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Interview: Abstract painter Yang Wen

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Yang Wen (杨文) enjoys painting. In fact, he cannot live without it. He is a slim man who originally hails from Dali, with a presence that both intimidates and demands respect. Yang graduated from Yunnan Art Institute in 2007, and is now a member of both the Yunnan Oil Painting (云南油画学会) and Kunming Landscape Painting (昆明风景画学会) societies. He also prides himself on not being part of "the system".

At the age of 30, his works have already previously been displayed in numerous galleries and exhibitions in Yunnan. However, since 2013, he has shied away from the limelight of Kunming's art scene and focused on working on his latest series of abstract paintings with an almost hermitic obsession.

GoKunming visited him at his impeccably clean and tasteful studio in Chenggong, close to the Arts University last week. He greeted us and led us into his living room where a sophisticated tea table awaited. With a cigarette in his mouth, Yang meticulously poured hot water over the teapot and offered us cigarettes, all the while minding his ashes and meticulously wiping up any spillage with a red cloth.

His old works, featuring a series of colorful paintings vibrantly depicting teeth and hands, were placed in a separate room in the studio. Yang switched off the light there and said, "Let's go into the foyer. These are my old things, now I simply make abstract paintings."

Yang's exhibition of abstract work, entitled Empty Valley, opens on December 26 at the Dha-Tsang Art Space off Xiba Lu. It runs until January 9, and is curated by scholar and art historian, Guan Yuda (管郁达).

GoKunming: Why is your latest exhibition called Empty Valley?

Yang Wen: I named it Empty Valley because it is not primarily concerned with the earthly world — not concerned with people, things and physical matter — but instead focuses more on the spirit and fundamentals of art.

GK: Your previous works were not abstract paintings. Why did you decide to switch?

Yang: Abstract painting itself, in Yunnan, and China in general, is not mainstream and no one really takes note of it. To create abstract paintings requires artists to have very high standards. I myself really enjoy abstract art as it relates to my practice of Buddhism.

More importantly, abstract painting essentially helps me to express my current mindset. Abstract art exploration made me realize the importance of being aware of your thoughts and modes of thinking. It is through the canvas that one can truthfully express oneself.

GK: Landscape still features in your latest work. Do you think nature will always manifest itself in your paintings?

Yang: Not always, creativity must come from my heart. That includes the way I deal with people and things, the literature I read, the incessant learning process, my youth and growing up, the experiences in life and my Buddhism.

GK: You once said in an interview, "Fame, status, money...you cannot care too much about such things, or else you will never be an exceptional artist." Do you still feel this way?

Yang: I think I still need to work harder. The determination and hard work I've put in over the last two years have helped me clarify the direction I want to pursue in the future. It is very important for an artist to persist in making art, as this directly impacts his or her future.

GK: You've said inner tranquility is a desire of yours. Does your work move you toward that?

Yang: Basically, yes. This inner tranquility encompasses a few points. It is not being chained by earthly trappings and not being a slave to power and wealth. Ultimately, it is through the quiet, dedicated and diligent relationship between me and my paintbrushes that I hope to achieve an extraordinary life.

GK: Do you distinguish yourself from other contemporary artists in Kunming and Yunnan?

Yang: The main difference is that I'm neither 'in nor 'out'. 'In' being a part of the system, 'out' being the street scene. I am situated right in between the two.

GK: You've said music — and of course other artists — help inspire you. Who specifically?

Yang: For music, I like Leonard Cohen, The Best Pessimist, Karunesh, Mozart, Chopin, Bach, Paganini...Of course there's a lot more. It's all related to emotions. And I really appreciate Wang Xizhi, Mi Fu, Ni Zan, Zhao Mengfu, Fan Kuan, Qi Baishi and Zao Wou-ki.

GK: When we first met, you recommended I watch The Big Blue by Luc Besson while we looked at a painting of yours called Deep Blue Sea. Why?

Yang: I really, really like this film. It's an autobiographical film. He dedicated the film to his daughter and cinema fans. From a certain perspective, it is his most inner wish to become a great free-diver himself. The grim blue, shimmering surface of the water, the expanse of the sea, the adorable dolphins... all these elements are an ode to nature from the artist. I wish to convey my love for the skies, the seas, and the universe through my paintings.

GK: What are your plans over the next few years? You did mention Hong Kong has a much more robust art scene compared to Kunming.

Yang: Over the next few years, I plan to produce more spiritual works. In the last century, during the thirties until the sixties, the center of art was Paris. After the sixties, it gradually moved to New York. Now, in the new century, the direction of art is leaning towards Asia — to Tokyo and Hong Kong. So, in my opinion, Hong Kong will continue to become a very important place. If there is a chance, or if I can muster enough courage, I might consider developing further in Hong Kong.

GK: Finally, how do you think practicing Buddhism affects your life and art?

Yang: It helps me find intelligence, balance and the courage to face the world.

Images: Maggie Tan

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Good to see another artist interview and nice to see some young locals ignoring the rush for riches in favour of a more satisfaction-focused lifestyle. Good luck in your dreams, Yang Wen.

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