared structural elements and focus on the specific individual. As for me, I am most interested in what it is inside a human being that constitutes the meaning of that person.

Chen Shaoxiong: You mean the elements.

Lin Yilin: When we try to capture it in art, we cannot do a philosopher’s work and present the matter of essence directly to the audience. If you really do arrange the bare essence on a plate and serve it raw to the audience, then art leaves no room for the audience to fill in. Such a thing wouldn’t be art, it would probably be science, or even philosophy.

Chen Shaoxiong: Other artists take a material and turn it into something else. You, however, take a material and turn it into nothing different; your material is still starkly exposed and not infused with any cultural meaning or life experience or even personal story.

Lin Yilin: It’s true that the walls in my works don’t seem any different than ordinary walls. It's only because I bestowed my walls with a certain ideal and faith that they stand apart from all other walls. I wasn't looking to create a strange wall; I was trying to use this peculiarity to illustrate how people can be unaware of truths and facts about walls.

Xu Tan: At first sight, the wall and its water-filled plastic bags are off-putting— we can’t accept such a situation. Water bags are risky. They leak, and they create a sense of insecurity and tension. They create a disturbing effect that appears to defy visual criteria. Such opposition results not from the use of complementary colors but instead from from proposing the contemplation of artistic language itself, or at least the shock of it.

Lin Yilin: Artists often have unusual, extraordinary ideas and realize them in concrete form, creating stunning effects. In the process, some factors, aside from the ideas themselves, are related to chance, such as capturing a thing in its exact moment or developing a sensitivity to materials and assembling them in a way that reinforces your original ideas. All these are technical issues and very personal in terms of technical language. Whether or not a work of art is able to surprise also depends on a viewer’s life experience. For instance, an average person has an average familiarity with walls; therefore, when they realize how my work goes against their knowledge and experience, they will be taken aback. However, if there is a person who has never been in contact with a wall, then he or she might react nonchalantly to my wall work.

Chen Shaoxiong: So it’s actually about psychological expectations.

Lin Yilin: Well, my real goal isn’t to induce astonishment. It's just that if a work of art lacks a certain support of livelihood, then its vitality should be questioned. I focus on the meaning that content gives to materials. My choice of form might surprise people, but perhaps after digging more deeply into the artwork, they might actually be taken aback by its ordinariness.

1.

The Southern Artists Salon, established in Guangzhou in 1986 by graduates of that city’s Academy of Fine Arts, was a short-lived (it lasted just one year) but highly influential interdisciplinary group that staged a single exhibition. Members included Chen Saoxiong, Lin Yilin, Liang Juhui, and other artists who would go on to gain international reputations. [SM]

2.

For much of China’s history, the national capital has been located in the northern part of the country. Consequently, the north has been the traditional center of political, economic, and cultural activities. [LD]

3.

The May Fourth Movement was part of an anti-imperialist, cultural, and political campaign in China at the beginning of the twentieth century. Student demonstrations protesting the Chinese government's weak response to the Treaty of Versailles were held in Beijing on May 4, 1919. [LD]

4.

Ge-wu-ting are nightclubs that present live shows of dancing, singing, and karaoke. They are wildly popular in the Guangzhou region and serve as venues for business meetings as well as for pleasure. [LD]

5.

Dapaidong is a type of open-air food stand popular in southern China. They have provided affordable food to many generations of southerners and are symbolic of the middle- and lower-class lifestyles. [LD]

6.

China Avant-Garde, organized by Hans van Dijk, Jochen Noth, and Andreas Schmid, opened at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt in January 1993. The exhibition traveled to the Kunsthal, Rotterdam; the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford; and the Kunsthallen Brandts Klaedefabrik, Odense, Denmark. [YL]

7.

Xu Tan’s use of neon lights in works included in the exhibition Uniform Velocity Variant Velocity (1992) was inspired by the décor of newly opened restaurants in Guangzhou. [YL]

8.

This is a reference to several paintings that Xu Tan showed in the exhibition Uniform Velocity Variant Velocity, 1992. [YL]

9.

