New York, Dec.2010 - ArtSlant Editor Sophia Powers stepped into Chambers Art Gallery on a freezing December morning and was greeted by a strange sight—a man with a video camera pointed directly at her! A few moments later she recognized the man behind the camcorder—Feng Mengbo. He had come to New York for the opening of installation “Long March: Restart” at MoMA PS1, and was dressed in a very sharp light blue shirt with an unusual button pattern. After getting over her initial shock, Sophia sat down with the artist to discuss his life and practice over steaming cups of green tea. What follows are excerpts from their conversation.
Feng Mengbo, Feng Mengbo headshot; Courtesy of the artist and Chambers Fine Art, MoMA PS1
Sophia Powers: I often like to begin interviews by asking whether you always wanted to be an artist?
Feng Mengbo: I was born in 1966, just as the Cultural Revolution began, so as a kid I wanted to be a soldier in the PLA! All we heard was propaganda in those days, especially as there was a boarder war with Russia. Mao said you have to liberate through guns—through weapons. Since that was how we were educated, we all wanted to be solders.
But I was also always drawing. From the time I was three, four, five years old I was making drawings with chalk on the ground—my parents were always having to walk around them! I remember seeing the military museum as a kid, and I thought “that’s a cool job—to be a propaganda artist."
SP: How did your parents feel about your decision to be an artist?
FMB: They tried their best to support me. I remember that when people came over to my house to see my parents they would often bring along art supplies for me.
SP: I know that you studied under Xu Bing in the print-making department at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. How do you feel your work now reflects your training, both in terms of the discipline of printmaking and having such an illustrious mentor?
Feng Mengbo, Q, 2008; Courtesy of the artist and Chambers Fine Art, MoMA PS1
FMB: I know I received an excellent traditional education. At that time the avant-garde movement was just starting—there was the ’85 New Wave movement, and some of the first really important shows for experimental artists— but I wasn’t actually very into all that at the time. I thought it was too Western and not that interesting. Of course, there were some really great people working then, like Zhang Peili.
But at the time I was studying under him, Xu Bing was still doing fairly traditional work. He was just doing research for his “Book from the Sky”…
SP: So, how did you transition from being interested in traditional work to working with video games?
FMB: I had been playing video games since the mid 1980s. I was one of the earliest people in China to start! I was really attracted to them because they were interactive. I didn’t want to just take a picture or take a video. Also, I love the fact that there was a music track. I pretty much started to experiment with video games in my artwork as soon as I graduated—in ’91.
SP: Was it well received?
FMB: I began by making paintings from images on the screen—and since it was painting I think it was not so difficult to be accepted by curators. I was very lucky to be included in the China Avant-Garde exhibition in ’89, and then in the Venice Biennale in ’93. It was an easy beginning.
In ’93 I got my first computer, and after that I could focus on the medium. By ’95 or ’96 I was able to get all the software that I wanted so I was able to be doing something interactive. For six years I only focused on computer-based work, and then in 2005 I went back to painting.
Courtesy of the artist and Chambers Fine Art, MoMA PS1
SP: How come you returned to painting?
FMB: By that point, more and more artists were using the computer in their work. When I began, no one was using computers, so there were no rules! It was a beautiful time. Then media art became so popular, it was almost as if a show didn’t have any new media then it was considered boring! But I really felt that painting can still do good work.
SP: You mentioned having shows all over the world. Do you feel that your work is received differently in such different national contexts?
FMB: For sure. In the late ‘90s I had a lot of chances to show in Japan and Korea, but hardly any to show in China, which was a real disappointment. But it wasn’t because of politics. It was actually more because China at the time didn’t have the technology to show my works.
SP: I read in a previous interview that you gave that you would be interested in working with a commercial gaming company, like Nintendo. Is that something you’re still interested in?
FMB: I would love to! But big companies like that have big research teams, so I’m not sure how interested they would be in the sort of games I make. And now I’m very happy to see that it is easier and easier to make games on your own. I taught myself everything from the beginning—it was all self-training. Also, I grew up with the new technology, so I was able to follow its developments carefully. Not like people today who don’t know the difference between digital and analog!
SP: What’s the next project that you’re working on?
FMB: I’m working on another video game—this time modeled after “Mortal Combat.” Do you know this game? (I nodded) It was very controversial when it came out because it was so violent. I’m making my own sort of “Mortal Combat” – we’ve already created sixteen characters based on friends, and in the end I’d love for there to be hundreds or even one thousand characters! They will be based on all sorts of people, kids, retired marines, you name it. That way, an audience can select whoever they would like to be and fight each other. The point isn’t really so much violence as getting to know somebody’s body language. Each of the characters will move differently, and by fighting you will be forced to pay attention to that. In China we say that you have to know each other by fighting. If you just see a picture of someone you can’t know how they move, but if you see that person jump-kick then you really know.
Feng Mengbo, Long March Restart; Courtesy of the artist and Chambers Fine Art, MoMA PS1
SP: I hope you don’t mind—I just have to ask…How did you learn such amazing English?! I didn’t know that you had studied for any length of time outside of China.
FMB: (shy laugh) Thank you! Actually, I learned English just by reading over handbooks for computer software. At the time I began learning, you couldn’t get any programming instructions in Chinese, so I had to learn English. But I really enjoyed it. I love studying as long as it’s self-study, probably I wouldn’t like it as much if I had to learn it in school.
Anyway, you asked me earlier what I was working on now. Well, I do work in media, but I’m also a painter, and I really believe in future possibilities for painting. At one time painting was a pioneer! But now it’s looked down upon as so traditional. I don’t think this is right, and I think I can really do something special with the medium.
I’m working to develop a system of automatic painting—this is my dream. So, I’m beginning to use a video game to build it. I’m particularly interested in the significance of time in painting. Look at Pollack! His work is all about time—the moments when the paint was flying onto the canvas. People have wanted to find a way to capture time in painting forever, and I think perhaps what I’m trying is a new way.
I became very interested in ancient stone slabs with calligraphy carved into them (like in Xi’an’s stone forest of steles). What is left of these carvings? Often time has made markings that obscure the calligraphy—sometimes you can still read it and sometimes you can’t. I’m interested in that line between the readable and the unreadable. By using video game technology, I can fast forward time—say 100 years, just like that. And from that I can develop a font. If you think about it, a font is like a new style of calligraphy, and calligraphy has such a long tradition. I’ve developed two different fonts so far for a big company: “vector” and “bitmap.” Hopefully, “vector” will be available online next year. See-- (I take a look on Feng’s ipad...)
Feng Mengbo, XL 01, 2009; Courtesy of the artist and Chambers Fine Art, MoMA PS1
SP: Incredible! But…doesn’t it get hard to read when the characters are very complex?
FMB: That’s what the company said at first. But really, we don’t read individual characters, we read sentences. Now I want to combine my interest in the movement of game characters on the screen and Chinese calligraphy characters—because really, there are so many similarities. I’m working on that idea for part of a show I’m planning at the Victoria and Albert museum. So, you can see I’m serious about calligraphy—I don’t want to be known just as a media artist. I never liked the term ‘media art.’ Art is art.
ArtSlant would like to thank Feng Mengbo and Chambers Fine Art for their assistance in making this interview possible.