The Nature of Blue

A conversation between Yang Shaobin and Jérôme Sans 

Jerome Sans (JS): In your previous series on coal miners, you worked from photographs that you took yourself. I assume it was the same process this time, but the photographs you used came from other forms of media, such as the Internet or television. Could you talk a bit about what it was like working from pre-existing photographs of scenes or people, photographs that you didn’t take yourself?

Yang Shaobin (YSB): When we first started talking about this project, I knew what general direction it would take, but I didn’t know exactly what the topic of the exhibition would be. Then, as I was travelling back to China from Australia, the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference began. I thought it seemed like a pretty good topic, and the color blue is closely related to climate. Back in China, I started narrowing down the concept, deciding which people and political leaders to include—for example, world leaders who had participated in the Kyoto Protocol or the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. The Kyoto Protocol was the agreement about energy conservation standards signed at the 1997 meeting in Kyoto, Japan, by signatories to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. I started collecting a lot of material about natural disasters, industrial pollution and nuclear waste, as well as photos and stories about ordinary people, mostly women and children, who had been affected by pollution and natural disasters—in other words, the civilian casualties of climate change. One of the most interesting stories I found was about a ten-year-old girl who used the knowledge she learned in geography class to save the lives of 150 tourists during the Southeast Asian tsunami.

JS: Your previous works have involved fighting and physical violence, and your coal miner series is very true-to-life, containing a lot of anger and conflict. Now the subjects of your painting are major ecological disasters and people just struggling to survive. It seems like violence is a thread that runs through all of your work.

YSB: Yes. I remember the first time you and I met, we talked about how people are constantly struggling and fighting, and about the fights we experienced as kids. Later, looking back on my own childhood, I realized that human beings spend their whole lives fighting, in an all-out struggle for survival. Although you’re from Europe and I’m from China, when it comes to survival, we’ve had some of the same experiences. And it’s true: people spend their whole lives fighting and struggling, just so they can survive, so they and their families can live with dignity. Our individual struggles might seem motivated by self-interest, but actually we’re saving the government a lot of money. Without a steady job or government welfare, the only way to survive is to rely on oneself.

JS: From your early work dealing with physical violence and street fights, you seem to have moved on to psychological and other forms of violence. Your Red Violence series, for example, expresses a more psychological kind of violence. Then there’s the violence we find in the media or on the Internet, the violence of information itself. It seems we are becoming more violent, more used to violence, even addicted to it. All of our movies these days contain violence. On some level, your work has always been concerned with different forms of violence. How would you describe the violence in this particular series?

YSB: I’m actually trying to make the violence more subtle and implicit. Instead of just presenting viewers with violent scenes, I want to create associations in their minds. My series about the coal miners isn’t at all inferior to the Red Violence series, but it’s more realistic, because it deals with hidden problems like politics, limited natural resources, environmental degradation and human survival. It’s all in there. The difference between Red Violence and the coal miner series is that the latter is more sociological. I’ve always been concerned about human society and the struggle for survival. In Blue Room, the issue is how human beings, in their struggle to survive, are battling nature and climate change. What makes this series different is that it’s more political, and it references political leaders and heads of state from First World, Second World and Third World countries. Of all my works, this is the most timely.

JS: Most people think of blue as calming, quiet, peaceful, a color associated with the sea. Blue also reminds me of my childhood, when TV shows were in black and white. I remember walking down the street as a child and seeing people watching TV in their houses, and the flickering light through their windows looked blue. For me, blue has always been a calm, quiet color, but it also communicates something about the media, or maybe the state of the media today. If in your Red Violence series, red represented China, then in this series, blue seems to represent global issues and the global media. Blue is a powerful color, but here it seems to also signify disappointment, frustration, and some subtle violence.

YSB: I think the reason Blue Room feels so global is because I haven’t just painted Chinese people. I really tried to expand the scope, to go beyond nations and regions, and to make it more international. I like what you said about being a kid and remembering how the light from TV sets looked blue. Back in the 1980s, China didn’t have color TV sets, but people used to cover their screens with a sheet of clear colored plastic that made them look like they were in color. It’s a lovely memory.

