Small Innovations: Chen Xinpeng interview

I first came across Chen Xinpeng in 2009 as the initiator of the golden tent structure which appeared around Beijing that year. The tent provided a temporary haven for the show Cou Huo (co-organised with Red Box Studios) which was in itself a commentary on a “make-do” aspect of Chinese society. For me the tent embodied Xinpeng taking advantage of his relation to art practice to use temporary approaches to presentation, working to get away from art-institutional practices while also providing new formats for broader activities, including business or event presentations.

Tent by Chen Xinpeng

Edward Sanderson: Where did you study originally?

Chen Xinpeng: I graduated from Luxun Academy of Art1 in 1994. Then I moved to the States where I stayed for 10 years, and moved back to China about 5 years ago.

While I was in New York, I was working my ass off and I didn’t have time to do the things I liked to do, so I came back. I think here I have better opportunities.

When I moved back here I saw everything was so temporary. All the building here – they build the buildings, then they tear down the buildings which they just built a few year ago. In the same way, I wanted to do something really temporary, so I made the Tent – you can blow it up and deflate it real quick and as it’s inflatable you can move it around easily – that’s pretty much the idea.

Actually I had made the plan for this a long time ago: I wanted to do a very temporary, easy to move, and very short-term exhibition. And not particularly for fine art, maybe as some other kind of venue. I really like the idea of people re-using my tent to do something else. They see the tent, and they are like “Oh that’s great! I can have a wedding in there!” – or they can do whatever they want, or they can make a tent themselves, or they can come and borrow it from me.

I’m also quite interested in different kinds of audience, not audiences specific to art districts. I’m quite interested in different locations, different people. How they take to different kind of shows. For me it’s a pretty fun approach.

ES: So you’re trying to get out the art district?

CXP: Yes, I pretty much want to get out of that kind of venue.

ES: Was this an issue for you in the States?

CXP: When I was in States, I was pretty much working with the system. But when I was in Beijing, because I had not been in China for a long time, I was not involved in the normal art practices here. I had to do something the way I wanted to do it. I didn’t have strong connections with people here, so I had to do something on my own. I had become kind of disengaged with my friends in China, you know. They had been here for a long time, they had their own way of doing things and I’m not in their system. And also I really don’t like it: I want to do something my way. That’s how I come up with the Tent project.

Because of my background, the first thing I did in the tent was related to art – all I knew was artists. I worked with some friends – not only from China, they were also from Scotland, Switzerland, Mexico, Chile and the US.

When I made the tent, I didn’t know if it was going to work or not because I had never done it before. Turned out it worked fine.

ES: Where did you find the tent?

CXP: I had it made. I found a factory which made tents, actually it was quite cheap. It’s made out of large tubes. It’s like 10 meters high; I think about 400 square meters in area.

Most of the works were sculptures, and some video. I have two smaller tents inside the big one, sort of a video rooms.

I couldn’t hang painting because there’s nothing to hang things on. You know if I include big walls for paintings, it becomes hard to move. The main point is to make it easy to move, so I can tear it down in a few hours; I can move to some other location and put it up in a few hours. That’s the whole idea.

The first time was in 798, by the South gate. And the second place was in a shopping mall called Solana in Chaoyang Park in Beijing. The third time was going to be in the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), but I couldn’t get permission.

ES: I would have thought CAFA would be the easiest place?

CXP: Actually CAFA was the hardest one. Working with business people is much easier than administration. CAFA had all kinds of rules.

The Tent was up for a few days in each case – 4 or 5 days.

Cou Huo2 was the show inside the tent. Cou Huo is like when I moved back to China, everything seems kind of falling apart, you know? You can buy something real cheap, but it’s not fine quality. In Chinese, it is called Cou Huo. You can have everything but at a lower quality!

ES: Who’s involved in setting this up? It’s you who initiated the whole thing, and then Katherine Don [Red Box Studio] is also involved?

CXP: Yes, me and Kat did it together.

ES: What were the reactions of people?