Liang Juhui, 進入計劃 (Entering the Project, 1991). [YL]

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Big Tail Elephants: Liang Juhui, Xu Tan, Chen Shaoxiong, and Me

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Chen shaoxiong photo cropped

Posted on 8 Jul

I think of ourselves as brave, living in the 1990s, fighting against society's mainstream values of the time with our limited individual forces. We were just a small, self-supported group, and yet we were delivering on the whole Guangdong’s regional culture. When I look back, I see a naïve soul in myself, one who is a loner, one who bears pride and eccentricity. Although I must confess I find some of my works of that time a little premature, I treasure their bookishness and the language I developed in them. They were less influenced compared to present works, and thus are free from pleasing motives and trending standards. Moreover, all my present works have their roots in my 90s artworks, from language to concept and from philosophy to media application. On one hand, to an artist, such progress and its extension are indivisible. On the other hand, we live in a time of great changes, and everything in the 90s seem to be so far away.

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I think of ourselves as brave, living in the 1990s, fighting against society's mainstream values of the time with our limited individual forces. We were just a small, self-supported group, and yet we were delivering on the whole Guangdong’s...

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Xu tan photo gtom kunstforum

Posted on 8 Jul

Revisiting this Big Elephant Group discussion in 1993, I must say that, with 20 years gone by since then, much has changed including the environment and our own mentalities. There are at least two things that I had not realized back then. First, I would never have imagined that the “avant-garde art” of the time (nowadays we call it “contemporary art”) would be so much influenced by today’s market and capital. Second, we were then way too optimistic about the withdrawal of a totalitarian Chinese government. In the early 1990s, there was an optimistic atmosphere that surrounded southern China (and perhaps many places around the globe). Consumerism had first landed in China along with its lifestyle and culture, the Chinese government had loosened its control, and the financial circumstance of common people had clearly begun to improve. I felt a sense of relief, thinking that this was the beginning of some post-modernist lifestyle. Looking back now, I realize I was too naïve. When I look around me now, on one hand I see drastic changes in the artistic world, on the other I see that the society’s awareness has weakened, including its resistance to totalitarianism and its will to pursue democracy, which have slowed down. However, there is one thing I can say without doubt: I have never changed in my fundamental philosophy of art, which includes art for art’s sake and introspection.

The Big Elephant Group in the 1990s always tried to surpass the “Orientalism” so popular at the time as well as the trendy Chinese political symbol. We confronted and reflected upon “politics” as well as our early living conditions mingled with consumerism. Apart form that, we tried to present all of our observations and studies of the society with rich artistic language. This effort might seem frail if seen from today given its idealistic mentality, but such effort has never cease to exist in our works that followed through the years.

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Revisiting this Big Elephant Group discussion in 1993, I must say that, with 20 years gone by since then, much has changed including the environment and our own mentalities. There are at least two things that I had not realized back then. First, I...

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Lin yilin photo

Posted on 8 Jul

Mao Zedong taught us this: Always self-criticize. I remember when I was at the elementary school, we were asked to write a “self-evaluation” at the end of each semester. Part of this evaluation consisted of our recognizing our own faults, yet, interestingly enough, almost everyone gave cookie-cut answers that varied little. So to reflect on this piece – a discussion that took place 20 years ago – does not seem very meaningful to me. That being said, since these words are to be published, some clarification is in order.

Big Elephant Group was established shortly after the Cold War ended, a time when globalization hadn’t fully taken over the world yet. On the one hand, we were critical to the New Wave Movement in China in the 1980s that bore attributes of Modernism, because it happened in the isolated context with no communication with the international art scene. On the other hand, we sought to surpass Western contemporary art. Because I am against socialist-realism, I turned to pursue a Utopian, new art form in my works. However, without a societal context of discourses, this individual system that relies on solitary imagination becomes weak and can hardly support itself. Three months after the Big Tail Elephant internal meeting in 1993, I adjusted myself and changed directions, and my works turned to efforts of impacting the society from an individual artist’s point of view. After the year of 2000, I have had various opportunities to create artwork in the contexts of different countries, and this sort of influence had to come from opportunities given by the local system; I didn’t belong to those systems, I only came and went between them. A system equates its society, which equates a power of control. I have always pondered about what sort of new weapon could help us fight against this globalized system that becomes more and more rigid each day. Clearly, art itself would not be the weapon. Perhaps this is an unoriginal concern, and yet again it has become an obstacle.

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Mao Zedong taught us this: Always self-criticize. I remember when I was at the elementary school, we were asked to write a “self-evaluation” at the end of each semester. Part of this evaluation consisted of our recognizing our own faults, yet,...

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