Interview Jonathan Aumen: An artist’s responsibility is to recharge society
by Luo Fei, TCG Nordica gallery curator
Time: 10am, 7th of Jan, 2012
At: TCG Nordica Gallery
Jonathan Aumen: TCG Nordica resident artist (since Sep 2011, see artist CV)
1, You moved to China with your family when you were eight and lived here for ten years. Can you talk about your impressions from that time?
My parents were English teachers at the time, starting in Tianjin and then relocating to Beijing. My childhood was like a storybook, very colorful. I frequently hung out with old men doing what they did. This consisted of keeping birds as pets, flying kites, fighting crickets and many other things. I was always captivated by the stories that the old people would tell me. That was when there weren’t a lot of foreigners around and Chinese people were super curious about us and our lives. Life here was completely different from my home in the state of Virginia back in the United States, but I jumped immediately in the deep end. My most important experience, however, was studying under a private art tutor, a strict teacher from the Central Academy of Fine Arts. I studied under him for three years before I graduated from high school.
2, There is a significant difference between the China of the 90’s and the China of today. What are your thoughts about the changes?
I’m a full-on idealist. I always think on memories of yesterday. You can spy shadows of yesterday’s China but the differences are significant. China has become very materialistic and has emulated the habit of the west by placing too much of an emphasis on possessions. In addition, many historic buildings and hutongs have been torn down, both in Beijing and Kunming, namely the Flower and Bird market. This is a shame. Its comparatively like ripping up old family picture albums. There are now also a lot of electric scooters. Not many bicycle bells can be heard. I like the sound of bicycle bells. The speed at which things have developed has given society more comfortable conditions but has not given them a sense of their own culture and identity. Chinese don’t seem to know what their identity is because their identity has been pulled out from underneath them or placed in a dusty museum. This seems to be a universal problem, though. We all ask the questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? Therefore, we as human beings look for an identity in whatever seems fitting at the time.
3, Kunming’s “The Loft” is China’s earliest art community. When it was established in 2002 there were more than 30 artists residing there. However, it did not become an art industry model for society. As a result, many artists relocated to other cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. Some decided to stay put. What are your thoughts regarding the Kunming art scene?
I feel like The Loft is like a minority community. It’s somewhat isolated from the outside art world and has not yet become commercialized. The artists there are warm and friendly and welcome visitors inside their studios. It doesn’t seem all about the money or the fame. There seems to be a rich soil to develop as an artist. It’s slow and quiet there. You can choose to be alone or to talk and be with people. It seems like the only problem with the Loft is that there is not sufficient exposure.
4, There was recently a pretty serious fire at the Loft. You were the first to discover the fire and also helped rescue some paintings after breaking into one of the artists’ studios in fear his work would be destroyed. Some of the artists suffered pretty significant loss from the fire. Works and studios were burned. Can you share some thoughts with us regarding this situation?
First of all, the newspapers and tv exaggerated quite a bit calling me a hero. I’m not a hero. I simply did what I did because of God and the love he has given me for others. I hadn’t known Tang Zhigang for that long but had the desire to help him. There really is nothing to brag about. A lot of people look at catastrophes and think that God is judging the earth. Ironically a lot of Christians have this view. I believe that although God is righteous and judges us for sin he is also equally loving. He can turn bad situations into good. Sometimes God allows bad things (bad things being a result of the sin of mankind) to happen so we can be blown away by his creativity. I believe he allowed this fire to show all us at The Loft and in Kunming that our lives have no guarantee and our material possessions are not eternal. Tomorrow is not promised.
5, What does it mean to be a Christian to you?
It means I am a child of God. It means the spirit of God is within me empowering me to love others. It is to be a light in the darkness. Light is the truth. This is an absolute identity. This is the rock I stand on, my foundation. Christianity isn’t a crutch. It’s not here to give people an easier or happier life. After becoming a Christian life gets more difficult in my opinion. That being said, I believe that God gives us his own power and peace that surpasses understanding to help us trudge through the mud of life as it were.
6, Are there any conflicts you deal with regularly being both a Christian and an artist? How do you balance these two identities?