CXP: Actually I was quite surprised. In 798 it was more like a regular art show. But when we moved the tent to the shopping mall people were actually touching everything, and I have to tell them “Don’t touch!” and finally I don’t care anymore – they can touch whatever they want! I can’t control all the kids! There were lots of people there. It was on for only two days in Solana. On the third day there was a huge wind and I had to take it down, otherwise it would have blown away.

ES: Are you doing your own work at the same time, do you have your own practice?

CXP: Yes. Generally my work is somehow related to making some small “innovations”. I have some ideas, and people can use them. I am going to make another temporary building—like a temple—and people can go there to worship, and then I can tear it down and take it someplace else.

ES: A blow-up temple? Like a portable shrine?

CXP: Yes, very portable!

I also made a book. It’s a different kind of thing for me. All the words in the book I found on the street, they are the handwriting on paper in dumpster or on the street, and I collected them. It’s just some stories, some nonsense. I didn’t change anything, it’s like a photocopy, I typed in everything I collected, and that’s only half of it!

Beijing Jieshi by Chen Xinpeng

Beijing Jieshi (inside) by Chen Xinpeng

Beijing Jieshi by Chen Xinpeng

ES: How long did it take to collect this much?

CXP: A year. The other half I’m still working on. That’s in Korean, English, Spanish – it’s pretty hard! Each entry has a number; this is a reference to the original material – the source. So I can go find the original easier.

ES: You have a whole archive, numbered?

CXP: Yes.

ES: Why do you do this?

CXP: Well, I think a lot of the information people throw away actually is kind of interesting. I try to collect it, and keep a record. People don’t write so much anymore, and really I think these messages are quite valuable. Actually people enjoy reading them, some of the stories are quite interesting.

The title is Beijing Jieshi3jieshi is to pick things up off the street.

ES: And you’re going to produce a whole series of these?

CXP: I was going to but I don’t think I can do it, because it takes too long. It’s an intense labour. For a whole year I didn’t do anything but work on this book. I also just print it for a few people. Certain material I don’t think you can get published.

ES: So what else?

CXP: Well, I am working on certain things, which are like games. Like the temples, and fortune telling for artists… I have this kind of Chinese fortune telling system: I can tell you what kind of work you should do to get very successful. Sometimes you’re confused and you can give yourself guidance – you have my book, you can find out for yourself.

ES: A lot of this – the fortune-telling, and the temple, for example – seems to have an interest in faith and belief?

CXP: Well, I really want to do something very basic, like a small-time innovator. ART making gives me a certain kind of freedom; I can do some awkward things. By putting my energy in some other field I may not have the freedom to do it. Actually, ART gave me freedom to do things.

Actually there’s a good reason this happened in Beijing. I stayed in New York for a long time. New York is kind of very orientated and systematic. it has certain rules you have to follow. But in Beijing, you don’t have rules; you can do whatever you want.

ES: Do you mean in terms of art, or generally?

CXP: Well, generally, you have certain rules but they’re not really rules, they can be broken any day, any hour. I think it’s quite interesting. You can’t do that in the States, because people put you in a certain category, very fast. And after that you’re lost…

ES: Why Beijing…?

CXP: Well, you know, China as a whole – we are ideologically very confused now. Nobody believes in Communism, no religion. So I think anything goes. There are certain things that are not that good about this situation, but certain things are definitely good.

ES: What’s good then?

CXP: Well, you can step over the line, in certain ways. Actually, you can get away with certain things. Maybe people are concerned its stupid, but actually it’s quite interesting. I think you can let things just happen here.

ES: So, do you think Beijing is a particular hot spot for this kind of thing?

CXP: I don’t think it’s hot right now but I think it should be. I think in China the businessmen are more aggressive than artists. Artists are kind of falling behind, you know. The way businessmen are doing business, they’ve broken all the rules, they don’t really care about traditional business practices, and I think artists should do that too. But art now is not as aggressive as business.

ES: Do you think they ever were?

