Mao Applauding (2004), oil on canvas, 250 x 250 cm

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1 Sand, Olivia. Yan Pei-Ming. Asian Art Newspaper (November 2004). Yan Pei-Ming Mao Applauding (2004), oil on canvas, 250 x 250 cm While a majority of the younger contemporary artists from China work in installation, video, or photography, Yan Pei-Ming (b in Shanghai) remains a painter at heart. He has gained international recognition with his portraits (self-portraits and portraits of Mao), a very conventional and traditional subject matter considering the daring and provoking topics other artists transpose onto canvas. Relying on a limited palette of colours, his portraits are striking because of their balance between figuration and abstraction. His latest body of work goes beyond portraits, which may lead his career in a new direction. In the following interview with Olivia Sand, he discusses his work and career. AAN: Little is known of the time before you came to France. Were you originally trained as a painter in China, or did you start painting once you arrived in France? Yan Pei-Ming: While attending high school in China, I was enrolled in a programme called 'the propaganda studio'. Needless to say, my experience of painting through the propaganda studio was confined to very traditional material. I did not attend art school in China, instead I went to Dijon, France. At that time, it was very difficult to get into art school in China, as it was extremely competitive. In Shanghai, for example, the school would select 20 students out of the city's population of 14 million. This, of course, made it almost impossible to attend art school.

2 AAN: Why did you decide to leave China in the 1980s, considering that, at the time, China was already moving forward offering increasing economic and artistic freedom? YPM: In my opinion, China really started to open up around 1992/93. Before that, there were no perspectives in China, and it is no secret to say that every artist wanted to come to the West, which was, and still is, the ultimate dream. It is a dream about a promising future. Personally, it was that same dream that led me to leave China when I was in my twenties to settle in France. Looking back, I realise that I was very fortunate in the sense that I had an uncle living in Paris, which facilitated the whole procedure. AAN: Do you think that the paintings you exhibited at the Biennale in Venice last year represent a turning point in your career? YPM: Absolutely. I believe that from a political point of view, art is very much about taking position and making a statement. This is why my paintings about life in Shanghai, and about its police were somewhat more critical. I blurred the boundaries so one can no longer identify the policeman: is he Chinese, European, or African? What type of authority does he represent? I would go as far as to say that we are governed by a police state, and that life without police is no longer conceivable. AAN: Based on that conclusion, do you see yourself completing paintings that politically have a stronger message than those you have done so far? YPM: It is highly likely. I think that one of the duties of an artist is to express their own views. AAN: So far, you have completed a great number of portraits. Do you have a special relationship or any emotional ties with the people you paint, or are you indifferent to them? YPM: I would say that both applies. When, for example, I paint the portrait of Mao, I am painting a father figure, someone who is strangely close, but also distant from me. Painting my father was very different from painting Mao, who is somebody I did not know intimately like my father. However, for the past 20 years, Mao was someone who was constantly in my daily life. In that sense, painting Mao today represents a certain continuation of that earlier presence: I have no desire to negate my past. Generally speaking, all the people I paint are quite different from one another, and in most cases, I do not know them well. Within my portraits, I am illustrating theories. AAN: What memories do you have of Mao? How do you remember him? YPM: Regarding Mao, I often wonder: how is it possible for one man in a country the size of China to have such a significant presence, if he has no outstanding qualities matched with a great deal of cruelty? In order to prevail as a leader, Mao had to be exceptional to resolve the situations he faced. I think he is one of the key figures of the 20th century. Of course, one can argue that he was also a murderer, but one should keep in mind that a mild person rarely makes a president. That applies to any country throughout the world, and in any culture. In order to be successful, one has to be strong and not hesitate to rely on harsh methods to run the country - to smother dissent - especially in a country the size of China, with its huge diversity. At that time and with these geographical considerations, Mao was the only person who could have kept the country together. AAN: China has an extremely rich history. Besides Mao, are there any other historical figures you would find interesting to paint? YPM No, there are no other historical figures I would consider for my portraits. There are reasons for this, one of them being the difficulty to paint people you do not

