Art can’t Change the World: Interview with Lei Yan
Artists come to contemporary art from a huge range of backgrounds, but few have a history as unique as the Chinese artist Lei Yan (雷燕). From the age of 14 until she was in her forties, Lei Yan served in the People’s Liberation Army. It wasn’t until leaving the military that she began studying art. In the years since she has begun making contemporary, however, she has consistently put forward works that are both aesthetically polished and conceptually engaging. Her work, A Bullet Pierces the Heart of Youth, chronicles her return to the border between Vietnam and China, specifically to the cities where she served during the Sino-Vietnamese War.
We spoke in her studio above TCG Nordica in 2012.
R. Orion Martin: After you graduated, you became a soldier artist, is that correct?
Lei Yan: Since I was young I always loved painting. I joined the army at the age of 14, and because I could draw I was often asked to take charge of the announcement blackboard. For every festival or New Year, we would put up poetry or texts written by fellow soldiers on the board, and I was asked to arrange them. This continued until I retired from the army.
While serving in the military, our unit was always stationed in rural areas. When I returned to Kunming in 1974, I began to look for an art teacher. I would go out with (other artists) and practice still life drawing. That was my first contact with life drawing or sketching. In 1975 I had an opportunity to participate in the Kunming Military Fine Arts Class (昆明军区部队的美术创作学习班). At that point, I started my career as a military artist and began to send my works to some national exhibitions. In the Fine Arts Class, we worked exclusively with printmaking, so I decided to apply for the PLA Institute of Art in 1989. There I received professional art training.
In the military arts organizations, we were always focused on participating in nationwide exhibitions, an activity that’s not actually important for art. At that time, my understanding of art was very vague. When I made art, I never touched on grand topics. I thought those were all for male soldiers. They had a good foundation and strong talents, I was just moved to create. This kind of creative thinking is the same as contemporary art creation, so when I first came into contact with contemporary art, I was quickly able to join in.
Do you think your understanding of art is different from artists who did not share your experience of serving in the military?
It’s certainly different. I think art must be related to the individual, to one’s personal experience. Military art is mostly concerned with historical subjects or modern military subjects, and this kind of work often neglects individual artistic feelings. This is because (as a military artist) you face investigations, and you must confront the image of the country and the military. This can be deadly to artistic creativity.
From my experiences I had growing up you can also see the way collective consciousness has obliterated individual consciousness. I was born into a military family. From a young age, I received a revolutionary idealist education that was permeated by collectivist spirit. This instilled in me a great spirit of revolutionary altruism. I was able to withstand the trials of being a soldier, and received many accolades and awards.
Of course my time in the military had an influence on me and on the art I do now. It’s a great resource for my art. Many of my ideas come from those 30 years of service.
You have used military uniforms in your art. This is a very recognizable symbol. Do you think that it may have different meanings to different generations?
It definitely has different meanings.
Camouflage is a very interesting material, because it is related to the hidden or mysterious. These elements can compliment your work, giving them a greater richness.
When you make art, what is your relationship to the audience?
I believe if the work is made with heart, it will not only be move you but also be able to touch others.
You’re saying that if something is deeply connected to you, it may also be able to touch the others, is that right?
When an artist makes a work, they’re actually trying to express what they feel. It’s not important what the audience thinks. It’s not possible to deliberately influence the audience, you can only try to express something.
I think that art is yourself. The things you express are yourself. As for what other people think, that’s their business. It’s not all that connected to you. You are in the artistic process, you experienced it, you were moved by it, you divulged it, you expressed it, and when you finish it, it’s over.
This is very interesting. I read the book by Wan Nanming, The Rise of Critical Art, that features your work “A Bullet Pierces the Heart of Youth.” When I first read the text associated with that work, I thought it was an anti-war piece, but if you say that you don’t care what the audience thinks, I don’t know how to read it. I’m very surprised.
Because I participated in the Sino-Vietnamese War, to speak of the soldiers who gave their lives was always an incredibly difficult thing for me. I always wondered if there was a way to express it. Through making the work I realized, this war was actually just a dispute. I finally reached a kind of answer.
In the book Wang Nanming talks about “Trans-Feminist Art.”
He says that Feminist art has been focused on defending personal rights. He thinks that now women artists can address the same kind of larger societal issues that men do.
Do you think this is a useful concept?
I think it’s quite useful. Because you can’t simply say men and women, I think it should just be “people.” Men and women both have thoughts. It’s not necessarily only men who have this awareness to address public issues. Women have the same responsibility. I think that in this modern era, men and women are all people, and should be considered under the title of “people.”
Wan Nanming believes that artists should change society, that their role is to show society where the problems are. But you say artists just express their thoughts. It feels like two completely different standpoints.
I think his argument isn’t bad, but this world isn’t something that artists can change. Artists make art – they express the things that they have deeply considered. Moreover, their expressions can perhaps activate the audience, but they can’t change the world.
You also participate in the Yunnan Female Artist Group. What do you think is the role of such organizations and cooperatives?
This is something that Sun Guojuan curated, and I just helped out with some of the work. Her curatorial concept comes from her experiences as a young artist. She believes that women artists have few opportunities. If there is a group of women artists and an organization to present exhibitions, it can encourage some artists to continue their work.
Since 2009, we’ve already held three exhibitions and will soon complete the fourth. In these years, we’ve watched these young artists mature – they improve with every exhibition and it’s really magnificent. If we didn’t organize this, many artists may have simply given up.
Female artists don’t have the same opportunities as men. How do you think we can address this problem?
We can’t solve this problem. Even though we organize this exhibition, we don’t have any money. Of course we have some companies who support us, but it’s just a very small amount of money.
We can’t influence this market, and we can’t convince people to buy these paintings. We can only say that we’ve prepared a space, and everyone can gather and talk. I think that’s already quite good.
Do you think that using the market to support art is a good method?
No, I think that that success in the market and success in art are two different things. Furthermore, I think good artists can’t necessarily find a market. An artist should strive to challenge themselves. If something is easy to sell and they stop there, then the artist isn’t worth anything. They might be valuable to the market, but in terms of art, they’ve died.
I think artists should constantly innovate. When I discover something new and I want to express it, I don’t worry about whether or not there’s a market for it.
I’m not the same as young artists in that whatever happens, my livelihood is secure, so I can think this way. Young artists want to support themselves, but they should not think of art as the only way to do so. To use art to support oneself today could cause artists to become exhausted.
Would you call your art Feminist art?
I don’t think so.
Human rights are more important than feminism, but in China we don’t have this kind of education, this channel. For example the two works I made, “If They Were Women”. Everyone thought they were very Feminist, but when I made them, I didn’t think of them that way at all.
How do you see them?
That’s for critics to say, it’s got nothing to do with me.
In China, everyone is unconscious. When you haven’t solved issues of individual conscience, when you haven’t addressed individual rights, can you still speak of Feminism? I think this channel is closed in China.
If China can’t develop these aspects, can it still develop art?
For me, art is something I enjoy doing. As to the question of whether the country is developing, I don’t personally have the power to press it. Last year and the year before, I have taught at the Cultural University, and was able to promote my ideas about art to the students. The development of art is certainly not determined by the market – it may create progress for society, but it certainly cannot change the world.