CXP: In the past we have certain time periods like Nanbeichao4. The people were more aggressive and they step over the line often. But that’s like a thousand plus years ago! I think artists are supposed to be more aggressive than businessmen, but in China I think business is more aggressive. I think artists should be more aggressive than the rest of society, but now in China artists are kind of slow runners.

The main reason is they want to be more commercial. They want to make more money. And they have lost their creative edge. But businessmen are different. They are willing to try everything to make money, so they can be more aggressive, they break laws, they go to jail. But for the artist, no, that’s different. Artists don’t want to be aggressive. they want to be conservative. I think that’s not a good trend.

ES: Can you think of any artists in China who are being as aggressive as business?

CXP: I think there are some but I don’t think there are enough! I think now some artists are getting involved in other sorts of practice, this is a good trend.

ES: What other sorts of practice?

CXP: Well, they should go out get involved in all kinds of things, like business development, all kinds of stuff. I think that’s quite interesting. As an artist you have more freedom to do certain things. People say, “wow, this is crazy!” but because you are an artist maybe you can still do it. I think that’s good.

It’s different for designers. Designers do that kind of thing all the time, get involved in other kinds of business practice, and they are more open than artists now. I think artist are more conservative. I think artists should do this. We should involve all kinds of stuff.

ES: And what you are doing is your way to try to be free-er and getting involved in other things, the Tent in particular?

CXP: Yeah, all kinds of things. I think there will be more and more alternative spaces and artists using them. I know a few people doing that, not a lot, one or two.

ES: In Beijing?

CXP: Not in Beijing. One in Chongqing – Yang Shu5, he has this little place called Organhaus Art Space6. He’s organising some shows, in a little gallery, it’s all non-profit, but also in all different kinds of venues. It’s quite interesting.

The 5th Falling Behind Show (poster)And also I’m part of this group called Diao Dui7. We’re going to have a show on the 18th of September8 at C5 Gallery in Beijing’s Sanlitun area. This group is just me and a few friends who have been doing this for a few years. It’s pretty hard to explain, you have to see it. It’s light hearted, performance, everything. And sometimes we have a public show, sometimes we just do it for ourselves.

On the 18th we are presenting ten works, some unfinished, some are just writings, some are where we are just arguing about the rules and we never get round to doing it because different people have different opinions. We have put these rules on the wall.

There’s a similar group in Hangzhou, called Shuangfei9. We’re kind of similar, but different! They are more nutty, you know, but we’re kind of private. We do certain things which in a certain view are not really acceptable – because we’re not commercial, and our activities are not really well-produced, and also we take the group opinion as rules. We have seven people and we set up a rule, and we have to follow that rule to do things. Sometimes they’re quite dumb! But that’s the rule, we have to follow it. Once in a while it can get quite interesting!

Chen Xinpeng was interviewed by Edward Sanderson at the Cave Café, 798 Art District, Beijing, on 9 September 2010.

  1. Luxun Academy of Fine Arts http://www.lumei.edu.cn/ #
  2. 凑合 http://art.redboxstudio.cn/en/2009/projects/2009/cou-huo/ #
  3. 街拾 #
  4. 南北朝 Northern and Southern dynasties (420AD-589AD) #
  5. 杨述 http://www.99ys.com/zt/txjs/artist_ys.html #
  6. 器空间 http://www.organhaus.org/ #
  7. 掉队 #
  8. The 5th Falling Behind Show: Chen Xinpeng, Dong Jing, Liang Shuo, Shao Kang, Wang Guangle, Zhang Zhaohong, Zhou Yi: http://www.artlinkart.com/en/exhibition/overview/4d7brtpj #
  9. Shuangfei Collective 双飞小组: Li Ming, Sun Maoyuan, Huang Liya, Zhang Lehua, Lin Ke, Li Fuchun, Yang Junlin, Cui Shaohan, Wang Liang. 李明、李富春、杨俊岭、孙茂源、黄利芽、张乐华、林科、崔少瀚、王亮。 #
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