Lei Yan‘s art usually starts in her personal memories, moving on to the big ideas. After serving 30 years in the army, her personal experience is closely connected to the history of modern China.
Don’t be fooled by Lei Yan’s humble, almost timid appearence. All the politeness and restraint she shows in her private life changes into an uncompromising clearness as soon as we enter into the world of art. Independently if it’s about her creating it or her talking about it.
It was a Long March for Lei Yan to reach the art – to fully see herself as an artist. She entered the army at an age of 14. In 1991 she graduated from the China Military Fine Art College.
She retired from the army after 30 years. By then she’d been a soldier, an officer, a nurse.
Artist Fei Wenlu, an important figure in the “Kunming Out-light group”, encouraged her to enroll in the Military Art Class. She did. She then mainly worked with prints.
Later she was sent to the Military Colored Photo Class. In 1994, she and Tang Zhigang used digital technique to put all the heroes of the revolution on to the same photos.
– These were the first digital photos in China.
– In the beginning of that project there was a conception, a title: “The Photos of an Era”. The only person of the heroes still to live is Xu Hong Gang. The others have died. Who remember him today? Not many.
It took quite some encouragement from artists like, Sun Guojian and others for Lei Yan to really see herself as a full member of the art community.
Maybe she’s more of an observer than a participator, like in her artwork “What if the Long March was a feminist movement”. There, women are marching, high in spirit, into a supposedly bright future. Lei Yan is standing on the side watching them through a pair of binoculars. She’s dressed in contemporary clothes, as if watching them through a lens of history.
So I ask her which is her Long March, if she participates in any?
– This is your point of view. My original idea was to use this to see history from a distance.
– I don’t think too much about that. This was part of a project in Beijing, where Judy Chicago (the famous US artist with the seminal installation “The Dinner Party”) gave us the topics. One of them was: “What if the women ruled the world?”
– I made two photos to describe it. One photo is historical. I took an iconic group photo of chairman Mao and other leaders, but I replaced them with their wives. All these women particiapted in the Long March. But why, in the end, did all the leadership consist of men?
– So this is more about raising a question than giving an answer. If the leadership had been female, would things look different today? And can women take this kind of responsibility? Through Chinese history, when women would take this kind of responsibility, they would generally have to be totally independent.
I see your works “Frozen Red” and “Frozen Youth”, loaded with history. Would you agree that Yunnanese contemporary art in some respects are looking more to history than the future? And in that case, does the Yunnanese style differ from other parts of China?
– For us Chinese, when we talk about history we are always also talking about the future. We use the history as a mirror.
You have mentioned that Sun Guojian was much earlier than you in exploring the path of feminist art. In which directions, more precisely, did your conversations move you and your way of thinking about art?
– Before Judy Chicago, I had no idea about feminist art. I had just retired from the army in 2001. I meat her in 2002, and it made me concerned with these questions .
– Sun Guojian lived in Beijing for many years and brought back ideas from there, like installations and different forms of conceptual art.
– The greatest influence though was the Log book. Then I reflected more about how to use different materials, and I pondered on the basic question: What is art?
Another thing that strikes me is that whenever I meet you and Sun Guojian, you both seem very relaxed. Not like two great spirits who think they are revealing profound thoughts to humanity, but like good old friends sitting down chatting in a tea house. Do you think there’s a difference here between the men and women of your generation?
– I think that it’s because of the distance. Maybe you don’t know the men as well you know us?(Laughter).
– But yes, there’s a diffenrence. Do you mean in Yunnan or in all of China?
Let’s take Yunnan.
– In my generation, most of the male artists participated in the 1985 art movement, were Kunming was important. The only women to enter this circle ware Sun Goujian and Fu Li Ya.
– Later, I see two main differences. One was the market. Women barely had one. The other was the content of the art. The men seemed more concerned with big ideas, we women more with the personal and the inner life.
But that’s really interesting, ’cause what I find striking in your art is that you are so wide in scope – not only in that you use so many different ways to express yourself. But even more important, you start in your personal experiences but always lead my thoughts to the big ideas. Do you agree?
– Yes. Most of them relate to my own experiences. But because of my 30 years in the army, my experiences are tightly connected to the country’s history.
For example, in “Frozen Red”, I see something which reminds me of the film “Goodbye Lenin”. There, an East German woman falls into a coma, just before the fall of the Berlin wall. She’s a devout believer in communism. She miraculously wakes up when the iron curtain is down, there are now holes in the wall. The doctor tells her son that the mother should not be exposed to any strong, shocking emotions. So the son builds a small, microcosm of the old East Germany in her room. And he keeps her there. People then begin to visit her – not so much to see her as to relive the old days. Life was much easier then.
Is there a parallell to the situation in China today? You’ve said yourself that the thinking back then was clear like crystal and ice, like in your “Frozen”-series. And that nowadays, even with all the wealth of the cities, people still lack something to believe in.