Of course there are many conflicts. I am a sinner and a very weak person in and of myself. The most difficult thing is putting Jesus first in my life. There are times where I focus too much on my art and forget temporarily why I am actually doing art. My purpose in doing art is to enjoy God and his creation and also be a magnifying glass, making his glories known to the people around me. I’ve noticed that as I’ve been busy preparing for my show , working at the studio and then coming home to work, I’ve neglected time with my wife. The order of importance in my life is as follows: God, my wife, and then my art. Loving my wife is a picture of how Jesus loves us his children. The aim is to love my wife like he loves her. This is far more important to me than my art. I pray for more grace and the ability to make this a reality. A lot of artists love their art far more than they love their own family. The way balance comes in this area is through prayer and reading the Bible, letting the truth soak in to my heart and change me. Getting together with other Christians is important too so that I can be both challenged and encouraged.
7, When the fire took place I saw you were working on a painting that looked a lot like smoke rising from buildings. A lot of people, especially artists, were saying that you were some kind of prophet. Maybe they were just joking but do you think an artist is to be a prophet of sorts?
I was not purposefully painting a picture of burning buildings. It was actually a painting of a development in Kunming being torn down and a cloud of dust arising from it. Honestly though, I really want to be a prophet of sorts. A prophet of truth, Gods truth. Prophets are courageous, direct, and completely honest. In Old Testament times the message brought from prophets usually made people uncomfortable or even afraid. This was because a lot of prophetic messages had to do with turning away from sin and seeking the Lords way again. This is really interesting. When I arrived to my studio at the Loft I noticed there were ten words written on my door: “We must tell the truth, even if the truth hurts.” I didn’t realize that this phrase would embody a lot of the paintings I would paint. People don’t like to hear the truth about a lot of things. Its more comfortable to ignore things sometimes. For instance I’ve told people in the past that they have no guarantee that they will live until tomorrow. They could be hit by a car on the way home and die. People are afraid to die. Chinese are especially superstitious and don’t like hearing how they could realistically and possibly die. We all will die.
8, Recently a famous Chinese art critic said: “The main characteristic of contemporary art is the lack of belief. Artists believe they are themselves gods when we talk about faith or belief…… If contemporary artists want to devote themselves to religion they must say farewell to their art otherwise they will they will neither be a good religious person or a good contemporary artist.” How do you feel about this statement?
First of all, what is contemporary art? Bare minimum it just means art that is happening now. Traditional art used to be contemporary art in its own day. Contemporary art doesn’t have to be marked by lack of belief. If one says contemporary art is marked by lack of belief, isn’t this in turn a belief? Many artists believe there are no absolutes. This belief is automatically a self-contradiction. Saying there are no absolutes is an absolute. Our reality is extremely complex. Think about atoms, molecules, water, our very bodies. Who holds these intricate constructions together? One has to ask him or herself: “Is there a Creator?” When we see a Mercedes Benz on the street or a plane in the air we automatically deduce that these were made by people or a factory of people. We then look at a human being, a far more complex creation, and we emphatically state that it had no creator. In the past there have been artists who have been very counter-cultural. Van Gogh for instance never sold a single painting to someone other than his brother. Being a Christian artist is the epitome of being counter cultural. It’s like constantly swimming upstream. You have to swim hard. Christian artists have the responsibility of communicating truth. Artists that don’t believe in God have a longing that their art can never completely satisfy.
9, There have been all different sorts of roles that artists have played throughout the centuries. Artists have also crossed paths with many different cultures or ways of life. For instance, in antiquity artists were more craftsmen while modern artists played the role of bohemians leaving there normal everyday to revolt against traditions and become nomads. Some artists played at being wizards living very mysterious lives and even communicating with spirits. Today’s artist plays more of an intellectual role and feels a responsibility toward guiding culture and the public arena. Under the influence of POP art many artists have turned to fashioning a kind of pop star persona and have escaped into the world of entertainment and fashion. This makes them feel more successful and glorified by the public. Now artwork not only depends on the actual physical art work but the physical action of the artist too. Clearly we see that art in and of itself cannot fulfill our deepest human need. There is a deeper need. How do you feel?
What is the function of an artist? If life is meaningless then what is the point of creating art? A lot of artists feel no responsibility to society or their fellow man. I believe the artist has a crucial responsibility. This responsibility is to communicate the truth about our reality and to bring hope to a hopeless world. Most everyone appreciates beauty. Why is this? Because we see in a beautiful landscape or a fantastic creature a greater power. I believe this greater power is God. He manifests or reveals himself and his characteristics through his creation. Just like my art work reveals personal characteristics or thoughts. We are like batteries that get recharged by things that are beautiful, things that are great. I believe the artists responsibility is to recharge and heal society. Many contemporary artists are all about shocking people. Does shocking people do any good unless it is accompanied by truth and worth?