Blue appeared in some of my earlier works, such as the coal miner series, but there wasn’t any emphasis on the significance of the color itself. I think Blue Room really brings out the purity of blue, and has a calming effect on the viewer. When I was painting these portraits, I thought of them as landscapes, not as specific individuals. Whether the climate change conference was successful or not, I still think it’s an important topic. And we should be grateful to the politicians who participated, no matter what their motives, because they’ve brought environmental degradation and climate change to our attention.

I experimented with many different shades of blue, because I was looking for the purest possible blue. By the way, there was something you said to me at my coal miner series exhibition that I really liked. You said, “An artist should think of every solo show as a biennal.” I want each of my “solo biennals” to be as good as possible, in terms of both form and content, and to leave a deep impression on everyone who sees them.

JS: The blue in this series seems deeper than the red in your Red Violence series. It’s like there’s a dialogue going on between abstraction and reality, a back and forth between the color and the figures in the paintings. It’s hard to tell where one begins and the other ends, or to know if one should focus on the color or on the images.

YSB: Although Blue Room is made up of many paintings, it’s actually a single work. In other words, we can’t take it apart and look at the portraits separately, because each is a part of the whole, rather than a complete face representing some specific person. I felt it was important to position those faces in a field of blue: they have form and content, they’re abstract and yet they’re not, they straddle the two sensibilities. After I decided to do this series, I did some research on painters who had worked in blue – Pablo Picasso during his Blue Period, for example, and the French painter Yves Klein – because I wanted to understand why they painted in blue, but it wasn’t particularly helpful to me.

JS: Blue is a common landscape, a territory we all share, like the sky. Wherever we are or wherever we go, we always share the same sky. There’s a good phrase in English, “The sky’s the limit,” which means there is literally no limit. I feel like you’re using blue to tie everything together, to bring all these people and images and issues together under one sky.

YSB: You’re right. I’m creating a limitless world, a boundless vision, but it’s made up of many interacting visions. When I think of blue, my main impressions come from poetry and literature, where blue is described as profound, or melancholy, or mysterious. I think your impressions and mine are complementary. If you add them together, it enriches the work.

JS: There’s something else I find very interesting. Your previous work was cinematic, like you were using a lens to focus on a person’s face, or a part of their body, or their whole body. Your portraits were like photography, or film. And from that film style you turned to painting faces. I find this project interesting because it reminds me of what I can do on Google Earth: zoom in on a certain place, pinpoint my location, localize my position, or zoom back out again to see the whole world.

YSB: My plan for Blue Room was really complicated at first. When I first started experimenting, I took a Google Earth approach, trying to view everything from a great height, but the landscape was so vast I couldn’t find where I wanted to go. It was only when I zoomed in and magnified the landscape that I found what I needed. I just kept searching and subtracting until the faces in the portraits really stood out. It’s like I often say, art is a mathematical process of subtraction. If a work of art is overly complex, it can hinder what you’re trying to express. Great art should be pithy and concise, both conceptually and technically.

JS: Another thing about the paintings in this series is that they seem very flat, like television screens. It’s not just the color; it’s that you can’t see too many brushstrokes. It’s like going back to the original photograph you painted from, turning the painting back into a photo, and blurring the boundaries between photography and painting.

YSB: You know why I like that flatness? Because globalization has made the world flat, through all these interconnections. It’s like the world isn’t spherical anymore; it’s a plane. For me, flatness is an aesthetic choice. And when I’m working with blue, it’s impossible to feel agitated. Blue is inherently calming. It’s strange how colors can influence our minds and behaviour. That includes the way I paint, too. I’m always searching for new ways to paint, and I try to do something different for every exhibition. For example, the way I painted my red paintings was right for that series, but if I painted the blue series in the same way, it would be completely wrong. Every work has its own correct means of expression. In Blue Room, both the method and the brushstrokes are very calm and subdued, because the topic is so close to Nature. And because Nature is so wondrous and mysterious, I felt it was important to create a cohesive atmosphere, a setting in which no single image dominates.