– Yes, now it’s more complicated. It’s a mess. In “the red time” it was simpler, people all seemed to have the same thoughts. When we studied we were told that all other countries were “in fire and hot water”, like we have a saying. Meaning we needed to help them.
– Because of my experiences in the army, that current was even stronger All education was about “the red”, we were sealed off.
Sealed off – also like the objects and photos in your “Frozen”-series?
– Yes. But today China is open, and it’s more complicated. Even children form their own opinions.
– We opened up China, and that liberated the human spirit. But people became more confused, with no direction. And that’s valid also for buddhists and christians. People take less and less care of society, they only care for themselves. Our weakness is growing. Crime rate increases, officials get richer and richer through corruption..
Were does this leave the human predicament concerning freedom? It’s what we all want, right? But it’s not always easy to deal with.
– I think there are different standards in different countries. If we have freedom, what’s the difference if you don’t believe in anything?
– I visited USA and Sweden. Sometimes I found they have less freedom than we do; they have so many laws. It limits people from doing things. Perfect freedom also needs a legislation to protect; human beings have always had their weaknesses. It sometimes sounds to me like people in China are freer. There are no restraints here. They almost dare to do everything.
– So, my point is that in “the red times”, there were too many restrictions. If you said something, you’d be put in jail. But today, China is growing. We need a strong spirit. We don’t have that. The surface isn’t enough.
When you froze army material, did it ever occur to you that this kind of art seem to be exactly what a Western audience seem to want from Chinese contemporary artists? I mean, many western eyes would probably interpret this as a critique of an authoritarian society during the Cultural Revolution – with a blink to what it’s like nowadays. Right or wrong?
– ‘Cause of the language, I’m not sure about exactly what people in the West say about my art. But through Anna Mellergård and through the newspapers I know they generally seem to like it. When I went to Mariannelund, there was an old Danish man who said he was a party member there. He really loved Mao, and he liked my art…
– When I was in the US as an artist in residence, an art critique said there are lots of icons and art works with chairman Mao. But through my frozen images, she interpreted it like there is no real difference between yesterday and today.
And what did you think about that?
– She mentioned the expression in the eyes of the women. She thought it hadn’t really changed. I think there’s some truth to that. Most women still feel lost. When we talk about feminism, there’s still the notion that women carry half the sky, as chairman Mao once expressed it. That was in order to engage them in the revolution. Today their mission shouldn’t be about pleasing men. So I’m not very pleased with feminism’s results in China.
– I’m also a victim of Mao’s catch-phrase. I worked in Kunming. When I was 18 we carried concrete bags. I was 40 kilo at that point, the bags were 50 kilos. Afterwards, I had to operate my ovary which was hurt. That was the price for carrying half the sky. Most of Chinese women thought that feminism was about occupying men’s spots. It’s not.
So what is it about then?
– According to Judy Chicago’s thoughts, in the beginning women have to wake up, find their identity. In the US it had been about the passivity in relation to sex. About the need not to be passive, about daring to discuss your own needs.
– That was the beginning of feminism movement for her. Many female artists works are about sex. Even in the US, there’s still a difference between female and male artists. Women are generally less successful, less recognised in Art history. Fewer of them are accepted in society, which is still controlled by men. So, in governments, organisations and business, they should get more equal. But sometimes even the leaders of womens lib-organizations are still expressing themselves more like males. And still the issue of human rights is not solved. If it was solved, we could discuss the different responsibilities of men and women.
Here I am thinking about Mrs Wu Yue Rong, the General Manager of TCG Nordica. She’s not an artist herself but has dedicated so much of time and energy to assist Chinese artists pursuing their career – or simply starting it. Can you tell me something about your view of her work?
– She’s really good. If there had been no TCG Nordica, the Loft (China’s first art community) would have been pointless – with no connection to the rest of society. Xiao Rong and Anna Mellergård built this art space in the periphery of China, not in the centre. And thus made it possible for us to co-operate with artists from other countries. Before that, we would have to go to Beijing.
One of your more recent works is the “Camouflage cloth-making”. You’ve taken old military camouflage uniforms, using the cloth for hand-sewing a telephone, a computer, a tea pot, a tea cup and so on. Is the camouflage a reference to the difficulty of communication? These things portrayed often seem to have some relation to human communication.
– That’s your iterpretation, not my original idea. I just had this feeling about the cloth that I’d worn for 30 years. The army is like a circle, with some special people distancing themselves from the Chinese people. So in that way you might have a point. But that textile! I wanted to use it to create something…
– The camouflage pattern is like a pattern of chaos. In a way it’s a reminder of the situation most people have today, with mixed and blurred identities.
– I’m not always clear about the concept at first. I start with a feeeling and then move on.
Yes, Lei Yan always moves on. From the personal, into the big ideas.
former Programs Director at TCG Nordica, journalist
Anders Gustafsson, Lei Yan and Luo Fei