3 know, people one has never seen, or met. I want my paintings to reflect my time. Of course, there are artists that have made portraits of people that lived 2,000 years ago, but what purpose does it serve? I would find it ridiculous if today I were to paint Napoleon. My priority is to make portraits of people that are here today. AAN: Your last solo exhibition in Paris in the spring featured, amongst other pieces, large canvases of the Pope. How did these portraits come about? YPM: The choice of the Pope was very simple. I think that throughout the world, the Pope is often seen as a very kitsch figure. I believe there is a certain globalisation of culture, and the figure of the Pope goes far beyond the borders of Europe. Furthermore, I am not referring to the current Pope, but to the whole idea of the Pope, and therefore by extension, the Christian Church. The Pope represents the power of the Church. Today, the Church has changed dramatically as it no longer represents a religious entity. The Vatican is a perfect example of this as besides the religious aspect, its location has also become a destination for tourists. Thousands of people gather in the Vatican not in order to pray, but in order to go sight - seeing. In that sense, the Vatican is also a big business. AAN: You are mainly known for paintings that rely on a red, or a black and white palette. Is there a reason for this limited choice? Does the selection of red, for example, imply a more emotional topic? YPM: In general, I paint in black and white. I believe that the combination of black and white carries a greater efficiency in this medium. Why mix many colours if one can achieve the desired effect by simply using black and white? Black and white allows me to bring out somebody's expression, and to get to the essence of painting. I do not really see the necessity of painting in colour, although once in a while, depending on the subject matter and on my mood, I will use colour. AAN: Are your paintings based on memories, photographs, or your imagination? YPM: My paintings are based on a variety of sources, and I absorb everything and use it as an inspiration to paint: literature, movies, daily life, what I read in the media, people I meet, the politics, etc. Anything and everything can lead to a new painting. AAN: As you mainly focus on portraits, would you, like Andy Warhol, consider doing commissions? YPM: I do a variety of commissions for celebrities - for anyone. I am very open about this. AAN: The scale of your paintings tends to be very large, and consequently difficult to hang for private individuals. YPM: Yes, indeed. Sometimes, the subject matter calls for the scale of the format. Let us take the example of Bruce Lee: he just has to be completed in a large scale format. I can by no means paint a 'small' Bruce Lee. He is a film star, subsequently, I want to paint something reminiscent of the scale of a cinema. However, I must admit that I also have a preference for large scale formats. AAN: Numerous Chinese artists living abroad have recently had the opportunity to show their work in China. Have any of the Mao paintings ever been seen in China? YPM: That has not been the case so far. Nevertheless, I am in the process of preparing an exhibition scheduled to take place next spring at the Museum of Fine Arts in Shanghai. To my surprise, the curator of the exhibition mentioned that

4 I could show everything except for the Mao portraits. Presently in China, nothing is banned, but the curator decided to impose these restrictions himself, to prevent any potential negative response at the museum. It comes down to a kind of self-censure. AAN: Some Chinese artists based in the West tend to go back to the China to teach for one or two terms. Is that something that you have done in the past, or that would tempt you in the future? YPM: As yet, I have not been invited, and somehow I do not think that I will be invited in the near future. AAN: You are presently teaching at the School of Fine Arts in Dijon. What subjects do you teach? YPM: Painting and drawing. Strangely enough, most students are interested in taking classes in photography and installation. Painting no longer has such a large following. AAN: What are you trying to pass on to your students through your classes? YPM: I think it is essential that the students have the desire to succeed, to move forward. One needs to keep in mind that being an artist today is not easy, and that the competition is tough. AAN: How do you see the future of painting? YPM: It is my belief that the road is wide and long for painting. Painting as a medium has existed for centuries and is one of the most basic of media: colour and paper are enough to express oneself. I do not share the view of those proclaiming that painting is dead. I am convinced that painting will remain and continue for ever. AAN: How do you see the evolution of painting in China? YPM: The evolution of painting depends largely on general trends. The country is developing very quickly, the economy is strong and, consequently, art will be very strong, too. These elements all tend to go hand in hand. AAN: Do you believe that on the occasion of the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008, the government is also going to emphasise contemporary art as opposed to exclusively highlighting the culture of the past? YPM: It is possible because the government is beginning to understand that contemporary culture is important. The government no longer feels threatened by contemporary art. Furthermore, there is also a new generation within the government that is starting to have a growing impact. These members of the government are in their forties, and have lived through the various stages of China's transition: they do not feel that installations, videos, photography or paintings represent a serious danger.

5 Bruce Lee (2003), oil on canvas, 350 x 350 Self-portrait as a Hooligan (2003), oil on canvas, 350 x 350 cm. All images of paintings courtesy Galerie Anne de Villepoix, Paris

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