JS: Maybe that’s why the landscapes you created for this series seem so infinite and limitless. It feels like you could dive right into them.

YSB: Both of the landscapes are vortexes. One is the eye of a storm, the vortex at the centre of a hurricane, and the other is a black hole. They’re unfathomably deep, terrifying, and they remind us of human insignificance and the fragility of life.

JS: Here the mood is somewhat confrontational. You’re confronting the world, and confronting the viewer, so that he has to ask, “Where am I, as a human being, in the midst of this infinity?” By taking something big and turning it into something small, shrinking it down to a tiny pixel in a gigantic picture, you put the viewer back in his place.

YSB: It is confrontational, and powerful, and shocking. Personally, I prefer paintings that have strength and power. That kind of art is very masculine, and it strikes a powerful chord. In each of these paintings, you can see the process I went through as an artist, my own struggle.

JS: In your past work, you’ve confronted social issues, and now you’re raising ecological and environmental issues. By presenting this confrontation between world political leaders and the world’s children, you seem to be asking, “How do politicians face the world? What are their political and environmental responsibilities to future generations?” The climate conference in Denmark was disappointing because there was no resolution to our ecological issues. If we don’t start paying attention, there will be more ecological catastrophes around the world and any of us could become victims. It can happen to anyone, anywhere, one is protected anymore. If politicians don’t start paying attention and take positive action, there will be massive ecological collapse and great danger. Blue is such a positive color, but at the same time, it raises questions that make us feel anxious and worried. Why do you think we have so much trouble facing environmental and climate change problems?

YSB: I think there’s a lot of maneuvering behind the scenes, and it’s not as simple as it seems. Maybe it’s because a lot of countries want to get their economies growing again after the global financial crisis. Every economic crisis is followed by an economic rebound. The last time, in 1998, it was the Internet that cured the global economy and saved the world. This time, we probably haven’t found the solution yet. Maybe new environmental technology or some biotech breakthrough will lead to an economic recovery. Either way, environmental issues are closely related to economics. The truth is that politicians use environmental issues to manipulate the global distribution of wealth.

JS: In Blue Room, you’ve placed world leaders and heads of state on one side, and children on the other. The two sides are facing each other, facing off. Are you making a point about the need for political leaders to face their responsibilities to these children and to the future?

YSB: I did that because children are the most vulnerable members of our society, so they inspire the most sympathy.

JS: The politicians you painted are from different countries and backgrounds, and they have different languages and goals. They’re not only in conflict about protecting the environment, but also in conflict with each other.

YSB: All these disputes arise from economic self-interest. When I was doing my research, I came across some source material about small South Pacific nations that had participated in the climate talks. You have to feel sorry for them because they’re always being ignored. Because of where they’re located, they face the greatest danger from climate change, but meanwhile, a few big countries are dividing up all the spoils among themselves.

JS: It’s a global mystery. It’s like moving without moving. There’s all this movement, but nothing ever gets done.

YSB: It’s a mystery, as mysterious as blue.

JS: I feel like there are two sides to this work, and to these paintings. When you look at them, you sense a face-to-face confrontation, as if the two sides are going to start fighting at any moment.

YSB: I’m really looking forward to seeing what effect the exhibition will have, because that’s the most truthful impression. When I see these paintings in my studio, they’re just component parts of a bigger work. I’ve become inured to them, because I’ve been looking at them that way for so long, and they’re not surprising to me anymore. You’ve got to get some distance and view them in the proper setting to experience the full impact.

JS: When you’re working on these paintings in your studio, you must feel that sense of confrontation, too—all those huge paintings and huge faces looking at each other, and also looking at you. There’s no escaping them.

YSB: That’s right.

JS: So when you’re in your studio, surrounded by all those paintings of people looking at you, do you ever feel frightened?

YSB: Yes, every one of these paintings terrifies methose enormous noses, and enormous eyes As I’m working on these portraits, I have this desire to conquer them, but I’m too small and weak. Every face seems like a boundless patch of earth, and I’m on the surface, tending the soil, planting seeds, working on them bit by bit.