10, In the Christian view there is the world now and the world that is to come. God will come again to earth and establish his kingdom. He will make all things new. Do you think the role of the artist is any different now in the present than it will be in the new kingdom?
Our biggest responsibility as Christians right now is to spread the truth of the gospel. Gospel literally means “good news.” The good news is that God came to earth in the form of a man, JESUS, to pay the penalty of our sin. Through his sacrifice we have received forgiveness and eternal life. This is the best news ever! Right now I’m excited about telling other people about that through my art. In the heavenly kingdom that God will establish one day on earth our responsibility as artists will be to enjoy and explore the wonders of God. They are eternal. In eternity one responsibility or joy. Right now at the present time two.
11, You’ve said before that the forward or literary introduction to your show is more important than your paintings. You hope that the article will light a fire underneath the viewers. I hope I can attain this goal. But the interesting thing is that you put the forward above your pieces. A lot of artists are against a description of their work. They resist putting their work in a box. How do you view the relationship between art and art criticism?
There are many methods to express the many facets of truth of one idea. Music, more than visual art, for me has quite an immediate effect on influencing my emotions. This is ironic because I’m such a visual person. A perfect analogy of this instant effect is how they administer IV’s at local Chinese hospitals. The effect is much faster. Looking at paintings takes time. We ingest through the eyes and digest in the heart and mind. Music is so powerful because it combines objective logic or words with emotional sound. Film in my opinion is the most powerful art medium for me because it combines writing, visual art, and music. A movie can leaving a lasting impression and move us greatly. A lot of artists believe their work is most important and all the attention must be put on the actual painting rather than the truth. I think truth is far more important. I believe art and art criticism is like a marriage relationship. One needs the other. No fighting.
12 How do you view the relationship between form and concept?
There is a very important relationship between the two. A lot of artists make conceptual art but many of the forms are weak. When a concept has weak form it is like a sculpture made out of cotton. Its easy to blow away or blow over. Form is language. If you have an idea but can’t communicate it or can’t form your thought into language then the idea is only useful to you. There are many people researching this question. My understanding is a simple and humble one. I feel like concept and form are like two railroad tracks. They work together and always meet in the horizon.
13, You focus on the city in your work and how it is very similar to and as equally complex as the cell. You talk about this all the time and seem fascinated by this complexity and the power that holds it all together. Would you like to talk more about this?
When I look at the buildings of Kunming I can’t separate them from people. I’m not just saying people live in them but when I look at the buildings they remind me of people. All the life and stories that go on inside are the spirit of the building. One thing that I’m grateful for and that I think many people besides artists are grateful for is that we like to think below the epidermis. The other day I was thinking about mosquitoes and thinking that if I walked outside one day and saw the mosquitoes the size of a car how terrifying and terrific that would be. We need to force ourselves to see beauty in the simple things. Because a lot of the times it’s the simple things that are most complex. When we see these complexities we are compelled to admire. I’m hoping people not only admire their reality but also think about the future of this reality and the demands that places on us. Personally I love feeling small when I contemplate these truths. I can’t separate any part of creation from an admiration and awe for Creator God.
14, Your works seem to contain some sort of hidden revelation. Do you feel Christian artists work should have this dimension to it?
Thank you for your accolade. I’m really not a very mature artist and am still searching for my own personal form. I don’t believe my work is super amazing but I will unabashedly take pride in the truth that I wish to communicate. I don’t think Christian art has to have some sort of cosmic revelation in it but I do believe that the work should have some sort of truth that would point the viewer to God like a road sign. It’s funny because even if an atheist paints something that is true it still points to God. All truth is God’s truth whether it comes from the mouth of a monster or a monk.
15, If you chose a piece of scripture to describe your artistic view and work what would it be?
My favorite thing about creating is that I get to spend many hours contemplating the beauty of God. This is a privilege I do not take for granted. All my five senses are still intact. I’d like to offer two scriptures if I may. The first has to do exactly with this contemplation and enjoyment. The second has to do with the plight of the human race. This second scripture relates more to my larger canvases where as the smaller ones communicate more of a sense of longing.
“I ask only one thing Lord, let me live every day of my life to see how wonderful you are and contemplate your beauty.” Psalm 27:4
“The earth turns gaunt and gray, the world silent and sad, sky and land lifeless, colorless. Earth Polluted by Its Very Own People. Earth is polluted by its very own people, who have broken its laws, Disrupted its order, violated the sacred and eternal covenant. Therefore a curse, like a cancer, ravages the earth. Its people pay the price of their sacrilege. They dwindle away, dying out one by one.” Isaiah 24:4-6